My Dia-blog with Frank Viola

I hesitate to call Frank an “Evangelical” because he says he and Christians like him are “beyond Evangelical”. That resonates because one of my books and my approach to the faith is “More Christianity”. Anyway, I read the book Frank wrote with Leonard Sweet called Jesus A Theography and thought he and I might be able to dialogue publicly about the state of Evangelicalism and Catholicism.

This would not only bring us together, but bring our readers together in the combox.

It works like this: I ask Frank a question and he replies. I post on my blog. He links. Later in the week I reply and post on my blog and he links. The next week he asks me a question. I reply. He posts on his blog. I link. He replies and posts on his blog and I link.

I hope my readers will take an interest in the discussion and jump in with visits to both blogs and both comboxes.

Here’s my question for Frank:

Hi Frank,

Thanks so much for the invitation to conduct a conversation with you through our two blogs!

You know I’m a graduate of Bob Jones University. I grew up in an Evangelical fundamentalist home in Pennsylvania. It was church twice on Sunday and Wednesday night prayer meeting. I can remember reading anti-Catholic Chick tracts and although my family wasn’t strongly anti-Catholic, the assumption was that Catholics were not Christian and needed to “get saved.”

When I went to Bob Jones the temperature of the religion was considerably warmer! At Bob Jones they were definitely anti-Catholic. The Pope was the anti-Christ and the Catholic church was the great whore of Babylon. Dr. Bob and his friend, the fiery Northern Irish preacher Ian Paisley used to inveigh against the idolatrous and blasphemous Catholic church. When Pope Paul VI died Dr. Bob said he had “gone to the place appointed to him along with his brother Judas.”

Whew! Pretty hot stuff!

You’re probably familiar with this strong anti-Catholic bias within the Protestant-Evangelical world, and while it wasn’t always quite as jalapeno pepper hot at Dr.Bob’s preaching, there was plenty of it throughout the Protestant world. Indeed, it is arguable that the entire Protestant religion is a “protest” against Catholicism and that no matter if you are Anglican or Assembly of God, Methodist or Mennonite, Lutheran or Church of Christ or house church or community church or no church at all–if you are a non-Catholic Christian part of your religious genetic code is a certain level of anti-Catholicism.

Protestants are often unsure of what they are, but they are very sure what they are NOT–and that is Catholic.

However Frank, you represent a particular stream of Protestant Christianity which you describe as “post Evangelical” or “beyond Evangelical”. I’m still learning what this means, but among other things does it mean that you have moved beyond the old, assumed, “no question about it” anti-Catholicism of American Evangelicalism?

Yr brother in Christ,

Fr. Dwight

…and here’s Franks’ reply:

David Livingston said, “I am prepared to go anywhere . . . provided it be forward.”

We are living in a day when modern evangelicalism is in ruins. The four notes of evangelicalism – being bible-centered, cross-centered, conversion-centered and evangelistic . . . have taken on meanings so diverse that Albert Mohler (on the right) and Rob Bell (on the left) call themselves evangelical. But the tide is turning.

Christians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are tired of the shallowness of modern evangelicalism. They are tired of the self-righteousness, callousness, and judgmentalism that marks much of the movement. They are tired of the libertinism (grace=license to sin) that marks much of the movement. They are neither left nor right.

They are Christians who have a deep allegiance and devotion to Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus alone is this world’s true Lord and He stands above all systems and personalities, even religious. They love, desire, and stand for the ekklesia, a local body of believers who are enthroning Christ as Head . . . and they believe that the church is Christ existing as a shared-life community, not two hours on Sunday and Wednesday.

They don’t advocate any particular church form or structure. They simply want to follow the Lord with others. This hearty band of Christians from every nation, tribe, kindred and tongue stand for the four notes of classic evangelicalism. But they have gone beyond them.

In addition, they are . . . intensely Christ-centered, Jesus is not only the supreme Lord. Not only the wonderful Savior. But He is All (Col. 3:11). They are Resurrection life centered. They believe that Jesus, by his resurrection, is still alive and indwells every believer. But more, every believer can live by His indwelling life . . . and this is the meaning of the Christian life. They are also body centered. Christ in known in and through the shared life community called the church, which is His body. And they are eternal purpose centered. God has a timeless purpose that goes beyond salvation, and He’s never let go of it. They have gone beyond evangelical. To repeat: The following can be said about those who have moved “beyond evangelical.” They are neither fundamentalist nor emergent. They are neither postmodern nor modern. They are neither pietistic nor activist. They are neither legalistic nor libertine. They believe in morality, but they are not moralistic. Those who have moved beyond evangelical embrace elements of each theological/political position, yet they have gone beyond them.

In answer to your specific questions, “beyond evangelicals” embrace all Christians who name the name of Jesus regardless of what denomination, movement, or Christian “tribe” to which they belong – whether Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Radical Reformed, etc. Whomever Christ has received we must also receive.

