Don't you just love controversey! Michael Kruse, whose weblog is new to me (and I've been enjoying it greatly this past week) pointed his readers to a lecture given by Susan Garrett, a professor of New Testament at Louisville Seminary. Titled "Bold and Biblical" the lecture went on to show what progressive/liberal mainline Christians could do to counter the fundamentalists.
I'll be honest, my first reaction was to be quite offended -- after all, I'm pretty sure that I fall into the "fundamentalist" camp that she references. And her language seems to characterize fundamentalists as non-thinking neanderthals who are spoon fed their theology by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Fallwell. Consider this extended quote:
"People hear about this or that high profile pop-cultural offering and they jump on the bandwagon. But they lack the training or insight to read or watch with discernment. Therefore the viewers do not recognize that these books and films are designed in service of ideologies that the viewers themselves might well find offensive if laid out plainly. I have picked on the Left Behind books but I put Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and (on the other side of the religious spectrum) Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code into the same category. And it is not just the books and the movies. People today are being bombarded from every quarter with conflicting information and opinions about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be patriotic, and how those two are different or the same. Some of our members will buy into the right-wing arguments. Others will leave the church in exasperation or disgust if we do not show them that our commitments are not just relevant but also faithful to the Bible."
Then, as I re-read the lecture, I noticed a defensive posture. There was an acknowledgement that the liberal/progressive camp could not "defeat" the fundamentalists -- rather the lecture expresses a desire to hold the line -- to preserve and engage in a creative manner.
And then I re-read her advice for engagement, and I realized that I had no reason to be offended, no reason to be afraid. Indeed, Dr. Garrett's lecture is a gift not just to the liberal/progressive wing, but also a helpful reminder for evangelicals. She has three suggestions:
First " We must renew our commitment to teaching the Bible and to reflecting with our people on how to use the Bible in our personal and congregational lives. Such teaching and reflection needs to happen at all levels of congregational life." Garrett calls for greater scriptural engagement -- what a great idea! We evangelicals need to take this to heart as well. After all, we can easily fall into a steady diet of self-help, be better platitudes and miss out on the grand story of God's redemptive love extended through Jesus Christ.
Let us remember the truth of Isaiah 55: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yeilds seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." -- scripture that talks about the reliability of the oracles of Isaiah, but also generally appliccable to the whole counsel of God. If the Word of God is truly living and active and sharper than any two edged sword (and it is), then we ought to rejoice at any call to be immersed in scripture and let the scripture shape our lives and the cadences of our thoughts. Is God not great enough and mighty enough to grip hearts through the diligent reading of His word? Preach on Dr. Garrett, and would that we evangelicals would hear and attend.
The second suggeston is " we need to re-articulate our doctrinal commitments, and do so in a way that engages fundamentalist assaults on progressive or liberal Christianity. I think we need nothing less than a new art of “apologetics for the mainline.”"
Again, upon reflection, a hearty Amen. First this entails an honest presentation of beliefs, rather than relying on vague language the hedge theological committments. Indeed, a little open honest debate (note, not ideological positioning in order to "win" a battle, but honest truth seeking debate) would serve an "iron sharpening iron" function. Francis Schaeffer's mantra was that honest questions deserve honest answers -- such an "apologetics for the mainline" would certainly bring some contrasts into sharp focus and help evangelicals hone their apologetics.
Finally, Garrett's third suggestion, which she believes is most important:
"Above all we must show people the way to a personal God, to Jesus Christ living and moving in our midst. Jim Wallis writes, “In today’s world, there is one overriding and key distinction in all of the religion that is growing—a God who desires relationship with each person. Much of liberal religion has lost the experience of a personal God, and that is the primary reason why liberal Christianity is not growing. And without a personal God, liberal faith will never grow.”"
Again, right on -- the personal encounter with Jesus Christ is key. Again, a point for evangelicals to remember. Our God isn't some great iceburg in the sky -- not some aged English actor on a golden throne. Our God is personal, and real, and dwells within. We have mystic union with Christ through our faith. We have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ. We have reconciliation with the Father through the work of Christ. Indeed, the whole Trinitarian concept shows God to be at His core to be relational -- and we, made in God's image, are relational and created for relationship.
And it is that relationship that transforms. Praise God when liberal/progressives long for that relationship, for it is a relationship that cannot be controlled or contained. And yes, we evangelicals need to remember this as well -- for it is a relationship that doesn't submit to our agendas either.
So all that said -- thank you Dr. Garrett -- thank you for your heartfelt honesty and your call back to the living Triune God. May all who have ears hear.
Soli Deo Glori