I recently had a conversation with a friend here at SFTS that I was expecting for a while. My friend is an evangelical – I use a lower-case “e” because he isn’t necessarily associated with everything the big-E term entails. That’s his background, though, and to a degree where his expectations about what it means to be Christian were formed.
We had a really great conversation which was partly composed of me trying to explain the peculiarness of Presbyterianism. His basic question was “what are the students doing here? Why are they in Seminary?” See, we don’t always come off as at all passionate about what we do. Our worship services can get very dirge-like at times. Having spoken to my friend a bit about his background, I could sort of see this on the horizon.
This problem keeps coming up, over and over again, and it looks like it will be definitive for the future of the Church as a whole. Let us deal with stereotypes for a moment, just to put the problem in stark terms:
Evangelical: politically conservative, Biblically literalist and suspicious of “higher” criticism, passionate, conversion-experience focused, personal piety, missionary zeal, unconcerned with or suspicious of social gospel and social justice movements
Liberal: politically moderate to liberal, Biblically illiterate with lip-service to “higher” criticism, reserved, verbose, conversion seen as socialization, focus on social issues and social justice, reluctant to evangelize or deal with the Gospel outside of Jesus’ ethics
In short – both represent a sort of half-Christianity, and neither one frankly cuts it. Not for me anyway, and not for a lot of people I talk to about things like this. In my vivid but clumsy metaphor, one side focuses on feeding the furnace of the train without consideration for where it is going, and the other side focuses on fiddling with little dials and levers and never looks back to see if the boiler is hot.
Neither one looks very much like Jesus, and that’s a problem. John Shelby Spong doesn’t look anything like Jesus, and Jerry Falwell doesn’t look anything like him either. So what do we do? That’s on huge question that I’m here self-consciously trying to answer, if possible. In Ohio I’m a rabid radical liberal, and in California I’m a lackluster conservative, and in neither case do I really care about the labels. Is it that someone else is defining our question for us? Is it that we don’t have the courage or the voice to define it ourselves? What’s the answer when everyone says they’re doing what Jesus would do and almost none of them seem to be anywhere near correct?