Recently, I read Frank Schaeffer’s book Crazy for God and was struck by how much we have in common. We were both raised overseas as MKs (Missionary Kids), both immersed in the fabric of Christian fundamentalism, and both became disillusioned with American evangelicalism. And like Frank, I find myself trying to shake off some of the philosophies of Frank’s father Francis Schaeffer, which were driven into to me as gospel since birth. Crazy for God made me feel kind of crazy as it illuminated just how many of my core beliefs stem from the work of Francis Schaeffer.

Challenged to deconstruct some of my own “fundamentals,” I revisited Francis Schaeffer’s view of truth in post-enlightenment. Schaeffer, an astute critic of art history and continental philosophy, devoted much of his writing to the concept of absolute truth. He became a rock star within evangelical circles and helped lay the foundations for the powerful rise of the Religious Right.

In the Great Evangelical Disaster he says, “Christianity is no longer providing the consensus for our society . . . the consensus upon which our law is based.” 1 Without this consensus, Schaeffer concluded, society relies on post-modern relativism and humanistic thought to determine morality. When society walks away from absolute truth, it heads into chaos void of moral code and, ultimately, disintegration.

Truth lies at the heart of the evangelical movement. It’s also one of the ideologies that makes me most uncomfortable with evangelicalism. Let me clarify upfront that I do not question the viability of absolute truth. However, what fascinates me by the evangelical rhetoric of absolute truth is not morality, but power. While I still appreciate much of Schaeffer’s teachings, it is the trajectory of the discourse which fueled the Right-wing powerhouse and Dominionist philosophy that gives me worry.

Schaeffer was a leader in the fight to restore morality through enforcing the truths of Scripture on big issues like abortion, euthanasia, and evolution that energized the growing Culture Wars in America. Dominionism became viral. Lazy Sunday afternoons were replaced with hyped rallies and picket signs. Youth (like me) were bused to DC to march on the Mall and reclaim Washington for Jesus. Radios across America (including ours) were tuned in to Coral Ridge Ministries’ daily show Truths that Transform.

Coral Ridge president, Rev. D. James Kennedy, expressed Dominionism to conference attendees this way: “As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government … our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”2

George Grant, Executive Director at Coral Ridge Ministries (later called Truth in Action Ministries), reinforced this position by declaring, “it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest.” 3

While this may seem like fringe extremism, I recently heard an evangelical pastor say that he is not afraid to speak truth from the pulpit. In fact, when he speaks truth, the world takes offense. He went on to celebrate how boldly he preaches on topics like the role of women in the church and homosexuality. Even if he was indeed speaking truth on these topics, I had a hard time understanding how celebrating our own offensiveness is ever a good thing. Do offensive statements bring about restoration and redemption?

Over the years, I’ve heard similar statements by other pastors and lay people alike and wondered what lies at the root of these statements. Is this really about truth? Is it really about morality? Or could it be that manipulation (in the name of truth) is employed to reduce complex issues into simple beliefs in order to harness power? While I don’t know the motivation behind these sentiments, the bully pulpit is a dangerous temptation for many in a position of spiritual authority.

So, what happens if the “true” claims of the Church are found to be false or merely opinion?  Of course, there was the extreme case of Galileo who was arrested for his heliocentric view of the universe, which was in opposition to the church-approved geocentric model. While most of us are no Galileo, I believe there is a subtler consequence that affects regular folks like me and Frank Schaeffer: disillusionment.

The danger for aggressive banner-of-truth waving evangelicals is that their dogmatism often provokes skepticism within those outside the picket lines. For many of my peers, the harsh rhetoric on political hot-topics like abortion and gay marriage reduces the other “truths” of the Church to mere ideology. Nietzsche predicted that the unraveling of truth in such a way would lead to the Church’s own dissolution and ultimately to a “despair of meaningless.” Wouldn’t it be ironic if the church’s iron-fisted clutch on truth ended up fuelling the very nihilism that we are trying to defend against?

Jesus relates to truth and power in unexpected ways. He declares the earth as an inheritance for the meek, rather than a conquest for the powerful. He manifested the fullness of his power through humility. In contrast to the rulers who wished to lord it over the people, he declared his intent was to serve, rather than be served.

I resonated with Pope Benedict’s January 2012 radio address where he said, “For man, authority often means possession, power, domination, success. For God, however, authority means service, humility, love; it means entering into the logic of Jesus who stoops to wash the disciples’ feet, who seeks the true good of man, who heals wounds, who is capable of a love so great as to give up his life, because he is Love.” 5

As the evangelical church continues to grapple with big issues like abortion, evolution, and homosexuality, it is important to do a gut check on our motivation. Do we reflect the humility of Christ? Do we care more about pointing out fault in others or washing feet and healing wounds? Are we seeking aristocracy in a Christian empire or servanthood in the Kingdom of God?

