Category: evangelicalism

Testimonies, Redux

[Preface. One of the temptations of blogging is to post things before they’re ready. I operate at two extremes of writing – writing blogs which are published immediately and reacted to immediately; and novels, which incubate for years and perhaps never see the light of day. I took down my last post on testimonies because I wasn’t happy with it – and yet I had a lot of comments about it; I suspect it’s an important topic. So here’s my second attempt.]

The testimony is an interesting evangelical genre – a dance between revelation and disclosure. They’re almost always good news stories, and although the gospel is, by definition, good news, telling the story of our lives as if it is good news in itself is surely a temptation to displace the gospel.

Testimonies are meant to confess to some kind of sin, and the overcoming of that sin by renewed piety or a fresh experience of God. The sin itself should be hinted at, but in general terms. (Unless it’s an acceptable sin. Workaholism is an acceptable sin; most forms of pride also are. Sex and drugs less so.) So while I might tend to think badly of a testimony that avoids being honest or specific about sin, perhaps that’s the only safe approach – because people who are too specific about their sins gain a certain infamy.

The other thing about testimonies is that they capture a certain moment in someone’s life, a point at which their life story can be narrated as one of triumph, the victory of faith over sin and doubt. One tells this story and is cheered on by the congregation – because that’s what they want to hear.

But what about the low point of a person’s life, the point at which sin and doubt are dominant? That doesn’t tend to get narrated; the person at that point doesn’t tend to get asked to give a testimony. Our churches are too keen to hear people’s good news stories, reinforcing a culture of success – when the reality of most people’s lives is one of struggle.

Testimonies, like Facebook, should encourage others and build them up. I fear that sometimes, like Facebook, they can paint an idealized version of people, and provoke envy or inadequacy.

Version one of my post received this interesting comment from Kerri:

I grew up in a Pentecostal church and came to be repulsed by people’s testimonies as there seemed to be a sort of contest about whose past was the most lurid and of course the repetition of stories gave some church members the chance to self aggrandise in a most perverse way. However as an adult I did worship in a Uniting Church for seven years where testimonies were not given at all and found myself wondering about how people had come to be there and what experiences they had had that had lead them to decide to become a Christian. There must be some place for a person’s story to be heard.

I’m with her; she said it well!

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Why evangelicals listen to Ken Ham, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye: a review of The Anointed

the-anointed-evangelical-truth-in-a-secular-age

The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson (Harvard University Press, 2011)

It would be easy to be misled by this book’s title. It could well be the latest combative tome by a conservative evangelical. Yet it’s published by Harvard University Press; the ‘anointed’ and the ‘evangelical truth’ have invisible scare quotes around them. It is a book which explores how evangelicals will follow the teachings of populist extremists like Ken Ham, David Barton, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye while paying less attention to more balanced, moderate and better-credentialed voices within evangelicalism like Francis Collins, Mark Noll, David Myers and Tom Wright in their respective fields.

As befits a book published by Harvard and aimed at a scholarly or educated general audience, the authors write as neutral, secular observers of the movement. Yet the back flap reveals that Stephens teaches history at the (evangelical) Eastern Nazarene College and Giberson used to teach physics there. (Stephens has since moved to Northumbria University.) They are actually insiders to the evangelical culture, writing as if outsiders. Perhaps the nature of the book required this pretense, but I think it would have been valuable to have an acknowledgement in the text itself of their own relationship to evangelicalism.

This criticism aside, their analysis is very good, offering a historical account of the rise of young earth creationism, the myth of Christian Founding Fathers of the USA, Focus on the Family and populist premillennial eschatology. In each case, ‘anointed’ men have popularised a fundamentalist message, claiming to have derived it straight from the Bible, unlike the liberal ‘experts’ whose education and research can be dismissed. A historical treatment is particularly valuable, placing these ideas within the context of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s.

Having been brought up to believe young earth creationism in Australia, I found it particularly fascinating to read about the key role Queenslander Ken Ham played in making young earth creationism far more popular than it had been in the USA since he moved there in the 1980s:

Before his arrival in 1987, ICR [Institute for Creation Research] representatives – with the exception of the superstars, Morris and Gish – spoke to crowds that sometimes measure only in the dozens, making dry technical presentations about problems with radioactive dating, transitional fossils… and so on. (42)

Ham’s genius was to have a ‘bottom up’ approach:

He would convince millions of ordinary people to reject evolution in the hopes that the grassroots groundswell would change society and work its way up, or at least marginalize the eggheads at the top. (43)

He achieved this with the glossy Creation magazine, books aimed at children and, more recently, the famous Creation Museum. In this account, he and the others have been brilliant populisers, speaking to the evangelical masses in ways they can understand and with personas they can trust.

