The Blind Spots of an American Evangelical

The Blind Spots of an American Evangelical June 2, 2015

Collin Hansen’s new book Blind Spots has initiated a helpful conversation about what American evangelicals conventionally miss when their faith is defined by insular, America-intensive subcultures. I found especially instructive his interview with Gloria Furman about what she learned about blind spots as she has lived and ministered in Dubai.

We’re inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live. The incarnation also means that we can live a life fully pleasing to God in specific places and times. But we’re also constantly at risk of developing tunnel vision because of our culture, unwittingly letting bad theology and corrupt priorities degrade the biblical fidelity of our faith. Among American evangelicals, among the greatest risks are the influence of the prosperity gospel (God primarily cares about making you comfortable and prosperous) and the gospel of American patriotism (my Christian faith is inextricable from my identity as a Patriot, and probably as a Republican).

There are two primary experiences that help reveal a Christian’s cultural blinders. One is education in the Great Tradition of Christian learning. How much do your Christian priorities look like those of the apostles, Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, and other luminaries of the faith? We have to know the work and lives of those writers, preachers, and missionaries in order to be encouraged and corrected by them. This is why C.S. Lewis called the reading of old books “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

The second experience is exposure to the world church, and to missions around the world. Even if all you can do is to get to know international folks at your church, cultivating familiarity with the concerns of believers from non-American places can reveal your blind spots. We have dear friends at our church in Waco who are from Nigeria. They’ve told us that in the area around Jos, in central Nigeria, the weekly risks of terrorist violence against Christians shapes every Sunday. If no church gets attacked, it is a good Sunday. This certainly puts into perspective our selfish griping about our church’s problems!

As many readers know, we have just returned from a semester in St Andrews, Scotland. This is a pretty lightweight “cross-cultural” experience, yet we were still struck by the enormous differences in the church’s attitude toward Scottish and British culture than that of much of the American church. For example, there was no hint of nationalism blended with our church’s services, not even the week of the UK parliamentary elections.

There was no assumed choice politically in those elections, partly because there is so little pandering in British politics to practicing Christians. Practicing Christians are just too marginal to bother with them. Sure, candidates will occasionally make obligatory references to Britain’s Christian tradition, but the people at our church seemed to have no consensus about how UK Christians should vote.

Prayers for the elections were sincere yet modest. We prayed for those elected to be people of integrity and honesty, and that they would regard all people equally, including the poor. There seemed to be little notion that God planned to use the power of government as a primary means to accomplish the work of the Kingdom – at most, there was hope that politicians would ensure decent, fair government, and let the church be the church.

How different from the mood in so many evangelical churches in America! From dubious “Christian America” histories, to thinly veiled “voter guides,” we Anglo evangelicals send all kinds of messages, implicit and explicit, that getting Republicans elected will do something important for the work of the Kingdom. Yes, there are good reasons that we may end up defaulting to the Republicans on the basis of (promises made about) religious liberty, marriage, and abortion. But we American evangelicals need a big dose of circumspection about nationalism, politics and politicians.

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