While the Church has a lot to say about truth and morality, it must take great care to distinguish truth from cultural ideology and resist the temptation to use fear, manipulation, and power as weapons to control congregants and society.

Bringing it home, the greater challenge for me in reconstructing my “fundementals” is not just navigating the complexities of discerning truth but, perhaps more critically, knowing what to do with it. I hope to become the sort of truth-teller that speaks in humility and love to witnesses the power of God in its most spectacular form–setting the oppressed free, breaking the chains that bind people, and healing the broken-hearted. I echo this prayer attributed to Methodist Minister Albert Outler: “Lord, protect us from the mindless love that deceives and the loveless truth that kills.” Amen.

1 Chapter 2 from The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway Books, 1984)

2 Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 2005

3 George Grant, “Changing Of The Guard” [PDF], Dominion Press, 1987 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/category/groups/coral-ridge-ministries)

4  Pat Robertson, The New World Order (Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishing Co, 1991), 227.

5 http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-true-authority-is-humble-service-in-love

 

 

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Tim Cole says:

    Well written Debbie. As a fellow Japan MK, I share much of your background experience, and I find the “culture of dominion” in the US as you describe it, uncomfortable and strange. Having said that, we are all profoundly influenced by our experiences, and before becoming too critical, it seems to me that Francis Schaefer, and the others of his generation were strongly impacted by theirs, which is very different than that of the present day.

    His generation either fought in, or grew up during World War II, the Korean War, and the height of the Cold War, when right and wrong, white and black, and liberty and oppression were starkly contrasted, as Hitler, Stalin, and Tojo killed their tens of millions, Chinese hordes crossed the Yalu River to join up with North Koreans and destroy the South, and Marxist regimes were aggressively advancing their arms and ideologies in every continent of the globe. Their generation gave it all to protect liberty, religious faith, and country.

    Coming from that context, of course they were going to see “attacks” upon faith, morality, family, and country as equal to the external threats they had faced, only this time coming from within. Theirs was the sentiment that “we didn’t give our lives for America, only to see it rot like this from the inside!”. And to be fair, they have a valid point. And so they fought the battle within with the same paradigms as they fought the battles without.

    In rejecting those paradigms, as our generation and younger generations are prone to do, our tendency is to fail to deal with the serious threats posed by a relativistic culture, as well as failing to honor the sacrifices made by those in the past. Yes, we need new and relevant approaches, but we still need to engage with the issue of abortion, euthanasia, sexual immorality, gender confusion, same sex marriage, etc. for God’s truth has not changed, and millions of lives are being destroyed by those “evils”, even as millions of lives were destroyed through war and totalitarianism in the previous generation. In our rush to be tolerant and non-confrontational, we may give lip service to absolute truth, but live and engage our culture as if it didn’t actually exist. This scenario has been repeated over and over again in the history of the Church. When Christians held stubbornly to their distinctives, as they did in early Church Rome or Reformation Europe, Christianity thrived and grew. When they accomodated to the surrounding culture, as they did in Post-Constantine Rome and in Post-Reformation France, the Church ceased to impact culture, and became corrupt from within. How to be relevant and Biblical in a Post-Modern world is not easy, and starts with refusing to go to one extreme or the other.

    • Tim – You make a good point about understanding the post-war culture and the dangers of relativism. History is a swinging pendulum, isn’t it? I recall my dad justifying but also lamenting his fundamentalist past much in the same way as you described it above.
      I don’t know that we can ever extract our faith from culture and the two will always swing together as one era sweeps into another. But as you say, God’s truth has not changed. The challenge for us is to do our best to discern how steeped our doctrine is in cultural, both when we embrace the norms and when we resists them. I am not a relativist in any sense but I do question the motivation of the right as well as their own cultural influences in defining doctrine just as I am constantly questioning them in myself. I used to take a conservative position on many issues for similar reasons as you’ve outlined, however, I’ve come to accept that it doesn’t mean that my views were right simply because they resisted the wrongs of extremists. (BTW, this doesn’t mean I am now an extremist myself or embrace immorality =) When we define “God’s truth” in topics like evolution, abortion, same sex marriage, I think there needs to be much more care in both our study and our discussions. The truths of Christ avoided the pendulum ride as far as I can tell.
      I especially resonate with your last line – “How to be relevant and Biblical in a Post-Modern world is not easy, and starts with refusing to go to one extreme or the other” (while resisting apathy) – and hope i can make my way in grace. Thanks for reading and leaving me some thoughtful comments to chew on!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s