Exploring the [non] Religious Landscape: Thoughts on CNN Belief’s 1st Birthday

Photo courtesy of CNNBelief blog (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/08/10-things-the-belief-blog-learned-in-its-first-year/)

 

Being a young blog, FLP still has more than a few lessons to learn. Thus it caught my eye when I came across a post on CNNBelief by CNN.com Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff entitled, “10 things the Belief Blog learned in its first year.” When an established news site throws around any kind of advice, it’s perhaps best to take it, so I clicked.

Though some of Gilgoff’s observations didn’t surprise me, I found many of them rather compelling for their relation to interfaith concerns. (See specifically numbers 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7.)

And as Religious Literacy Chair of Interfaith in Action (the student interfaith organization at University of Illinois of which Greg and I are a part), I was personally quite interested in numbers 3, 4, and 5 of Gilgoff’s list, which were not all that encouraging to someone who makes it a goal to promote religious understanding.

Yet the points I thought most noteworthy for FLP, and the ones I will focus on in this post, are the following (along with my commentary):

1. Every big news story has a faith angle.

I love that this is number one. Why? Because one’s faith (or lack thereof) is perhaps the single most significant aspect to shaping how one views the world. “Faith angle[s]” are part of every news story because they are part of every person’s story. It is this use of story that underpins much of interfaith cooperation and understanding.

2. Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.

Why is this one pertinent for the mission of FLP? Because the non-religious as well as the religious should—and can—participate in interfaith cooperation based around shared values of service. Our friend Chris Stedman is working tirelessly to inject interfaith cooperation into the conversations taking place in the atheist community. (Check him out at Non-Prophet Status, in our “Friends” bar at the top of the page.)

4.   Most Americans are religiously illiterate.

The first step to cooperation is understanding. Ignorance breeds ill-will, and I can’t express how difficult it can be to achieve any level of understanding if one has no context from which to work. Can you understand Christianity without understanding where it derives its ethic? Without understanding Christ and his teachings? I would say “no.”

Through sharing personal stories, the IFYC’s model for interfaith service projects seeks to build religious literacy while also building relationships. Until one has an intellectual framework to build upon (made from stories of individuals or from the pages of a textbook), it is foolish to expect any sort of peaceful coexistence or cooperation among those of different beliefs.

5. It’s impossible to understand much of the news without knowing something about religion.

This one links closely with the number preceding it. Misunderstanding the teachings and beliefs of those in other countries (and even at home) contributes to the “othering” and alienation of those different from us. To fully understand things like the Arab Spring, for instance, one must know a few things about Islam. (Which, clearly, we don’t. See no. 4 above and no. 7 below.)

6.  Regardless of where they fit on the spectrum, people want others to understand what they believe. That goes for pagans, fundamentalist Mormons, Native Americans, atheists – everyone.

I would say that this acts as a kind of proof or confirmation of my assertion above that to not understand someone is to make them more alien. I think that people desire to be heard because they desire to be taken seriously—no one enjoys feeling misunderstood, and thus looked down upon, because of their difference from others.

7. Americans still have an uneasy relationship with Islam.

This is perhaps the most obvious one to discuss on a blog that promotes interfaith cooperation, and sadly makes even more sense on a blog that focuses on the Christian community’s involvement in interfaith cooperation more specifically. I know that many in the Christian community don’t have any problem at all with their Muslim neighbors; however, this sentiment is by no means a general rule. Prominent public figures continue to make disparaging and uninformed statements about the Islamic community that only further strife and division, even going so far as to place Islam on trial. (For more on this, see my recent post on Herman Cain.) Hate crimes continue to occur at mosques all across the nation. Clearly, we have still not come to understand that those who attacked us in September of 2001 were not Muslims, but extremists.

So what does one take away from this list?

I believe this list gives numerous reasons for reflection, but the one that sticks out most is this: there is much work to be done. We seem more hateful, more religiously illiterate, and quicker to judge than we should be. What do you think? Do you agree with this assessment? What do you make of the list featured in the article?

