"Why Is Liberal Christianity So Boring?"

"Why Is Liberal Christianity So Boring?" March 11, 2008

That’s the question I found myself pondering on the drive home from downtown Minneapolis yesterday. I had an interesting coffee klatch with David Schmike, managing editor of the left-leaning alt mag, The Utne Reader (props to Kelly for setting it up). David and I are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. We were both reared as Midwestern Congregationalists, and we have many other commonalities. I read and admired his writing at the City Pages for years.

We had a fascinating and far-ranging conversation — I even got a parking ticket because our conversation lasted so long.  David is trying to grapple with the changing landscape of American Christianity for his next column. He met with Jim Wallis a couple weeks ago, and he, like several other journalists, is trying to determine whether Jim is really correct about the coming justice revival among younger evangelicals. On that point, there is no data to yet back it up. I did talk to someone who saw Jim speak to a SRO crowd at Wheaton College, and he reported that it did, indeed, have a revivalistic feel. Others, like Mark Silk, aren’t so sure — Silk reads the exit polls this way: traditional evangelicals still voting Republican.

David and I also talked about the bi-polarities of American Christianity, and that got me to musing about liberal versus conservative Christians. Honestly, I find them both exceedingly boring. I’ve done a gamut of radio talk shows in the last week, and conservative Christian radio is, for the most part, totally predictable. One host told me, after we were off the air, “I really like to get both sides of the issue. I mean, I get most of my news from Fox, but I read other stuff sometimes, too.” Their questions are predictable, and their responses to my answers are predictable.

And I find liberal Christianity just as predictable and boring. I mean, I have no interest in a Bible that is expunged of all of the interesting parts: the pogroms and rapes and healings and….the resurrection! That’s what makes Christianity interesting, the stuff that doesn’t make sense, the stuff that’s hard to grapple with, the stuff that causes me to doubt. That’s the aspect of the Christian faith that I love.

Please, let’s un-boring Christianity.

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  • Tony,

    Don’t you mean “un-borify”?

    Just wanted to clarificate that point.

    Steve K.

  • Amen.

  • Paul Baird

    As someone with a SBC heritage, I have no answers for how to un-borify that side of Christianity. Their whole purpose and intent to to solidify everything! They never engage anything except that which supports what they already “know” to be truth. Let’s get everything nailed down once and for all so we can know where we stand so we will be able to have a specific answer for everything. When you are working within that (exclusive) framework, how do you ever hope to see anything change? They don’t want change! Change is of Satan. They already have all the answers so anyone who is open to things changing and how that might look is “deceived” and looking to deceive others. The most common answer I get is “this sounds like social gospel to me”.

    Sorry for the rant. The topic hits really close to home. I guess my answer is to engage as many people as I can in dialogue and let God do the rest.

  • “trying to determine whether Jim is really correct about the coming justice revival among younger evangelicals…. traditional evangelicals still voting Republican.”

    Part of the difficulty is that “justice” has, in some circles, become a code word associated with “liberals,” as the sole concern of democrats. Surely it would be a huge error – not just of strategy but of substance – for “conservatives” to concede that “liberals” are the ones interested in “justice,” while they’re not. Since all agree that “justice” is a good word, representing a god concept, we need to move beyond the simplistic notion that some groups/movements/age brackets are “for” justice, and others “against” it. That may be useful partisan politics, but it’s not productive politics. It would be more productive to ask: What constitutes justice? What means ought we to employ to pursue what ends? Does pragmatism have a role to play in seeking justice? Is absolute purity in adherence to any political perspective/agenda/analysis essential to justice? Is justice something we can produce whole and entire, or are we faced with real and substantial conflicts and trade-offs and have to settle for maximizing justice in a variety of areas? To what degree is coercion compatible with working for justice? I could go on.

    I don’t have answers to these questions – but then I’m a rotten politician. Of course one of my character defects is that I’m often more comfortable with questions than with answers. Surely some can say that while I’m sitting around in my cushy office being comfortable with my questions billions around the world are suffering injustice. Doubtless. All I can say in my defense is that as a preacher I haven’t found guilt to be a very effective long term motivator.

