Archive for the ‘Book Report’ Category

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

 

 

“We are molding Jesus into our image . . . And the danger now is that when we gather in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the bible. instead, we may be worshiping ourselves”.

Knowing my struggle with pop-culture Christianity, a mentor suggested I read this book. There is much to appreciate about Dr. Platt and his ideas. He is obviously very bright and yet he comes across gently. I would not disagree with many of his ideas, but found the book to be superficial and steeped in modernist thought with a tinge of American exceptionalism behind an age-old missions rhetoric.

In Radical, Dr. Platt identifies the American Dream as a value system “dominated be self-advancement, self-esteem, & self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”. He goes on to say that “we have a dangerous tendency to misunderstand, minimize, and even manipulate the gospel in order to accommodate our assumptions and our desires… how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is Biblical?”

These thoughts resonate deeply. In recent years, I have been struck by the weak Biblical hermeneutics delivered from many pulpits. Sermons quickly become the platforms for setting agendas – agendas for evangelism, for building plans, for budgets, for making a name for ourselves (in Jesus’ name).

Of course, this is nothing new. Religious leaders have notoriously used power for self-gain throughout history. However, i wonder at the cultural undercurrent of American individualism and how it manifests itself in the American church. What unique eisegetical pitfalls does the independent evangelical church face? Why is individualism so great a danger to the church?

Dr. Platt suggests that individualism is dangerous because it leads to complacency and a lack of zeal to go to all the world and preach the gospel. While I cannot argue with this point, I am more interested in delving deeper into where this individualism came from, how it has polluted the framework of American church, and what an appropriate response should be.

Perhaps we can trace this individualistic trend back to the Great Reformation of the 16th century. Or perhaps it was confounded by (or was it precipitated) by the cultural shift toward humanism that took grip of the newly independent protestant denominations. Within a few centuries, the church continued to divide, splintering into faction after faction. I am afraid to know just how many denominations exists today in North America. I am more afraid to know how many independent churches exist with no authorities or theological guardians keeping an ear to the pulpit. Each church upholds a unique and “true” interpretation of God’s word and is burdened with the great task of making disciples. I can’t help but ask, disciples of whom?

When Christ said to Peter, “upon this rock, I will build my church”, did he really have the assorted independent denominations of the 21st century in mind? Do these schisms reflect the way of Christ as he led in humility and submission? I cannot recall the last sermon I’ve heard about Biblical submission that wasn’t geared toward women only. Rather, our pastors uphold rhetoric of independence – after all, we have been set free in Christ. Lone ranger pastors. Rebellion and self-determination outweigh respect for elders, compliance to authority, and seeking out Godly council. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Martin Luther stuck it out and reformed within. Is it possible that in an act of righteous protest the path toward individualism and rebellion was forged? Is it possible that this path has led to this evangelicalism “dominated be self-advancement, self-esteem, & self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”?

This poses some significant challenges for a struggling evangelical who longs to be set free of the American church. In a future post, I hope to explore some of the perplexities this presents in terms of the authenticity of Protestantism in general. But for today, I must consider that the way of the consumer is not the way of Christ. Perhaps this cagey creature should stick it out and learn a lesson or two from Christ about submission and healthy spiritual reform before jumping ship in search of the perfect church that meets all felt individual needs.