Author Archives: Cameron Nations

What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities Pt II

Seemingly everyone is middle class. Ask someone who makes $75,000 a year and someone who makes double that amount, and both will tell you they’re “middle class.” And, it seems, even millionaires in the US claim to be middle class, as this 2007 survey indicates (I’d like to see what people would say now, in a post-recession economy). So who is right? What defines “middle class”?

Based upon data collected in surveys like the one above, “middle class” has come more to define a mentality than a dollar amount. If you feel middle class and act middle class, then you are, regardless of income, considered middle class—it has become a kind of sensibility. Does a similar notion also apply to evangelicals?

I think so.

I feel that, in some way, all Christians are evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, like it or not. We can’t escape the fact that evangelism is encoded within the DNA of the Christian faith, regardless of difference in denominational belief. Yet the definitions of the word that float through society don’t always accommodate this diversity.

As I see it, there are two easily identifiable definitions of the word “evangelical,” and one that is much harder to pin down: the first easily recognizable definition is used predominantly within the church community and the other is used predominantly outside of it. We will address the third one in a moment.

The first definition aligns rather closely with the one given in the OED, and stresses biblical inerrancy, salvation by faith alone, etc.

The second definition uses “evangelical” in a broad and often ambiguous way to describe basically any protestant who professes to be a Christian.

One can see this second definition come through in the recent flurry of activity surrounding Harold Camping’s rapture predictions. Multiple media outlets (here are just two examples: one, two) have referred either to Camping himself or/and to his media organization as “evangelical,” and I’ve heard it tossed around regularly in conversation that it’s those “evangelicals” who are at it again predicting the end of the world. And in some way, I can see where this assumption/association comes from: was it not the evangelicals who ate up the Left Behind series? Did not Camping’s followers harness evangelistic tactics to get their message out? Do they not conform to the OED’s definition? Are we not at least broadly discussing the same group of people?

Yet most evangelicals thought Camping was (and is) a loon. Even Tim LaHaye, the author of the  Left Behind series and prominent avowed evangelical, denounced Camping’s predictions as ridiculous.

I think you can see the difficultly here. If the word currently holds two meanings, but neither is stringently adhered to, then the word only leads to confusion and mis-categorization. I, for one, have quite a lot of Christian friends who might deem themselves “evangelical” in some sense of the word, but certainly don’t want to find themselves roped into Camping’s gang… or even Tim LaHaye’s gang.

This is where we find a third definition lurking in the background of this discussion. I represent that third definition. I am inclined to think of myself as an evangelical by virtue of the fact that I place importance on both sharing and living the Gospel, I believe in the transforming power of my faith, and I make no effort to hide my faith from others—I am, if you will, more than publicly Christian. I have many friends who would say the same for themselves; however, none of us would ever want to draw an association between us and the oft-stereotyped “evangelical” that demands donations on TV or hearkens back to the days of the Moral Majority. We don’t own that definition, and consequently, we don’t really own the one given in the OED, either.

Thus for us the question of mis-association becomes more pronounced. Is it necessary to say that someone must believe in total depravity of the human soul or biblical inerrancy as prerequisites to sharing their faith with the world? This assumption seems silly and needlessly exclusive. To me, those theological appendages fall subordinate to the importance of the gospel narrative.

While I’m certainly no lexicographer, I believe we need to reshape the word “evangelical” around this more universally Christian foundation (the one found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as it seems strange to use such a narrow definition of a term that can be applied to so many different Christians in as many different contexts. It only leads to confusion and ambiguity. If we fail to extend the definition to those outside the more fundamentalist box—or for that matter the Calvinist box or the biblical inerrantist box or the anti-gay box or the televangelist’s health and wealth box—of the Christian faith, then I believe we endanger ourselves in a media-saturated world where terms get tossed around without much thought to their association or meaning.

As a Christian attempting to strengthen interfaith relationships, I become attuned to categories and their oftentimes-harmful connotations. I also see how categories can come to define one’s identity. I believe that interfaith cooperation is a way of evangelizing. However, Greg and I have encountered those who seem skeptical of this—what we’re trying to do, some say, is more assimilation that evangelization. And while I don’t buy it, such a criticism does pose the questions: What does it look like to evangelize? Who is an evangelical? In some ways, finding answers to these two issues undergirds all that Greg and I do at FLP, and gets at our very identity as Christians.

Anyway, this has run on too long. You now have my opinion on the matter— I’d love to hear yours! Should “evangelical” have an inclusive definition that accommodates to some extent all Christians, or do you think it should describe a narrow sect of the Christian faith? What do you think are the implications of both? Weigh in below!

(Also check out this great blog by renowned Baylor theologian Roger E Olson, which Greg found after I had written much of this post. Dr. Olsen explores much these same issues—I highly recommend giving it a read.)

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What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities

Look up “evangelical” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you will find roughly twelve meanings that stretch back nearly 500 years to William Tyndale’s use of the term in 1531. (“He exhorteth them to procede constauntly in the euangelicall truth.” Yeah, spelling’s changed a bit since then.) Yet the definition that concerns me most is the one that expounds upon the “evangelical” as a sect of the Christian faith. The OED says:

b. From 18th c. applied to that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of ‘the Gospel’ consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy.

