New York Times: Red-State Evangelical Fundamentalism

Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens have penned an excoriating editorial in the New York Times on Red-State evangelical fundamentalism. This is no surprise as Giberson, in particular, and Stephens, authors of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, have reigned over a cottage industry of articles bemoaning evangelical culture and anti-intellectualism.

I was given the opportunity to review their book in the pages of The Weekly Standard. As I write,

Giberson and Stephens have little problem with what the sociologist and Gordon College president Michael Lindsay refers to as “cosmopolitan” evangelicals—the culturally literate, for example, who read the New York Times and accommodate evolution to their faith. The authors highlight laudable individuals such as the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright, the geneticist and NIH director Francis Collins, and the aforementioned Notre Dame historian Mark Noll as intellectually minded evangelicals deserving of cultural and academic praise.

The proclivity for holding positions on the social periphery rather than the cultural center plagues younger evangelicals. Profiling one student’s experience toward the end of the book, the authors show that the fault lines dividing younger evangelicals from their parents seem to be as much intellectual as spiritual. As younger evangelicals become aware of secular inroads, a battle of head-versus-heart ensues. And when such dissonance occurs, a crisis of faith for those willing to accept the veracity of secular claims can be resolved, for some, with a “simple liberalizing,” whereby

specific beliefs—biblical literalism, young earth creationism, homosexuality as perversion, eternal torment of the damned in a literal hell, the sinfulness of abortion—are abandoned and other beliefs—the Bible as literature, concern for the environment, racial and cultural equality for oppressed groups, universality of salvation, an emphasis on social justice, tolerance of diversity—move to the center as animating ethical and theological concerns.

One can register uncertainty on issues such as origins, and the difficulty of navigating biblical genres, but modifications on other issues (as those quoted above) suggest a betrayal of long-held positions in Christian orthodoxy and sexual ethics. The authors assume that evangelicalism is a cultural and doctrinal monolith, which it is not. Young-Earth creationism is far from a settled issue within evangelicalism. Outside certain cloistered elements of evangelicalism, debate on the origins of the universe remains open. The same can be said for psychology.

While their rhetoric and condescension are deplorable, Giberson and Stephens do strike an appropriate concern on the intellectual tradition and integrity of evangelicalism. Their prescriptions, however, are little more than provocations in pursuit of cultural accommodation. In documenting scientific and historic quibbles, Giberson and Stephens—oddly— find themselves qualified to bring the consequences of their beliefs into other domains.  As one of my friends aptly phrased it, Giberson and Stephens exceed the limits of their “intellectual jurisdiction.” The problem associated with scholars like Giberson and Stephens is that no topic of Christian theology is hermetically sealed off from, well, any other topic. And when proclamations of immense proportion are made in the scientific realm, there are theological implications, as well. The irony in their polemics is that, while accusing evangelical theologians of being scientific lightweights, Giberson (a scientist) and Stephens (a historian) feel confident espousing dogmatic theological claims that have real consequences on the integrity of Christian orthodoxy. In keeping with their attitude of chastising theologians for interpreting science with results that differ from their own interpretation, it would be equally appropriate for scientists and historians to keep their opinions on their own side of the fence. Science and religion must continue to be in dialogue, but not in the form of a well written mockumentary that Giberson and Stephens have written. Well-written and well-researched, The Anointed is a book dependent upon sweeping generalizations that may find scintillating approval in the New York Times, but may find little resemblance to traditional Christian teaching.

 

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The Christian Post and Sojourners

Apologies for returning to this theme yet again, but this is what happens when discussions occur and I have words to say.

At any rate, The Christian Post took a gander at Mere-O today and provided  a reasonably accurate overview of my position on the matter.  One quibble, though, with my friend Tim King’s statement:

However, [Anderson] warns that Christians must express this belief with caution.

“When speaking against the homelessness of young people who are at risk because of their sexual orientation, Christians must do so on grounds that do not rest upon and reinforce the problematic presuppositions that sometimes stand beneath the advocacy work,” Anderson cautioned.

Those problematic presuppositions would include any belief that the Bible, God, His son Jesus or the Christian Church sanction either homosexuality or gay marriage.

[Tim] King says he believes that Christians can stand up for the rights and protections of homosexual men, women and teens without compromising the Bible.

“I don’t think there is any contradiction with the Bible to say people deserve equal protection under the law. I think that is very consistent with our understanding of each individual being created in the image of God.”

This is framed as disagreeing with my position on the matter, and it’s easy to see why.  I’ve no interest in filling the dance card around this issue, so let me simply point out that “equal protection under the law” is indeed what all Christians can and should defend.  Tim and I can stand on the same ground and proclaim that message.

Where we differ, though, is which rights gays and lesbian couples should have, and hence what “equal protection” actually means.  No reason to hash that out here, of course.  We’ve done it before and will doubtlessly try again.  But just to point out that the quote is in the context of young people who are homeless, a problem that both Tim and I would agree is wrong, and would (I suspect) agree for the same reasons.

I have other thoughts on this and might make other attempts at clarification at some point as well, if there’s interest.  The distinctions I’m trying to draw are relatively fine, but that’s largely because I think the issue is extraordinarily complex.  These are, after all, people and their lives that we are discussing and interacting with, not even “communities” or “demographics.”