  • Mark Shea

    These guys are ripe for the engagement with the Catholic tradition that Sherry Weddell is describing in Forming Intentional Disciples.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thanks. I’ve got Sherry’s book on the top of my review list. Promote our dialogue if you can!

    • Paul Rodden

      I agree.
      I read Sherry’s book a couple of months back, and I found it superb, well-balanced, and comprehensive.
      One of the threads that runs through the book is the importance of avoiding partisanship, and the temptation of ‘conservative’ Catholics to become like thought police, which ends up being counterproductive.

  • Steve P

    In many ways it sounds like a very solid “organic” ecclesiology. I could relate very much to what he is describing as an ideal for any local Catholic church community. Probably the biggest practical sticking point is the nature of authority.

    The reality is that much of the relationship component that he’s describing should be our day-to-day experience of Christ. In that sense there is an enormous amount of common ground, room for common experiences of prayer, service etc. I think those are the building blocks of what we Catholics term the universal call to holiness, or our Baptismal vocation. 90% of the time, you could argue that “the rest is just details”, but there are circumstances where those details become pretty important, and unfortunatately contentious.

    • Briana

      “The reality is that much of the relationship component that he’s describing should be our day-to-day experience of Christ.”

      So, so, true.

  • Margaret Sidney

    As a recent convert to Catholicism, I am constantly seeking to gain more knowledge about the faith. Thank you for allowing me to read this. As a warrior for Christ, I will be recommending this to other. Thank you!

  • Ryan M.

    Having run in a few “post-evangelical” circles before coming home to Rome, I think that this is entirely accurate:

    “Christians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are tired of the shallowness of modern evangelicalism. They are tired of the self-righteousness, callousness, and judgmentalism that marks much of the movement. They are tired of the libertinism (grace=license to sin) that marks much of the movement…”

    But I’m afraid that the rest of his description may only speak to a part of this new-ish demographic. This is only anecdotal, but for every “beyond evangelical” that I know that is “intensely Christ centered” and who embraces all Christians, I know 3 or 4 who are intensely confused and embrace all suspicions. It’s not so much that they’re welcoming to all denominations–it’s that, having grown up and found out that the evangelical emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, they don’t feel at home anywhere; they don’t have a denominational identity to call their own. And so they wander…

    Frank says that this “hearty band” still stands for the four notes of Evangelicalism, but I’d be hard pressed to find one that’s truly evangelistic. I think there’s a huge emphasis on what I now as a Catholic call the corporal works of mercy–which is FANTASTIC, please don’t hear what I’m not saying– but there’s little-to-no interest in “winning souls to Christ,” or however it’s phrased now.

    And Frank has this to say: “They don’t advocate any particular church form or structure. They simply want to follow the Lord with others. This hearty band of Christians from every nation, tribe, kindred and tongue stand for the four notes of classic evangelicalism. But they have gone beyond them.” Perhaps I’m missing something, but… my Mom was heavily involved in the Jesus Movement in the 70s, and I can’t see any difference between what Frank says and how Mom describes those heady days of yore. And her contemporaries grew up to be the very modern Evangelicals that my generation is so gosh-darned disillusioned with, so… what’s different this time?

    In terms of their possible engagement with Catholic tradition: I think a lot of them are more interested in dating that getting engaged :) What I mean by that is that there’s an intense interest in liturgical worship, maybe even a little in patristics, but still a lot of ambivalence about anything smacking of a robust Catholic theology. I think that’s why you see the off-shoot Anglican groups like ACNA doing particularly well at the moment with the Wheaton crowd and others…

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thanks for your comment. I wish Evangelicals and post evangelicals and emergent church and whatever folks would read church history. The hallmark of Protestantism is that every ten years of so they all say the same stuff Frank is saying. They’re tired of the stale denominations. They’re tired of the hypocrisy. They’re tired of the clutter of conventional religion. They want it fresh and simple and authentic and just me and Jesus. The problem is–this same revolutionary attraction to primitivism is, itself, already 500 years old.

      • Paul Rodden

        They’re rather Donatist, too. :)

    • Briana

      Funny you should bring up the Jesus movement, my mom became a Charismatic in those days, and like your family, went on to the Evangelical side. I was a tyke, but I remember the meetings well, and they were heady. I was brought from concert to concert. And then when I grew up I became one of those disillusioned, and instead of becoming more emergent, or beyond Evangelical, I started reading the Church Fathers, Martyr, Irenaeus, searching for that first century church experience? And I landed in the letters of Justin Martyr and I said, “Self, this sounds like a Catholic Mass, the one you still know by heart.”

      That disillusionment is a cycle, that’s for sure.

      But the ringer for me, was just what Barna and Viola went over in one of their books–I think it was Reimagining Church? Why so many churches when we’re called to be one? 44thousand churches all can’t be right. That was the point, for me, that just made my stomach sick. How far 44k is from 1.

      So they are trying to be one by going beyond denominations, but I went back to the One Church.

      I think in the disillusionment, there is a lot of room for dialog.

    • Paul Rodden

      Great post, Ryan.
      From ‘reading’, Jesus: A Theography (audiobook version), there are places where the authors sound very Nestorian.

      Many of my Evangelical friends, even if as committed as Frank outlines, seem to have very dubious Christologies in terms of the ‘Christ’ to whom they’re committed. Many seem Nestorian or Arian when they talk about ‘Jesus’, too.

      However, any attempt at discussion on the matter suddenly brings out their anti-intellectualism, claiming all these high-falutin’, ivory-tower, discussions are irrelevant. You’ve just got to ‘have faith’, and follow Jesus who is your ‘friend’ like Steve down the Dog and Duck, except he can get you to ‘heaven’ and do magic.

      As to the Blessed Trinity, that’s just something about triangles, isn’t it? but they seem to assent to it only because they’d have to accept JWs and Mormons as Christians without it, yet it’s pretty irrelevant otherwise.

      In fact, it often seems to me that the biggest difference between Catholics and Protestants is the importance, and therefore the positioning, of the Trinity in one’s understanding of the Divine Economy. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be whatever you want them to be once you reject Tradition because the Raw Bible (TM) doesn’t tell us. Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was, not what they thought about his teachings, and that really mattered to the Church Fathers too, as history shows. [H/T Fr Robert Barron]

      If the Blessed Trinity isn’t central, ecclesiology and family unravel because they’re necessarily dependent upon it. Divorce and contraception are not really theological issues because only man is made in God’s image in its narrowest sense. Me and Jesus, which eventually becomes, Me. The way lots of Evangelicals talk about God – their ‘grammar’ – the three Persons are compartmentalised with separate jobs (de facto Tritheism/Modalism).

      So, I suggest that if ‘just Jesus’ – rather than the Blessed Trinity – is central, morality can only be the positing of (biblical) laws – ‘Divine Command Theory’ – because that’s all you can get from the Bible and the conflation of Jesus’ nature with his teachings. Whereas the very nature of God’s Trinitarian life – his Goodness and total self donation within himself (perichoresis) – is infused, or written, into his creation through Natural Law, and therefore creates a far richer ethic which covers extenuating circumstances and can speak to post-biblical moral ‘dilemmas’ with just as much clarity.

      They need to read the Theology of the Body in the context of John Paul II’s previous and great Wednesday catecheses on the Creed, which are often forgotten.

      Could Frank Viola write, The Blessed Trinity: A Theography? Because that would then be a true ‘theography’ as the Christian Tradition would understand it.

      As it stands, Jesus: A Theography, is reductionist, and it should be Jesus: A Christography, because that’s what it is – and it’s perfectly consistent with the compartmentalisation of the Blessed Persons I so often experience in my discussions with Evangelicals.

  • MarylandBill

    It is always gratifying to see a dialog between Christians of various denominations; anything that promotes unity between faithful Christians is a good thing. That being said, and with respect to Mr. Viola, I am not sure he really answered the question at hand. Now I am not saying that he is Anti-Catholic, but I am saying that his answer is insufficient to answer the question asked. He said that they embrace Christians who name the name of Jesus… But what exactly does that mean? In my experience, protestants can still be anti-Catholic while believing that some Catholics are in fact real Christians. What does he think about Catholics who have a devotion to praying the Rosary? Or who believe that the Sacraments are necessary to our Salvation? Does he believe it is possible to embrace traditional Catholic forms of devotion and worship and still be a Christian or does his idea of a Catholic Christian happen to look an awful lot like his vision of a Beyond Evangelical Christian?

  • wineinthewater

    I have noticed that at least one element in the decrease in anti-Catholicism is a double-edged sword. One of the reasons that anti-Catholicism among non-Catholic Christians is decreasing is that there is also a trend where the importance of concrete doctrines is decreasing. Historic anti-Catholicism was often pure bigotry, but was also tied to a fervent belief in doctrines that contradicted Catholic belief. As those contrary doctrines have become less fervently held, and the importance of coming to definitive convictions on doctrinal questions have both decreased, naturally so has some of the fire behind anti-Catholicism.

    Most of my non-Catholic friends and acquaintances are Evangelical and “post-Evangelical.” I have noted a distinct aversion to definitive belief, and the pervasiveness of a “our differences don’t matter since we all believe in Jesus” attitude. To me, it is very disheartening. Jesus is the Truth, I could never settle for not exploring and finding that Truth to the utmost of my (limited) ability, and my inability to have conversations with them exploring that Truth because “our differences don’t matter since we all believe in Jesus” is very frustrating.

  • Jackie

    Protestantism keeps dividing itself while the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church remains…