Recently, I made an effort to contact Phyllis Tickle. In case you don’t know who she is, she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, the author of several books, very visible on the web (just Google her), and for our interests here, one of the leading voices of a movement called Emergence Christianity. I wanted to contact her because I was (and still am) concerned about some things she has written and said. I had already some of my concerns in classes and in blog posts here at ccithink and I wanted to solicit her input and inform her that I have been and plan to continue discussing her theology. To my amazement, Ms. Tickle got back to me almost immediately. She was gracious and addressed my concerns
In an upcoming series of articles, I will share the questions I asked of Ms. Tickle, the answers she gave me, and the reasons for my ongoing concern. For these articles I will also draw on her many videos, articles, and interviews given as well as some of her books.
Upcoming In House Symposium on Gay Christianity
One of the challenges hurling toward the believing Church is the growing presence of gay Christianity. On a date still to be decided, the “fellows” of the Christ and Culture Initiative with gather to discuss the various questions and challenges facing the Church concerning this subject.
If you have well worked out thoughts on this subject, pro or con, or questions that you would like for us to consider, you are invited to submit those thoughts and questions by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for submissions is May 15, 2013.
H. Richard Niebuhr set the bar for modern conversations about Christ and culture and, more particularly, what is to be done about what he called “the enduring problem” of human culture. This series is an attempt to facilitate dialogue about the enduring problem using Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as a foundation. The reader is invited to read Niebuhr’s book and join this conversation.
In the paragraphs and series installments to follow, I will attempt to capture the essence of what Niebuhr is saying and in the process add my own insights. I will make every effort to clearly delineate between Niebuhr’s voice and my far less significant one.
Simply put, the study of ethics concerns itself with the human pursuit of “the good.”1 It deals with questions having to do with how people should behave and asks, “What is the good life for man?”2 The subject and study of Christ and culture is the study of ethics, though not simply Christian ethics, limited only to those who profess Christ, but rather an ethics that speaks of Christ intersecting with culture; a theory of ethics that envisions culture as Christ would order it.
Admittedly, some have expressed animosity towards the idea of Christian ethics for at least a couple of reasons. First, the many examples where atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity such as “[the] crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the Americas, religious wars, the Galileo affair, defences of slavery and patriarchy.”3 Second, because Christians are perceived as not caring about the natural world and the common interests of mankind. In fact, some would say “Jesus imperils culture.”4 An ethics of Christ and culture wants to decisively address the questions that arise in the human pursuit of “the good.” It wants to define what “the good life” is for humanity.
The “Enduring Problem”
Niebuhr referred to the problem of human culture as the “enduring problem.”5 And while the Church, as representatives of Christ, would like to lead the culture, there are several reasons according to Niebuhr why the culture is suspicious of an ethics of Christ and culture.
First, he reported that the culture perceives that “Christians are animated by a contempt for present existence and by confidence in immortality.”6
It is not an attitude which can be ascribed to defective discipleship while the Master is exculpated, since his statements about anxiety for food and drink . . . the unimportance of treasures on earth . . . the fear of those who can take away life [see Matthew 6; 10:28] . . . as well as his [Jesus’] rejection in life and death of temporal power [Matthew 4]” all point to Jesus as the source of His followers’ convictions . . . .It is a baffling attitude, because it mates what seems like contempt for present existence with great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all man’s works, because it is not despairing but confident. Christianity seems to threaten culture at this point not because it prophecies that of all human achievements not one stone will be left on another but because Christ enables men to regard this disaster with a certain equanimity, directs their hopes toward another world, and so seems to deprive them of motivation to engage in the ceaseless labor of conserving a massive but insecure social heritage.
The second reason, according to Niebuhr, for cultural contempt towards an ethics of Christ and culture is the accusation that Jesus
“induces men to rely on the grace of God instead of summoning them to human achievement. What would have happened to the Romans, asks Celsus in effect, if they had followed the command to trust in God alone? Would they not have been left like the Jews, without a patch of ground to call their own, and would they not have been hunted down as criminals, like the Christians?”7
This approach to life flies in the face of an ethics that relies on human effort.
