Is the gospel relative?

As you may know, one of the most talked-about debates between the traditional church and the emerging church has to do with the gospel. Traditionalists claim that emergers have reduced the gospel to social justice to the neglect of atonement soteriology and personal salvation, while emergers claim that traditionalists have reduced the gospel to personal fire insurance to the neglect of Jesus’ teachings regarding the Kingdom of God.

It’s a topic that Jim Belcher recently explored in Deep Church, and it’s a topic that has led to some theological hair-splitting over the past few years, as NT Wright and John Piper debate the meaning justification. (For a comprehensive discussion of Deep Church, check out Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. For a nice overview of the justification debate, check out this article from Christianity Today.)

I always get a little nervous when I encounter a bunch of theologians arguing over the meaning of the gospel, each armed with his own sophisticated definition of it. I suppose that it’s the recovering fundamentalist in me that wants to ask, “Shouldn’t the gospel be simpler than this?” “Shouldn’t it be easy to understand and explain?” “Shouldn’t we all be on the same page on something this important?”

Having grown up in the conservative evangelical subculture that cast salvation as little more than a ticket out of hell that you cash in on Judgment Day, I’ve personally been enthralled and challenged by the emerging church’s perspective on the Kingdom of God. It has inspired me to reconnect to the life and teachings of Jesus, as opposed to only focusing on his death. And it has encouraged me to think of salvation in terms of God’s plan to restore and repair the whole world, as opposed to thinking of it in terms of individualistic escapism. With the help of NT Wright, I feel that this perspective has complemented, not replaced, my belief in atonement. In fact, discovering the gospel of the kingdom has been a bit like being born again…again. It’s like encountering, dare I say it, GOOD NEWS for the first time!

It seems to me that both the emerging and traditional perspectives on the gospel are important, and that perhaps the novelty of one appeals the most to those who started with the other. In other words, folks who grew up with the social gospel might need a dose of stubstitutionary atonement to save them from pride, while folks who grew up with the fire insurance gospel need a dose of the kingdom perspective to save them from self-focused individualism.  In this case, it seems to me that the gospel, or the “good news,” is a bit relative—because the part of it that isnews is relative to the person receiving it.

In fact, I think we could resolve some of the current conflict by acknowledging that there is no one set definition for the gospel, that everyone experiences Jesus a little differently.

Matthew responded to the good news that Jesus did not come to call the righteous but the sinners. The bleeding woman responded to the good news that her simple act of faith in touching Jesus’ clothes had made her well.  The Samaritan by the well responded to the good news that everyone who drinks of the water of life will not thirst again, no matter how sinful their past. The Apostle Paul responded to the good news that Jesus loved his enemies enough to transform and use them. The Athenians responded to the good news that God does not dwell in temples made with hands.

For years I just assumed that the Gospels were incomplete, that we only caught a glimpse of Jesus’ interaction with these people. I figured that some time after the initial meeting, he must have sat down and walked his new converts through the Romans Road, just to make sure they really understood the gospel in all of its soteriological glory. In fact, it used to frustrate me that the story of Jesus contained no one-size-fits-all method of evangelism. But now I find it quite beautiful.

It seems to me that what makes the gospel good and what makes the gospel news is relative to the person receiving it. 

For the legalist trying to earn God’s favor through good behavior, the bad news is that works of righteousness are not enough impress a holy God; the good news is that salvation is a gift.  For the victim of war struggling to connect with a God who allows so much evil in the world, the bad news is that mankind’s rebellion has turned the planet into battlefield; the good news is that God loves the world and has a plan to ultimately heal, restore, and redeem all of creation.

For the child of fundamentalism whose self-loathing and guilt keep her from experiencing God’s peace, the bad news is that God is angered by sin; the good news is that her sins were atoned for on the cross. For the child of rape who struggles to forgive, the bad news is that she suffered a terrible injustice; the good news is that Jesus did too and he wants to fellowship with her in her suffering. For the elderly facing death, the bad news is that everyone dies; the good news is that Jesus rose. For the relief worker who strives for decades to help bring peace into the world, the bad news is that his work is not done; the good news is that God will complete it.

