Anointed? 6 … Is Moving Left Always Right? (RJS)

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of the new book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens, an associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and Karl Giberson, formerly a professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene. Giberson has now moved on to concentrate on a number of writing projects.

In this book Stephens and Giberson examine several different facets of American evangelicalism to explore the manner in which “America’s populist ideals, anti-intellectualism, and religious free market, along with the concept of anointing – being chosen by God to speak for him like the biblical prophets” influence a broad range of evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and practices.

Chapter five, A Carnival of Christians, discusses the evangelical subculture and the way Christians grow up and live within this culture, separated to an extent from the broader western culture. The presentation is shaped around the experience of a young Christian – Paul – who grew up embedded in this culture in the southeastern United States. The post today will consider aspects of higher education and what is termed the “carnival of Christians“, the diversity of Christians views that deviate from any individual’s stereotyped expectation.

After describing the community structure of the local church, Stephens and Giberson go on in this chapter to explore Paul’s journey through college and into adult life. He went to a Christian college, Bryan College in Tennessee, where he experienced something of a crisis of faith; spent some time at L’Abri in England, returned to Gordon College in Massachusetts. Using Paul’s journey as a framework Stephens and Giberson describe the impact that education and engagement with the broader world has on individuals and institutions.

Education, however, liberalizes and secularizes, and in the evangelical world there is widespread discussion of Christian students abandoning their religious traditions in college and university. (p. 211)

The statistics often quoted for those abandoning faith range from 90% (the most alarmist) to 40% (a somewhat more realistic number).

This post is particularly timely as it follows Scot’s post earlier this morning, Moving Right is Never Wrong (in fact I’ve edited it a bit this morning to better make that connection).  Stephens and Giberson counter the view that moving right is never wrong with the opposite. There is an implicit assumption that those who move furthest to the left are generally the most correct.

This is worth some serious discussion. There are slippery slopes in both directions.

When does moving left become wrong?

How can we engage with the issues faithfully?

The position argued by Stephens and Giberson in the rest of this chapter is that this much trumpeted loss of faith is really a matter of degree. Education does not always secularize, but it almost always liberalizes.

Evangelicals often abandon their childhood faith when they become free to explore issues on their own. The story is common and there are many celebrity “deconversions” like those of E.O. Wilson and Michael Shermer. Often the study of science is the catalyst. But a great many evangelicals … do not abandon their faith. They simply find another place within evangelicalism where they can reside more comfortably. (p. 215)

The Christian faith encompasses a broad range of positions, and even Evangelicalism is a big tent where there are many different views and positions. These ranging from very conservative to quite liberal, all the while retaining a strong belief in the reality of miracles, the incarnation, and the resurrection. Many of us hold positions more liberal than those of the churches of our youth – but still well within the fold of Christian orthodoxy. Yet the question here is where to draw the line – or even more directly whether a line should be drawn at all.

Cultural or Christian? One of the undercurrents in The Anointed is a theme that conservative evangelical positions on most issues are far more cultural than Christian. To a certain extent this is undoubtedly true – many of the most deeply held convictions are anchored in a specific time, place, and culture rather than essentials of the timeless Christian faith. The variations in churches and Christian colleges in different parts of the United States and, even more significantly, across the globe make this quite clear. We must always wrestle with the question of what is cultural, written as Keith Drury so aptly put it “in pencil”, and what is written “in blood” that is those essentials of the faith we are willing to die for, where taking a different position means leaving behind orthodox Christian faith.

But Drury also has a category in his essay My Meltdown Story for those things written “in ink” – these are the doctrines and ethical beliefs that, while not to die for, are worth holding tight.  A secondary theme running through the book by Stephens and Giberson is an implication that the most liberal position on anything not written in blood is (almost always) the most correct, reasonable, and rational. This undercurrent is a place where many, myself included, will become a bit (or more than a bit) uncomfortable with the position that seems to be advocated by Stephens and Giberson. There are things that I would hold are written in ink, that they seem ready, even eager, to move to the category of pencil. The following paragraphs give a taste of this.

The spectrum of evangelical belief runs from a rigid, judgmental, sometimes harsh fundamentalism on one end to a more liberal and culturally plural expression on the other. Often an evangelical “crisis of faith” is resolved with a simple liberalizing, whereby specific beliefs – biblical literalism, young earth creationism, homosexuality as perversion, eternal torment of the damned in a literal hell, the sinfulness of abortion – are abandoned and other beliefs – the Bible as literature, concern for the environment, racial and cultural equality for oppressed groups, universality of salvation, an emphasis on social justice, tolerance of diversity – move to the center animating ethical and theological concerns. The evangelical spectrum encompasses both of these camps. (p. 216)

And later:

Despite the confident claims of the culture warriors …, evangelicals – as Paul happily discovered – need not reject contemporary science in favor of creationism, conventional history in favor of David Barton’s “Christian History,” or mainstream psychology in favor of James Dobson’s biblical alternative. And they most certainly do not have to embrace the far-fetched apocalyptic speculations of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. (p. 223)

The issues in these two lists run the gamut from theological to scientific to ethical to hermeneutical. Conflating them all together obscures the key issues involved. The approach across the board should not be the same. In fact grouping them all together obscures the true central questions in each case. The issues involved in consideration of young earth creationism, abortion, and hell are fundamentally different (and they shouldn’t be contrasted with environmental concern, racial equality, and social justice).

