Pleasantly Uneven: A Review of A New Evangelical Manifesto for SpeakEasy Bloggers

A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision of the Common Good
Edited by David P. Gushee
240 pp. Chalice Press. $24.99.

I’ll go ahead and shoot straight here: when I see “common good” in the subtitle and Brian McLaren high on the table of contents, I tend to assume I’m going to see an apologia for liberal politics, the sort of “Vote Democrat and don’t be like those nasty fundies” texts that are all too common on the Internet and not uncommon enough on the bookshelves.  A New Evangelical Manifesto does not lack such things, but there are enough moments that break away from the liberal-evangelical mold that its unevenness is a happy surprise.  I’m not going to attempt comment on all 22 essays in the collection, but I will comment on the volume as a whole, then focus on a few of the essays that struck me as particularly interesting.

First, when I think “manifesto,” I think of a singular, strong statement of political or cultural advocacy.  I think Marx and Marinetti and even those other Humanists, but I usually don’t think of a collection of essays.  Donald Gushee, who edits the volume, does not apologize for the change in the genre so much as he outlines how the essays themselves form a sort of three-movement symphony, the opening movement on the life of evangelical churches, which sets up a movement of essays related to particular groups who suffer from injustice, then gives way to a selection of essays on hot-button political questions and potential new approaches to them.  The collection purports to be political but not partisan, attempting to steer away from the all-too-common move of embracing one partisan platform wholesale just to spite the party that one has just left.  And Gushee’s introduction ends with a brief note that, although the self-identified evangelicals who contribute are angry with certain realities in the Religious Right, the volume attempts not to allow “anger [to] dominate its spirit” (xii).  By and large, the volume does meet that goal, providing more analysis than polemic and addressing most of the questions in manners that are more dialectical than shrill.

Movement 1: The Church

Not entirely surprisingly, Brian McLaren opens the collection with an amusing lack of self-awareness, criticizing megachurch evangelicals as “three-N’s” Christians–Nostalgic, Nativist, and Negative (6-7), “defin[ing] themselves increasingly by what they’re against” (7), then issuing his standard conspiracy theory about seminaries and clergy, the real villains who keep “hope, diversity, and cultural collaboration” (8) from taking hold.  (You see, it’s alright to define one’s self against seminaries and clergy, just not against other groups of people.)  I know McLaren’s name-recognition no doubt draws a larger number of people to an anthology like this, and such a marketing draw likely outweighs content for some readers, but the opening essay is disappointing.

Fortunately, as the ad campaign says, it gets better.

“A Disenchanted Text,” Cheryl Bridges Johns’s essay, the third in the collection, signals that whatever the New Evangelicals are, they welcome spirit-church folk.  Despite her use of the “Greek versus Biblical” dichotomy that drives this literature professor to madness, the Pentecostal alternative to Biblicist fundamentalism is refreshing: her approach is as patristic as it is postmodern, calling on Christians to read the Bible not for debating points to stockpile for the next debate but for the sake of encountering the God who reveals God’s self in those texts.  Although perhaps the least overtly “political” essay in the book, Johns sets up possibilities for politics that lie beyond proof-texts, and as a resident-alien, non-Pentecostal professor at a Pentecostal college, I see the same good things emerging from the life of my own school as I see going on with Johns.

Richard Cizik’s essay “My Journey towards the ‘New Evangelicalism'” was a centerpiece in the marketing campaign for this book: Cizik, a former vice president in the National Association of Evangelicals, was to reveal details of his 2008 departure from the association.  And he does.  Skipping that material in favor of the chapter’s main ideas (I don’t give away spoilers lightly, people!), Cizik calls for evangelicals to abandon “Manichean thinking” in favor of charitable complexity, a call that I would echo for partisans of both major factions.  In his case for that care of thought, his eloquence serves as a thesis for this manifesto by committee:

A demand for political conformity is a form of legalism that must not characterize the body of Christ.  Neither should any judgmental or unloving attitudes over differences of opinion.  Disagreements, moreover, should be regarded as off limits but legitimate and even healthy.  They offer the opportunity to discuss conflicting ideas with a spirit of prayer, openness to the Holy Spirit, and unconditional submission to God’s Word.  In this way the church is a community that transcends, while never denying, its internal differences.  Here is victory over the last great temptation (as the book of Revelation intimates): that of making politics more than itself. (34-35)

If McLaren’s essay made me suspicious that this volume could only become yet another anti-GOP screed, Johns and Cizik made me confident, going into the second movement of this symphonic manifesto, that there was at least space for genuine difference and dialectic.