Other features more or less characteristic of the theology of this school are: a strong insistence on the totally depraved state of human nature consequent on the Fall; the assertion of the sole authority of the Bible in matters of doctrine, and the denial of any power inherent in the Church to supplement or authoritatively interpret the teaching of Scripture; the denial that any supernatural gifts are imparted by ordination; and the view that the sacraments are merely symbols, the value of which consists in the thoughts which they are fitted to suggest…

It goes on to give a brief history of the word as used by various Christian sects, noting its proclivity for Calvinist adherents and “Low Church” Anglicans.

Look up “influential evangelical leaders” in a Google Images search, and you will find pictures of figures from a rather wide spectrum: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Francis Schaeffer, Ted Haggard, Joyce Meyer, Rob Bell, Tim Challies, Mike Huckabee, Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, Billy Graham, Brian McLaren, Jerry Falwell, John Piper, and James Dobson, to name a few.

So, what do we make of this definition? These “evangelical” figures? Is “evangelical” even a meaningful word? Does it transcend denominational boundaries or does it describe Christians only of a certain stripe?

I have to admit that, for me, “evangelical” has become an almost pejorative term and, in some cases, a caricature. And I don’t think I’m alone. It has seemingly gone from being a simple descriptor to a synonym for “fundamentalist” (or even “obnoxious”) in the parlance of my generation, gathering significant political connotations and associations that many of us Millennials don’t necessarily agree with. Organizations like Recovering Evangelical (check them out, they’ve got some great stuff on their site) are gaining steam, and media like Relevant magazine have become the new mouthpiece for a young generation of Christians that don’t know how to own the “evangelical” label.

Indeed, the OED corroborates this shift, showing how the contemporary connotations of the word in secular speech tend toward the negative. From the 1993 edition:

4. transf. Eager to share one’s enthusiasm with others; hortatory, proselytizing.

Take a look at the names I listed above. Can all those figures really be lumped together? Is there a common thread that links them? While some fit the OED definition, many do not. And, despite its sometimes negative connotation, many of my generation– including myself– still identify with the label “evangelical” in some way or another. To be an evangelical seems so broad, and yet also carries a rather specific meaning.

So what does it mean to be an evangelical? Is it a social term, a political term, a religious term, or a bit of all of these? Do you think titling yourself as an evangelical automatically produces negative connotations? None at all?

I believe in the importance of answering these questions and forging perhaps new and more helpful definitions of what it means to be evangelical that better articulate and encapsulate the universal identities of all Christians and their involvement in the world. In my next post, I’ll make my case for what I believe “evangelical” should mean and why. Until then, please share your own thoughts on what being “evangelical” does/should mean, and how this affects the perception of Christians in the world.

Also, look for my posts on the early church to resume in the coming weeks, as well as our first guest post from the Rev. Tim Baranoski on Monday! (In the meantime, check out some of Rev. Tim’s blogs at his own site The Timothy Blog.)

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To Boldly Go: What the Acts of the Apostles Say About Interfaith

Raphael, _Acts of the Apostles_ tapestry. (Taken from http://toto.lib.unca.edu/)

 

When approaching the early church from a Biblical perspective, one must unavoidably begin with the Acts of the Apostles (or, as many Bibles have it—simply “Acts”). This book, which comes right after the Gospel of John, tells of the apostles’ interactions in the world after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.

In many ways, Acts is a rather odd book. It’s filled with miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, and the curious workings of the so-called “holy spirit,” which serves as a source of spiritual guidance and power.

One may fairly ask what this book has to do—if anything—with interfaith cooperation. After all, nearly every story told in its pages has the apostles going into a group of non-believers, proclaiming the Gospel, and then either winning followers to their cause or getting thrown in prison (sometimes both). And, in a few instances, we are told of an apostle being put to death for proclaiming his faith.

To the outsider, Acts can certainly seem aggressive and rather off-putting (what is all this “speaking in tongues” business, anyway?) and even to the seasoned church-goer can pose some interesting questions. Yet I think there’s something quite important one can gain here that bears significance when discussing how evangelism intersects with interfaith.

All throughout the book, the writer of Acts describes the apostles as having proclaimed their faith boldly. This boldness is important. As I’ve already mentioned, spreading the Gospel of Jesus was risky business, and the apostles—and by extension, any member of the early church—were willing to die for it. They possessed a deep conviction for their message, presumably because, as the Bible says, they knew it to be true. Peter and the others had walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and dined with Jesus… after he had died.

One of the criticisms Greg and I hear most often regarding interfaith work is that it entails a diluting of one’s faith and a stunting of one’s evangelical power. The thought runs something like this: “Interfaith cooperation requires respect for others’ beliefs, thus inhibiting my ability to tell them about Christ and their need for salvation. Therefore it is useless to become involved in interfaith because it does not necessarily result in large numbers of converts at the end.” Indeed, did not the early church strive to convert all those who they encountered?

I would say that this approach comes from two places: 1.) a possible fear of/lack of faith in one’s Christian beliefs, or 2.) a misunderstanding of how interfaith cooperation typically works.

Typically in interfaith scenarios, one’s faith is put on the table—people know you are a Christian. It then becomes your actions that define what living a Christian life means to you. In interfaith work, everyone acknowledges a fundamental theological disagreement; Christians know that theologically they differ tremendously from Jews and Muslims and Sikhs, for example, and that each believes they hold the exclusive religious truth. Thus, the Christian willing to use interfaith as a platform for evangelism does not need to state outright the exclusive claims made by their faith unless asked to do so. What should happen instead is that Christians enact the teachings of their faith to show what it means to them and what it means to others who choose to live by its precepts, and, when given the opportunity, share their story of how the Christian faith has transformed their life and motivated them to serve the community and the world.

