Predictions on the ‘new evangelical’ movement

Read­ers over on Quak​erQuak​er​.org will know I’ve been inter­est­ed in the tem­pest sur­round­ing evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor Rob Bell. A pop­u­lar min­is­ter for the Youtube gen­er­a­tion, con­tro­ver­sy over his new book has revealed some deep fis­sures among younger Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians. I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed by this since 2003, when I start­ed real­iz­ing I had a lot of com­mon­al­i­ties with main­stream Chris­tian blog­gers who I would have nat­u­ral­ly dis­missed out of hand. When they wrote about the authen­tic­i­ty of wor­ship, decision-making in the church and the need to walk the talk and also to walk the line between truth and com­pas­sion, they spoke to my con­cerns (most of my read­ing since then has been blogs, pre-twentieth cen­tu­ry Quak­er writ­ings and the Bible).

Today Jaime John­son tweet­ed out a link to a new piece by Rachel Held Evans called “The Future of Evan­gel­i­cal­ism.” She does a nice job pars­ing out the dif­fer­ences between the two camps squar­ing off over Rob Bell. On the one side is a cen­tral­ized move­ment of neo-Calvinists she calls Young, Rest­less, Reformed after a 2006 Chris­tian­i­ty Today arti­cle. I have lit­tle to no inter­est in this crowd except for mild aca­d­e­mic curios­i­ty. But the oth­er side is what she’s dub­bing “the new evan­gel­i­cals”:

The sec­ond group — some­times referred to as “the new evan­gel­i­cals” or “emerg­ing evan­gel­i­cals” or “the evan­gel­i­cal left” is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less orga­nized than the first, but con­tin­ues to grow at a grass­roots lev­el. As Paul Markhan wrote in an excel­lent essay about the phe­nom­e­non, young peo­ple who iden­ti­fy with this move­ment have grown weary of evangelicalism’s alle­giance to Repub­li­can pol­i­tics, are inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing social reform and social jus­tice, believe that the gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and are eager to be a part of inclu­sive, diverse, and authen­tic Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties. “Their broad­en­ing sense of social respon­si­bil­i­ty is push­ing them to rethink many of the fun­da­men­tal the­o­log­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions char­ac­ter­is­tic of their evan­gel­i­cal tra­di­tions,” Markham not­ed.

This is the group that intrigues me. There’s a lot of cross-over here with some of what I’m see­ing with Quak­ers. In an ide­al world, the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends would open its arms to this new wave of seek­ers, espe­cial­ly as they hit the lim­its of denom­i­na­tion­al tol­er­ance. But in real­i­ty, many of the East Coast meet­ings I’m most famil­iar with wouldn’t know what to do with this crowd. In Philly if you’re inter­est­ed in this con­ver­sa­tion you go to Cir­cle of Hope (pre­vi­ous posts), not any of the estab­lished Quak­er meet­ings.

Evans makes some edu­cat­ed guess­es about the future of the “new evan­gel­i­cal” move­ment. She thinks there will be more dis­cus­sion about the role of the Bible, though I would say it’s more dis­cus­sion fo the var­i­ous Chris­tian inter­pre­ta­tions of it. She also fore­sees a loos­en­ing of labels and denom­i­na­tion­al affil­i­a­tions. I’m see­ing some of this hap­pen­ing among Friends, though it’s almost com­plete­ly on the indi­vid­u­al lev­el, at least here on the East Coast. It will be inter­est­ing to see how this shakes out over the next few years and whether it will bypass, engage with or siphon off the Soci­ety of Friends. In the mean­time, Evans’ post and the links she embeds in it are well worth explor­ing.

Tell them all this but do not expect them to listen

It seems to me that one of the cor­ner­stones of Judeo-Christian phi­los­o­phy is to remem­ber the sto­ries. I’m more than three-quarters of the way through the Bible (I’m stretch­ing my One Year Bible plan across two years) and that’s real­ly all it is: sto­ry after sto­ry of human’s rela­tions with God. Friends have picked up this method­ol­o­gy in a big way. Our pri­ma­ry reli­gious edu­ca­tion is the jour­nals elders have been asked to write to recount the tri­als and prophet­ic open­ings of a life lived in an attempt at spir­i­tu­al obe­di­ence.

