Classes are over, the university has held its annual advent service, and I am headed to Boston for a conference entitled The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.
Our 2007 annual report is now posted. In the report I mention meeting one year ago with a couple that supports Chesterton House, sharing with them the idea for a conference, and together with them making it happen just six months later. Ministry should never be formulaic, but it does have essential ingredients–including vision, patronage, and prayer.
We are reminded at this time of year of our dependence on both your prayer and your patronage. As I think you will see from the report, we do a lot with the resources we have, making for a good “return” on gifts given to Chesterton House. Will you join us and our mission of promoting Christian learning at Cornell by supporting us this month? See three easy ways to give for more information. And, of course, don’t forget to order one or more copies of “Heaven in a Nightclub”!
Many thanks. And during this season of gift-giving, many blessings in anticipation of the greatest of all gifts–the Christ child.
On the cover of William Edgar’s book The Face of Truth, there is an image of a painting by Mako Fujimura. It is abstract, and, I confess, does not make an immediate impression on me. I am busy, and turn past it quickly, anxious to get to the message and substance of the book.
And yet I pause, more out of duty than desire. I know Edgar and Fujimura well enough to know that there is something of substance here. I also know that, despite my appetite for accumulating information, imagination matters.
Chesterton tells the story of a boy in a park annoyed by the wind in his face. “Well,” the boy said to his mother, “why don’t you take away the trees, and then it wouldn’t wind.” The anecdote illustrates the materialist fallacy that what is visible is always and everywhere the real cause behind the invisible. According to the Christian imagination, Chesterton suggests, it is usually the other way around.
Fujimura, I think, would agree. His painting, entitled “Grace Foretold,” was occasioned by a visit to Niagara Falls. In it, gold (a symbol of divinity) cascades down onto silver (a symbol of death). “I have used the image of cascading gold as a metaphor,” Fujimura writes. “It speaks of the City of God descending among the cities of men.” The painting is from a series entitled Images of Grace. “Grace,” he writes, “is like this cascading gold. Like the Niagara Falls, a costly city of God may overwhelm us, and such vision captures us both inescapably and irreversibly.”
Like Fujimura, I too visited Niagara Falls recently with one of my children. To me, it was beautiful–an exhibit of God’s creativity and power. But it did not turn my thoughts to the City of God descending to the cities of men. Which is why I need people like Fujimura, artists to whom God has given the gift of seeing further. Without his help, my vision, like the child in Chesterton’s story, is woefully inadequate.
The truly remarkable thing is this. Not only do waterfalls now remind me of God’s cascading grace (for those of us who live in Ithaca, that alone is priceless!) More than that, I now understand grace a little bit better. What is grace? We can only understand the transcendent or spiritual by way of reference to the immanent or material. Grace, I now know, is like a waterfall. It is attractive yet dangerous, useful yet untamable. And its effect is to smooth and transform what is below–gradually.
Fujimura, an acclaimed Japanese American painter, will be speaking twice on Friday, Nov. 2nd. Please see events for more info.
The following are my reflections offered at the recent memorial service for Christian Anible. Christian was on staff with InterVarsity Graduate/ Faculty ministries, and a founding board member of Chesterton House.
My name is Karl Johnson. I am a campus minister at Cornell and an elder of New Life Presbyterian Church—two positions I shared in common with Christian.
Christian was to me not just a colleague and a friend; he was a kindred spirit. As much or perhaps more than anyone else I know, he was the one person who was regularly reading and listening to the same material that I was. From Eugene Petersen to Wendell Berry, we shared many favorite authors in common. One of the last times I visited Christian, he told me that he was listening to a great lecture he had downloaded from the internet by Henri Blocher. “This is someone new,” I said. “Tell me more.” As it turns out, I had actually just started reading a book by Blocher but didn’t recognize the correct pronunciation of his name. I mention our common interests not only to say that I will miss Christian sorely, though I will—and already do—but because this sharing of common interests and affections is the very gift of friendship. Christian was a gift to me, as I know he was to many of you.
Among the things I most appreciated about Christian is this: the virtues he made most vivid were ordinary virtues—virtues that you and I can reasonably seek to imitate. In contrast to celebrities, who are idolized for exceptional talents that leave most of us feeling like failures because we will never be as rich, or as famous, or as successful, Christian embodied the older notion of a hero—i.e., one who specializes in and makes the most of those faculties that are given equally to all persons in common. And so it is that we remember Christian not only for his talents—his clarity of thought, his skillful musicianship, and his ability to advise—but also for his virtues—his gentleness and generosity, his sincerity and sacrifice, his patience and his peace-making.
