I recently discovered this quote from Tozer that I think is priceless. What do you think he is saying?
“It will cost something to walk slow in the parade of the ages, while excited men of time rush about confusing motion with progress. But it will pay in the long run and the true Christian is not much interested in anything short of that.”
In one of his sermons titled, “The God of All Creation,” which I assume was given near the end of his ministry but before he published The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer shares his desire to leave behind a legacy of thinking loftily about God:
“I want you to pray about something for me will you do this? I don’t often introduce personal matters but I want you to pray about something. I wish you’d pray that God would help me and let me live long enough to write a book on the attributes of God devotionally considered. I have that in my mind and I want to do it . . . . I’d like to do this; I’d like to leave to this generation an elevated and large conception of the great God Almighty in His three persons. I’d like to die and let the world say not “Wasn’t Tozer smart! Wasn’t he eloquent! Wasn’t he witty!” but to have them say, “We praise the O, God! We acknowledge thee to be the Lord! . . . . It’s this that I want to do. I want to leave behind me a flavor of God. . . .”
We would do well in this hour of heresy and compromise to listen to men of the past like Tozer who drank deeply of the Spirit of God and whom God used to articulate a vision of His greatness, and who also encouraged the Church to elevate its view of God.
This is part 3 of The Tickle Chronicles. Tickle, an extremely articulate and highly influential voice in the Emergence Christian movement, answered some of my questions via email and gave me permission to share her thoughts with you.
By Scott Fowler
“Actual” vs. “Factual”
I was riding the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World a few weeks ago, and a phrase written on the wall reminded me of Phyllis Tickle. The phrase derives from the lyrics of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah (listen to the song below), a song from the censored Disney movie, Song of the South. In the song, Uncle Remus sings,
Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder. It’s the truth! It’s actual! Everything is satisfactual!
Ah! The simplicity of Disney in the 1940s and the naïve idea that things that were true were actual and factual!1
In the last article (Phyllis Tickle’s Dangerous Hermeneutic), I shared with you Tickle’s response to my question about her view of Biblical authority. When I suggested that she was part of the crowd that no longer sees the Bible as the final authority, she took exception:
NO! Now this one surprises me, for so far as I know I am not usually misunderstood or misquoted here. As an observant Anglican, I believe, and continue to believe, that authority rests in Scripture, reason and tradition. Like Emergence Christians, I believe that Scripture must be seen as “actually” true, rather than reduced to the confines and strictures of human “fact” or being “factually true” in the sense of Protestant Inerrancy, as that term is normally defined. It is one of the prime roles of the Holy Spirit to lead the believer to correct discernment of Scripture, and as Christians we read with and through the tutelage of the Spirit. The odd thing about this point’s being questioned is that I say a dozen times every lecturing day that if there were such a thing as an “average” Emergence Christian and an “average” Protestant or Roman Christian [which there is not, of course], it would be the Emergence Christian who exhibits the more radical and emphatic devotion to the ‘accuracy’ of Holy Writ and to believing in its absolute function as the Word of God Almighty, Now and Always. Of course, the Emergence would also be appalled by the need, esp. on the part of Protestantism, to reduce that same Scripture to non-paradoxical exegesis, to “acceptable” doctrine, to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of. The two, then…i.e., actuality vs. factuality… are entirely different approaches to Scripture, the Emergence being not only a more passionately persuaded one, but also a much, much humbler one. (Emphasis mine.)
So, here we encounter the concept of the Bible as actually true rather than factually true. I think Uncle Remus would be puzzled by this idea as many of us are! I am not sure if this concept originates with Tickle or not. Quoting David Sloan Wilson, Michael Dowd (someone who calls himself “America’s evolutionary evangelist) defines practical truth versus factual truth:
Practical truth is that which reliably produces personal wholeness and social coherence by motivating people to behave in ways that serve the wellbeing of the group. Factual truth is that which is measurably, scientifically real.