Sojourners and the Controversy that Will Not Go Away

Sojourners, the leading organization of the evangelical left, can’t seem to escape the controversy that erupted in March when it rejected an advertisement from Believe out Loud, an organization trying to “significantly increase the number of local churches and denominations that are fully-inclusive of LGBT individuals, both in practice and policy.”

The ad that is ostensibly in question is a relatively innocuous affirmation of hospitality toward a lesbian couple with a child.

“Ostensibly” is the key word, though, because unless Sojourners is lying on their website, they didn’t reject the video at all.

But they did turn down email and online advertisements aimed at getting people to “Join the Campaign” and directing people to the Believe Out Loud website. Sojourners’ argues the advertisement was designed to get people to ascribe to Believe Out Loud’s mission of full inclusion for gays and lesbians into the practices of the church (including, clearly, marriage and ordination), a stance that they are noncommittal on and have determined is outside their core issues of poverty, race, and social justice.

Yet the ongoing confusion over the events has enabled Believe Out Loud and a host of other writers within the gay community to unfairly portray Sojourners as hostile to gays and lesbians because of their alleged skittishness at the video’s contents.  In Sojourner’s defense, though, at the time of the controversy they embedded the video on their blog and Communications Director Tim King suggested that it makes a statement that “needs to be heard in more churches.”

GLAAD-SojournersNow Sojourners has accepted a print advertisement from GLAAD calling attention to the problem of homelessness among gay and lesbian youth, and has determined to run a series of blog posts on the issue as well.  Ross Murray, Director of Religion, Faith, and Values for GLADD described the moves as “wonderful steps forward for Sojourner’s Magazine,” while Daniel Villereal at Queerty suggested that Sojourners has “seen the light.”

Yet Joseph Ward, III, the Director of Communications for Believe Out Loud, wasn’t satisfied:

The rejected Believe Out Loud ad explicitly encouraged Christians to be welcoming of LGBT persons in their churches. The accepted homelessness ad is only tangentially related to the church.

No one is going to confuse me for a progressive Christian, which makes me an outsider to this conversation.

But as something of a vocal conservative who cares about preserving a civil and hopefully even charitable public dialogue about matters in the public interest, Believe Out Loud’s misrepresentation of Sojourner’s decision troubles me.  By conflating “welcome” with “affirmation” and implying that Sojourners is suspicious of both, Believe Out Loud’s rhetorical stance ends any discussion before it begins, rendering conservative readings of Scripture intrinsically unwelcoming and inevitably pushing them to the margins.

This, I submit, is bad for everyone.  If nothing else, it engenders a defensive posture among the very people that Believe Out Loud is (ostensibly) trying to reach with their message of inclusion.  I recognize that social movements of the sort they are trying to bring about are rarely attained through persuading the differently minded.  But the church is not a social movement like any other.  It is a community that bears witness to the love of Christ.  And as I point out in Earthen Vessels, how we discuss these issues within our community bears witness to that love as much as the conclusions we come to does.

I originally voiced support for Sojourners on precisely these grounds, and would reiterate that support, albeit with some qualifications.  In searching for common ground within the domain of common grace, we Christians might find ourselves allied with the most surprising of allies.  And speaking out against homeless young people who are gay or lesbian is one such realm.

Yet at the same time, it is nearly impossible to neatly isolate issues from each other (as Sojourners is no doubt being reminded of).  When speaking against the homelessness of young people who are at risk because of their sexual orientation, Christians must do so on grounds that do not rest upon and reinforce the problematic presuppositions that sometimes stand beneath the advocacy work.  We speak out precisely because they are fully humans, made in the image of God, and who are meant to be welcome within the unconditional love of the family–regardless of their sexual orientation.

Whether GLAAD’s advertisement meets that standard is, to me, an open question.  It was consciously submitted as a test case and so came loaded with political presuppositions, and has been heralded as an incremental step toward gaining Sojourner’s support for full equality.  Both the motivation of the ad and the response are unfortunate, as they potentially reduce the issue under discussion to the question of whether they move the chains in the political football game of gay marriage.  And GLAAD’s explicitly stated intention to pressure Sojourners to work on other issues that are more narrowly defined along sexual-orientation lines means that the challenge of avoiding an explicit statement on gay marriage, one way or the other, is only going to get more difficult.

Such is, however, the closed discussion world in which we live and which Sojourners is trying to navigate.  Decisions like this one are hedged in by a broader discourse that makes moderate positions nearly impossible. And that is why, despite my reservations, I respect the line Sojourners is trying to take.  It may not be ultimately be tenable, and they will doubtlessly have their critics from every side, but in the meantime their struggle keeps open the possibility of a position on homosexuality that is welcoming without sanctioning within the church.  And for that, this conservative is grateful.

quotations on wealth – Intelligent views on money from Jesus, Jeff Buckley, The Beatles, Plato, Dante Alighieri, Boethius, Aristotle, & Lucan

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Jesus Christ

“SOCRATES: I asked Erasistratus whom he considered the wealthier,—he who was the possessor of a talent of silver or he who had a field worth two talents?

ERASISTRATUS: The owner of the field.

SOCRATES: And on the same principle he who had robes and bedding and such things which are of greater value to him than to a stranger would be richer than the stranger?

ERASISTRATUS: True.

SOCRATES: And if any one gave you a choice, which of these would you prefer?

ERASISTRATUS: That which was most valuable.

SOCRATES: In which way do you think you would be the richer?

ERASISTRATUS: By choosing as I said.

SOCRATES: And he appears to you to be the richest who has goods of the greatest value?

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