Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Evangelical Balloon

Trish I have been having a wonderful time in Spain.

Last year, a group of Spanish Pentecostal leaders invited us to visit their country to teach and encourage their pastors. So we set aside a couple of weeks to do that. We are so glad we did!

Naturally, we have enjoyed all the historic sites (and the foooooood).

(However, I must say that in Madrid, we waited outside the gates of the royal palace for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia to invite us to lunch. Unfortunately, someone had failed to let the royal family know that Trish and I were in the country! That was disappointing. But other than that …)

What we have really liked is the hospitality of Spanish Christians and especially our informed and spirited conversations with them.

For example, Sunday after church, a young pastor, (who, like many pastors here, works a secular job in order to support his ministry) invited me to his home for lunch. I had no sooner sat down than he asked, “As an Evangelical, how do you view St. Augustine and the impact of his work on the Protestant Reformation?” He then brought out copies of The Confessions and The City of God, as someone might present a fine wine. His young children and wife soon joined in, occasionally offering bunny trails about trout, cheese and Hanna Montana. This went on for a couple of hours, as we slowly ate our meal.

The day before, riding from Madrid to Santander, a lively interchange broke out between the pastor and a member of his church concerning the ideological relationship between Christianity and Marxism. This was followed by reflections on Sufism and the openness of Sufis toward Christian spirituality.  In that conversation, occasional comments erupted about the nation’s best wines, the viability of the European Union, and how God was at work in the world.

Day after day, I have encountered an informed, educated and spiritually alive people who want to talk about the important issues of our times. They want to discuss the spiritual implications of globalization, the surprising explosion of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere, and what one is to make of the Charismatic renewal among ancient Christians in the Middle East. They want to understand what American Christians think about these issues, and tactfully say that they often find us (and our opinions) mystifying.

I should hasten to add that my guests are not particularly wealthy. Nor do they think of themselves as intellectuals. They are working-class Christians who enjoy learning and who want to make sense of the world in the light of their faith.

They remind me of a time when American Christian leaders talked like this.

Pastors, especially in conferences and retreats, used to converse for hours about theology and their spiritual experiences. They would quote scripture and Christian literature to support their ideas, sometimes hoping to win an argument no doubt, but mostly trying to get to know one another.

Today, pastors’ conferences usually schedule a Bible scholar early in the morning. A handful of spiritual nerds go to the session, carrying Bibles, hoping to hear something substantial. For the rest of the day, crowds will halfway listen to a cute exposition about how to grow a church or become relevant in today’s world. Over lunch, conversation will usually turn toward the economy and how it is affecting the offerings or perhaps how one may acquire the latest technological gadget to make worship interesting. Biblical and theological reflection rarely affect the conversation, one way or the other. 

In other words, serious conversation has become rare among American Evangelicals.

Now that I think about it, our culture has made it increasingly difficult to talk about anything at any depth anywhere at any time.

The last thing a contemporary American politician would want people to say about him is that he studied at a great university or that he is well read. Even Bill Clinton had to go to great lengths to cover up his sordid past as a Rhode’s scholar.  He used his bag of pork rinds as a brilliant intellectual camouflage to help him to appear common enough to become president. George W. Bush was forgiven for going to Yale because he didn’t make good grades while he was there. Even our doctors must not get too dogmatic now about medical science; they certainly can’t insist that they offer superior treatment than the quack on TV who sells Cellulite-fade-away cream for $19.95.

In such a climate, why would one possibly want a pastor who cares much about theology, history or biblical studies? Young pastors quickly learn to keep their knowledge to themselves, or chose another line of work.

American Evangelicals are in a season akin to the Cultural Revolution that China experienced under Chairman Mao.

In those days, like those we are currently experiencing, it was dangerous to be an expert of anything. One could not use “elite” vocabulary, had to belch out loud, had to stay away from classical literature, and had to refrain from demonstrating refinement of any sort. Mao insisted he was the incarnation of a dragon and that it was harmful to brush one’s teeth. So, for a decade, China quoted Mao’s foolishness and laughed at its own cultural giants.  Lao-tzu and Confucius had become decadent; the powerful peasant had become wise. No one could tell the great one that his breath stank and that his teeth were rotting because that would make them appear smarter than him.

