Interview with Christine Wicker, Author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation

Christine Wicker was a feature writer, columnist, and religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News for seventeen years. She’s also author of a New York Times bestseller Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead.

Her new project gets right to the heart of all we’ve been told about Evangelical Christians.

The numbers we have been given are all wrong, says Wicker.

The tag line on the book’s back cover? “What Evangelicals Don’t Want You to Know.”

And if you need any further convincing to check this book out, here is what she writes in the opening pages:

“Let me stop here and define what I meant by evangelicals… I meant those people who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior and as the only way to heaven, who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who are scaring the bejesus out of the rest of America.”

So true…

Her book is called The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.

Wicker was kind enough to answer a number of questions about her book and research:

Hemant Mehta: What percent of the country is evangelical Christian, by your definition?

Christine Wicker: Seven percent. That’s opposed to the 25 percent that we’ve been lead to believe are evangelicals.

HM: Speaking of which, what is your definition of “evangelical”? (You put both Rick Warren and the National Association of Evangelicals outside that label — calling them shifters — for example.)

CW: I define evangelicals the way the public perceives them.

I’m basically talking about the most conservative evangelicals who have dominated the public discussions of morality and been seen as politically potent forces, the ones the media quotes and helps define by giving them far more coverage than any other religious group (despite the fact that other Christians outnumber them by 5 or 6 to one.)

So I’m talking about the Religious Right.

My seven percent is actually higher than the 20 percent of self-described evangelicals who say they are in the Religious Right.

I identify these evangelicals by membership in churches, attendance, behavior, and beliefs.

HM: What percent of the country regularly attends a church? How does that compare with the percentage of people who are explicitly non-religious?

CW: The best anyone can tell, 19 to 20 percent of Americans are in church on a given Sunday.

The number of people who don’t believe or don’t put themselves in an institutional religious group more than doubled from 14 million to 29 million from 1990 to 2001. As a percentage of the population, they grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent.

They are the fastest growing “spiritual” category in the country in percentage and numbers.

HM: You noticed a discrepancy between the cited number of members of the National Association of Evangelicals and the actual number. Ditto with the Southern Baptists. How drastic were these “shifts”?

CW: The NAE has said they have 30 million members. They actually have 7.6 million, tops. That’s the number of members their churches claim. So the actual number is almost certainly half to a fourth of that.

The SBC says it has 16 million. Five to eight million of them don’t even live in the same towns their churches are in. Insiders count SBC church health by how many attend Sunday School on average. That number is about 4 million for the entire denomination.

HM: With all the money brought in each week and the power of the megachurches, why isn’t that number growing?

CW: The megachurches are growing. By last report they are increasing twice as fast anyone thought they would.

If they continue to grow, they could be the salvation, no pun intended, of the Evangelical Nation. But signs indicate the growth may be slowing.

Lots of insiders believe they’re doomed.

Here’s why: big buildings, big debt, shifting demographics, dissatisfied members, and retiring founders.

Let me unpack just one of those problems: dissatisfied members.

These churches are constructed to attract so-called seekers. That builds attendance.

But they don’t give their most dedicated, generous and hard-working core members the kind of environment where they feel that God is present and that they are growing in their faith, according to a study by Willow Creek, a huge church that has cloned itself all over the country. One evangelical thinks the most dedicated evangelicals are being so poorly served by church that they are already leaving and 20 million will eventually be out the door.

Willow Creek ministers are completely changing their approach to try to retain and satisfy these core members. But the change has many dangers. Churches that serve core members’ need for spiritual growth typically don’t serve new members and therefore fail to grow numerically.

HM: In an article from 2000, you wrote about how Christians divorce at a higher rate than non-Christians. Is that still the case?

CW: Yes.

Evangelicals also have similar rates of drug, alcohol and pornography addiction. They seem to engage in extra-marital and pre-marital sex at the same rates that others do.

Faith doesn’t appear to have impact on moral behavior.

HM: What is the biggest mistake that churches make?

CW: If you take a look at the Dallas Morning News article that I wrote and is on my website… you’ll get a taste of the attacks coming from inside and outside the church.

One I don’t mention is among of the biggest: they teach members that they are the only ones saved and the only ones who have the Truth.

Those contentions seem more and more arrogant and even un-Christian to outsiders.

HM: How do cultural issues (like the recent gay marriage decision in California) impact the church?

CW: The culture has clearly changed the evangelical church more than it has changed the culture. Preachers have said that for years, and they’re right.

Opposing gay rights is a good example of how evangelicals have tried to keep a behavior from becoming normalized. But they’ve failed with premarital sex, parenthood outside of marriage, dancing, divorce, abortion and alcohol consumption.

One scholar believes gay rights with be as damaging to evangelicals as supporting slavery was to Southern Baptists after the Civil War.

HM: How politically entrenched are the megachurches with the Republican Party?

CW: It’s rare to find anyone in evangelical megachurches who will admit to being a Democrat. Megachurch preachers are unlikely to push particular candidates from the pulpit but they tie Republican policies to Biblical truth regularly.

And these churches give out Christian voter guides that elide the boundary between Republican issues and Christian issues by putting lower taxes and support of the war, for instance, right next to issues like abortion and gay rights.

HM: Are churches hurting or helping themselves by taking a more literal view of Scripture?

CW: For 20 years they were able to say that literalism built great faith and drew crowds, but that worm is beginning to turn.

Princeton scholar Robert Wuthnow recently published a book that challenges whether biblical literalism has been helped churches grow. He thinks rising income and education, which usually mean lower birthrates, have hurt mainline Protestant churches more than lapses in doctrine, as evangelicals claimed.

Now evangelicals are beginning to feel the impact lower birthrates that come along with their own rising income and education. It’s no accident that they are starting to tell women that having lots of children is what God wants them to do.

HM: When people leave (evangelical) Christianity, where are they going? What are they becoming?

CW: Perhaps a thousand evangelicals leave their churches every day and most are thought to leave faith altogether. Others drift into more mainstream Christian churches.

HM: How big of a role will evangelical Christians play in the upcoming presidential elections?

CW: The 18 percent of self-identified evangelicals who aren’t Religious Right supporters are a swing vote. They seem likely to go with the Democrats this year. The 7 percent who are dedicated and likely to be Religious Right members won’t. But they may not go with McCain either. That’s why he’s been courting such right wing preachers.

But he made the right choice to distance himself from them. Even the core 7 percent doesn’t go as far as Hagee does, and even some die-hard, nonevangelical Republicans might pull back from him if he and Hagee were too closely aligned.

I’d say the Republicans will do a bit of race baiting this year to keep those RR folks and others awake and afraid and running to the polls.

Democrats have to capture the swing vote, but I’d say it’s pretty much theirs. Check out my piece on Huffington Post for more analysis.

HM: How much influence do the non-religious have on national affairs?

CW: Hard to say.

Quietly? Probably a lot through individual efforts that don’t focus on faith specifically. But in a democracy the organized tend to be heard and have power in the media and at the polls. And the rich tend to get what they want through donations and lobbying. Nobody cares about their faith.

HM: (I ask this for the atheist audience:) If you were an atheist, how would you capitalize on the failings of the church?

CW: This is a great time for people with other ideas about moral and ethic behavior to assert themselves. I hope they will flood into the public square and begin a national discussion about who Americans are and want to be morally, spiritually and ethically.

As ideas about spirituality have changed, an atheist might be seen as a spiritual person even without belief in God. Merely being seen as “spiritual but not religious” is a good thing in this country and will open a lot of doors that being an out-of-the-closet atheist wouldn’t.

As the new atheism has struck chords with people who claim no religious title at all, we’ve realized that non-God-based ideas have a constituency.

But atheists have the same problem I’m having with publicity on my book. Mass media are afraid of the Religious Right audience. They don’t want to offend anyone.

Alternative media and the Internet are the best opportunity for the spread of new ideas.

HM: How should the church respond in return?

CW: I hope mainliners (Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians) will be more aggressive about their ideas. They’ve been doing the hard work of trying to serve a changing country’s real needs. So they are in a great position.

Evangelicals are already changing. Some are giving up the idea that only they are saved and going to heaven. Others are focusing on environmentalism and poverty. Others are going the other direction and becoming even more conservative.

HM: What are your thoughts on the recent Evangelical Manifesto that criticized the politicization of the faith?

CW: It’s one of the clear signs that evangelicals are in trouble. Their politics have hurt them tremendously. So much so that even the word evangelical is now in bad odor and many don’t want to claim it.

HM: What has been the Christian response to your book?

CW: Christianity Today tried to demean it by making it sound as though it was nothing new. But of course they would. Image is everything and if the word gets out that evangelicals aren’t so powerful, Christianity Today won’t be either.

Many evangelicals know that I’m right. Of course, they would. I got most of my information from evangelical churches.

Some of them even think the truth of the book could help the cause of Christ.

Others tell me I’m wrong. But new evidence comes in every day. Those people just aren’t plugged in enough to know what’s happening.

