Tolerance and moderation are usually among the first causalities of war. The cultural and religious wars are no different. As Liberals on the Left and Evangelicals and the Right rail against one another, we moderates find ourselves caught in the crossfire. Must we choose sides? The rhetoric from the extremes suggests that “if you are not with us, then you are against us.” But as moderate Christians, inspired by Christ’s vision of radical inclusion, we need not choose sides. We are free to follow the revolutionary strategy of loving engagement with both sides. We are liberated to respect the magnetism and dynamism of contemporary evangelicalism, while also admiring the openness and social activism of liberals. In this chapter we argue that moderate Christians have a unique talent for tolerance that is desperately needed. If we can come to a better understanding of the issues that fuel the culture wars, then we can find new ways of advancing a Christian vision that is both Liberal and Evangelical.
At the center of this chapter are two caricatures, one of liberal Christianity and one of evangelical Christianity. If you are reading and studying Lost then you likely do not wholly identify with either one or the other and feel that the caricatures both miss something important. But there is no question that these caricatures run deep in our religious culture.
Take some time to summarize the caricatures of liberals and evangelicals as they are presented in Chapter 4. Without reading them, try to restate them to others in your group.
- What is missing in each caricature?
- What is exaggerated about each caricature?
Even with their exaggerations and omissions, caricatures become popular partly because they and simple and entertaining, and partly because they convey some truth. They also have a wonderfully mirror-like aspect: caricatures often tell us as much about those who use them as those who they purport to portray.
It can be liberating to identify and discuss these caricatures for what they are, since they are frequently employed naïvely or with vicious intent. As Chapter 4 emphasizes, however, real Christians and real churches are never so one-dimensional.
- If you are in a liberal Christian context, what in your experience rings true about the popular caricatures of liberal Christianity? (If you are a liberal with a healthy self-image and sense of humor, this may be an easy and fun question for you to answer.)
- If you find yourself in an evangelical Christian context, what truths does the caricature of evangelical Christianity reveal? (Evangelicals, if you are comfortable in your tradition, it may be enjoyable and even liberating to take a few moments to consider the evangelical caricature.)
Many Christians, and especially moderates, cannot help but recognize within themselves a longing to share in some of the blessings and strengths of both liberals and evangelicals. Chapter 4 puts this issue front and center. “What do moderates in liberal contexts want that evangelicals have?”And conversely, “What do moderates in evangelical contexts desire that liberals have?”
- How would you identify yourself and your context?
- If you are a moderate in an evangelical context, what intrigues you about (or makes you leery of) liberal Christianity?
- If you are a moderate in a liberal context, what draws you toward (or turns you off about) evangelical Christianity?
One of the great things about moderate forms of Christianity is that moderates do not have to subscribe to ideological purity. Moderates in one context can be honest about what they find compelling and attractive in another context. Moderates in liberal churches can take advantage of all of their church’s opportunities for social-justice work and the environment of open inquiry, but can still admit that they find the passionate worship available at the evangelical church down the street appealing. Likewise, moderates in evangelical churches can cherish the intense Bible studies and chances for personal engagement available at their churches, but can be honest about their desire to be more inclusive and tolerant of differences.
It is this spirit of honesty that causes us to confront the cultural wars within the church head on, instead of trying to sidestep the issues and avoid the awkwardness surrounding terminology and naming. There are persistent and real differences between liberals and conservatives, and we need to become educated about these. But the caricatured differences between evangelicalism and liberalism are not necessarily permanent or irreconcilable. It is possible to be both liberal and evangelical.
If we can get past the caricatures, we might be able to envision ways in which evangelical ideals, beliefs, and practices can coincide with liberal ideals, beliefs, and practices in a moderate, liberal-evangelical synthesis. Can you picture this?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
Take some time this week to do some informal online research. We will be discussing popular caricatures of Christian liberals and Christian evangelicals. The key word here is caricature: an exaggerated portrayal of something that highlights its perceived flaws and distinctive characteristics.
With this definition in mind, take a few minutes to look for caricatured accounts, descriptions, pictures, or portrayals of Christian liberals and Christian evangelicals. Be prepared to share what you find with your study group. Some of the most interesting caricatures of liberals are offered by conservatives, and some of the wildest caricatures of evangelicals are offered by secularists. The point of this exercise is not to gather and present a balanced account but rather to highlight, expose, and examine the exaggerations that abound in the popular imagination.
You will almost certainly encounter materials that some might find offensive. Just be sure to remember the point of the exercise and have some fun.
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
Your homework was to carry out some informal research on the internet and to collect caricatures of liberal Christians and evangelical Christians. Take some time to share your findings with one another remembering that the point of this exercise is not to offend or to be offended but to identify the kinds of exaggerated stereotypes that exist in the popular imagination.
These caricatures have become so common and pervasive that most of us have uncritically absorbed them, even if we do not consciously agree with them. Take only one minute to go through the following list and make some quick associations. Next to each term indicate which group it best reflects by circling the “L” for liberal or the “E” for evangelical. This is not an exercise in critical reflection, but in pre-critical response, so answer quickly and with minimal analysis.
|L E Snake Handling
|L E Wishy-washy
|L E Effeminate
|L E Draconian
|L E Ivy League
|L E Poor
|L E Condescending
|L E Backward
Many of you were likely able to complete this exercise quickly and with minimal thought, in part because the caricatures of liberal Christians and evangelical Christians are so prominent.
