K’s argument

By , 9 October 2009 6:00 pm

Let’s call him K. He is an American ex-Christian of some sort who follows these blogs and has written to me courteously at some length about my books. I have replied back, answering his questions as best I can and challenging him on his current agnosticism and the debate sporadically continues. K has an interesting take on Christianity which I think is worth sharing even if I think it is flawed.

Most of us are familiar with the standard kind of anti-Christian argument which begins “I can’t believe in Christianity because…” and then goes on to talk about our alleged views on women, science, homosexuality and so on. A major problem with this sort of argument is that it is extraordinarily naive. K’s argument is – at least on the surface – somewhat more sophisticated. To simplify his position somewhat, he claims that there are two major groups within Christianity: the hard-edged fundamentalists with their strident and uncompromising gospel and the fluffy seeker-centred ‘mainstream evangelicals’ (my term not his) with their gentle, winsome and somewhat soft-edged preaching. What K says is that he actually admires the fundamentalists more than the ‘mainstream evangelicals’. According to him they at least have intellectual consistency and some measure of honesty in their understanding of Scripture: they also are prepared to confront the world not to conform to it. For him although they adopt an unbelievable creed, the fundamentalists score in the area of integrity and ethics. In contrast, in a search for bridge building and populism the soft evangelicals have actually become so close to the world that they have lost any real integrity. Compromise has undone them.

First, I want to say that I think that there is something in his critique of seeker-sensitive Christianity that is worth considering. Let me give you one example: an old friend of mine does quite a bit of speaking on the troubled matter of ‘origins’ from a contemporary evangelical perspective that is rather sympathetic to evolution. I recently read a review of a debate he was in and the non-Christian commentator was actually quite dismissive; he detected nothing in any way distinctive in what my friend said and found it almost impossible to separate his position from that of his atheist opponent. Examples can be multiplied; for instance, it is hard for instance to separate the modern evangelical’s view of Sunday from that of anyone else. I think there is a real danger that in the interests of evangelism (or is it cowardice?) evangelicals try to blend into the world in such a way that we lose the radical difference that is perhaps Christianity’s most appealing feature. There is a tragic irony here: in an effort to preach the gospel effectively we somehow lose the gospel.

However I also want to point out that K has engaged in a clever sleight of hand. By splitting Christianity into two poles he has created two artificial positions. On the one hand are the manic fundamentalists who hold to an unbelievable creed but who are at least intellectually consistent. On the other are the jelly-like mainstream evangelicals who hold to a more believable creed but who suffer from the fatal intellectual flaw of compromise. He can’t follow the first party because they believe in manifest nonsense: he can’t follow the second because of their intellectual inconsistencies. His head prevents him from joining the fundamentalists, his conscience from joining the evangelicals. Thus doubly protected, K’s agnosticism is safe.

K’s perspective is no doubt shared widely. It is not enough to simply critique it. We have to admit that the churches are flawed; after all, they are made up of flawed people like me. Yet it is not the church that draws men and women to God, it is Christ. It sometimes seems to me that the greatest proof of the gospel is that, despite the church, men and women continue to come to God through Jesus Christ.

Have a good week.

10 Responses to “K’s argument”

  1. Boaz says:

    Well, on the face of it, the facts that Christianity asserts regarding the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are incredible.

    Who could believe that a woman can become pregnant without either a man involved or exceedingly sophisticated medical techniques not present in antiquity? Christianity asserts that Jesus was born of a virgin.

    Who could believe that someone could predict the future hundreds of years in advance unerringly? Or to make a blind man see simply by making mud and putting it on his eyes? Christianity asserts that Jesus did this and other miracles.

    Who could believe that Jesus came to life again after being dead and got out of graveclothes wrapped with gummy aromatic spices a tomb that was sealed with a large stone, and with a Roman guard outside to prevent anyone from tampering with the tomb? Christianity asserts that the tomb was empty…and no critic contemporary to the event ever asserted otherwise.

    So yes, Christianity on its face does make incredible claims. Further, we’re called to be the salt and the light of the world. But the world hates light and chooses darkness instead. Salt will retard decay on meat but hurts when put in wounds.

    Should we be ashamed of any of these claims? Should we deny them? What claims, if any, does Christianity assert that Christians should deny, and why? (This is not a facetious question: if you honestly think that there are such claims, I want to know.)

  2. Catherine Brislee says:

    What I have noticed, as I stagger back to Christianity from the New Age wilderness, is that basic Christian beliefs often come as part of a package which I am expected to accept, although some of the beliefs in the package may not be essential doctrine for Christians.