  • Boring – huh. Interesting choice of terms. Let’s look at the dictionary:
    boring (pronounced bawr-ing)
    1. causing or marked by boredom
    2. a cause of ennui or petty annoyance
    3. to force (an opening), as through a crowd, by persistent forward thrusting (usually fol. by through or into); to force or make (a passage).
    4. the act or process of making or enlarging a hole

    I am no mindreader, but I suspect you were thinking of 1 or 2. It strikes me that liberal & conservative churchainity in the U.S. are pretty damn united – opposed to change, addicted to dogma, certain of their own righteousness and ultimate salvation. They are also, for the most part, united in their almost complete lack of curiousity – I love a quote from Ellen Parr: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Think of any leader on the lib or conservative “side” – is a curious even one of the top 50 words you’d use to describe them ?

    Progressive Christianity, at its very best, embodies definition number #3 – making way for the body of Christ that the status quo has forced out, cast aside, scapegoated. When I see people who have a voice animating the body of Christ, in all its unity, I am proud of Liberal Christianity. Conservative Christianity, at its best, tends the glorious garden that is the traditions and witnesses of those who have walked this path before. When I see people who living follow Jesus in so many ways that have been handed down for generations, in all its unity, I am proud of Conservative Christianity.

    That said, I find the 4th definition most accurate. There is a constant drilling sound, an unrelenting conviction that progress is achieveable if we can just play political-correctness TWISTER. That enlarging hole lets in NUMB-ness, for me, sucking out all the sensation, all the Spirit. In the movie WAKING LIFE (by Austin native Richard Linklater) there is a great quote:

    Guy Forsyth: Did you ever have a job that you hated and worked real hard at? A long, hard day of work. Finally you get to go home, get in bed, close your eyes and immediately you wake up and realize… that the whole day at work had been a dream. It’s bad enough that you sell your waking life for minimum wage, but now they get your dreams for free.

    Replace the word work for ministry – that is the prison that is Liberal Christianity, at least for me. For me, this captures that NUMB nature: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXYiU_JCYtU

    So why hope ? Cuase new life comes from death (not discomfort or denial), because it seems there is a jetstream of transformation always blowing, because people are coming awake. For me, that is the opposite of boredom, or numbness, of simple coffins like liberal or conservative Christianity.

    People are coming awake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjH2Jx4ehn8

  • I really like what richard just said. What is justice? Vocabulary and language are so important in understanding the movements on both the left and the right. Surely republicans do not think they are unjust. Rather, republicans (I’m thinking of those like George Gilder) would argue their justice is the trickle down system that believes in the power of the market to work out all longer term deficiencies.

    But even those democrats are considered “too conservative” by some liberation theologians who see justice as helping the poor here and now RIGHT NOW. If we aren’t helping the poor today, then we aren’t doing justice. Many in America simply see politics as a fluid process that is just TOO SLOW.

  • Tony Arens

    I’ve seen so many people come into a faithful relationship with Christ through, what you folks would argue, a really boring version of Christianity – within a very exclusive framework. Call it boring if you like, but the transformations that I have seen are so very far from boring, and those transformations have resulted in renewed acts of genuine kindness and justice to the poor.

    Often times “boring” Christianity results in really awesome fruit! Often times the “un-borifying” version produces more questions, which produce more questions, which result in lots of confusion and a barren vine.

  • I should add a comment on the “boring” theme. While I prefer exciting to boring, what I count as exciting is rather different than what many consider exciting. It’s also easy to see that we modern Americans, with our addiction to entertainment, too highly value “not being bored.” Nothing in itself is boring. “Boring” is a function of our attitudes & expectations.

    But then maybe “boring” means no one is doing anything to engage our attention. As a preacher I take it as my duty to engage the attention of those who listen. Once upon a time I may have been able to count on them showing up and feeling the duty to listen to me. But few come that way any more. My message – the message of Jesus – is to important for me not to do everything in my power to communicate. Though I’m tempted sometimes to give in to the Barthian (at least I hear it from some Barthians, in their eschewal of attention to rhetoric) suggestion that all the effect of preaching is from the work of the Spirit, not the work of the preacher, I haven’t given up on the possibility that it is the Spirit urging the preacher to make the message engaging.

