A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren

The short version: This book is written in the genre of a novel which I think is a really good way to explore those ideas bundled together as ‘postmodern’. It is geared towards disillusioned American evangelicals who still love Jesus but find a lot of problems in the way church is done and stuff is talked about in the year 2000 (a lot of these problems persist to this day). It is good at asking hard questions, but the few answers are sometimes too vague as to actually be helpful or only highlight more problems. The concepts of modernism/modernity and postmodernism/postmodernity as assessed. Sometimes I think there are factual errors in these discussions. Nonetheless, this book is good at problematizing — and I think a lot of people found it refreshing to start thinking about different ways of being Christian that did not mean abandoning historic orthodoxy.

18 years later, I am not sure I would recommend the book. This is because McLaren imagined the imminent arrival of postmodernity, yet we have found ourselves living in the hypermodern instead. For example, instead of a pluralist culture where Christianity is one respected voice amongst many, we have a situation that I was recently told is called ‘postsecular’ — secularism is so deeply ingrained in our society’s ways of operating that we are living in the truly secular age forecast by Charles Taylor years ago. That is to say: The book is good, but limited in part because of the new directions our culture is taking and has taken, unanticipated by 2001’s new kind of Christian.

Cultural assessments and critiques like this are probably meant to only have a certain shelf life.

I’ll set aside where I suspect the factual errors are in the description of modernity, and focus on the conversations about Christianity. The conversation partners clearly want to rise above the division of conservative/liberal, which is nice but likely impossible. Throughout, the main pomo fellow, Neo, says, ‘People think in this binary fashion. The conversation is actually up here.’ It’s a nice way of dodging answers. Nevertheless, a question raised cannot be un-asked.

For example, when the question of salvation comes up, this book gets really twitchy. I think McLaren was reacting against some unhealthy approaches to the question used by American evangelicals and fundamentalists. One of the questions about salvation was the question of universalism vs inclusivism vs exclusivism; the first means everyone is saved by Jesus’ saving power; the second means everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is saved along with certain people of other religions like the Calormene in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle; the third means only those who put their faith in Jesus are saved. Neo says that this question isn’t the Bible’s main concern, and the Bible is more concerned with living out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Except the Bible does have things to say that have bearing on the question. I would rather the new kind of Christian be humble in his or her answer, whichever of the three, than come up with some pomo pseudo-logic to avoid answering.

This is only one example of many. It leaves the book intellectually unsatisfying. I am, perhaps, more ‘modernist’ than I’d like to admit, but since the first moderns were mediaeval, and I like the rigour of Boethius and Anselm, I’ll take the label.

I do agree that late twentieth-century American (and Canadian) evangelicalism (which, not modern Christianity at large, is the real target of the book) needed a readjustment regarding the word salvation. Neo insists that the way evangelicals approach the question, of ‘getting saved’ and going to heaven, is selfish. I’m not sure that it’s selfish; it’s too small, however, and I appreciate the bigness of Neo’s vision when he incorporates the cosmos into the question.

But human salvation means the salvation of persons, and this is part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. When I think of salvation on the human level, I am certainly not thinking of a ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card in a heavenly Monopoly game. My reading of the Fathers, medievals, and Orthodox thinkers has been leading me down new paths about participation in Christ and the ongoing work of salvation and such. This sort of richness of human salvation would have benefited the book simply because it tempers evangelicalism without gutting it.

This or something like it could be my tune for almost all of my disagreements with this book. For example, looking for a third way of ethics that is neither fundamentalist moralising nor liberal social works with no regard for inner character (that’s not quite how it’s phrased) — you mean Roman Catholicism? There’s a different kind of Christianity with a powerful social teaching and regard for the despised and rejected as well as moral standards as high as those of any evangelical — except at least Catholics can drink beer!