When we shrink from engaging in interfaith cooperation, I believe we fail to proclaim our faith with boldness. Now, I know that, to some, this notion may seem and sound rather counter-intuitive. I know that one may say that this boldness/conviction should actually give license to the believer to rebuke those of other faiths. Indeed, even the apostles did this when addressing the Pharisees and the like.

Yet I think we need to be cautious here, as we do not operate in the same period under the same contexts as the apostles did, and we must adapt our notions of evangelism accordingly. Simply stating that Christians believe to hold exclusively the truth necessary for salvation would be, as I stated above, just stating the obvious in interfaith dialogue. Everyone doing interfaith work knows that each faith claims something exclusive, and so we must look for a better way of expressing our faith with boldness than rebuking others, which can so easily fall prey to over generalization and the preaching of a fire-and-brimstone message of eternal damnation. (As many have pointed out in these past months, this message is not a popular one in today’s culture, but I won’t get into that here.)

I believe that there is a way to find balance. I believe that there is a way to show boldness through your actions that do not define themselves against others. What do you think? Is it possible to be bold for your faith in interfaith cooperation efforts without coming across as preachy? Or do you think interfaith does in fact stunt our ability to proclaim our faith?

What do the Acts of the Apostles say about interfaith?

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Looking Both Ways: What Lies Ahead for FLP

Whew! What a busy (and rather eventful) past few weeks!

I sincerely apologize for the silence over here—it isn’t good for the life of a blog if the two contributors rarely post. Greg’s been inundated with university work, and I’ve… well, okay, I’ve just been traveling to foreign countries and getting swept up in Holy Week and Royal Wedding celebrations.  But regardless of my actions, I’ve not kept up with diligence my responsibilities over here at FLP (with the exception of a quick response to the breaking news regarding Osama Bin Laden). That’s about to change.

As you all know, Greg has been working on a series that examines what the concept of the “Kingdom of God” has to do with interfaith cooperation. In this same spirit, I will begin a series of my own that should—if all goes well—run alongside Greg’s “Kingdom” posts as a sort of complement.

Instead of the Kingdom, I’ll be delving straight into scripture, looking at the early church to see how the apostles interacted with the cultures of their day, and how these interactions can inform our interfaith endeavor. First I’ll go to Acts, and then move from there into Paul’s letters and so on.

Furthermore, look for FLP’s first guest post in the coming weeks, written by the Rev. Tim Baranoski of Grace Cumberland Presbyterian Church (just outside my hometown of Nashville, TN). He recently wrote a great post for our friend Chris Stedman’s blog, Non-Prophet Status, and he has agreed to write a post for us as well! Certainly stay tuned for that. You can check out Rev. Tim’s blog here.

Greg and I have been discussing ways of expanding Faith Line Protestants, gaining more regular contributors, and bringing in more guests to post. We both realize that the strains of student life make it difficult to maintain quality content, and we don’t want to deliver lackluster material.

Please join us as we re-invigorate life over here at FLP and break into new topics and discussions!

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“No Man is an Island”: One Christian’s Response to Bin Laden’s Death

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. (www.chicagotribune.com)

So, Osama Bin Laden is dead. But what now? What is our response?

Students all over the US are flocking to the streets, throwing gargantuan parties, singing songs, celebrating. On the one hand, this event does mark some kind of progress that seems to warrant at least a bit of frivolity. However, it’s important not to let the zealous rush override the moral fiber of our wonderful nation—and, as Christians, the integrity of our faith. It’s one thing to rejoice over the triumph of peace, but another to take unhealthy pleasure in the loss of human life.

And there is a difference.

As Christians, we must remember the words of Scripture.

In Romans chapter 12, Paul says:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says:

7 Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

-and-

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The words in the verses above do not always sync with reality. For instance, sometimes sin seems the only way to defeat sin. (It is here one could easily turn to the tangent of “just war theory,” but we won’t open that can of worms here.) I believe this is just a function of our fallen world, and while we as Christians must try to transcend this cycle of violence-for-violence by remembering the words of Scripture, we also can’t place an unrealistic moral expectation upon it all—we cannot, no matter how hard we try, be “perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect,” for instance.

I know that posts like this one can so easily come across as pompous pontification, especially in light of such atrocities as 9/11 and a decade-long war. We want to feel a sense of victory that justifies the prior tragedy and dysfunction.

So, of course, the news of Bin Laden’s death brings with it a rush of relief, and I have to admit that even I gave an enthusiastic fist pump when I logged onto Facebook this morning and saw the news. Wrapped within his figure we find a terrific jumble of symbolism—the evil he represented, the brainwashing of young men, the anxiety and fear his actions have brought to the world—but we must keep separate the symbols and the man himself. I believe as Christians we walk a fine line on these matters.

In the verses I quoted above from Romans, Paul ends by exhorting us to “overcome evil with good.” So I challenge you: what kind of good can we make of this evil?

I leave you with this, the words of the poet John Donne:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as a manor of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (-Meditation 17.)