At a meeting of Cornell chaplains earlier this week, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains alike remembered Christian for conversing across faith traditions while remaining firmly grounded in his tradition. He would engage, listen, and learn without on the one hand being abrasively confrontational, or on the other hand ignoring meaningful differences among traditions. That is virtue, the stuff of heroes—the sort of thing that everyone one of us can learn from and seek to emulate.
But if there is one thing for which I admired Christian the most, it wasn’t actually anything about him as an individual. What I admired most about him was his marriage. Some time ago we were having lunch, and he confided in me that he was going through a very difficult time personally. And then I asked him point blank: “Christian,” I said, “these things can take a toll on your relationships. How’s your marriage?”
“My marriage,” he said, looking me in the eye, “is great. Adversity has only served to bring Barb and me closer.” Would that we could all say the same. Although I can think of many individuals who are worthy role models, I can think of far fewer marriages that I care to imitate. Christian and Barb’s was such a marriage. Barb: please know that we continue to pray with and for you, as we know you will miss Christian far more than any of us.
If Christian could hear what I have said so far, I fancy I know what he would say. He would say, in characteristic humility, “Enough about me. A memorial service should focus on the hope and promise of the resurrection that is offered to us in the person of Christ.”
“Yes,” I would respond, “but . . . what better way to make concrete that hope and promise than to call attention to a life well lived, a life transformed by the gospel, a life of one whom God himself has already said, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’? What better way to anticipate the eternal pleasures of heaven than to meditate on the proximate pleasures of friendship?” Then, in support of my argument, I would quote CS Lewis, another of our favorite authors, to the effect that friendship is a foretaste of heaven.
“Friendship,” Lewis wrote,
exhibits a glorious nearness by resemblance to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed, which no man can number, increase the fruition which each has of God for every soul in heaven seeing Him in her own way communicates the unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying out Holy, Holy, Holy, to one another.
“Touche,” I imagine Christian responding with a smile, acknowledging my point. Or, perhaps, he would push back on me again, with a clever counterargument—raising points I have not yet considered. I don’t know. And I will not know until we meet again. And that is what I will miss.
In any case, if it is true, as Lewis says, that we need friends in order to know God more fully, then what those of us who had the privilege of knowing Christian share in common is this: we have been immeasurably enriched not only by his friendship, but through his friendship, by having had the opportunity to know God, and even to partake of the very pleasures of paradise.
Ostensibly, your college education is about acquiring knowledge and skills to help you get a job and to live life well. It does that, of course. But as all students know, the college years are defined as much as anything else by the quest for friendships that are deep, satisfying, and enduring.
This “college experience” is a somewhat modern phenomenon. In ages past, most people traveled less, didn’t go to school for so long, and married younger. Friendship needs were met largely through rootedness in family and community. Today, in a world of social and geographic mobility, extended schooling, and later marriage, friendship is a little more complicated. Suddenly landing on a campus with thousands of peers and potential friends one has never before met entails both great disorientation and great opportunity. For all its benefits, there is one weird side effect of the modern college experience: the compartmentalization of learning and living.
Contrary to the image of students staying up until all hours debating politics, religion, and the meaning of life, academic life at the modern university too often becomes a duty, like a 9-to-5 job, after which one unwinds to “get away from it all.” The classroom and the dorm thus become divorced and dichotomous, analogous to work vs. play, duty vs. desire, obligation vs. discretion, perhaps even slavery vs. freedom. This explains, in part, why social life in college often resembles a kind of carnivalesque release or “licensed transgression.” It also explains how learning came to be understood as un-fun.
This is ironic, given that the English word “school” is derived from the Greek word “schole,” which means leisure. That transformation is a long story, but suffice it to say, college life does not generally embody a deeply relational epistemology. Where does that leave you? Will you put learning before living? Living before learning? Or will you strive to find some semblance of balance, or possibly even integration?
This week’s New York Times has an interesting article featuring Cornell on the movement toward living-learning residence halls. It is a good trend.