  • scharen

    I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age over the last few months and it is an amazing, amazing book on many levels. Near the end, when he finally gets to saying what is next, he lays out a couple of alternative futures. One, a dangerous and destabilizing option, is the continued polarization with each side, liberal and conservative, thinking they are right, and proving their purity by attacking pollution, however they define it. Rather than this modern idolatry, he offers a couple of really suggestive comments. One is about the “future of the religious past” and tied to that, a worry about Christianity’s long trajectory of “excarnation”. Both of these concerns, I think, connect with explorations within the emerging conversation and are reasons why I like to talk to you, Tony, and to Pete Rollins, and others who want something else.
    Here’s to the movement for an unboring belief and practice, lived in deep connection to our past, embodied through incarnational forms.

  • crazybilly

    I’m with you on this, Tony–not so much the ‘boring’ part (I’m too involved in the conservative world to be able to speak to what liberal Christianity is like, outside of some distant stereotypes), but in the idea of refusing to expunge the interesting part of the Bible, not the least of which is the resurrection. Like what you said on the Nick and Josh podcast the other day: I’m not willing to let science have the last word on what’s real. Screw that.

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  • Korey

    Amen! I’m reminded of the words of Randall Balmer when he spoke during chapel my senior year in college (1997). He was addressing the evangelical theology he experienced growing up as the son of a minister, but I think it can apply to liberal theology too. “They have constructed an intellectual fortress that is logically impermeable. They have cut and sliced and proof texted. They have stripped all mystery from the Bible, this wonderfully complicated and maddeningly contradictory book. And they have given us a theology that is airtight and unambiguous and intellectually defensible and cold and sterile and deadly dull. About as interesting and compelling and nutritious as a dollop of cool whip.”

    The Bible is beautiful and confounding because it reminds me, in poignant, troubling, powerful, and dull ways, of the world I experience. We mustn’t codify our scripture and tradition so much that we flatten it by elevating propositional truths above the narrative and the difficulties we naturally confront with it, but we also must avoid diluting the scripture and tradition so that claiming it becomes void of content and simply boring.

  • In any polarization each side needs the other. Atheists need radical fundamentalists, liberals need conservatives, progressives need dogmatists and vice versa for each. The fruit of the emergent discussion is to find some way to eschew and deconstruct these polarities to do something different.

    What’s unboring about Christianity is Jesus. Jesus was an equal opportunity offender. He pissed off both the authorities and his own disciples by shattering preconceived notions of orthodoxy. But he did so because he loved them.

  • I like Drew’s excellent point here. BTW, in this post it seems like you’re referring to political and ecclesial polarities in the same thought. I understand the trend, but aren’t they mutually exclusive categories? In other words, can’t one be theologically liberal and politically moderate? Or theologically conservative and politically liberal? These would certainly be the exception to the rule, but there are hybrids (like myself: I’m left-leaning politically but trying to cut a moderate path when it comes to orthopraxis).

  • mikeoles3

    The conservative/liberal debate is definately tiresome. And boring. I love Jim Wallis and am a subscriber to Sojourners but sometimes I can even find him and the magazine boring.

    But, we are missing the boat if we focus energies on the liberal/conservative debate.

    The real question is how do we live an authentic faith? The way the early Christians did. Or Martin Luther King. Or Dorothy Day. Or Oscar Romero. Or Mother Theresesa. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    If we aren’t outside the church building meaningful and empowering relationships with others, then there is no real point in debating anything.

  • I remember visiting Gordon-Conwell when I was searching for a seminary (pardon those who went there, it is a fine institution if the shoe fits – no offense meant), but I high tailed it out of there when I listened to students tell me about who was Arminian versus Calvinist there and which camp I was in. Yuck. What boring analytic (yawn)… If you spend that much time on the finer points of doctrine, how can you possibly implement any of it in terms of real human capital? Answer: Uh Jesus?

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  • This post really stuck with me these past few days – two connections:

    “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery everyday. Never lose a holy curiousity.” – Albert Einstein

    I don’t believe in atheists

    Foreign correspondent and intellectual provocateur Chris Hedges explains why New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens are as dangerous as Christian fundamentalists.

    Why Is Your Heaven So Small?
    By Susan Werner
    Excuse me, sir, what did you say?
    You shout so loud it’s hard to tell
    You say that I must change my ways
    For I am surely bound to hell

    Well, I know you’d damn me if you could
    But my friend, that’s simply not your call
    If God is great and God is good
    Why is your heaven so small?

