This could have been done via Twitter, but I am so thankful for this post by Brian McLaren today on Red Letter Christians [which I think can possibly be the future platform for furthering a “prog-evangelical” consensus, i.e., a “generous orthodoxy,” that David Fitch and Scot McKnight seem to want. ]that I thought I’d give it a slightly more thorough endorsement (for what it’s worth….)
The post’s primary purpose was to address Al Mohler’s critique of… you guessed it, the heretic of the hour, our friend Rob. Which is fitting, considering the number of consecutive weeks McLaren has spent at the top of that
hit list. He does a great job of defending his friend:
*He addresses the difference between either framing Bell as choosing heresy over historic Christian beliefs, vs. someone trying to understand the real “gospel” over what the gospel has been reduced to in the modern West.
*He addresses the hermeneutical questions in play and explains them in plain language.
*He frames Bell as one trying to reconcile God’s love and justice, as opposed to holding them apart as dual, opposing characteristics of God (God divided against himself?)….in contrast to how Bell is being framed as not taking God’s justice seriously at all.
*And (Thank God) he challenges those who have blatantly accused Rob of placating and of being controversial for the purpose of increasing book sales. (That’s out of line, imho.)
But on a selfish level, based on what I have said here in recent weeks, and also based upon my own discoveries in recent years as a self-described “post-evangelical” who did not grow up in the mainline church but have since joined myself to it…. I really appreciated this from McLaren (emphasis mine):
From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart — the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable — especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):
- Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
- Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
- Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the 20th Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
- Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
- Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the U.S. Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
- Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies — first radio, then TV, then the internet — as savvily as Evangelicals have.
- Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates — rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
- Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic — agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Vietnam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
- Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.
These reasons (although he admits, as well as I, that only the future will tell us for sure) are precisely why I said what I said last week: that the mainline church (should we even CALL it that anymore!?) is positioned to be a more desirable and stable future for the American church, and if they can embrace that role, they will outlast institutional Evangelicalism.
I also appreciate him saying what professors began to show to me back during my Fuller days: Contrary to how they portray themselves, the conservative evangelical church is actually quite secular/modern:
To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism — economic and political — simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.
Yes, many of us are rejecting theologies that seem to dress up secular conservative ideology in “Sunday best.” But that doesn’t mean we want to put secular liberal ideology in robes and collars instead. Of course not. We’re seeking — imperfectly at every turn, no doubt — an incarnational theology, a theology that brings radical good news of great joy for all the people, good news that God loves the world and didn’t send Jesus to condemn it but to save it, good news that God’s wrath is not merely punitive but restorative, good news that the fire of God’s holiness is not bent on eternal torment but always works to purify and refine, good news that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more
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