A very quick Google search did not yield much on the comparison either way. Nevertheless, Tickle stands by it. So, what is she really trying to get at here?
“Non-paradoxical Exegesis” or “Reason Trumps Truth”
We have to take account of Tickle’s entire statement and at this point pull in her reference to “non-paradoxical exegesis.”
the Emergence [Christian] would also be appalled by the need, esp. on the part of Protestantism, to reduce that same Scripture to non-paradoxical exegesis, to “acceptable” doctrine, to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of.
It sounds like Emergence Christians demand that the Bible not be reduced to straight forward truth but that it be allowed to be paradoxical. I think I can accept the reality that Scripture can be paradoxical. The grace of God is paradoxical. But does Tickle ever allow for Scripture to be factual, straight forward, literal, un-twistable? Is every doctrine of evangelicalism open to the kind of interpretation that somehow “paradoxically” turns the Bible’s prohibition against homosexuality into a celebration of it instead? If, as Gingerich reported,2 Tickle declares that the Bible does not support homosexuality, then how does one arrive at the “paradox” of gay Christianity as Tickle does?3
The last part of the quote above is curious as well and gives us the answer to how Tickle and the Emergence Christians who agree with her arrive at such beliefs. According to Tickle, Emergence Christians:
would . . . be appalled by the need . . . to reduce . . . Scripture . . . to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of.
Isn’t this what Tickle’s “actual-sans-factual” “paradoxical exegetical” approach does in the first place? The only way to embrace homosexuality while at the same time agreeing that Scripture prohibits it is through the constructs of and a mandate for a socially palatable human reasoning. In her interview with Andrew Marin, Tickle showcases her own use of human reasoning. Speaking of the various Scriptural prohibitions that she says the Church has “gotten over,” and of divorce in particular, Tickle said,
the Church itself is gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we have changed over the years, we have evolved, the law. We now admit divorce. Our Lord does not speak much about sexuality, but He’s very clear about divorce. It’s the only thing He’s really clear about. And we have managed because out of compassion, and I certainly am for that change, out of compassion and out of common sense and out of a recognition that our times and ways of being are different from those. We have managed to get around the divorce issue and now even ordain divorced clergy, and that kind of thing. The same thing is going to happen with the gay issue. It’s in process. (Emphasis mine.)
Ah! Human reasoning at its finest!
In her previous statement, Tickle must be referring only to Protestant human reasoning which one can only surmise is not as acceptable because, paradoxically speaking, it does not lead to doctrines acceptable to our present society. But in theory, Protestant human reasoning is that which has been influenced by a view of Scripture as “truth” and as “actual” as understood through their proper definitions. And, even though we are faced with difficult situations when our human reasonings collide with its truths, Protestants find the Bible to be, in the end, very “satisfactual!”
The Tutelage of the Spirit
As far as reading Scripture “through the tutelage of the Spirit” and “correctly discerning Scripture,” what can be assumed here but that Tickle has in mind what any of us would agree with: a belief that we come to Scripture by faith through the agency of the Holy Spirit and that He helps us to rightly divide the Word of truth? Words like these cause one to be almost persuaded that, indeed, Tickle is at last an evangelical! Then, we remind ourselves that when Tickle reads the prohibitions against homosexuality, acknowledges them, and yet embraces homosexuality and gay Christianity, we realize that either she is not an evangelical, or the definition of evangelical has changed.
Next Time: I asked Ms. Tickle a follow-up question concerning her stance on gay Christianity. Her response was passionate, reverent, and devotional, but was it Scriptural?
1 The word fact and the word satisfaction have in common the Latin facere “perform; do.” So, the word fact has its meaning in the idea of an event which has actually happened and which can be verified evidentially. The prefix satis means “enough,” so in the word satisfaction, a deed has actually been done enough.
This is part two of my series on Phyllis Tickle. Having been exposed to her through video and print, I ventured to ask her a few questions through email. She was remarkably accessible and gracious enough to allow me to share her responses with you.