 

(All Bible verses taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

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Vatican II: The Catholic Promise to Build Interfaith Relationships

Vatican II, the Nave of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Photo courtesy of saintpetersbasilica.org.)

What’s in a name?

This famous question from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet bears special significance whenever one finds themselves given the task of actually naming something—whether devising the moniker of an organization, or even naming one’s own child. Names are important. They’re symbolic, descriptive, representative.

If you click on the “Faith Line Protestant” tab at the top of our page, you can find a description of ours. In it, we make it explicit that, though we may use the term “Protestant” to describe ourselves, we do not intend this to alienate or distance ourselves from the Catholic community. On the contrary, the Catholic Church has much to offer interfaith cooperation embedded in its very theological framework as a result of Vatican II.

So, what is Vatican II, you ask? Well, for those like myself who need a little brushing up on the goings-on of the Catholic Church, here is the Wikipedia article.  Essentially, Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council, was an ecumenical council held in the early 1960s in Rome to discuss the Church’s response to a rapidly changing world and the relation of these changes to their theology. It lasted about three years.

Many things came out of Vatican II, perhaps the most noticeable of which was the alteration of the liturgy. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic mass had to be given in Latin, the official language of the church. Yet after Vatican II, churches encouraged greater participation of the laity in the liturgy of mass. This meant that mass was said in the vernacular instead of Latin (although one can still attend Latin mass in Catholic churches—I have).

But liturgical changes weren’t the only things to come from Vatican II.

In reading through Daniel L. Migliore’s highly accessible introduction to Christian Theology, Faith Seeking Understanding, I came across an interesting chapter entitled “The Finality of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism.” In this chapter, Migliore spends a section discussing Vatican II’s unprecedented proclamations regarding interfaith relationships. I have to admit, what I learned certainly surprised me.

While still maintaining that the Christian faith contains the ultimate truth, Vatican II upholds the particular identities of other faith traditions, and, as Migliore says, “acknowledges in them ‘a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’” Furthermore, Vatican II calls on Christians to take part in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions,” and engage in service projects as a means for establishing common ground (pg. 309).

Thus, the Catholic community has, for the past half a century, already codified interfaith cooperation as a part of their very ethos. I’ve always known Catholics to be willing to participate in interfaith efforts, but now I better understand why. I hadn’t known how explicitly they’re doctrinal declarations extolled interfaith cooperation.

With a history of our own sectarian tensions, perhaps the many branches of the Christian church—both Catholics and Protestants—can come together in agreement on interfaith cooperation and service, encouraging peaceful intra-faith (as much as interfaith) relationships. So, when thinking about planning service projects, don’t forget to include other Christian communities that may differ from your own. Building bridges doesn’t stop with those of other traditions.

(Daniel L. Migliore is Professor Emeritus of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. For his CV and a list of his works, see his page on PTS’s website here.)

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Dust and Ash: Reflections on Terry Jones’ “Trial” of the Koran

Image Taken from the HuffPost. (Links below.)

 

I can imagine the dust—both the desert dust and the ash of the burned book.

The Bible says that God made us from dust; recently the church calendar celebrated a day of dust—Ash Wednesday—in which we were reminded of the transience of life by the smearing of oil, water, and ash on our foreheads. The liturgy in my tradition tells us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But instead of following in the footsteps of Jesus, giving up something for Lent in a symbol of solidarity with Christ’s temptation in the desert, Florida pastor Terry Jones and his congregation held a trial. A trial for the Koran. In the end, they deemed it “guilty,” and burned it.

In a piece I posted a few weeks ago, I reflected on my time abroad and shared a few stories of my experiences as an American in a foreign country. I titled it: “More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters.” It didn’t garner many readers or spur any sort of discussion, but in light of recent events, perhaps it will now.

My closing statements used Terry Jones as an example, warning that the world takes notice when America makes threats to burn holy books or, as in the case of Peter King, put a faith group on trial. If we are to diffuse the hate and negative reputation that follows the US as a bigoted and hypocritical country, then we have to saturate the discussion with stories of cooperation and peace. The world watches us. They hear us. And now that Jones has in fact burned a Koran (and others did in fact take notice)—with the result that 12 people are now dead—I think the discussion becomes evermore pertinent.

We are now on day four of the violent protests. Since I began this piece on Saturday, the death toll has climbed to over 20 people and counting, and 80 have been injured as the protests have turned to riots.

There is in this situation a tendency to point at the Afghan Muslims as fulfilling Jones’ perceptions of them as being violent, rash, and hateful toward the US. However, I would say that this characterization of Islam is unfair; it’s the equivalent of shoving someone on the playground and then being surprised when they retaliate.

Make no mistake, I am in no way saying that these Afghan’s actions were justified—they certainly were not. Nothing can justify what they did, not even the burning of a sacred object. To argue that somehow the Afghans were right to act out would be to say that human life is less sacred that wood pulp and ink, and that is simply false.

But it does give one pause.

The political situation in Afghanistan toward the United States was tenuous at best before Jones started advertising his “Burn the Koran Day,” and now by actually following through on his threats he has sent a very dangerous signal to the Afghan Muslims that has the potential to paint the “War on Terror” as a holy war. And all of this elevated tension comes just as we start withdrawing our troops.