Now we can slow down and actually consider these terms and the caricatures that we have collected and examine their truth, what they tell us about the groups and people they portray, and what they tell us about the people who create and perpetuate them.
- What kinds of things do conservatives exaggerate about liberals? What kinds of buzzwords to they tend to use to convey derision or scorn? What do these caricatures tell us about those who perpetuate them?
- What kinds of things do liberals or even secularists exaggerate about evangelicals? What kinds of names do they call evangelicals and what kinds of associations do they raise? What do caricatures of evangelicals tell us about those who perpetuate them?
Some of us may recognize parts of ourselves in these caricatures and this may be the source of some humor. Beyond providing a laugh, however, are these caricatures helpful in any way? In what ways are they unhelpful? What deeper truths might they hide from us?
Bible Reading: Ephesians 2
Made Alive in Christ
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,
2 In which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands
12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,
15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,
16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
17 and he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near;
18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,
20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,
21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord,
22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
As a group, read through Ephesians 2 together, perhaps taking turns reading groups of verses. As you read, think about the pronouns that are used. Depending on your translation you’re likely to see “you,” “we,” and “they” several times.
In its original context the letter is addressed to Christians struggling with internal factions. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians each had their own traditions, languages, and ways of engaging Christ that did not always allow room for the other. Caricatures abounded. Jews were caricatured as legalistic, while gentiles were caricatured as undisciplined. Maybe there were some who were able to shrug off these caricatures and embrace non-sectarian Christianity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians is one such Christian and he gives a theological justification for his recommendation: Christ’s ministry and death reconciled “us” not only to God, but also to one another.
The reconciliation between humanity and God through Christ is intimately linked to the reconciliation of humanity, Jew and Gentile. There is not one without the other.
We have discussed the current divide in the church today between liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants. How does the divide between Jews and Gentiles in the early church relate to our current situation? What theological lessons can we learn from Ephesians 2?
Pastor Chris and Pastor Thomas each lead a congregation of Protestant Christians. Pastor Chris’ church is evangelical and most of the congregants are moderate liberals. Pastor Thomas’s church is also evangelical though most of the congregants in his much smaller congregation are moderate conservatives. Pastor Chris’ church owns a large building and meets there for two services on Sunday mornings, while Pastor Thomas’ church rents space in the same building and meets for worship on Sunday afternoons. There is another factor that makes this situation interesting. Pastor Thomas’ congregation is comprised mostly of East African immigrants who usually wear their colorful native dress to worship. Therefore, whenever a member of the smaller congregation comes to worship with Pastor Chris’ church on Sunday mornings, everyone notices that these other Christians are present.
For several years this situation works well. The two congregations do not interact much. They are respectful of one another and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. But slowly things begin to change.
Sharing the same worship space means that occasionally members of one congregation happen to hear or visit the worship of the other and over time more and more of Pastor Chris’ flock begins to stay for afternoon worship and more and more of Pastor Thomas’ flock comes early to worship with the larger church in the morning. Eventually so many members of each congregation attend the other congregation’s services that the two congregations function as a single de facto congregation. That’s when the respective boards and pastors of the two congregations decide to unite. A singe church congregation emerges and the worship services of the larger church reflect the stylistic influence of the churches that it absorbed.
We have become so accustomed to hearing stories about churches splitting up, that we forget how powerful a decision to unite can be. What is more, these congregations did not unite out of financial necessity, but because they found that they had, by a graceful accident, become one without even trying. The transition to unification was not without its difficulties, but overall it has been a tremendous blessing.
- What challenges would any group face that sought to united a moderately conservative congregation with a moderately liberal one? Are these challenges unique to churches? What resources do churches have to lean on that secular institutions might not have?
- In what ways might the unique circumstances of this case study (a shared building, different ethnic backgrounds and traditions) aid or hinder the transition to unity?
- What role might worshiping together play in making unity possible?
- Can you envision circumstances from your own experience in which moderate conservatives and moderate liberals, perhaps accustomed to worshipping only with their own kind, might be fruitfully brought together for Christian worship and service? What kinds of preparations would be important? What kinds of theological rationale for shared worship and mission might be appropriate?
For Further Thought
If we move beyond the caricatures of evangelicalism and liberalism, and try to characterize them more fairly and with less exaggeration, might they be compatible?
What might a potentially moderate “sweet spot” look like? This is what we are calling liberal-evangelicalism. Ask yourself: What aspects of the caricatures must be overcome or left behind if we are to realize this “sweet spot?”
Jesus Christ we pray today in a spirit of thanksgiving and humility, thankful for your gift of renewed life, and humble in our recognition that we have not always embraced that gift fully.
We recognize that the reconciliation you bring cannot be between us and God if it is not also between us as partners, sisters, brothers, and fellow servants.
Help us to see one another more truly and to love one another more deeply. Instill in us a deeper desire for reconciliation and peacefulness.
Empower us with the gift of humility and the power to laugh at ourselves. Enable us to see the truth and humor in the ways that others view us so that we might respond gracefully and without self-righteous anger.
Even more, help us to see others as they are, so that we might see them as you see them, with compassion and understanding.
Continue to restore us and give us patience to love one another as you love us.
Lord, make us one.