Phyllis Tickle’s Dangerous Hermeneutic
By Scott Fowler
Though much could be said and discussed concerning Phyllis Tickle and her theology, my chief concern is her hermeneutic (the theory and methodology of interpretation). In this article I will begin to share the questions I asked Ms. Tickle, along with her responses, and explain my concerns.
The First Question: Gay Christianity
I asked Ms. Tickle the following question:
Based on your book The Great Emergence and a video interview with Andrew Marin, can we say that you are a supporter of Christianity among the LGBT community?
Yes . . . there is no question and never has been. I believe that the GLBT community can be/is as much a part of Christianity as is any other segment of society. This can be elaborated and a well-argued support be made, but that is probably not in any way required here, so the simple answer: Yes.
Not that surprising coming from a “lay Eucharistic minister and lector in the Episcopal Church.”1 It’s how Tickle arrives at her theology that concerns me. Let me explain.
Some who have arrived at their support of homosexuality have done so by twisting Scripture, either linguistically or contextually.2 One blogger from the UK, in her defense of homosexuality, declared, “Jesus said that if a man look at a woman with lust in his heart, he had already committed adultery. He did not say the same if a man look at a man.”3 There will always be those who are content to say that up is down and will surround themselves with people who agree.
Then there are those who simply choose not to follow what Scripture says. Again, not uncommon. Examples of people going against Scripture in support of their own preferences abound. Interestingly, Tickle belongs to this category but in a unique way. According to Bart Gingerich, Phyllis Tickle affirms that “the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there,” 4 and yet she supports it anyway, or has at least “gotten over it” as she is fond of saying.5 But Tickle does not feel that she is going against Scripture. Somehow, she arrives at her support of gay Christianity through a complex approach to God and Scripture that leaves her enlightened by the Holy Spirit and able to unapologetically to support what Scripture does not.
In order to begin to understand how Tickle approaches Scripture, we will have to examine her words very closely to try and peel back the artfully woven layers of her responses to my questions.
Next Question: The Authority of Scripture
Ms. Tickle is quite articulate, but at times I have wondered if she is not trying to say what she wants to say without any real proof that she has said it. It has left me with the impression that she wants to lead a revolution but does not want to offend anyone while she does it. I made the following statement to her:
I would like to know if we are reading you correctly or not. Many times I have gotten the impression that you are artfully parsing your words in order to not alienate anyone which leaves the impression that you are not committing to the things mentioned above but no one as articulate and as passionate as you are is without her convictions. I would like to speak rightly about you since you are strongly influencing the Church.
Tickle’s response was:
. . . careful as I try to be…and I do parse my words carefully and often repeat them, in fact…it is apparently very difficult for some listeners to separate what Phyllis Tickle believes from what she reports as descriptive of Emergence thinking. The two are not always the same and, when they differ, tend to differ rather sharply. Over and over again in speaking, I make the distinction not only in general, but also in particular points being made or about to be made. In religion and faith, however, the enormity of the issues and the passion surrounding them all too often obscure the caveats.
At first, this seemed to be the case in her words concerning Sola Scipture or Scripture only. In her book, The Great Emergence, in a significant section entitled “the Erosion of Sola Sciptura,” Tickles writes:
“When it is all resolved [‘the arguments and questions surrounding homosexuality’]—and it most surely will be—the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead. . . . Of all the fights, the gay one must be—has to be—the bitterest, because once it is lost [and she means once the inerrant, Sola Sciptura, “factually true” crowd loses its battle against homosexuality in the church], there are no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is the authority?”6
One could say that maybe this is Phyllis Tickle the reporter rather than Phyllis Tickle herself. I believe she demonstrates her own view of Scripture by supporting homosexuality and gay Christianity.
Surprised at her stance and troubled by her claim that the end of Sola Scriptura is near, I asked Ms. Tickle the following question:
… it seems clear that you are aligned with those that [no] longer see Scripture as the final or ultimate authority in a Christian’s life. Is this accurate?