    You say you know, you say you’ve read
    That Holy Bible up on the shelf
    Do you recall when Jesus said
    ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself’

    For I know you’d damn me…

    With your fists that shake and your eyes that burn
    What makes you do these things you do?
    I would not be surprised to learn
    Someone somewhere excluded you

    But my friend, imagine this is you would
    A love much mightier than us all
    If God is great and God is good
    Why is your heaven so small?

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  • scott

    I don’t know, Tony. I’m reading your book the New Christians (about half way through) and you don’t seem a whole lot different than those “boring liberals.”

    As a matter of fact, I’ve thought to myself, “I don’t see much difference here than the old, mainline liberal United Methodist Church I grew up in.” Now I know, I know. I’ll be told that I just don’t “get it.” That’s what emergents seem to do.

    But I’ll just say something that you say alot. “To me” it seems that emerging Christianity doesn’t seem any different than the boring liberal variety. “To me” it all seems the same.

  • Scott,

    First of all, there are actually many more post-evangelicals that now call themselves emergent, than there are post-mainliners. So, immediately, that hints at plenty of influence within emergent that leans away from the modernistic blend of assumptions that color the “old, mainline liberal” stream.

    Secondly, did you read Tony’s post? He was critical of Christian movements that want to do away with the messiness of the Bible- including aspects such as resurrection – which is an offense to the “Enlightenment-minded”.

    If you haven’t yet seen how emergents are different than liberal mainliners, I’d say, keep looking. Its there to be found.

  • When the prevailing adult image of Jesus in the minds of most conversatives is that of a flattened figure on a flannel graph board, is it any wonder that Christianity is so sickeningly boring in the US of A?

    Jesus would scare the crap out of most Christians if he were to show up again in the flesh.

  • I agree with John Frye. Everyone and all of us, to the core, would be shaken if Jesus in person was in our midst today. But we’d also be touched in a transforming way, by faith.

    I do wonder though, because Jesus is supposed to be present in our midst, by the Spirit. I wonder if somehow we haven’t somehow shut him out in that. Otherwise why would our Christianity be so boring and predictable?

  • Darren,

    “there are actually many more post-evangelicals that now call themselves emergent, than there are post-mainliners”

    Is there actual data to support comments like this? Just wondering. Pew data does not bear this out, nor do any of the studies regarding church attendance over the past 15 years or so (and before that too). Since emergent is such a new variable (and rather undefined at that), I am skeptical this claim has any currency whatsoever.

    I actually concur greatly with Scott here. To say that the spectrum of emergent does not have the same flavor of liberalism is to miss the meaning of liberalism itself. Emergent is a liberal movement because it is seeking to change current structures of ecclesiology and worship. It is, for the most part, a relationship to change itself (as the postmodern influence would dictate on numerous grounds).

    If you want an example of how this is working, it is not unlike a conscious movement out of an existing structure not unlike Thomas Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions. But it cannot be confused with that kind of theory of epistemological development. First, it is an intentional departure. Second, it is not rooted in scientifically based evidence, but conjecture based largely on “feeling”. Note: I am not making a value judgment here, just making my reference clear.

    However, Tony’s comment here has to do with the politicization of the terms liberal and conservative that have attached itself to the parlance in religious circles. Liberal is term that simply means a self-critical posture towards existing structures and frames of knowledge and a willingness to reconstruct those boundaries in conjunction with experience. It also, therefore, means that one needs to apprehend multiple structures of knowledge to synthesize into one’s own framework. Being conservative in distinction to this means less likely to change boundaries based on experience and more likely to reinforce them. So these are very useful terms if we can just dump the political referent and use them to describe how we frame our knowledge. But as politics bears out, conservative theology and conservative politics and vice-versa have unfortunately conflated the terms to take on different and more polarizing meanings that have only harmed the church universal. Time to re-claim these words for construction rather than the fracturing they have caused.

    To this end, the entire premise of emergent is a liberal one. But liberal in the true sense of the term (think liberal arts for instance) rather than the politicized demonization that the religious right has largely incurred in our current common use of the term.

    So if you are a conservative evangelical who is also a friend of emergent, hate to break the news to you – you are now a liberal. 😉

  • Drew,

    This is the thing, terms are fluid. I think you are very clearly using the term “liberal” in a different way than was intended by Tony in context.

    Sure, you can ask that we return to the original meaning, but that kind of misses the entire point of this discussion. Tony was making reference to liberal Christianity as an entity as it has existed over the last century.

