Ross Douthat’s ‘concern-trolling for liberal Christianity’

Ross Douthat’s ‘concern-trolling for liberal Christianity’ July 18, 2012

There have been a host of excellent responses to what Ed Kilgore accurately calls “Ross Douthat’s latest bout of concern-trolling for liberal Christianity.”

Kilgore was not impressed, writing:

Instead of lecturing “liberal Christians” about our alleged lack of serious spirituality and advising us on how to put more posteriors in the pews and more money in the coffers, perhaps Ross Douthat should spend his time proctoring conservative Christians who attend churches he actually knows something about, and whose growing tendency to conflate the Gospels with the agenda of the American conservative movement and the Republican Party could use some critical attention.

Daniel Burke points out several of Douthat’s factual errors and mistaken assertions about the Episcopal Church. Yes, several (nice job New York Times!).

And Rachel Held Evans responds less to Douthat’s article than to the ugly culture-war cheerleading it typifies, provokes and reinforces:

I was disheartened to see my Facebook and Twitter feeds light up with gleeful jeers from conservative evangelicals essentially saying, “let the liberals die!” followed by defensive responses from more progressive Mainliners reminding them, “we may be dying but we’re taking you with us!”

Evans writes that she feels “totally caught in between” these two factions of the American church. As an evangelical-in-exile myself, I emphatically second everything she lists as a reason she doesn’t “‘fit’ in the conservative evangelical church.”

I also agree with everything she includes in her second list. All of it. But this list doesn’t really describe what Evans seems to think it does.*

She offers it as a list of reasons she doesn’t “‘fit’ in the progressive, mainline church either.” Yet most of these attributes or preferences would fit in just fine in most mainline Protestant congregations. I grew up in the fundamentalist/evangelical subculture, and for the more than 30 years I spent in that world, I heard mainline Protestantism described in the same terms reflected in Evans’ list. But many of those stereotypes are only that — stereotypes. Evans’ list seems based more on the typical evangelical portrayal of mainline congregations than on those actual congregations.

“I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus,” she writes — suggesting that this sets her apart from the mainline Protestant churches. But those churches also believe in this very thing. And they’re not quiet or subtle about it either. Unlike evangelical churches, every single person in a typical mainline Protestant church affirms this belief out loud and in public every Sunday. Sure, there are exceptions — I used to work with one guy who thought Paul Tillich was “too conservative” — but they’re exactly that, exceptions. Most of the people reciting those creeds every Sunday do so because they believe them.

“I think doctrine and theology are important enough to teach and debate,” Evans writes as another reason she doesn’t fit in mainline Protestantism. I love discussing and debating doctrine and theology too, but I’ve found it much easier to do that in a mainline Protestant context than in an evangelical one, where you can debate doctrine and theology all you want — just as long as you don’t disagree with the requisite correct answers.

And as for teaching doctrine and theology, well, where is it being taught better? In seminaries? Or in “Bible colleges”? Or take a look at any of the denominational publishing houses. Browse the catalogs of the mainline Abingdon Press, Westminster/John Knox Press, Morehouse and Augsburg Fortress. Now browse the aisles of an evangelical “Christian bookstore.”

That’s not entirely fair, of course, there are also some solid evangelical publishing houses like Baker, Eerdmans and IVP. Those evangelical publishers produce some quality, substantive books on doctrine and theology — books by people like N.T. Wright (Anglican), Eugene Peterson (PCUSA), Miroslav Volf (Episcopalian), Bonnie Miller-McLemore (Disciples of Christ) and James Bryan Smith (UMC).

Hmm, it seems that many of the best-selling authors writing for evangelical publishers are mainline Protestants. That doesn’t seem to fit with Douthat’s theory/accusation at all.

Both Sarah Morice-Brubaker and James McGrath highlight a contradiction in Douthat’s argument against “liberal Christianity.” Douthat claims that mainline churches are shrinking both because they lack firm convictions and because they’re inflexibly committed to their liberal dogmas. It’s hard to see how both of those things could be true. One cannot, simultaneously lack all conviction and be full of passionate intensity.

It seems as though Douthat’s real complaint is not that these churches lack conviction, but that he personally doesn’t like the substance of those convictions. Morice-Brubaker pounds this point home by offering one description of the firm core convictions of some “liberal Christians”:

“From what we know of him, Jesus resisted the self-important piety of the powerful, and stood instead with the ones they were oppressing, and in so doing revealed how God is. Therefore, I think following Jesus means doing the same in the very different context in which I live, and specifically resisting the institutional sexism and institutional homophobia which have informed so much of Christian piety. This will mean that I can’t spin romantic and rosy tales about What The Church Has Always Taught. It may not be popular. But I believe it to be true.”