NO! Now this one surprises me, for so far as I know I am not usually misunderstood or misquoted here. As an observant Anglican, I believe, and continue to believe, that authority rests in Scripture, reason and tradition. Like Emergence Christians, I believe that Scripture must be seen as “actually” true, rather than reduced to the confines and strictures of human “fact” or being “factually true” in the sense of Protestant Inerrancy, as that term is normally defined. It is one of the prime roles of the Holy Spirit to lead the believer to correct discernment of Scripture, and as Christians we read with and through the tutelage of the Spirit. The odd thing about this point’s being questioned is that I say a dozen times every lecturing day that if there were such a thing as an “average” Emergence Christian and an “average” Protestant or Roman Christian [which there is not, of course], it would be the Emergence Christian who exhibits the more radical and emphatic devotion to the ‘accuracy’ of Holy Writ and to believing in its absolute function as the Word of God Almighty, Now and Always. Of course, the Emergence would also be appalled by the need, esp. on the part of Protestantism, to reduce that same Scripture to non-paradoxical exegesis, to “acceptable” doctrine, to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of. The two, then…i.e., actuality vs. factuality… are entirely different approaches to Scripture, the Emergence being not only a more passionately persuaded one, but also a much, much humbler one.
There are some serious implications in her response to my question concerning the authority of Scripture that we must sort through if we are to begin to decipher her meaning. First, the juxtaposition of her view of Scripture as “actually true” over against the Protestant, inerrancy view of Scripture as “factually true” is curious. Second, the phrase, “non-paradoxical exegesis” is intriguing. Third, the picture she draws of reading Scripture “through the tutelage of the Spirit” is worth investigating when compared to what she seems to have discerned. And finally, I have a question about what Tickle means by the phrase “correct discernment of Scripture”?
The next installment of the Tickle Chronicles will address these issues.
So, how is it that I have become focused on Phyllis Tickle and, more specifically, her theology and approach to Scripture? Her claim to fame is that she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her pedigree is long and you can read more about her on her website. But, more importantly for our interests, she is one of the very public representatives of emergence Christianity and it is in this capacity that she has made several statements that are of concern to me and, in my estimation, to the believing Church.
It was because of my concerns, and because I was beginning to write about her and reference her in my classes, that I decided to contact her through email, asking several pointed questions, to which she graciously and generously responded.
This article will chronicle my early exposure to Tickle’s theology, begin to share her answers to my questions, and thus begin a series of articles reflecting on Tickle, her theology (and more particularly her hermeneutical approach to Scripture), and emergence Christianity. She is quite prolific, having written many books and given many interviews, etc., and while I will not be able to master all of the material pertinent to my concerns, I believe we can get a genuine idea of where she stands and why her views might be of concern to those of us who have defined evangelical Christianity in a different way than she has.
I had heard about Phyllis Tickle a few years ago but only in passing. Then, a colleague showed me a video of her being interviewed by Gabe Lyons. It didn’t take me long to realize that Tickle was saying things that concerned me and that should be of concern to the believing Church. Lyons’ first question went like this:
Lyons: “Recently in the news we hear this discussion about Christian America somehow coming to an end. There’s been a lot of news articles even written about it called ‘The end of Christian America.’ What would be your perspective on even what this idea of Christian America really even is?”
Tickle: “Well, I think my perspective to some extent is, ‘How quickly can we hold the services?’”1
Tickle immediately admitted that her response was “perhaps not the right answer and maybe a smart one” as in smart aleck I think. It would seem she has quite a sense of humor. Still, her quip signaled to me that some kind of “deconstructionist” approach to the church was present and that it warranted further investigation.