The third reason given by Niebuhr is that “Christ and his church . . . are intolerant.”Niebuhr prophetically describes this accusation as “the disapproval with which unbelief meets conviction.” The problem in Rome was not that Christians worshiped
a new God in Jesus Christ, but that they claimed to possess an exclusive divine knowledge and would not bow to Caesar when it was required. Niebuhr wrote:
“The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world’s kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshiped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage [today read: the Church yielding to the state in our present milieu of separation between Church and state.]”
Niebuhr mentions other aspects of Christianity that are abhorrent to the culture: Christ’s view of forgiveness, the requirements found in the Sermon on the Mount, the exaltation of the lowly, and the “unavailability of Christ’s wisdom to the wise and prudent, its attainability by the simple and by babes.”
In the end, the problem is between the two authoritative poles of Christ and culture and that Christians appeal to and follow Christ’s authority and want others to as well. Indeed, Jesus imperils culture.
1 Dr. Stephen Long, Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).
2 Popkin, Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993).
According to Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (Resident Aliens), Christendom, having begun with Constantine in 313 AD, ended in 1963.1 I can still remember the inner conflict I experienced the first time I heard that Christendom was dead or that we were living in a post-Christian era. It was well after 1963 when the news came to me. I was young and rather uninitiated into mainstream theological discussions, but even after I heard and understood those statements, I encountered many others who had not heard either. In fact, I am sure that I could still find many even today who do not understand what is meant by post-Christendom or for that matter what Christendom means. My point? The average evangelical normally runs at least twenty to forty years behind the times. With that said, there is another seismic shift happening in the church today. Perhaps it is more like an implosion or, better yet, a radiation accident that everyone is trying to escape before it gets lethal.
It is not often that one is afforded the opportunity to witness the end of an era. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Not all at once, to be sure, but it fell. Those of us alive at that time witnessed the end of an era. Today, we are witnessing the end of an era in the Church—the end of evangelicalism. But once again, most of us are late getting the message.
The seeds for the demise of evangelicalism have been in the sod for quite some time. I only began to be aware of it last year, though I have been cognizant of its problems for longer than that. For me, the concept of post-evangelicalism came when I recently heard an interview Phyllis Tickle gave to Gabe Lyons for the Next Christians video series. I was alarmed, did further research on Phyllis Tickle, and was yet more alarmed. So, I read her book, The Great Emergence. That’s when I realized that I did not want to be labeled by the word evangelical anymore.
Now, consequently, Phyllis Tickle doesn’t want to be called an evangelical either. In fact, it would seem that the term evangelical is being abandoned like a sinking ship leaving nothing but an empty hull behind. Where it gets interesting is deciding what we are abandoning evangelicalism for. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .
Some are abandoning evangelicalism for political reasons. The fabled evangelical block of power failed conservatives in the last two major elections. Now, with evangelicals being more and more labeled as extremists, I expect to see the Republican Party begin moving away from evangelicals and moving to the left—at least far enough to get back in the game.2
Some are abandoning evangelicalism because they feel that they are part of a historically significant movement, namely emergence Christianity. Among two of the disturbing claims made by Tickle in her interviews and books is that the concept sola Scriptura (Scripture only as our final source of authority) is all but dead, and that the Church will “get over” its rejection of homosexuality and, presumably, will make room for gay Christianity (not a surprising perspective coming from a lay Eucharistic minister and lector in the Episcopal Church).3 Though Tickle has an uncanny ability to speak articulately and yet leave you wondering if she has answered the question, she nevertheless does not seem to be a reporter for the “sans-sola-Scriptura/pro-homosexual” brand of emergence Christianity but rather a strong advocate for and participant in it. All of this is coupled with a staunch reinvigoration within emergence Christianity of a bottom-up, social gospel.