Some send me Bible verses. When I was a kid in the Baptist church we had “sword drills,” which were our name for Bible verse recitation. Those who send me Bible verses are generally stabbing me with their swords.

HM: As a former religion reporter, what do you like and dislike about religion or “Faith & Values” pages across the country?

CW: They cover groups – denominations, organizations, theological schools. Media are good at that.

But the real action in American spirituality is not organized. So reporters have a hard time getting a handle on the most important stories.

You can read another interview with the author at Conversation at the Edge.

The Fall of the Evangelical Nation is in bookstores now.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • I like tea

    Evangelicals also have similar rates of drug, alcohol and pornography addiction. They seem to engage in extra-marital and pre-marital sex at the same rates that others do.

    Faith doesn’t appear to have impact on moral behavior.

    Sure doesn’t stop them from loudly proclaiming their morals, though. Fundamentalist Christians are posers.

    It’s like the premarital sex statistics. I’ve read that 25% of Americans think premarital sex is wrong, yet 95% of Americans have had premarital sex. Notice a discrepancy?

  • Wes

    Some send me Bible verses. When I was a kid in the Baptist church we had “sword drills,” which were our name for Bible verse recitation. Those who send me Bible verses are generally stabbing me with their swords.

    I remember sword drills from when I was a kid raised in a fundamentalist tradition.

    It was a disturbing revelation when, as I grew older, I began to notice that these activities, which I’d done without reflection as a child, were a form of indoctrination into militarism. Our childhoods aren’t nearly as “innocent” as we’d like to believe.

  • EKM

    In all seriousness, this is probably one of the most optimistic and positive articles I have read in a long time.

  • brad

    There is a better word, besides “evangelical,” for the people she is describing – “fundamentalist.” The way she defines it is just odd and makes me question whether she knows what she’s talking about.

  • cipher

    I’ve read that 75 to 100 million Americans identify as evangelicals – nearly a third of the population (I’ve also read that the most conservative denominations within Christianity and Judaism are growing the most rapidly). I don’t understand the discrepancy, unless there’s a wide range of terms under which people define themselves as “evangelicals”.

    I’d like to read a really good analysis of the available statistics.

  • I like tea

    (I’ve also read that the most conservative denominations within Christianity and Judaism are growing the most rapidly)

    Some of them may be, but I know that the Baptist denomination is in fact shrinking.

  • cipher

    Some of them may be, but I know that the Baptist denomination is in fact shrinking.

    Mainline or Southern Baptist?

  • Polly

    When I was a kid in the Baptist church we had “sword drills,” which were our name for Bible verse recitation.

    The pastor at Bible study would always say, “Everybody take out your swords.” This meant you should take out your Bible and refer to the relevant passage.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    “It’s rare to find anyone in evangelical megachurches who will admit to being a Democrat. Megachurch preachers are unlikely to push particular candidates from the pulpit but they tie Republican policies to Biblical truth regularly.”

    This may have been true a couple years ago, when Ted Haggard was pastor of the megachurch New Life Church, and also president of the NAE. But since his downfall, any firm connection between megachurch evangelicalism and Republican ideology and policy has been seriously hindered, if not severed at the root. You’re even starting to see pastors like Rick Warren inviting Barack Obama to speak from the pulpit. Whether it is ethical that churches should have ANY candidate, Republican or Democrat, speak in a service is another matter; the point is that there have always been moderates, and some liberals as well, in evangelicalism.

    Take Brian McLaren, for example. He’s considered one of the godfathers of the Emergent movement. He encourages a move away from poiticking from the pulpit, and a move toward social involvement; poverty issues, social justice, etc. He is decidedly liberal in his approach, but his books have sold many thousands of copies.

    It’s my opinion that evangelicalism is predominately moving towards an Emergent ideology, and that as such, Evangelicalism won’t disappear, but reform it’s ranks with a new, more moderate center. Those who are considered fundamentalist will continue to become more so, though I think they will face increasing hostility from what will be mainstream/emergent evangelicals, and eventually will break off from evangelicalism altogether.

    “Perhaps a thousand evangelicals leave their churches every day and most are thought to leave faith altogether. Others drift into more mainstream Christian churches.”

    That number is speculative at best, and speaking as someone who does occasionally darken the doors of a local evangelical megachurch, probably mis-informed. I can tell you now that attendance for this church today, as compared with attendance from the same church ten years ago, has dramatically increased. It’s the same with most of the large churches in the area.

    But let’s say for a moment that Wicker is right, and that “a thousand evangelicals” are heading out the doors. She’s still wrong about where they’re headed. Evangelicalism has always been a very dynamic and fluid movement, if fundamentally because it has no traditional theology or escatology, and no substantial history. Looking at it from an overarching perspective, Evangelicalism is just a small progression in the 20th century that has been morphing and transforming over centuries since the reformation and the effective establishment of the protestant church.

    Only someone with a lack of understanding of Christian church history would say that evangelicals will leave by “the thousands”; the reason is say this because evangelicalism is changing so much. Mostly, evangelicals are transferring within the movement itself to different iterations of the evangelical church, not away from it altogether. Like I said earlier, they’re moving to more open progressions of evangelicalism; emergent, neo-orthodox; and yes, some are moving into mainline churches. But Evangelicalism won’t disappear; it will simply evolve, as it always has, into whatever movement best represents the central core of modern, non-denom Christians.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I’ve read this book and the author definitely knows what she’s talking about, as a former insider, and she explains how and why she uses the terms the way she does in the book.

    It’s a very interesting book. The only major flaw in my opinion is that it seems like it may have been a little bit rushed to get it to market before Bush is out of office. I think it could have been fleshed out more in several areas. But regardless, it is a great conversation starter and a fresh viewpoint into something the media doesn’t seem to be able to cover correctly. :-)

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Joel, if evangelicalism does morph into emergent churches, that’s great. But it does indeed mean that evangelicalism will be gone because the two really are not the same or even compatible.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    This article makes me feel very hopeful, but like other commenters I am confused about the discrepancy between this author’s numbers and the ones we are used to hearing in the atheosphere.

    For example, how can it be that over 50% of Americans believe in some form of creationism? Is that just a comment on the sorry state of science education in the U.S.? Or are there large numbers of creationists who don’t count as “evangelicals” for some reason?

  • I like tea

    It’s my opinion that evangelicalism is predominately moving towards an Emergent ideology, and that as such, Evangelicalism won’t disappear, but reform it’s ranks with a new, more moderate center. Those who are considered fundamentalist will continue to become more so, though I think they will face increasing hostility from what will be mainstream/emergent evangelicals, and eventually will break off from evangelicalism altogether.

    That’s true, and that’s why it’s important to draw a distinction between evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity. Right now, fundamentalism is sort of hiding in mainstream Christianity’s skirts, and it’s doing a damn good job feeding on the legitimacy of it. I’m hoping that, 20 years or so from now, things like Biblical literalism won’t get nearly the respect it gets now.

    (And that goes for literalism on both ends of the Bible – ie, creationism and LaHaye/Jenkins style End Times beliefs, which take the book of Revelation “literally.”)

  • brad

    I am going to write a book about the “fall” of atheism, where my definition of atheism is based on how the public perceives atheists. The thesis of my book will be that there aren’t nearly as many true atheists (you know, the baby-eating, devil-worshipping, immoral kind) that most people think there are.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    “Joel, if evangelicalism does morph into emergent churches, that’s great. But it does indeed mean that evangelicalism will be gone because the two really are not the same or even compatible.”
    But that’s my point in the first place. Evangelicalism is only a very small blip in the course of church history, and more specifically protestant history. Before Evangelicalism, there were numerous movements, many of which have found new realizations within different parts of Evangelicalism. Except for a small constituency of hard-core non-denom groups, Evangelicalism is not considered the peak of Christian thought, and is by no means enshrined as a Christian credo. It is a progression of protestant ideology, just like puritanism, methodism, revivalism, and fundamentalism. It will grow and evolve into the next form of non-denominational thought.

    Evangelicalism today is very different from what it was 50 years ago, and it will look very different in 50 years from now, if it remains as a major church philosophy.

    “That’s true, and that’s why it’s important to draw a distinction between evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity. Right now, fundamentalism is sort of hiding in mainstream Christianity’s skirts, and it’s doing a damn good job feeding on the legitimacy of it.”

    Exactly. There’s a major distinction within understandings of Evangelicalism that must be made more clearly. Classical Evangelicalism is a philosophy that says that interaction of faith should be between people, and that if there is a change in culture, it is because of personal and individual interaction between people, at a grassroots level. Fundmentalism is a approach which has always been defined as a separatist movement; their understanding of interaction with culture is basically nil. They believe that culture should become predominately Christian in nature, and the method through which this will be brought about is directly through politics. They believe that domineering the political world will give Christians the power to force culture to adhere to a Christian worldview. This perspective especially came into play in the past few decades. People like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson all fall under this perspective.

