Why I Blog Religiously
Dave this is what always goes through my mind when you write about Christianity (of course I always find the writings insightful, funny, and thought-provoking)....
No doubt that the fundamentalist wackos are pretty out there. And I think you had a pretty severe experience yourself. But what does that have to do with the legitimacy or truth of Christiniaty?
You certainly don't judge Islam by the fundamentalists; do you think you do this when it comes to Christianity?
In fact, I don't think I judge Christianity at all unfairly, precisely because I don't think I've ever said a single unkind thing about Methodists or Lutherans. The reasons I continually critique evangelical Christians include the following:
1.) For all practical purposes, they believe they're the only true Christians. (That is, they may sit down with Catholics and Episcopalians, but they'll only be comfortable with them as long as they're conservative, literalist, and so on. Put another way, evangelical Christians are mostly interested in worshiping with other faiths to the extent that the other faiths feel evangelical.) A Lutheran will tell you, "There are all kinds of approaches to Christianity, but Lutheranism is the tradition that I personally respond to, and that's why I'm a Lutheran." An evangelical Christian will believe, to at least some extent, "I'm an evangelical because mainstream churches are liberal hotbeds of heresy and they don't take the Bible as literally as everyone should. We're right and they're wrong. It's not really a question of choice."
2.) Evangelicals have succeeded---at least in America---in taking over the brand name of "Christian", and this not accidentally. An evangelical Christian bookstore is called a "Christian bookstore." Evangelical Christian music is called "Christian music." And---most damningly, I think---an evangelical church is often called a "nondenominational church." Evangelicalism, as a sectarian movement within mainstream Christianity, is effectively invisible, both to evangelicals themselves and to the public at large. For the most part, evangelical Christian and"Christian" (or at least "conservative Christian") are basically synonymous.
3.) As the largest, fastest-growing, and most vibrant expression of Christianity in the world, it unleashes a lot of power and a lot of very good intentions. This makes it the most relevant form of Christianity today, and therefore worth looking at more carefully. (Or, in my case, critiquing to remove its tendency to destroy its own adherents with those same good intentions.)
And actually, while I don't critique Islam for its radicals (i.e., I don't think that Muslims are all violent extremists who want to blow us up), I do criticize mainstream Islam for the same irritating tendencies I find in evangelical Christianity: they treat women like second-class citizens in the name of purity, they deny evolution, they basically worship a book (and believe a lot of bizarre untrue things about it) and they haven't found a single truly decent way to treat homosexuals. Mormons? Same thing.
My limited reading has suggested that, while the "liberal" wing of evangelical Christianity is possibly growing (and all the liberal-evangelical books say so!), this "liberalization" will be expressed not as an embrace of liberal identity politics (i.e., you're never going to see an evangelical church comfortable with gays), but as a shedding of its dispensationalist framework---less fear of the U.N., more embracing of poverty relief, etc. Tony Campolo's book, which I read last night, has some pretty interesting points about this that I hope to blog on soon.
But the upshot is that there really isn't a liberal evangelical movement---not a szable one to speak of, the way you could oppose Democrats and Republicans---and I don't see how there can be. The same urge that makes you read the Bible literally---no matter what the other experts say about, say, stem cell research---is the same urge that tends to make you vote conservatively and (I'll get to this later, too) be extremely cautious about sex. So while there may be a "liberal" version of evangelicalism, it's like the "liberal" movements in Islam (try to find a pro-gay Muslim theologian sometime) and Mormonism: for all practical purposes, though I admire the liberal wing for trying, they have no power over the mainstream and don't reflect the religion as most people practice it. (Shorter version: anyone who thinks, "Gee! Brian McLaren seems like a really nice guy! Maybe I'll give evangelicalism a try!" is bound to be consistently disappointed with all of their local churches.) I hope that makes sense.
P.S. I guess I do "critique [mainstream] Christianity" in the sense that I don't believe any of it is backed up by history. But I don't demand that people believe what I believe about their religious books. I do, however, want very much for fundamentalists to stop hurting themselves and others in the name of books they don't understand as much as they think they do. And while we're dreaming, I'd like to make evangelical beliefs safe for a modern democracy, so I don't wake up one morning and find they've turned the whole nation into a dry county for no sensible reason. But that's another post.