Some are abandoning evangelicalism by virtue of their errant doctrines as can be witnessed at biologos.org where there is strong advocacy for embracing theistic evolution by self-proclaimed Bible-believing, Christians. The issue here is not a quibbling over age/day theories, but whether or not humanity sprung from one original mated pair (Adam and Eve), etc.
The Antagonistic “Insiders”
Some are abandoning evangelicalism by virtue of their rejection of its tenets. In other words, their complaints about evangelicals seem to have led them into being something else, though they do not admit it. In many ways these could be characterized as “bullies” who have an “insider’s” axe to grind against evangelicals. These people present themselves (and in some cases are represented by the media) as evangelicals, but when they speak they don’t sound like evangelicals.4 At least they don’t sound like we used to. So, the Church gets saddled with “experts” who seem more like Trojan horses than true arbiters of wisdom coming from within genuine evangelical spirituality.
Along with a reinvigorated secular push towards the nation-wide acceptance of same-sex marriage (helped along in no small way by the fact that, in his second inaugural address, President Barrack Obama decided to elevate a bar fight in New York City to the same level as the fight for racial equality when he mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall all in the same breath),5 there is an astonishing tide of momentum gathering behind the idea of gay Christianity. As mentioned above, proponents from the orthonomic branch of emergence Christianity6 are helping to lead the way. But, other lesser known influences are cropping up all over the place. Sandra Turnbull,7 a Assemblies of God-raised and educated8 lesbian pastor of the Glory Tabernacle Christian Center, has written a book titled God’s Gay Agenda in which she declares,
Today, I know who I am. I am a eunuch born this way from my mother’s womb. I have a destiny in God. I have a high-calling that I am pursuing along with my life partner. Love fills my life. I have a wonderful family and a great Church. And to think that all of this was made possible because my life was turned upside down many years ago when I found myself in the eye of a storm— a storm about my sexuality.9
Turnbull is not alone. A perusal of Rachel Held Evans’ blog site (an author published by Thomas Nelson) reveals her support of gay Christianity as this quote, written concerning the infamous Chick-Fil-A boycott:
I am especially sorry to my LGBT friends who have been bullied in the name of Christ—many of you as Christians yourself—and I long for the Church to become a more welcoming home to all who want to follow Jesus, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. . . . As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies, a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel.10
The personal opinions and political views expressed by an author are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect that of the company. Thomas Nelson publishes products written from a Christian worldview, and we respect our author’s right to express their personal opinion. We cannot comment on anything concerning Ms. Evans other than the book that she has published through us.11
There are so many more examples like the recent article in the Atlantic, Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University. Forgetting for now the question of how any Christian should respond when put in the situation of the author’s professors at Liberty University, you can’t help but anticipate the coming battle when you read,
Eventually, though, I decided that if Jesus met me some time, and if he got to know me, and hear my ideas, and listen to me laugh, then he would like me. What made me come to that conclusion? Meeting people like Dr. Prior and Dr. Reeves. All these people—including Jerry Falwell—helped teach me about Jesus, and I figured that if they liked me, then maybe Jesus might, too. Gandhi once said that he liked Christ, but not Christians because they were so unlike their leader. But the people I met at Liberty… well, Gandhi would have liked them.12
Well, it’s nice to be liked. Jesus more than likes us, He loves us with an everlasting love (Psalm 100:5; John 3:16). But what does that mean to the author? If Jesus “likes” you does that mean He accepts you? Does that mean that you were created to be a homosexual? Sandra Turnbull thinks so.
What about the youth pastor from Texas who writes in his blog,
I have homosexuals who come to my youth ministry regularly. Some of them passionately love Jesus. I have seen their lives and their hearts, and I know that they have a real relationships with God. Do homosexuals who loves [sic] God go to heaven? I know it. Do they have real relationships with God? Undeniably. . . . If you are a homosexual (teen) and have felt judged, criticized and hurt by church, come to [my youth group]. If you’re afraid to step into church because you’ve experienced alienation in the past… come to [my youth group].