    Unfortunately, Fundamentalism has associated itself (and has been associated by mainstream media) under the Evangelical tag in the last 25 or so years, and consequentially, has changed (in a presumably negative way) the meaning and reputation of Evangelicalism. But it isn’t classic evangelicalism, and a lot of Evangelicals feel betrayed by such a movement.

    This is why I find Wicker’s perspective enormously problematic, because it fails to truly understand the Evangelical core perspective, and instead focuses on a fringe constituency that has commandeered evangelicalism; this is why there is a great movement in Evangelicals toward the Emergent church, and also to evangelically-inclined liturgical churches.

  • brad

    “This is why I find Wicker’s perspective enormously problematic, because it fails to truly understand the Evangelical core perspective, and instead focuses on a fringe constituency that has commandeered evangelicalism;”

    What he said.

  • http://dayandnite.livejournal.com/ Sabrina

    This article gives me hope that the religious right won’t in fact take over the U.S. afterall.

  • Spurs Fan

    Any Christians here want to define “evangelical”? I’m very interested in a definition, or even many different definitions.

    When I was a Christian “evangelism” meant to “share the gospel of Jesus Christ” in some form or fashion. Share, because all “without Christ” (however you emergent folk want to define that) were lost and needed something that we had.

  • http://darwinsdagger.blogspot.com Darwin’s Dagger

    For example, how can it be that over 50% of Americans believe in some form of creationism? Is that just a comment on the sorry state of science education in the U.S.? Or are there large numbers of creationists who don’t count as “evangelicals” for some reason?

    Most of these people don’t believe anything with any conviction. They believe, when asked, that these are the things that they are supposed to believe, and having little or no understanding of science are happy to do so.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    Any Christians here want to define “evangelical”? I’m very interested in a definition, or even many different definitions.

    Well, in some ways, evangelical has simply become synonymous with non-denominational, although there are denominations that are considered Evangelical in nature.

    Evangelical, as far as I can understand it from a classic model, is basically a movement away from salvation through liturgy and tradition through community, and towards a personal and individual relationship with Christ. Whereas church had traditionally been ecumenical (at least in a local or denominational sense), the Evangelical movement changed the focus to the individual; hence you saw things like “personal salvation”, “personal testimony”, “personal devotion time and prayer”, those kind of singularly focused ideas.

    However, this is what I meant when I said that Evangelicalism is different than 50 years ago, with people like Bill Bright and Billy Graham; there is a movement away from the individual-focused paradigm, and an openness towards inclusion of ecumenical ideas again. I think Evangelicals are realizing the need to go back to the model of a church as a supportive and loving community for Christians, rather than an outreach tool. This is not to say that the doors of the church are closing for those outside it, but rather there is a decreasing emphasis in outreach and salvation, and a great increase in programs and discussions that focus on social justice, and personal stewardship for things like the environment, poverty in Africa, and other such social issues.

    Along with that, many evangelical churches are beginning to explore more the problems internally within the church, that many faithful in the pews (or fold-up chairs, as is more common nowadays) often feel disconnected, unsupported, and abandoned, a consequence of a focus on outreach to the “lost”, and a lack of focus to actual church members looking for support and encouragement.

    So basically, it’s hard to define modern evangelicalism with one single viewpoint; it could mean a million different things to a million different people. It’s too vast, and encompasses too many theological, ecclesiological, and social perspectives.

    “When I was a Christian “evangelism” meant to “share the gospel of Jesus Christ” in some form or fashion. Share, because all “without Christ” (however you emergent folk want to define that) were lost and needed something that we had.”

    Well, first of all, “evangelism” is different than “Evangelicalism”. Evangelism has come out of the revivalist movement as much as it has out of the Evangelical mindset. I think every Christian to some degree feels the obligation to be able to articulate their faith when asked. But I don’t think that “evangelism”, which indicates a more active desire to proselytize (the Oxford American Dictionary describes it as “zealous advocacy of a cause”), is necessarily a core doctrine to mass Evangelicalism at this point in time, any more than it is in other protestant circles. There are constituencies within the Evangelical world that emphasize this, but I don’t think they speak for the overarching sentiment of all Evangelicals.

  • http://www.christinewicker.com Christine Wicker

    Okay. It looks like I’m going to have to defend my good name here.

    I didn’t use the word fundamentalism in my answers, but I do look at the overlap in the book. And I deal with fundamentalism in some detail. If you look at the core beliefs of fundamentalism, there’s very little difference in it and in what most evangelicals believe. Rick Warren included.

    I do say that the evangelicals I’m looking at are predominately Religious Right. Your points about diversity within the evangelical community are exactly what the book is proving up. Only 5 to 7 percent of those who self identify as evangelicals fit into the pubic conception of what an evangelical is — which is a supporter of the Religious Right. (For a look at the political implications of that, see my first column on Huffington Post. There’s a link on my website.) This is a vital point to understand because of the hold that these misconceptions have had on discussion in the public square and politics.

    They’ve all been lumped together, but as the Mother Jones reviewer (herself an evangelical said) a lot of those people didn’t even know they were being counted in the Religious Right. Only 20 percent of self identified evangelicals say they are in the RR.

    Are evangelicals changing? Absolutely. They have to. And they know it.
    But they’re going in different directions. For more on that, take a look at the piece I wrote for The Dallas Morning News. It’s on my website.

    Are a large proportion of them becoming emergent? I haven’t seen any numbers. Have you?

    Emergent ideas appear to be mostly attracting young people and as important as they are for the future, the rest of us aren’t dead yet. As anyone who remembers the Jesus People will attest, what young people do doesn’t always hold into adulthood.

    But this may because it’s being supported by societal pressures.

    It’s an exciting time for Christian faith.

  • EKM

    Joel said,

    Along with that, many evangelical churches are beginning to explore more the problems internally within the church, that many faithful in the pews (or fold-up chairs, as is more common nowadays) often feel disconnected, unsupported, and abandoned, a consequence of a focus on outreach to the “lost”, and a lack of focus to actual church members looking for support and encouragement.

    You think that churches will mind their own business? That would be great, but if you think this is even starting to start to begin to begin to happen, then you obviously have never set foot in the USA.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    You think that churches will mind their own business? That would be great, but if you think this is even starting to start to begin to begin to happen, then you obviously have never set foot in the USA.

    Well, I hate to disappoint you, but as a self-professed Christian, and as a Christian who once considered myself Evangelical, AND as a Christian who has lived my life predominately in the USA, I meant exactly what I said.

    But if you’re asking if Churches in the United States will become self-contained communes, which don’t interact with the rest of the world, or culture at large, I think you’ll be sorely disappointed. The problem is not that churches don’t mind their own business. A church has as much right to freedom of expression as any other social group. The problem is rooted in some churches in fringe groups that have set themselves up as cultural arbiters, and feel it is their duty, and right, to judge what is and isn’t acceptable, culturally speaking. It doesn’t help that such churches are forceful and manipulative in their approach.

    However, as I said, they are fringe churches, and though they may get a lot of attention because of the noise they make, they don’t represent Evangelicalism as a whole. There is a large movement away from such practice; as a matter of fact, there are a lot of Evangelicals who resent the stereotypes that such fringe groups bring to Evangelicalism as a whole. Consequently, there is a considerable movement towards a more ecumenical structure that focuses as much inward as outward.

    So no, the Evangelical church isn’t going to disappear or fall behind the scenes; but I do think that it is becoming a more nuanced and thoughtful voice than has been attributed to it in the past, and I think with time, it will continue to progress in that direction.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    All of these questions are answered in the book so why don’t you all get a copy and see what the author has to say instead of criticizing her without even reading her book. Jeez.

  • http://conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    writerdd, good point :)

    I just finished the book. I thought Christine backed up her points well and I liked the people stories interspersed throughout that show how being evangelical personally affects peoples’ lives. Well, when I say ‘liked’, some of them made me wince but they were written up very well by Christine.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I have observed the following in the Southern Baptist Church I attend. This church has had an initiative to reach out to seekers to bring them into the Christian fold.

    I’ve heard the pastor say on several occasions that there is a frustrating cycle where seekers join the church, are real excited for a while (perhaps a few months), then slowly stop tithing, then stop attending all together. I’d imagine that this is playing out all across America in the evangelical movement. People (seekers) initially get excited about the notion that a “personal savior” cares about them… It empowers them… makes them feel special… But then after a while the euphoria wears off and they realize that it was all just psychological…. not real… and they “come to their senses” and leave. I’m talking about unchurched people here that “flirt” with organized spirituality. People that are indoctrinated from the cradle are another story.

  • cipher

    seekers join the church, are real excited for a while (perhaps a few months), then slowly stop tithing, then stop attending all together.

    This is actually what got Ray Comfort started. He thinks they don’t appreciate what God has done for them, so his answer is to try to make them understand how truly depraved they are, and how much they deserve to go to hell.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    writerdd said: “All of these questions are answered in the book so why don’t you all get a copy and see what the author has to say instead of criticizing her without even reading her book. Jeez.”