Movement 2: The Oppressed

Jennifer Crumpton’s essay on human trafficking makes clear that Christians should be “working to eradicate the problem” (67), a position stark in its moral clarity and notable for its relationship to a later essay in the collection on abortion.  More on that later.  Her analysis of the problem, though, runs from a strong criticism of consumer capitalism, which turns all things into goods to be bought and sold, and her call for legal penalties against Johns as well as social programs to support the victims of trafficking (81) starts the section off strong, highlighting the dangers as well as the potential for good in the complex realm of political action.

Crumpton’s essay towards the end of this section, the one on women, was far less impressive.  In that essay she bemoans the “idolatrous act of Scripture-worship” that happens when a young Baptist preacher holds up 1 Timothy as a guide for church polity yet provides little along the way of alternative readings.  She does attempt to set up a dichotomy between the “evangel” and “manmade creeds and liturgies” (118) early in the piece but doesn’t provide even the beginning of a suggestion for how the Church might distinguish between the two, especially since the text implies that the distinction runs through the text of the Bible.  The (unsolved) problems inherent in her approach become most evident in a paragraph late in the essay:

The dualism created when we excuse misogynistic beliefs and practices in the Christian realm implicitly excuses and exacerbates the oppression of the vulnerable within our own borders and around the world.  I would argue that the patriarchal language and stories of the Bible generally offer no better protocol for societies or hope for women than the language and stories perpetuated in our exploitative culture of entertainment and news media today (which probably says more about the backward state of modernity than the troubles of ancient mores–we’ve had a couple of millennia to change, after all). (123)

No reader will find an apologia for misogyny here, but I might ask whether this or that phenomenon in the world should count as misogyny.  In this essay there’s no such examination, and what’s more troubling, there’s no explanation why the simple passage of time should have made advertising culture less misogynistic.  There’s probably a case to be made for the inherent superiority of those who come along later on the timeline to those who come earlier, but Crumpton never articulates it.  I’ve seen people attempt such a case with greater and lesser degrees of success, but in Crumpton’s essay, stories about Alabama megachurch preachers seem to crowd out even an outline of Crumpton’s theory of historical progress.

Other essays in the section were as promising as Crumpton’s first.  In particular Rick Love’s essay on Muslims stood out as a good bit of theology.  Comparing the historically-other, heterodox, menacing Samaritans of the first century to Muslims of the twenty-first, noting the poignant possibilities in Jesus’s parable of the Samaritan (the one God sends to help you might just be a Samaritan/Muslim) and in Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples’ impulse to call down fire from the skies in a surgical strike against Samaritan non-state combatants.

Yes, I just went there.  Love just implied it.

Love’s main upshot is that of the good missionary: preach Christ always, but be careful of your words, for hospitality is necessary.  Laura Rector’s essay on children similarly does Biblical theology for the sake of more faithful political engagement, noting that Jesus’s concern for children carries over into the subject matters covered by just about all of the other essays.  Perhaps most daring, Rector calls out divorce and the proliferation of single-parent households as a core “social-justice” issue (131–more on that term later).  Finally, the jaw-dropper of the anthology (sorry, Cizik, but your tell-all got upstaged) was Adam Phillips’s essay on the global poor, in which he writes several paragraphs IN PRAISE OF GEORGE W. BUSH for his work in behalf of HIV patients in Africa.  I know the three-movement symphony is the organizing structure, but I can’t help but wonder how the anthology might have been different had Phillips appeared earlier.