I hope I am wrong about this young pastor, but I think he just planted the seeds for a gay church!
The Believing Church
Evangelical doesn’t seem to mean what it used to mean. More accurately, it is being co-opted by many groups that do not hold to what used to be known as traditional evangelical values. OK. I am not married to the term evangelical but I am concerned that the believing Church identify itself in an ever-changing atmosphere of heresy and compromise.
1 This is a tongue-in-cheek general reference by H & W.
2 In the lapse of time since this was written several articles have been written documenting the movement of Republicans towards the left of center for the sake of remaining viable politically, particularly on the subject of gay marriage. To be clear, my main issue with public support of same-sex marriage is that it places homosexuality in the category of normal behavior and as a Bible believing Christian I cannot endorse that. The question of human rights is a separate issue. For that reason, I do not say to the LGBT community that they cannot practice whatever sexual behavior they may desire. I don’t agree with it and I reserve the right to say so and to warn against such behavior. But asking me to endorse it, support it, normalize it, even Christianize it goes beyond what the true meaning of tolerance calls for.
4 Simply read the writings of Mark Noll, Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Jonathan Dudley and others.
5 Selma, Alabama played a key role in the Civil Rights movement, Seneca Falls was the birthplace of the Women’s Rights movement, and Stonewall is a Greenwich Village gay bar in Manhattan where it is said “gay pride began.”
6 In her book The Great Emergence (pages 149-150), Phyllis Tickle describes two approaches or views of authority happening within emergence Christianity. One is “orthonomy” which is “the tendency . . . [to allow] aesthetic response and/or emotionally or spiritually moving experience to become bases for authority. The other is “theonomy” meaning that “only God can be the source of perfection in action and thought.” Now, presumably this means using the Bible as the final authority. Tickle, however, says “neither is sufficient by itself.”
8 The Amazon site for her book contains a short bio of Turnbull which claims she was educated at Evangel College and Claremont School of theology. Her website mentions her Assemblies of God missionary parents. I confess that I am assuming that Evangel College must refer to what is today called Evangel University, an Assemblies of God school which began as Evangel College in 1955 (see previous footnote for these websites).
11 My concern at the time was that Evans is being presented as an evangelical Christian and being endorsed by a leading evangelical Christian publishing house, yet holding views that are inconsistent with an evangelical Christian worldview. Thomas Nelson’s claim that they publish products written from a Christian worldview while showing no interest in any personal opinion expressed outside of what was being published reflects either that Thomas Nelson thinks gay Christianity is part of the Christian worldview or that somehow it is excusable to compartmentalize what we sell separately from what we say or think personally. My view is that one’s everyday worldview needs to agree with our “sales pitch.”
This is a response to a response that was written in response . . . and so it goes . I genuinely value the dialogue
Thanks for the response. I agree wholeheartedly that one should put out the fire, fix the safety regulations, and deal with the burn victims. My desire to know “why?” does not stem from a “dispassionate” need to simply get the facts but not care about the solution. My passion is being shown by entering into an honest dialogue with you, (which I genuinely appreciate, by the way). And I think I expressed the sentiment you are looking for in one of the last paragraphs of my response article when I wrote,
I respect Chris’s strong assertion that gender is not a choice; that trying to change one’s “crippling sex-gender incongruence” does not work. I care about the word crippling. And in spite of those evangelical Christians who seem to preach about hell like they want you to go there (we all know the type), I think we all are concerned about the word crippling.But our approach is to ask “What can we do to change the situation?” rather than to simply try and make the world more accepting. It’s like the difference between radical surgery and hospice. One you do because you want to fix it. The other you do because nothing else worked and you resign yourself to what doctors say is inevitable. Genuine, Bible-believing Christians want to fix it. I understand that we have not expressed that in love, and I understand that even when we do, those words may still be heard as offensive to the segment of society who is experiencing life as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person. But we want to fix it.