More importantly, how do we change it? How does our faith impact or inform Gilgoff’s observations? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

“This isn’t an innocent mosque”: Herman Cain and Anti-Islamic Rhetoric

Photo courtesy The Atlantic (http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/mt/assets/politics/herman%20cain%20full.jpg)

 

As the country gears up for another election year, candidates have started campaigning in full swing. And with so much to sort out, they’ve begun to push their stances on key issues like the economy, the environment, and foreign policy.

Oh, and also apparently… Islam.

Herman Cain, Tea Party/Republican hopeful and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, proclaimed Sunday that communities should “have the right” to ban mosques. From a legal perspective, this assertion is ridiculous, as you couldn’t ban mosques without violating a whole host of constitutionally protected rights. However, that didn’t stop Cain from making many other disparaging remarks toward Islam and its place in American life while referencing the strife surrounding the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Cain’s point of contention rests squarely on the issue of Sharia Law. He repeatedly denies expressing any discrimination against Islam, instead seeing Sharia as subverting and supplanting state and federal laws and thus extending beyond its status as a religious faith protected under the Bill of Rights.

But if that is the case, then what about Jewish law? The Halakha (which includes things like keeping the Sabbath and eating kosher) is very similar to Sharia law in terms of its scope and purpose, and yet you don’t see candidates talking about disbanding synagogues.

To that end, even Christians too have a kind of law hammered out over the centuries at various councils, though ours has either become so absorbed into the basic foundation of the Western ethos or fallen out of favor in the Protestant-saturated US that it has ceased to seem apart from or different than common jurisprudence. Remember excommunication? Defrocking? Even execution and dismemberment? These were (and some still are) all punishments for violating Christian church law, which includes offences like adultery, apostasy, murder, stealing, coveting (not the same thing), etc., and apes quite a bit from the Jewish law the preceded it.

Which makes me wonder: Does Herman Cain have any idea what he’s talking about, or is he just repeating a disappointingly pervasive prejudice? According to an article from FoxNews.com:

Cain again argued that residents were objecting to “the fact that Islam is both a religion and a set of laws, Shariah law. That’s the difference between any one of our other traditional religions.”

Really? Are the other two Abrahamic faiths exempt from the category of “other traditional religions”?

In an article on HuffPost, Cain is quoted as saying in defense of his mosque-ban statements:

“I’m simply saying I owe it to the American people to be cautious because terrorists are trying to kill us… so yes I’m going to err on the side of caution rather than on the side of carelessness.”

I think that answers our question about prejudices.

All of this wouldn’t matter so much to me if it weren’t for the fact that Herman Cain is a Christian, and remains vocal about his faith on the campaign trail. Thus he represents a part of my own faith tradition, and I don’t think he wears it very well at all. Perhaps my feelings on the matter echo to a much lesser extent how Muslims feel about terrorists and other extremists—embarrassed that such figures are associated (however wrongly) with their faith tradition.

On a more personal note, Cain’s statements matter to me because the Murfreesboro mosque matters to me. I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, only about 30 minutes away from Murfreesboro, and many of my high school friends attend Middle Tennessee State (MTSU), a university of nearly 25,000 students, also in Murfreesboro. It saddens me that my home has come under such terrible scrutiny as a place of bigotry and hatred. The Murfreesboro mosque has spiraled into a full-blown religious conflict, complete with acts of arson and pastors justifying their hate speech by invoking God and Jesus Christ at rallies to protest the construction of the mosque and its adjoining community center.

In a sobering article written in the Nashville Scene, Stephen George writes:

That the mosque has gotten this far is in part a testament to a land whose laws are designed to apply equally to all. But the arson also lays bare a discomforting possibility: Even if the losers fail to stop the new Islamic Center from being built, they can still burn it down. If peaceful assembly and petition don’t achieve the desired outcome, an accelerant could work with surprising efficiency and haste — even if it razes America’s core principles in the process.

