2 Stars Out Of 5
Not as "new" as they claim
January 7, 2013
Evangelicals are not monks nor are we Amish. We live in (and "of," more than we like to admit) an increasingly secular culture that denigrates religion or wants to reduce it to a useful political tool. We can't help but absorb some of the culture, and no doubt there are many evangelicals who feel a certain guilt - especially the younger ones, who have no recollection of an earlier time when being a Christian was a little more socially acceptable. So, it's tough to be a real Christian today. It's counter-cultural.
People can be forgiven for being shaped by the culture - up to a point. Paul told Christians to "be not conformed." It wasn't easy to be a Christian when he wrote those words, nor is it easy now. In fact, it was never easy even in times and places where most people were (in theory) Christians - as people like John Wesley and John Bunyan and Roger Williams found out. Let me say up front this book could be summarized as: Evangelicals need to conform more to the culture, for that is what Jesus would want. It's an interesting message, one I don't accept.
Early in the book, we're told evangelicals should be "loving, rather than angry; holistic, rather than narrowly focused; healing, rather than divisive; and independent of partisanship and ideology, rather than subservient to party or ideology." We're also told that "American evangelicals are more American than Christian, more fixated on nation than church." These and many other statements in the book are meant to deride the old, outmoded form of evangelicalism. But I always react to these statements the same way: I've never KNOWN evangelicals who are like that - angry, or subservient to a party, or more fixated on nation than church. None. What I see in the book is something familiar in any book by "new" evangelicals: a straw man, that crotchety, sour killjoy Puritan who thinks God is a Republican. I've never met one - never in all my years in evangelical churches, colleges, and ministries. Yes, I know more evangelicals who vote Republican than Democrat - but we are no more "in bed with" the Republicans than liberal Christians are with Democrats. And we take the GOP with a grain of salt - the lesser of two evils. I'm one of many evangelicals who held my nose when I voted for Mitt Romney, ditto for McCain, Bush I, Bush II, Dole. No "subservience" here, just a matter of choosing the candidate who we hope will do the least harm.
The book claims to present "an evangelicalism that brings good news to (all!) people." Well, indeed, that's what the gospel is - except that, from the very lips of Jesus himself, we know that "all!" people won't accept it, so it can't really be good news for "all!" but only those who respond. I do understand that the authors mean that the church should "look good" to all people, should be concerned about its image, since it represents Christ on earth. But they are pushing for a type of Christianity that is far too conformed to the world. "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." That quote is from John, the "Gospel of Love," 3:18.
Brian McLaren's chapter has him singing the same song as in all his books: the world has changed, people of different religions mingle every day in America, so Christians must conform themselves to a new situation - which, in practice means "don't evangelize, don't even hint that your beliefs might be better than anyone else's." Why not? Did he never read Acts? Did Paul and Peter preach the gospel in a culture with only one religion? There were as many religions in the Roman empire as there are in America today, and yet the apostles put their lives on the line, literally, to obey the Great Commission. It isn't cool in our tolerant, inclusivist culture to work to convert people - but, like it or not, it was what Christians are called to do. Those who are not comfortable with it should find another religion, one that will make it easier to get along with unbelievers. In fact, that is what this book is all about.
We read about two types of evangelical the "right-wing regressive who focus on the nostalgia, nativist, and negative" and the hip cool progressives who "seek an ethos of hope, diversity, and creative collaboration." This is hardly "objective" writing. How many traditional evangelicals would describe themselves as "regressive" or as obsessed with "nostalgia, nativism, and negative." Given an opportunity to choose their own description of McLaren's side, the traditional might well describe them as "trendy, shallow, and Politically Correct." I never meet these "negative" evangelicals that live in McLaren's world. Apparently "negative" means "swimming upstream in a godless world" - which, as I recall, is something Christians have to do. I hardly see it as "negative" to oppose the taking of innocent life in abortion, or to make a stand for the institution of the family. If "negative" means "opposed to sin," well, let's wear that "negative" brand proudly.
The new evangelicals are orthodox - so they say. They claim to believe in the authority of the Bible, the virgin birth, saving death and resurrection of Jesus, the call to be born again, the command to share the faith with others. All this sounds orthodox enough, but where the newbies part company with orthodoxy is acting "for the sake of the public good" and being "committed to not politicizing the church." When they take the liberal side on so many critical issues, how can they NOT politicize the church? It is clear that the goal is not to lure evangelicals away from the Republican party and become independents, but to become stalwart Democrats. They fault the old evangelicals for being patsies of the Republicans (which is far from true) - so is it better to be patsies of the other party?
Having confirmed that old evangelicals are "negative" and "regressive" (though neither term is defined, nor are examples provided), the last two-thirds of the book are the real "meat" of the manifesto, and can be summed up as: Support liberal social causes - nuclear disarmament (how do they think a group of evangelicals can influence nut-case countries like Iran and North Korea?), torture, global warming (under the semi-biblical euphemism "creation care," and overlooking the skepticism about warming since "Climategate"), abolishing the death penalty (VERY hard to find any biblical foundation for that). We are told to love our Muslim neighbors but don't even think of converting them. (How exactly does that square with the Great Commission, or the Book of Acts?) But no evangelical has EVER said that we should hate Muslims or treat them badly. And these authors don't seem to grasp something so basic to the New Testament: the most loving thing you can do to anyone is bring him to Christ. How can we love a Muslim neighbor and NOT hope to join him eventually in heaven? The "new" evangelicals use the world "love" often but don't think through its implications. God doesn't guarantee we will convert everyone (and Muslims are notoriously difficult to convert), but the command is there: make the effort. "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38). The authors of this book constantly obsess over the words of Jesus, but this is one verse that did not get their attention.
The new evangelicals claim to be strongly pro-family, but "do not believe that denigrating the dignity and denying the human rights of gays and lesbians is a legitimate part of a `pro-family' Christian agenda, and will work to reform Christian attitudes and treatment of lesbians and gay people." Needless to say, they don't provide any examples of evangelicals "denigrating the dignity and denying the human rights of gays." There aren't any. Even the high-profile (and untypical) Westboro Baptist Church isn't on record as "denigrating the dignity and denying the human rights of gays." They do say, rather publicly, that homosexuality is a sin, as do some high-profile people like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, but the fact is that most evangelical churches tend to steer away from these subjects. (Joel Osteen is extremely mealy-mouthed about moral issues.) The simple fact is that, at present, the only "anti-gay" activity of evangelicals is to support marriage as begin between one man and one woman. Gay activists refer to that as "hate," and it would appear that the new evangelicals feel the same. Since there is no observable problem with Christians abusing or mistreating gays (other than being pro-marriage), what exactly would it mean to "reform Christian attitudes and treatment of gays"? That can only mean "support gay marriage," and no one with a biblical ethic can go that far.
This book and its proposal are not "new." Culture watchers saw this all taking place in the liberal denominations in the 1970s and 1980s. Today it's taking place among evangelicals. Adapt to the culture, focus on this world instead of the next, make the church into a band of political activists and social workers, not evangelists. If that is your vision of the church, go for it - you will love this book. If you take the New Testament seriously, you may not like it.