    For example,I believe in reincarnation because for me it helps make sense of the world. I’m quite willing to listen to reasoned arguments against it, but I’m not willing to drop my belief without thinking it through simply because it is not usually part of the Christian “package”. That would be intellectual dishonesty.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, surely there are only a few things we need to accept in order to be considered Christians (Boaz’ list is a good one, although I would argue that you can be a Christian without believing in the virgin birth), and the rest are up for discussion. Aren’t the differences between the fundamentalists and the fluffy liberals mostly about the extras?

  3. Bill D. says:

    Hi Chris,

    Another problem with the dichotomy your acquaintance presents is that it limits Christianity to a Western (largely North American) Evangelical Protestant realm. There are incredibly rich Christian traditions that exist outside the two worlds he uses to stereotype the rest. Further it ignores the significant numbers of day-to-day Christians who live their faith quietly and passionately, making an important difference in their corners of the world.

    I would hope that K finds Jesus without trying to filter him through the eyes of groups who either think they have a corner on Him or are convinced the search is more important than the destination.

    Bill

  4. Stephanie says:

    “Yet it is not the church that draws men and women to God, it is Christ.”
    Bingo. That’s the key right there. I think that if all of us, individually and as a body, focused on showing Christ to the world, arguments like K’s would be even more obviously invalid.

  5. K says:

    Dear Chris,
    Keeping my pseudonym up, though its o.k. to use my name. I don’t mind. I think you misunderstand me slightly here, though I do agree with your one commenter that my views are too Americo-centric (a natural byproduct of my pietistic fundamentalist upbringing).
    First, I think one’s religion is both a religious and cultural identity. Therefore, while I am not religiously evangelical, I still consider myself culturally evangelical, and self-consciously have chosen that culture as the one to which I owe allegiance. Note that I’m not calling it Christianity, or world culture, or whatever. It’s specifically evangelicalism, and specifically the pietistic fundamentalist and non-seeker sensitive Pentecostal section of the movement, not Reformed Christianity, seeker-sensitive Christianity, or neo-evangelicalism, all of which I see as culturally elitist towards fundamentalists and Pentecostals.
    I believe fundamentalism is perfectly logically consistent. I also believe that fundamentalism, more than any other philosophy in the world (except for a pure Marxism, which as we all know doesn’t exist anymore), specifically and consciously rejects Western consumerism and materialism (although that could be said of other fundamentalisms, I supposse, though they haven’t articulated their positions as clearly as Christian fundamentalists). Seeker-sensitive Christianity, Reformed Christianity, and neo-evangelicalism, by contrast, are deeply materialistic, self-centered faiths, at least in America, which put fundamentalists down because they have the good sense to reject the art-industrial complex of rock, rap, DVDS, and computer games. I do not feel trapped between seeker-sensitives and fundamentalists at all, and if someone asked me to reccomend a religious or ideological belief system to belong to, I would recommend either pietistic fundamentalism or Marxism, as they are the only two philosophies that make any sense to me (and possibly liberationist Catholicism as well). If anything, I think it’s the neos and Reformed people who believe in manifest nonsense. Fundamentalism’s near total rejection of the arts, sciences, and any other part of the industrial West has my deepest respect. I too think that art is ireedeemably hostile to any human value. I too think that cold empiricism doesn’t provide much hope for humanity, though I reluctantly accept it.
    My main problem with neo-evangelicals, Reformed people, and seeker-sensitives is that their political philosophy has proven disasterous for America (which I don’t much care about) and for pietistic fundamentalism\Pentecostalism (which I very much do care about). By uniting postmillenial thinking with premillenialist prophetic concerns, these groups have encouraged fundamentalists to be “in the world, and of the world”, to misquote a famous aphorism. It is my sincere belief that fundamentalism can only survive so long as it maintains a culturally seperatist position from the market-driven, consumerist culture of secular America (which is fundamentally corrupt). Seeker-sensitive philosophy encourages evangelicals to get so involved in the “world” that they forget their calling to cultural distinctiveness, to rejecting materialism and worldliness. I do not want to see pietism become a shade of the prosperity gospel, but the anti-materialist religious equivalent of Marxism, only without the Marx!
    Why don’t I believe? Well, some days I do, some days I don’t. My principle objections to belief are philosophical, mainly that I can’t justify going to heaven over the corpses of six million Auschwitz victims, which according to American evangelical theology are going to hell (and yes, I know about the Christian universalism of George Macdonald, and even accepted it for a while). Therefore, most days I wake up and ask God to damn me to hell, for the sake of the non-elect, if it would spare them even a moment of pain. Which, I might point out is nearly commanded in Romans 9:1-4 “I speak the truth in Christ. I am not lying. My mind tells me that what I say is true. It is guided by the Holy Spirit. 2 My heart is full of sorrow. My sadness never ends. 3 I am so concerned about my people, who are members of my own race. I am ready to be cursed, if that would help them. I am even willing to be separated from Christ. 4 They are the people of Israel. They have been adopted as God’s children. God’s glory belongs to them.” Also, I had very bad experiences with the Reformed branch of evangelicalism, being persecuted for having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (many American Reformed evangelicals believe OCD is a sin). These experiences have made it hard to stay in a faith that is actively responsible for the persecution of the mentally ill in the States.
    Let me say in closing that misunderstanding is mutual here, since I have frequently misread Chris, as Chris can readily attest to. Part of this is from differing religious beliefs, but a lot of our disagreements come from the way those religious beliefs are culturally implemented in Britian and America. I wish you all well.