It is absolutely true that all of these issues must be on the table open for conversation concerning questions and doubts. One of the things we try to do on this blog is to put the issues up and think through the pros and cons looking at different sides of the questions.

But it is not true that all “conservative” positions are equally indefensible or that the opinions of secular experts should necessarily carry the day.

Which of the issues listed by Stephens and Giberson are cultural, thus open to being erased or changed?

Which, if any, are more substantive aspects of Christian faithfulness?

How can we tell the difference?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you and Scot giving such sustained attention to this book. I have not read it yet, but I respect the authors and find the general thesis spot on. In terms of your concerns expressed here, on the basis of what you excerpt they do seem too flippant and broad brushed.

  • Rick

    Although they bring up good points, it is interesting that two people who are advocating careful thinking within Evangelicalism, end up (as Greg #1 points out), “too flippant and broad brushed.” One would think they would especially be careful to not make such mistakes.

    Also, can’t be reminded enough of that Drury quote. Glad you brought it up again.

  • TSG

    “When does moving left become wrong?”
    When one can no longer believe Jesus is God, placing man at the center of experience.
    To be totally honest, I feel that the social gospel has hurt American culture. We really do need a statue of responsibility in the San Francisco Bay. It’s obvious American culture places a huge emphasis on children. However, in the past 35-45 years we have placed the emphasis on special education. Placing emphasis on being needy is the exact opposite of what is needed.

  • gingoro

    “but still well within the fold of Christian orthodoxy” While many, myself included, are still within the fold of orthodoxy that does not mean that we are still within the fold of evangelicalism as I see evangelicals moving to the right and away from a generous orthodoxy.
    Dave W

  • Joe Canner

    TSG #3: “However, in the past 35-45 years we have placed the emphasis on special education. Placing emphasis on being needy is the exact opposite of what is needed.”

    Are you saying that special education students aren’t truly needy and that we’re just coddling them by treating them differently? Learning disabilities are a very real and well-documented biological phenomenon, and there are tried and true strategies for overcoming them. To ignore these disabilities is to consign a child to a lifetime of dependence. How would you suggest we deal with them?

  • Thanks for this good discussion, rjs.

    You ask, “How can we engage with the issues faithfully?” One answer is that we need to try to understand the story behind how things got to be the way they are. I’m reading some books on how the early creeds came into being, and the interplay of the political interests and manipulations of Roman emperors as well as unChristian violence on the part of bishops renowned for their orthodoxy. Should their frequent and intentional failure in orthopraxy affect the weight we give to their orthodoxy? It is a question worth asking.

    On a broader note, a 2009 Zondervan title also is a reply to the question you pose: The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (by David Dark). How can we be faithful if we consistently take other people’s word for it? As Scot observes, that isn’t what Jesus and Paul did.

  • Steve Sherwood

    TSG, as a parent of a child with severe dyslexia, who has benefited mightily to the “special needs” segment of the public school system, I am very interested in your explaining a bit more of what it is you were trying to say.

  • “biblical literalism, young earth creationism, homosexuality as perversion, eternal torment of the damned in a literal hell, the sinfulness of abortion”

    One of these is not like the others.

    As someone whose name happens to be Paul and whose journey happens to resemble the protagonist of this chapter (though in a different region of the country, the Northeast), I’m sympathetic to the authors’ contentions that many issues across the board tend to fall almost simultaneously in the midst of a faith crisis. Over the past nine months or so, it feels like I’ve raced from issue to issue, re-evaluating traditional notions of pretty much all the topics listed above, except abortion.

    I would argue all of the others stick together, with the first – biblical literalism – being the glue. But the Bible is actually fairly ambiguous about abortion, which has always led conservative Christians to rely on other, perhaps sounder, arguments for its “sinfulness,” i.e., human rights and sanctity of life concerns. Those arguments have largely held up under closer examination, at least for me, whereas the arguments for a literal hell, a literal creation and the wrongness of homosexuality have all disappeared once the untenability of strictly literal biblicism was exposed.

  • Superb post, RJS, and timely as you say. Stephens and Giberson seem (to me) to conflate far too many issues and respond to them similarly, when in fact they are substantially different (hell, sexuality, evolution, parenting, etc) – and the authority of Scripture is at risk, in their hands, of being deconstructed altogether, IMHO. Great response.

  • Joe Canner

    Paul #9: Tim Dalrymple has a very good post that makes that very point. See the sidebar to the right; it’s the first post under “Philosophical Fragments”.

  • DRT

    In considering this post along with Scot’s today I offer that moving to the left is wrong if it is done too quickly. One of the great values of conservative thought is a reluctance to change Authority, Purity, and Group Loyalty (caps for my anticipation of right feelings). All of those are good things to balance our the more responsive views of the left, as long as the right decision is reached in the end, of course.

  • DRT

    er… balance out…

  • DRT

    btw, as with most things, there is a Star Trek episode that shows this dynamic in action with the conservative objecting to new ideas…

  • There’s just not enough nuance accompanied by grounded biblical and theo-anthropological understanding in that quoted rush to the left, for me. The excluded middle would serve to highlight that a lot of us have ministered & struggled with & amidst the folks struggling, there.

    Considering human sexuality as either hetero or homosexually expressed apart from the clear creative force of heterosexual union in scripture & reality which life can be aborted is in that middle. Faith in God is related to the Creator’s ongoing creation of humanity as well as to humanity’s continuing need for love, mercy, grace & redemption.