The analysis of the four areas of Christian thought is entirely US-centred, and to a significant extent, this is a US phenomenon, with the final chapter offering an explanation in terms of US egalitarianism. Yet the anointed fundamentalists have a death grip on Australian evangelicalism too. The revisionist history is the least widespread phenomenon in Australia, but even this has its Australian equivalent, with popular writer Col Stringer insisting Australia is actually a Christian country, despite Tom Frame’s persuasive case otherwise. In the other three areas, Ham, Dobson and LaHaye are extremely influential. Why should this be? A lot of Australians dislike the Americanisation of their culture – yet in both Christian and secular culture, they are always taking it on. Australia has a similar disdain for experts; this is surely one factor.

The weakest chapter for me was the penultimate one, “A Carnival of Christians”, which tries to explain the phenomenon through the eyes of one particular subject, a young evangelical named Paul Miller in his twenties who has lived most of his life cloistered in this ‘parallel universe’ of evangelicalism, explaining how he could embrace it growing up and how it came into question when he was exposed to the wider world. It is an interesting attempt to humanize their argument, yet in this case the details of the particular dragged for me, rather than illuminating the whole.

Overall, I found the book compulsively readable and fair-minded in its attempts to understand the appeal of the anointed. I think there should be a unit in evangelicalism at theological colleges, and that this should be required reading, in the hope that the fish might come to recognise the water they are swimming in – and perhaps prospective pastors could find ways to steer their congregation toward the best thinking Christianity has to offer in each area of thought, rather than to the bestsellers.

Fundamentalist tendencies in evangelical churches

Over at a Theology of Love, John Arthur recently quoted a blog post which seems to have disappeared in which the author, Bruce, writes that:

As much as Evangelicalism might seem and deny it, Evangelicalism is a Fundamentalist religion. Some Evangelicals eschew social Fundamentalism but ALL Evangelicals embrace theological Fundamentalism.

Bruce is somewhat right in as far as it is true that most evangelicals would affirm many of the same core beliefs as fundamentalists. Indeed, it is the attitude toward people who disagree which has always been a key distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. There are other differences, though, and a wide spectrum on the issue of biblical authority that Bruce mentions later in the quote on John’s post.

I see fundamentalism as a thread which runs through almost every evangelical church – at least in Perth. The two movements can be separated and distinguished in their pure form, but in any church they exist in blended form. There will be at least some members of the congregation who are fundamentalist to a lesser or greater degree. (To a lesser extent, this could be said about liberalism in a number of evangelical churches too – the person sitting in a Baptist church who quite likes Spong, but this is less common.)

Roger Olson is a theologian I like a lot, and one of his talents is astute classification and unpacking of labels and movements; he wrote a great post on the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism back in April. He comes at the issue as a postconservative evangelical who a lot of conservative evangelicals would like to place outside the fold, but he provides a strong argument for why his brand of evangelicalism is a legitimate heir to the original neo-evangelicals.

In brief, I consider some of the fundamentalist tendencies typically found in evangelical churches to be:

  • Young earth creation (because of its anti-science obscurantism and its suspicion of biblical scholarship.)
  • Some forms of inerrancy – certainly not all of them – which make an idol of a certain uninformed reading of the Bible and reject even evangelical scholarship about historical and cultural background.
  • An attitude of separatism from people who disagree – this is the most important one; a young-earth-creationist who can respectfully disagree with others and not make it a test of orthodoxy is not so fundamentalist.
  • An obsession with predictive prophecy, Israel and/or the Book of Revelation. This is the one on the rise, probably even more so than young-earth creation.

The challenge is that even if a pastor is not fundamentalist at all, the members of the church are influenced by so many books, conferences, websites and friends that inevitably some of them will have picked up these ideas. Fundamentalist ideas will sit in the soup of people’s worldview alongside lots of other flavours. So it would be wrong to dismiss anyone as a ‘complete’ fundamentalist on the basis of one extreme opinion or reaction.

I’ll be interested in your thoughts and experiences, though I may not be back online for a couple of days.

Boldness?

I heard a sermon today urging us to be bold like Peter and the early church.

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

But the preacher didn’t seem aware of the problems with boldness. Being bold in the wrong way about the wrong things is surely one of the ways evangelicals have gone most wrong. Is it really boldness the church is lacking today?

As much as the Bible calls us to boldness and courage, it calls us to meekness and gentleness. Paul seemed to be always holding the two sides in tension in his ministry and teachings, and so did Jesus.

The call to boldness has to come with the call to gentleness – and we need to have conversations and discernment about when to be each. Send out a typical congregation with the command to ‘be bold’, and the results might be unfortunate. (To be fair, this sermon was the first in a series – the content and meaning of boldness might come later.)

We were offered three pictures of boldness at the start – Braveheart, Gladiator, and the unarmed man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. I wonder which of these pictures of boldness will be foremost in congregants’ understanding?

Good News For Anxious Christians: that voice inside you is not God, says Phillip Cary

It’s not a book for Christians with an anxiety disorder; instead, Phillip Cary’s book claims that the ‘new evangelical theology’ is making Christians anxious by leading them to believe God works in ways God doesn’t work. (He calls ‘new evangelical theology’ the charismatic-influenced evangelical mainstream, particularly what you find in Christian living books for non-academic audiences.)

