We can do better than "mainline"

We can do better than "mainline" July 26, 2011

I often tell people that fundamentalists and liberals frustrate me about equally. I just read an article by a United Methodist pastor named Martin Thielen in Christian Century on his church’s successful “mainline” marketing plan. Basically he did a sermon series that turned into a book called What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A good friend in our church is reading it, and my wife told me I shouldn’t judge a book by its title, but I can’t help asking, Is this really the best we can do as Methodists? If this question defines the expectations we have for our parishioners, then we deserve to be losing the battle with the golf course and youth soccer league! What an utter antithesis to the connotation evoked by the Oswald Chambers classic My Utmost for His Highest (which admittedly I haven’t read yet either).

Perhaps Thielen’s book is theologically solid, and it just has an unfortunate title. But the title unfortunately captures something definitive about the mainline Christian ethos: I’m a Christian but I don’t believe X. Framing your self-identity in such a way means that you’re essentially a lighter version of whatever you’re defining yourself against. “I’m a Christian but I don’t believe in a six-solar-day creation and I don’t hate gay people and I’m not sure Hindus are going to hell and I don’t think women are inferior to their husbands.” Why not say instead what you do believe in as a Christian? The word “mainline” itself seems to connote a version of Christianity that isn’t too extreme, Christianity that works well within the mainstream secular discourse. My wife likes to dilute her orange juice with one-third water. Is that what mainline Christianity is? 2/3 Christianity, 1/3 “nice helpfulness”?

Christianity is and should be extreme! The sleight of hand that fundamentalist Christianity has pulled is coming up with a theological vision that’s actually quite comfortable and un-challenging for middle-class Americans and then packaging it as something counter-cultural and offensive so that they can feel edgy without being pushed outside of their comfort zones. Fundamentalists come up with easy controversies to earn their salvation with. There’s nothing counter-cultural about being anti-gay, for instance. It’s perfectly in line with mainstream adolescent maleness. The real gospel is a lot more challenging than the self-congratulatory “family values” gospel. Jesus says things that are embarrassingly at odds with the needs of our social order like “Whoever does not hate their mother and father cannot be my disciple” or “My mother and my brothers are those who do the will of my father in heaven.”

The reason I call myself evangelical is because I really believe that the atonement offered by Jesus Christ is the basis for perfect human community (as opposed to being just one of the many paths to God). What we most need as humans is the absolute sense of belonging that comes about when we can be completely vulnerable before God and other people. This is the way of being that Jesus has opened up for us by allowing us to enter into His body. We are saved from the isolation of only believing in ourselves, from the shame of trying to hide our sins, from the endless rancor of trying to justify ourselves in arguments with other people. Because of Christ, we can approach the Source of all the universe’s beauty and not hate God because of our ugliness, which would otherwise make God’s perfect love look like wrath when it judges us.

We have a beautiful faith that does not need to be diluted but instead boiled into perfect potency. I wish more people would trust that the Bible is not what the fundamentalists have made it out to be. We don’t need to be asking what’s the least that we can believe, but how can we believe more deeply and perfectly in the kingdom that Jesus has created for us. If the gospel is not something you can give your life to, then it means that you haven’t heard the real gospel yet. So instead of taking up a watered-down mainline version of the anti-gospel of  fundamentalism, keep digging for the gospel that really is good news. When you have discovered the true euangelion iesou christou, it will be hard for you to avoid being defined by the good (eu) message (angelion) you have heard. You might even have to call yourself an evangelical.

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