I could go on because it is easier to complain than to praise. There is much good in this book in terms of shaking things up — What do you believe about the Bible? What about salvation? Your own? Others’? Those outside the church? What is the relationship between church and kingdom? What do we do regarding other religions? Science and religion? etc., etc. Some of the answers are satisfying, some are correction course (‘Hey, the Bible is mostly stories!’), some are unsatisfying in the extreme.

In the end, this chief weakness still comes back to me, though. The characters foresee a future where Christians re-engage ancient and medieval spiritual practices (yay!). They imagine training for ministry that includes reading broadly through the whole tradition in terms of time and space (yay!). They engage in endless periodization (ancient – medieval – modern – postmodern) (blah). But the ideas of ancient and medieval, let alone Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christianity are never presented as options for those disillusioned with the options currently on offer in modern Christianity.

From what I see, this problem would plague the emergent movement until it fizzled out. They want the pretty, evocative stuff of ancient/medieval Christianity (incense, icons, candles, compline, pilgrimage, mysticism, even fasting and almsgiving), but not the intellectual rigour of an Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, or John of Damascus. The existence of Roman Catholics is noted, but the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition rarely engaged.

This is true of all three of McLaren’s books that I’ve read — and the reviews of A New Kind of Christianity show him ramping it up with his ‘Greco-Roman thesis’ that the biblical plot of creation – fall – redemption – glory was an importation from Platonic philosophy (it’s not; it bears little to no resemblance to Platonism; I do not know where he got this), or that if you reject penal substitutionary atonement theory you reject Christ’s death atoning for us (all Christians before Anselm must be confused, along with all of Eastern Christianity) — if he had read the Fathers and the medieval and Byzantine theologians deeply, he would not have made these errors. He may still have been a heretic, but at least an informed one.

In the end, if you are disillusioned with contemporary evangelicalism and want to find a different way of being Christian, this book may be helpful. On the other hand, why not just read Ephrem the Syrian, or Sebastian Brock’s excellent book about him, The Luminous Eye? Or Isaac of Nineveh? Both are online for free, after all. There you will find a different kind of Christian who yet affirms the reliability of Scripture and the Nicene faith without all the hazards of either evangelicalism or liberalism.

Advertisements

Contemplation and mission

A conversation I was having with a student today reminded me of the importance of that unpopular, old-fashioned idea of ‘evangelism’. The conversation headed in the direction of a belief that people of the far-right, hate-mongers and suchlike, should be stopped from assembling. I expressed my belief that no speech, excite incitement to violence, should be outlawed. I feel this way partly out of a concern that if they stop the racists from speaking and assembling, who will be next? And when will they come knocking on Father Raphael’s door?

I also expressed, in the course of this conversation, my belief that the problem isn’t legislation but the human heart. You can’t legislate evil away.

And so my thoughts about the need for mission arose from this context in two main ways.

First, how can we speak the truth of Gospel into a culture that thinks ‘dangerous speech’ should be banned?

Second, how can we, as Christians, actually see the transformation of the wicked human heart that we all desire?

I no longer know the answer to the first, for I have grown frozen in speaking Gospel.

The second relates to actually making disciples, so is related to the first.

Nonetheless, I was reminded of the need to bring the Gospel to a hurting, broken world.

And all of this ties into the title of this post because I sometimes get a feeling from some corners of the Interwebs that Christians can be drawn into the mystical, contemplative, liturgical traditions of the Church as part of a reaction against some of the spiritual toxicity that is out there in some parts of evangelicalism.

And what I feel like I see sometimes is a retreat not simply from things like politics (which may be a good thing) but from God-talk altogether. Christian spirituality becomes therapy for me, and is spoken of as therapy for a broken world, but without actually engaging in the dreaded discipline of talking to other humans about the Gospel and God of grace, how are we really healing that broken world?

I am guilty of this to some degree, although I resist ‘mysticism as therapy’ as best I can.

My theory has always been that if we engage in spiritual disciplines, we will love God more, look like Him more, and be more comfortable as who we are. As a result, we will be able to speak Gospel to a broken, hurting world, a world that includes both racists and those who want to legislate against dangerous speech.

