Is the New Christian Left Distorting the Gospel?
THE "NEW CHRISTIAN LEFT"?
The week of March 13th, I saw an article pop up a few times on my social media feeds: “Here’s How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel,” by Chelsen Vicari, which appears to be an excerpt from her new book, Distortion. I was intrigued: who exactly would she name as the members of the “New Christian Left,” and how specifically were they twisting the Gospel? While I think that excellent conversations could and should be had over what, exactly, has changed among the latest crop of liberal-minded young Christians, this article failed to provide such a conversation, its two biggest problems being that she never actually identifies any members of the New Christian Left, and her assessment of “twisting the Gospel” is both familiar and vague.
Here is her case: much of the Young Church has capitulated to Culture (Vicari herself is 28 years old). This segment of young Christians has picked and chosen which verses it will follow and has ignored others, and this choice has been solely based on how “good it feels” to believe or follow each verse or passage. The result has been, and will continue to be, diminished church attendance. Many of her points are the type that most readers of her article already agree with and therefore require no additional proof, and she plays all the hits: the decline of Mainline Protestant membership as a direct result of “selling out the Gospel,” the trading of doctrine-heavy hymns for “Jesus is my Boyfriend” worship songs, vague accusations against faith leaders who “encourage young evangelicals to trade in their convictions for a gospel filled with compromise,” assertions that Millennials "only attend churches that leave us feeling good about our lifestyle choices, even if those choices conflict with God's clear commandments,” and, lest politics be left out, the existence of a "distorted social justice rhetoric that confuses caring for the poor with advancing socialist or big government systems and demonizing the United States for its free-market system."
There is really only one message here: you should be afraid. You used to be able to “rest carefree in your evangelical identity,” but no longer. "The culture wars, the growth of family, the success of missions, the prosperity of our great nation—the future rests on millennial evangelicals' worldview.” (Record scratch) Wait a minute, “the prosperity of our great nation?”
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO "RENDER UNTO CAESAR"?
I once attended a Sunday morning service on 4th of July weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a large, conservative Evangelical church. During worship, the stage was lit by red and blue flood lights, with white stars spinning around the sanctuary. We sang, “God Bless America” during worship. The sermon was mostly about all the things that President Obama was doing to ruin our country. I don’t recall hearing any words of Christ. In fact, there was no “Gospel" in that sermon for anyone to “twist.” Mrs. Vicari accuses the Christian Left of flocking to soft theology that allows us to feel good. But doesn’t it “feel good” to believe that the God of the Universe sees America as a favored nation among peoples? (And where is that in the Bible, again?)
Plenty more could be said on this topic, but to keep it short: free market capitalism, a system that I happen to support quite strongly, is nowhere in the Bible. Looking for a Biblical prohibition against impeding a global power on its continued path toward financial success? You won't find it.
IS FEELING GOOD GOOD ENOUGH?
Now to the charge of “picking and choosing” verses based on what “feels good.” The fact of that matter is, we are all working with the same text: the Bible. Every sect of Christianity leans more heavily on certain passages; some interpret Jesus in light of Paul, others interpret Paul in light of Jesus. Some make sure to read the Sermon on the Mount regularly, others read it rarely and spend the majority of their time in Paul’s letters. Some Christians think that Paul’s words about women’s head coverings are still in effect today--most do not. Some think Paul’s claims about homosexual sex no longer apply today (much like head coverings)--most believe they still do apply. What we have is a difference of biblical hermeneutic, which is a fancy word that basically means, “How one should read the Bible."
How you read the Bible will certainly have an effect on your understanding not only of God, but also on what precisely Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection, what place if any America has in God’s plan for the world, whether or not material abundance is a sign of God’s blessing, whether or not God might approve of monogamous homosexual unions, whether women should be ordained as ministers, and more. But none of us lacks a hermeneutic; we all have one. The intended audience of Mrs. Vicari’s piece—conservative and charismatic Evangelicals, mostly of the Baby Boomer generation—have their own hermeneutic, just like I have mine. It is simply untrue that I am "picking and choosing," while they are not.
