Are Evangelicals (Slightly) Masochistic?

I was having a conversation with a friend about the evangelical interest in Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church.  Jim’s written a good book, and I was happy to endorse it — albeit with the caveat that he and I disagree significantly on some theological issues like the nature of God and the nature of scripture.

In the book, Jim takes aim at the “traditional” church and the “emerging” church.  He offers a “third way” between the two, though any fair reader can see that he’s tougher on the emerging church than he is on the traditional church, and his third way leans significantly in the direction of traditional Reformed theology and worship.  Ignored are Catholic, Orthodox, Wesleyan, and Anabaptist visions of ecclesial life, and, as Jenell points out, women.

I don’t begrudge Jim any of those (except the ignoring of women) — he’s entirely entitled to his own opinions, and to publish them.  I wish him success.  And that wasn’t really even the point of my friend in our conversation.  Instead, he was intrigued that conservatives and Reformed folks would be so taken with Jim’s book when he’s pretty tough on them, too.

That got me to thinking, there’s a spate of examples of critiques of evangelicals that evangelicals seem to like — think Shane Claiborne and John Perkins challenging evangelicals on consumerism, wealth, and imperialism; think Soong-Chan Rah pushing on evangelical ethnocentrism; think Christianity Today‘s constant prodding that evangelicals get out of the evangelical ghetto. 

While I don’t know if the evangelical interest in being hit around the head and neck fits with Christian Smith’s “sub-cultural identity theory” of American evangelicalism, it’s at least a close cousin.

But what I find interesting the category of critique that evangelicals seem to embrace, like those listed above.  Yet Jenell’s criticism of the implicit patriarchy when InterVarsity Press prints Mark Driscoll’s endorsement on the back of Belcher’s book will go unnoticed.  Christianity Today seems reluctant to challenge John Piper’s ludicrous exegesis of whirlwind passages.  And those who challenge evangelicals on other issues like sexuality or the nature of the Bible are usually ignored.

So, am I on to something, or is this simply sour grapes on my part?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

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  • Alan

    It’s probably a little about sour grapes. Evangelicals, unlike liberals, embrace biblical conviction on the whole. That doesn’t neccesarily mean we’ll embrace the repentance that should follow, but that’s another story. So a rough critique of evangelicalism’s sinful relationship with culture (e.g., materialism, etc.) reminds us that we still need a Savior. Liberal versions of Christianity can’t handle critiques (watch someone get angry about this comment) because they have jettisoned the idea of conviction on a personal level, hence leading them into liberalism and out of historic Christian orthodoxy.

  • Fundamental evangelicals are used to getting beat up in the pews on Sunday mornings. Pastors feel like they need to give a “fire and brimstone” message but they forget that most of the time, they are preaching to the choir because they aren’t attracting seekers into the church.
    So inevitably Christians start equating feeling good to being bad. They are like Oliver Twist. When someone gives them a good what-for, it makes them feel closer to God so the response is always going to be, “Please Preacher, may I have some more?”

  • I’m going to have to disagree with Alan. I’m pretty darn liberal myself, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel conviction about wrong-doing. Just because liberals or post-moderns may bring into question certain doctrinal statements does not mean we are without moral fiber.
    Great Post Tony!

  • Interesting thoughts. I was at a conference hosted by MN Evangelicals on the Next Evangelicalism. During a forum question time, someone asked if Evangelicals aren’t as guilty of patriarchy as they are of ethnocentrism, and there was a hearty approval of the comment. Soon-Chan agreed and so did other presenters. So, I think the crowd that appreciates the conversation about diversity also is open to discussing the presence of patriarchy in the church.
    I think the issue with sexuality is really about scripture. I think people are willing to have the same discussions about sexuality that they are about the above mentioned list, but the argument for non-traditional expressions of sexuality are rarely made from Scripture. They aren’t made in the same way that all the other debates are made. They aren’t framed within the language of Evangelical discourse, so they are dismissed. The other issues can be engaged in as a sort of critique from within, while the nature of the sexuality debate takes place from the outside because you can’t open the Bible and say, “look at all these verses on poverty we’ve overlooked,” or “look here is an example of a woman apostle,” etc. If someone would champion an argument from Scripture for alternative sexuality spoken in the language of Evangelicals, i.e. with Scripture references, then I think more Evangelicals would step up take the beating.

  • I find that those that use the Bible to “beat the hell” out of people have learned to do this and think that this is normal Christianity.
    Anyone who thinks different is not of God is the attitude. But as God opens our eyes and shows us, just like learning that Santa Claus is Tim Allen (Snicker), that we start to put away our childish beliefs and become adult children of God.
    We start to act differently than the “religious” sects, and really enjoy life. You become less judging and more loving. I believe that some get this, like Shane Clairborne, and then people get too restrictive if the way a person lives doesn’t match up with theirs.
    Life is a journey, a never ending learning time, an adventure. Those that live by the “law” never truly live.