    I fully understand that, depending on who I am talking to, one person will hear my views and call me a “liberal” and another will call me a “conservative”. In fact, in our current religious/political climate, thats almost assuredly going to be the case.

    By the way, I never called myself a conservative evangelical, nor did I say that most emergents are conservative evangelicals. What I said was that there are more self-identified emergents today that are POST-EVANGELICAL rather than POST-MAINLINE. As far as hard stats, I don’t have them. But I honestly don’t think you’d find much disagreement on this point from others in the movement. It wasn’t a value statement- just an observation.

  • jazzact13

    Yeah, because one thing Jesus commanded the church was “Don’t ever be boring”.

    Frankly, I’m finding emergent to be boring. Same crap, different name.


    (see, boring isn’t an absolute, it’s relative, Jones calling us “boring” has nothing to do with us, but with Jones–it’s an opinion, it’s like people calling chess or golf “boring”, because for others, those things are quite fascinating and ignite the strongest of passions)

  • Andy

    to paraphrase hauerwas: “Boring is not a theological category.”

    Know what else is “boring” and “predictable”? The discussion about emergent vs. mainline; liberal vs evangelical.

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  • Darren,

    I understand the specific context in which Tony was using the terms, but I think the debate between conservative and liberal Christianity is so boring because the meaning of the terms has become conflated with the political sense.

    That is essentially how I was answering the question that Tony posed.

    Also, my comments at the end were not directed towards you at all but was just a general statement to note a certain irony in the debate (hence the little wink at the end).

    And about the data thing. I am a data freak. I like to see numbers support any assertion we make to help us make the best judgments. So to your point, I don’t think that anecdotal evidence is bad. But, again based on the world in which I work, I can’t take that to the bank to write a grant or research proposal.

    So I hope that helps to clarify a bit more.

  • Hi Tony,

    Happy Easter! I like the post and the question. If you want my opinion (and why wouldn’t you?), liberal Christianity–or more particularly, liberal congregations–are generally boring because they’re composed of people who don’t care much about religion. As a young evangelical growing up, I always thought that liberalism was for people who had stopped believing in Christianity but had already invested too much in church to pull out completely. Hence, they would adopt a faith that didn’t require them to believe (or do) anything, but still allowed them to gather with friends on Sunday (or receive their paycheck, if they happened to be employed by the church…). As an Episcopal pomo with liberal leanings, I would nuance that view somewhat (for instance, we’ve got lots of folks who come for reasons of social standing–not just ex-evangelicals), but I think I was on to something. As a general principle, people who don’t care aren’t interesting.

    Now, granted, I don’t think that the best of liberal Xty is about all that. Some liberals really care, and you do have great and powerful expressions of faith in some liberal congregations. (St. Mark’s Cathedral in my hometown of Seattle is one such place. I Just read a “Take this Bread” By Sara Miles about St. Gregory’s in San Francisco, which is another.) Most liberal congregations don’t have an evangelistic or world-impacting fervor though, from what I can tell. Why? I don’t know. Part of it is that, like I said, most liberals just aren’t that committed to (their own particular) religion. For people like me, the official stance on a lot of theological and social issues is “I don’t know”, and that sort of attitude doesn’t produce excitement. Part of it is that there’s not much possibility of unified vision. In every congregation I’ve been in, there have been at least a few really inspiring liberals. However, liberalism by its very nature accepts a variety of views, and hence churches have a hard time gathering momentum in any one direction, and the inspiring people have a hard time getting traction. I think that the emerging church, in part, is providing direction for a lot of progressive Christians, but it also tends to be very reactionary in a post-evangelical way: also very Boorrring!! Some people in the emerging church (our mutual friend Karen Ward, for instance) have a vision and theology that moves beyond being different from the conservatives, but those types are still exceptions, if you ask me.

    Having said all of that, I’m someone who is committed to an emerging form of liberal Christianity (if we want to still call it that), boring-ness and all. These are my people, and I’ll stand by them even if there is no anti-apocalyptic justice revival in the near future. We need a place to bitch about our fundamentalist upbringings, crush on Barack Obama, drink cheap wine, watch pretentious independent films, and gather around a table together to be reminded of our interdependence, even if it doesn’t “change the world”.

    Tim Mathis