Yes?No? Maybe?

Brian Keepers revisits what it means to be Evangelical. Are we? Aren’t we? Sometimes? It is a confusing thing, he notes,

it’s got to be about more than just loyalty to the past. That wouldn’t be reason enough to stay with the label. Mouw would agree. As I consider why I’m still self-identifying as an evangelical, it is also because I believe in the heart of evangelicalism.

The model for the evangelicalism he’s seeking is one he takes from Richard Mouw, a manner of approach, “a kind of evangelicalism that is both convicted yet humble, robust and generous, open-hearted and curious, faithful to the past’s legacy but always restless and willing to be self-critical.”

As noted, being evangelical is almost entirely contextual or social: in some places I will be read as an “evangelical” because of my beliefs; elsewhere I can be vaguely progressive because of my politics. To the extent that Evangelical has a meaning, it points to a community, both the one that shaped us — a community of memory if you will, and the present social community — a society. One may belong to one and not the other, or to both.

Among the Dutch, the term, even the idea is a bit more complicated. The Evangelical were those who left e.g. PJ Zondervan, or Calvary Undenom and RBC both out of then Calvary Reformed): they were “methodists” then “fundamentalists,” then ‘thank-G– I’m not one of them’ they’re from Iowa (Wisconsin, or Ottawa County).’

Given that the personal nature turns the question into a sort of navel-gazing and a consideration of who belongs, words from John come to mind. Peter wonders “what about him (the other guy over there — John)?” And Jesus’ words are to work on our own business, “You are to follow me.” (John 21:21-22). I wouldn’t worry about Evangelical as much as I would worry about the following part. There’s plenty to be done.

Keepers, Brian. "Is It Time to  Let Go of the Label 'Evangelical?'". Reformed Journal:The Twelve. April 8, 2019.
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Christian Politics? Nothing social about it.

Over at The Twelve, Jason Lief pushes back against those who see the call for Christian engagement on social issues as “the social gospel.” For him, the Christian community is called to oppose the ideologies, the powers of this age, starting wtih Jacque Ellul’s thoughts about money or Mammon. Following Ellul, Christians are called to bear witness, to speak on behalf of the weak and voiceless. And they are called to listen

The Christian community must listen to the voices of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized. We must oppose every form of hatred, every form of racism and bigotry, and every attempt to silence. This begins with confession—listening to the poor and the oppressed, and confessing our participation in sinful systems that pay homage to the idols of power and wealth.

But is he right, here? Is this the path for Christian engagement in politics?

After all, most of us take our politics from the sociological community where we live, so a person from Ann Arbor has a certain politics, and the Dutch dairy farmer has another political framework. We’re embodied, and the challenge for us within the scope of our own life is to manifest and promote the reign of God. The press of acting justly towards our neighbor or of acting for the good of our community is common. Likewise the resistance to the powers of this Age is common to us in our varied sociological settings. E.g. we all struggle with Ellul’s technology (techinque) as it actively seeks to stop our growth into Christian maturity. And technique is but one of the Powers with which we must engage in conflict.

So if we face a common task, albeit expressed differently, what is the role of confession? Isn’t that a form of perfectionism, my need to be absolved before I can speak: one more leftover of individual pietism, of me and Jesus?

So, too, consider the notion of opposition, itself an inherently reactive stance. If I oppose I do not really have to change, the problem is always with the Other. And to the extent we oppose abstract causes — those general national, international problems– we are only importing our own pre-existing values. Our sociology reigns.

Rather than think in terms of the political, why not think in terms of diverse voices, that the task of God’s People is to pursue justice and the good of the neighbor in the context of their particular sociological settings? We are open to the seduction of power, money, and the other idols and principalities of the age, what we need is not opposition, but a common cause, a commitment to confess Christ in our public lives as well. This will look different depending on where we are, and I would think that’s ok, perhaps even what God seeks. This finally why opposition doesn’t work, it muffles the summons to proclaim and act on Resurrection.

Epiphany light

Image result for light winter

Kate Kooyman at The Twelve ponders the darkness that also accompanies us:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” Scripture promises. And we are in Epiphany, the season of light. For those of us who find ourselves plunged into darkness, let’s take heart: our God is not afraid of the dark. In fact, we serve a God who dwells with us, who stands by us, who even is revealed to us when the light is nowhere to be found.

The darkness is not safe, to be sure. But the thick darkness, too, is where God is.

There’s a lot of truth to that, that God is not afraid of the dark, and certainly is not absent in our own darkness. Yet all this comes across as too subjective. Epiphany’s light is more objective, a way out of darkness for that community of people seeking God. It is the practice and persistence of proclamation that puts the net below us when we find ourselves in our (subjective) darkness and turmoil.

A light to the path, the dull warmth in winter, the promise of spring, the testimony against despair.

Kate Kooyman, “God in the Dark.” Reformed Journal: The Twelve. 17 January 2019.

Path to a Dead End

One of the tragedies of the present age is the calcification of the Evangelical Church. Once a vital movement able to nurture diverse voices and promote ideas in the broader culture; once risking to talk about race now has come to be seen as one more cultural group, even a sect.

How did this happen? Many focus on histories and politics, but the underlying question is that of sociology, and yes of time.