Question: Can someone give me evidence of this working for them?

The Evangelical Identity Crisis

A lot of pieces have been appearing recently — especially in the past year since the election of Donald Trump with the support of many evangelicals — discussing the crisis currently besetting evangelicalism. They usually reference American evangelicalism, but since there are 10 times as many people in the USA than in Canada and 5 times as many as in Britain, and since the largest denomination in the USA is the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, what happens in American evangelicalism has a knock-on effect on the rest of anglophone evangelicalism, even when we know there are definite differences amongst our different cultures and church traditions.

One problem is that people who aren’t evangelicals have no clue what an evangelical is to begin with. This is not necessarily a terrible thing; most people probably can’t tell the Greek Orthodox from the Coptic Orthodox, and some people can’t even tell Greek Orthodox priests from Muslims (true story). But as evangelicals in the USA have been making themselves a visible and felt presence in the public sphere for a while now, it’s a bit surprising that people still can’t tell them from other kinds of Christians.

For example, a somewhat amusing but ultimately false and absurd post at Salon says this:

Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists.

First of all, one of the defining features of American evangelicals is the fact that they are explicitly not fundamentalists. That’s part of the point of the evangelical movement in the USA since at least the 1970s — to be a countercultural, conservative, Protestant voice committed to Scripture, Gospel, and evangelism that is an alternative to the fundamentalists. Second, this is not how most evangelicals actually understand inspiration. Some do, I admit. But I don’t think most do. This is how Muslims think about the Qur’an, sure. But Christians aren’t Muslims.

One prominent scholar of Late Antiquity once referred in 2010 to people who believe in Intelligent Design as fundamentalists, which demonstrates a failure to understand either Intelligent Design (a movement that says science and theism are compatible, with an openness to evolution) or fundamentalism (a movement that requires the sort of biblical literalism that says that rejecting a literal six-day creation means rejecting the authority of Scripture).

So, part of the evangelical identity crisis lies in the fact that, well before Trumpism, people couldn’t actually tell who evangelicals were. As a result, anyone who thinks of his’erself as ‘evangelical’ and who pays attention to the misrepresentations of evangelicals on the Internet became a bit uncomfortable with the word. I remember, back in 2001, talking to a Canadian who was surprised when I talked about evangelical Anglicans, because he associated evangelicalism with certain varieties of (American) neo-conservative politics.

I’d say that American politics are probably the main source of contemporary evangelical angst, but before I get there, I’d like to say that we’ve been having an identity crisis longer than that. This is partly because evangelicalism, in whatever nation and whatever form, is a cross-denominational movement and often involves para-church organisations and inter-denominational events.

In his little book, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Carl Trueman argues that the real problem facing evangelicals is that there is no such thing as an evangelical. He, a Presbyterian of confessional cast, recalls being seated at the ‘evangelical’ table at a conference and found that he had very little with the others at his table, who included an Open Theist. He looked to another table and realised he had more in common with the Dominican Roman Catholics in the room than his fellow evangelicals.

Indeed, the concept of the evangelical is so loose that in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Bradley Nassif is able to argue that the two are compatible due to using the common definition of evangelical as having four components:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

But, of course, for most Orthodox, to cite the title of a different book, Evangelical Is not Enough.

So, not only do evangelicals get confused with other groups that they are not, they also can’t even agree amongst themselves what they are. But whatever they are, it originally was rooted in particular Christian beliefs and a certain view of the Christian life rooted in Scripture and the Cross.

But politics has muddied the waters. Surveys now show that a lot of people who, if you quizzed them on their beliefs, would qualify as evangelical, do not use the word. As well, there are people who would use the word of themselves if it had no political baggage. Others wouldn’t. That, I think, was a recent Pew survey? Another survey revealed that amongst self-identified evangelicals, regular churchgoers were less likely to vote for Trump than non-churchgoing evangelicals.

Wait a second.

Evangelicals who don’t go to church?