One pattern that was cropping up by this point in the book was the unexamined use of the term “social justice.”  Since I remain a bit of a Derridean, I was waiting for someone to say what “social justice” is not so that I could get some grasp on what they thought it was.  For the most part I remained disappointed.  Certainly, as a seminary graduate from just ten years ago, I’m not unacquainted with the term, but I was hoping, in the second movement and the third, to see some terms of distinction, say between “social justice” and “criminal justice” or “contractual justice” or some other sort of justice.  Heck, I would have settled for a distinction between “social justice” and “social studies” or “social disease” by the end of the anthology, but nothing doing there either.  To return to seriousness for a moment, the anthology does its best work when it assumes that people other than those already reading Sojourners weekly emails might pick up the book.  That’s what makes the best selections interesting, and lack of that awareness leaves the least effective parts little to do but to “fire up the base,” which rarely involves careful thinking.

Movement 3: Hot Issues

If the first two movements were pleasing because uneven, the third amps things up to a grand finale of inconsistency.  On one hand the reader gets Jim Ball’s essay on global warming, which says almost nothing about the actual scientific arguments supporting the phenomenon (and here’s a hint: they have little to do with “Hey! It sure was hot this summer!”) and less than that on the actual mechanisms of national and international politics that might actually serve as a check on the big agricultural and manufacturing operations contributing most to post-industrial climate change.  Instead the article is a series of parables, none of which make a great deal of sense.  Dealing with global warming is like Lucy’s following Aslan, one says (196).  Another says that Global Warming is related to the parable of the good Samaritan (198-99), but there’s not a great deal of explanation of how those connect.  Instead of education for activism, Ball’s essay is one grand guilt trip, going so far as to say that Jesus needs saving from global warming (199) but never saying what actions might start that process.

On the other end of the last movement’s spectrum is Timothy Floyd’s essay on ending the use of execution as a political tool.  Floyd attacks the question from both historical and theological angles, noting that the current system of state-ordered executions is dangerously flawed, even by its own logic (162), before articulating a very compelling theological argument against Christian support for state-ordered execution (166-67).  Likewise David Gushee’s final essay, on abolishing torture, refutes point by point common Washington arguments (those most often repeated by evangelicals) before issuing a strong critique of the “decorative veneer of legitimization [on] our favored party and politicians” (237).  As with the first two movements, the strong and the weak essays stand out precisely for the contrast to their neighbors.

The most interesting essay for me, though, was the abortion essay by Charles Chamosy.  In one essay Chamosy encompasses many of the tensions that I find most troubling about the “social-justice” movement within evangelicalism.  To his credit, Chamosy proceeds from the assumption that abortion is something to be confronted, not celebrated as the right of one set of entities to destroy another group.  Moreover, he calls for a political imagination that goes beyond the standard American Democrat and Republican policies and platforms on abortion (202).  And rather than keeping arguments in the abstract, he actually compares abortion rates in measurable areas (Ireland, England, Sweden, United States, all in the last decade) and uses available data to determine both that social-support systems reduce abortion rates and that social-support systems plus laws against abortion reduce abortion rates still further.  With all that to praise, the discussion of “reducing abortion” never addresses the question of legal status (as, for instance, Crumpton’s essay on human trafficking does) or the philosophical question of consumerism as the root of much pro-abortion rhetoric.  Obviously this essay cannot stand as a microcosm of the whole collection, but it is illustrative.

Overall, though I would have a tough time calling this a manifesto in the traditional sense, it is a helpful illustration of where evangelicalism might go as the GOP monopoly of low-church Protestants wanes in coming years.  The DNC loyalists will likely come into some conflict with those who no longer see the need for partisan loyalty (just as those who have enthusiastically embraced mainline Protestant denominations live in some tension with those who have jettisoned church-membership altogether), and no doubt a new spectrum of approaches to public life will take its own shape, perhaps resulting in grand coalitions like today’s GOP and DNC but perhaps not.  Beyond some interesting (for the good reasons and for the bad reasons) approaches to such policy problems, A New Evangelical Manifesto stands as another reminder that, wherever the story of Christians and politics goes in the next generation, it begins not with one voice but with fragments.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *