Evolving Evangelicalism (part 12): Beyond the Culture War (Openness + Stories)

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The following series is based on my senior paper for Seminary. You may remember a video where I invited people to contribute their stories to help make my case. For the next couple weeks, I’ve decided to share my findings with you all. There will be a “thesis/problem” section, a “biblical theology” section, and an “application” section. I hope you will read along and share this with others! You can read the rest of the series here.
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Evolving Evangelicalism: Inviting Church Leaders to Refine their Approach to Scripture and Origins (part 12)

EVOLVING EVANGELICALISM BEYOND THE CULTURE WAR

The goal thus far has been to expose the problem created by the false polarity between biological evolution and segments of evangelicalism, and to refine our approach to interpreting the relevant biblical texts. The unfortunate tendency of many Christians to read the early chapters of Genesis through a scientific grid leaves many people without satisfying answers about our origins. Tragically, several young adults (and other age groups) struggle to either become or remain a Christian.

Now that a biblical solution to this problem has been proposed, we ask: How might churches begin to move beyond the problem and work towards becoming communities that no longer perpetuate an anti-evolutionary perspective? I suggest four areas for consideration, the first two which I will share in this post.

1. Cultivate Church Communities of Openness

The first area is the general ethos of conservative evangelical church culture. In these settings, there is often an emphasis on truth, and rightfully so. However, the default mode is to assume that truth is simple and that common Christian beliefs are the only views worth affirming. As a result, we create exclusion in the Christian community, even if this is done subtly.

Within the evolution conversation, commonly held assumptions about the “right view” can inflict wounds on those who dare to ask questions about these presuppositions. On the other side, those who are part of the “in group” feel that a core marker of their common identity is being challenged when alternative perspectives are presented. Thus, the polarities of the issue (and other debatable theological matters) continue to be perpetuated.

The evangelical church is not exempt from sociological realties that permeate in any group (be it with any commonly held ideology). For most strands of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, the strong belief in sola scriptura has itself evolved to mean that external sources (such as archeological or non-canonical cultural texts) should not be trusted. The apologetics culture often guards this approach as an honest attempt to honor God. While I appreciate their zeal, I wish it were redirected in a way that led to mutually-beneficial conversation. Unfortunately, group dynamics often lead to the exclusion of those who are viewed as a threat to normative belief structures.[1] Miroslav Volf’s words on reconciliation apply here:

The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.”[2]

My prayer is that the church will begin creating cultures of openness to differing (and often competing) perspectives. This requires intentionality from pastors and lay leaders. The invitation is to be truly and genuinely welcoming, no matter the person’s theological perspective, as loved by the Creator and embraced by the community. This proposal is risky, which is why we must prayerfully discern these issues and seek a center (perhaps something like the Apostle’s Creed) from which to work. Nevertheless, if the people of God begin to find their commonalities as primary, perhaps open conversation will lead to God-honoring results.

2. Move Past the Culture War by Listening to Stories with Fresh Ears

If the evangelical church cultivates a culture of openness, the result will be a willingness to listen to others’ stories with fresh ears. On my personal blog,[3] I made a video inviting people to interact with the basic thesis of this paper. My goal was to begin to foster a space for people (both Christian and otherwise) to share their stories about how the polarity between evolution and faith created a blockade to Jesus. Here are some of the comments from the blog:

JR: I grew up in a religious home and the version of Christianity that was presented to me — both at home and at church — was very black and white. I’ve always been the type of person who asks a lot of questions. I don’t question things with the goal of being contrary. Rather, I want to learn more. Somewhere during my teenage years, I started to ask questions about my faith. I realized that creationism simply didn’t sit right with me. It just doesn’t make as much sense as does evolution. I felt like all of the Christians around me seemed to equate believing in evolution with not being a Christian… After my realization involving creationism, I started to realize that there were other things about Christianity (as it was presented to me) with which I couldn’t make peace.

Extremities: If I had started from liberal Christianity, then I might have stayed a Christian. But I didn’t: I started from a fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, hit liberalism in a desperate attempt to salvage something of my faith, then crashed right on through…

Jacqui Norman: I have a 26-year-old daughter who is a brilliant scientist, a lovely, caring, ethical and beautiful young woman of whom I am endlessly proud. She is now studying for her Ph.D. with Cambridge University, and at the foremost research institution in Europe, maybe even the world. As a child she had a faith in and love for God, but now does not, and this is “one” of the key issues for her…

Jon Wilburn: I know many, many people that grew up in Christian faith and have walked away after high school – Science and creation being one of the areas.

Andrea: For me personally, being taught creationism did probably contribute to me becoming an atheist… I majored in biology in college. My freshman year I did spend some time trying to argue about creationism and evolution with professors and classmates, but by sophomore year I was definitely dealing with a lot of disconnect between what I had been taught at home and church and what the evidence was saying… I then spent a very emotionally difficult year trying to reconcile my understanding of evolution with Christianity. I didn’t want to stop believing in God, but I wasn’t able to reconcile the two… I am an atheist. I don’t know if that would be different had I grown up in a more liberal sect of Christianity.

Many common themes arise from these stories. Some admit that they might not have become atheists if their upbringing involved a more “liberal” version of Christian faith. Others speak of the environment their faith was nurtured in as reinforcing a false dichotomy between science and Scripture. All of these stories reveal a need in evangelical church culture – to move beyond the old ways of discussing evolution in the church. These stories speak of collateral damage from the old approach. May we listen to these stories, and in openness to the questions, create fresh opportunities for people to embrace Jesus without feeling the need to leave their intellectual sensibilities at the door.


[1]. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 145-46.

[2]. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 29.

[3]. Kurt Willems, “Preaching Against Evolution in Evangelical Churches Creates Atheists,” the Pangea Blog, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2012/01/12/preaching-against-evolution-in-evangelical-churches-creates-atheists/ (accessed February 20, 2012).

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