ALREADY LOST THE CULTURE WAR?
Perhaps the most subtle—and therefore pernicious—of Mrs. Vicari’s assumptions is that these New Young Christians make every decision based on how well they will be accepted by the wider culture, to which they have obviously and completely capitulated. But examples abound of churches making “liberal” decisions that have cost them dearly. Greg Boyd's Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul lost nearly a quarter of their congregation when he took a pacifist stance toward the War on Terror. In flamboyantly liberal Seattle, multi-site Eastlake Church’s open and affirming stance toward LGBT people cost them over half their congregation, many of their paid staff, and all of their satellite campuses.
YES, THERE IS A PROBLEM
I should say, however, that I don’t disagree with Mrs. Vicari on everything. She writes that, "Out of fear of being falsely dubbed ‘intolerant' or ‘uncompassionate,' many young Christians are buying into theological falsehoods.” I agree that many young Evangelicals are indeed afraid of being seen as bigoted by their politically liberal peers. And surely, some of them accept uncritically, at least for some period of time, new theological positions that allow them to save face with those peers. I have been guilty of this myself and have even started a podcast dedicated to teasing out these pressures. But this is just standard-issue social psychology, is it not? Do any of us think that every Baby Boomer in the audience that morning in Albuquerque had gone through a personal Bible study to confirm that, indeed, America was a Great Christian Nation? Of course not. Peer pressure works on all of us. With that in mind, and in a spirit of Christian humility, might it be better to ask actual questions about why those millennials feel uncomfortable with particular theological positions, rather than lambast them as cowards?
We live in a time of increased paranoia and anxiety—that much is clear from any cursory glance through your Facebook timeline. There is a lot of fear in America today, and a lot of worry that things are moving in the wrong direction. Jesus, however, calls us away from a spirit of anxiety and toward an abiding rest in God’s goodness and love for us (Matthew 6:25-34). Yet, these questions remain; they are serious, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
HOW CAN WE ENGAGE THESE QUESTIONS?
Maybe you are an older or a more conservative Christian who is worried about theological changes in your children’s lives, or the lives of other young people, or you are a young conservative Christian who is worried that your friends are leaving Jesus behind for something more socially acceptable. These are legitimate worries, but the solution is not to peddle fear, or to allow yourself to get riled up inside your own echo chamber. Rather, consider engaging in conversation with those loved ones, and start by asking them questions: "What about your particular Christian upbringing is causing you trouble? What about this newer theological understanding addresses that problem?"
If the concerns are related to specific theological or social positions, try asking pointed but compassionate questions: "What is it about the traditional explanations of homosexuality-as-sin that don’t resonate with you? Are you worried by the increased identification of conservative Christianity with the Republican Party? In what kinds of conflicts have you found yourself when taking biology or earth sciences classes?"
Younger or more liberal Christians might also wonder how to connect with an older or more conservative set of Christians. You might start the conversation with questions of your own: "Why does it worry you that I hold [some particular belief or position]? What is lost in this change? What beliefs are central to the Gospel, and which are we free to disagree on? Does someone who supports same-sex marriage forfeit their salvation? How would you describe your own view of how the Bible ought to be read? Might other views also be permissible?"
It is undeniable that these cultural walls are difficult to climb. But starting with questions, rather than hurling arguments or accusations, will always increase our chances of finding common ground.
Mrs. Vicari ends her article with this call to action: "It is imperative that those in a position to influence millennials have transparent and honest discussions about the culture wars in which evangelical youth are already engaging. Otherwise they will be silent and accepting in the face of persecution and false doctrine.” Although I am obviously less clear on which exactly is the “false doctrine,” I could not agree more about the need for transparent and honest discussions. Humble and genuine questions are the best place to start. May we exhibit the Peace of Christ toward each other as we wade through these difficult and muddy waters.
Dan Koch is the host of the social and political podcast Depolarize!, as well as co-host of the theology podcast Reconstruct. He lives with his wife in Seattle, WA.