It is time for conservatives and progressives to work together

A recent report released by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (as told by The Christian Century) shows that the religious landscape of the United States is quite diverse and will shift in fundamental ways over the next two generations.

A majority of Americans, for instance, is considered “religiously moderate” (38%) while another 28% is considered “religiously conservative.”  Yet, the number of religious progressives (19%) and the nonreligious (15%) is growing every year.  It is newsworthy that progressives are only nine percentage points away from catching up to conservatives in the American populace.

Basically, although conservatives continue to have massive influence on American politics and evangelical communities, religious moderates and progressives will garner greater numbers in the population in the next century.  Meanwhile, statisticians believe that the non-religious sector will continue to grow exponentially as our culture takes an increasingly secular turn.

Reactions to this report are mixed and its not uncommon to find religious progressives asking whether they “won” the culture wars over the past thirty years against the religious right.  Meanwhile moderates still wonder how to market their brand of Christianity in a polarized atmosphere.

Growing up in a fairly conservative household, I once believed that we were indeed at war with the world and with secularism in general.  Books authored by Pat Robertson and others influenced me to think in militaristic ways about engaging our society.  Sure the battle was against Satan, but society was also inherently evil.

Over time, however, I grew quite impatient with this kind of rhetoric.  As I traveled beyond my own little “world” to places as far as Ghana and Israel, I discovered that society is not so much an enemy to fight, but rather a place in which God’s redemption is very much at work.  I fostered a Christian mission to “save the lost,” but I didn’t have to be hostile in my approach towards the world and towards those with whom I disagreed.

Now, it seems that progressives are getting to boast for once, and using militaristic language is an easy temptation for them as well.  Katherine Bindley, for instance, asks whether the rise of progressive and moderate forms of faith will result in a “political groundswell,” most likely to combat the era of a type of Christianity branded as homophobic, crassly individualistic, and out of step with mainstream America.

Even an article in The Christian Century entitled, “Survey finds strength in religious left,” implies that the religious right is somehow weakened because of generational trending and global approaches to theology and politics.

Although that’s far from militaristic language, such headlines contain a divisive undercurrent similar to that which existed in the faith formation of my youth.

Perhaps we need to ask a different question than those posed by many a journalist.  We shouldn’t wonder who will “win” the culture wars within Christianity, but rather imagine the creative and inclusive ways in which God can bring the Church together to wield a type of nuanced faith that shapes both minds and hearts.

We can side with our conservative friends and work on “right belief” and revival, but we can also find inspiration  and synergy in progressive values related to ecumenical collaboration, social justice initiatives, and interfaith dialogue.

I realize that Rodney King’s adage, “Can’t we all just get along?” sounds cliche.  It is almost naive; but perhaps if we focus less on winners and losers within the church, we can spend more time proving to the world (and the growing population of “nonreligious” individuals) that Jesus is transformative in our personal lives as well as our communities in which we live and in which people continue to suffer.

If we see the world–and each other–as “us vs. them,” then we will continue to see our partisan religion (and politics) become all the more entrenched.  Yet, the Bible pleads with us to not inflame a spirit of division, but to be of the same mind (1 Cor. 1:10).  Its simply a matter of finding ways to work together, focus on the things that are important to God, and let the Holy Spirit do the saving and judging at the end of the day.

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David Platt’s “Radical” inspires missions, but not so radical

Review of David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010). 240 pp.

David Platt’s book, “Radical”, is a call to missional engagement that reaches beyond the “American Dream.” In other words, Platt encourages readers to live radically by responding to Jesus’ command to “give all to the poor.” He advocates for missions, evangelism, and Christian engagement (versus apathy) by calling Christians to downsize, travel, and risk economic instability for the sake of sharing the Gospel with others.

Yet, several pressing issues make Platt’s argument flimsy, if not trite. For one, he never includes in his call to missions and individual transformation an assessment of Christian, Western-based socio-economic, political worldviews. He never once admits that the “American Dream” is a distinctly Christian-shaped ideal born out of a rigorous capitalist, Protestant work ethic.

For Jesus, and inevitably for us, politics, religion, and economics are intertwined, not compartmentalized or separate from one another. Each area informs and affects the others, so my question for Platt is, How have Christians been guilty of advocating for the American dream which the author so forcefully vilifies in the first place? How have Christians voted in favor of the so-called American dream at the expense of social justice?

If we can answer those two questions, then we can really call Christians to task on how to live differently (by opposing the so-called American dream) in light of Jesus’ radical Gospel message.

And as Hamlet says, there is the rub. Platt is speaking to a conservative audience, folks who consistently champion a strong individual work ethic.  (You can tell he’s writing to conservatives because he is constantly apologizing and clarifying his beliefs throughout the book, so as to not have any conservative inquisition on his hands.)  It is no secret that this thoroughly American (if not Western) tradition prides itself on prestige and profit, sometimes at the expense of the marginalized and oppressed.  It often ignores systemic, corporate systems that intentionally derail upward mobility for the lowest classes (and, at times, the Middle Class) among us.  (Don’t believe me?  Just read the news coming out of Wisconsin!)

If we were to truly be “radical” in the full biblical sense of the word, we would have to call into question our politics and economic systems, as well as our use of personal resources. But it is precisely these areas that Platt ignores.