Some discover the good news in the story of the incarnation. Some discover the good news in the Sermon on the Mount. Some discover it in the cross. Some discover it in the resurrection. Some discover it in the kingdom to come.  And some rediscover it every day in all kinds of surprising places.

While the gospel always includes themes of sin and redemption, brokenness and setting things right, we cannot be so arrogant as to expect everyone’s experience with it to look just like ours.

What do you think? Is the gospel relative? Can you think of some examples of ways in which you have observed this to be true?

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Faith in Transition - a rite of passage or a cultural shift?

Last week I attended a small conference in Nashville, where I enjoyed some really good conversations with several fellow bloggers/writers—Jim PalmerLauren BiggsGavin RichardsonJay Voorhees, Andrew ThompsonAmy Smith, and Ronald Kidd to name a few. (Note that Ronald Kidd has written a novel about Monkey Town!)

At one point, as we were discussing our blogs, I was asked to describe my readers.  “What do they have in common that draws them to your site?” the moderator asked.

I thought about the variety of faith backgrounds represented on this blog—Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, conservative evangelicals,  agnostics, Mennonites, Methodists, Pentecostals, doubters, skeptics, fundamentalists, disenfranchised fundamentalists, religious scholars, and religious misfits—and all I could think to say was, “My blog attracts people who are in transition…or who have recently transitioned…from one way of approaching their faith to another.”

This sparked an interesting conversation around the table about our own faith journeys and how they have changed course in recent years, which raised some interesting questions that I would like to pose to you:

1. Have you recently transitioned from one way of approaching your faith to another? Are you in the midst of such a transition?

2. Are faith transitions merely a rite of passage for 18-30 year-olds or is there something larger going on in the broader culture, something like what Phyllis Tickle describes in the Great Emergence as  postmoderns picking and choosing the best elements from each faith tradition and trying to weld those elements into one?

3. How would you describe the readership of this blog?

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From modernism to postmodernism: evolution vs. accommodation

A reader recently contacted me with a good question about a topic I address on this blog and in my book:  

“While reading, I noticed you made the correlation that Christianity has evolved from modernity and now must evolve again into post-modernity. I suppose I would question, ‘Why are we evolving from one cesspool to the other?; I think understanding our philosophical presuppositions is important when addressing Christian Theology, but at the same time I think it's time Christian's stopped playing by culture's philosophical rules. We have to realize we can't rewrite the scriptures (or even grossly re-interpret them in error) just to follow another culture's philosophical trend.”

This is a good question, which I attempt to address in the introduction of my book. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, whenever the world changes, Christians instinctively change with it, and my “theory of evolution” is that God actually created us that way. It seems that whenever followers of Christ begin to inadvertently fundamentalize things that are not, in fact, fundamental to the faith (like geocentricism, the church’s authority to sell indulgences, the separation of the races, etc.), God allows our environment to challenge us and force us to evolve. He might use a telescope, 95-theses nailed to a door, or a March on Washington, but the result is always a re-thinking and reassessing of what it really means to know and follow God. 

Evolution is just the painful process of distinguishing the true fundamentals of the faith from those we have invented along the way and adapting our beliefs and actions accordingly in order to survive in a changing environment. Sometimes we evolve because our environment disgusts us, sometimes because it challenges us, but always because the legitimacy of our faith depends on it. The same adaptability that allowed Paul to become all things to all people applies to the Church collectively. The ability of the Body of Christ to change-to grow fins when it needs to swim and wings when it needs to fly-is what keeps it alive and vibrant and relevant in this ever-changing world. 

Now when I talk about the influence of culture on the Church, my metaphor of evolution should not be mistaken with accommodation. Accommodation is the opposite of evolution. Accommodation happens when the Church simply gives up and gets eaten up by the culture, when it fails to evolve as a unique creature and becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the world. 

In the Middle Ages, when the papacy abused its power by waging the Crusades, selling indulgences, and issuing simony, church leaders had accommodated to a culture of greed and violence. Likewise, when Christians in America succumb to our environment of materialism, we risk losing the humble, Christ-like attributes that are supposed to set ups apart from the rest of the world. 

