For decades, I have been an ally and advocate for ordination of LGBTQ persons in the church and for same-sex marriage in the church and society. Though we’ve experienced significant legal and policy changes in some quarters, I hope to see ever-wider acceptance, welcome and support of sexual minorities. For these purposes, I believe Church Clarity’s approach is likely to be counterproductive. Here are some reasons why:
In the world of Christian ministry, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a towering, thundering goliath. Co-founded by popular New York City pastor Tim Keller, it hosts a slate of blogs by conservative Christians and has produced more than 50 live events. The TGC website generates an estimated 65 million annual page views and includes thousands of posts on a range of topics. The TGC church network boasts nearly 8,000 congregations nationwide.
TGC’s brand of Christianity is both conservative and Calvinist, but according to its tagline, they feel called to promote “cultural transformation.” Numerous articles address how and why Christians should engage culture. The “About” page on its website says they desire to help Christians “truly speak and live for [Christ] in a way that clearly communicates to our age.”
Given all this, one might assume that TGC is an authoritative resource on cultural engagement. But pop the hood, and you’ll find that its modus operandi combines harsh critiques of those outside it tribe with a bunker mentality that silences any who dare to question their thinking. While it presents itself as a resource for believers seeking to live their faith in a post-modern context, TGC is more like a case study in how not to engage culture.
Charles Schulz was widely applauded for a long list of achievements. The creator of the Peanuts comic strip was a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and his comics earned him an Emmy, Peabody, and Congressional Gold Medal. Sixteen years after his death in 2000, Schulz is still the third top-earning deceased celebrity, trailing only Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. He even changed the way Americans talk, inserting phrases like “Good grief!” and “security blanket” into the national vocabulary.
But Schulz also revolutionized his industry by using his strip to subtly raise religious questions about the Bible, prayer, the nature of God, and the end of the world. Schulz was a devoted Christian; unshell the Peanuts and you’ll find the fingerprints of his faith. By mixing Snoopy with spirituality, he made his readers laugh while inviting them into a depth of conversation uncommon to the funny pages.
Since 1921, The Nederlander Theater in New York City has housed many heralded Broadway productions — from Julius Caesar to King Lear to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Rent. But on June 25, when Amazing Grace opens in its 1,232-seat auditorium, The Nederlander may become known as the place where religion was revived on Broadway.
Amazing Grace tells the story behind “Amazing Grace,” the world’s most recorded and most popular song. “Amazing Grace” was published by John Newton in 1779 after he barely survived a violent storm at sea — a survival he attributed to his crying out to God for mercy.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
You know it, of course. From funerals to Easter vigils, this hymn telling of God’s unending offer of forgiveness is a staple in churches around the world. Historical biographer Jonathan Aitken estimates that it is sung approximately 10 million times annually.
The song is religious. And the Broadway show seeks to capture audiences with both a religious message and a religious mission. Christopher Smith, the show’s creator (and a former police officer and volunteer youth minister), is very clear about this: “My desire was that God would be an unseen character in Amazing Grace, moving behind and in every scene and song,” he said.
Amazing Grace isn’t the only faith-based show to play on The Great White Way, of course. Decades ago, faith flourished on Broadway. There’s the enduring success of the deeply moving and faithfully Jewish Fiddler on the Roof. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar garnered five Tony nominations after opening in 1971. Godspell, a musical based on parables from the gospel of Matthew, reached #13 on the Billboard pop chart before opening on Broadway in 1976. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is literally a Bible story.
What’s the surest way conservative pastors can avoid ever having to perform government-mandated gay marriages? According to one prominent religious journal and a growing number of ministers, the answer is not to perform any civil marriages at all.
First Things, a conservative religious publication, has launched a movement encouraging pastors to refuse to perform marriages as representatives of the state. A signing statement called “The Marriage Pledge” has been posted to their website where ministers can affix their names electronically. It was drafted by Ephraim Radner, an ordained Anglican and professor of historical theology at Toronto School of Theology’s Wycliffe College, and Christopher Seitz, an ordained Episcopalian priest and senior research professor at Wycliffe.