The actions on both sides speak to severe dysfunction. Both parties highlight the need for dialogue and understanding. If Terry Jones and his congregation actually knew anything about Islam, then they wouldn’t have entertained the idea of burning a Koran. And likewise, if the Afghan Muslims knew that the vast majority of Christians in the US condemned Jones’  actions, perhaps they wouldn’t allow their anger to lead to murder.

Most disappointingly, the Christian community has largely balked at any sort of response (probably because there is no unified Christian community to issue one), and seems awkwardly silent in the wake of such a terrible tragedy. The statements coming from Jones’ church are calloused, insensitive, and woefully unapologetic. They just don’t seem to get it. What they did cost people their lives, and continues to perpetuate harmful relations between the Christian and Muslim communities.

I will repeat it again: interfaith cooperation in America matters. We need to set the example. Otherwise, the voice of intolerance and hate rings louder than the voice of peace.

For more information on this story, follow these links: CNN, HuffPost.

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“Open Letter to Greg Damhorst and Cameron Nations”: A Response

A few weeks ago, Frank Turk, a blogger for PyroManiacs (teampyro.blogspot.com), wrote an open letter to our friend Chris Stedman. We wrote Frank a response, and in return he responded to us. (You can read his letter to Greg and me here.) This is our reply. (Warning: it’s a long one.)

Frank,

I want to begin by thanking you for your thorough response; the time and effort required to pen nine pages of anything is not insignificant—so, again, thanks.

In this letter I hope to principally address the three points you brought up in your comment, as I agree that they are the most pertinent and worthy of discussion (and, discussion is, after all, what we both advocate). I would like to begin, however, with the observation that you appear to view Greg and I as interfaith activists first, Christians second. This is not how we view ourselves, and I would encourage you not to view us in this way, either. When considering what I have to say, I hope that you bear this in mind, viewing me as someone with whom you disagree, but who is ultimately on your side, rather than someone standing in direct opposition to you.

Neither Greg nor I meant to imply that you are not a “leading voice” by saying that Chris is one. We simply used the verb “target” to describe your open letter. And while this may not have been the most sensitive word choice, it does in fact describe what your letter did. Any letter—open or not—is directed at a particular person. We saw your letter as an attack on our friend, and thus reacted the way we did. If it portrayed you wrongly, then I apologize.

I will further apologize for what you feel was a “Reader’s Digest version” of your open letter. However, I will also say that copy-and-pasting Chris’s HuffPost bio and then giving a few lines of commentary on atheism in general does not constitute devoting gracious amounts of space to Chris’s own words on interfaith cooperation. Instead it only provides a list of his accomplishments and then a bit of opinion. Our summary of your letter was only intended to provide a bit of context for those who had not yet read it (which they could easily do for themselves, as we provided the link for them), and its brevity was an attempt at saving space. Again, we had no intention of misrepresenting your points.

As for misinterpreting your statements and the tone behind them, I would say that this is a function of your writing—you do, whether you intend this or not, write with a bit of a bite. Sometimes your statements, when read by someone who has never heard you speak or is not used to your blogs, come off as snarky and aggressive. A bit of cheek isn’t a bad thing (and in quite a few of your posts is rather entertaining), but I will say that it certainly contributed to my reading of your letter to Chris, and potentially distorted what you actually were saying. Our letter in defense of Chris may not have been a paragon of open-letter responses, but Greg and I still think it addressed the issues you raised in a manner not that different from your own.

You accused us of misrepresenting you—of “demonizing” you— and yet you grossly misrepresented our own views at a few points in your response, making us out to be the bad guys in need of repentance. I would say that this tactic resembles the very thing you criticized us for doing. By telling you a bit of Faith Line Protestants’ story, as well as addressing a few of your statements, I hope I can clear up any false impressions and better articulate our own position. I will go about this as well as I can by category, examining those things which I feel have caused the greatest breakdown in understanding. (Because whatever your beef with our letter in defense of Chris, the real issue here lies in your assumptions regarding our faith, our approach to evangelism, and the efficacy of interfaith work. What we said in Chris’s letter is done.)

But before I really get going, I wish to address one of your statements that irked me on a personal level. It comes at the end of your paragraph in which you attribute our response to hubris and collegiate spirit, and assert that we must have only skimmed your letter before penning our response to it: “I like to call it the surprise in the Cracker Jack box which is my faith and mission as a blogger: surprising people with the idea that there are really folks who have walked the field of faithlessness and come out the other end with a different conclusion. But I say that only to say this: if there were actually any discussion going on, you’d probably have discovered that.” I actually did know of your former atheism—I read it in the comments at the bottom of the open letter. Moreover, I spent quite a few hours combing through your old posts, looking at other blogs to which you have contributed, etc. before even considering a response. I did this because I did not think it fair to write something addressing you when I didn’t know much about you and what you stood for. I never “took it for granted that [you were] one kind of person,” as you state. People’s lives and stories are much more complex than that.

For example, I too have a “surprise in the Cracker Jack box”—I walked away from my faith as well upon entering university, only to return to it less than a year ago. I feel this shared experience (not all that uncommon) is something that perhaps we can build from—it was a terribly dark time for me, and one that has had a profound impact on my drive to do interfaith work. Just like your time as an atheist has shaped you and what you hope to accomplish, so have my own struggles with my faith driven me in mine.

