Some of the most interesting letters we receive are too long for publication in the magazine. One such letter arrived a couple of weeks ago from a new subscriber, William Mehr of Dumfries, Virginia, in response to our September/October issue. A small portion of his letter will appear in the Letters section of the November/December issue, but I wanted to share the entire letter with you. I'll respond to it in this space next week. (And I hope you will respond as well—I look forward to your reactions to Mr. Mehr's letter.)
The September/October issue was marvelous! It's the second of my subscription, and I'm thrilled. Perhaps it's just the way my mind works, but the articles seemed to flow in a way where one or two central ideas kept surfacing in different form. If that was intentional, bravo to the editor! If it wasn't, … "never mind!"
With your continued indulgence, though, I wanted to ride that train through a few stations and maybe convince you of something that wasn't intended! To begin, the word, "evangelical" in the handy American Heritage Dictionary, 1981, is defined as "of, pertaining to, or being a Protestant group emphasizing the authority of Gospel and holding that salvation is from faith and grace rather than from good works and sacraments alone."
I've been reading the stories of 19th-century abolitionists like John Quincy Adams and William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was an evangelical of sorts, not one primarily operating through an otherworldly faith and grace but one who moved toward achieving salvation through the creation of justice in culture. These are not mutually exclusive positions. There is discernment, rather, of where obedience lies within the call of an American social gospel.
This summer, as chairperson of an ecumenical Christian council, I've led an effort to fund and manage a local homeless shelter in partnership with the financially strapped county government. There were times when the secular professionals and the Christian "do-gooders" clashed, especially in terms of how many chances people are entitled to, but all things tended to work productively on a daily ongoing basis, as the process of open discourse continued, not completely resolved.
The editorial, "Seven Years of Culture," quotes poet Joy Harjo: "there's no sense engaging evangelical Christianity. … because they don't encourage interaction and thinking for yourself." In one sense our presence at the homeless shelter refutes Harjo's charge. We are certainly Christians who encourage interaction and thinking. But do we still belong in a category called "evangelical"?
Again, I look toward Garrison. In his newspaper, The Liberator, he relished nothing better than to publish the letters and speeches of opponents so he could publicly debate the contents. Liberal Christians—not entitled by common usage to call themselves "evangelicals" any longer—sense that those described as evangelicals today are unwilling to engage in discourse, and would rather move to suppress disagreeable media than to openly dispute opposing views, and further that the evangelicals of today disingenuously claim discrimination when their efforts to suppress materials are challenged and thwarted! Is that a fair judgment by the liberals? Is there truth in it?
Would David Lyle Jeffrey, following the logic of his column "The Beginning of Wisdom," describe the progressive actions of the abolitionists of the 19th century as "usurpations of God's prerogatives that are at best unworkable"? Remember, the vast majority of American clergy and university educators in the 19th century never endorsed abolition, nor even were willing to provide meeting space to debate the issues. Is the Sermon on the Mount a guidebook for daily living, or is it an example posited by Jesus of what's not achievable by humans unless they surrender total obedience and personal initiative to God?
Jeffrey declares that "every educational project including Christian ones should declare a truth about its own limits," and that, "moral intelligence does not follow from analytical intelligence; it precedes it." Is it in Hauerwasian isolation, and Anabaptist retreat, that a Christian works out a place, or not a place, in the world based on an inherent vision, which is already severely limited in its potentiality by original sin? Or does moral intelligence rather accompany analytical intelligence, more than precede it, creating a Niebuhrian synthesis so that each quality transforms the other, in an encompassing woven spiral of mutual growth? It appears that the evangelicals of today are afraid of knowledge, regardless of its source or precedence of acquisition. Why must that be so if they are confidently convicted of eternal truth?
In "Why Separation of Church and State Is Still a Good Idea," Alan Wolfe quotes Philip Hamburger: "while hostile to Christianity and any other distinct religion, the Liberals glowed with religious intensity." While liberal evangelicals like Garrison abandoned a mainline denominational Christianity that offered no support to their cause, their writings convey an intensely spiritual devotion to God, the creator, and to the rights of all people as endowed in His image and as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. When Wolfe writes of how "strict separationists treat those who disagree with them as un-American," is it not also true that those who desire to dismantle separations also claim a devoted allegiance to an America where pluralism is codified in law, yet claim that it is that same practice of pluralism that is at the relativistic root of an evil in the culture that spawned and protects both parties of contention?
