liberals & conservatives: a plague on both their houses!

15 August, 2006 at 12:11 pm 5 comments

I get really fed up with the intra-church wars that go on between liberals and conservatives! I’m sick of long, bitter and futile arguments over historicity in the bible that never get as far as probing the meaning and importance of the texts. I’m sick of evangelicals who privatise and inividualise faith so that it becomes some sort of gnostic “club”, with a tight theological “system”. They seem to think that God’s sole object in sending Jesus was to save “me” and provide me with a “salvation” that is suspiciously close to the ultimate in consumer products. I’m sick of liberals who spend all their time trying to explain why we cannot believe the things about God and Jesus that have always been fundamental to Christian faith, and why we ought to be following people like Jack Spong et al and concentrating all ourt efforts on a more “intellectually credible” faith. They cannot understand anything that smacks of a “passion for Jesus” and retreat into embarrassed silence at the suggestion that one couldn’t do better than to spend one’s life, priorities, energies and resources in service of Jesus Christ. Ironically, the Good News becomes equally parochial – appropriate only for western, “christianised” cultures! Oh – and I’m sick of the people who will read this and subject it to endless qualifications, rather than seeing it as a generalisation that nevertheless embodies some fundamental and disturning truths about the “wings” of our churches! Either the Good News of Jesus Christ embraces every possible area of human existence – public and private – or it isn’t Good News. And either it’s the very best news for a world in the grip of Bad News, and we ought to be telling everyone about it, or it isn’t, and we ought to stop pretending it is and do something more effective with our time, money and resources!

I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993, ISBN 0-687-41233-1). Let me cite him on this subject:

The subject of evangelism invites false disputes between liberals and conservatives … such [ideological] labels betray our understanding of the wholeness of life under the singleness of God’s purpose. With so-called conservatives, I agree that we must get our language right, to affirm that our evangelical language is for us realistic language, and we must not blink at the epistemological embarrassment of the gospel. With so-called liberals I agree that we must see our unembarrassed, realistic evangelical-Christological language is not isolated, specialised languange, but is public language concerned with public issues, uttered for the sake of public criticism and public possibility. Whenever liberals shrink from the epistemological scandal of the gospel and whenever conservatives shrink from the public dimension of the faithful language of the evangel, the gospel is distorted and the Bible is misread.

Way to go, Walter! Give it to ’em with both barrels! He’s right! And he goes on to be even more importantly right:

I submit that in our time, so-called conservatism is an attempt to reduce the danger of the Bible to confessional safety (I just love that phrase!!!), and so-called liberalism is an attempt to avoid the dramatic system-shattering claim of the gospel (stunning!!!). I submit that so-called conservatives and so-called liberals might well return to the shared, concrete language practice of the Bible to learn again that the utterance of the name fo God (or the name of Jesus) is endlessly subversive, polemical, risk-taking (Jesus Christ, he’s right!). Indeed, I suggest that our scholastic debates about liberalism and conservatism are simply smoke screens to protect our vested interests and to fend off the danger and threat of the gospel (O that we might learn to find the gospel “dangerous” and “threatening”). Or conversely the reduction of the gospel to our favorite (Hey, he’s American! Leave him alone!) political slogan is a refusal to let the unfettered news of God have its say. The gospel news of changed governance in all of creation is more radical, demanding, and empowering than any of us can readily imagine, embrace, or domesticate.

Isn’t this one of the most important tasks for us as churches – to rediscover that shared biblical practice, rather than struggling with everything we have to reduce the bible and the gospel – oh, and God to boot – to more manageable proportions? And when we’ve done that, it would be mighty difficult to be a church with nothing to say that engages the world.


Entry filed under: emerging church, evangelism, faith & spirituality.

who says politics ain’t black & white? a “must go-see”!

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Keith  |  16 August, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Lawrence, I think I totally agree with you. It’s just those ever such long words you theologians understand completely and I don’t!

    On the one hand we have the conservatives who will probably be the worst obstacle to climb when the emerging church emerges. So many of them are, by reference to their professions, intelligent people, but they keep their eyes closed and insist on believing their fundamentalist unsupportable beliefs.

    As for the liberals, I thought I belonged to them by challenging everything I read in the Bible and finding solid explanations for what appeared to be miracles and picture language. Finally I realise that I am an evangelical who uses constructively the common sense I was born with.

    It has taken some time but I now know where I stand. I suppose it is a case of letting the pendulum swing to one extremity and then the other before settling somewhere in between.

    But I do see a problem with the wide apart stances of the liberals and the conservatives. How can we achieve a united reformed church (note the lower case) of Jesus Christ?

  • 2. Lawrence  |  16 August, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Here’s the hope, Keith: we’ve actually moved beyond the classic evangelical/liberal divide in terms of the post-evangelical and post-liberal consensus. That was my point in citing Brueggemann, who is a post-liberal. He’s refusing the terms of the old argument – in effect, the terms of the historical-critical debate. There has been a similar move in the emergence of the post-evangelicals, which started (formally) with Dave Tomlinson’s book, The Post-evangelical. That simply put down on paper what has been happening. Take our own inimitable John Campbell, who is from that stable: he and Brueggemann, together with Marcus Borg (from the Jesus Seminar) would be in broad agreement – or, should I say, the relationship wouldn’t be one of conflict but interested debate! The differences – as well as points of convergence – are enriching rather than a source of division.

