What kind of religious “center”?
Bill McKibben reviews two books on Christianity: one by Harvard preacher Peter Gomes, and the other a book from the Barna Institute, the Gallup of evangelical Protestantism, reporting on young people’s perceptions of Christianity.
Gomes is an interesting guy: a black, old-school New England conservative, Anglophile Baptist minister who happens to be gay. He’s widely regarded as one of America’s best preachers and has published popular collections of sermons as well as a book on the Bible. (I once heard him preach at a Christmas “Carols and Lessons” service in Harvard Memorial Church.)
In McKibben’s telling, Gomes’ new book focuses on the Gospel texts and seeks to recover the scandalous and countercultural message of Jesus from religious accretions. Jesus, Gomes writes, “came preaching not himself but something to which he himself pointed, and in our zeal to crown him as the content of our preaching, most of us have failed to give due deference to the content of his preaching.”
That preaching, in Gomes’s telling, has several important dimensions. First, it is a doctrine of reversal — of the poor lifted up and the rich laid low. It’s not just that the meek will inherit the earth, a sweet enough sentiment, but that the powerful will lose it. In Jesus’ words, “How terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life; How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry!” Jesus takes sides, and usually he is found on the side of the oppressed and unlucky: “The good news was for those who had no good news,” writes Gomes, sounding much like the Catholic liberation theologians of late-twentieth-century South America, now largely suppressed by Rome, who spoke often of Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” For the rest of us, we are instructed to love our enemies, to practice the Golden Rule, “love those beyond our comfort zone, and be merciful to others as we hope God will be merciful to us.”
Turning to unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, we see a portrait of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 who have turned against a Christianity that they perceive as “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” “insensitive to others” and having a single-minded emphasis on conversion that’s irrelevant to their lives. “This is a brand of religion that, for all its market share, seems at the beginnings of a crisis.”
McKibben sees signs of hope, however, in a cross-pollination of moderate evangelicalism and a revivified social gospel movement. He points to the National Association of Evangelicals’ statements on global warming, the work of Jim Wallis-type evangelicals, and the fact that even Rick Warren, the veritable poster boy for suburban mega-churches, has changed the focus of his ministry to addressing dire social needs like third world poverty. Further, McKibben thinks that someone like Peter Gomes, with an emphasis on the message of Jesus, can challenge the nascent moderate and center-left varieties of evangelicalism further in this direction, and in particular on its attitudes toward homosexuality.
In general, I think the idea of a revitalized religious “center” is a good thing. Not in the sense of a restoration of the oldline quasi-establishment, but in the sense of a living alternative to ultra-conservative or socially comfortable brands of Christianity that have, until recently, been its chief public face in the U.S. The oddness of this situation is only highlighted by the fact that, for instance, in the UK evangelicals seem to be spread over a much broader portion of the political spectrum; the close identification between evangelical Christianity and the Right seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon in significant respects. (Compare, for instance, the views of “conservative” British evangelicals like N. T. Wright and John Stott on issues like debt relief, war, and globalization with their American counterparts.)
However, I am wary of too pat a distinction between the “preaching about Jesus” and the “preaching of Jesus,” with the latter being preferred to the former. While recovering the challenging and countercultural message of Jesus is surely something American Christians need to do, there’s an opposite danger of ending up in the empty cul-de-sac of 19th and 20th century religious liberalism that reduced Jesus to a preacher of ethics and social reform while downplaying any supernatural claims about his status. This particular stream always ends up running into the sand for a very specific reason: if Jesus is merely a teacher of morals or social reform, once you’ve learned the lesson you don’t need the teacher any more. And, for that matter, once it becomes clear that these teachings are discernible by all people of good will, what does Christianity offer that’s distinctive?
I think more recent biblical scholarship also reinforces the close identification, rather than separation, of the preaching of Jesus and the preaching about Jesus. Once scholars have dropped certain progressivist assumptions from the 19th century they were able to see that in the preaching of Jesus one’s response to him was decisive for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This doesn’t return us to an individualist pietism, since the kingdom is a social reality, but it’s a reality with Jesus at the center. (An overview of recent scholarship that I found helpful is Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth.)
My worry then is that, in its quest to be socially relevant, “neo”-evangelicalism may be in danger of repeating some of the mistakes of Protestant liberalism. In my view, a revitalized religious center has to hold together dogma and ethics, personal transformation and social reform, mysticism and ministry. If Christians have anything to offer the world it can only be because they think Jesus offers something that transcends (but also affects) politics or social reform. Interestingly, there seems to me to be a real thirst among younger mainliners for a recovery of the traditional spiritual practices of the church along with a recognition that the mainline has too often forsaken mystery, worship and holiness for political activism. And, no doubt, mainliners can learn a lot from the warm-hearted piety of evangelicals. A whole church will, to borrow a phrase from John Paul II, breathe with both lungs – those of the active and contemplative life.
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