Speaking of Culture Wars: Evangelicals and the Bible (Again)

Today, Rachel Held Evans posted on how Christian culture wars may be winning battles but losing a generation. Younger Christians are growing tired of having the Good News defined by their leaders going into default battle mode whenever a controversial social or political issue comes up.

I agree with Rachel’s observation, and it struck me immediately that it is applicable to my little dysfunctional corner of the world: evangelicals and their uneasy relationship with critical biblical scholarship.

Defending a particular way of understanding what the Bible is and how it is to be understood are staples of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism was founded to stay “true” to the Bible, which means contending against the theories of much of biblical scholarship deemed unacceptable to a “high” view of Scripture.

No, I am not condemning all evangelicals, but anyone who is at all active in this subculture can relate without much difficulty. Evangelicals have a long history of protecting the Bible from perceived “attacks,” and they have been remarkably successful in passing down that defensive legacy, and throwing under the bus those who raise serious voices of dissent.

But a growing generation of younger evangelicals has grown suspicious of the tremendous expense of energy needed to sustain the status quo. They live in a world where evolution is true, world religions intermingle, evangelicalism has lost its political and cultural luster, and where biblical scholarship has convincingly offered alternate paradigms for understanding the Bible.

The faith of their evangelical heritage no longer defines their spiritual journeys, and so these evangelicals are ready to deal with the Bible as it is rather than shuffle their feet in embarrassment. The pleading voices of evangelical gatekeepers have become a distant echo of their parent’s faith, yet they find the shrill badgering of the New Atheists spiritually and intellectually obscene.

They are looking for a path forward that is both intellectually fresh and spiritually healthy. They want to follow Jesus, even discover what they means here and now, rather than taking on issues of past generations and fighting battles that they feel define a cultural moment rather than the Gospel.

In my opinion, the future of spiritually vibrant and intellectually engaged evangelicalism depends on their success. That horse is already out of the barn and there is no turning back.

 

  • mike h

    Not just young Evangelicals. I’ve been in that camp 40 years. It took 5 years in seminary to cure me. That was only completed last year.

    • peteenns

      Good point.

  • Chris

    “The pleading voices of evangelical gatekeepers have become a distant echo of their parent’s faith, yet they find the shrill badgering of the New Atheists spiritually and intellectually obscene. They are looking for a path forward that is both intellectually fresh and spiritually healthy. They want to follow Jesus, even discover what they means here and now.”

    Thank you Dr. Enns. This is a most insightful and pithy description of the difficult position in which I find myself these days. The difficulty for me lies in finding that path forward. It’s hard because I can’t just–as Descartes put it–”demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations.” Like everyone else, I have a history. A starting point. I don’t believe that I, or anyone else, can entirely transcend my own “thought categories” (to borrow your phrase), abandon my evangelical history, and break off from my family, my heritage, and my evangelical community (which holds that proverbial “high” view of Scripture). Nor do I know the degree to which I would wish to do so. Yet you are right that “there is no turning back.” A person can not change “backward”: back to former ways of thinking, perceiving, and believing. Those kinds of change are not available a person, especially when it comes to his thought life. We can change, yes. We must. But we can only change forward.

    Unfortunately, I find that as I try to move forward, the “distant echo” I hear is the siren sound of contempt for “vain philosophy,” and the biblical assertion that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” It reminds me of the sentiment expressed by Gaston in Beauty and the Beast when he quipped that “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ‘ideas’, and ‘thinking’”

    Still, I feel a rift, a tension within myself. Because I realize that this siren sound of concern comes as much from within me as it does from without. It is difficult indeed to find that path forward.

    • Lee Hauser

      Thank heavens I’m not alone in this. I’m only in my 50s, but I agree, I’m not where most of my generation seems to be. I see the convulsions my denomination is going through as we try to deal with the ordination of gays and I’m appalled by the prejudice I see. The church is in danger of losing me, too…but since I’m no longer an old-school evangelical, does it care?

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise Porter

    Two great posts – (yours and Rachel’s). It is important to stay true to the bible but what is truth anyway? Is not truth (or the search for it) a life long complex process as opposed to a cookie cutter formula imposed on others? Great learning and faith blossom in an environment of curiosity, vulnerability and connection. If the church wants a thriving community across all generational lines, we must probe the recesses of our hearts and minds in a much more sophisticated and compassionate way. When people are overly invested in “winning”, everyone loses.

    • aa

      What is your basis in making these claims? You said “Is not truth (or the search for it) a life long complex process as opposed to a cookie cutter formula imposed on others?” Where did you find it from the Bible? Or did you invent it yourself?