This is a theological claim about who God is and what Jesus reveals about God. It is a principle. It is one that it’s possible to hold, and defend, at great cost to oneself. It’s a claim around which communities can gather. You can teach it to your kids. Worship services can be constructed around it. It can, and does, inspire people to do things that are hard and unrewarding. You can care about it so much that popularity becomes secondary.

McGrath agrees — both with her exposure of Douthat’s disingenuous argument, and with the substance of her formulation of a “liberal Christian” vision. In “Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” McGrath writes:

Our core liberal convictions should lead us to stand on the front lines against injustice, and create meeting places where passion for our spiritual journeys is fostered. … There is a version of Liberal Christianity that it is easy to get excited about. And I am excited about it. Perhaps the time has come for all of those of us who see things in this way to unite, and to take back the identity of Christianity from the loud and prominent self-proclaimed spokesmen (yes, most of them are men) who have so managed to persuade the media and popular opinion that they represent “true Christianity,” that Liberal Christianity has come to be viewed as a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither.

But that is not how things stand at all. Those who claim to be “Biblical Christians” are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with “what the Bible says.” And they are prone to miss that there has been liberal Christianity from the very beginning. When Paul set aside Scriptures that excluded Gentiles on the basis of core principles of love and equality, and arguments based on the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in them, he was making an argument very similar to that which inclusive Christians make today. The fact that his argument eventually became Scripture itself should not blind us to the fact that when he made his argument, his words did not have that authority.

Read those last two sentences again and let that sink in. It’s a difficult tightrope act to demand fealty to all of Paul’s conclusions while also rejecting the methodology that led him to those conclusions. This is a particularly tricky thing, again, for those of us who are gentile Christians. If the Apostle Paul had shared the particular “high view of scripture” insisted on by many evangelicals, then that category — “gentile Christians” — would exist only as an oxymoron.

A collection of other responses to Ross Douthat after the jump.

Nevermind the Bricolage: “Purposeless drivel and the Episcopal Church

Institutionally, well, if arcane bureaucracy is your thing, then by all means join an Episcopal church — they are so bogged down in polity and top-down structuring, on systems that were out-of-date 20 years ago at least and they are so reliant on the ‘magic-hands’ of the clergy — the continuing divide between those collared and those not — these are as much a problem for declining membership as a same-sex blessing — which I think is [frakking] great by the way — and while we are at it, let’s bring one on board for the transgendered too. But they still fight over unbelievably inane things — in England for instance, they can’t handle the idea of women bishops — for [frak’s] sake, really, for [frak’s] sake — it’s ridiculous.

The Episcopal church hasn’t abandoned the Bible … I would argue that it’s the Bible that guides them every bit as much as the conservatives or whomever else. I hate it when people use things like ‘scriptural authority’ or ‘unorthodox’ as a critique — just because someone comes to different conclusions doesn’t mean they don’t prize scripture — they just read it differently than you.

It’s not the Bible that’s the root of the problems facing the Episcopal church, in fact, that might be the least of their worries.

Mark Silk: “And what about non-liberal Christianity, Ross?

In fact, the only sizable portion of the American Christian population that is growing at all these days turns out to be the one whose members simply identify themselves as “Christians” or “non-denominational Christians.” They go to megachurches and smaller places specializing in a generic style of evangelical faith. When it comes to belief, they tend to be neither too hot nor too cold. You might call them lukewarm.

Why are the lukewarm churches growing? I’d like to see Douthat try his hand at that one.

Morgan Guyton: “Thoughts on the alleged demise of liberal Christianity

Churches gain and lose momentum for a variety of good and bad reasons. … So if liberal churches are declining because they refuse to conform to the worldly expectations of “focus on my nuclear family” suburbanites, then God bless them for being faithful. But if they’ve lost their mojo because their openness to questions and doubts is louder than their testimony of God’s deliverance, if their anxiety about causing offense has caused them to hide the cross and empty tomb under a bushel, and if their passion for causes is not anchored in a hunger for God’s kingdom, then the most merciful thing God can do is to crucify and resurrect them (as He needs to do with all of us).

See also:

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* Please don’t take my quibble here as anything that might dissuade you from reading Rachel Held Evans’ terrific blog, or from reading her delightful and courageously honest book Evolving in Monkey Town. I’m also very much looking forward to her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

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