    FYI, writerdd, all my original objections were based off of verbatim quotes from the interview copied above. I haven’t criticized the book, or Wicker personally, I simply disagreed with statements of hers in the article above. So cool off. Jeez. :)

    Christine Wicker said: “I didn’t use the word fundamentalism in my answers, but I do look at the overlap in the book.”

    And I apologize, I brought that into play, because I felt it was necessary to the discussion at hand, to make a differentiation between one branch of evangelicalism, and other iterations.

    “If you look at the core beliefs of fundamentalism, there’s very little difference in it and in what most evangelicals believe. Rick Warren included.”

    Well first off, I see no reason to make Rick Warren the peak of Evangelical goodness. He’s just a popular megachurch pastor. But I am interested in the connection between “fundamentalism” and “what most evangelicals believe”. Are there any statistics to corroborate this? It’s not that I necessarily disagree, but I’m just curious what the trends are.

    I think the problem we’ll have is not our differing definitions of “evangelicalism”, but of “fundamentalism”. I think it is a cultural ideology, not a theological perspective. I’m assuming, based off of what I’ve read of your material that you see it more as a theological perspective, correct?

    “Only 5 to 7 percent of those who self identify as evangelicals fit into the pubic conception of what an evangelical is — which is a supporter of the Religious Right…This is a vital point to understand because of the hold that these misconceptions have had on discussion in the public square and politics.”

    Agreed, and this is why I take issue with using the terms “Evangelical” and “religious right” or “fundamentalists” synonymously. But again, this might go to our differing perspectives on fundamentalism.

    “Are evangelicals changing? Absolutely. They have to. And they know it.
    But they’re going in different directions. For more on that, take a look at the piece I wrote for The Dallas Morning News. It’s on my website.”

    First off, I deeply enjoyed the article, and found myself agreeing more than I disagreed. The major point where I differ is that I don’t think we are seeing the decline of Evangelicalism; I think we’re seeing the fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I think within the next few decades, new movements broken off from Evangelicalism will appear. You hit on a couple of them: Calvinism (and more specifically what I see as militant Calvinism); a fusion of traditional denominations, such as Anglicanism, with modern evangelical ideologies; and of course, the Emergent movement. As such, Evangelicalism as we know it now will be defunct for sure, but it will live on quietly in different strains of new church paradigms.

    “Are a large proportion of them becoming emergent? I haven’t seen any numbers. Have you?”

    Well, this is a difficult one, simply because there has yet to be a definitive theology or ecclesiology for the Emergent movement (considering it’s rather abstract foundations, there might never be). I think the best way to describe it would be through things like, post-modern thought, ecumenical foundations (communal), theologically progressive, ambience-based, social justice-driven, etc.

    I’ve just come from living for a while in Seattle, WA, and if my conditioners of the Emergent movement are reasonably accurate, Emergence is alive and thriving (though admittedly this could be a regional issue). As a matter of fact, I found it hard to get away from underlying Emergent ideology without going directly to a mainline church.

    “As anyone who remembers the Jesus People will attest, what young people do doesn’t always hold into adulthood.”

    Absolutely, and in visiting Emergent churches, I’ve been surprised at the lack of attendees older than about 40. In some ways, this means that I agree with your point here; but I’m also taking into account foundational Emergent books, like Donald Miller’s ‘Blue Like Jazz’ and Brian McClaren’s ‘A New Kind of Christian’, or even for that matter many of Anne Lamott’s books, which have been bestsellers. I think it’s one movement that will be extremely fascinating to watch.

    Just to repeat my point above, I was only replying to quotes from the article in my original objections, and have not yet had the privilege of reading the book; after this conversation, I now plan on running to the nearest Barnes & Noble to pick it up. If the book is as intriguing as the article, I think I’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

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  • cipher

    Joel,

    RE: Seattle and the Emergent movement – bear in mind that the Pacific Northwest, like the Northeast, tends to be far removed from the rest of the country in terms of attitude and ideology.

    Christine (if you’re still watching),

    I’m growing increasingly confused by all of the talk here about the differences between “Evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism”, and how they correspond, supposedly, to the statistics at hand. From my perspective as an atheist and as someone who didn’t grow up in the Christian milieu, the differences seem rather subtle and insignificant. I’ve come across conservative Christians of Calvinist orientation who insist that they aren’t “fundamentalists”. Frankly, I just roll my eyes when I hear this. They all think I’m going to hell! Whether or not they also think that humans rode dinosaurs to work is beside the point, and isn’t of any interest to me, unless I’m over at PZ Meyers’ blog talking about evolution. To me, they’re all in the same basket. Whether they happen to congregate on one side of the basket or another is irrelevant. I’m not interested in gradations of belief.

    The bottom line is that I don’t believe that only seven percent of the population thinks I’m going to hell. My experience would lead me to believe that the 25-35% figure is more likely to be accurate. Now, within that group, are we going to parse out who believes in saying it “nicely”, and who believes that screaming and threats are more effective? I really don’t care.

  • Spurs Fan

    Cipher,

    While I think your comments are a bit overgeneralized, I have to mostly agree. And I know we’ve had these conversations before.

    Joel,

    I’ve never heard the term “evangelicalism” put in such a different light. To be fair, I’ve never done any hard-core study on the difference between that term and others. Still, the all three terms seem to have some common ground in that the Bible is their ultimate source of belief, whether they intepret it literally or not. And that, as Cipher might say, puts you in a more similar camp. I truly can appreciate the emergent movement. I’ve explored it for a couple of years (I have read the Miller and McLaren book you cited) and can relish the fact that my political views are shared (peace, poverty-reduction, etc.) by you emergent folk. Yet, theologically, you are closer to religious right. Not too close, but closer than my atheism. So, the dancing around terms here doesn’t necessarily mean that all Christians mentioned in the article, no matter their label, don’t feel that those without Jesus are “lost” in some way. Because they do. If not, they wouldn’t be Christians and this…

    there is a decreasing emphasis in outreach and salvation, and a great increase in programs and discussions that focus on social justice, and personal stewardship for things like the environment, poverty in Africa, and other such social issues.

    …could be done withut any belief in Christianity.

  • cipher

    I would add that many, if not most of the Emergent folks wouldn’t even really qualify as “Evangelicals”, as Christine defines them:

    those people who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior and as the only way to heaven, who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who are scaring the bejesus out of the rest of America.

    Many (probably most) are not Biblical inerrantists, and some, like our own Mike Clawson, are not salvific exclusivists and aren’t even entirely comfortable with the term “Evangelical”. And few if any are “scaring the bejesus” out of people!

    This is why, after thirty-odd comments, I still don’t know which “Evangelicals” are being discussed here, or how they correspond to these statistics.

  • I like tea

    It’s an exciting time for Christian faith.

    I’d say it’s an exciting time for non-theists, too, if there’s any truth to the idea that the “Evangelical Nation” is falling.

    I hadn’t planned on reading your book at first, but I think I will.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    RE: Seattle and the Emergent movement – bear in mind that the Pacific Northwest, like the Northeast, tends to be far removed from the rest of the country in terms of attitude and ideology.

    This is true, however, I am on the National Cohorts Team for Emergent Village and these past few months I’ve been working to help dozens of new cohorts (i.e. local emerging church discussion groups) get started all over the country. And a large handful of these are in places like Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, and downstate Illinois – not exactly the liberal left-coast.

  • cipher

    a large handful of these are in places like Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, and downstate Illinois – not exactly the liberal left-coast.

    Well, Mike, I have to say that’s very encouraging.

    Texas, eh? Are you sure?!

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Texas, eh? Are you sure?!

    LOL, yeah, I’m moving there myself in a couple of months. There are tons of emergents in Texas. I personally know the cohort leaders in Austin, Waco, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth. I’ve also been helping to get new cohorts started in the north suburbs of Dallas, East Texas, and Houston. And that doesn’t even mention all the emerging churches all around the state. In fact, I’m probably going to help get a “Texas Emergent Gathering” going once I get down there, just to get everyone together for a weekend conference/get-together.

  • cipher

    yeah, I’m moving there myself in a couple of months.

    Right, you’re going back to school to get a doctorate. Where are you going?

    Is it largely an urban phenomenon – cities, suburbs?

    If you’re on the National Cohorts Team, do you get a jacket? If so, what’s the logo – an angry mob chasing Brian down the street?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Right, you’re going back to school to get a doctorate. Where are you going?

    Austin Presbyterian Seminary (a mainline liberal school) for my MA and then probably Baylor (a moderate Baptist school) for my PhD in Religion and Church History (with a focus on studying the emerging church movement.

    Is it largely an urban phenomenon – cities, suburbs?

    All of the above. Here in Chicago we have 4 branches – three in the suburbs and one in the city. I’ve also been getting three or four new cohorts going in rural Kansas and Nebraska lately.

    If you’re on the National Cohorts Team, do you get a jacket? If so, what’s the logo – an angry mob chasing Brian down the street?