  • Nan Bush

    Now in my late 70s, I’m a lot closer in my beliefs to these young evangelicals than to almost any denomination I know. In fact, at my own church there is a Progressive study group in which the youngest person, in her early 60s, said, “Thank God for this group! I’ve always felt like the Lone Ranger, but here I can think of myself as a Christian not a heretic.” It seems there may be a good many of us out here looking for the approaches you have described so clearly in this post.

  • Dave Stotts

    I’m tired of the culture wars too. But I’m also tired of being told I have to deny or change my views or else I’m a bigot. So what’s my play?

    • Nan Bush

      Maybe ask someone gay how they deal with being tired of being told they have to change their sexual orientation or they’re perverted.

    • aa

      Being tired is not a good reason per se. If you are wrong, you should change. Otherwise, stick to it.

  • Pingback: The battle against the culture wars

  • aa

    “They are looking for a path forward that is both intellectually fresh and spiritually healthy. They want to follow Jesus, even discover what they means here and now, rather than taking on issues of past generations and fighting battles that they feel define a cultural moment rather than the Gospel.”

    The author is perhaps trying to say the past theories or arguments should not replace genuine faith in Christ. However, the wording shows as if the author thinks “spiritually healthy” could be judged outside of the faith and “intellectually fresh” becomes a criterion itself.

  • http://thejawboneofanass.wordpress.com Eric

    I think part of this issue is that the culture wars simply look spiritually unhealthy. Living in North Carolina I’ve been hearing a lot about the Amendment One vote. Yesterday NPR interviewed someone who had championed the effort to pass Amendment One and within five minutes he had convinced me he was a sleezeball. He dropped these strange code-words that appeared to be designed to indicate that people who disagreed with him weren’t real citizens and claimed to know for certain several important unknowable things. Honestly, I thought he would tone it back for NPR (not necessarily a place where he would be preaching to the choir) but he seemed incapable of dialing back the weird used-car-salesman style of pitch for an audience that he might really need to convince.

    As a academic I found this all revolting. You say what you know, you acknowledge what you don’t, and you state clearly when you are drawing inferences from the data. As a Christian I found it worse. You tell the truth because the truth is good and you’ve presumably read the gospel of John at least once and noticed the whole truth is of God/lies are of the devil thing. As someone who has seen the culture war played out for years I wasn’t surprised. It really seemed par for the course.

    So yes, I’d say that one of the prominent fruits of the culture war is spiritual disease. It seems to breed a lot of hatred and lying. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but I’d need to see some real good out of it to know why I’d want to consider it an acceptable risk.

  • http://facebook.com/marshall.peace Marshall

    I’m in my 60′s. All my life Spiritual in various modes, none entirely satisfying. Found a good church a few years back where I can seriously dig in. The church is sort of ex-Pentacostal … Pastor says he doesn’t want to identify as Evangelical for the usual reasons, so he just doesn’t say. I feel that Evangelical is the label that suits me best (Words: “Read Your Bible”) although as one smart guy said, Really, I’m Just Christian.
    For people looking for the next move, I say, there’s LOTS of churches (not denominations, congregations). Find one that’s into questioning, studying, real solutions to real problems. No doubt it will not be the most orderly place in town. If you can’t find one, find a burned-out pastor and start something.
    “If you don’t like the news, go make some of your own.” – Scoop Nisker

  • James Morgan

    Christians who believe that the four evangelists were inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore the Bible contains no error have set a trap for themselves. It is evident that there are important contradictions among the Bible’s authors and between the Old and New testaments. For example, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Exodus say that God appeared bodily before Abraham, while John quotes Jesus as saying no man has seen the Father face to face.

    Many other biblical stories are unbelievable. Did the great deluge really cover the whole earth and was it higher than the highest mountain? Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet high, and on a balmy day the temperature is 15 degrees below zero and the oxygen level is only one-third that at sea level. Everything on the ark would have perished. After more than 100 years of searching, no evidence of a mass exodus of the Israelites has been found. There are many similar stories: the Seven Plagues visited upon Egyptians because the pharaoh would not free the Israelites. Why didn’t God simply kill the pharaoh instead of torturing and killing innocent Egyptians? Did Jonah really live in a whale and compose a song while there?

    In the New Testament, the story of the birth of Jesus doesn’t make sense. Would Joseph take Mary in her ninth month of pregnancy on a 90-mile hike from Nazareth to Bethlehem, especially since women were not counted in the Roman census? Quirinius, the governor of Syria was in charge of taking the census. He did not become governor until the year 7 CE, making Jesus 7 years old at that time. There are many other such unbelievable tales.

    Why does an all-loving, just and compassionate God allow natural disasters that kill so many innocent people? If he caused them, he is not loving and compassionate. If he cannot prevent them, he is not all-powerful. If he is oblivious of them, he is not all knowing.

    If all faiths viewed the Bible, Torah and Q’uran as collections of stories containing ancient myth and inspirational allegory and metaphor in which the authors are attempting to teach a moral code and about an all-powerful God and his purposes for mankind, they would be easier to understand, and there would be less ambiguity, controversy and confusion surrounding them.