  • John M. – “If someone would champion an argument from Scripture for alternative sexuality spoken in the language of Evangelicals, i.e. with Scripture references, then I think more Evangelicals would step up take the beating.” – I’m not sure about that.
    The sexuality issue has a lot of emotional power behind it, but perhaps the “beating” would come if it came within the context of admitting (in my opinion) the more serious issue of spiritual pride. There’d be a whole heck of a lot of backtracking if the evangelical world all of a sudden recognized the need to change direction.
    Dances With Klingons – “Those that live by the ‘law’ never truly live.” I like that!

  • Darren

    John M,
    I have to disagree with you slightly here. There are, in fact, a number of people who argue for same-sex relationships through Scripture – even some Evangelicals. It’s simply that most aren’t quite ready to accept the examples that are brought up (most likely largely due to their ingrained “ick” factor regarding homosexuality). To wit, 500 years ago, there would be very FEW people within orthodox Christianity who would be willing to hear about women apostles as being a good argument for female leadership in the church. The examples weren’t readily accepted b/c the culture was still too male-centric. I think we might very well find that the examples regarding homosexuality will be much more readily accepted in 20 years or so. I could be wrong, but only time will tell . . .
    I do agree, however, that there are a lot of voices who speak on the issue from a different Biblical perspective, and thus don’t speak typical Evangelical language. But the disparate sects of Christianity have been talking past each other for centuries . . . and will likely continue to do so.

  • Annie

    I would also disagree that liberals don’t take critique. I do think, though, that individual communities are more sensitive to and perhaps more willing to hear certain critiques.
    What I mean by that is if a person/community values the absolute centrality of the bible, they will be more inclined to hear criticism that they aren’t taking the bible seriously enough. The critique is coming from within their chosen framework and is calling them to a deeper commitment to something they already value. If a person/community values rooting out all signs of patriarchy, the criticism that women’s voices are insufficiently represented in the conversation is more likely to be received.
    These aren’t mutually exclusive and I’m not saying anything will change in either case. Just that communities are more likely to hear criticism that effectively reaffirms their existing commitments.
    If it doesn’t engender change, it’s all just a big exercise in making yourself feel better about who you already are, but that’s another conversation I think.
    Jenell Paris’s piece–which I loved–is a nice illustration of what happens when the criticism goes against the grain of what a person already thinks and values. That is, if you have a look at the comments. Mixed in with some expressions of agreement, there are some interesting modes of disagreement.
    At least one commenter argues that there just aren’t women theologians, especially Calvinist ones, because women don’t think systematically. It’s more important that theology be systematic, logical, and pursued in a very conventional way than that women’s theological voices be included. The implicit argument is that if women thought/expressed themselves the way (certain white) men do, we would listen. Thus, if women are missing from the conversation, it is their own fault. This is an explanation and it is one that dismissed the criticism by placing fault somewhere else besides with the patriarchal tendencies of contemporary calvinist theology. And clearly, this is not a commenter who holds that the theological voices of women, however they sound, have any kind of inherent value.
    Some of Paris’s other commenters want to shift the emphasis. Patriarchy is the least of our worries when we’re approaching these theologians. They believe in double predestination! That’s a much bigger issue than whether women are included. Or so goes the argument. That essentially accuses Paris of splitting hairs at best and at worst of missing the real point. Again, patriarchy is perhaps acknowledged but addressing it is pretty far down the list of priorities. If only she had talked about double predestination…
    Bottom line, people want to hear some version of what they already think and are most interested in criticism that confirms their existing values and priorities. That’s my read of the situation.

  • Panthera

    Where to begin?
    As long as evangelicals insist that they are the only ones capable of truly knowing God, as long as they insist that gays are equal to pedophiles, so long as they pretend their interpretation of the Bible is God’s absolute will, I don’t think we have a chance of finding any Christian community.
    Of course, they also insist only they are ‘true’ Christians…
    At this point, I think it is just easier to focus on rescuing our human rights and the Constitution from them and going our separate ways. People who define their love of God through hatred of the Other neither truly know God nor do they wish to.