There must be a pur­pose to this con­stant sto­ry review, some way it deep­ens our own spir­i­tu­al lives. One gift it gives to me is per­spec­tive. I was just tak­ing an evening bath and found myself get­ting upset about a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion from my past and stopped to pick up my One Year Bible. The Old Tes­ta­ment read­ings for most of Ten­th Mon­th come from Jere­mi­ah. Here’s a bit of God’s instruc­tions to the prophet:

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to lis­ten. Shout out your warn­ings but do not expect them to respond. Say to them, ‘This is the nation whose peo­ple will not obey the Lord their God and who refuse to be taught. Truth has van­ished from among them; it is no longer heard on their lips.’” (Jer 7:27)

And lat­er:

“Jere­mi­ah, say to the peo­ple, ‘This is what the Lord says: When peo­ple fall down, don’t they get up again? When they dis­cov­er they’re on the wrong road, don’t they turn back? Then why do the­se peo­ple stay on their self-destructive path? Why do the peo­ple of Jerusalem refuse to turn back? They cling tight­ly to their lies and will not turn around.’” (Jer 8:4)

Here we are, Six­th Cen­tu­ry B.C., and the spir­i­tu­al state of God’s peo­ple is in a ter­ri­ble state. It makes my aggriev­e­ments look pet­ty. And may­be that’s the point. The rela­tion­ship between God and His peo­ple have been in a rol­lar coast­er ride for mil­len­nia. Sure, Jesus’ new covenant brought about a lot of changes but didn’t end hypocrisy or faith­less­ness. Protes­tants can point to the ref­or­ma­tion and Friends to the new peo­ple gath­ered by George Fox but both move­ments long ago floun­dered on the shoals of human weak­ness. His­to­ry hasn’t stopped. The tri­als of the spir­i­tu­al don’t stop. We don’t get a free ride of spir­i­tu­al ease just because we’re on the cur­rent edge of human his­to­ry.

As ear­ly Friends were aware, a spir­i­tu­al life still requires lift­ing of the cross. It’s easy to let dis­ap­point­ments lead to despair, and to retreat into the many temp­ta­tions of the mod­ern world has at ready sup­ply. In that state it’s easy to put off wor­ry­ing about our duties to our fel­low humans, to life on earth and to God. Every once in a while I’ll get whiny about some­thing and my dear wife will say “get over it and do what you need to do already.” We’ve remem­bered the sto­ry of Jere­mi­ah for 2500 years for the same rea­son: “you think you’ve got it bad, you’re not being dec­i­mat­ed and enslaved in Baby­lon!” Per­spec­tive.

* * *

I’m still think­ing about one of the con­ver­sa­tions I had the oth­er week at Vineland Men­non­ite Church–about the dif­fer­ence between the­ol­o­gy and Bib­li­cism. I like the­ol­o­gy and I like learn­ing about the con­text of Bible sto­ries I read. I enjoy hear­ing new the­o­ries about old para­dox­es (for exam­ple, Mar­t­in Luther King’s take on the sto­ry of the Good Samar­i­tan fas­ci­nates me in part because it reminds me that the sto­ry is set on a real road and is intend­ed as a sto­ry about real peo­ple mak­ing dif­fi­cult choic­es). But I’m also aware that it’s easy to spend so much time read­ing and talk­ing about the com­men­tary that I for­get to read the orig­i­nal sto­ries them­selves. If sto­ries are reli­gious ed, then we have to remem­ber to actu­al­ly read the sto­ries. Some­times when I stum­ble on the cool blogs of the clever­est min­is­ters I won­der if they stop to actu­al­ly read the sto­ries. So much ener­gy seems to be expend­ed on mak­ing up new words and giv­ing mes­sages of easy hope. I can’t see Jere­mi­ah join­ing them at the local church brew pub fest to hoist a Rolling Rock. The cur­rent New Tes­ta­ment read­ing in the One Year Bible is Paul’s let­ter to the Colos­sian, which includes this gem:

Don’t let any­one cap­ture you (Colos­sians) with emp­ty philoso­phies and high-sounding non­sense that come from human think­ing and from the spir­i­tu­al pow­ers of this world, rather than from Christ.

