The context of this post is the following: Last week, Dr. Christena Cleveland wrote a post reflecting on something I’d said at a conference last month. In short, I said that those of us in the room had a “better version of the gospel” than the regnant view in the West. Dr. Cleveland misheard me, thinking I said we have the “best version.” Nevertheless, she was critical of my statement, arguing that to assert that one’s version of the gospel is “better” or “best” necessarily excludes a diversity of voices.
Dr. Cleveland’s post hinted at an accusation of racism, which I vehemently denied, albeit in a manner that was overly defensive. Nevertheless, I continue to disagree with her assertion that preferring one version of the gospel over another — and proudly proclaiming that — is necessarily exclusionary. That’s an argument that is simply impossible to defend, unless one is prepared to embrace the completely syncretized relativism that has overwhelmed much of liberal Protestantism in America. I, for one, am not prepared to do that.
So, I am taking a couple posts to write about the two themes that I think are central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, insofar as I understand it, today, and from where I sit. Whether this version that I espouse is, indeed, “better,” and whether it is “exclusionary,” I will leave it for you to judge. Read the prologue here and the post on liberation here.
Part One: Context
Years ago, when Emergent Village was going strong, evangelicals were starting to have doubts about us, and critics of us were starting to go public, Doug Pagitt and I made a pact: We would meet with anyone, anywhere, no questions asked. If someone wanted to meet with us — to question us, berate us, or attempt to convert us — we would meet with them. Since that time, we’ve had innumerable breakfasts at Original Pancake House, some of them with readers of this blog.
As well as being on the receiving end of meeting requests, I’ve also been on the proactive end of meeting even with those with whom I disagree. I’ve been in Al Mohler’s super-secret office. I’ve met with Tim Keller a couple times in NYC. I’ve had lunch with John Piper. Every time I go to Seattle, I reach out to Mark Driscoll and ask to meet in public or private (every time he refuses). I’ve offered to talk with one of my most outspoken feminist critics, [name redacted], to hear her concerns (she has refused).
When we were starting Emergent Village, one thing that stood out to us is how different streams of American Christianity didn’t talk to one another — hell, sometimes they didn’t even know about one another. I once asked Walter Bruegemann what he thought about the Prayer of Jabez at the height of that book’s popularity, and he hadn’t even heard of it. I regularly meet Episcopal priests who’ve never heard of Bill Hybels, and evangelical leaders who cannot name the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. And if they did know about one another, they had little respect and no friendship for one another.
We thought that there was a tragic lack of reconciled friendship in the leadership of the American church. And we endeavored to fix that in our generation of leaders. In spite of my outspokenness on theological topics — my preference for a particular version of the gospel — that is all trumped by my fundamental belief in reconciliation as core to the gospel. I’m being totally candid when I say: I’m always surprised when someone doesn’t want reconciliation.
Part Two: Reconciliation
When I speak, I’m often asked about Solomon’s Porch, the church of which I am a part. One of the most important elements of SP that I try to impress upon people is that the way that we do things is not an attempt to reach out to 20-something hipsters in South Minneapolis. Not at all. Instead, what we do is usually a direct result of a theological conviction.
For example, one of the things we do is sit in living room furniture (couches, lounge chairs, coffee tables) in a concentric setting. At first blush, this would seem like a clear pander to hipsters who hate pews. But in fact it is in keeping with what I consider to be the core conviction at Solomon’s Porch: that the gospel is reconciliation.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes,
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
If the Lukan passage in yesterday’s post sits at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of the Good News, then this passage in Paul — and particularly the phrase in bold — clearly shows Paul’s understanding of the Good News, as it is shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The best I’ve ever heard this explained is by Scot McKnight, who I once heard say that Jesus accomplished a fourfold reconciliation:
- Reconciliation between God and me;
- Reconciliation between me and other humans;
- Reconciliation between me and myself;
- Reconciliation between humans and all of creation.
This is the very best of the evangelical understanding of the power of the gospel to effect change, to provoke metanoia. In my book on the atonement, I’m attempting to answer how, exactly, that happens in the death of Jesus on the cross. It’s not easy to explain…
Part Three: Marrying Context and Reconciliation
…and it’s not easy to live. Those who know my personal story know that I went through a divorce several years ago, and so there is still a glaring example of irreconciliation that stares me in the face every day. My kids are affected by that irreconciliation, as are my spouse, my parents, my siblings, and others. The ripples caused by that rock have spread far across otherwise placid waters.
So, in spite of my best efforts to live a reconciled life in the professional realm, as catalogued above, my personal life has not borne out the fruits of my convictions.
Nevertheless, I continue to believe that reconciliation is at the very core of the Christian life — that reconciliation, along with liberation, is the heart of the gospel.