  • Michael D. Johnson

    “That horse is already out of the barn and there is no turning back.”

    Occasionally I see “sayings” that people use to promote their Ideas and I found this one odd and funny, that you would use this one.
    Why can’t you just go “round-up the horse(s)”? I am not picking on your illustration, you can use what you want too, but, illustrations and quotes and others enlightening means, is a common way to drive home the point of your argument and make it succinct!

    But what I found so disturbing is that your points weren’t that well crafted. In fact, did you notice that your article is saturated with Ad Hominems and sayings that reflect, mostly, a sour demeanor against “Evangelicals” that you seem to never stop attacking. Even now, your use of phases is unending and never proved, only used to make fun of others.

    Let me point out a “few” of these saying and phrases that are put in to make an attack seem easy but in reality are just mean spirited to make a cause seem easier that it really is.

    Here are the few…

    uneasy relationship with critical biblical scholarship

    particular way of understanding what the Bible is

    “true” to the Bible

    protecting the Bible from perceived “attacks,”

    throwing under the bus

    sustain the status quo

    evolution is true

    biblical scholarship has convincingly offered alternate paradigms

    evangelical heritage no longer defines their spiritual journeys

    pleading voices of evangelical gatekeepers

    deal with the Bible as it is rather than shuffle their feet in embarrassment

    distant echo of their parent’s faith

    a path forward that is both intellectually fresh and spiritually healthy
    They want to follow Jesus,
    even discover what they means here and now

    taking on issues of past generations and fighting battles that they feel define a cultural moment rather than the Gospel.

    the future of spiritually vibrant and intellectually engaged evangelicalism depends on their success

    I noticed after writing them, that really… this is what your article is mostly about. There isn’t much else. That made me sad. You are too intelligent to sink to this level. Your books don’t reflect this as much as your articles do.

    I still read what you write, and though I don’t agree with everything, I still read.

    Forgive me for any spelling mistakes, I wrote this fast. If you think that I should have commented on each phrase, well…. that was not my point… it was the over use of them to simply attack without any proof on your part. It just seems like you are writing for readers of a certain persuasion to applaud your points and make them feel safe from Evangelicals.

    • peteenns

      Michael, ask your self whether you would have written this comment if the opinion I expressed had been aligned with yours. I doubt it. I also don’t see any ad hominem at all. Just an expression of my point of view. I do have some rather serious concerns with what many evangelical think about and use the Bible and I am hardly alone. You are most welcome to express yourself, of course, but i think this comment tells me more about you than about me.

  • Michael D. Johnson

    Thank you Peter for writing back. Many do not even answer their own blogs. This I admire about you.

    “Michael, ask your self whether you would have written this comment
    if the opinion I expressed had been aligned with yours. I doubt it.”

    I have on many occasions defended the same reasons against conservative evangelicals who use “them fightin words” to embellish their articles. I understand that blogs are not books and your books definitely are scholarly and not anything like this. But… I do still believe that this article was for the reader of a certain persuasion to yell “Amen” at the screen to all those “meany evangelicals” who don’t “get it”!
    Now… if that was your intention… OK! I’m satisfied with that. Many do this. I was just sorry that it comes from your pen and not from others that I would expect it from. So… believe it or not, I would and have, said the same even if you agreed with me.
    Don’t attack the person, but their views.

    PS. By the way, I am surprised to find that you agreed with the opening article by Rachel Evans. Does it really matter if we lose a million in the institutional Church, if it means accepting Sin, in any form, as a Righteous way to live? Maybe I should have commented on that instead. It just changed by the end of the article and to me, the way you used it to launch an attack against those who hate “Biblical Criticism”. You wrote…

    “I agree with Rachel’s observation, and it struck me immediately that it is applicable to my little dysfunctional corner of the world: evangelicals and their uneasy relationship with critical biblical scholarship.”

    I thought… Huhh? What has being against a lifestyle that is sinful anything to do with “being against Biblical Criticism?” They don’t jive! But you used it anyway? That is an Ad Hominem. Another words, if you are a conservative evangelical Christian that is against a sinful lifestyle, then… you are against “Biblical Criticism”.
    If I took it wrong… sorry, but I don’t see how? If wrong, please correct me!

    • peteenns

      Michael, in contemporary evangelical scholarship, we see common attempts to defend at all costs minority views that do not stand up to critical scrutiny (e.g., the Pentateuch is a 2nd millennium production, Paul’s use of the OT follows the OT context). Such issues are staples of evangelicalism and have achieved virtual culture war status. In defending these and other views, culture wars will be momentarily won (e.g., marginalizing evangelical scholars who views these things differently) but in the end will lose future generations who are not defined by these battles.


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