Thought we might as well start with something spicy.
I watched Clooney’s film Good Night and Good Luck the other night. It was pretty cool. Loved the complexity, and the Robert Altman-style layers of sound and action constantly running simultaneously (think Gosford Park). I get bored easily…
Anyway, it’s about the McCarthy era in the US, basically communist witch-hunts. Communism seems like the biggest threat facing mankind. McCarthy is destroying people’s lives by publically labelling them commies. The news guys at CBS decide to take him on. They discover that anyone who attacks McCarthy is likely themselves to be labelled communist. McCarthy sees his crusade as representing America. Hence to oppose him is to be un-American. What Murrow and company at CBS object to is the climate of fear this created, and the way it stopped people freely associating, expressing their views, etc.
Nowadays of course no one worries much about the communist threat. The West has moved on, we’re in a post-Communist-threat world.
I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the church scene I’m part of. We’re evangelicals. And we’ve spent the whole of the past century fighting against theological liberals, both elsewhere and also in our own ranks. There’s been a sense that anyone could at any time start going liberal, get infected so to speak, reject the authority of Scripture, and defect to the other side. The enemy is everywhere, the enemy could be any one of us. We live in a constant state of vigilance.
We’ve tended to identify doctrinal faithfulness with certain leaders, big men we could call them, so that loyalty to them was a sign of orthodoxy, and conversely any criticism a sign of suspicious doctrine. Of course the big men change over the generations, but we always have them, and we always rally around them. After all it’s a war you know.
The liberal threat shows different faces over the generations too. 80 years ago it was the doctrine of the virgin birth that was the litmus test of orthodoxy/heresy. Later it was the historicity of Scripture narratives (esp. the Gospels). More recently divergent views of justification and Pauline theology have been the threat. It’s always something. The threat’s always there.
When a leader is identified as having crossed over, things can get ugly. I’ve seen ministers labelled and cast out. Ostracised. Denigrated. They become the enemy within. I’ve been warned against going to work at certain churches, because my reputation would suffer. I’ve seen people rehabilitate their rep by linking up with ‘kosher’ churches. Seriously.
We’ve had these habits of mind for a long time, they’re deeply ingrained by now. We feel that maintaining evangelical orthodoxy is like walking a knife edge, you could slip at any time. Our natural tendency is to fall away from it, reject the authority of Scripture, and smash our faith in the deep ravines of liberalism. Only constant vigilance can keep our churches from this terrible fate. I grew up in this mind set.
Well, now I’m going to out myself. I’m afraid I’ve started to doubt. I’m just not sure any more about that knife-edge. I’m not sure about the whole threat. I know there’s heaps of liberal Christians out there. But I don’t feel so sure that liberal rejection of the Bible’s authority is the natural temptation of all people. I’ve been a Christian for a few decades now. I’ve known heaps of evangelicals in that time, and the huge majority of them have stayed pretty committed to a high view of Scripture. When I try to look into my own heart, I find many sins and temptations there. But the temptation to embrace a Christianity that denigrates Scripture is just not one of them. I had heaps of mates at college, none of them seemed inclined to lower the status of Scripture. They loved it. They revered it. They still do.
So here’s my thought. Could it be that the liberal threat which had come to seem like the natural state of things, could it be that it was just a phase? A long phase, granted, a whole century. But could it be that we’re now entering a post-liberal era? An era when Christians generally won’t be tempted in that direction? Could it be that the war is ending, and we can kind of… give up the hunt?
If I can speak again for myself and some of my closest Christian friends who are in ministry, I think for us the authority of Scripture is a sort of given. It’s just not an issue. Inspiration by the Holy Spirit, we get it. We believe it. We don’t worry about it. We kind of – I know this is going to sound bad, but it gets the point across – we kind of take it for granted. In the struggles and controversies of fighting the good fight, it simply isn’t where the action is.
In fact, a lot of the questions that liberals and evangelicals fought over, seem very dated to us. “Can miracles happen?” That just sounds so modernist and unsophisticated. We’re asking, “how does God’s action in the world leave us space for real agency as creatures in his image?” – and we’re wanting trinitarian answers.
“Is the new testament history?” For us the historicity of the Gospels is a given. We accept it. We don’t stress about it. We’re more interested in, why did the apostolic circle feel it necessary to tell the history four times over, borrowing so much from each other’s accounts? Was there something each of them felt hadn’t been said by the earlier Gospels? What were Luke and John and Matthew trying to say by telling the story the way they told it? Yup, we’re more interested in narrative issues and theology than in revisiting historicity. There are a few people out there who reject Christ because they can’t accept the historicity of the story. A couple of people I’ve met even remember the Da Vinci Code! But for every one of them, I reckon there’s a thousand who ignore Jesus because his people don’t seem to have a compelling and convincing vision for life to offer them. Historicity just isn’t where the battle is.
So there it is, I’ve come out of the closet. Not bad for the first post of a new blog! I have begun to doubt if the war is still on. I don’t feel the need to rally around anyone, except Jesus. I might be seriously naive. I may be totally misguided. If I am, please let me know! But I seem to be living in a post-liberal Christian scene. So I’m calling it the way I see it. Good night and good luck.