    LOL, no. We just get sent a lot of email requests from people who want to start a cohort and then we communicate with them with some basic info and advice. Though this past winter/spring we did help coordinate the existing cohorts to help with volunteers and promotion for Brian’s recent “Everything Must Change Tour”.

  • Spurs Fan

    yeah, I’m moving there myself in a couple of months.

    Mike,

    To be accurate, I must say there are three Texas NBA teams here. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, there is only one “true” team and I think you know who that is. I am definitely a fundamentalist when it comes to this. No emergent thinking in the land of professional basketball.

    So, pick your team, but know that your eternal destiny hangs in the balance…and St. Duncan will intervene for you!

  • cipher

    Is it largely an urban phenomenon – cities, suburbs?

    All of the above. Here in Chicago we have 4 branches – three in the suburbs and one in the city. I’ve also been getting three or four new cohorts going in rural Kansas and Nebraska lately.

    I meant in Texas, actually. You mentioned Austin, Waco, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    Apologies, this is going to be another long post.

    “I’ve never heard the term “evangelicalism” put in such a different light. To be fair, I’ve never done any hard-core study on the difference between that term and others. Still, the all three terms seem to have some common ground in that the Bible is their ultimate source of belief, whether they intepret it literally or not. And that, as Cipher might say, puts you in a more similar camp.”

    Sure, all three do have that common thread of looking to the Bible for the central guidance in life. However, like I said earlier in my comment to Christine, this is not, I believe, what makes a Christian/church/denomination fundamentalist; it’s an ideological difference, not a Theological one. Whereas evangelicalism is increasingly marked by it’s fusion with culture and society at large, and again an increasing willingness to interact on a nuanced and thoughtful level (such as the Emergent church), fundamentalism always has been, and always will be a separatist movement, which finds no common ground between Christians and what they would call “the lost”. Their tactics have always been from the top down; in otherwords, they want to take over government, and turn this country into a theocracy, so that instead of interacting with society, they can mandate society from above.

    Of course I’m drawing pretty big extremes, but that’s the general idea behind the differing approaches of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. There’s also a lot of mish mash in between, but I think it’s hasty and unmeasured to make Evangelicalism synonymous with Fundamentalism.

    “Yet, theologically, you are closer to religious right. Not too close, but closer than my atheism. So, the dancing around terms here doesn’t necessarily mean that all Christians mentioned in the article, no matter their label, don’t feel that those without Jesus are “lost” in some way.”

    Well first of all, I’ve never claimed to be Emergent. I’ve moved four or five times in the past few years, and I’ve church-hopped considerably more than that in each location. I’m not really established in a denomination/movement/local church body. I’ve attended a considerable amount of different churches; Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Charismatic, Anglican, non-denom, and yes, Emergent. I’m still looking to find what fits me best. I’m a little iconoclastic I suppose! Stay outside church long enough, and you find that you’re pretty irritated with some of the stuff that goes on inside! I guess that’s life for you.

    But onto the “lost” thoughts. My first thing is that I find lost to be a useless term to describe the divide (?) between Christians and Non-Christians. This is a broken world, and we’re a bunch of messed up people; all of us. So in many senses, we’re all lost. And no, I’m not trying to be cliched. I’m a “believer”, and sometimes I still feel lost. Faith at it’s best is a perpetual discovery of knowing doubt, and trusting God; falling down, being picked up; any Christian who tells you that they don’t struggle with their faith is deceiving either you, or themselves. I think in some ways, doubt is what keeps us Christians humble (for those of us that allow it). Just as an interesting collaboration to this though, God named his people “Israel”, which I believe means “those who struggle” in Hebraic.

    I wish that I could say that Christians are moving away from a “lost” paradigm, but I can speak for no one but myself in regard to salvation. I try my best to work my own salvation out with “fear and trembling”, as Saint Paul said. I believe in the idea of salvation, not as much for some eternal judgement, but because I need it right now. I need hope, and I need grace from my situation everyday. I think the point is that salvation isn’t praying the “sinner’s prayer”; it’s a perpetual growth and trust, a knowledge of my failures, and a reliance on God to help me through them. It’d be very interesting to be able to make a list and say who’s “lost”, and who’s “found”; but if anything I’ve found in my time as a Christian, it’s that God is far too incomprehensible and undefinable, and to make definitive statements about salvation–and especially who has it, and who doesn’t–Is rather presumptuous on my part. If anything I see in scripture, it’s that God has a deep love for all people, and that grace is a central and meaningful part of God’s character. For myself, I find increasingly that I need God’s grace, because I have none for myself.

    I do feel like my life has changed with my faith. I still fall, and get up, fall and get up. But there’s what Mark Heard (iconoclastic Christian folk singer) called a “strong hand of love hidden in the shadows”; this knowledge that when I fall, I allow God’s love to be my strength instead of relying on my own strength. It changes my entire perspective on life. I see God’s hand of love in everything I do and experience. And in that sense, I do feel that Christianity changes things. Not that it makes Christians better or more meaningful people, but that it provides this new backdrop in life, that when I begin to see this “love in the shadows”, and live in that love, it gives me reason to have hope.

    I’m sorry for going into so much personal elaboration, but I don’t think it’s possible to offer up one overarching stereotype of how Christians view salvation. This is my own small strain in the larger mass of stories.


    “this…

    “there is a decreasing emphasis in outreach and salvation, and a great increase in programs and discussions that focus on social justice, and personal stewardship for things like the environment, poverty in Africa, and other such social issues.”

    …could be done without any belief in Christianity.”

    Well, I’m sure it can. I don’t doubt that Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Peace Corp, and other such organizations do incredible work. But for a lot of Christians, it’s their faith that propels them into action. When I realize the depth of God’s love for people, or the fact that he created something that we humans are using rather irresponsibly, it compels me to change my way, and makes amends. I don’t think it’s a perspective that says that only Christians can do good things; I think it’s that God changes the way we think; He messes with our comfortable paradigms, and throws them out the window. It’s an issue of motivation, not exclusivity.

  • http://www.christinewicker.com Christine Wicker

    You guys are convincing me that I should have used the word fundamentalist.

    So why didn’t I? Well the book is full of people who bravely shared their stories with me. I believe they took that risk, and it’s a big one, because they wanted to testify to what they had found. They wanted to serve Jesus. They wanted to help other people. All three. I admire them for that.

    I didn’t want to insult them by branding them with an inflammatory label that would distort who they want to be. As I see it, a journalist has three primary responsibilities: to the source, to the reader and to the truth. All are problematic and sometimes they contradict one another.

    A second point: remember, I’m not a scholar. I’m a journalist who is always speaking to the broadest audience possible.

    There is a belief definition of evangelicals in the Evangelical Manifesto and one in the book framed by evangelical pollster George Barna. I’m going to reproduce both of them on my web site. (As soon as I stop blogging.) I hope to do it today. So people can compare the two. Lots of evangelicals believe the George Barna definition is too stringent. As I say in the book one longtime Baptist, who works for a Baptist organization, said, “St. Peter himself wouldn’t qualify under that definition.

    But when I looked at it, I laughed aloud. It’s so loose. I might even fit. I also wrote a pretty hot rebuttal to the Christianity Today editorial, which pretty much said I was ignorant for not realizing that anybody can believe anything and act any way and still be an evangelical. That’s on my website too. (Of course, they thought those things about me. Evangelicals are their income base. They sure don’t want to count anybody out. One of the mistakes we journalists make is to forget that religion is a billion-dollar business.)

    To the issue of everyone else going to hell. Evangelicals, as I understand them, do generally believe that.

    Or they used to. I’m sorry to do this again but look on my website under Baptists Aren’t Who They’re Thought to Be (or some such title.) This blew me away. And when I tell other Texas Baptists about it, many of them don’t even blink.

    The times, they are a changin’. And evangelicals are too. Because they have to.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Mike,

    To be accurate, I must say there are three Texas NBA teams here. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, there is only one “true” team and I think you know who that is. I am definitely a fundamentalist when it comes to this. No emergent thinking in the land of professional basketball.

    So, pick your team, but know that your eternal destiny hangs in the balance…and St. Duncan will intervene for you!

    Oh, are the Spurs a basketball team?
    ;)

    Seriously dude, if Hell does exist, I’m pretty sure it consists of being forced to watch professional sports (pretty much any sport, doesn’t matter) for hours on end. I can’t think of any greater torment.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I meant in Texas, actually. You mentioned Austin, Waco, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth.

    Those are just the ones whose leaders I know personally. I’ve also helped get an East Texas one started, which pulls folks from about three smaller towns (Marshall, Longview and Tyler). I’ve also talked to folks that are from more rural areas on the fringes of DFW, but that drive into the cities to attend cohort meetings. That’s all I know of so far.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    I’d actually think it’d be more likely to see Emergent stuff cropping up in rural areas of DFW, rather than Dallas proper, which strikes me as a fundamentalist stronghold, with the strong southern Baptist presence, and of course Dallas Theological Seminary.

    I lived in a rural area south of DFW for quite a while (I have family down there), and just took a trip out there recently. A met with a ministry guy in the DFW area, and when I walked into his office, the first thing I noticed were three books on his desk dealing with the Emergent movement. I think people all over are interested in it.

  • Spurs Fan

    Joel,

    I appreciate the personal thoughts. As a former “evangelical” (who shared the gospel ala Ray Comfort style)-turned emergent-tuned Atheist, this is a very interesting topic to me. However, I’ve had this debate with Mike Clawson a bit (I think it’s under “Pluralistic or Totalitarian” in April of 2008) and I hold to my opinion. Your version of Christianity (which sounds pretty emergent even if you don’t claim to be) is so outside of the norm that it is almost unrecognizable. It should be called something else, perhaps. Even while diasgreeing with them, I can at least say the conservatives/fundamentalists/evangelicals who would tell me that I am seperated from God eternally are consistent. I can jive much better with the emergent crowd (who especially share my political views), but I think in way, they dance around the idea of what makes a Christian distinct. Again, we’ve had this discussion before, but a couple of items to discuss:

    This is a broken world, and we’re a bunch of messed up people; all of us. So in many senses, we’re all lost.

    Where are you getting this? The Bible? I mean, I’ll agree with you partially. On the other hand, I think there are many things in this world which are beautiful, innocent, exciting, etc. (Cipher will disagree) I think it’s oversimplified to say “everything” is broken, when it’s clearly not. After all, you and me having this discussion in a non-hostile way seems to be a very good thing. And I attribute nothing of it to a superstition of god.

    When I realize the depth of God’s love for people, or the fact that he created something that we humans are using rather irresponsibly, it compels me to change my way, and makes amends. I don’t think it’s a perspective that says that only Christians can do good things; I think it’s that God changes the way we think; He messes with our comfortable paradigms, and throws them out the window. It’s an issue of motivation, not exclusivity.

    Again, nice thoughts, but what is your source? The Bible? The “Holy Spirit”? For everyone who believes your explanation of the gospel, I can find ten more Christians who know their Bible (maybe) and would tell me that, as an atheist, I’m lost and anyone who isn’t for Christ is against him (someone said that a couple thousand years ago, didn’t they?). I might say, “well, I think Jesus has some great teachings, but I also disagree with him somewhat and don’t believe he ever performed miracles or rose from the dead”, and they would say I need him, or I’m “lost”. So, whose “holy spirit” or “intepretation of the Bible” is correct? I’m afraid I have to side with the conservative here who believes that God had every right to commit genocide in the Old Testament and make Judas betray Jesus while still punishing Judas in the NT. Your view of the Bible seems to dodge the difficult parts. I know Mike C. will disagree, but I had to put it out there again.

    Seriously dude, if Hell does exist, I’m pretty sure it consists of being forced to watch professional sports (pretty much any sport, doesn’t matter) for hours on end. I can’t think of any greater torment.

    Careful Mike. You’re on sacred ground here and I will go jihad on your ass. :) Have you ever watched the Spurs? Minus their last series against the Lakers, they are poetry in motion. A bunch of experienced players who don’t whine or make excuses, but just get the job done (or at least four times in the last nine years). I think you need to become more emergent and progressive in your professional sports watching. Get out of your comfortable paradigm! (Substitute the word “heaven” for “hell”, “basketball” for “sports”, and “bliss” for “torment” and I agree with you 100%).

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I think you need to become more emergent and progressive in your professional sports watching.

    I watch the Superbowl every year (mainly for the commercials, and for the snacks at the party). That’s just about enough sports to tide me over for the whole year. :)

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    Your version of Christianity (which sounds pretty emergent even if you don’t claim to be) is so outside of the norm that it is almost unrecognizable.

    Though my point is that it is becoming more recognizable, not less so.

    “I think there are many things in this world which are beautiful, innocent, exciting, etc. (Cipher will disagree) I think it’s oversimplified to say “everything” is broken, when it’s clearly not.”

    I totally agree. Which is why I didn’t use the word “everything”. That was your own insertion. :)

    “After all, you and me having this discussion in a non-hostile way seems to be a very good thing.”

    Agreed! I’m having a thoroughly good time.

    “I might say, “well, I think Jesus has some great teachings, but I also disagree with him somewhat and don’t believe he ever performed miracles or rose from the dead”, and they would say I need him, or I’m “lost”.”

    And I’m totally with you that this is a rather futile circular argument. I certainly can’t speak for you about whether or not your life is fulfilled. That’s your own issue with God. I can however say that I’ve found a lot of fulfillment personally through my faith, and if you’re interested I highly recommend it! :)

    “For everyone who believes your explanation of the gospel, I can find ten more Christians who know their Bible (maybe) and would tell me that, as an atheist, I’m lost and anyone who isn’t for Christ is against him (someone said that a couple thousand years ago, didn’t they?).”

    Well no offense, but there are 1.7 Billion of us Christians on earth, and I’ll bet you’ll find a good deal more perspectives in that amount than you’re giving credit to here.

    As to the question of what Christ said about those who are not for him, you’re referring to Matthew 12, and a section in that chapter which has caused a lot of disagreement between theologians about “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”; the verse in question probably does not pertain directly to issues of salvation. Only literalists would take that verse on face value.

    “So, whose “holy spirit” or “intepretation of the Bible” is correct? I’m afraid I have to side with the conservative here who believes that God had every right to commit genocide in the Old Testament and make Judas betray Jesus while still punishing Judas in the NT. Your view of the Bible seems to dodge the difficult parts.”

    So…Does that make you a fundamentalist? ;)

    Well, in that paragraph alone, you’re dealing with free will vs. predestination, inerrancy vs. errancy, Biblical history, divine punishment, the nature of God, and other such small, irrelevant questions. I’m not intending to back off, but I can tell you right now I’m not able to take all those issues in one fell swoop. I’d be more than happy to discuss them over time, and one at a time.

  • cipher

    I think there are many things in this world which are beautiful, innocent, exciting, etc. (Cipher will disagree)

    I don’t disagree, really. I just feel that the bad outweighs the good. Most people have unbelievably horrible lives, and even here in America, among the comfortable middle class, life is unsatisfying. This is pretty much what the Buddha said; he used the word “dukkha”, which is usually translated as “suffering” but which, I understand, is closer in meaning to “unsatisfactory”.

    This is where I get into trouble with theists. I don’t know how to find God in all of this – and it isn’t for want of trying. And I deeply, deeply resent being told that after I’ve gotten through this life, I have nothing to look forward to but an eternity of even more suffering. Which I deserve, because I didn’t accept Jesus. Which doesn’t make any sense to me, but it doesn’t have to – God said it , they believe it and that settles it.

    And I meant what I said the other day – I can’t even conceptualize anything that God could tell me that would make it all retroactively okay.

  • cipher

    To the issue of everyone else going to hell. Evangelicals, as I understand them, do generally believe that.

    Or they used to. I’m sorry to do this again but look on my website under Baptists Aren’t Who They’re Thought to Be (or some such title.) This blew me away. And when I tell other Texas Baptists about it, many of them don’t even blink.

    Christine,

    There is a link at your website entitled, Baptist thinking isn’t always what people think it is , which leads to a post at Conversation at the Edge, A Texas Baptist who sounds like Jim. Is that the one? George Mason, the minister you describe, sounds as though he still thinks that many of us are going to hell – he just doesn’t want to be the one making the decision. I’m sorry, but I’m impatient with that attitude. A lot of evangelicals today are a little queasy abut the idea of hell, but they can’t or won’t give up the idea altogether, so they take the position, “It isn’t my place to judge. I’ll just leave it up to God.” I think that’s a colossal cop-out. People here have heard me complain that a lot of the Emergent folks waffle on this issue as well.

  • cipher

    Seriously dude, if Hell does exist, I’m pretty sure it consists of being forced to watch professional sports (pretty much any sport, doesn’t matter) for hours on end. I can’t think of any greater torment.

    Mike, I agree completely. It’s enough to make me confess to anything.

  • Spurs Fan

    Joel,

    I

    think there are many things in this world which are beautiful, innocent, exciting, etc. (Cipher will disagree) I think it’s oversimplified to say “everything” is broken, when it’s clearly not.”

    I totally agree. Which is why I didn’t use the word “everything”. That was your own insertion

    .

    Oh…you’re right. I misquoted you. You said…

    This is a broken world, and we’re a bunch of messed up people; all of us. So in many senses, we’re all lost.

    …and I still think this is too oversimplified, as I would mention the same thing: some of the world (and the people in it) is (are) amazingly beautiful and again, I find that to have nothing to do with a belief in god.

    Well no offense, but there are 1.7 Billion of us Christians on earth, and I’ll bet you’ll find a good deal more perspectives in that amount than you’re giving credit to here.

    Well, maybe. But, I think most would say someone that doesn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection is “lost”, no matter what that means. It’s hard to quantify that with numbers (Mike says the Eastern Orthodox wouldn’t say this), but if you don’t think that that’s the case, then why be a Christian? Why elevate Christ? If being a Christian is about being restored from my broken self, then don’t I need Christ? If it’s just about a path or “the way”, then why do I have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection to do that?

