Posted by: Alex | May 22, 2011

The Younger Evangelicals: Authenticity

Continuing our discussion of Robert E. Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals.  We have examined the themes of “hermeneutics,” “incarnation,” and “community” in Webber’s discussion of the “Emerging” movement among evangelicals.  The fourth theme we will discuss is “authenticity.”  Within the “Emerging” movement there is seemingly a new willingness to wrestle with very difficult questions about the faith, and this has in large part to do with a desire to be “real” or “authentic” Christians, Webber argues.

As Webber indicates, this is again, to some extent, a reaction to previous trends in evangelicalism:

A major problem of the market-driven church is that it is so immersed with the culture that it has become enmeshed with it.  The younger evangelicals, on the other hand, are recovering the church as a counterculture.  The church, this view argues, should not seek to integrate itself with culture or to baptize culture.  Instead, the church should see itself as a mission to culture.  The church as the instrument of God is called to carry out God’s mission in culture, calling people to come under the reign of God through Jesus Christ.  (132, emphasis his)

I’m again wondering if this is really a good statement or if it emphasizes one side of the equation too much.  As best I can tell, “traditional” evangelicalism has seen itself as a “mission to culture,” but a mission representing particular perspectives that postmodern evangelicals do not identify with as much.  Likewise, while previous trends in evangelicalism became enmeshed with the market system, it seems to me that we could argue that postmodern evangelicalism is often enmeshed with “coffeehouse/artistic culture.”  So while I am in agreement with the trajectory of postmodern evangelicalism, I’m again uncertain if it is accurate to say that it is recovering some way of being that is completely apart from the culture.  It seems more accurate to me that there is a shift in perspective that has happened, but that this shift is in step with a shift in cultural perspective that has likewise happened.  Perhaps what that turns into, then, is a challenge for postmodern evangelicalism- to avoid repeating the same mistake of the past by becoming enmeshed in the new culture and to genuinely act as a group “apart” from culture and working as a “mission to culture.”

The most interesting part of the book dealing with this theme is not actually from Webber but is a lengthy quote from a letter written to Webber by Rob Bell about his church, Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan when they were just getting started (founded in 1999, I believe, this book was published in 2002).

“We actually believe that the biblical text is a living and breathing Word.  For the first year or so of our existence as a church, I preached through the Book of Leviticus, verse by verse.  Yes, that’s right.  Menstrual blood, goat sacrifice, and no shell fish, please.  Every verse.  Now if you at this moment are smiling or laughing or thinking that is crazy, what have you just said about the biblical text?  Do you have a canon within a canon?  Either you believe that God speaks through his entire text, or you stick with the evangelically approved texts that are tamed down enough for the local congregation.  We have no desire to tame the text.  We want to let it out of its cage and we want to see it prowl around our lives, devouring us and spitting out the bones.  We don’t want to be detached, methodical scientists who stand over the subject and apply the proper rules, methods, and procedures so that we can achieve favorable results.  The modern impulse is always to reduce it to simple principles and clever maxims.  To continually insist that with enough work, it will all make sense and line up.  Life doesn’t always line up.  We love the Scriptures and we want them to sweep us off our feet.  In the new world, much of what is currently considered preaching and study will be rendered totally irrelevant.  The Bible is not a nice book.  It is not a clean book.  It is not a guide to proper behavior.  It does not even seem to care whether it is “relevant” or not… We believe that the goal of the church is to celebrate mystery, not conquer it.  One of the greatest diseases to have infected the church in the modern era is the desire to reduce… The spirit of God is messy.  And that is not heresy.  The Spirit moves in wild and unrestrained ways and demands that we run as far as we can to keep up.  The most dangerous place to be in the the universe is the center of God’s will.  That is where we want to be.  I hope we never think we’ve nailed it.  I hope we never believe that we have arrived.”  (141-45).

Granted, there are a lot of sound-bites in this quotation.  That seems to me pretty typical of the way Rob Bell presents information, whether in his writing or speaking.  But what I think we get from this is something of the way Bell wants to challenge the evangelical community.  He is, as it were, raising the stakes and challenging evangelicals to be more true to their principles of sticking to the text in its entirety, including the bloody, difficult, hard passages.  This kind of authenticity resonates with younger evangelicals, Webber argues.  From my own experience, I can point to two moments in my undergraduate education which might illustrate Webber’s claim.  The first had to do with a very difficult passage for evangelical notions of God- the story in 1 Kings 22 of God sending a lying prophet to deceive the Northern monarch Ahab and lure him into battle.  My (evangelical) theology professor challenged us with a question: how do you fit that story into your nice, neat picture of God?  A similar moment happened for me when reading Greg Boyd on Open Theism (the view that God does not know with certainty all future events because the future is “open” to change).  Boyd offered an evangelical defense of this based on very straightforward readings of many passages in scripture which seem to suggest that God can and does change God’s mind or that God  can and is sometimes surprised by events.  Yes, there were ways of reading these passages that cohered with a more classic theology, but what was intriguing to me then and now was how much “leg-work” had to be done to make these readings work.  The question both of these experiences impressed upon me, and the question I think Bell has consistently over the years tried to push to the forefront of the evangelical mind, is this:  does our theology reflect an authentic reading of the text or are we reading the text to fit within the paradigms of what we have already determined is acceptable theology?  If the latter, where did those paradigms come from?  In my own studies I have frequently felt that the paradigms of acceptable theology often owe more to Aristotle than to the Bible.  Perhaps at the end of the day that is fine (I really like a lot of what Aristotle has to say), but what I think Bell and many “Emerging” evangelicals want to claim is that this is not being truly authentic to our claims to be “evangelical” (in particular, think of the motto sola scriptura).  Whether Webber would himself make this argument I am not certain, but he suggests it through the words of Bell.

