Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Beyond an Antagonistic Evangelicalism

American Christians are more known for what we are against than what we are for. This seems to be more true of Evangelicals than any other group. The shining example of this occurred when Reformed Christian leaders came out against Rob Bell's book Love Wins. Their ranting against Bell's message propelled that book up the bestseller list. I see this happening all over the place, especially in social media. It seems like the most popular blog posts are those that are coming out against something or someone. Like cats fighting, we know how to be antagonistic.

I've only recently seen the problem with this against mentality. For years I was blind to it because my Christian imagination was formed by it; it was the water in which I swimmed. As a kid growing up as a Southern Baptist, I was more known for what I did not do than for what I did. Good Christians do not smoke, chew or go with girls who do. We were against abortion, against invasive government and against homosexuality. This also bled into how I learned to relate to other Christian traditions. As Protestants, we were not Catholic. As Evangelicals, we didn't do social justice. As Baptists, we did not sprinkle babies. As conservatives, we didn't believe in evolution. As fundamentalists, we didn't believe that the Bible had any mistakes. We put up fences everywhere, at least from my perspective.

Examples of this against imagination abound. For instance, so much has been written against charismatics, as if the non-charismatics were threatened by them. But I've heard more than my fair sermons by charismatic pastors who were preaching against every tradition that was not charismatic, as if they were threatened by those who did not believe like they did. As I reflect on experiences on both sides, it feels like there was more energy stirred up because we were not like all the others who were "wrong" than by what God was doing in us at the time.

We have a strong tradition of building our point of view up by tearing down others.

This "against" imagination depends upon the need to clarify the boundaries so that we can figure out who is in and who is out. I've witnessed this firsthand over the last 20 years as a church trainer and   consultant. I began as a trainer in the cell church movement, which became popular in the 1990s as the model of church that was against the Programmed Based Design church. We had our own lingo: "We are not PBD." Then I started working with those in the missional movement, which some have defined as been against the "goods and services" church. In other cases, writers attack the "brick and motor" church or they come against the Constinitian church of the last 1700 years, or they deconstruct the clergy structures of the church. Then traditionalists rage against all of those who are against them.

To be honest, this against rhetoric grabs attention. It sells books. It builds ministries.

I've found that it is a lot easier to be against something than it is to be for something. It does not take a lot of work to criticize someone else. We don't have to have our own point of view. We don't really have to know what we think. All I have to do is see what we disagree with and attack. We criticize in our hearts. We verbalize our criticism at the dinner table. We complain to our friends about what we are against. And we put our "against" words out there in social media. And this rhetoric gets attention because we have become so accustomed to "against" talk that we assume that this is how good Christians are supposed to talk.

By focusing on the boundaries, we miss out on the center. We fall short of doing the hard work of naming what we are for. It takes a lot more work to clarify the center for which we would give our lives than it does to define the boundaries which cost us very little. Naming the boundaries focuses our vision on others as we assess whether or not they are in or out. And we get energy and life from doing this.

Being "against" costs other people as I set up boundaries against them. But being "for" costs me my life. An against imagination is about defining myself in comparison to other people. Whereas being for something is about the center from which I live my life.

It could be argued that this post is nothing less than a rant against those who have an against imagination. Three years ago, I wrote the first draft of this post. As I wrote, I realized that I was not operating out of a center. I was just criticizing the criticizers. With my different set of "against" boundaries, I was playing the same game. I was against the againsters, which made me one of them. Over the last three years, I've gone down a path that shifted my imagination so that I can see what I'm for. Now I write this post from a different place. I know what I am for more clearly than ever. Here's how the clarity of what I'm for developed.

  • I became sick of the against mentality. I began to quit worrying about what those with whom I disagreed were saying, even if they were getting lots of attention. And when I did get frustrated with what they were saying, I'd just pray for them and lay it aside.
  • I wrote a paper for myself entitled, "My Convictions." In this paper, I took all of the major theological categories and worked through where I landed on each of them. Imagine it this way: Consider the book Across the Spectrum by Boyd and Eddy, where they look at the various orthodox convictions held in all of the major theological perspectives. I worked out my own way of talking about each of them. This was a lot of work, but it was enriching.
  • I exposed myself to teaching from the church tradition that has influenced me a lot in the past, and I compared my convictions to those from that tradition. I listened for subtle conflicts. I paid attention to differences in emphasis. I looked for places where we might agree on paper but see things differently in less obvious ways. This was a painful process because it required me to put my money where my mouth is. As I worked through this, I realized what I'm willing to die for. And I saw what I was not willing to put up with. I drove down deep and listened to what the Spirit was shaping inside.
  • I lived in the Sermon on the Mount for about eight months, more specifically the Beatitudes. I meditated on Jesus' founding words of what it means to be a disciple in a way that moved beyond Bible study or exegesis. While I read widely on these words, I allowed them to get in my soul. This moved me beyond being "against" and drove me to place where I saw my attitude did not line up with the way of Jesus.
  • Shawna and I talked, and talked, and talked about what we are for. It was a wild ride to see how God was shaping us both along similar lines. I'm a writer and a reader. Shawna is a verbal processor and an auditory learner. We were coming to the same conclusions but in different ways. We realized that we were not repeating the thoughts of other preachers or writers. We were being captured by an imagination about who God is and what God is doing in this world that was changing us from the inside out. 
  • Along the way, I revised and added to the paper, calling it "My Convictions II." There were things that I left out of the first paper that I found essential to my beliefs and calling. In the original paper there were some things about which I thought I was flexible. Then I realized that I could not compromise on them. 
Of course, being for something means that there are many things that I'm against. However, I'm now operating out of a center and a calling that defines what I'm for as opposed to a set of boundaries that tells me what I'm not. The difference is subtle, but monumental.  


Blake said...

This inspires me Scott. Years ago I attempted a similar "My Convictions" paper. I didn't get very far, but it's a fantastic idea. Seems I have some hard work to get to now.

Your "criticisms" of the criticizers were very well-put too. Here's to hoping that those who need to read this post (like me) get to see it and act on it.

Scott Boren said...

Blake, if your experience is anything like mine, working out your convictions will prove to be one of the most rewarding things you do on your journey.