I’m sure George Fox hoot­ed in joy when he read that line! The sto­ries remind us that all is not well and that all will not be well. Temp­ta­tions still nips at our best inten­tions. The great­est temp­ta­tion is self-reliance. Our test as indi­vid­u­als and as a peo­ple will be demon­strat­ed by how we patient­ly and faith­ful­ly we bear the hard­ships we encoun­ter and keep our trust in the risen Christ.

That of God via William Penn

Asked what we believe many mod­ern Friends will reply “That there is that of God in every­one.” It’s an ear­ly Quak­er phrase but what exact­ly do we mean by it? Part of its cur­rent pop­u­lar­i­ty is its ambi­gu­i­ty. We live in a fierce­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic age and it can be read as a call to per­son­al inde­pen­dence: “I don’t need to care what you think because I’ve got that of God in me!”

So it’s use­ful to read William Penn’s thoughts on spir­i­tu­al indi­vid­u­al­ism in The Rise and Pro­gress of the Peo­ple Called Quak­ers. He’s talk­ing about those mem­bers of the still-new Soci­ety of Friends who had become the “great­est trou­ble,” who “fought domin­ion over con­science”:

They would have had every Man inde­pen­dent, that as he had the Prin­ci­ple in him­self, he should only stand and fall to that, and no Body else: Not con­sid­er­ing that the Prin­ci­ple is one in all and though the Mea­sure of Light or Grace might dif­fer, yet the Nature of it was the same; and being so, the struck at the Spir­i­tu­al Uni­ty, which a Peo­ple, guid­ed by the same Prin­ci­ple, are nat­u­ral­ly led into: So that what is an Evil to one, is so to all, from the Sense and Savour of the one uni­ver­sal Prin­ci­ple which is com­mon to all, and which the Dis­af­fect­ed also pro­fess to be the Root of all true Chris­tian Fel­low­ship, and that Spir­it into which the Peo­ple of God drink, and come to be Spiritually-minded, and of one Heart and one Soul.

For Penn, that of God is the spir­it of the inward Christ – a spir­it we can drink from to find spir­i­tu­al uni­ty. It is an author­i­ty root­ed not in our own human weak­ness but in  uni­ver­sal spir­i­tu­al truths that are acces­si­ble to all.

Visit to Vineland Mennonite Church

Yes­ter­day the fam­i­ly vis­it­ed Vineland NJ Men­non­ite Church.

We were com­ing after 8:30 Mass at Julie’s church and arrived a few min­utes before the wor­ship ser­vice while they were doing their reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­gram. But the dis­tinc­tion between reli­gious ed and wor­ship was min­i­mal, almost non-existent. Atten­dance at both was near-universal (about 110 total) and much of the wor­ship itself was reli­gious edu­ca­tion. There was a series of 15 minute’ish ser­mons (deliv­ered by var­i­ous men), bro­ken up by some four-part a capel­la singing (beau­ti­ful), recita­tions from a Bible verse they were mem­o­riz­ing and kneel­ing prayer (a sur­prise the first time, as they all spin around sud­den­ly to face the back, kneel and pray).

It’s prob­a­bly one of the most reli­gious­ly con­sci­en­tious com­mu­ni­ties I’ve seen. A lot of the ser­vice involved review­ing belief struc­ture. Their book of dis­ci­pline is very slim, not much more than a tract, but it’s some­thing they use and they spent part of the time read­ing from it. Much of the wor­ship hour was meant to rein­force who they were, why they were and how they were – to explain over and over why they led their dis­tinc­tive life. Theirs is a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion for those who agree to fol­low the author­i­ty of the group’s teach­ings. I sus­pect that every adult in the room could give a detailed pre­sen­ta­tion on con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite faith and give detailed answers about points of doc­trine. At the risk of insert­ing my own opin­ion I will ven­ture that the wor­ship ser­vice felt a bit dry (as Julie said, there wasn’t a ounce of mys­ti­cism in the whole pro­ceed­ing) but I don’t think the mem­bers there would feel offend­ed by this obser­va­tion. Excit­ing the sens­es is less impor­tant than review­ing the val­ues and liv­ing the moral life.