    K (John Weaver)

  6. daniel says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I have to admit, I agree with a large swath of of “K’s” analysis.
    I recently confessed to a trusted professor, “The more I study scripture, the more I find myself becoming ‘fundamentalist’ rather than ‘broadly evangelical’ (one of our school’s stated goals)…and I don’t really want to be a fundamentalist, at least for cultural reasons.”
    He responded, “You should be concerned with being ‘radically biblical’ in your life, and let the cultural designations sort themselves out.”

    The whole “be in the world, but not of it/we need to contextualize our message/let’s repaint our velvet elvis” twaddle has clearly swung the pendulum too far away from Christian distinctiveness.

    PS Mr. Weaver, I’m sorry Reformed evangelicals have burned you, please don’t let their thorny ways choke out the good stalk.
    PPS Your quotation of Paul in Romans has always fascinated me, too–especially when you consider that it comes on the heels of this, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  7. K says:

    Dear Daniel,
    Thanks for your kind comments. Yea, I seriously think fundamentalism has more going for it then a lot of other belief systems out there right now. Certainly more than seeker-sensitive spirituality, the New Age movement, Wiccanism, mainline Protestantism, or the majority of Catholicism. I think what it will really struggle with is other fundamentalisms, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church, whose views seem considerably more nuanced than some of the Western churches (though it’s not without its problems).

  8. Catherine Brislee says:

    Sorry Guys, but I’m going to cause trouble here and say that I think you are attracted to Fundamentalism because it’s easy. Yes, I said easy. It only requires belief in a set of rigid doctrines already set out. You don’t have to struggle for wisdom and puzzle over where it might be found. Surely God gave us our intelligence in order that we may be seekers after the truth, and not merely narrow-minded fanatics.

  9. K says:

    Dear Catherine,
    I can see where you’re coming from, but I really don’t think fundamentalism is an easy system to ascribe to, any more than orthodox Marxism is. It’s doctrinal purity chases away those who are unable to live up to its expectations. Back in the seventies, people dropped out of Marxist communes in droves because they demanded a self-reflection and purity of motivation that more materially saturated Americans and Brits were incapable of attaining (as I am not). Nor do I find fundamentalists to neccessarily be narrow minded. If anything, I think this is more of a tendency of seeker-sensitives and (in particular) the Reformed branch of Christianity (Chris excluded of course). My former Orthodox Presbyeterian Church spent 15 years debating whether they should have a stained-glass window taken out of the church, a debate fundamentalists would have found ridicously irrelevant. As for the ‘wisdom’ of neo-evangelicalism and seeker-sensitives, it consists mainly of parroting the latest pronouncements of Joel Olsteen and Rick Warren, drinking cofee latee at Sunday morning services, and discussing how the Matrix relates to Biblical Christianity. I’m sorry, but I’d take fundamentalism over that any day (I’m exagerrating slightly here, obviously). Even the Emergent church, despite its failings, deserves more respect than that, ’cause at least they take their liberalism seriously, even if their pomo pronouncements sound just a little too Zen to me. Frankly, I think fundamentalists have become the butt of criticism in evangelicalism for a lot of groups, particularly the Reformed church, whose doctrines are actually far worse and whose reflection of evangelical morality lacks the kind of honest kindness I found among the pietist fundamentalists i knew in my youth.

