Saturday, January 30, 2016

Reclaiming the Co-opted Label

"Historically, fundamentalism was a theological position; only gradually did the movement come to signify a mood and disposition as well. In its early [years], leadership reflected ballast, and less of bombast and battle...

"If [liberalism] stands discredited as a perversion of the scriptural theology, certainly fundamentalism in this contemporary expression stands discredited as a perversion of the Biblical spirit." (Carl F.H. Henry, 1957)

The above quote was originally published almost 60 years ago, in Christianity Today magazine, to delineate the differences between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Both groups shared some key beliefs -- primarily the need for conversion by faith in Jesus -- but there were some significant cultural differences. The "fightin' fundies" railed against liberals, culture in general, and each other, while evangelicals were firm in their theological beliefs but more culture-neutral.

My friends & I at ThinkTheology.org have had an ongoing & lively debate over whether or not the label evangelical can be rescued from the caricatures that have been created around it in the past decade or so. I have been an advocate for keeping the term, but after watching the current presidential spectacle south of the 49th parallel (USofA), I am less optimistic. Here's why:
As the Wittenburg Door cover at top left suggests, there once was a recognizable difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. Today -- somehow -- the fundies have been conflated with the evangelicals, and right-wing fundamentalism (which I've written about once or twice) is now labelled 'evangelical'.
The Wittenburg Door issue (pictured above) poked fun at Liberty University and its founder Jerry Falwell, and included the satirical application form for Legalism Bible College. The Door (and their readers) knew what a fundamentalist was. And that evangelicalism was not the same thing.

Yet recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. & Liberty have been held forth by the media as an example of  'evangelical'.

Back in the day, we knew the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical. But somebody erased the distinction and lumped everybody under one handy label.

Even some of the pejorative phrases that people love to employ online -- ie. "bible-thumping" -- which one would normally associate with fundamentalism are now applied to evangelicalism as if they were one and the same.
It is difficult to 'redeem' a word that has had its meaning co-opted and brought into disrepute. A recent example of this would be a gathering where I had been invited to lead worship, and also provide a brief testimonial about the value of higher theological education.

Everything went well, and as the meeting was adjourning, the seminary president (guest speaker for the event) shook my hand and thanked me for what I had shared, and for leading worship. He was all smiles and friendliness.

Until that fateful moment when I gave him copies (free!) of The Genesis Cafe (18 months' worth of research & writing) and Post-Charismatic (over two years of research & writing), while saying something to the effect that I thought he might be interested in the theological writings of one of his former students.
I'll never forget his reaction.
His smile froze, and he stopped shaking my hand. His only comment was, "So... you would consider yourself a... charismatic, then..."
I'd be very surprised if he read either book. I had been labelled, categorized, and deep-sixed by the time he'd finishing making the comment.
I told him that I'd prefer to use the term "continuationist", and that Post-Charismatic would explain what I meant and why I thought it was important.

I admit that continuationist is an odd term -- it's really just the opposite of 'cessationist', which is a familiar term to many -- but my hope was that it might, potentially, hopefully spark enough interest that someone would ask what I meant by it.

And then I would have the opportunity to explain -- positively -- what I believe, instead of having to say "yes, I guess you could call me 'charismatic', but not like..." and devolve into the kind of smug anti-statement that my friend Kenny called on the carpet not too long ago.

But the term/label 'evangelical'... what to do, what to do?


Don't miss the follow-up post on this topic: Say What You Mean!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Band Called Lot


Me, circa turn of the century
There was this guy in the Old Testament who gets a lot of bad press. And when you read his story, you gotta admit: he kinda deserves it. If anything, he serves mainly as an example of how not to do life.

His name was Lot. He was Abraham's opportunistic nephew, who has been graphically immortalized in the Sodom & Gomorrah story.

It's just a heaping pile of bovine by-products. Lot's wife gets bad press because of the whole pillar-of-salt thing. Lot's daughters are far worse. The whole story is a sick and twisted tragedy (Genesis 19).

Against all odds, St. Peter writes (albeit briefly) about a side of Lot that many of us might be surprised to read about:
"God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him. Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day." (2 Peter 2:7-8)
Is this a side of Lot that we should actually be encouraged by? In context, Peter's focus is on God's ability to save His people. So, we need to be careful not to build a theology out of Peter's description of Lot, and miss the point of the passage.

So, with that caveat in place, here's a thought that came to mind as I read about Lot in 2nd Peter:
A good number of Christians will never know what it means to be "tormented" in their souls because they have insulated themselves so thoroughly from "the world".
And I get this, I really do. I play in an assortment of bands, in a wide variety of venues (pubs, concert halls, outdoor festivals, etc.). There have been -- and will be again -- times when the spiritually negative vibe really wears you down. And you get tired of it and just wish you could play 24/7 in a worship band.