Visu­al­ly, the group is strik­ing. Every man in the room wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt but­toned all the way up, dark pants and black shoes; all had short hair and only one or two had facial hair. I was more dis­tinc­tive­ly plain in my broad­falls and sus­penders but the effect of sixty-or-so men and young boys all dressed alike was visu­al­ly stun­ning. Like a lot of plain peo­ples, the wom­en were more obvi­ous­ly plain and all but one or two wore lightly-colored cape dress­es and head cov­er­ings (I lat­er learned that the excep­tions were new­com­ers who weren’t yet mem­bers). Seat­ed was seg­re­gat­ed, wom­en on the left, men on the right. Gen­der roles are very clear. There were kids – lots of kids – all around, and a big focus of the ser­mons was fam­i­ly liv­ing. One extend­ed ser­mon focused on dis­cern­ing between pro­vid­ing well for one’s fam­i­ly vs. greed and the bal­ance between work­ing hard for your fam­i­ly vs. giv­ing up some things so you can spend time with them. Kids were present through­out the ser­vice and were rel­a­tive­ly well behaved.

The church itself was called a meet­ing­house and was plain – no cross­es of course. Peo­ple sat in pews and there was a raised area up front for min­is­ters and elders. The build­ing dou­bled as a school­house dur­ing the week and its school­rooms had a lot of Rod and Staff books, famil­iar from our own home school­ing. A mem­ber described the school as one leg of the three-legged stool, along with church and fam­i­ly. If any one part of the equa­tion was lack­ing in some way, the oth­er two could help insure the child’s moral wel­fare. School was free for church mem­bers but was open on a tuition basis to non-Mennonites. The­se out­siders were required to make cer­tain lifestyle choic­es that would insure the school stayed rel­a­tive­ly pure; the most impor­tant require­ment was that the fam­i­ly not have a tele­vi­sion at home.

My reg­u­lar read­ers will have one ques­tion on their mind right about now: did any­one invite us to lunch? Why yes they did! We didn’t even have to prompt it. We knew a cou­ple there – M and J, who run a restau­rant in the local farmer’s mar­ket, a favorite Sat­ur­day morn­ing stop for us. They took us under their wing when they rec­og­nized us, sit­ting with us dur­ing wor­ship and then show­ing us the school. J said that if we came back again we could come over for lunch. Then she back­tracked and offered that we could come now, explain­ing that the church had had recent dis­cus­sions over whether it was too pushy to ask first-time atten­ders to lunch or whether they should restrain them­selves and invite them on the sec­ond vis­it. Wow, a church that thinks about this?!

So we fol­lowed them to their place for lunch. It was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask more ques­tions and get to know one anoth­er. Meals are impor­tant. Julie and I had won­dered why there were Men­non­ites in Vineland NJ of all places – and two Men­non­ite church­es at that! Short sto­ry is that there had been a civil­ian pub­lic ser­vice facil­i­ty in Vineland for con­sci­en­tious objec­tors and Lancaster-area Men­non­ites decid­ed that “the boys” sta­tioned there need­ed the ground­ing of a local church com­mu­ni­ty (appar­ent­ly oth­er C.O. camps were sce­nes of debauch­ery – Men­non­ite drag rac­ing in Col­orado Springs was cit­ed). This became Nor­ma Men­non­ite Church, which still exists and is anoth­er local church I’ve been mean­ing to vis­it for years (hi Mandy!). In the 1960s, there was a great round of lib­er­al­iza­tion among Men­non­ites, an unof­fi­cial aban­don­ment of the dis­tinc­tives cod­i­fied in their books of dis­ci­plines. Many church­es split and the Vineland Church was formed by those mem­bers of Nor­ma who want­ed to main­tain the dis­ci­pline.