Webber does present another meaning of authenticity that resonates with younger evangelicals.  This has to do with the postmodern celebration of diversity and points to an authenticity to one’s self.  Thus, Webber wants to suggest, postmodern evangelicals are opposed to any kind of worship that is not true to one’s own spirituality and encourage a diversity of worship styles and spiritual practices.  Often, these are drawn from the early church or from Orthodoxy, involving things like lectio divina and the use of icons.  The cynic in me wonders if these kinds of practices are not just fads adopted by many to make themselves appear more spiritual.  I try not to be too vocal with that cynicism, though, as I know for many the spiritual nourishment these practices bring is extremely helpful and even in my own experience I have found something extremely appealing about a kind of “mystical” faith brought through practices like praying the hours (or at least, listening to monks chant the praying of the hours).  To each their own, I suppose.  Which is more or less the point Webber wants to make.

What do you think?  Does our theology reflect an authentic reading of the text or are we reading the text to fit within our paradigms of what is already considered acceptable theology?  Are postmodern evangelicals really standing apart from culture or are they moving in step with a shift in cultural perspectives?



  1. Alex I have really enjoyed reading this blog so far though I have yet to comment. Regarding your first question, you and I have had many theological conversations over the years (most often in a sleep deprived stupor with a wild beast running through the living room) so you know where I stand theologically. I like to think that the things I hold to be true about God are driven by an authentic reading of the text. My theology has changed over the years as a result of my studies even while under the influence of dissenting opinions of guys like Snyder and Loftin who agree with little of what I believe. Though I do see signs of anti intellectualism in many evangelical churches today, I have also noticed around SEBC and my home church a major emphasis on doing justice to the text even if that causes our theology to crumble around us. Though many within evangelicalism would uphold their paradigm of theology first and foremost it is obvious that the postmodernism has taught us to question and test our theology, a task they may have been seen previously as taboo.
    For your second question, I am a bit skeptical of postmodern evangelicalism as a “counter culture”. As you noted, it does seem to be a coffee house/artistic culture complete with its own fads (skinny jeans and Toms, no offense intended).

    • Thanks for the comment, Josh! I definitely miss our late night theological conversations while we wrangled the wild beast in the living room (for anyone who doesn’t know us, this is a reference to the 60 pound pit bull that lived in our 2 bedroom apartment while Josh and I were roommates in college). I think you are definitely on to something, Josh, with your response to the first comment. I think, certainly at least in the academic community within evangelicalism, that one of the effects of postmodernism has been an increased willingness to “challenge” and “interrogate” various parts of our theology and test them for soundness. That is certainly a benefit, in the long run, even if it does meet with some resistance on occasion. What I am wondering about, and part of the interest in this study, is how much that process carries over into the “popular” realm? While we as students of theology definitely do this, how much of a willingness is there for this in the pews? Or, perhaps more tellingly, how much of a willingness to accept a challenge is present in our preaching? Do we preach as if our theology is definitive and can’t be questioned, or are we willing to open up the possibility that we might be wrong? And maybe the most important question is “should we be open to these possibilities?” Would love to hear your thoughts on those questions.

  2. It seems that there is more of a willingness to do this today than in previous years, with the average person in the pews being far more skeptical of the preacher’s words. As for preaching, pastors do not often preach in a way as to express that they may be wrong about a topic. But I’m not sure how explicit I would like them to be with that possibility. As one who has sat in some theology classes with me, you know what in can be like to leave things so open ended as to make you feel like you just wasted your time by listening past the first 30 minutes of the lecture. With that said, pastors ought to encourage the congregation to study for themselves and leave open the possibility that they may not have all things figured out. So I guess my answer is that yes, a pastor should preach in such a way as to leave open the possibility that he may be wrong and he himself should be open to that possibility, while at the same time not leaving the congregation with a sermon that says nothing and leaves Christianity as little more than a big question mark. Where that fine line is I am not sure.

    Now a question for you to help me better understand the discussion here: What aspects of theology should we leave open to the possibility of being wrong? Were you thinking more of ideas about baptism, women in the church, the eucharist, etc.?

    • I like what you said about encouraging people to study for themselves. Probably a much better way to put this than I did.

      I was intending for that to be very open ended, not sure that I had particular things in mind. Certainly, in the context of this discussion, issues like Calvinism and Arminianism are the most prominent, but I’m not limiting it to those issues. If we read Rob Bell’s new book later in the summer it might extend to issues like heaven and hell or universalism. So perhaps a related question that we should take into consideration is not just should we encourage others to study on their own (and possibly come to their own, different conclusions) but are there certain issues for which that is ok and others for which it is not?

  3. […] than a group which adheres to a clearly defined doctrinal statement.  As such, hermeneutics and authenticity become exceptionally important to this movement.  In so far as this goes, there are many good […]

  4. I feel that in our quest for truth there should be no topic off limits for re-evaluation, not even heaven, hell, and universalism. There is certainly something to be said about traditional doctrine and we ought to listen to those who came before us and take them into consideration, but in doing so we mustn’t stop there. The beauty of the gospel lies in its truth, so we should never be afraid of pushing further as long as we do so responsibly (proper hermeneutic). Now where you start is another issue all together. Philosophy, tradition, or scripture? And in evangelical circles, what part of scripture? This seems to be where much of the diversity stems from.

    • I agree entirely, great comment! A huge part of the discussion is about starting point. That’s going to be one of the most interesting things to look at this summer as we get more into the main texts like Piper and McLaren.

      • Looking forward to it Alex. I never thought I would hear you say Piper is on your reading list! Keep up the good work.

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