As an undergraduate at Cornell, I recall visiting friends at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and thinking that their residential college system–based on the English model–was far superior to the cinder block barracks of “U-Hall 3.” We had Telluride House, of course, but that was for nerds. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that the segregation of good students into one house inadvertently reinforces the norm that caring about the world and wanting to talk about it over dinner was abnormal. Cornell has recently torn down six of those WWII-era “halls” and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new “houses.” Faculty live in them and lectures take place in them.
The goal of this movement, as the Times puts it, is “the fusion of academic and residential life.” President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings, for example, was concerned about addressing the schizophrenia of hard work and hard partying. “It had become clear,” adds Vice Provost Isaac Kramnick, “that there was a 4:30 p.m. cutoff at the university, after which many students entered an intellect-free zone.” Putting it all in a broader perspective, the Timesalso quotes Will Willimon and Tom Naylor (The Abandoned Generations: Rethinking Higher Education) to the effect that lax parenting and social permissiveness combined with faculty focus on research and disengagement from student life resulted in a campus culture characterized by “substance abuse, indolence and excessive careerism.” All of this resulted in what the Times aptly calls “the marginalization of undergraduates.”
The Times does not mention that Willimon and Naylor are devout Christian scholars. That is not necessary to mention, of course, but I do think it is good and right for Christians to be thinking seriously about the relationship of living to learning, of friendship to knowledge.
The universal longing for friendship, as testified in virtually all of the world’s art, music, literature, and film, suggests that reality is deeply relational in structure. What are we to make of this? The relational structure of Creation, Scripture suggests, reflects the relational structure of the Creator. God himself is revealed as three persons in perfect community. Given that human persons are created in the image of God, it then comes as no surprise that, according to the opening chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”), the one unfulfilled desire and deep longing that preceded sin was the longing for relationship. The longing for friendship, it turns out, is more fundamental and fundamentally different than the longing for money, power, status, control, or even sex.
Speaking of sex, it is neither a coincidence nor a joke that “to know” (in the biblical sense) refers to intercourse. Intercourse is the deepest way of knowing another, but it is not altogether different from other ways of knowing. In fact, it illustrates what is true of knowledge more generally–namely, that all knowledge (contra DesCartes) is relational and embodied. The analogy may be rough, in both senses of the word, but true discourse, like intercourse, entails hospitality, vulnerability, and the blurring of boundaries. Of course, the boundaries of our person must be managed so that we are neither impermeable nor overly porous. As C.S. Lewis put it in the introduction to Pilgrim’s Regress, we are called to steer a middle course between crustaceans and jellyfish.
When we see that knowledge and friendship go hand in hand, it helps us navigate the seemingly competing claims of living and learning. Believe it or not, academic life and stewardship of the mind can actually be enjoyable, especially in community. And social life can (and should) include “serious” conversation. Expressing care and concern about the world over dinner may be mildly countercultural, but it need not be dismissed as nerdy. Calvin Seerveld referred to this as “tensed leisure,” and there is a compelling depiction of the ideal in an obscure documentary entitled “Arguing the World.” Living-learning houses such as those being built at Cornell are a good step in the direction of rendering tensed leisure normal.
One last thing. Residential initiatives such as those at Cornell may be modeled after the English college system, but there is one big difference. The English college system includes religious residences nestled within the larger pluralistic environment. Whether we should have something like that at Cornell or not is rather beside the point; we don’t, and we are not going to anytime soon. And that is, in part, the ecological niche that Chesterton House is here to fill. How do you unwind on a Friday afternoon without entering an intellectual freeze zone? Where do go to find friends who, like you, want to talk about the things that matter most? Friends with whom you can enjoy a good argument as if it were a good game of chess? We do not (yet) have the resources for a faith-based residence hall such as Westminster House in Berkeley or Pres House in Madison, but we do have some very fine discussion groups that meet to talk about important things in a spirit of tensed leisure.
For those who are interested, I will be elaborating on the theme of spiritual friendship at the first Cornell Christian Fellowship meeting, Friday, August 24th, 7:30pm, in HEC auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall.
According to the New York Times, there is a “new breed” of evangelicals that doesn’t fit the old stereotypes. Whether the old stereotypes had any merit or not, Shane Claiborne is certainly a new breed of sorts.