I urge the church to stand beside their Muslim neighbors and uphold the same freedom to worship that we as Christians enjoy. It is in situations like these that I am reminded of Christ’s words in Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Are words and actions like those spoken and done by Cain and local Murfreesboro pastors exemplifying this tenet of Christ’s teaching? Is the church damaging or enhancing its witness to the world in the way that it has approached situations like this one?

In closing, I leave you with the end of the Nashville Scene article:

Let the last word, for now, belong to the proposed mosque’s neighbor, Grace Baptist Church. On its website, pastor Russell M. Richardson has posted an unequivocal message telling how the matter stands between his Christian congregation and the Muslims next door.

“As a Conservative Christian I must make the following affirmation: Violence and Intimidation are not Christian Actions,” Richardson writes. “If God should need to be defended He will certainly provide the defense Himself. He is ABLE!”

When the Interfaith Movement and the Kingdom Intersect

Appearing Monday in the online edition of USA Today was an opinion article titled “Can cause of social justice tame our culture wars?” which carries certain significance in our discussion here at Faith Line Protestants regarding being an evangelical in a religiously diverse world.

The article, which highlights Scott Todd’s “58:” project and mentions Q Ideasa forum for Christian leaders to explore the call to create a better world – and Q founder Gabe Lyons (author of “The Next Christians”) who describes a new generation of Christians who have found the Bible’s call to serve others to hold significant relevance in their lives today.

“These are, after all, the people who accept responsibility to right seemingly every global wrong you can name while restoring the credibility of publicly expressed Christianity in the process. But the workload is exhausting only when they lose connection with their ultimate power source…”

So we’re not talking the Saturday afternoon all-church workday sort of service at which most congregations seem to excel.  We’re talking about defending the oppressed, fighting poverty, and addressing other global problems.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Isaiah 58:6-7

What’s more –as Lyons says – this is the activation of a network of “restorers who will work with anyone to see goodness go forward in the world and evil pressed back.”  That’s right: anyone.  After all, where is the commandment in our faith to only feed the hungry or defend the helpless if we’re only doing it with other Christians?  It reminds me of the essence of the interfaith movement.

It seems that Lyons has captured the realization that, for practical purposes, we must be willing – even eager – to work with both the nonreligious as well as people of other faith traditions.  Perhaps he has also realized that serving together has even greater potential than just maximizing the impact of our physical work (as we’ve discussed many times here on Faith Line Protestants).

Working together for common goals fosters relationships, promotes conversation, and provides us as evangelicals with the opportunity to communicate the message that Jesus was preaching – the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  If that’s going to tame our culture wars… well, I can live with that.

 

Look for more discussion of Gabe Lyons’ book “Next Christians” here in the coming months and an understanding of how Lyons’ discussion of being Christian in a post-Christian world intersects with our discussion here at FLP.

Unfavorable Opinions

This piece was originally posted by Faith Line Protestants co-founder Greg Damhorst on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/unfavorable-opinions.

Yesterday the Pew Forum released a Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders that caught my attention. I was first intrigued by a headline that read: “Evangelical Leaders see Secularism as Greater Threat than Islam,” but as I read on, I realized there was something even deeper.

I am constantly intrigued with the interaction of evangelicals and people of other faith traditions, including those from non-religious traditions. Especially in the interfaith movement – a movement that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm – I am fascinated by the role the evangelical tradition will play.

The Pew Forum has given the world a subtle glimpse of why I feel this way:

“On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.”

Survey results from Pew Forum Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

These statistics represent views held by 2,196 evangelical leaders toward faith communities. But when I look at these numbers, I don’t see communities – I see faces.

65% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Buddhists and 65% have an unfavorable view of Hindus, but when I think of those traditions I remember the Buddhist and the Hindu who I worked with to start a project to provide relief to earthquake survivors in Haiti last year.

67% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Muslims, but I can’t ignore the Avicenna Community Health Center, which reaches out to the uninsured in my community alongside religious and non-religious folks who are passionate about bringing health to those who can’t access care.

And while the 70% of evangelicals who view atheists unfavorably can likely blame the anti-religious rhetoric of a few individuals, I can’t help but look at the non-religious in a different light because of my relationships with people like Chris Stedman, Adam Garner, and Chelsea Link (the latter two have joined me in the new class of Better Together coaches this year!)

