Posted by: Alex | May 30, 2012

Summer Reading Project Returns!

Last summer we attempted a pretty ambitious reading project on major books reflecting both the “emerging” wing of evangelicalism and the “neo-reformed” wing.  As it turned out it was a bit too ambitious of a project while working full time as the worship coordinator of a busy summer camp.  So as I’m packing up to head back to camp, we are returning to the same theme but taking it a bit more slowly.  I have two books that I want to work through, and if time permits we’ll add a few more.  They are Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz and the response to it by Millard Erickson and others, Reclaiming the Center.  Grenz, before his untimely death in 2005, was considered one of the leading theological voices of the emerging movement and this book reflects a theological argument for its way of doing theology.  In contrast, Reclaiming the Center is a response by more conservative evangelicals to what they consider “accommodation” by Grenz to post-Modernism.  Both books should be interesting reading and provide lots of food for thought.  The goal is to have two posts out a week over the course of the summer as we work through the arguments presented by the various authors and hopefully stir up a little bit of discussion.

In this post I want to highlight a passage of the Foreward to Renewing the Center written by Brian McLaren for the 2006 re-print (after Grenz’s passing) that I think raises some interesting questions worth considering as we progress through yet another American election cycle this summer.  McLaren writes:

When any religious movement becomes a civil religion, it is significant.  When a relatively young religious movement becomes the undisputed civil religion of the richest country in the world, it is very important indeed.  But when a young religious movement without a strong sense of history, with a less than fully developed academy, and often armed with a rather bizarre eschatology becomes the civil religion of the most powerful nation with the most powerful weapons– including the most weapons of mass destruction– of any nation, not only in the world but in the history of the world, that is staggeringly important, breathtakingly important.  (11-12)

McLaren writes this in response to what he perceives to be the one major weakness of Grenz’s book: that it does not address the rise of evangelicalism as a political force, particularly, McLaren perceives, as a partner to the Republican party in American politics.  What I think is interesting is that taken out of its context, and dropping the line about weapons of mass destruction, I think the above statement could easily be made of the synthesis of power that happened when Constantine elevated Christianity in Ancient Rome.  I think McLaren raises, then, a few important questions:

First, is he correct in describing evangelicalism as the “civil religion” of America today?  Granted, McLaren wrote this seven years ago, but it is remarkable that now the leaders of the evangelical movement are rallying behind a Mormon politician (many even professing that they are confident in his salvation), something that I think would have been unheard of even four years ago.  Does that reflect a changing of the tide from how McLaren perceived the situation?

Second, is McLaren’s portrayal of evangelicalism as “young,” lacking a “strong sense of history,” and “armed with a rather bizarre eschatology” a fair characterization of the movement?  Certainly McLaren is speaking from his own perspective here, and these will be some of the issues that I suspect we will delve into more as we work through these two texts.  But just as an initial reaction, what do people make of this characterization?

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, what does/would it mean for evangelicalism to be America’s civil religion?  I noted above the similarity between McLaren’s description and how we might describe the ascendence of Christianity to political power in Ancient Rome.  Does evangelicalism’s place in American society signal a similar kind of “Christendom” forming which will shape the course of Christianity for the next several centuries?  If so, what does that “Christendom” look like?

Interested to hear what people have to think.  We’ll dive into the text of Renewing the Center in a few days!



  1. […] we are beginning to work through the first book of this year’s summer reading project, Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.  The book is an argument for the theological method of the […]

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