It may not be possible to have it both ways, and as Wolfe avows, "opportunities for corruption are presented whenever government and religion work too closely together." That, indeed, may be so in some cases, but it has not been our experience this summer operating a homeless shelter. Garrison, indeed, rejected partisan politics holding fast to a moral vision that, in the end, swung his way due to the eventual national recognition of the righteousness of his cause. In our local cause and service, the government offers expertise and experience from which our guests have benefited and from which we have learned much. Conversely, the government has witnessed the high value we place on the lives of each person, regardless of circumstances, and that there are other things that are effective, such as intercessory prayer, that are not recognized by officialdom. It's within this partnership with the world, in extraordinary, frequently life-and-death circumstances, that deep has cried out to deep, and where both parties have grown together in witness that all things are possible on heaven and earth, including miracles. It's service that simultaneously functions as an effective non-proselytizing evangelism that sits well in the pluralistic American context. In that sense, then, are we acting as evangelicals as defined today?
In "Force of Habit: Hostility and condescension toward religion in the university," Christian Smith employs anecdotes as evidence, much as President Reagan did when he set out to create the myth of the welfare queen. From that subjective foundation, he strives to take a leap towards objectivity, by writing "we can see in their anti-religion, these faculty are expressing a deeply interiorized mental scheme that is more prereflective than conscious, more conventional then intentional—yet one that has an immense power to reproduce a pervasive institutional culture."
Evangelicals of today, in like vein, don't seem to evince much faith in people, perhaps because they, indeed, believe in the severe limitations that original sin has imposed. But, the American populace, borne from the Common Sense philosophy of the Scottish enlightenment, has always showed a remarkable sound judgment and decisional capability that has served as the continual bedrock of political stability in this country. It bends and swings, right and left, but never breaks.
The evangelicals of today can claim many virtues, but subtlety is not perceived to be among them, and this greatly hurts their cause. That's their greatest, possibly irresolvable, conundrum. For just as Smith notes inconsistencies with "champions of diversity and equality who would like nothing more than to see religion disempowered and marginalized from public life," the evangelicals of today don't appear as if they'd be satisfied to merely exist within a greater civic sphere, but would only be satisfied if they were successful in imposing their creed on that public arena. The burden of proof falls on them to prove otherwise, and so far, they have not been able to do so in light of a higher obedience to accomplish the Great Commission, and out of a sincere and genuine love and motivation to save souls.
Smith writes of an American higher educational system that embraces "the variety of religious perspectives," but the general impression of evangelicals today is that this is not what is desired, and that rather evangelicals are just as likely as the left to impose a narrow system of learning as any other coterie that emerges with the authority to do so. John Henry Newman wrote much in this area about the ways people learn. Most people consciously or subconsciously read to confirm pre-existing views. Newman strongly advocated that people approach education in a manner that allows for reason to formulate conclusions, and along with the apostolic Fathers, and later Aquinas, Newman conveyed in his writings (if not his actions at Oxford) confidence that people would naturally draw towards the good, and God, through an open learning process. How that differs from Luther and the evangelicals of today, who at best, view humanity, even baptized and saved, in Luther's colorful phrase as "snow-covered dung," and as incapable of being left alone in a world of endless competing sources of data and images to draw their own conclusions.
Lastly, Alan Jacobs, in "Computer Control, Part 3," writes whimsically of a "virtual National Gallery [that] lacks the surround of the real world," and how it can't "provide the contexts, contrasts, and surprises that the world offers." I, on the other hand, relish and welcome, without fear or trepidation, the technology that has created another public square for disputate. Left on its own, the new world would become an end in itself, designed for profit and immediate gratification. That's exactly the place where the evangelicals of today can make themselves known, without boundaries, and where the Gospel and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, can save, and also remind the world, through our story, that no one needs be left behind in body and spirit. This summer, through email, I've hotly debated the professionals and shelter directors who work in the field of homelessness, urging them evermore to witness to grace, and include forgiveness, in their hospitality—and when they turn away a person who has relapsed for the tenth time, I've argued that Christians will always keep the door open to the possibility of redemption for every person regardless of past transgressions. Technology robbed nothing of the "surround" and passion of this vital discourse.
Indeed, Jacobs quotes John Updike, "the mind needs resistance in order to function properly; it understands itself and its surroundings through encountering boundaries, borders, limits—all that pushes back or refuses to yield." When this self-styled evangelical of the 19th century-type enters into negotiations with corporal authority, on behalf of the people we serve, he makes sure that the evangelicals of the 21st century-type are providing intercessory prayer. It works. Just as Daniel Taylor described in "Many Bibles, One Scripture," the differing new versions complement each other, as do the varied denominations of our ecumenical council, each free to operate, as God calls through their gifts, in the cultural pluralism of America today.
It is that freedom to think and choose which—as I read and devour your publication—I sense we both celebrate, despite the tactics we both employ of the world for the same ultimate purpose in the world. Was I able to convince you, dear editor, that this issue contained a single theme running throughout the articles? That's up to you now. I can't wait for the next issue.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)