In my mind, evangelicals are a committed brand of conservative Protestant, part of whose personal piety is regular church attendance, along with daily prayer and Bible reading. Indeed, not just weekly church attendance on Sunday, but a mid-week Bible study is a typically evangelical event.

So, not only do we have an inability on the part of non-evangelicals to tell them apart from others, an inability amongst so-called ‘evangelicals’ to define what they are, we also have people who identify as ‘evangelical’ who are not even active Christians.

Of course, what matters is not what labels we use. I still think of myself as an evangelical — not just those four distinctives but also a belief in robust preaching and rich theological reflection being part of my vision of evangelicalism. But it is clear that, because of developments in the culture of the USA, the term’s usefulness is running out.

What matters, then, is the commitment of Christians of any denomination — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox — to the Gospel of Christ Crucified and Risen, to Scripture, to the encounter with God, to making more disciples, to living holy lives, to seeing a world transformed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. This can happen, and we don’t need the word evangelical to do it.

Should people like me give up on it, then?

Liturgy and evangelism/mission

One reason, I suspect, why some evangelical Anglicans have dropped liturgy is a desire to engage the culture around them, to be more evangelistic, to be missional, to make disciples. The storyline thus goes that liturgy, whether Common Worship or the BCP, is not relevant to our post-Christian culture, and Sunday morning must be made accessible to the unchurched ‘seeker’ who may wander in or who has been invited by a friend.

Thus, make church look as little like ‘church’ as possible.

If my initial premiss is correct, it is worth noting that even a ‘seeker-friendly’ church service will still, in fact, look nothing like any ‘normal’ event your unchurched ‘seeker’ has ever been to. Prayers of any sort are not part of the secular culture. Preaching, Bible reading, singing songs led by a guitarist, shaking hands with strangers — none of these things is part of a normal event that I can think of, except for those ‘humanist’ churches that have consciously modelled themselves after Christian worship.

The ‘seeker-friendly’ church service thus fails, anyway.

Nonetheless, the concern is, to a degree, valid: How can we help the curious unbeliever find Jesus and be part of the Sunday morning worship event? How can we worship God in a way that does not simply leave the uninitiated confused?

Liturgy need not leave the unchurched or non-Christian visitor bewildered or turned off.

To keep our focus on the Eucharistic liturgy (or ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’), I have seen churches that print out leaflets with marginal notes to help those unfamiliar with liturgy to understand what is going on. Liturgy itself is no longer an obstacle to the unbeliever.

Not only that, the liturgy itself is a recapitulation, a symbolic (with all the weight of symbolon in Greek) re-enactment of the Gospel as well as a prefiguration of the heavenly banquet we all look forward to. We evangelicals like to proclaim the Gospel that is Christ crucified for us. In word and action, the Eucharistic liturgy brings to the mind this very Gospel we love to preach. And it does so in words almost entirely drawn from Scripture.

The Canadian BAS and the BCP (and, I assume, Common Worship) include penitent confession as well as a proclamation of absolution through Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross. The ‘Comfortable Words’ of 1662 (a series of Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness) are a proclamation of God’s willingness to forgive the repentent sinner as powerful as any Billy Graham Crusade, I would argue.

Moreover, in a BCP service of Holy Communion, there are at least two Bible readings; if it is preceded by Morning Prayer, increase that to four plus a Psalm(s)! We evangelicals believe that the word of God is living and active — it can cut to the quick and save souls, can it not? And if it can be obscure, is that not what the homily is for?

Add to this the rich tradition of evangelical hymnody that proclaims in beautiful verse the Gospel of Christ crucified.

I truly believe that a service of Holy Communion done with clarity and even a little guidance is not only not a hindrance to the unbelieving visitor but proclaims the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Finally, while there may be some who would be turned off by liturgy of any sort, there are others in our culture who are drawn to symbol and sacrament and turned off by touchy-feely, folksy church services. If we are to be utilitarian about liturgy, why reject our Anglican heritage in the name of evangelism, doing things in a way that will actually keep some unbelievers (let alone folks like me, who seem not to matter) from returning?