I’m willing to bet that these unfavorable views do nothing to enhance the evangelistic efforts of my fellow Christians – that they only hinder our ability to genuinely communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m willing to bet that those who hold these unfavorable views don’t have meaningful relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.

When I look at the example that Jesus set – the example I work hard to emulate – I see relationships. In fact, they were often relationships with the people whom pious folks viewed unfavorably.

It is significant that evangelical leaders in Muslim-majority countries are more positive about Muslims than the worldwide trend. In my opinion, it’s probably because those evangelical leaders actually have Muslim friends.

It’s time for the evangelical community to stop being afraid of perceived threats to our faith and to start engaging with the world in a positive way. Relationships are the key to changing our perspectives. My prayer is that we all would understand the power they contain.

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.)

Flavored Salt

(Photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/photo/519605)

 

(What follows is a guest post written by Rev. Tim Baranoski, who hails from Cameron’s hometown. We came across Rev. Tim because of a post he wrote over at Non-Prophet Status, and are delighted to have him here at FLP. Please see his bio at the end of the this post for links to his own blog and Twitter. The second part of Cameron’s “What does it mean to be evangelical?” will be posted later this week, as will the end to Greg’s “Kingdom” series. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy FLP’s first guest blog!)

What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in our country? This is a question that is bound to elicit a variety of answers depending on whom you ask. Possible answers would include: the mass media, popular culture, materialism, bad government policies, other religions, etc. A missionary had the occasion to put this very question to the great Mahatma Gandhi, “What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in India?” His answer was swift and decisive: “Christians.” It is said that the world would be a more Christian place today were it not for the Christians. The Christians that constitute a hindrance to Christianity are not the real and committed ones, of course, but those who bear the name Christian but, judging from the way they talk and behave, no one would suspect they have anything to do with Christ.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” – Mark 9:50 (NIV)

I like to think of the numerous Christian denominations as simply flavored salt. We all have the same goal and the same basic beliefs – though we do tend to argue over minor nuances of things like baptism and the Eucharist. We are the same faith but then we are simply different flavors.

But then I have to wonder – are we really the salt of earth? Our theological differences lend themselves to exclusion from churches and public criticism of one another. It is no wonder Christians are criticized from those who the outside – if I was an outsider I am not sure I would want to be part of this group either.

Worse than how we treat each other is how we treat people in faith traditions. Of course, I am referring to Muslims especially. For reasons that stem from the events of September 11, we have lumped anyone who prescribes to the Islamic faith as a “terrorist”. We shun them, criticize them, and exclude them from as much as possible. We work hard to prevent Mosques from being built in our communities out of fear and ignorance. Is this what Jesus would want?

Now before you begin to stone me for being a heretic, I need to clarify that I am a Jesus-follower. I am an ordained minister in a Presbyterian denomination. I believe the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I will not waver in this belief. It is a conviction and the one according to which my life is lived.

However, that does not mean I need to hate non-Christians. Jesus went out of his way to reach out to sinners and non-Jews. He ate with them. He talked with them. He loved them. I can do the same as well. In my ministry, I have had the opportunity to share in Friday prayers at a local mosque. It was an incredible experience but I do not think for one moment that I compromised my beliefs. Instead, I believe I planted the seed that as a Christian, I am willing to engage in conversation and to learn from one another. I believe showing respect to other beliefs is important because it allows a dialogue to continue. If I am too busy hating people for what they believe then I cannot show the love of Jesus to them. Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge people, you cannot love them.” We as Christians are too busy judging others rather than loving them.

It’s one thing to criticize and another to share solutions. I think there are many things we can do as Christians. I strive to live my life according to words that St. Francis of Assisi is purported to have spoken, “Preach Jesus always and when necessary use words.” As I said earlier, I have participated in Friday prayers at a local mosque on several occasions. I look forward to participating them in the future. The result of my participation? An open dialogue between myself and Muslims. I have learned more about the Islamic faith through these conversations then I ever knew. I appreciate their faith to the point that I have developed a new respect for their beliefs. Earlier, I stated clearly my beliefs but that doesn’t mean that I cannot respect another person’s beliefs either. Instead, I have a better understanding in which to engage in conversation.