Of course, that would preclude any possibility of ever being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). If anything, we need more people who are willing to be disturbed in order to hear peoples' stories, and to have His story heard through us.

There is a potential trap here, as well. Most people can see that -- the most common analogy used is the "frog in the pot". You've probably heard it:
If you place a frog in a pot of hot water, it will jump out right away. But if you put a frog in a pot of cool water, and gradually increase the heat, the frog is completely oblivious to its predicament until it's too late.
The frog ends up in a tossed salad somewhere in New Orleans.
The danger for us is that we will gradually become accustomed to the negative spiritual environment, and be in more trouble than Lot. At least he was grieved by what he saw and heard. I might even suggest that a sense of grieving (not to be confused with a sense of judgmentalism) should be one of our "checks" in how we are doing.

After all, Jesus did warn us that He is sending us out as "sheep among wolves" (Matthew 10:16).

We need to have more "bands called Lot" -- people who are willing to be grieved by what they see in order to share Who they know. And we will need to be as "shrewd as snakes" (Matthew 10:16) as we do so, or we will join the boiled frog in the salad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Choose Your Battles

"Choose your battles wisely," the saying goes. Unless, of course, the image at left looks like a good way to invest your time and mental health. If so, then by all means, swing wildly away.

I've always appreciated a good song lyric, and over the years, the wisdom found in Kenny Rogers' The Gambler has been proven over and over again, when it comes to choosing your battles:
You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
And when it comes to theological or ecclesial differences, that's the hardest part, isn't it? How do you discern when it's time to dig your heels in & make your stand, and when you should walk away (or run)?

I've lost track of the number of times when I've heard the words: "But Robby, we need voices like yours..."
... and yet whenever I would speak up, I would invariably get my lights punched out* (*not literally).
Eventually, I realized that I needed to amend that statement with the following: "There is a big difference between being needed and being wanted."

I'm sorry if that last sentence sounds whiney. It's not meant to be; part of knowing 'when to walk away' is recognizing the difference. So, without lapsing into whinging, here's something of a checklist:

1. Is this really an all-or-nothing issue?

One of the first risks we run into when 'choosing our battles' is the temptation to make (insert issue here) a win/lose proposition. If it's just about choosing the color of the new carpet in the foyer, that shouldn't become a line in the sand.

If people are advocating ideas that contradict Scripture, well, that is something quite different. If people are teaching ideas that legitimize spiritually manipulative and/or emotionally abusive tactics, then perhaps it's 'game on'.

2. What kind of person will you be after the dust settles?

This has more to do with your character and sanctification than any theological issue per se. You could "win" the day and still lose something valuable within yourself.

If you choose battles you know you'll win - at any cost - you may become a bully. (Power)

If you choose battles you have zero chance in, you may become a martyr. (Self-pity)
I do not want to become - or hang around with - either of these two options. Ultimately, they are both based in pride:
  • Power: I deserve this!
  • Self-pity: I deserve better than this!
Sometimes, your integrity will require that you take a stand. If you do, beware the Bully/Martyr trap, for your sake and the sake of those closest to you.

3. If those opposed have all the power and are willing to use it like a club, can you walk away?

All of us would like to think, deep down, that standing up for the right things will guarantee the right results. Except that this isn't a made-for-television movie. There are Christians out there whose souls have been saved, but not their ethics.

As passionately as many of us might feel about certain issues, it's critical that we take a step back and look at things objectively. 

To put it bluntly: if you are the minority voice, it might be in your best interests to keep your mouth shut & just walk away.
Doesn't that last sentence make your skin crawl? It sounds flat-out cowardly, if you ask me. (I had a great deal of difficulty writing it, and even more not erasing it.)

And yet, as unsatisfying and ugly as it may sound, there will be times where it's your only option. If people:
  • refuse to even listen (a la "talk to the hand")
  • fight like rabid wolverines to 'protect' their theologically-dubious idea/worldview
  • embark on a vendetta to shut you up and/or get rid of you...
... you need to be able to walk away. And you need to learn to be okay with walking away.

4. Unleash the Big Cannon on them.

That's right. Blow them away with the biggest weapon at your disposal.

Pray for them.

You can't change their minds or their hearts (even if you choose the 'bully' option). Only the Holy Spirit can do that. He's the one who Counsels, Convicts, and Converts.

And you are not Him. So, don't try to be.

Walking away - or even running away (for safety's sake) - is never complete without the Big Cannon.