This is why it saddens me to see evangelical Anglicans jettisoning our rich liturgical heritage in favour of faddish ‘seeker-friendly’ church services — it need not be this way.

How evangelical Anglican churches drive people like me away

My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.

We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.

Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.

But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.

There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.

It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.

It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!

And so where to go?

I don’t know.

William Lane Craig and heresy: The need for greater historical awareness amongst evangelicals

Council of Chalcedon

In seeking to clear Dr William Lane Craig of the stain of heresy as spread through rumour, Kevin Harris interviewed Craig over at the Reasonable Faith Podcast. Unfortunately, what Craig outlines in the interview is, in fact, Apollinarianism, and not something inspired by it — not even Cyrillian Christology. His defence in offering this Christology is that he sees it as a mere possibility, stating:

By offering this model I suggest that this is not at all logically incoherent, and moreover that this is a biblically faithful portrait of Jesus as well.

Craig’s position is this:

What I suggest is:

  1. We agree with the Council of Chalcedon that in Christ we have one person with two natures – human and divine.
  2. The soul of the human nature of Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. The human nature of Christ is composed of the Logos and a human body.
  3. The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity. The waking consciousness was typically human.

Those are the three planks of the model.

The problem with these three planks is that planks 2 and 3 contradict plank 1. Plank 1 rests on the Council of Chalcedon, and that council states that Jesus is ‘perfect in humanity’ with ‘a reasoning soul and body’. The Chalcedonian Definition goes on to say, ‘the property of each nature [is] preserved, coming together into a single person [prosopon] and a single subsistence [hypostasis].’ If the soul of the human nature of Christ is the Logos, then Jesus does not have a human soul. That is a necessary aspect of having a full human nature; that is one of the properties of human nature as indicated by the Chalcedonian definition. That Christ is ‘perfect’ in his humanity means that his humanity is complete.

Craig elucidates his position as follows:

Apollinarius’ original view was that Christ didn’t have a complete human nature. He had a human body but he didn’t have a human soul. He didn’t have a human nature. As a result he wasn’t really truly human. That calls into question the reality of the incarnation and also the effectiveness of Christ’s death on our behalf since he did not share our nature.

What I argue in my Neo-Apollinarian proposal is that the Logos brought to the human body just those properties which would make it a complete human nature – things like rationality, self-consciousness, freedom of the will, and so forth. Christ already possessed those in his divine nature, and it is in virtue of those that we are created in the image of God. So when he brought those properties to the animal body – the human body – it completes it and makes it a human nature. Against Apollinarius, I want to say that Christ did have a complete human nature. He was truly God and truly man. Therefore his death on our behalf as our representative before God was efficacious.

What he describes is honest-to-goodness Apollinarianism. The reason Apollinarius doesn’t give Jesus a human soul is because the divine Logos has taken the place of the human soul in Jesus. This is exactly what Craig is saying. As soon as the divine Logos takes the place of the human soul in Jesus, Jesus does not possess a complete human nature, even if Craigs wants to say that he did.

Craig is explicitly concerned in the interview with ensuring the unity of Christ, that the divine and human natures of Jesus are essentially two persons in the one body (‘Nestorianism’ as we call it). This is Apollinaris’ concern:

Whoever teaches that there are two types of reason in Christ, I mean the divine and the human one, acts as if he were able to engrave letters in a rock with a finger. For if each type of reason is in control of itself because it is motivated by the aspiration unique to its being, it is impossible for two reasons whose strivings are set against each other to exist with one another in one and the same subject, since each performs according to the nature of its will — for each is self-moving. (Frag. 150, quoted in H. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, p. 265)

To deal with the fact that a human nous and a divine nous, or human and divine hegemonika, could lead to something like Nestorianism, Apollinaris came up with the idea that the divine Logos took the place of Jesus’ human nous. This is what it means when we say that Apollinaris denied Jesus’ full human nature — he takes away the human soul and replaces it with the divine principle. And this is exactly with Dr Craig has done.

