We evangelicals have a problem.
And the problem is, simply put, that we do not know how to tell the truth.
If that sounds harsh, hear what I mean: it is not that we don’t think we are telling the truth (we do), it is that we have so constructed the “master signifiers” of our faith and life that we no longer know how to be really, deeply honest – with ourselves or with the world. And, unfortunately, it is the world that is the most painfully aware of this.
I’ve spent a good deal of energy over the last 5 years of my life trying to deconstruct these master signifiers, the structural beliefs that define evangelicals as evangelicals, both for myself and for those around me. It kind of goes with the territory of planting an evangelical church in a very progressive city (see us make Barna’s “bottom ten” list!) - one that can sniff out evangelical dishonesty from a mile away. That deconstruction was the driving force behind the book I wrote last year about a serial killer and the gospel; and even as I am in the midst of a wonderful new season of reconstruction in life and ministry, I am conscious of the way the structure of the evangelical project is continuing to shake and quake all around me.
As the title implies, Mark Driscoll, the lead pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, serves as the illustration for this point. I was hesitant to put his name in the title because, really, it’s not all about him; but his controversial ministry has become an obvious example of this phenomenon. Indeed, the evangelical structure shook a little more last week during President Obama’s inauguration when Pastor Mark tweeted this:
With over 3,000 retweets (some of them, no doubt, unfavorable) and almost 1,500 favorites (all favorable, per definition), you could say this sentiment went viral rather quickly. And, the blogosphere was soon abuzz as well. By now, Driscoll’s media exploits are not unlike chumming shark infested water: tweets like this signal the start of a feeding frenzy. And the sea is currently swirling in a cloud of blood and guts.
Much like the moment that John Piper pulled the trigger on the infamous, “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet, once Driscoll fired this one off, there was no going back, no matter how many subtly explanatory missives might be launched thereafter. And, also like Piper, while many Driscollians have jumped up to defend the statement semantically or theologically, the watching world is painfully aware of an insidious deception at work.
For instance, some apologists have countered that the tweet is simply reflecting Driscoll’s ultra conservative theology. That, really, all Driscoll is doing is saying that he believes in a strict definition of atonement that Obama has obviously not embraced, as well as strict stances against abortion and homosexuality, social issues that Obama champions as good and right. Thus, Driscoll’s tweet is just a true reflection of his theology: Obama, in Driscoll’s view (and the view of many conservatives), does not believe in God or the Bible.
But it’s not true.
It’s a lie.
It’s a lie because the tweet begins with that word “praying.” Tony Jones succinctly shut that down by comparing Driscoll to the Pharisees that Jesus chided for their showy and self-righteous public prayers. And it doesn’t get any more public than tweet-praying. (I’d add the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector to Tony’s repertoire.)
Praying is, of course, meant to convey piety and sincerity and concern. But the intended piety is betrayed by the public judgment – that Driscoll assumes to know, with almost complete certainty (enough certainty to tweet, at least) – the unsaved state of the President’s soul. It is betrayed by the sheer pride of such an accusation; the palpable rush of superiority and arrogance amidst the words. The piety is further betrayed by the implication, clear to anyone familiar with Pastor Mark’s inhumane position on hell – that Obama is currently an object of God’s wrath fitted for eternal fire, barring any unforeseen change before death. Most obviously, the change from liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican. Because, after all, this is an inherently political statement about inherently political things; which means the piety is even further betrayed by the clear assertion of power.
The truth, then, of the tweet becomes clear: that Pastor Mark wants his audience to think, to know, and to live according to the prideful judgment that the President is bound for hell because of his political views, and, thus, that someone else ought to be in power.
This is, essentially, dehumanization. Obama is declared to be the Church’s political enemy in this well-timed Inauguration Day tweet. As such, he is to be pitied and opposed, if not scorned; after all, God probably hates him, and will likely send him to hell.
And the watching world knows one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt: that this is definitely not the thing that every evangelical, Driscoll included, claims to believe in, namely, love.
My friend Stephanie is fond of saying, “Evangelicals are scared to death of their own humanity.” What she means is that we have so constructed a system of belief and life as to stifle, numb, and mask the reality of human feeling.
Therefore, tweets like Driscoll’s are evidences of evangelicalism’s empty politic – its political rules and signifiers that take precedence over true piety, empathy, compassion, and love.
In the words of David Fitch, this empty politic turns us into the callous, unloving thing that we despise.
So, what can we do? Is there any hope for evangelicalism, or is this the end?
I think there is hope.
My tweet reply to Driscoll (which garnered considerably fewer retweets) was simply this:
The Missio Alliance is a growing conversation among third-way evangelicals – those who are determined to move beyond this persistent dishonesty and empty politic at work among many churches and movements in America, brothers and sisters though they may be. And we are likewise determined to move beyond the sour skepticism which assumes, because of the numerous abuses and unfeeling theological implications that seem to signal the coming implosion of evangelicalism, that the only answer is to deconstruct it until there is nothing left of the gospel itself. Indeed, to let it collapse on itself while the feeding frenzy continues.
I am excited to attend the inaugural (pun intended) conference for the Missio Alliance this April precisely because I believe in the future of an honest, empathetic, truly human evangelical theology and praxis.
And most of all, because I believe in the purest, truest, deepest expression of love imaginable, given to us in the evangel itself – the gospel of Jesus the Liberating King.
So, will you join us in D.C. this April?