    I’m saying this as an outsider (though someone who still considers himself culturally evangelical\fundamentalist). And I realize that the situation in Britian is different than in the States, with no real fundamentalism, and an evangelicalism that has a much better track record than American evangelicalism (particularly in oppossing the slave trade and world poverty). But if you honestly think rejecting television, movies, dancing, cigarettes, alchohol, most books, most art, etc. is easy, try living it. I couldn’t watch any movie above PG before I was 18, and I can tell you it wasn’t easy. My parents pietism, whatever its faults, was incredibly pure and idealistic. The decadent corruptions of Reformed churches, in which the elect could do whatever they wanted without regard to how that affected their fellow human beings, was entirely lacking in my parents lives. I don’t mean to stereotype the Reformed church, but I think its long association with corrupt capitalists, such as the Heritage Foundation, had a devastating effect on American fundamentalism.

    Lastly, I think that fundamentalism is not an anti-rational system, but a system based on a different form of rationality, namely Scottish Common Sense rationalism, from which it descends. While that rationalism may not be empircally verifiable in the same sense as Baconian science, biblical prooftexting does make perfect sense within the logic system to which it confines itself. Why should I privilege modern empiricists, when they look down their snotty-noses at poor working class fundamentalists like my grandmother, who never had the opportunity for even a high school education? Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Marxists, etc. are more tolerant and “open-minded” than evangelicals for one simple reason: They can afford to be. In other words, they have economic and educational advantages that fundamentalists do not possess. I refuse to condemn fundamentalists for their “close-mindedness” when the rest of contemporary society’s open-mindedness is only the result of class privilege.

  10. daniel says:

    Catherine,

    The problem with message and comment boards is that they are absurdly reductionsitic. Do you have a point that many are attracted to fundamentalism so that they don’t have to hash out difficult elements of their faith? Yes, and amen. But I think you have entirely misunderstood my point (I won’t presume to speak for K).

    My point was not “I want to be a fundy because I hate the big bad world.” It was more like, “Despite my desires, I find the fundy view to be more consistent with the scripture than seeker-sensitive or emergent models.”

    Also, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I am a pastor’s kid, a sunday school teacher, employee of an extremely influential and well-regarded evangelical university, and am currently in seminary. Tomorrow, I have a meeting with a missions representative about my family’s goal of doing ministry overseas. I am at least literate in greek, hebrew, aramaic, latin, and french (and english, obviously). I have taught theology at the collegiate level (as an intern). So I think I’m going to have to reject your notion that I’m fleeing to fundamentalism because I’m ignorant, fearful, and/or less than intellectually rigorous.

    You said, “…not narrow-minded fanatics.” I have no more desire to engage in the vituperations of the culture wars any more than the next guy (nor do I think they’re part and parcel to being a consistently biblical Christian), but you have to admit that there is a radical (if not fanatical) edge to verses like, “whoever does not hate his mother and father is not worthy of the kingdom of heaven,” “if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out,” and the like. The Lord calls us to a radical, excluvisitic service. Peter said in Acts, “This Christ whom you crucified was the Messiah” (my paraphrase). Some people will try and soften that and say that the culture was more confrontational back then, but tell, in what culture would it be acceptable to loudly announce to a large crowd that they killed God and were going to hell? That (true) statement will always have a “fanatical” bent to it, right?

    Today, many “evangelical” pulpits do not even speak about sin, or the mortification of the flesh for fear of alienating a “seeker.” I cn’t tell you how many altar calls I’ve heard where sin and repentance were never mentioned. Well, I don’t want church to be unpleasant either, but the solution isn’t to not speak the truth.

    Church is for the edification and equipping of the saints–not the comfort and convenience of the unsaved. Evangelism and missions are supposed to be the province of the individual believer, not the corporate body.
    Jesus gave three commands to Peter after he restored him: Feed my sheep, feed my sheep, feed my sheep. Paul (and the writer of Hebrews) rebuke their audeinces for still needing spiritual milk.
    Yet today, many in our pulpits are more interested in serving up a steady diet of spiritual milk and goat feed.
    If pointing out much of evangelicalism falls far short of biblical precepts makes me a narrow-minded, cowardly, unthinking fundamentalist fanatic, then I guess that’s what I am. I’ll still take that label over the alternative.

    Sorry for the screed, Catherine, but you’ve obviously hit a topic that’s very close to my heart.

    If there’s any truth in what I said, then I pray it will help you. For the manifest errors in there, I apologize and trust you (with the aid of the Spirit) are wise enough to discern.
    Lest you become a fundy! :)

    –Daniel

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