Now, back to your three points…

I find it interesting that you repeatedly refer to our participation in interfaith work as not compelling when you devoted 9 pages in response to it. That is perhaps a cheap shot, so I’ll ask you a genuine question. You claim what Greg and I are doing isn’t “new,” as if age possesses some sort of truth value. You even go so far as to say that this is a “problem” (something I will discuss in greater depth later on). What do you mean by this? Below are two points where you have posed this critique of our work, along with my response to them.

You say:

I cannot pretend that your version of what you say you mean to do is better than what has come before it. At least the old main-line Liberal approach stood in the Sermon on the Mount and in Leviticus and looked for the longest possible list of good works to produce rather than to a reductive consensus which everyone can agree on. Your version compared to your intellectual fathers is not even compelling in terms of what it is seeking to accomplish.

And at a different point:

Your idea isn’t new, and it isnt half as compelling as the liberal Christian activism that came before it — except that it doesn’t really believe that a Christian moral foundation is needed to act on it.

First off, I would like to point out that our position does in fact look to a Christian moral foundation for its basis. One can see this stated quite plainly all over our site. Greg and I look to the early church, to Paul’s ministry, and to the teachings of Jesus himself for guidance, direction, and inspiration. Greg and I often quote the Beatitudes in our posts; I don’t know where you find the grounds to make the claim that we don’t appeal to scripture when we quite obviously do so in almost everything we write. And who are these “intellectual fathers” you mention? Do you mean people like Schleiermacher and Tillich (as you keep positioning us as some sort of Christian Liberalism Lite), or are you fishing elsewhere? I’m not ignorant of the traditions that have shaped the interfaith movement or my place in it, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at there.

Point is this—I do not think Greg and I seek “a reductive consensus which everyone can agree on.” We do not advocate for that. Yes, we do seek to bring people of different traditions together around the shared value of service, but that is hardly a reductive consensus. Off of what are you basing your opinion? It feels like you are treating our view as a proposed systematic approach to the Christian faith, which is not what we are doing or what we purport to do.

When Greg and I sat down for coffee and hatched the plans for Faith Line Protestants, we both came from prominent roles in a large Christian organization on campus— the University of Illinois chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. During his time as an undergrad, Greg led small groups, and I myself still serve by leading worship and doing creative planning. Though we both love Intervarsity as an organization, we noticed a kind of insularity plaguing not only IV, but also the other prominent Christian organizations on campus as well. We saw a reluctance to engage with people of other backgrounds in service, despite the fact that Intervarsity leads some of the best service trips (such as the Chicago Urban Project) of any U of I Christian organization. We felt that interfaith service seemed a natural fit for a group that already engaged in numerous projects throughout the local community and beyond.

Greg and I, as participants in both Interfaith and Intervarsity, saw that the conversation surrounding interfaith cooperation was already happening, but that Christians weren’t participating in it. At interfaith event after interfaith event, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and even atheists turned up in droves, while Christians did not. This troubled us, not least because Christians form the majority faith group in this country and on campus. And by not participating, we send signals of disinterest that reflect poorly on Christians as a faith community. If Jews and Hindus and Muslims are willing to come together to solve problems in the community, but Christians are not, then how does that make us look? Sure, we may be doing service projects on our own, but we still come across as insular and unwilling to engage with those different from us—two stereotypes that I don’t think are healthy for the church going forward, especially on university campuses.

But Greg and I were optimistic. We believed that Christians, because of Christ’s call to service and love, would be willing and eager to participate if they only knew more about interfaith itself—that it isn’t advocating a theological pluralism, that it doesn’t violate any part of our beliefs, and that it actually is a great way to show, if you will, what the Christian community is made of.

We were familiar with Chris Stedman and his work attempting to bring the atheist community into better relationships with religious groups, and we sought a Christian resource that did something similar… only, we couldn’t find one. The “interfaith question” seemed to be one that the church wasn’t asking, but that Greg and I felt should be addressed. We figured we might as well start the discussion. We’re not launching some sort of theological movement that we misguidedly believe to be novel, but rather operate out of existing values within the church to pose questions and seek answers.

Evangelism in its current and popular iterations does not address the specific parameters of interfaith relationships—relationships where you really can’t adopt the usual tactics of telling others about Jesus and then expecting a conversion at the end. It fails to negotiate what happens when the person on the other side of the table holds deep beliefs of their own, and who is not looking for an alternative.

I do not mean to say, however, that you can’t share your story/testimony with someone of another belief. On the contrary, much of our interfaith work revolves around sharing stories of faith and its impact on a person’s life. Greg and I actually see interfaith as a unique and thrilling opportunity to show others who would ordinarily maintain a distance from the Christian community what it means to believe in Christ. To us, leading by example in love and compassion speaks much louder than an outreach event or handing out Bible verses on the quad.

We’re young. We’re perhaps not the best equipped for this. But we aren’t going about things blindly. Before we began our site, we met with pastors to consult with them about our ideas. We had them read over our belief statements (all of the tabs at the top of our site) and they helped us craft them. These pastors and church leaders continue to read our blog, ready to call us out if we ever say something unintentionally out of line.

