Books, blogs, evangelicals and US Christianity

One of my tasks during this placement is to read and discuss a book from the recommended list from 121. I chose Eugene Peterson’s ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant‘ which is subtitled ‘an exploration in vocational holiness’. I’ve started it and I am enjoying it, but I’ll save fuller comments for a little later. My first reaction to it has been wondering what its relevance is – it seems very pre-occupied with what, to me, sound like very typically US issues. It takes as its starting point the problems surrounding much of the US evangelical movement – things like the ‘prosperity gospel’, mega-churches and ‘programme-led’ and results-based ministries. That said, it doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach, and in many respects it is quite a challenging read, forcing the reader to question what his/her primary focus is in ministry.

I have recently started reading some blogs which, in a sense, back up what Peterson’s purpose is in writing the book. They all point to major issues within US Christianity. And as I read these and related links, I do start to see the relevance of the book. With so much culture exchange between the UK and the US, it’s only a matter of time when there are similar issues here. In fact, with the rise in popularity of churches such as, for example, the Vine and Hillsong in the UK, one might argue that the issues are already here. I’ve just read an illuminating interview with Eugene Peterson which pretty much sums up where he’s coming from in his writings. So, with that as a background, I’ll approach the book in a slightly different light and post my thoughts accordingly.

As for the blogs I’ve been reading – millinerd, internetmonk and the Boar’s Head Tavern – I’ve decided that the more I learn, the less I know. Whenever I read a bit of theology or someone’s thoughts on theology, it just raises more and more questions in my head that I don’t know the answer to. So I read some more, answer (or at least clarify) some of those questions, but at the same time raise others. The question-answering seems to proceed linearly, the question-raising is almost certainly exponential. Maybe I should just stop reading and finding questions. Then again, I was having a clearout of paperwork earlier and came across a printout of a sermon I delivered a little while ago. In it, I had a wee go at ‘simple faith’, claiming that there’s really no such thing and that not confronting questions and issues was doing a disservice to the intelligence we’re gifted with. Maybe I need to listen to what I preach to others.

5 responses to “Books, blogs, evangelicals and US Christianity”

  1. Interesting thoughts to begin a new year ! The results based ministry is already here in the sense that ‘success’ is measured often by bums on seats. How do we get them in ? is a question most churches are seeking an answer to, but what they should be asking is how do we get out there with some credible witness ? Then ‘they’ might come and hear what we have to say.
    Simple faiths are most often quite deep faiths. That is not to say that they are unquestioning, however. Simple faiths hold on to some fundamentals (without becoming fundamentalist) and can often be an encouragement to those of us in ministry.

  2. I’d agree that ‘bums on seats’ is a flawed metric. Here’s another fascinating insight into the ‘mega-church’ phenomenon. Well worth a read and turns on its head much of what contemporary church is driving towards. Again, I wonder if this is a US phenomenon or whether it has been imported here as well? What interests me in the blogs I’ve been reading (and in Peterson’s book, for example) is just how strong a reaction there is against much of the ‘faddiness’ around. Some of it is, of course, coming from the ‘it’s new/different, so we don’t like it anyway’ camp, but there does seem to be a genuine concern about departing from the basics of Christian teaching/practice. My concern would be that the reaction only serves to polarise the debate and that moderate voices get steamrollered in the process. In many ways, it’s no wonder that those looking in from the outside have no desire to get involved.

    As for ‘simple faith’, I’m not sure we have the same definition (I should have been clearer). I think if a faith is ‘questioning’, to any degree, it rises above being ‘simple’. Holding on to fundamentals is no bad thing either, but when faith is reduced to only one or two such, then it is incomplete faith. When scripture, for example, ceases to be challenging to us because we refuse to see its applicability (because it’s too difficult to think about or do) then we have ceased to grow in faith (which, if I remember correctly, was part of that argument in the sermon). At that point, I would argue, faith has been reduced to ‘simple’.

  3. I must catch up on my Petersen…
    The simple faith idea is not a new one. I seem to remember someone called Paul writing about giving his readers milk because they’re not ready for the meaty stuff…
    There is a clear distinction in my mind between ‘simple’ and ‘simplistic’ faith. It’s the simplistic faith that needs to grow. Simple faith can take big propositions and build on them. It’s only simple in terms of the complications of systematic theology (which is needed, I quickly add !).
    Your point about ‘faddiness’ is well made. There has to be thought about what can legitimately be used for the furtherance of the gospel without being simply a passing fad. Although technology is so quickly evolving that passing fad may be what it ultimately us, there being something new and better to replace it. Most things can be used if thought is given to how best to utilise them. It’s getting the fearful ones to accpet that change can be a good thing, provided that the past isn’t ditched wholesale.
    The problem with sticking with the ‘basics of Christian teaching and practice’ is that these have to change in order to actively engage with a society that has ‘moved on’ however you want to define that.
    The big issue for the church is to take a historical document, Scripture, and interpret it accurately for the present age. The Spirit certainly helps in this process, but it is just that, a process that must evolve. What you suggest as the basics of Christian teaching/practice is a one method for all time. Have I misunderstood you on that point ?
    This has been a longer reply than I thought I’d write…. something of a hobby horse perhaps ?

  4. Yes, I think ‘simplistic’ is probably what I mean rather than ‘simple’.

    I wouldn’t suggest a ‘one method for all time’. I think what I’m getting would be acknowledgement (in no particular order) of things like basic creeds (and yes, I’m aware of contentions therein), the need to meet in regular fellowship, prayer, reading of Scripture, and so on. How we do these things is, to a degree, up for grabs so long as the method does not overshadow the message. From what I can gather in my reading, it seems that some of the more extreme examples of Evangelicalism (and, arguably, Liberalism) are sidelining Scripture to focus purely on an experiential worship – the Spirit speaking through ecstatic revelation becomes a substitute for revelation through Scripture. Now, don’t misunderstand me – simply (there’s that word again) reading the words as though it were any other book does not garner revelation. And I’m not implying that there’s something ‘magical’ about the words of Scripture in themselves. It is through the work of the Spirit that Scripture comes to have real meaning for us and I would also argue that it is by the Spirit that other words (and songs and film, etc) can also speak to us (I guess I’m not a fully signed-up sola scriptura Calvinist). But when the latter (other sources) replaces the former (Scripture), then I think it has digressed too far from those Christian ‘basics’.
    Again, to follow on from a previous discussion, as you say, it’s how the church interprets and presents Scripture that is important and in need of constant scrutiny. As we’ve discussed, it can be too easy to go too far and dismiss ‘fanciful’ narrative as myth/fable, overlooking the purpose behind the original style.
    Maybe that’s where my ‘simple’ faith hobby horse kicks off – we cannot treat Scripture simply but require education and illumination. Illumination through the Spirit, education through fellowship and teaching. Maybe the real focus of my accusation are ‘nominal’ Christians – those who see no need for church or fellowship or prayer or Scripture because “God loves them” (which, of course is true, but simplistic) and that’s enough for them.

  5. I think that we are agreeing….
    Scripture must indeed come first and there is a real danger of the Holy Spirit replacing this as the centre of faith in some evangelical circles. Shades of the Toronto Blessing…. Now THERE’s a hobby horse of mine….
    Not down playing the Spirit, only the uneven emphasis given in certain quarters..
    Simplicity is one of the disciplines of the Spirit that is not easy to practise. I read a book some time ago called something like the disciplines of the Spirit and it made reasonable sense when I read it then. May need to revisit it.

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