    So, whose “holy spirit” or “intepretation of the Bible” is correct? I’m afraid I have to side with the conservative here who believes that God had every right to commit genocide in the Old Testament and make Judas betray Jesus while still punishing Judas in the NT. Your view of the Bible seems to dodge the difficult parts.”

    So…Does that make you a fundamentalist?

    Well, in that paragraph alone, you’re dealing with free will vs. predestination, inerrancy vs. errancy, Biblical history, divine punishment, the nature of God, and other such small, irrelevant questions

    Yeah, maybe I’m an atheist fundy. If that’s possible. Let me simplify the question without answering it myself. If you and Pat Robertson follow the same Bible, both claim to be “restored” or “on the path to restoration” (however you want to define that) by Christ, both claim to be indwelled with the Holy Spirit, then why do you have such different takes on theology (do you really?) and life? Where has the Holy Spirit gone wrong here?

    I certainly can’t speak for you about whether or not your life is fulfilled. That’s your own issue with God.

    Joel, this sounds like dodging. If you believe he Bible, it would be very clear that you know damn well that my life is not fulfilled. The Bible calls me a fool, liar, and many other things for rejecting the existence of god or the divinity of Christ. In fact, this sounds an awful lot like the comments Cipher mentioned earlier:

    A lot of evangelicals today are a little queasy abut the idea of hell, but they can’t or won’t give up the idea altogether, so they take the position, “It isn’t my place to judge. I’ll just leave it up to God.” I think that’s a colossal cop-out. People here have heard me complain that a lot of the Emergent folks waffle on this issue as well.

    I can however say that I’ve found a lot of fulfillment personally through my faith, and if you’re interested I highly recommend it!

    I’m still not sure about any coherent definition of evangelism, but this seems to be a good example of it. Even if the fundamentalists would call it evangelism-lite.

    Agreed! I’m having a thoroughly good time.

    Me too, especially since I should be doing more productive things.

  • Spurs Fan

    Seriously dude, if Hell does exist, I’m pretty sure it consists of being forced to watch professional sports (pretty much any sport, doesn’t matter) for hours on end. I can’t think of any greater torment.

    Mike, I agree completely. It’s enough to make me confess to anything.

    To use a very thorough argument…screw you guys!

    Obviously my “dog” is not in the “hunt”, but I did watch last night’s game 1 of the NBA finals between the Celtics and Lakers. Did y’all? Did you see Paul Pierce sprain his knee, hobble back onto the court, continue to play on more or less one foot, and nail two three pointers in the 4th quarter to send his team to victory? This man is a fantastic player who has stuck with his team through hard times, and through that perseverance, is now three games away from his first championship. Sure I can find more legit examples of beauty and passion, but that was a damn good one.

  • http://www.christinewicker.com Christine Wicker

    Cipher,

    I think you’re right about the waffle. And I, too, find it unsatisfactory. But what’s astonishing is that a Baptist preacher in Dallas, Texas, would even be moving that way and preaching it. I never thought I’d live to see that day.
    They are backing off, slowly perhaps, of their major premise. They’ve still got Jesus dying for us, which is a strange idea (but most religious ideas are strange to outsiders.) And they still proclaim that their way is the best way.

    I suspect that evangelical Christianity and probably all of Christianity is too hemmed in by its doctrine and the Bible to be great use to the majority of people today. I think that if you begin with the premise that they do, you can’t get to real friendship and real openness with outsiders.

    But, I’ve known people who do. I’ve known Baptists who are simply the best people, the most open-minded people I’ve ever known. I suspect they’ve matured spiritually because of and in spite of the church. Would they have become the same people without church? I don’t know.

    I’ve been slowly drawn into friendship with some evangelicals in the last few years. Something very exciting is happening among them. Questioning and thinking that I never expected. When they talk about the need for a Reformation, they are groping toward some incredible changes. As Brian McLaren says, a deep shift.

    How deep? How far? I don’t know.

    I think they’ll have to go back to basics. And a central question would be whether Christianity really has anything to offer if you give up guilting and threatening people. And if you give up exclusivity. I think they must give up exclusivity.

    At the same time, I think the news in my new book is the best thing that’s happened for Christianity in the last 30 years. I’m not tooting my own horn, just talking about the facts coming to light. They mean that fundamentalism isn’t the only way for Christianity to go.

    On another subject.

    This issue of brokenness does keep coming up. I was Austin last week. I spoke at First Baptist Church, which is one of the most progressive Baptist churches in Texas (don’t laugh). (or okay do laugh, it’s a description that is hard to imagine). Afterwards, I went to dinner with the Baptist preacher, a U/U preacher and some others. Brokenness was a big topic. Very controversial.

    When so much heat is generated around a topic, you know something very central is shifting. Or has shifted already.

    Take a look at David Brooks’ column in the NYT today. Interesting discussion. He’s more conservative than I am, and I suspect his motives for reasons you will immediately see if you know he’s a Republican, but he is an interesting thinker.

  • cipher

    Christine,

    I hope you’re right. Most of the material I come across is reactionary and regressive – “they’re watering down the doctrine, they’re leading people astray, we’ve got to get back to the basics (sin, salvation, heaven, hell, etc.)… “. And many of them absolutely hate Brian. But I suppose these are the people who are making the most noise.

    Yesterday, Mike Clawson told us about Emergent groups he’s started in Texas and other Southern and Western states. Now, you’re telling us of your experiences. If the two of you are right, it’s all very encouraging. Of course, part of me is annoyed – in the back of my mind, it’s “why couldn’t they have done this twenty, thirty years ago?” – but it’s positive nonetheless.

    And all of this is happening in Texas? I can’t really believe it; I think you guys keep getting lost.

    In your interview at Conversations at the Edge, you told Helen that you consider yourself an Evangelical. She told me she thought you were kidding. Were you? You mentioned being “happy to be back in the fold”.

    Re: David Brooks – are you saying that he’s saying that McCain has confronted his failings, whereas Obama hasn’t?

  • Spurs Fan

    This is my unique challenge as well. I see much dodging with “progressive Christianity”, but like you guys, I’d much rather see it be more prevalent.

    And all of this is happening in Texas? I can’t really believe it; I think you guys keep getting lost.

    Cipher,

    Texas is actually a bit more diverse than you would think. With well over 20 million people and lots of diversiy (especially in the cities), we’re a pretty interesting state with a lot of different viewpoints. You shouldn’t think we all love John Wayne or resemble George Bush.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    in the back of my mind, it’s “why couldn’t they have done this twenty, thirty years ago?”

    I’m going back to school to get my PhD to answer exactly this question. :)

    (Translation: I’m going to be studying the history and roots of the emerging church movement over the past 60 years.)

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Sure I can find more legit examples of beauty and passion, but that was a damn good one.

    I’m just going to have to take your word for it bro’.

  • http://www.christinewicker.com Christine Wicker

    Cipher,

    I suspect that Brooks is laying ground work for that because McClain was a prisoner of war. But I’m a suspicious person.

    I get a lot of emails from people who quote Bible verses to condemn me and believe that they are speaking for God. As my sister says (jokingly because she doesn’t buy into any of it), “It’s always good to hear the Word.” Even when they’re using it to beat you about the head.

  • http://eucharisto.wordpress.com Joel

    …and I still think this is too oversimplified, as I would mention the same thing: some of the world (and the people in it) is (are) amazingly beautiful and again, I find that to have nothing to do with a belief in god.

    Well, maybe. But, I think most would say someone that doesn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection is “lost”, no matter what that means. It’s hard to quantify that with numbers (Mike says the Eastern Orthodox wouldn’t say this), but if you don’t think that that’s the case, then why be a Christian? Why elevate Christ? If being a Christian is about being restored from my broken self, then don’t I need Christ? If it’s just about a path or “the way”, then why do I have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection to do that?

    Well first off, I’d definitely agree that I think those not living in God’s love are going in a direction that will neither benefit them, nor help them solve their personal problems. I do think that trusting God with our lives is a journey, and it’s not all over when someone says the “sinner’s prayer”.

    I think that the best way to go about this discussion is to explain what I believe about my faith, sin, redemption, hell, and in the course of the post, maybe answer some of your questions.

    I would hold that there are very few, if any, complete people who don’t have some sort of reliance on God, in some religious form or another. Of course there are amazingly beautiful people, some of whom don’t believe in God; but even amazingly beautiful people struggle with doubt and failure inside of them, and awareness of their own shortcomings. If they don’t, then they haven’t lived long enough to know their own fallibility, and sadness in the world.

    That’s the contention that Christians make; sin (regardless of what it means for eternal judgment) is an internal force in everyone, and it causes a lot of grief and pain and loss. It’s there when we’re born, and it’s there when we die. We can still do good things, but we’ll be haunted by sin. It’s the struggle between two things that we Christians believe; that people are created in the image of God, which makes us beautiful and wonderful and valuable; and conversely that we are held by sin, unable to escape it on our own.