Greg and I wish to increase Christians’ involvement in interfaith cooperation because we want others to be exposed to the love of Christ. Yet you seem to see us differently. You say:

And this, really, lies as the foundation of all your other problems. You self-identify with “Evangelicalism” and call yourselves “Evangelicals”, but you are no such thing. An “evangelical” thinks proclaiming the Gospel is of the highest priority; you think it is a hopeful secondary objective. An “Evangelical” has a high regard for inerrancy and Biblical authority; you believe that the Bible’s authority is as one source of information in the secular context. An “Evangelical” thinks that teaching what the death and resurrection of Jesus means is a key emphasis; for you, it hasn’t yet come up – and can’t, because it will offend the personal ethics of those you would have to tell it to. You assume they have heard it and that is enough. Finally, an “Evangelical” places the conversion of others to being followers of Christ – not just admirers or glib flatterers of Christ – as the key objective of the Christian faith; for you, playing well with others is the key objective, and if that objective means they don’t hear the Gospel or respond to it, there’s always tomorrow.

Frankly, the last few sentences of the above paragraph are false; you have made assumptions that echo the very same reductive descriptions you criticized Greg and I for making. The implications/meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ undergirds FLP’s very existence, and we do not shy from it simply because it may offend someone else. It’s not the message itself that we find offensive, but the way in which the church can sometimes present it. Moreover, we do not assume that “they have heard it and that is enough.” You have taken what we said about Chris and erroneously extrapolated it onto our entire ethos. We know Chris has heard the gospel and knows it well. What more can we do then but allow him to make his own decisions? If there are those who have not heard about Christ or the gospel message, Greg and I do not take the approach you attribute to us—that we feel “there’s always tomorrow” for someone to hear it. We have not stated such a position anywhere, either in the letter regarding Chris or in the material found on our site. Your assumptions egregiously miscast what Greg and I aim to do. In a way, your critique once again treats us as if we espouse or posit some sort of systematic theology, one in which we only vaunt “playing well with others” as the chief aim of the Christian individual. Though we make seek peace over strife, I wouldn’t say that this comes at the expense of our beliefs or the strength of our faith.

I ask you to consider the following statements, which come straight off of our website:

-We believe in the Bible as the central and holy text of the Christian faith that it is a vehicle through which God conveys truth, and that it is the authority on matters of morality.  We maintain that God created the universe–including human beings, which he made in his image, rendering each person inherently valuable.

-We believe that Jesus, whose life is described in the New Testament of the Bible, was both human and divine, and that his crucifixion on earth was a sacrifice for the punishment that all human beings would otherwise pay for falling short of God’s standard (a concept called sin). Consequently, we believe that faith in Jesus’ sacrifice is the only way to both live life to its fullest on earth and be granted life forever with God in heaven.  We believe that Jesus will also be returning to earth to judge the humankind on the existence or absence of this faith.

-We believe that Jesus’ life and actions are an example for the way that we should live, and that all Christians form a global community (the body of Christ) that God often uses to interact with the world.  Finally, we believe that God communicates in many ways with believers through the Holy Spirit, a part of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as expressed in the foundational creeds of the church.

This—our belief statement—is displayed prominently in a tab at the top of our homepage, and includes both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. Did you even read it? If you had done, I don’t see how you could have levied any of the criticisms that called into question our beliefs about the primacy of scripture or the value we place on the Gospel narrative. At one point in your response you also claim that we possess “uneasiness with the actual Christian message,” but I ask in return: how do you know this? Like your other assumptions, this one rings false. One read-through of our belief statement would have affirmed that. Our concerns lie with the expression of the Christian message—not the message itself—specifically where it intersects with interfaith work. (Read a few of our past posts on FLP where we try to articulate our perspectives on this very topic. Feel free to comment.)

Then, onto this charge: “Your view isn’t the least bit “Evangelical” unless we change the definition of that word.” I both agree and disagree with this. First, I must admit that you caught me with my trousers down—if you read my bio on FLP, you’ll see plainly that I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and even seeking possible ordination there. The ECUSA is quite obviously a mainline denomination. So… am I lying when I call myself an evangelical? By the Wikipedia definition you provided, then yes, perhaps I am. I’ve been down that road before during my upbringing as a Baptist, and did not like my time there. Certain beliefs I hold do fall firmly within the Christian Liberalism that you attribute of me (I do in fact enjoy Tillich). But I would take a look back at the belief statement above. Clearly, I’m not some sort of sympathetic-to-the-Jesus-Seminar kind of person who sees the gospel as merely a beautiful story of death and rebirth; I do take a reasoned approach to my faith, but I don’t flirt outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The first comment in your response’s stream mentioned detecting more than a hint of Emergent Christianity in my (and Greg’s) views. I’d say that such an assessment is fair—to a point. But does that mean we aren’t evangelical?

I believe that “evangelical” shouldn’t have to mean an individual who fits into Bebbington’s four perimeters as mentioned in the Wikipedia article. In the same article from which you pulled, one can find the etymology of the word, which comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “good news.” Thus, an evangelical is one who proclaims the “good news.” Not too tough (and I know you knew that). In this way, Greg and I fit the description, and this is how we have thought of ourselves. I’ll admit we may employ the term rather loosely. From your comments, I see that Greg and I should probably do better to define this.