I see here the ongoing problem of evangelicalism. Rather than immersing ourselves in the tradition, and sorting out what Chalcedon means, or what the ‘Neo-Chalcedonian’ resolution of the council meant 100 years later, or what St Maximus the Confessor meant a century after that, we look at the problem of the two principles in Christ — a human nature and a divine nature — and try to come up with a solution to the problem. What Dr Craig proposes here is exactly what I had once thought up about a decade ago, although he does it with better philosophy and more nuance.

Although I am sharply opposed to his reading of Leo the Great, a good starting place for any evangelical looking at Christology is Robert W. Jenson, ‘With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East’, in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall. Here you get a taste of the Christological thought and trajectory of Greek theology from Justin Marty (c. 155) to Maximus the Confessor (d. 662). This piece, part of my introduction to patristics and ‘paleo-orthodoxy’, had a great impact on me and my vision of the absolutism of Christ’s divinity held in tension with his humanity.

I’m not saying that Craig is not a clever man, nor that he is bad at philosophy. His bibliography demonstrates a thorough engagement with modern and contemporary philosophical movements. But he seems to be bad at historical theology. Not wanting to cast aspersions, since I don’t know his bibliography, this interview reads as though Craig had read a summary of what ‘Chalcedonianism’ is, what ‘Apollinarianism’ is, and what ‘Nestorianism’ is without having actually read a single Chalcedonian, Apollinarian, or Nestorian document. Perhaps I am wrong, and it is the brevity of the interview that is the problem. However, if that is the case, then I fear that Dr Craig has woefully misunderstood his reading of the Church Fathers.

Craig is right that we need to safeguard orthodoxy against Nestorianism. Unfortunately, he has offered us, at least in this piece, something that is Apollinarianism. There is tension and mystery in all orthodox theology. We hold the tension that somehow God is three persons with a single essence/substance, that the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty, but there are not three almighties but one almighty. There are ways of elucidating the doctrine of the Trinity, and some of them are orthodox (Augustine, the Cappadocians) while some of them are not (Oneness Pentecostals).

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, possessing a rational human soul and a human body, but is also the Second Person of the Trinity. There is a tension to this, and orthodoxy is maintaining a balancing act between Nestorianism and Apollinarianism. It is seeking to affirm the fullness of his humanity and of his divinity at the same time. Jesus Christ must have an actual human mind in order to be human. To have a divine mind that is pretending to be human is not to be human; the great anti-Apollinarian statement of Gregory of Nazianzus holds true, ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed.’ If Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, does not have a soul of the same nature as man, if all he has is a human body and a divine soul masquerading as human, then he is not just like me except without sin. He is completely different from me. A full human nature requires a full human psychology, not the parade or show of one.

I could go on, and maybe I will in a future post, giving sign-posts for evangelicals on Christology. But here is yet another reason why people like me feel like we are increasingly on the fringe of the evangelical world as well as presenting the need for a robust evangelical ressourcement as called for by D. H. Williams, Robert E. Webber (‘Ancient-Future Faith’), and Thomas C. Oden (‘paleo-orthodoxy’).

Christian Rock and disillusionment

Every once in a while, the Internet casts up on its shores some poor soul who used to be an evangelical but now has rejected Christianity altogether or who has become a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Or even heretic. And often, CCM is part of the story. At some point, this person woke up and realised that life wasn’t all happy and cheery, that it was complicated, and that the opponents of belief, whether atheists and agnostics or Christians opposed one’s own particular belief, aren’t idiots, but are actually quite articulate. And many of them are really nice.

But Christian rock seems to tell us a different story at times.

At least, it feels that way.

That the story told in a lot of CCM is one of unending triumph. Of mountaintop to mountaintop. And some people seem to think this is about as deep as Christianity goes. That Christianity is a religion about moralism, about resisting temptation, or simply about saying ‘the sinner’s prayer’, and that Christianity is about telling other people what to do and confronting them about it.

