12/20/2008 (3:04 pm)
Probably the most controversial news of the week was President-elect Obama’s announcement that he’s asked Rev. Rick Warren, Evangelical and pastor of the Saddleback Church in southern California, to pronounce the benediction at his inauguration. I noted with some surprise back in August, back when CNN broadcast Warren’s non-debate between the presidential candidates from Saddleback Church, that Evangelicalism seems to have gone mainstream. Obama’s progressive supporters hoped that they were electing a full-bore progressive President; Obama seems to be saying instead that he’s everybody’s President. Gays are furious — although, as Rush Limbaugh pointed out with some amusement, Warren’s position on gay marriage is identical to Obama’s.
Coincident with this stunning flap, I was reading reviews on Amazon this morning for a book entitled unChristian, by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, a polling organization. The book apparently documents common reactions to Evangelical Christians based on a lengthy study, and they’re uniformly negative. I have not read the book, but one of the reviews gives us the flavor of it:
In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003) Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. “When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity,” says Borg, “they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted…”
A new book called unChristian (2007) by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group presents objective research that supports Borg’s subjective anecdote. Kinnaman’s three-year study documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain.
These broadly and deeply negative views of Christians aren’t just superficial stereotypes with no basis in reality, says Kinnaman. Nor are the critics people who’ve had no contact with churches or Christians… Rather, it’s based upon their real experiences with today’s Christians. In addition to their statistical research, the book includes anecdotes from people who were interviewed, follow-on comments at the end of each chapter by some 30 Christian leaders, and reflections about why we’ve come to such a place and how we might make it better…
According to Kinnaman’s Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:
* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%
It would be hard to overestimate, says Kinnaman, “how firmly people reject– and feel rejected by– Christians” (19). Or think about it this way, he suggests: “When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you” (93).
I’ll plead guilty to being occasionally too political, and even to being boring; you all would know better than I. However, the culture’s negative feeling about Evangelicals is not static, it’s grown over the years, and I don’t think that’s because the Church has changed all that much (it may be because the Church has not changed all that much.) I think it’s because the culture has changed — and I think this produces a real danger for Christians, in more ways than one. One danger, of course, is the growing possibility of social or political persecution. The other danger, though, is the danger of inviting the culture to change the Church in the wrong ways, and for the wrong reasons.
I’ve been an Evangelical, or at least a quasi-Evangelical for about 35 years, so I’ve heard all of these complaints directed against me, more than a few times. Those of you who have read this blog more than once can imagine how I might react to the charge that I’m anti-intellectual. Yes, I’ve heard that one. Against me. Plenty of times. Usually from boneheads who can’t reason their way properly out of a paper bag that’s open at both ends. It’s pretty galling.
I’ll never forget the time a woman my father was dating (my mom died in 1988) told me that I was not capable of objective reason because I was religious. I noted that if that was true, aptitude tests of my analytical ability somehow failed to pick it up. This woman was obviously intelligent, insofar as she was well-read, had a decent vocabulary, and enjoyed discussing current topics, but I didn’t notice any reasoning ability to justify her superior pretensions. In fact, aside from the fact that she was simply a horrible human being (an opinion probably colored by my emotions since she was trying to replace my mother, dammit) she was obviously so bigoted as to be unable to render a sound opinion about religious people.
This is a lot more common than modern critics like Kinnaman acknowledge. Yes, I’m absolutely sure that the average person in Kinnaman’s survey responded that Evangelicals are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted. That doesn’t mean that they are. I think there are plenty of true adjectives that can be applied to most Evangelical churches, but I’m also willing to wager that when measured objectively against the general population (however that might happen,) those would not be among them.
On the contrary, I think that particular list is the product of anti-intellectual, judgmental, self-righteous bigotry on the part of the Church’s critics. It’s one of the ironies of the human soul that those who judge, usually accuse others of the things of which they, themselves, are guilty. I mean, come on — reread that list of adjectives in the green quotation block, above, and try to convince me that the people saying those things are not being judgmental.
It’s a useful exercise, once in a while, to listen to your critics and ask yourself whether they’ve got a point. I’m not sorry Kinnaman wrote his book, and I really want to read it. However, that sort of self-evaluation is no place to live, and especially not when you’re trying to live by the will of the living God, and you suspect that your critics mostly want to deflect uncomfortable truths from touching themselves. We don’t need to conform to our critics’ will, but to God’s.
One of my deep concerns about the emerging church is that its goals have been formed by the hostile rationalizations of the unredeemed. The loudest voices calling for social justice in the modern Western world are the voices of politically-motivated neo-Marxists, not of people genuinely concerned about real human needs. What they call “justice” is not justice at all, it’s divisive class warfare aimed at destroying capitalism and ushering in a tyrannical socialist regime. Even those who don’t agree to their political goals have been influenced by their vision, and mimic it when speaking of “reform;” though they may be sincere, their understanding of the human soul is often so inaccurate that their notion of what people actually need is useless. This is no place for a Christian to receive guidance.
Aiming at social justice and helping the poor is good, but conforming to the current, cultural view of what that looks like will eventually discredit the Church, since it will eventually lead to social disintegration. Worse, it will not help the poor. Progressive policies invariably harm the poor, rather than helping. I’ve spent plenty of time in the ghetto, and most of the people I’ve met there won’t be any better off if you give them money, nor will government protection from oppressors do much for them. What most of them need is righteousness, and often their fortunes change as they begin to acquire it. It doesn’t take rocket science to imagine why someone might be accused of being “judgmental,” “old-fashioned,” or “insensitive” for saying so, even if it’s true — especially if it’s true.
I am naturally concerned that the level of bigotry against Christians is growing. I am open to being convinced that Christians, themselves, are responsible for some part of that growing animosity. I am aware that churches generally need to reflect current fashions around them if they’re going to communicate with the culture at large. However, the negative opinions of my neighbors do not prove that I’m guilty of what they charge; especially not when the Messiah Himself took the trouble to warn me that they were going to dislike me on His behalf.
Thomas Jefferson gave sound advice that Christians need to take to heart:
On matters of style, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock.
There are some things a man has to stand by even if the entire world calls him bad names.