Second, Platt uses the Bible to move his argument forward to no avail.  In fact, there is no clear line of argument for how the Bible applies to entire worldviews in addition to personal ethical and social engagement.  Platt’s plot can be described more accurately as circular than linear, meaning he comes back to the same points over and over again, only in different ways.

His use of the Bible, therefore, is flat and generic. He rarely provides context for the verses he quotes, and he fails to inform readers on how his “radical” call matches all that Jesus’ Great Commission has to offer, especially where God’s Kingdom–and the politics therein–is involved.

He assumes that his readers can’t delve into deep theological critical thinking–he writes on a grade-school reading level–but then turns around and assumes that his audience knows the context of all of the Bible verses he conjures. He never really discusses the historical and theological nuances of the Bible, in turn short-changing the very radical call of Christ. If Platt were to go deeper, his “radical” call would have been more radical.  (A quick overview of many reader reviews on Amazon shows a general consensus that Platt didn’t go far enough; and when he does provide theological nuance, by the way, it is decidedly from a neo-Reformed perspective.)

Overall, I appreciate Platt’s book as an entry-level call to missions and evangelism, despite the blatant Reformed theology that pervades his worldview. I am especially grateful that he brings attention to social issues that other pastors and theologians (those who are often called names, like “liberal”) have been trying to bring to the limelight for years.

However, I would think that such a book could have been about half the length since the later chapters merely echo the first two or three chapters.  Furthermore, since I don’t think Platt went far enough in his call to radical discipleship, I recommend reading books by authors like Jim Wallis or Stanley Hauerwas. Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” or Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew” are even better ways to spend your library time.

For a better read, try N. T. Wright’s After You Believe, which actually tackles the same biblical text and subject as Platt’s book, but pushes the boundaries further by approaching Christian character in an overall journey of faith transcending rule-based ethics.  And Wright’s engagement with the political and ethical ramifications of living into the Kingdom of God is quite compelling, if not captivating.

(Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a scholarly review, only a surface-level critique.  If you have any questions or want me to go deeper on any particular part of the review, I invite you to leave a comment!)

Redefining Christian Witness

"Love one another as I have loved you"

“We are against Halloween,” one minister recently told me.  This is a common response I get from folks in the church.  That, and:  “We are against homosexuals, abortion, environmentalists, liberals, social-gospel types, postmodernists, illegal immigrants, people-who-worship-like-that, health-care reform, and redistribution.”  As some Christians follow in the footsteps of partisan politicians, it remains an easy habit to become known for being against something instead of being for something.

A recent Barna poll asked people what contributions they think Christians have made to American society.  The pollster divided the answers between positive and negative contributions.

The results are telling.  Although 34% of people under the age of 25 stated that Christians have contributed something to help the underprivileged in society, a larger percentage of people could not think of a single positive contribution that Christians make to society.

Contrast these figures with what people say are the negative contributions that Christians make, and we get a clearer picture of what kind of message the church is sending in the public sector.   One out of every five respondents say that the most negative contribution that Christians make in society is a “vitriolic attitude.”  That’s followed closely by the fact that Christians are known for being very, very anti-homosexual.  (Only 6% claimed that Christians made a positive contributions to marriage, by the way.)

For the most part, all this survey tells us is that people on television–those who get airtime for being the most sensational in their speech, including Christians–influence how people view Christians.  We are so busy trying to fight culture wars and drawing lines in the sand that we have basically isolated ourselves from becoming culturally relevant whatsoever.  That line in the sand ended up being a circle in which very few can stand.

But becoming relevant for its own sake also misses the mark.  After all, Jesus did point out that, “wide is the gate to destruction, but narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life” (Matthew 7:13-14).  The Gospel is good news for people in need of salvation, but Jesus makes no apologies for calling those same people to live under the lordship of a holy and righteous God.

Yet, Jesus also tells us that he, not us, will be the one to separate the sheep from the goats.  He will judge the “living and the dead.”  Jesus told us not to spend our time judging others “lest” we be judged too.

When we define ourselves by what we are against, we usurp Jesus’ place as ultimate judge and try to separate sheep and goats on our own, without considering the very myopia of our own perspectives.  We assume that we know God so well that we will choose for Him whom we let into the wider fellowship of faith.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his audience to welcome people that a majority in society doesn’t welcome.  This includes people who have no resources of their own (Luke 6:27-36) and people who are deemed “unworthy” or are ridiculed in society (Luke 14:12-24).

Not only do we welcome people without reservation or preconceived notions of judgment, but we are to define ourselves by our relationship with them too.   Jesus is our example: “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15:2).

My prayer is that we are a people known for being passionate, sold-out, Jesus-freak followers of Christ who spend so much time with sinners and saints alike that no one will fail to recognize the positive contributions we make in society.   Not only will this further the Gospel, but it will harness the energy of people who stand ready to inaugurate God’s agenda for the redemption of all creation.   Go and be the Good News of inclusion, not the bad news of rejection and vitriol.

I’ll leave you with a quote from ethics professor, Dr. David Gushee, in his recent op-ed, “Christian Witness Among the Partisan Fray,” at http://www.abpnews.com.  He writes,

Christians are called to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Our American Babylon needs our prayers. And it needs from us not thoughtless participation in partisan combat, but a uniquely Christian moral witness of commitment to the common good and love of every neighbor.