My Move, and unChristian by David Kinnaman
Another downside: This reduces me to almost nothing in the bank, and the deposit at my current week-to-week place was so paltry it won't actually help that much. Also, I found out that my next This American Life story has been pushed back until they can fill the hour with that theme. So I don't expect any huge influxes of money anytime soon. I'll be rebuilding my bank account from here through Christmas at least. Yuck.
How To Love God News: My friend Ryan sent me a link to this amazing New York Times article called "Evangelical Crackup," about the way rank-and-file evangelicals are apparently leaving politics in droves. (Registration required.) I'm not sure how I feel about it, though at ten pages it was definitely thorough. My own assumption is that the author is slightly overplaying the new direction of evangelicalism (it makes for a better narrative arc, after all), but he treats everyone pretty fairly--except for the last interviewee, a movement religious conservative who is all but painted with horns and fangs. My favorite quote comes just before the end where an interviewee says, "When you mix religion and politics, you get politics."
But though I think the article may be overstating things a bit, it's just as clear that some things about evangelicalism really are changing. I know this because a Barna study about evangelical Christianity showed that evangelicals have taken a sudden colossal drop in their reputation since 1996--really the first major change in overall religious attitudes since they started doing their work in the 80s. (If you don't know, George Barna is the evangelical Christian pollster, and his work is pretty reliable, though I take issue with his definition of "evangelical" in a section from my book.) The decline was so steep that one of their researchers, David Kinnaman, has written a book analyzing the data and suggesting what the church can do to improve matters. I bought it tonight, and though I can ill afford to be dropping $18 willy nilly these days, I'm glad I did.
The book is called unChristian (subtitle: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... And Why It Matters), and in it Mr. Kinnaman discusses the top six criticisms leveled against the church by "outsiders" (non-Christians) age 16 to 29. These six criticisms are that Christians are:
1. antihomosexual (91 % said "a lot" or "some)
2. judgmental (87%)
3. too involved with politics (85%)
4. sheltered/ out of touch with reality (72%)
5. too focused on gaining converts, and
(Those last two items are summaries Kinnaman derives from statistics and statements elsewhere; the actual fifth and sixth ranked criticisms respondents could choose from were Old-Fashioned (78%) and Insensitive to Others (70%), with Boring (68%) and Not Accepting of Other Faiths (64%) bringing up the rear, though still with a huge plurality.)
I skimmed/read it on the subway home (advantage of a long commute) and it has encouraged me, yet again, that my nascent book has a place--because although Kinnaman is in many ways the opposite of "emergent church" liberals like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, he's responding to the same problem: the fact that evangelicalism itself has a bad reputation and is starting to lose market share. (I hate to put it that way, but in the face of Kinnaman's own analyis--where he compares the "image" of Christianity to the "images" we have of Ford and Pepsi, worrying about Christianity's comparative loss of appeal to new converts--I could not do otherwise.)
And Kinnaman gets it wrong, the same way all the conservative evangelical reformers tend to get it wrong. In the section titled "Anti-Homosexual," for example, he says that Christians should change the perception "Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians" and replace it with "Christians show compassion and love for all people regardless of their lifestyle." Great idea! And just as Brian McLaren corrects the evangelical emphasis on hell by de-emphasizing it--and on homosexuality by preferring to focus on other things--Kinnaman suggests Christians deemphasize judgment and bring a message of grace. Again: sounds reasonable!
But the impossibility of the enterprise is established when the chapter self-destructs in its first two sentences:
"So David, do you still think I'm going to hell because I'm gay?"
My friend's question caught me off guard.
We know where this is going: 1. description of how much David likes his friend. 2. description of the traditional view of homosexuality (the Bible's agin' it!). 3. call for more compassion, with an example of how he, in this instance, responded with compassion rather than judgment to his friend. 4. ambivalent ending, pointing towards hope for the future...perhaps?
The problem--or at least one problem--is that the actual dynamic of God vs. homosexual still stands. In essence, the proper evangelical Christian answer to his friend's question is "No, my friend. Your sin is no different from my own tendency to be prideful and gluttonous. You're actually going to hell for so much more than just your mere homosexuality!" (Follow-up statement, "And believe me, I'm just as unworthy as you are, except that fortunately I'm going to heaven.") If that's what you're calling compassion, I invite you to reread the dictionary before you wonder why people won't come to your parties.
Kinnaman and other reform-minded evangelicals (including McLaren, though he's much closer to being helpful) will never fix evangelicalism as long as they fail to recognize that they're trying to square the circle: their judgmental, sheltered, anti-homosexuality is an inevitable result of the Biblical premises evangelicals are basically wedded to. You can't just add compassion on top and make people forget Sodom and Gomorrah. Until Kinnaman and others address the deeper issues--trying to improve their reading of the Bible's messages on sex, on hell, on homosexuality, and possibly on salvation in general--they'll be completely unable to change their old messages, no matter how much they want to polish the cover.
To put it another way: You know why outsiders think evangelicals are anti-homosexual? Because they totally are. You know why people think evangelicals are judgmental rather than loving? See the first question.
The good news is, if you look at Barna's other data (it's available on his website), you see some other changes as well: approximately 60% of evangelical Christians 16-29 aren't particularly exercised about living together before marriage. In a further left-leaning move, a similar number (I think it's around 54%) think Jesus' main message was about poverty. (Which, if you do the math--assuming that Jesus's main message was "what he's directly quoted as saying in the Gospels" and not "what Paul said in Jesus' name", turns out to be 100% true! How did we miss that?)
In other words, the younger evangelicals seem to be a little clearer about what aspects of a Bible-centered faith are central to Jesus's message, and which ones are rather more peripheral. (Even when I was an evangelical, it struck me as weird that evangelicals harped on, and loathed, homosexuality way more often than the Bible did.) And they're actually willing to change! That gives me hope. So the message of my book remains true: it's possible to rethink evangelical Christianity without completely unmooring it from the Bible (and, I should add, without turning it into the Unitarian liberal-fest that I personally prefer). But it's going to take a few harsher strokes than Kinnaman or even McLaren are currently willing to strike.