In this interview, Tickle sounds very evangelical. In The Sinking Ship of Evangelicalism2 I claimed that she did not want to be called evangelical. I was apparently wrong about that. In my correspondence with her, I pointed out that I had been writing about her and invited her to read it and correct what she thought was wrong. She responded by saying,
“The web sites you sent me were, and are, interesting. Yours made me chuckle right off the bat when you defined me as not an evangelical. One of the things I routinely say to audiences by way of defining who and what I am before they commence listening to what I have to say, is that I am an evangelical Episcopalian. There really is such a thing, and I really am one.”3
While my statement was incorrect on its face, I was writing less from a perspective of a reporter and more from a deductive standpoint. If I were to reword my statement it might go something like this:
“Based on what I am hearing from Phyllis Tickle through her writings, her sermons, and her video interviews, she is obviously abandoning the title evangelical as well, if she ever thought of herself as one.”
To borrow a phrase coined by Tickle herself, I think my sentiments are actually true if not factually true. If I am allowed further opportunity to question Ms. Tickle, I would like to ask her to define evangelical. Perhaps we will be able to answer that question fairly accurately ourselves before we’re done here.
Some further statements in the interview added to my concerns. Asked about how the church should go about being effective in a post-Christendom American context, she said:
“Now we don’t have to say, ‘Please come to church with me.’ Yuck! You know, uh, we can say, ‘Let’s go have a beer, or let’s go have Starbucks, or let’s do something, and let’s talk and let me tell you [about God].’”4
For Tickle, this is a communal, more relational, more humble approach. She labeled it “missional,” “pub theology,” and “water cooler theology.” She also characterized this new way of doing church by saying, “Unscrew the pews, open the space, and let’s dance.”5
It’s not that I don’t see value in much of what Tickle said, and you have to remember, at this point I was unaware of her stance on Gay Christianity, or her unique hermeneutical approach to Scripture. I was just hearing someone I did not know speak in deconstructive terms about the Church and the pastor in me heard an alarm go off.
Part of my concern here is that I hear in her words strains of something that George Barna wrote years ago in his book Revolution. Though the book is replete with problems and what I consider to be troubling statements, three stand out from the rest and paint a picture of disdain for the local church.
Barna Statement #1
“Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and within boundaries, to God). What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.”6
Barna Statement #2
“But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.”7
Barna Statement #3
“Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”8
Now, Phyllis Tickle is not George Barna and, as far as I know, Barna does not figure into emergence Christianity in any official way. But, in general, I am leery of the “abandon the local church” model, which I did detect, wrong or right, in Tickle.
The Andrew Marin Interview
Next was an interview with Andrew Marin, the founder of The Marin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to build bridges between the LGBT community and, among other groups, the Church. Here, we get an idea of Tickle’s hermeneutic. Two things stand out: her support of Gay Christianity and her view of absolute Sola Scriptura: Scripture only and only Scripture.
Andrew Marin: “As a representative of the church, capital ‘C’ church here, what would you like to say to the broader church about the Gay or Lesbian community?”
Tickle: I would like to say first of all . . . yes I am Episcopalian . . .but my assignment . . . is the Holy Trinity Community Church, United Church of Christ Community Church, which is an all-inclusive, Bi, Gay, Trans, Lesbian church, and about 80% of our members are in that category and about 20% are not. So, I come with some personal experience and obviously, I’ve been a member of that communion for ten years now, and serve them as a Lector, Reader, and also as a lay Eucharistic minister. So, I’m not sure I can be called a representative of the Church capital ‘C’ without some prejudice . . . to it. But, the Church itself is gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we have changed over the years, we have evolved, the law. We now admit divorce. Our Lord does not speak much about sexuality, but He’s very clear about divorce. It’s the only thing He’s really clear about. [As concerns sexuality?] And we have managed because out of compassion, and I certainly am for that change, out of compassion and out of common sense and out of a recognition that our times and ways of being are different from those. We have managed to get around the divorce issue and now even ordain divorced clergy, and that kind of thing. The same thing is going to happen with the gay issue. It’s in process. But you can look right from the 