  • nathan

    as a graduate of a well known ecumenical university divinity school that stands squarely in the liberal tradition, I can say with real clarity and first hand experience that that environment was marked by humility, self-reflection and a real concern for the ways in which our personal failures and sins contribute to systematic and collective sins.
    there was many a time when my professors would gently remind me to give my evangelical heritage its due, even though i have gladly walked away from the label and much of its politicized culture war content.
    if, for argument’s sake, evangelicals have the corner on commitment to the Bible, then it falls on evangelicals to comport themselves with a higher standard of behavior, how they treat those with whom they disagree, avoiding attribution of heart motives, and not with the barely contained or even “polite” scorn that i can say with equal clarity and firsthand experience marks much of the way “liberals” get spoken about by them.
    finally, it would be really good for evangelicals to know that at my “big bad liberal” school, i witnessed thoughtful and serious engagement with Scripture. Just because people come to different conclusions doesn’t mean they “hate the Bible” or out to prove why “it’s useless” or whatever else evangelicals consistently charge liberals with.
    these are patently false claims.
    it is lying.
    it is bearing false witness against your neighbors.
    it needs to stop.

  • Panthera

    Well said, Nathan,
    A great irony of the currently pending decision whether to hear the case to overturn Prop 8 or not is the reaction of the christianists to the judge’s order that they turn over their internal deliberations on how to wage war on our status as human, and thus entiteled to civil rights.
    Should these documents show their concern was neither defamatory nor intent on hatred, then their successful actions to declare us sub-human have standing. If, however, it turns out their motivation was not exactly the ‘love the sinner’ attitude they like to hurl at us, then, of course, their position becomes intent to harm a minority.
    The irony of it all is that the judge is a stanch conservative who believes in applying the Constitution literally.
    Of course, any attempt at editing or withholding these documents would be false witness.
    Not schadenfreude so much as hung by their own petard…

  • matt

    Tony Jones, I’ve never seen so much blog hatred directed toward a single person. Seriously, you are like the Osama bin Laden of the Reformed Christian blogosphere.

  • ben w.

    Tony, that you would call Christian repentance, self-criticism, and church reformation “masochistic” is terrible. Evangelicals are criticized for being hypocrites, then criticized for turning from their hypocrisy.
    Panthera, I apologize for those evangelicals who have equated homosexuality with pedophilia. I apologize for those evangelicals who have insinuated that they are the only “true” Christians, because they are not. If any of the evangelicals in my church stated such things, I would correct them, biblically.
    As a young evangelical, I am trying not to make the same mistakes that the previous generation made. Like all young people, it’s somewhat fashionable and cutesy to insult and criticize those older than ourselves, and that’s certainly part of what’s going on. But there’s also more. With the resurgence of reformed theology has also come a deeper recognition of sin, which brings (I believe) deeper humility. Also, seeing the full sufficiency of the grace of Christ frees me to confess sin and grow from it. As an evangelical (that is, one grounded in the biblical account of the good news of Jesus), I know that all my righteousness and my standing before God are founded upon the cross of Christ, not me being right or even righteous. Thus I’m freed to admit that I still sin, that I probably have some latent ethno-centricity, homo-phobia, and machismo, all of which are certainly sinful. But doesn’t mean that I’m a masochist, just that I find the gospel so sufficient that I can freely admit the faults of both my (theological) fathers and myself.

  • Panthera

    ben w. said:
    Also, seeing the full sufficiency of the grace of Christ frees me to confess sin and grow from it. As an evangelical (that is, one grounded in the biblical account of the good news of Jesus), I know that all my righteousness and my standing before God are founded upon the cross of Christ, not me being right or even righteous.
    end quote
    Ben, that is the closest an American Evangelical Christian has ever come to Christianity as we understand and practice our belief here in Europe that I have ever seen.
    How do you feel about separation of Church and State?

  • Edward Green

    What I do find confusing is the co-opting of C.S.Lewis’ Deep Church metaphor by different groups.
    Lewis was hardly a typical modern Evangelical, being sacramental, and having views which tended towards purgatory and possible universal salvation. He was also deeply in love with the historic narrative of the Church. He had some funny views on women, which of course mellowed once he married a Roman Catholic divorcee. If anything he was an Arminian Anglican with High Church sympathies and a good understanding of the impact of personal conversion throughout ones life. A gentler more establishment Wesley.
    So Deep church, like Lewis should be drawing from the rich wells of Christian faith and tradition. Not co-opted by any one camp.

  • Tim

    I don’t know anything about the Deep Church book, but concerning your general question about folks seeming to like certain critiques, I don’t think it’s masochism at all. It’s just the opposite, a way to make themselves feel better. I think some people like to read critiques, talk about them, pass them around, do book studies and small groups, all the while never really HEEDING the critique at all, just to make themselves feel like they are getting somewhere without having to change a thing! For example, I know so many people who have read Claiborne, scratched their head, said it was great, and then forgot all about it.
    How’s that for sour grapes?