It is the conversation that is the key to the whole issue. If we talk with one another, we begin to see as others see and we can no longer judge them in our ignorance. A remarkable thing happens – we understand them and we see that others, though they may believe differently, are really not that different from us.

The passage from Mark I quoted earlier comes in a larger periscope in which Jesus is teaching that it is okay if other people cast out demons in his name. After all, we are all salt just different flavors. What if we begin to see other faiths as yet another flavor of salt. I know there is only one way to God but there are many ways to Jesus.

In my mind interfaith relations are loving people – all people mind you – as Jesus did. It is through that love that we being to let the light of Jesus shine (the other part of the salt) and we begin to truly do the work of God in this world. Let’s not judge others but love others. Let our love shine as a light and let our salt of faith flavor all we do.

 

 

Timothy Baranoski is an ordained minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and a US Army Reserve Chaplain. He is happily married to Lisa with a 4 year old daughter. A lover of all things Starbucks, a history junkie and slightly irreverant, he blogs at thetimothyblog.wordpress.com and randomly tweets with @Timbski13.

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.)

The Tension of the Kingdom

Photo credit: Eve Anderson

 

Despite the fact that I made a point out of the believers who had so confidently preached the message of a “Bible-guaranteed” (i.e. Harold Camping-guaranteed) rapture last week, they were on to something: the second coming of Christ is something Christians look forward to experiencing.

That is because the second coming of Christ, which is foretold in the New Testament, promises the full arrival of the kingdom of God.  But wait!  The Bible describes Jesus as saying:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

This notion of “now, but not yet” (i.e. that the kingdom of God has come but is still coming) is a tension that, in his book Kingdom Come, Allen Wakabayashi analogizes to getting a pile of presents on Christmas morning as a kid but only being allowed to open two of them.  The kingdom of God (“God’s dream society on earth” to borrow the words of Scot McKnight) came with the coming of Jesus (described in the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but won’t be fully realized until Jesus comes again – an event awaited eagerly by all Christians because it means restoration for all of God’s people.

So what does this “now, but not yet” tension have to do with Faith Line Protestants?

First, this tension is essential to understanding the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus was preaching.  And, to restate my central thesis on FLP for the past several months: the message that Jesus was preaching is the message that we as Christians should be preaching.

Second, this tension confuses us as Christians.  It seems like one must choose between (a) preaching to the world its sinfulness and it’s need for repentance or (b) trying to act out of concern for the earthly needs of others through acts of social justice.  Rarely does one hear from Christian teachers that these two concepts can be brought together without contradiction. In my experience, it’s typically (a) a fixation with “winning souls” because judgment is coming or (b) a way of living out faith only by serving others without concern for eternity.  Neither tells the full message of the gospel.

But the full message is apparent.  Indeed, we see that the restoration of an individual soul and the restoration of a broken world are wrapped into a single man (who was both human and divine) through his life, death, and resurrection.  In Christ, these two seemingly opposite notions eternal need and earthly need find harmony.

If you’re of the (a) type, you don’t see the benefit of interfaith work because it’s not an activity that embraces your desire to point out everyone’s sin, and if you’re of the (b) type, you might engage the interfaith movement passionately while missing the mission of communicating a message.  (Actually, I think this exercise of categorization, although never perfect, can be really helpful in understanding Christian life in a religiously diverse world.  It can also be dissected a bit further.  That’s a teaser for my next series, where I’ll draw help from Gabe Lyons’ new book The Next Christians.)

If we, as Evangelicals, want to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to the world around us, we must speak – and live – the whole message.  The tension of a kingdom that is being realized but is not fully here is the great paradox of the kingdom message.  How do you understand the tension of the kingdom?  How does it influence the way you live?  I’ll wrap up this series the kingdom of God in my next post as I suggest some answers to these questions.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what our readers think.