In times like these, true disciples may become endangered species, but by the grace of God, they have never become extinct. The Church is forever indebted to those prophets and prophetesses who have, at critical times in history, spoken out against popular accommodation, often sacrificing their reputations or lives in an effort to preserve the integrity of the Church. (I think of John Wycliffe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr., ) In fact, some of the greatest accomplishments in history, such as the abolition of slavery, resulted from counter-cultural action from the Church. Evolution can only occur when there is a distinction between allowing the culture to inform and influence us (as it inevitably will), and allowing it to control us. The trick is knowing the difference, and therein lies the struggle.  

When it comes to modernism and postmodernism, I don’t really think one is worse than the other or that they are inherently good or bad. They just are. 

Modernism brought with it great advances in science and technology. It helped Christians more reasonably articulate their faith, and provided a framework that supported  their efforts to abolish slavery and make progress on major human rights issues. At the same time, the Enlightenment’s emphasis on intellectual autonomy and rationalism has led to the assumption that in order for Christianity to be intellectually viable, God’s existence must be proven empirically. I think the evangelical community has gotten to a point where it is so steeped in modernism’s emphasis on rationalism that it is obsessed with apologetics, emphasizing orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right action). 

The advantage of postmodernism is that it draws attention to the fact that all knowledge must be taken on faith. However, postmodernism, (though less defined), has its problems too, particularly as it is (mis)interpreted by popular culture. For example, when people say all religions are “more or less the same,” I worry that we’re moving to a point where we fail to recognize the unique differences between world religions and the things that distinguish the gospel of Jesus from other belief systems. 

The thing is, it’s pretty much impossible not to be influenced by one’s culture. To assume that, as Christians, we can stand outside of our own interpretive communities and interpret the Bible and our culture objectively is actually a very modern way of thinking. It’s just not that easy to “rise above” one’s place in time and history in order to render a judgment about it. 

I don’t think we are moving from one cesspool to another, just one age to another. There are things we can learn from the culture. There are things we should challenge about our culture. But I think it is inevitable that we will be changed by our culture.

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Book Club Discussion: It's all relative!

It’s Monday! Time for the final post on March’s book club selection- How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith by Crystal Downing. 

In Chapter 7, Downing examines a variety of approaches to relativism, arguing that what she calls “building relativism” is favorable to Christianity. This kind of relativism allows for absolute truth, while maintaining many of the epistemological ideas associated with postmodernism. In in, “truth meets human beings on their own ground…Truth, then is relative to each; all come to the light differently. Nevertheless, it is the same Truth they come to: Jesus is the way, the truth and the light.” Through Jesus, truth is found in relationship, not in a set of beliefs or ideas to which one ascribes. 

I like that. The beauty of relationship with God is that each individual experiences it quite differently. 

 However, what I enjoyed most about the last few pages of Downing’s book is what she says about the Bible. She writes that “while many modernists saw scriptural discrepancies as evidence that the Bible was not ‘true,’ postmodernists would attribute discrepancies to the pluralistic situatedness of interpretation,” making the Bible a more true-to-life and authentic account of human interaction with the divine. Therefore, “the incredible diversity and apparent contradictions within Scripture are its strength. Its pluralistic pronouncements and parables can speak to the pluralistic experiences of Christians…” 

I don’t know about you, but this calls to mind the many theological volumes that have been written in recent years seeking to address the discrepancies in Scripture. I’ve known theologians who could explain away everything from the historically impossible numbers associated with Hebrew battles to the differing accounts of the Sermon on the Mount to the alternating emphases on works and faith in the apostolic letters. These explanations always used to stress me out because I secretly felt like they sounded more like rationalizations than anything. They sounded a bit desperate, if you know what I mean. 

But Downing’s approach, which I’ve encountered in several places recently, is refreshing. Perhaps one of the greatest themes of Scripture is that there is no one theme. Perhaps in allowing such diversity in the writing and compiling of Scripture, God sought to protect us from making an idol out of any one interpretation of it. Perhaps rather than fearing apparent contradictions, we should celebrate them, knowing that they serve as affirmation that God speaks to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.

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