Chapter 1 is called “Why You Don’t Have to Hear God’s Voice in Your Heart: Or How God Really Speaks Today”. It certainly does challenge present day evangelical practice, whereby many evangelicals are ‘listening out’ for God’s promptings in their heart. Cary insists God doesn’t speak to our hearts; what we’re hearing is our own (fallible but often helpful) inner voice. Mistaking it for God can only give it an absolute authority it shouldn’t have. Instead of speaking in our hearts, God speaks through the Gospel, Cary insists – particularly, I suspect, the proclamation of the Word.

If he’s right, does this mean God’s silent, even as we pray to God? Is the Holy Spirit not even prompting or prodding us gently? I think I’d find it hard to pray if I completely agreed with him.

Anyone remotely charismatic will find themselves at odds with Cary. I’m keeping an open mind. He has a good point when you think of the way God speaks in the Bible – dreams, visions, audible voices, proclamations by prophets, but not so much voices in our hearts. But what about the charismatic gifts in the assembled church? I’m sure God speaking isn’t meant to be the private affair evangelicals make it, but I think Paul would say that God speaks new words to the congregation through people with the gift of prophecy, a gift God particularly poured out on a diverse range of people.  Not sure what Cary would say to that; in short my hunch is that’s right in relocating God speaking away from the individual’s heart, but that he has not given enough consideration to God speaking to the body in Pauline churches of the NT.

Setting up young people to lose their faith

I was just reading some comments by 18 year olds on facebook about religion. A young woman, H, wrote passionately that the the Bible was written by God and religion – or at least Christianity – was good for the world. She was in a tussle with a young man, T, who  sounded like a seasoned atheist, asking how the Bible could have been written by God when it was riddled with ‘contradictions’ and ‘errors’? I assumed T’d been brought up an atheist, but then a third person commented that until a few months ago T had believed the Bible was written by God too.  Perhaps T is a young man turned off Christianity by his first year of uni.

Evangelicalism sets its young adults up to lose their faith. Too many of them are given a stark, unthinking choice: either God wrote the Bible and thus it is perfect OR God does not exist and religion is a harmful delusion. It’s not that evangelicals actually put the choice directly like this to their young adults. Instead, it’s that a perfect Bible is put up as the centrepiece of faith and other expressions of Christian faith are dismissed.

Instead of this, young people should be shown the wide, diverse riches of Christianity, its many expressions, its wide river and many branching streams. Warned perhaps that some parts of the river are stagnant and stinking or dried up or lead to places you don’t want to go. But at least made aware that the perfect Bible is one particular tradition, a response to problems of the 19th and 20th centuries. Few of them are even shown the riches and diversity within the evangelical tradition, let alone the other streams. Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water should be required reading.

Keeping your kids Christian?

I have a theory about which kids ‘stay Christian’. It’s a theory based only on observation, and it’s quite simple. The kids most likely to stay Christian in evangelical churches are the ones who fit into evangelical culture best.
(Perhaps I should refine that: the ones who stay are those who find an evangelical culture to fit into. There are a number of flavours of evangelical Christianity to choose from.)

‘Being a Christian’ is just as much about fitting into a particular subculture as having a deep experience of God. The extent to which that subculture will resemble the gospel varies – but it’s often about a lot of other things like:

  • Finding evangelical pop music bearable.
  • Not being too alternative or rebellious in your tastes.
  • Not hanging out too much with the druggie kids or the party animals.

It’s not wrong that Christianity is a subculture. It’s inevitable. But evangelical subculture is built too much on inoffensiveness, kitschiness, bland mainstream but Christianised tastes. (I guess this applies to adults just as much as kids.) We have to be a subculture, but we should be a subculture  distinctive for hospitality, generosity, humility, discipleship instead (and it sometimes we are).

I’m not being clear enough. I’ve got in my mind the devout parents of young adults who didn’t turn out Christian. They really beat themselves up about it. They wonder what they did wrong, when the other parents in their church have a higher conversion/retention rate amongst their kids. I’m certain evangelical parents rank themselves like this – what percentage  of offspring stayed in the church? 100% – excellent; 50% or 66% – good; 33% – unfortunate; 0% – disastrous.

Anyway, what I wish I could say to those parents, if they don’t already realise it, is that it’s a lot more complicated than the stories evangelicals tell themselves. Maybe you taught your children to be free-thinking loners and they didn’t fit into the church you took them to. Maybe the other kids at youth group were cliquey. Do you know how horrible and unchristian youth groups can be? The parents whose kids stayed Christian, they’re not necessarily better Christians than you.

(Part of why I’m writing this is my own distaste for most of evangelicalism, my own negative experience of church as a kid, despite having great Christian parents. I feel like those who are comfortable in church – whether teens or adults –  are rarely deep thinkers, misfits, rebels, poets… the sort of people I like.)