But if I did not go far enough, I will now: Of course I would like to understand the transgender person has arrived at his or her status (not presuming that every story is the same). But, I am moved more by the difficulty they are walking through with their families, their daily lives, their understanding of who they are before God; difficulty that I am only just now beginning to understand at an admittedly naive level.
As far as my “quibbling” over semantic differences, sometimes quibbling brings about needed investigation. I would think that if a genuine effort is to be made at helping people understand transgenderism (still not sure of that word), then some understanding that a concept with its requisite terminology (namely that gender and sex are two different things), which only began to be clearly enunciated among professionals and scholars officially since 2001, and postulated as late as 1978 may not have had time to make it into Popular Mechanics or Good Housekeeping. Nevertheless, your answer to my quibbling validated my concern, that being that something so counterintuitive to the average person should be declared with such authority based on a fairly recent body of knowledge at least deserves a little patience while people catch up. I am convinced that, at least among Evangelicals (and we have to work on your very wide definition of Evangelicals), that people are frequently found to be twenty to forty years behind the times. Some Christians are just now figuring out that Christendom is dead you know?!
I am writing this article in response to one written by Chris Delmore who took exception to Roger Erdvig’s Boys will be boys . . . or will they? post of a couple weeks ago. By Chris’s own admission he intended to write an article that would be unexpected and annoying. It was unexpected (though not the ideas within, but the time taken to articulately respond to my challenge and Roger’s article), but it was not annoying.
It is not my intention to respond for Roger. Perhaps he will do that at a later date. But I do have some thoughts and questions for Chris.
Chris immediately took exception to Roger’s dismissal of the transgender claims of children referred to in his article, demanding respect for their assertions. I would plead for understanding and patience on Chris’s part as far as we evangelical’s1 are concerned in even understanding where our language would be offensive in these issues. Your average Christian is unaware of the intricacies of transgenderism2 and all that it entails. But, I can say that we do not, and should not, say what we say in an effort to disrespect. But one must understand that evangelical Christians come at this issue with a different worldview; one that is less interested in making people comfortable in their choices or situations and more interested in addressing what to us seems like a tragic condition. It seems strange to simply accept that a little girl has begun to identify as a little boy and not try and find reasons for it. Why? Because our worldview says that God has not made people this way. So, since that is what we firmly believe, we look for solutions; for answers. The idea that gender is “by definition . . . a psychological concept” is a strange idea to us and one we cannot accept, and one that, in spite of the sources cited in Chris’s article, is one that probably has not been accepted by anyone for very long. In 1828 gender simply meant “a sex, male or female. . . . a difference in words to express distinction of sex.”3 The American Heritage Dictionary still retains this definition, though it opens the door for a distinction between “sex” and “gender” by defining gender as “sexual identity, especially in relation to society or culture” as well. So, the idea that gender is a psychological concept and that it and sex are “entirely separate concepts” is not one that we accept, in spite of Stryker and Butler and the massive intellectual fire power Chris wheeled out in order to make this point. It is hard however to reconcile the idea that gender is a psychological concept and yet see it defended as something that cannot be changed and, by implication as something that is not chosen or at least engendered by one’s familial environment, etc.
As for using God as support for our arguments, it is simply inadequate to say that such reference points are meaningless for those that do not believe in “a single, omnipotent, creationist God.” I assume that Chris embraces a postmodern philosophy that does not allow for absolute truth (in contrast I love the simplicity of Aquinas who asserts, “The existence of truth is self-evident. For whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth.”), though in one place Chris expresses agreement with Roger about truth. And I am unaware of Chris’s religious beliefs. In any case, just because there are individuals who have decided that God does not exist, does not mean He doesn’t exist. And there is no clause that allows for each of us to choose our own universe or our own eschatological destinies based on preference (i.e., the idea that since I don’t believe in God I won’t have to answer to God). Either there is a God or there is not. Either it is the God of the Bible, the Christian God, or it is not. Either the tenets of Scripture (the Bible) are true or they are not. This is the issue.