Claiborne, for those not familiar with him, is the author of The Irresistible Revolution and founder of The Simple Way–an intentional Christian community in urban Philadelphia. For a good introduction, listen to this segment from NPR’s Speaking of Faith entitled The New Monastics.
The Simple Way’s home has just burned down. See the website for more info. Take the opportunity to acquaint yourself with this group, and let them be a reminder of the radical lives we are all called to live, no matter how differently that calling may be enacted.
Just a few years ago, nobody seemed interested in talking about religion. How things change.
In a much-discussed CHE article from a couple of years ago, Stanley Fish wrote the following: “When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.” The article, entitled One University Under God? is well worth reading.
Also worth reading–when you have a bit more time–is the Social Science Research Coucil’s Forum on the Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates. There are many, many fine articles here, including:
Elaine Howard Ecklund, Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists
John Schmalzbauer, Campus Ministry: A Statistical Portrait
Robert Wuthnow, Can Faith Be More Than a Side Show in the Contemporary Academy?
The site also provides an online guide as a kind of summary of the research. (See especially Craig Calhoun’s preface to the guide.) The online guide is full of links to an annotated bibliography and other web resources.
I don’t know what I would have done if I had been an artist living blocks from Ground Zero, but I like to think I might have done what Mako Fujimura has done.
Over the last several years, Fujimura has communicated in images and words that 9/11 was not only an extraordinary event, but also an ordinary event, in this sense: the whole world is a Ground Zero of sorts. The world is broken, full of suffering that ought never be denied. That is not to say Fujimura’s work is cynical. He rather steers a middle course between despair and sentimentality, capturing the complexity of a world that is simultaneously broken and beautiful. Not only that, but he also suggests hope for re-creating the world as it ought to be. Such nuance is a mark of good art–and of good religion.
Last month, Chesterton House provided scholarships to Cornell students attending “Redemptive Culture: Creating the World that Ought to Be,”the 2007 International Arts Movement (IAM) conference in New York City. The conference was outstanding. Speakers included IAM founder Fujimura, Les Miserables producer Karen Goodwin, Ground Zero master plan architect Daniel Libeskind, and two theologian-musicologists–Dr. Jeremy Begbie and Dr. William Edgar.
Begbie’s keynote addresses also dealt with the theme of re-humanizing a broken world. The tension is that while we long for something radically new, we are bound to time and space. The “relentless cult of novelty” (Solzhenitsyn) among the avant-garde is a longing to be re-born, and yet we cannot escape tradition. Every effort to transcend tradition fails, and results in a new tradition. The concept of artists creating ex nihilo is thus mistaken. What creative artists really do is re-create; they add something new to something old and thereby re-make or re-envision it. Indeed, in art, music, literature, and film, there is always the presence of antecedent texts, styles, and methods.
Speaking from the book of Isaiah, Begbie asked whether God himself might renew this world by a similar pattern–by introducing “a newness from beyond” that arrives in the world in recognizable form. “Quite so,” he concluded his first lecture.
There is nothing so new, Begbie continued the next evening, as the new heavens and the new earth promised in Scripture. And yet even the new heavens and the new earth are not radically new, but a renewal of what already is. What does that mean for us? It means that we are “agents of the new world” who still live in the old world. Playing bi-tonal chords from various pieces of music, Begbie illustrated his point that we live in the overlap–“between the times.” The new world has invaded the old.
Good art thus not only weaves joy together with woe, but hints at hope for the transformation of mourning into dancing (Ps. 31). In his keynote address entitled “Being a Child of the Creative Age,” Fujimura encouraged members of the audience to think of themselves as wedding planners. “We need to begin to live like a bride expecting a great, cosmic wedding.” Our work is to be anticipatory, even preparatory, of the new heavens and new earth.
Edgar, also a presenter at the IAM conference, speaks and writes on this theme of beauty amidst brokenness with respect to African-American music–spirituals, ragtime, blues, and jazz. The blues, he writes, echoing Fujimura, are funerary but not hopeless. In fact, they are preparatory. “The realism of the blues does not stand opposed to hopefulness, but to sentimentality. So often the music of white people responds to troubled times with escapism. The blues is stark and realistic, but not hopeless. The blues tells us how to live on earth in order to prepare for heaven. Living down here makes no sense unless there is a heaven to give it meaning.”