1850’s you can see a progression of change. In the 1850’s Churches split over the slavery question and it was true, honest, it was religious difference, it was Scriptural differences of opinion. The Bible doesn’t say ‘Go own people,’ but it certainly recognizes slavery as a possibility and it even provides for it and sort of condones it if you will. We got over that cause it didn’t make sense. We got over feminism or we got over the need for equality of the genders. And again the Bible’s pretty clear, Paul is certainly clear about the role of the genders, and it didn’t work in our society. So, this is the last . . . and so there’s a sort of progression if you will of sociological shifts over the last hundred and fifty years, hundred and sixty years, and this is the last, I tell audiences, it’s the last puck in a deadly game, the last playing piece, if you will, in a deadly game, and if anybody on either side of the issue fails to understand what really is the issue and the issue really is absolute sola Scriptura, Scripture only and only Scripture. Did God put a period at the end of Revelation or did He put a comma? And once you understand that when we make this change, and we will make it, there’s no question, I mean it’s essentially a dead issue . . . . but the truth of it is we’re gonna get over this. We just have to understand that when we do, it’s the last, it is the last playing piece. It’s the last stance if you will for sola Scriptura . . . and you know if we’re bright we will recognize that divorce wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to the human race or to the human home but it was a necessary adjustment and we’ve paid a price for it but we probably would have paid a greater price if we’d not had it, I think the same thing is true here.”9
It still strikes me as odd to hear someone saying out loud what Tickle says in the Marin interview.
The Bart Gingerich Article
This article, written as a report of sorts on the national gathering of the proponents of emergence Christianity which happened earlier this year (Jan. 11-12 ) in Memphis, TN. The article reports Tickle as having “foretold a ‘coming age of the Spirit,’ in which dogmatic orthodoxy and claims to absolute truth (outdated artifacts from the ages of the Father and the Son) would melt before a loving communion of uncertainty.”
In the area of authority, Gingerich reported that Tickle said, “We need to address the authority issue, and we don’t know [sic] have that answer yet . . . . Scripture will play a part. The Holy Spirit will have a role in establishing authority in emergence Christianity . . . . Emergents . . . believe the Scripture is actually true. Most people in the pews want it to be factually true.”
Then, we get a glimpse into Tickle’s hermeneutic when, according to Gingerich, Tickle “commended the group for avoiding the ‘arrogance…that God can be trapped in our understanding,’ labeled the Bible as ‘patriarchal’ (‘only a fool’ would think otherwise), condemned the concept of a closed canon of Scripture, and still supports homosexuality even though ‘the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there.’”
Finally, as pertains to the Doctrine of the Atonement, Gingerich reports:
“The noted speaker also contended, ‘We need to devise a new doctrine of the atonement.’ Informing the audience that there are at least six kinds of atonement theory, she excoriated the penal substitutionary view of redemption. This ‘bloody sacrifice’ approach is the evangelical staple, teaching that Christ took upon God’s wrath against Law-breaking sinners upon himself as a substitute, thus purchasing grace and mercy for believers. ‘It won’t play anymore,’ Tickle stated. She traced this view back to the broader satisfaction theory of St. Anselm of Canterbury. According to her revision, after failing to stave off the First Crusade, Anselm decided to write his Cur Deos Homo to comfort soldiers doomed to die in the Holy Land. She audaciously analogized, ‘It was like the way some radical imams tell suicide bombers that, if they strap twenty grenades on and blow themselves up, they’ll get twenty virgins in paradise.’
These three sources launched me on an investigation of sorts, and ultimately led me to reach out to Ms. Tickle in an effort to hear from her directly on the issues raised in these sources.
In the next article, I will share the questions I asked Ms. Tickle and begin to share some of what she communicated back to me. After summarizing the sources for this article, I am even more interested to hear from Tickle her definition of evangelical.
Dallas Willard, best known for his book The Divine Conspiracy, passed away on Wednesday morning, he had pancreatic cancer.
To me he was best known as a profound thinker in the area of spiritual formation and discipleship. I have always said of him to others that he was writing books today that will be classics in the Church a hundred years from now. You should read his books. If you do, make sure you have a highlighter and a pen.
Below is a link to an article written by someone who knew him well.
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.”
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.