This prob­a­bly explains the strong focus on the rules of the dis­ci­pline. For those want­i­ng more of the his­to­ries, I com­mend Stephen Scott’s excel­lent “An Intro­duc­tion to Old Order and Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite Groups” along with any­thing else Stephen Scott has writ­ten. The Vineland con­gre­ga­tion is part of the East­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Men­non­ite Church con­fer­ence, pro­filed on pages 173 – 176. A lot of the Men­non­ite issues and splits are echoed among Friends and we’d do well to under­stand the­se cousins of ours.

The result is a church that’s big on group prac­tice: the dress, the lifestyle. M. told me that they don’t believe in the­ol­o­gy but in Bib­li­cism. He explained that they don’t think the Bible con­tains the word of God but instead that it is the Word of God and he paused to let the dis­tinc­tion sink in. The Bible is not to be inter­pret­ed but read and fol­lowed, with spe­cial atten­tion given the gospels and the let­ters of Paul.

So no, I’m not going to go Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite on you all. I have a TV. My pro­fes­sion is web design (they’re not into the inter­net, natch). I’m mar­ried to a pracitic­ing Catholic (I don’t know how they would bend on that) and at this point my brain is wired in a curi­ous, out­ward way that wouldn’t fit into the nor­ma­tive struc­tures of a group like this. Doctrinally-speaking, I’m a Friend in that I think the Word of God is the Inward Christ’s direct spir­it and that the Bible needs to be read in that Light. There’s a lot of peo­ple who wouldn’t fit for var­i­ous rea­sons, peo­ple who I would want in my church (they main­tain a hard line again­st remar­riage after divorce and I didn’t even ask about gay issues). But I have to admit that the process and struc­ture puts togeth­er a real­ly great com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple. They’re hard-working, kind, char­i­ta­ble and not near­ly as judg­men­tal as you might imag­ine – in prac­tice, less judg­men­tal than a lot of pro­gres­sive reli­gious peo­ple I know. Non-resistance is one of the pil­lars of their prac­tice and they were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in Julie’s Catholic church and my expe­ri­ences among Friends and we talked a fair bit about Islam.

Nor­mal­ly I’d give a big thanks to the church and M & J here, except I know they won’t read this. I am grate­ful to their kind­ness in shar­ing their church, beliefs and fam­i­ly meal with us.

The primitive message of Friends (W Penn)

William Penn, on the “prim­i­tive Mes­sage” of Friends:

That God is Light and in Him is no Dark­ness at all; and that he has sent His Son a Light into the World, to Enlight­en all Men in order to Sal­va­tion and that they that say they have Fel­low­ship with God, and are his Chil­dren and Peo­ple, and yet walk in Dark­ness, viz. in Dis­obe­di­ence to the light in their Con­sciences, and after the Van­i­ty of this World, they Lie, and do not the Truth. But they all such as love the Light, and bring their Deeds to it, and walk in the Light, as God is Light, the Blood of Jesus Christ His Son, should cleanse them from all Sin.

From “Rise and Pro­gress of the Peo­ple called Quak­ers,” p. 42 of my edi­tion). I share this in part because Brent Bill’s been ask­ing about the mes­sage of Friends. It was inter­est­ing to read Penn’s answer at break­fast this morn­ing! It’s well worth unpack­ing the gram­mar of the long claus­es!

Spending all our time discussing the latest ideas

This passage from Acts 17 made me laugh in recognition. How many of us are like the First Century Athenians, followers of anything that is new: academic trends, social networks, the 24-hour news feeds? Paul’s message was simple: that the God and peace we seek is close at hand and the one we’re most tempted to overlook.

It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas. So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And on of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
He is the God who made the world and everything in it… His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feeling their way toward him and find him–though he is not very far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist.

This is the New Living Translation.