review: Evangelical and Evolving

Evangelical and Evolving

Colin Craston 

A friend lent me this book, in the context of an ongoing discussion about what it means to be Evangelical - and whether that's a helpful thing to be.  It's a good contribution to that discussion.

The book comes from a decidedly Anglican perspective - and is now more than half a decade old.  Nevertheless it presents - at least in that context - a good working description of the notion of an open evangelical position.  This is the more noteworthy from the fact that the author was at the time far into his retirement - not the usual location to find radical thought.

Is the book radical? Some of a Conservative Evangelical perspective would find it so, even today.  Others might just say "meh?" and wonder at the rivalries of nuance that can exist only among a certain kind of people of faith.  The question, for example, of whether the celebrant at the eucharist should stand at the north, or the east, or the west, of the communion table (aka altar) really isn't one that has caused me many seconds of lost sleep.

The open Evangelical position is an honourable one, I think - and something I would have identified with before I became the late emerger.  Reading Craston's book made me almost nostalgic for debates about which I really find it difficult to care today.  He begins with chapters on the bible and on interpretation - good Evangelical starting points. These are the strongest chapters of the book, I would say: principled without being dogmatic.  The discussion turns to the church and the ministry: here the author's deeply-imbued Anglicanism is most evident, and evangelicals of other traditions would find the line of reasoning quite alien - not to say, mistaken.  The writing is intensely personal in places - we learn the author's opinion, without particular reference to other authorities apart from his own (extensive) experience.  Further chapters discuss the sacraments, ministry, and other topics about which evangelicals might gently disagree among each other.  

The final chapter asks "Still Evangelical?" and surveys whether the position advanced in the book still deserves that label.  My answer would be a decided "yes", but I am on the far side of the possible tension: a conservative might take quite a different view.  His methodology (with a few traditional Anglican blind-spots :-) ) is unambiguously evangelical.  But then, I'd say the same of Brian McLaren, even though a great many evangelicals have disowned him by now, disliking not so much his method as his conclusions.  Brian, too, is far outside the spectrum of belief which is under consideration in the book.

Although I retain a soft spot for all this stuff, it all seems a bit detached from reality.  There's a needy world to serve, and an intellectual cadre which doubts that faith has any place in modern society.  Discussions of whether surplices should be replaced by preaching robes for sermons, or whether it is appropriate to combine the roles of suffragan bishop and archdeacon seem, well, obscure at best.  Women in the ministry (probably ok), and the position of gay clergy (rather not ok) are two socially-notable issues for the church in its mission to 21st century England, but there's no clarion call here.

The book is positive and constructive - it is a good account of the things on the minds of a certain sub-set of evangelicals at the time.  As the book's title suggests, things are in a state of change, and I find it hard to see how this particular position can persist for very long.  Its time may already be running out.

a little gem

From On Pop Theology, a little gem.  It begins:

Apparently baseball highlights, hockey playoffs, and various unconfirmed draft rumours are not enough to fill the airtime and pages of major sports media outlets these days. Recently, we’ve seen not only sport-related speculation, but social and religious commentary as well from the talking heads on ESPN.

By now, you’ve heard of the story of the professional athlete who has become a household name for his lifestyle more than his statistics. 
and goes on to
The Church must be careful not to be caught up in the sweeping tide of celebrity worship and public opinion. Though it may make us unpopular, we must not endorse or congratulate those whose actions are in clear disobedience to the simple commands of the Bible.
 but being a bit of a satire doesn't end up quite where the hue and cry would expect.


a breath of fresh air

Douglas Murray writes:

Atheists vs Dawkins
My fellow atheists, it’s time we admitted that religion has some points in its favour

Sometimes a perfectly good argument can be stretched too far. I heard the resulting snapping noise last week in Cambridge during a debate with Richard Dawkins. We were meant to be on the same side at the Union. But over some months the motion hardened and eventually became ‘This House believes religion should have no place in the 21st century.’ While an atheist myself, it seems to me that claiming that religion should disappear is not just an overstatement but a seismic mistake. So I joined Rowan Williams and my close enemy Tariq Ramadan in trying to explain to Dawkins and co where they might have gone wrong.
The argument gets developed carefully and clearly.  He's a brave man: there's a huge amount of naive dogmatism around atheism right now, which sees "faith" as irredeemable, and the ensuing comment section has attracted a whole lot of knee-jerk nonsense. But he goes on:
In the same way that many of the religious refuse to admit what their arguments miss, for fear the whole edifice will crumble, so it is that many atheists fear any similar concession for fear that their line will break and the religious flood through the breach. But I think we should be frank. There are things which atheists miss.
I don't think he's going to fit into Brian Mountford's category of Christian Atheists any time soon, but the article is definitely worth a read.


review: Christian Atheist

Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing
Brian Mountford

I happened upon this thoughtful book in Blackwell's Book Shop while I was Christmas shopping: so much for Amazon!  It caught my eye because Brian Mountford has been the Vicar of the University Church for as long as I can remember.  I've been aware of his ministry there almost exclusively second-hand.  Until a few years ago, I would probably have dismissed it as not for people like me. On the other hand, it's always been clear that the life of the University Church meets the needs of quite a number of people.