    Of course as a Christian I hold to the belief in the resurrection. But I also hold to the belief that as humans, we need something outside of ourselves, greater than us, to save us from ourselves. When I talk about resting in the “strong hand of love”, I’m resting in an outside force that I believe is beyond sin, and because of Christ’s sacrifice, where there was a separation between a holy God and sinful people, there is now no separation. I’m not sold on any one perspective about when or how exactly person becomes “saved”. I hold to the conviction that God works with “faith of a mustard seed”, and contrary to what the fundies think, it’s not for them to decide how that works. It’s not for me to decide how that works. That much is in God’s hands.

    As to the afterlife? You got me. The ideas surrounding Heaven and Hell in the Bible are very complex, and interwoven with descriptive narrative, allegory, and parables, not to mention the fact that there is a lot of prophesy thrown in for good measure, so that it makes it all but impossible to nail one definition down. I’m kind of leaving that up to God while I try and study it, and work out my own understanding of it.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that the Bible speaks about Heaven, Hell, salvation, sin, and all issues central and pertinent to the Christian faith. However, I don’t think there’s a problem with there being a number of approaches to those issues. It’s what makes Christianity such a dynamic faith. It’s really a shame that the fundamentalists feel their perspective is the exclusive Christian perspective, because for me, part of understanding Christianity is respecting and being open to the perspectives of all Christians, and all philosophies therein.

    So to sum up, Christianity is a journey of discovery that I will be on for the rest of my life, and I’m still working out the details. I’m humble enough to say that I don’t have it all figured out yet; the difference between us is that I’m headed towards trying to find meaningful reasons for my faith, and you’re headed towards trying to find confirmation against Christianity. Our perspectives are fundamentally focused on opposing ends of the spectrum. I respect that, and of course, hope that perhaps someday you’ll consider looking back into what Christianity means.

    Joel, this sounds like dodging. If you believe he Bible, it would be very clear that you know damn well that my life is not fulfilled. The Bible calls me a fool, liar, and many other things for rejecting the existence of god or the divinity of Christ. In fact, this sounds an awful lot like the comments Cipher mentioned earlier:

    I think the problem here is that you want me to say something incriminating and bigoted. It’s easier to criticize a fundie who’s shoving hellfire and damnation down your throat, than it is to deal with someone like me. I’m not going to do that, because I am still working the answers out myself. The Bible is complicated and nuanced, and I don’t just take it on face value. Like I said, I’m still trying to work my own salvation out; but I think I’ve sufficiently given a “reason for the hope that is in me”, as St. Paul said. You can take it or leave it. I’m not going to proselytize. I’ll pray for you personally, I’ll talk with you if you’re interested. But it IS your issue with God, it’s not on my shoulders. I have neither the wisdom, nor the authority to make a call on your standing with God.

    I do agree however, that everything isn’t equal. I really do think that Christianity is more fulfilling, and more meaningful as a form of belief. If I didn’t think it was, then why would I believe in Christianity in the first place?

    I’m sorry to say this, but I am a busy guy, and I really don’t have the time or energy to keep up this discussion. Not to mention the fact that our little rabbit trail has gone really far off course of the original subject at hand, that we ought to finish it up. I think after 10 or 15 long posts, I’ve said enough to make it clear what my position is, and I hope that’s helpful in the course of this interaction. I don’t plan on responding from here on out. I have had a good time, and I wish everyone here all the best.

  • cipher

    in the back of my mind, it’s “why couldn’t they have done this twenty, thirty years ago?”

    I’m going back to school to get my PhD to answer exactly this question. :)

    (Translation: I’m going to be studying the history and roots of the emerging church movement over the past 60 years.)

    I suppose, Mike, the answer is that they weren’t ready. Or it was in the incubation stage. Progressive Evangelicalism probably had to develop as a reaction to the expanding imperialist fundamentalism of the past thirty-odd years – “This is not your father’s Christianity.”

  • cipher

    But that doesn’t prevent me from being pissed off.

  • SpursFan

    I know everyone has probably left this post. I have not been able to comment due to being out of town, but Joel, if you’re reading this I want to clear up one thing.

    I

    think the problem here is that you want me to say something incriminating and bigoted. It’s easier to criticize a fundie who’s shoving hellfire and damnation down your throat, than it is to deal with someone like me.

    Joel, I’m trying to do no such thing. I will say again that in most ways, I really do appreciate you, Mike, and others who have a more tolerant view. However, I’m just making the point that the “fundie” who elevates the Bible and Jesus seems, in my opinion, to at least be more consistent in their arguments. That doesn’t mean that I think they are better and it definitely doesn’t mean that I am having this discussion to trap you. If you’ve checked the links to our previous discussions about this, you’ll realize that I’ve talked about this often, am not trying to entrap anyone, and definitely don’t have a problem “dealing with you”. The last one is especially insulting. I can respect your beliefs, but please don’t pretend as if they are original. I’ve been there Joel.

  • cipher

    SF, if it helps you at all, I have a similar problem in the Jewish world. Jews, even the ultra-Orthodox, generally aren’t Biblical literalists in the Christian sense; the Talmud is a written record of 2,000 years of oral commentary and interpretation. The rabbis spent centuries reinterpreting the Bible to accommodate evolving sensibilities, although, naturally, they didn’t want to see it that way, so the idea arose that there are multiple levels of meaning, and that only those whose souls and/or intellects are refined can apprehend the deeper meanings.

    One simple example is the injunction to parents to have a disobedient son put to death. This troubled the rabbis during the medieval period, and they claimed that it rarely happened. One of them got pretty hot about it and declared, “It never happened!”, so that became the official opinion – it never happened, and it never will. My problem is that I don’t believe it; I think it did happen, as a matter of societal control, and was approved of; that’s why it was included.

    I mentioned recently that I’m friendly with (a very liberal and open-minded) Orthodox rabbi. I told him this the other day – I don’t think that there are any “deeper” or “hidden” meanings; it was written by people in a primitive state of development, and it reflects their savagery. Progressive evangelicals (both of them!) and liberal Christians in general often say that we atheists have the same understanding of the Bible as do the fundamentalists. Well – yeah. I think the fundies are correct; I don’t think that there are, for the most part , any subtle or nuanced meanings (perhaps later on, by the time you get to Revelations, but we lost the key to that a long time ago). I think it means what it seems to mean. Put your child to death. Commit genocide. Later on – if you don’t believe, you’ll be burned alive for all of eternity. All of the attempts, on the part of both Christians and Jews, to see it otherwise are rationalizations, and nothing more.

    Christians often use flowery, sentimental language to refer to the Bible – it’s God’s “love letter” to humanity, etc. Obviously, I think that’s a load. It’s a bloody, savage series of books, written by people in a primitive stage of development and it reflects their inherent violence and cultural outlook (as well as, as I keep saying here, centuries upon centuries of accumulated self-loathing). I agree with the fundies – either you accept it, or you reject it. I reject it. I can’t do otherwise. I don’t think ill of liberal Christians and Jews who accept it and try to reinterpret it; as I’ve said repeatedly, salvific exclusivism is the line of demarcation for me. As long as you don’t believe that the rest of us are going to hell, I don’t have a problem with you. And if you have more than a few neurons to rub together, we can talk. On the subject of the Bible’s origin and inherent worth, however, we can never agree.

    And, if it really is the product of divine revelation, we’re in a shitload of trouble, because God is obviously psychotic.

    And now Mike will probably stop talking to me altogether.

  • Spurs Fan

    Cipher,

    I agree 100% with all of your comments and I can say that I’ve experienced more progressive versions of Christianity. Until I saw that I had no clothes!

    That being said, I’m still glad there are Mikes and Joels in the world. I may critique them for what I see as a lack of consistency, but polticially and socially, the world is a better place because of them. In my opinion.

  • cipher

    That being said, I’m still glad there are Mikes and Joels in the world. I may critique them for what I see as a lack of consistency, but polticially and socially, the world is a better place because of them. In my opinion.

    Certainly. I don’t think it will be enough to salvage this sorry civilization – but I agree.

  • Darryl

    Cipher,

    I agree 100% with all of your comments and I can say that I’ve experienced more progressive versions of Christianity. Until I saw that I had no clothes!

    That being said, I’m still glad there are Mikes and Joels in the world. I may critique them for what I see as a lack of consistency, but polticially and socially, the world is a better place because of them. In my opinion.

    I second that.

  • http://blog.crispen.org/ Bob Crispen

    sorry, I’m way late with this, but I disagree with the commenter who suggested “fundamentalism” as a better name than ‘evangelicalism.’ ‘Fundamenralism” has a long tradition of use in hermeneutics and has ties to liberals like Fosdick and near- agnostics like Mansel. And too, unless I’ve got it wrong, the Religious Right encompasses charismatic and holiness churches which aren’t fundamentalist wrt exegesis,


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