Reviews: A New Kind of Christianity … Christianity Today, Part 1

Part 1:
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of my exhaustion with evangelicalism are greatly exaggerated. The exaggeration comes from the first sentence of a review of A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith in Christianity Today by Scot McKnight. (continued after the jump)

After that first sentence, Scot does a tremendous job of making his views clear about my book and a number of the issues it explores. Regarding my own views Scot also does a good job in many places. I do think some of Scot’s assumptions and assertions are debatable, but they’re already being discussed energetically in a variety of online contexts. Since the main purpose of the book was to help create social space for civil and hopefully generative conversation about important questions, I can only thank Scot for engaging in the conversation in his review and on his popular blog.
In fact, rather than being tired of my evangelical heritage, I am deeply grateful for it, and I know God is doing wonderful things in this important wing of the church, as is also the case with each Christian tradition. Many of my best friends, as the saying goes, are evangelicals, and I hope that will continue to be the case, which is one reason I want to speak for myself on my attitude toward my heritage, which is an attitude of love, appreciation, concern, and hope.
Some might actually make a case that my book is deeply evangelical. For example, it seeks to honor the authority of the Bible over the authority of creeds and traditional interpretations, while affirming the creeds and respecting tradition. Second, it calls for repentance over some facets of Christian history in light of the Scriptures. Third, it seeks to radically reorient the Christian life around Jesus and Paul’s original vision. Fourth, it calls people not to be conformed to the world (in this case, the world of dualistic Neoplatonic philosophy and of dominating Roman power). Fifth, it emphasizes the responsibility of individual Christians to think for themselves about their faith, not abdicating that responsibility to a clerical or scholarly elite.
Sixth, it takes seriously the important questions being raised about the faith by thoughtful seekers around the world so that we can, in Peter’s words, give a reason for our hope. And seventh, it is profoundly Christ-centered. These seven attributes may not figure in the Bebbington quadrilateral referenced in the review, but they’re a big part of what my evangelical upbringing was about, and I will always thank God, my parents, and my many mentors for that heritage.
Of course, Scot is right that I don’t limit my friendships and conversation partners to evangelicals. And he’s also right that I’m not so thrilled about some facets of some sectors of evangelicalism. But neither is Scot, I’m sure, and neither are the editors of CT, and neither are most evangelicals. One thing nearly all evangelicals have in common, I imagine, is major discomfort with at least some facets of at least some other sectors of the evangelical world. Every denomination or tradition in the church, like every human family or nation, is a lot alike in this – we have our share of quarreling factions who still have a lot in common and manage to hang together and love each other in spite of our differences.
All of us should have an energetic interest in the evangelical community, because it is highly influential. Evangelical voters constitute a major voting bloc in the most powerful and highly-armed nation in the history of history. For good or ill, they’ll influence the public policy of the U.S. on every important issue … from American relations with the Muslim world to the sad and deteriorating situation in Israel and Palestine, from the proliferation or abolition of torture and nuclear weapons to care for creation and the poor, from the rise of corporate power to health care and immigration reform, from abortion to racial reconciliation and marriage equality. American evangelicals also exert a huge influence on Christians around the world through publishing, radio, televangelism, missions, and financial investment. When large segments of evangelicalism (or Catholicism, or Mainline Protestantism) become mean-spirited, misguided, and reactive, everyone suffers, and when they are animated by the wisdom and love of Christ, everyone benefits. So I can’t afford to have an attitude characterized by exhaustion to people of my heritage, whether or not I’m currently considered evangelical.
While I’m not tired of evangelicalism, I’m not preoccupied with it either. The term never appears once in the book, and the related term “evangelical” occurs only about twenty times in the 80,000 or so words of the text, not counting endnotes, compared to about thirty-five occurrences of the word “Catholic.” (In contrast, the two terms occur about four and twenty times in this brief reply of only 1200 or so words.) Many if not most of the twenty references are actually positive or neutral, not critical.
Many of the places Scot interpreted as “pokes” to evangelicals were actually addressing general issues that have been problematic across Catholic and Protestant history. My hopes and dreams for a new kind of Christian faith certainly include evangelicals, but they also include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, the Radical Reformation folk, Pentecostals, and even those “liberal” Mainline Protestants.
I’ve met quite a few people in Christian leadership who, because of the atmosphere of their religious communities, present one set of opinions to the public while holding another in private. In A New Kind of Christianity I try to be transparent about the questions, convictions, hopes, and explorations that have taken shape in my heart and soul over recent years. One does so with fear and trembling, knowing that one’s perspectives are always flawed and some will see flaws and little else.
This afternoon I read all 171 responses to the review on Scot’s blog, and sixty-some responses on the CT blog as well. It’s encouraging to see how the conversations tend to progress from expressing quick and strong opinions on the book and its author to actual consideration of some of the issues raised by the book. Then it’s especially encouraging when people begin testing some of their original opinions and in the process engage in respectful dialogue over differences. These conversations demonstrate how open-minded and warm-hearted evangelical Christians can entertain questions and proposals that are to some degree radical and challenging, and then think about them together, agreeing and disagreeing, listening and learning – without letting the process degenerate into attack and defense. I greatly appreciate that, and look forward to watching that process continue to unfold. (More on this in Part 2, which I’ll try to finish in the next couple days.)
None of us has all the truth, and none of us knows where all our blind spots are. That’s one reason a plurality of voices is so important, and why I’m grateful for every opportunity to be given a fair hearing and to hear people respond openly and honestly from their perspectives. What a wonderful time to be alive, learning, and growing together. Thanks be to God! (To be continued)