 Similarly, it is not wise now for a pastor to quote Luther, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Cyprian or Barth. It is far better to quote Bono, or even Lady Gaga; which will at least get a laugh or two.

 The spiritual giants of history fare no better. Who speaks now of George Muller or even of Watchman Nee? And is anyone interested in Francis Asbury or in William Booth?

  Well, of course, some people are interested in the words and works of great Christians. Obviously, I am overstating my case.

But not by much.

In fact, if you are a Christian and do not recognize the names I just mentioned; I rest my case. You do not know them because no one thought it was important for you to know them. But because you didn’t learn about them and learn from their contributions, your Christian intellectual formation is probably weak. In that case, you are forming your thoughts by listening to the part of secular culture with which you most agree.  You may not even expect your church to offer intellectual formation or believe that a Christian should have a unique perspective on life, art, science, ethics and the meaning of world events.

How then can we expect you to have an informed Christian opinion about anything?

I am certainly not trying to insult you; you must care about intellectual formation or you would not have kept reading this blog. However, I am trying to make a serious point.

American Evangelicals have been losing influence in a growing number of fields, in part because we are not as informed as our secular neighbors. We have replaced our historical robust biblical orthodoxy with an insipid secular conservatism. In fact, we no longer understand the difference between the two. Furthermore, many American Evangelicals now view biblical orthodoxy with more suspicion than they do secular culture.  Our own history and scholarship now seems like “uppity elitism” to many of our people, which, of course, no one wants. As a result, singing Zippity Do-Da; Zippity Ay would go over better in many churches now than trying to sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

Can you understand now why my conversations with Spanish Pentecostals seemed so shocking?

 Perhaps, European believers realized years ago that their countries were not churches. Therefore, they have not been as surprised as we when unbelievers do not follow God’s ways. They are not shocked that atheism, immorality or other religions exist around them. They seem to realize that there is a cost in following Christ and that becoming a believer involves actually knowing what Christians believe today and what they have believed through history. They also feel some obligation to understand what their neighbors believe and why they believe it. They know that being a witness to their neighbors involves words, deeds and attitudes.

Spaniards love to worship, and they pray fervently. But they do not substitute feeling for thinking. They want to feel God’s presence but they also want to learn Gods thoughts.

They are absolutely right: it is not enough to feel.

An honest person must understand why he believes as he does.

When one does not think, he can only feel. When what he feels is not an adequate answer for what his adversary thinks, the one who feels can only become more passionate about what he feels. His increasing passion will then require him to banish thought and, if possible, to ridicule the very process of intellectual formation.

When enough people within a given society buy into this kind of Cultural Revolution, a fool mounts the throne and wise people learn to hide their knowledge and hold their tongue.

Sooner or later though, a generation arises that prefers difficult answers to comfortable foolishness.

Europe, for example, already had its Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. These men, who promised their countries easy solutions for modern complexities, bathed the continent in blood while many believers prayed for their success. The aftermath was a wholesale departure from the faith. The humbled believers who remain serve their neighbors with a deeply rooted faith that they can capably and lovingly defend.

They serve the poor.

They do nasty work.

They seek the face of God.

They discuss serious things.

Whether church growth will come to Europe or not is God’s business. However, if and when it comes, it will be rooted in a serious search for God and not come hiding behind empty platitudes, trying to sanctify intellectual sloth.

Of course, there is a shortcut around thinking about serious things: one can market triviality and praise foolishness. One can sell sugar pills and call it medicine. One can talk in sound bites without saying anything and make a very good living doing it.

One can also keep blowing hot air into a balloon until it grows very large. However, there comes a point when the thin superficial material holding the hot air gives way.

Sometimes I think of that as I ponder the present and the future of American Evangelicalism.

Of course, I would have said none of that to Juan Carlos and Sofia had they invited me to their palace. 

Instead, I would have asked their royal majesties to pose with me for a photograph, which I would have tastefully included in this short essay.

I could then have began my blog with,

“Recently, while eating paella with the king and queen of Spain, …”


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