If we don’t seem to be typical evangelicals, then I would say Greg and I are doing our job well. Interfaith cooperation is not something currently on the wider evangelical radar, and we’re trying to change that. (Though I would note it is gaining traction within the evangelical community.) But again, you don’t think there is anything novel or new about what we do. In regard to the Million Meals for Haiti event, you said:

Do I need “e[m]pathy and understanding” to think to myself, “huh! The people in Haiti who have been decimated for more than a year by the aftermath of a natural disaster probably need something to eat!” Or do I just need the raw facts? I mean: even the Southern Baptist Convention can mobilize for the Red Cross (and does so) without checking anyone’s baptism certificates. Is that really a wild leap forward for “interfaith dialog”, or does it turn out that you guys just found out that this happens in real life all the time, and that it happens mostly when people can agree on really gigantic incidents of suffering? The problem is not seeing the gigantic incidents of suffering: everyone can see those, and no one with a Western values system will tell you that humanitarian aid is uncalled for. The problem is that you guys think that this is new, and an innovation, and a neoteric way to do society – and that it’s the most important thing you can be concerned about.

What you fail to acknowledge (or perhaps fail to value) is that this approach to interfaith cooperation—one that revolves around service—doesn’t just affect those who need the aid, but also affects those serving. By mobilizing both the religious and non-religious, we interact face-to-face with those who would never set foot inside a church. You can’t directly represent Christ to those who are in the pews if they’re sitting in a synagogue. Or a mosque. Or a temple. But you can show your faith while packing meals together and sharing stories about what motivates you to serve. We discuss the transformative power of service all the time in the church, but I challenge you to think of it in terms of interfaith cooperation. True, it’s not a new idea.  The idea of meeting people where they are, of finding common ground, of sharing our lives and the basis for our faith, is as old as the Gospel itself.

I know that we’re operating on different wavelengths with this one, and we can certainly discuss it more. The “so what?” question is certainly important, and I feel I’m probably not giving you a satisfactory answer. Yet, for time’s sake, I will move on, as we can talk more about it when we have the opportunity to address it by itself.

Whew. I know this has dragged on for far too long, so I will end here with these two paragraphs:

If that further offends you, so be it. But in that, I offer you the chance to repent of your mistakes. The real message of Jesus is that when we turn away from what God has actually said to what seems right in our own eyes, we can repent if we believe that Christ died for our sins and was raised to new life to prove his work was worthy.

This is your chance to repent, if you believe. You can repent of abusing facts to advocate for social ends; you can repent of neglecting evangelism for the sake of making more friends; you can repent of denigrating the authority of the Bible; you can repent of making Jesus into merely a good example.

I feel no compunction to “repent of my mistakes,” for I genuinely do not believe I have made any. I have not, as you claim, turned away from “what God has actually said to what seems right in our own eyes.” I have not abused facts “to advocate for social ends.” We’re not “neglecting evangelism for the sake of making more friends”—clearly we’re not making any over here, for one—but hope that through leading by example in service and in our community, we can be the “salt and light” that Jesus himself compels us to be. I have in no way made Jesus “merely a good example”—a reread of the second bullet point in FLP’s belief statement should tell you that.

Behind your words lies an assumed superiority, an assumed “rightness,” that I do not agree with. I’ll admit I think it comes across as self-righteous in much the same way that the end of your “Open letter to Chris Stedman” did. You say that I am in the wrong, but all you have done in your response (excepting perhaps those criticisms you made regarding the tone and points of contention in our letter) is attack your own construction of what you assume Greg and I must believe. Your cadre of commenters has similarly attacked us based on these misrepresentations of our views. You raise some very valid points, but because they come couched in cynicism they are sometimes hard to tease out. I don’t mind that you critique my beliefs, I just ask that you actually critique my beliefs, not your beliefs about them. If you didn’t enjoy it when we did it to you (which I apologized for, as we sincerely did not mean to do so), then I ask you not do it in return.

It seems we differ in our theological stances; however, because I believe that you reached your view of your faith through careful study and consideration, I don’t call for you to repent. I can see how you believe the things you do and respect that fact despite our differences, and I ask that you extend me the same courtesy. Because again, Greg and I are trying to reach people for Christ, and have been presented with a terrific avenue for doing so. We do not stand opposite you. At our most basic, we’re just trying to coordinate service projects, demonstrate Christ’s love, and promote religious literacy and understanding.

There is no such thing as an airtight response, especially in this arena, and in order to address everything in your letter I would have had to take it almost line-by-line. It’s clear that you and I disagree on a number of accounts, but I hope I at least gave you a better sense of my stances and ideas (and those of Greg as well). Greg and I do not want to be seen as misguided for our positions on evangelism and interfaith cooperation. Instead, we want others to see where we are coming from, to see that we have reached this point out of a reasonable assessment of our faith and our world, and know that not everyone will see things the way that we do. As you acknowledge, it is easy to drop into caricature when critiquing someone else, and it is also easy to make incorrect assumptions from these mischaracterizations. I hope I have cleared up some of your questions, and apologize for any caricatures we would have constructed of you.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, Greg and I are Christ followers first and foremost—albeit Christ followers who see a real benefit and need in working together with people of other faiths. Interfaith relationships will continue to remain a reality and a challenge—indeed, their necessity will only grow as the world continues to shrink. The movement toward building bridges of cooperation has begun, and either Christians will play a productive role in it or they won’t. Greg and I hope they will. The discussion we are interested in having at FLP is one that seeks to examine the role that evangelism plays within interfaith cooperation, and it is there that you will find answers to your more specific questions about what we feel this looks like. Some people may not see any value in this, and we understand that.

We welcome voices to this discussion, even dissenting ones, and would love to have your participation and that of your readers as well.

Best,

-Cameron Nations.

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