And that, really, is the point of departure for the book.  Through the church, and wider University life, Brian encounters numerous people who wouldn't claim to believe in God, but find themselves friends, fellow-travellers, and even active participants in the life of the Christian Church.  Mountford sets out to explore their experience and perceptions, and to consider how the Church should respond to them.

It's an interesting journey.  He points out that for all the credal, propositional public faith, the actual life of the Church, and the local congregation, and indeed the individual, is often much more tentative. It is based more on relationship, on belonging, than on belief.  "Belonging before believing" was of course a distinctive of some of the first people to write about the emerging church, so this is a meme that has a wider applicability.  Mountford, though, isn't talking of people on a spiritual journey towards God - or not particularly, anyway - but those who are quite happy with vast swathes of Christian life and practice, and with the experience of worship, without being persuaded, or even wanting to think about, the metaphysics.

So he discusses the place of Christian morality, aesthetics, and 'permeable borders of doctrine', in the lives of these Christian Atheists.  This is motivated and illustrated by lots of short 'interview' pieces with individuals he has encountered who embody these positions which seem initially contradictory.

The book is very plainly the work of a pastor.  This isn't high-blown abstract theology or philosophy, it's strongly rooted in the life and ministry of a thinking man in a city and University prone to a lot of deep thinking.  Of course, Mountford is well-read and highly-educated himself, so his work draws on countless theologians, philosophers and others throught the ages, their ideas woven together with skill to present an account strongly rooted in the western traditions of Christendom, yet moving the reader's thought into a seldom-explored category of unbelieving Christian practice.

You might guess that I'm rather taken with the book.  I don't think I fall quite into his category of being a Chistian Atheist - not on most days, anyway - though I can very much see the perspective he describes.  It strikes me as a much happier place than the militant atheists find themselves, and, dare I say it, an intellectually more satisfying place also.  I 'get' that you might want to dismiss the foundational belief system of two millenia for a significant part of the world's population, but it's simply careless to ignore at the same time the breadth and depth of cultural life and moral teaching that has accompanied it.  To liken the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the Church of England is to make a category mistake.

The book avoids over-blown conclusions or predictions, but concludes with the notion that "Christian Atheists are definitely part of the enterprise - tangential, in some sense maybe, but contributors [...]"  He provocatively suggests that some of the best theology of our age may be written by such people.  He concludes that the correct and best response to those who don't just doubt, or seek, but really don't
believe, is one of welcome.  Amen to that.


review: Torn - Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate   
Justin Lee

(to be published in the UK as Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays Vs Christians Debate)

I had this book shipped from the US because I was eager to read it, as soon as it was published (Nov 2012), not willing to wait until the UK publication (mid-Jan 2013) - I'm not sure why the publishers felt it necessary to stagger things this way (nor, to change the title, and apparently to re-write a few sections), but hurray for the global marketplace, even if it prevented me from getting the Kindle edition.

My eagerness was repaid.  It's a good book which deserves to have a significant impact.

Like the sainted Andrew Marin's Love is an Orientation, the central theme is that the Evangelical world needs to re-evaluate how it responds to gay people (and, perhaps, that gay people need to re-evaluate how they relate to the forces of Evangelicalism).  Whereas Marin's experience is driven by his experiences of friends coming out to him, Lee's account is largely autobiographical: he was the teenage "god boy" who to his horror and considerable dislocation, reached the conclusion that he was gay and he needed to report this honestly to those around him.

Lee comes from a loving conservative Christian context, so this was quite a big deal.  His parents helped him to access counselling of various kinds, and he briefly explored the 'ex-gay'/'cure' ministries.  These are dismissed with candour in the book: Lee, together with the great majority of those with any experience of such things, quickly concluded that no matter how well-meaning those folks were, they suffered from a mix of self-delusion and a considerable confusion of nomenclature.  'Success' was determined by promiscuous gay men ceasing to be sexually active - a positive thing in some conceptions of sexuality, but by no means whatsoever a 'cure for being gay'.