Analyses of the Evangelical community stumble when they overlook the composite nature of this community. In 1976, there would have been four interacting communities, which together make up what we call Evangelicalism: the Fundamentalist South with its emphasis on eschatalogy and a separationist ecclesiology (Bible churches, the SBC); the Segregationist South, drawn from the PCUS now PCA community, the home of the segregationist academies (Randall Ballmer thinks of them as the origin of the Christian Right, well maybe); the Sunbelt Evangelicals, extending from Orange County to Dallas, less segregationist but militantly anti-communist, deeply engaged with conservative economics (SBC, Nazarene originally; the deep backers of Reagan); and the Northern protestant conservatives – often immigrant – see the split in the LCMS 1969, whose issues were the Bible but did not share believer baptism model of Sunbelt or Segregationist South.

Between abortion and Reagan they found common cause, but I don’t think we can see them as solely political in nature. The real power is cultural; the question is not history so much as sociology. In the 80s and 90s, these were the churches of the suburbs, the big boxes which developed a model of Christian life that focused on the family (and especially fathers — this the work of Kristin DuMez) at the same time that a certain anxieties swept through the Boomer generation as they raised their children. The characteristic nature of the suburbs of the day were white and moving upscale (e.g. Saddleback, Willow Creek); the churches reflect this as do their Christian schools. This cultural location opens a gap between Evangelicals and the urban and/or minority churches; it also made these same churches less attractive in the changing diverse nature of the new suburbs.

All this came to a halt with the changing nature of suburbanization (Tim Keller not withstanding), and the political choices in 2002-2004, a change well documented in such books as Amy Sullivan’s Party Faithful. Then add to the deindustrialization of the Midwest which tore the heart out of many small towns, The result is a cultural community that was largely outward facing in 1980-2002, turned inward, a defensive crouch, and with it the old reactions also took hold. As the northern wing shrank and the Sunbelt shifted the elements of Evangelicalism that remained standing were those of the South, meanwhile the kids leave town.

James Bratt, The Shadow of 2016. Reformed Journal: The Twelve. January 10, 2019.

Against Loss

An essay from Jennifer Holberg on premature death has me thinking about watery death as a political act. What is lost always is the potential, our own Lycidas, but one unmourned because unknown. Memory guards the heart.

Yet once more, O ye laurels and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

“Lycidas”, John Milton.

Holberg, J. “Wildbells Ringing Loud in 2019.” Reformed Journal: The Twelve.

M-o-m!!

Hope43

It began with Scott Culpepper attacking the American syncretism of “Christianity”. An important discussion but one that left out a key detail. As Cyprian noted, “one cannot have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother.” Christianity, however understood, must come with an ecclesial structure; the problem with American syncretists may not be their thinking but their lack of groundedness in the Church.

Enter reader RLG who complains

 It’s the church that has gotten Christianity into so much trouble, from the beginning to the present. The Jewish mentality was, you weren’t a true Jew unless you belonged to the Jewish community. And Jesus, certainly, did not support such a concept. How many verses can we quote that suggests that a Christian believe and be a member of the church and he/she will be saved? How many can we quote that suggests, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved? It’s kinda like saying, you need a marriage certificate to really be married.

Contrary to this, the question is whether we can live separately, apart from each other; we are constituted as social beings. Individual commitment stands as part of an ongoing life of the community. Not only are we linked to each other in the present, but we are those who also remember; memory and imagination connects us across time. So we read a Calvin, an Aquinas, an Augustine in part as our contemporary even as we understand them to be distant — this is what empathy, imagination and memory produce. And if we’re honest, we also understand how our current life has been shaped by this remembered past.

Christianity then is not some sort of free-floating, perhaps Kantian entity, but an embodied reality. We start there.

Here’s where Scot is correct. The Christianity is always deeply permeated by cultural assumptions. Always. The Church, tacitly or explicitly functions as a counterbalance to this cultural capture; thus, we cannot speak about Christianity without speaking about the form that Christianity takes. (Note also, the idea that we can drop the label — apart from its rhetorical impossibility — belies the fact that even in disobedience we remain with our identity; it’s much stickier than that.)

And while Scripture may not prescribe the exact nature of this community, there is no doubt that we exist together, linked, a church. Take the vine and branches in John; consider Psalms, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the House of the Lord” (and all the Psalms of Ascent); consult Hebrews where we are not to  forsake the gathering together. Or simply consider the plural when Paul addresses his letters. It’s all there. We belong together, and that shared life informs and on occasion challenges the cultural form of faith we understand as Christianity.

The counter to a syncretistic American Christianity is not a countering piece of theology, but a better church.

 

Scott Culpepper, Let’s Stop Calling it Christianity, The Twelve.

Remember?

Jeff Munroe considers the ways of memory and forgetfulness at The Twelve. Over against our forgetfulness, is God’s remembering. As he concludes:

Our value in this hyper-cognitive world doesn’t come because we remember, but because we are remembered. Certainly we hope in a material way our families remember us as we age. More than that, Christian hope is in God’s memory. The scripture says “God remembered Noah,” “God remembered Abraham,” “God remembered Rachel,” and “God remembered Hannah.” He remembers you and me, too. We are remembered. Therefore, we are.

This leaves me wondering. To nudge Jeff, is this really Christian hope?  After all, when Scripture speaks of God remembering it often comes in response to the fear that somehow God has forgotten, that we are left alone, stuck in our exile, our oppression, or in the prison of of our own bodily weakness. Remembrance comes with an act, God delivers. Christian hope does not lie in the idea that God remembers, but that God has remembered and come to us as Savior (cf. Luke 1.54). In the wake of that, we are called to remember, to make memorial; the sign that God has remembered us is the Feast. And there, no one is forgotten.