“In many jurisdictions, including many of the United States, civil authorities have adopted a definition of marriage that explicitly rejects the age-old requirement of male-female pairing,” the pledge says. “In a few short years or even months, it is very likely that this new definition will become the law of the land, and in all jurisdictions the rights, privileges, and duties of marriage will be granted to men in partnership with men, and women with women.”
A battle over the Bible always seems to be brewing among Christians. From what the Bible is to what it says to how to interpret, they can’t seem to stop squabbling over the Scriptures. Peter Enns is on the front lines of this conversation with a new message: stop defending the Bible….
RNS: Summarize for me what the Bible is and isn’t in a handful of words.
PE: The Bible is holy scripture, not because it achieves some standard of perfection driven by alien theological requirements, but because God in his wisdom—which is inscrutable and no one can question—has given the church a collection of diverse, ancient writings. These writings span as much as 2000 years, arise out of many different contexts, and address a multitude of diverse, concrete concerns of the time. This is the inspired text we have, and we respect it and God when we refrain from imposing upon it modern expectations of systematic coherence and historical accuracy.
[tweetable]The Bible isn’t like an owner’s manual or legal contract[/tweetable], where we follow clearly a set of rules and if we deviate from them we risk spiritual disaster. Neither is it a depository of historical or theological information that conforms to modern alien standards of “perfection,” accuracy, or consistency. I believe that perpetuating these expectations sells the Bible (and God) short, for it spends so much time scurrying about explaining why the Bible doesn’t seem to behave as we “know” it should—which suggests, ironically, that God is not a good communicator.
RNS: What is the biggest misconception about the Bible held by Christians who believe differently than you?
PE: The biggest misconception is in expecting of the Bible something it simply doesn’t deliver—or can only deliver through an ingenious array of “defenses” and “explanations.” These tactics are not intentionally deceptive or destructive, but are driven by fear of losing a hold on the only Bible they know, which then threatens their faith in God. The logic is that divine inspiration must necessarily yield an inerrant Bible, and so to speak of inaccuracies and contradictions is seen not only as an affront to God, but in some cases casts doubt on God’s very existence.
The Bible cannot bear the weight of inerrantist thinking. Expecting it to is the true cause of disquiet and despair for those who have read the Bible and see the cracks in the inerrantist logic.
Imagine Jesus wearing a baseball cap, attending the Republican National Convention, celebrating American Independence Day, and advocating for another war in the Middle East. According to blogger Benjamin Corey, author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message, this is the Jesus that conservative American evangelicals have created. As a result, many worship a domesticated Jesus and have diluted his radical good news.
Here, we discuss what it means to be “set apart,” the idolatry of certainty, and whether he’s just making the same old liberal arguments we’ve been hearing for decades.
RNS: Many evangelicals work to be “set apart” from culture, staying true to the fundamentalist roots of some denominations. But you say evangelicalism, has fallen prey to syncretism—the blending of culture with religion so that it’s difficult to distinguish them. Where do you see this?
BC: Over time, I’ve noticed syncretism in a variety of ways within our own culture—such as our cultural focus on individualism, justification of violence, and our often narrow Western understandings of justice. The big picture concern however is this: following Jesus has become something that fits snugly into an American evangelical worldview, both theologically and politically. Unfortunately, as I argue in Undiluted, any time following Jesus becomes comfortable, and any time Jesus seems to agree with our entire worldview, it’s a good sign that we have adapted our concept of Jesus to our culture and that we’d bode well to return to the roots of his message and start over.
RNS: You share about leaving fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism and moving into a faith that you describe as being oriented on a more radical Jesus. Isn’t this just liberalization?
BC: Not at all, and I think this is part of the problem with a modern evangelical worldview. We have become so sure, so confident in our theological and political rightness that any straying from the company line is dubbed “liberalization” and immediately discounted. But the liberal vs. conservative paradigm is a false choice when we’re talking about following Jesus. Jesus claimed that his kingdom was “not of this world”; he did not come to push a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda—he came to present a radically different way of living that no human worldview could ever duplicate. In a world of false binary options, Jesus is the one in the middle inviting us into a “third way” of living.