    What characterises the consensus is an emphasis on story and narrative. The issue is to take with utmost serious how the evangelists (in the case of the gospels) construct their narratives. The task of interpretation is a “conversation” between 3 stories: the biblical story (of Jesus and the NT Church), the contemporary individual story and the contemporary communal/socio-politcal story. Brueggemann sees the role of the biblical story in this conversation as providing the “third world of evangelical imagination”, and I find that a particularly helpful way of characterising it.

    When the emphasis is on narrative, a prime exegetical task is to pay the closest attention to how the story “works”. The underlying assumption is that the story is true, but “ture” in the sense that stories are true: they tell us truth in storied form. In other words, the biblical “truth” is inextricably narrative in form and content. This means that we are not into a “demythologisation” programme, because this would be a “de-storying” exercise (I’ve just thought: rearrange those letters and you get “destroying”!). We’re not constantly searching for “the historical kernel”, as though “true”=”historical”. Rather, we allow the narrative form to do its proper work. Let me give you a concrete example: Mark uses geography symbolically. The new approach allows us to concentrate on what he does it for, rather than to assume that Mark is either “correct” or “mistaken” about “what actually happened”. Similarly, he portrays Jesus as at war with “The Strong Man” (Satan). A narrative approach isn’t interested in how we ought to conceive of Satan outside the story, but rather how the Satan character functions within it. It may be fine to ask that other question: the point is that we needn’t spend hours and pages discussing it as part of the exegetical task!

    This is something we’re finding really helpful in bridging the gap between liberals and evangelicals within the URC (lower or upper case!). I’d be interested in your response.

  • 3. Keith  |  16 August, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you have just said, Lawrence. It has been my experience that I CAN find a link between the two extremes through the narrative approach. My problem has been that I cannot make some people see that there is this common ground on which we stand. I often find that they have this demand – that what they say IS truth and that it is not up for debate.

    Some of the arguments are so simplistic that I can’t understand why supposedly intelligent people use them. For instance, I have heard others referred to as not being Christian because “they have not been saved.” Yet the truth is that they ARE saved without anything being required of them. God has done it all, unconditionally through the death and resurrection of Jesus. They may reject Jesus, but have still been saved. Yet others tell me that unless someone steps forward to accept salvation it has not happened. My argument is that it is a matter of history that salvation has been given.

    Last year I was in the home of a fundamentalist and I remarked how beautiful was the poetry in the Book of Job. “Yes,” he said, “and it’s all true.” I had to be polite and say no more. But I wondered how any intelligent person could state that the story of Job was actual truth and that there was a witness at the “Heavenly board meeting”. For my part I could see the truth the story was telling and this I think is the argument you are putting.

    I have found this hard to put into words as my 15 year old grandson has kept putting his head round my study door, talking about fishing rods!

  • 4. Graham  |  3 September, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Hello again, Lawrence – I’ve only just found your reply to my comment on “does god actually make a difference?” and these 2 issues link here, I think. I agree with this broad approach to finding common ground between the two dominant wings of Christian tradition – which I find bound together not only by Myers on Mark’s Jesus “Binding the Strong Man”, but also by Wink’s analysis of the Domination System. I think the idea of Jesus offering incisive critiques of ‘the system’ (within which we are alienated from one another, complicit with the myth of redemptive violence, and dehumanised) functions in this ‘narrative’ way – and it is something which can resonate with the confident claims of more conservative-minded people and liberals who seek social transformation. But having said that, I do find myself inhabiting a world that is starkly different from the one apparently inhabited by many conservatives – in fact, common ground can look very unlikely -so in terms of ‘evangelising’ the good news, I can’t help but feel there are very different “gospels” to proclaim. I might prefer if it were not the case, but sometimes I wonder if it would not be more helpful to acknowledge plural Christianities.

  • 5. Monte  |  5 October, 2006 at 12:24 am

    I wonder if what both views have in common is their Christological anemia.

    Both offer exhaustive theories, replete with Biblical examples, of why opinion X is wrong or right. But Jesus himself has been sorted out of the equation: whether opinion X is demonstrably his own becomes immaterial. The Bible’s details become our picture of God, subtly supplanting the Master as the ultimate representation of God. Perhaps we see the Bible as explaining God rather than hearing Jesus Christ explaining the Bible. You think? This may be some fallout of the inerrancy wars, which left behind a reluctance to regard the stories of Jesus as more definitive than the writings of the apostles and prophets.

    As the years go by, I find myself uncertain of more and more elements of theology, and even somewhat reluctant to proclaim them, for they appear so vaguely in Scripture. But I find myself more and more certain that God is there, and that every time he reveals himself to me he looks just like Jesus Christ, and that this Jesus is wanting to flood his presence into each synapse of my thought and action.

    As for “liberal” and “conservative” – these things seem so pale and irrelevant!


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