The author had anticipated a lifetime in Christian service.  Instead of the conventional paths through Evangelical ministry he has found himself leading the "Gay Christian Network" (GCN) - and in so doing, encountering vast numbers of people with similar stories.  He explains that their ministry embraces both those who believe that the Creator's will is for gay people to enter into full, loving relationships with members of the same sex, totally on a par with heterosexual relationships (the so-called 'Side A' position), and also those who believe that the calling of everyone who doesn't enter into heterosexual marriage is to lifelong celibacy ('Side B').  Lee is unambiguously on Side A, but in embracing both, the GCN is a model of peaceful co-existence on the non-essentials.

The book is undoubtedly the stronger for its autobiographical element.  This is not a dry treatise; it is not a theoretical treatment of the topic.  It is built from experience - and many tears, much heart-searching, and a careful and long-lived review of scripture.  The latter is important: the perspective and methodology  is solidly and fully evangelical, even if the conclusion would be similar to that which might be found in more liberal-minded denominations and groups.

Everyone's experience is different.  Some day soon I'll be ready to talk about mine here.  But the subtitle is exactly right - the gospel desperately needs rescuing from the sterile "Gays-vs-Christians" debate.  It's an absurd false dichotomy and is doing immeasurable harm to the message of Jesus.  Robust grown-ups can draw their own conclusions.  Those who are more vulnerable - particularly lonely and confused teenagers - need a whole lot more help.  If Lee's book helps them, and those close to them, then it will already be worthwhile.  As it is, I hope and pray that it has even more impact than that (and I see that other reviews and reports suggest it is doing just that).


Review: A Better Atonement

A Better Atonement Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin     
Tony Jones

When, half a lifetime ago, I started as a student, some of my peers were studying theology, and I was wide-eyed at the concept that they had a whole prelims paper on the Atonement [that link tells me that this is no longer the case...interesting].  I couldn't quite believe that there was enough to say, or, indeed, enough dispute to get a good argument from.  How naive I was!

I've always found the academic end of theology rather challenging - perhaps because I am not trained in the humanities or even the social sciences.  This book isn't high-blown academic theology (well, I don't think it is; how could you tell?), but it's not an easy popular read, either.  That's not to say that it's hard to read: indeed, Jones puts his easy, accessible writing to good effect here as elsewhere.  It's just that the whole theological venture seems, well, arbitrary.  The book is well-written, though it would have benefited from the attentions of an editor (a peril of self-publishing, I guess).

Many of the ideas previously appeared on Tony Jones' blog, so you can find some of it there.  I enjoy Tony's blog, so buying a 'book' with a collection of articles from there didn't seem like a bad idea.  [Aside.  It's ironic that the spell-check on this web-based blog client I'm using doesn't recognise 'blog' as a word, suggesting instead glob, bog, log, slob,...]

In the first part of the book, Jones explores the doctrine of original sin, rejecting it (in the sense that sin is somehow transmitted by semen) in place of an observation that we each sin for ourselves.

In other words, we don’t only lose our immortality because of Adam’s sin, but each of us stands guilty before God because of his sin.
I see the distinction, and yet it seems a bit like splitting hairs.  In the understanding I have received, the stress is much more on the "all have sinned" part; saying with the Psalmist "surely I was sinful from birth" rather than seeing this as particularly strongly tied to an inherited sinful state.  Perhaps I just blanked the semen bit.

But Jones sees the distinction as crucial to going on to understand the Atonement.  As an interlude, he explores his belief that Jesus really rose from being really dead.  He finds Jesus' miracles and his resurrection crucial to how these things are to be understood.

The second part explores various ways in which people have understood the Atonement.  The central idea for Evangelicals (and some others too) is Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  Jones shows a host of reasons for thinking that holding this a central pre-eminent doctrine is a mistake.  I'd have to agree there.  I've tried to avoid it in preaching and in leading worship, these last several years.  It's downright difficult - our patterns of thought, and our hymnology are suffused with it.  And yet it's unsatisfactory - particularly as a central idea, even if it makes for a good analogy and an angle to explore from time to time.

Having batted aside this and several other ideas - whilst seeing a measure of merit in most - he ends with a more constructive idea, trying to live up to the title of the book.  In this he draws upon Moltmann, but manages to confuse me so that I really cannot summarise or paraphrase what he is saying.  This paragraph seems valuable:

Our call is to identify with Christ’s suffering and death, much as he has identified with us. In his death, we are united with his suffering. And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.
Evidently, I need to learn more about theological methodology.  Or perhaps there is no spoon.