If you play a word association game with “God,” Americans might respond with “unchanging,” “eternal,” or “forever.” But what if America’s perception of God is always changing with their whims and wishes and cultural proclivities?
Matthew Paul Turner, popular blogger and author, is raising this question in his new book, Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity. He argues that we have made God “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked.” Here, we discuss this concept, who he believes has shaped it, and why he predicts God will “grow” in America.
RNS: What is the “American God,” and how is it uniquely American?
MPT: The American God is God as perceived by Americans. Which means America’s God comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and doctrines and his Americanized traits vary according to individuals, groups, denominations, sects, even geographies. This isn’t a new trend, rather our historical narrative suggests it is something we’ve been doing since the very beginning. Americans’ habit of affecting, reimagining, shaping, and changing God’s story started with the Puritans. And it has evolved according to the needs and events happening among America’s people.
RNS: Who are some of the people who’ve most shaped the American perception of God?
MPT: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Pheobe Palmer, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield just to name a few.
For example, Whitefield, the father of evangelicalism and likely America’s first “celebrity,” was known for his savvy, almost performance-style, preaching and for also introducing Americans to God’s desire for them to be reborn. The popularity of Whitefield and his “new birth” gospel, specifically his love of liberty, became a mighty foundation, some believe by accident, on which to build an American revolution. Palmer, though criticized by many for being a woman who preached, blazed her own trail–one that became known as America’s Holiness Movement. And as the Mother of Holiness, Palmer set the groundwork for another movement, one that began thirty-something years after her death, one that, in the early 1900s, aroused the streets of Los Angeles with Holy Spirit fire. That “fire” was Pentecostalism.
RNS: What do you think makes the American God problematic?
Does it matter if the lyrics you sing to worship God were written by someone with whom you have deep theological disagreements?
Christian rock star Vicky Beeching forced her fans to confront this question last week when she toldThe Independent that she is a lesbian. Her songs are among the most commonly sung in North American churches. But many within her Christian fan base believe gay sex and marriage are sinful.
Beeching has shared harrowing stories of struggling to shirk her sexuality. She even recounts participating in a traumatic exorcism at a Christian youth camp. Nineteen years after the failed attempt to purge the gay-ness from her spirit, Beeching chose to just be open and honest about who she believes she is.
“Old habits die hard,” Beeching told me via email. “I’m finally free from guilt and shame, but it’s been a very long road to get here.”
Beeching isn’t the first major faith-filled musician to come out of the closet or change his or her views. Many in the Christian music industry — like their book publishing counterparts — appear to be slowly and quietly shifting on the issue of gay marriage. This is a formative moment when many Christians are reconsidering the traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage. And popular leaders within the Christian music industry could accelerate a broader swing.
When it comes to navigating the interface between faith and culture, there aren’t a lot of pastors I look to. Most I encounter tend to be having conversations that lag somewhere between five and 10 years behind secular society and the academy. This isn’t a criticism as much as an observation.
But James Emery White is an exception to this generalization and is often on the leading edge of pressing cultural conversations. White is founding pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church–a congregation that claims 70% of its growth is from unchurched individuals–and a former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written a new book, “Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”, in which he explores why so many Americans are allergic to organized religion and what he thinks Christians can do to capture them.
RNS: The fastest growing religious group in America is those with no religious affiliation, the so-called “nones.” Why are so many walking away from church or unwilling to give it a chance?
JW: There are two dynamics at play. The first is the reality of being the first generation to live in a truly post-Christian context. The currents of secularization, privatization, and pluralization have taken their toll. Meaning, there is less of a supportive presence of Christian faith in the marketplace of ideas, spirituality is expected to be kept in our private worlds, and the idea that all faiths are equally valid and true permeates our psyche. But if you ask the “nones” themselves, they would give you another answer along the lines of “lawyers, guns and money.” By that, I mean the perception that Christians and churches are overly entangled with law and politics, filled with hateful intolerance and aggression, and consumed with materialism and greed.
RNS: Many growing churches today are only experiencing transfer growth–that is, Christians moving from one church to another. You argue that this is a problem of evangelism. What are we doing wrong?