For those who love the arts, for those drawn and intrigued by this theme of finding grace amidst the ground zeroes of our lives, and for those who are sorry to have missed this wonderful conference, we have some very good news. For those in Ithaca, Chesterton House will be hosting Fujimura next semester. For those in the Metro New York area, we will be hosting a very special evening of jazz music and history with Edgar in May.
On May 5th, at the Ethical Culture Society in midtown Manhattan, Dr. William Edgar will provide his highly regarded routine entitled“Heaven in a Nightclub”–a narrative of misery and hope in the history of African-American music. We are also pleased to announce that Dr. Edgar will be joined by a stellar cast of guests, including recording artist Ruth Naomi Floyd on vocals, Ithaca area virtuoso Joe Salzano on saxophone, and Grammy Award winning composer and musician John Patitucci on bass. Master of Ceremonies for the evening will be Christianity Today columnist and Christian Vision Project Director Andy Crouch.
The event is a benefit concert, and all proceeds will go to support the operations of the Chesterton House ministry. More information can be found atTicketWeb.
One last thing . . . A favor to ask . . . Would you help us spread the word?? Do you know somebody in or near New York City who might be interested in this event? Somebody who knows somebody in or near New York City? Please take a moment and call their attention to this event. Mention it on your blog. Put it in your church bulletin. The theatre seats 800, and our goal is to fill it without spending, well, without spending money that we don’t have on advertising. This is a very simple way you can help the Chesterton House ministry. Thank you!
Looking back on the year in articles, a few themes emerge. First, evangelicals received a lot of press with respect to politics in general and the environment in particular. Second, atheism went on the offensive. Third, the conversation regarding the relationship between “Christ and Culture” continues.
Evangelicals, Politics, & the Environment
Much of the press on evangelicals and politics is (mis)informed by problematic assumptions and poor data. A refreshing exception this past year was Walter Russell Mead’s article God’s Country? Evangelicals and Foreign Policy published in Foreign Affairs. There are and will be quibbles over the article, but it is generally a smart and well-informed piece that avoids the common errors. The Pew Forum recognized the article by holding an event with Mead and respondents (read transcript). The Institute for Global Engagement also recognized the article by devoting an entire issue of the Review of Faith and International Affairs to responses to Mead’s article. (Those articles are not available on-line, but the Review may be found at your local Christian Study Center.)
Regarding Christians and the environment . . . the latest development is a collaboration between leading scientists and evangelicals, which can be found at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. There you will find a variety of resources in the form of pdf documents, including a concise (one page) “call to action” signed by folks like Cal DeWitt and E.O. Wilson, and a longer (20 page) transcript of the meeting. Students may also be interested to learn about the Evangelical Youth Climate Initiative. See, for example, the video Inconvenient Christians.
Meanwhile, across the pond, 100 persons from 20 European nations met in the European Parliament for the second congress of the European Christian Political Movement–a network of Christian organizations across Europe, including political parties, social service organizations, and think tanks. See also an excerpt from Jim Skillen’s remarks at the meeting.
Inspired in part by the perceived specter of theocracy, atheists published books more strident and “evangelistic” in tone. Given our interest in the “permanent things” that transcend the controversy du jour, we have largely avoided this topic. Alas, the “new atheism” emerges as one of the biggest “religion news” articles of the year. The conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival drew best-selling authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and received a lot of press (see, e.g., the NYT’s A Free-for-All on Science and Religion).
Harris and Dawkins have generally taken such a beating even in the secular press that we feel no need to weigh in at length. See, for example . . .
- H. Allen Orr, A Mission to Convert, New York Review of Books
- Sam Schulman, Without God, Gall is Permitted, Wall Street Journal
- Terry Eagleton, Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, London Review of Books
- Gary Wolf, The Church of the Non-Believers, Wired Magazine
Christians have had a field day critiquing and reacting to all of this. Some of the Christian reviews have been quite thoughtful–e.g., Marilynne Robinson’s piece in Harper’s Magazine, Hysterical Scientism. Unfortunately, many other reactions have been, well, reactionary. The problem is that when Christians enter into the culture war’s game of tit-for-tat, they lose sight of one very important point: Dawkins and Harris are not typical atheists. Many–perhaps most–of my friends are atheists (or agnostics). They are all (ok, almost all) quite ordinary persons. Just as Christians rightly complain when secularists take Jerry Falwell to be typical of religious believers, so too would it be wrong to take angry, strident atheists like Dawkins to be typical atheists. So, lighten up, and invite an atheist classmate or colleague to lunch. Ask them what they care about most, and they’ll probably talk about everyday things–their future or their family–i.e., the same things people talk about after church. Dawkins and Harris are selling enough books that they can’t be ignored, but don’t take them too seriously. (POSTSCRIPT: Alan Jacobs makes a similar point in his column The Know-Nothing Party: How should Christians respond to ill-informed attacks?)