Do we find certain situations in the world that we cannot explain? Yes. Are there actually people who, as far as they know, are gay or lesbian or identify as being of a gender opposite to what the transgender literature describes as their “assigned sex”? Yes. But human experience does not define the Bible. The Bible defines human experience. Any Christian who sincerely thinks that every person involved in the LGBT community is simply, consciously trying to rebel against God should do some deeper thinking and investigation (though there certainly are those in the LGBT community who seem to be doing just that). But just because there are good-hearted, kind, well-meaning, even god-fearing individuals out there in the wide world who are attracted to the same sex or who identify opposite to their “assigned sex,” that does not make it acceptable. It does not, in and of itself, mean that those realities should be normalized or canonized into the list of normal human experience. The question here is which standard of truth will we adhere to?
I found interesting the four explanations to Roger’s rhetorical, “How did we get here so fast?” particularly, number three: the idea that acceptance comes to the LGBT community because people do not want to hurt their loved ones who have come out as LGBT. Of course, it is laudable when people love their friends and families and don’t want to hurt them. Any other intention would not make sense. But from an evangelical Christian standpoint, our commitment to God and to truth trumps our sentimentalities and even our staunch devotion to our loved ones. In fact, changing the truth in order not to hurt someone’s feelings is like a doctor not revealing a potentially fatal disease to a patient because he or she does not want to hurt the patient’s feelings. When we stop valuing and pursuing truth, all other ills find a home where truth once lived.
I respect Chris’s strong assertion that gender is not a choice; that trying to change one’s “crippling sex-gender incongruence” does not work. I care about the word crippling. And in spite of those evangelical Christians who seem to preach about hell like they want you to go there (we all know the type), I think we all are concerned about the word crippling. But our approach is to ask “What can we do to change the situation?” rather than to simply try and make the world more accepting. It’s like the difference between radical surgery and hospice. One you do because you want to fix it. The other you do because nothing else worked and you resign yourself to what doctors say is inevitable. Genuine, Bible-believing Christians want to fix it. I understand that we have not expressed that in love, and I understand that even when we do, those words may still be heard as offensive to the segment of society who is experiencing life as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person. But we want to fix it.
Finally, I think Chris’s last paragraph asserting an improper fixation on children’s genitals is unfair and is as unnecessary as is the implication that any of us would ever condone violence against transgender individuals (or anyone in the LGBT community). That’s not who we are. And I guess I want to address the concept of “homophobia” or “transphobia,” though not here and not yet, except to say that I don’t identify with the idea that we are afraid of homosexuality or transgenderism, etc. in the sense that we are concerned that it may hinder our quality of life or that we are necessarily afraid that we ourselves will become homosexual or transgender (though since we largely see these as being in the realm of choice or at least being environmentally influenced some of that may play a part). Ours is a pursuit of truth and a desire to fulfill the Great Commission, and a genuine concern for people.
I do have some questions:
-What was the earliest point that behavioral scientists or psychologists began to make a distinction between sex and gender?
-How much influence does environment play in gender identity?
– Are there transgender individuals who are happy to be transgender?
-Do transgender individuals claim that there is absolutely no reason to think that the elevation of transgenderism, etc. will ever have an effect on children who are what you refer to as cisgendered but who are bullied for other reasons, thereby leaving them vulnerable to suggestion?
1 I use the word “evangelical” with more and more reserve since I can no longer be confident that everyone is reads the same meaning into it any more. But the word “Christian” is worse since even more heresy is found under that rubric than the word evangelical.
2 Not sure is transgenderism is a fair way to reference here.
3 American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster 1828, (New York: S. Converse, 1828), gender.
4 The concept of “bottom-up” or “top down” applies here in that a growing number of people want to choose truth based on what humans experience or desire rather than from a perspective of what God desires.