Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Yuppie Evangelism?-CT linked to this Slate piece picking apart the theology of Rick Warren. Some of the passages toward the back seem slanted towards a fire-and-brimstone stereotype.
Warren stands apart from his evangelical forebears in another important respect: At no point does he place the newly minted believer at odds with the secular world's imperfect schemes of justice and reward. Historically, even mildly prophetic Christian revivalists have stressed the mandate of broad social reform—and more fiery ones have triggered full-blown crusades, from abolitionism and temperance down through the latter-day civil rights and anti-abortion movements.Quite a few revivalists don't fit that mold. Billy Graham comes quickly to mind as a largely apolitical revivalist. The early church was apolitical, ignoring the rulers of the day and focusing on changing lives rather than changing the culture or the political system.
In Warren's hands, however, God seems keen to promote more of a Kiwanis-level social activism: "You may be given a godly passion for reaching a particular group of people with the gospel: businessmen, teenagers, foreign exchange students, young mothers, or those with a particular hobby or sport." Of course, not every revivalist faith needs to be driven by social commitment; a lot of mainline Protestant churches are losing members precisely because they seem tediously bent on advertising their own social righteousness. Nevertheless, there is something important missing from a faith that envisions God directing his servants to settle down among narrow-casted groups of exchange students or hobbyists or Sunday athletes.Not everyone's going to be an itinerant evangelists. One of the modalities that has come of age in the last quarter century is the concept of "friendship evangelism." Not everyone's going to come to the Lord via some street-corner brimstone-merchant; for those, a longitudinal witness that gradually introduces them to Jesus is more effective. You don't get that witness from doing a little bit to everyone, it requires a focus.
Longtime observers of the evangelical scene speculate that the softness behind the sell helps explain Warren's appeal to the W. White House. Mark Silk, who directs Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, says ministries like Warren's have a special appeal for an administration where "everything is extraordinarily faith-based—not just social service programs." Silk also suggests that Bush well understands that Warren's brand of feel-good evangelism plays well with the mass audience that comes with the bully pulpit of the presidency. "It's a way of doing evangelicalism for people who get scared when they hear it in its unvarnished form."There is a danger in underselling the concept that we're sinners destined to Hell if we don't turn to Jesus. I remember posting on a verse from Huey Lewis' Jacobs Ladder last year
It's coming over the airwaves. The man says I'm overdue. Sing a song, send some money, join the chosen few. Mister, I'm not in a hurry, and I don't wanna be like you!Friendship evangelism will get people to see a more comely side of God than the brimstone-merchant.
This, rather than the abundance of marketing techniques and showman gimmicks that inflect Warren's style of self-presentation, is the most troubling feature of Warren's purpose-driven approach. It has historically been the nature of the Christian God to be something of an unstinting task master. Warren's God "wants to be your best friend." And this means, in turn, that God's most daunting property, the exercise of eternal judgment, is strategically downsized.Most people don't have to be reminded that they're sinners. Most people believe in the concept of Hell. What people need is a way to escape Hell and have a better today as well. Getting past the lighting-bolt-slinging concept of God is required for some people to warm up to him; God ain't Thor. For people who have had harsh parents, a harsh God isn't something that is encouraging. If done poorly, you can turn God into a celestial pushover, accepting any sin and anyone. However, God does want to have fellowship with us, and simply focusing on his judgmental side doesn't do God a service, either.
When Warren turns his utility-minded feel-speak upon the symbolic iconography of the faith, the results are offensively bathetic: "When Jesus stretched his arms wide on the cross, he was saying, 'I love you this much.' " But God needs to be at a greater remove than a group hug. Surely we lose something if we apprehend the Bible, and the language of faith, as little more than a lesson book. "If you're not preaching life application," Warren has told one interviewer, "you're not really preaching." Yet if you're only believing in life application, what are you really believing?Why does God have to be distant? He can be close yet still be elsewhere at the same time. People get in more trouble by thinking that God is remote than they do when they think that God is near. Here might be the difference between what many in society think religion should be and what evangelicals practice. The mainstream thought wants to think on a macro scale and is uncomfortable with the focus on the individual; they want to change the individual by changing society. The evangelical wants to work from the bottom up, changing society by changing the individual. The God of the individual needs to be a bigger part of the picture than the God of the society.
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