Outgrowing American Christianity

Billy-Graham-revival

Southern Baptist Billy Graham preaching at a revival in Germany in 1954.

The very perceptive pastor and writer John Pavlovitz recent posted a piece on Huffington Post titled “My Emancipation from American Christianity.” It’s an interesting and deeply thought-provoking read, and I agree with it up to a point.

I abandoned the Southern Baptist faith tradition and evangelical Christianity a long time ago.  I’m now a United Methodist with a sort of halfhearted desire to complete the path to Anglicanism, in which Methodism functions as a sort of principality.

But  I still regard my childhood faith tradition with measure of admiration and respect.  I’ve always admired the forthright, democratic nature of this tradition.  I remain deeply impressed by the ways this democratic and lay-driven faith tradition inspired generations of men and women from farming, mechanical and artisanal backgrounds to empower themselves as speakers, teachers and leaders through involvement in the church.   And there is, after all, no denying that this nation and world owe evangelicalism an immense debt in both spiritual and material terms.

Yes, I left evangelicalism – and it left me – a long time ago.  But as as an amateur scholar of this faith tradition, I do feel compelled to offer it some modest and respectful constructive criticism:

1. Acknowledge that you are part of a wider faith tradition, not one that hearkens back to some pristine beginning. There is no such thing as a New Testament Church. Your understanding of the nature of Christ and the Trinity is partly Catholic, founded on a consensus hammered out in the centuries following the apocalyptic, early period of the church, when Christians concluded that Christ’s return was not imminent but would be delayed for years, decades, possibly even centuries. Also understand that you have strong roots in the Reformation too, part Lutheran, part Calvinist, and part Radical Protestant. Yes, your views on a host of things – salvation, baptism, and communion, for example – are inspired by and grounded in scripture, but they are also distilled from the confessional traditions of numerous Protestant reformers. And remember, too, that the Bible you read and quote from was canonized by Catholics and revised by Martin Luther.

Simply put, American evangelical Christianity, while certainly unique among other Christian faith traditions, is not as singular as you think it is.

2. Heed the Chicago Call issued by a number of prominent evangelical leaders in the late 1970’s and embrace the ancient practices and liturgy of the Church. Some of the most beautiful liturgy in the Christian tradition is reflected in the Common Prayer of the Anglican tradition and was largely written by Protestant Reformer Thomas Cranmer. But there is also much is the Catholic and Orthodox traditions that inspires reverence and awe.

3. Reclaim your rationalist roots. Following closely in the steps of the Reformation, evangelical Christianity once prided itself on its rationality, reconciling faith and reason and, with it, the findings of science. But, to borrow John Pavlovitz wonderful quote from the attached article, the rising numbers of American evangelicals with college, graduate and post-graduate education within the last century “have outgrown theology as a hammer always looking for a nail.” Evangelicals must undertake a concerted effort to reengage not only with science but also with biblical scholarship.

4. Last but certainly not least, evangelicals should take heed of the modern reformers in their ranks. At the top of the list: Brian McLaren, a prominent “post-evangelical” and one of the principle movers of the Emerging Church movement. McLaren is one of the more articulate voices within evangelical ranks calling for a revivified faith that is willing to embrace the paradox of human existence.

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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