Life, of course, is messier than this. And, while I think a lot of CCM is written to actually help people through hard times, a lot of people find songs like the popular worship song, ‘I’m trading my sorrows,’ to be unhelpful and even harmful, neglecting the rock-bottom truth that we are all fundamentally broken.

I, personally, didn’t become disillusioned with Christianity when I started to become disillusioned with Christian rock. My personal disillusionment was a twofold cynicism, no doubt with a certain amount of personal pride. As an undergrad, I was actually exposed to a lot more contemporary mainstream music than as a teenager. And a lot of Christan music didn’t add up. On top of that, I felt what I’ve expressed above — that very little was engaging me at a deeper level.

I want either to be entertained — so VeggieTales’ ‘The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything’ poses no problems for me — or challenged/engaged a deep level. There is a lot in the evangelical subculture that leaves me unsatisfied on both counts, from Left Behind novels to most Christian films.

This disillusionment really began when I bought a Third Day album and didn’t like it. At all. I don’t know why it took so long for the disillusionment to set in — I’d bought a few disappointing albums as a teenager. But no, it was this particular encounter with Third Day.

Instead of questioning my own faith or Christianity, rather than rejecting the Christian religion as an easy-answer faith for people who don’t really know what they’re doing, two things happened. One, I started to become a bit proud. I — I told myself — was more sophisticated than a lot of other Christians. I didn’t enjoy Left Behind (although I read the first). I read Godric by Frederick Buechner. I read Aeschylus and Homer. I read St John of the Cross. I didn’t listen to Five Iron Frenzy (I don’t even know if they’re any good, that’s how little I listened to them). I listened to opera and symphonies. I prayed the Prayer Book. Well done me. I was a deep Christian. Sophisticated.

On the flip side, because of this alleged ‘sophistication’ (I think John Cassian calls it ‘vainglory’), when I became disillusioned with the Christian culture I met around me, it was not Christ with whom I became disillusioned. It was not Christianity I found wanting. Christ and the faith founded in His Name are more than rock’n’roll, more than cheap novels, more than poorly-acted films, more than shallow platitudes. I already knew that.

And I knew where to look. I had my Prayer Book. I had heard of devotional masters like St John of the Cross. I really got into St Francis at this time as well. My faith was multifaceted, by the grace of God. Disillusionment with one expression of Christianity did not mean either a rejection of the faith on the one hand or a need to move beyond orthodoxy on the other. With companions like C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Martin Luther, John Calvin, St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi — as well as a few living folks like my immediately family and friends, and John Michael Talbot — I was prepared to stay with Christ.

Perhaps this is what makes my siblings and me different?

People often ask how it is that the four of us are all active, professing Christians who attend church regularly and even identify as Anglican, dwelling within the bounds of 39-Articles orthodoxy, to boot. Perhaps it’s because our exposure to the Great Tradition kept us safe. Our household was, indeed, steeped in Christian music when we were youths — but we did have a share of classic rock and classical music. But we were given opportunities to lead in worship, ministry, mission. We were given Prayer Books. We were exposed to church history in all its glorious and gorey variety. Our household was equally friendly to Baptists and to Catholics.

By the time any of us was old enough to become disillusioned with Christian pop culture, we had already lived through a certain amount of pain, anyway. And we had met Christians of a wide variety of traditions. We had sung traditional music in choirs. We had prayed Compline in the dark hours of the night. We had raised our hands to Graham Kendrick songs (or not — we’d certainly sung them). We had had long conversations with our parents about life, about orthodoxy, about Anglicanism, about the central truths of the faith. Learning that people thought our music was bad would have little effect on a faith filled with such variety and open to the Great Tradition.

Perhaps that’s the problem with filling our youth with fluff to keep them coming back to youth group and church?

When their faith is tested, where can they turn for something heavy enough to ground them?