For the record, there is nothing wrong with criticizing religion. Or, more accurately, nothing wrong with criticizing religions (generalizations about “religion” are almost impossible.) Christians ought to be the hardest critics of Christianity and ought to readily acknowledge all accurate criticisms of the tradition. That said, has anyone noticed that those who accuse religion in general and Christianity in particular as being the source of violence in history have no disciplinary training in history? Historians specialize in complexifying or “problematizing” our understanding of history, moving away from simplistic understandings to more nuanced understandings of the past. Hence the recent emphasis among social historians on race, class, and gender–i.e., including those who were left out of earlier accounts of history. The “New Atheists” (and, as many have pointed out, there’s really nothing particularly new here) provide historic narratives that are simplistic to the point of reductivist. Perhaps history should be left to the historians after all.
One of saner voices on the topic of science and religion that got some airtime this year was that of Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God. Collins was featured in a cover article in Time Magazine, Reconciling God and Science. Collins and Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich were also interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday.
Christ and Culture
G.K. Chesterton said he appreciated the invitation to speak at a conference on education since the topic was so broad that he could really speak on anything at all. The same might be said of “culture.” And so we mention two other notable and much-discussed articles that don’t fit anywhere else:Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, and Matthew B. Crawford’s essay in the New Atlantis, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”
More importantly, one of the brightest parts of the year in articles was the Christian Vision Project. It is hard to select favorites, but suffice it to say that with contributions from the likes of Tim Keller, Miroslav Volf, and Lauren Winner, among many others, there is plenty of good reading here.
A century from now, I suspect that religious historians will look back on this moment in time and focus not on the debate over science and religion, nor on evangelicals and politics, but on a story that gets very little mainstream press: the rapid spread of Christianity in the “global south”–Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This is the focus of the Christian Vision Project articles in 2007. There is no telling when the mainstream media may “get religion.”
If you enjoyed these articles, watch for more like them on the Articles and Reviews section of this site. With the help of students, 2006 was the first year we posted articles. We hope you enjoyed them. Please feel free to let us know if you have any comments or feedback on this section of the website.
Among the issues that divide Christians, one is the importance of evangelism relative to cultural activity. In an interview in the current issue of Christianity Today, N.T. Wright, the prolific New Testament theologian and Bishop of Durham, puts it this way:
For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery. (See Mere Mission: How to Present the Gospel in a Postmodern World.)
This is another example of the “Christ and Culture” debate, described at length 50 years ago by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book by that name. Although some scholars, such as Craig Carter, author of the hot-off-the-press Rethinking Christ and Culture (Brazos, 2007), think Niebuhr’s framework has outlived its usefulness, the issues remain current.
In a fine article entitled “The Prophet and the Evangelist,” Andrew S. Finstuen traces this tension between evangelism and cultural activity to the two religious leaders who each appeared on the cover of Time magazine mid-century: Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr. To overstate matters only slightly, what it means today to be a “conservative” or a “liberal” Christian depends on which of the two one identifies with.
The divide runs deep. Conservative Christians see liberals as secularists in Christian clothing, while liberal Christians see conservatives as other-worldly pietists. And let’s face it–there’s enough truth to these to sustain the stereotypes.
Is there any middle ground? Is it possible to care about both souls and society?
Thankfully, many leading Christian thinkers reject the dichotomy altogether. One example is Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw. Emphasizing the need for changing both hearts and society, he writes, “Jesus came to rescue a creation that was pervasively infected by the curse of sin—an infection not limited to the psychic territory populated by ‘human hearts.’ ‘Changed hearts’ will not ‘change society’ if the efforts at change are not also directed toward the structures and patterns of human interaction.” He draws this argument out at length in his book When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem.
There are many other such examples of Christian scholars who are similarly in this respect neither liberal nor conservative but happily “beyond category.” N.T. Wright concludes his interview with this:
The longer that I’ve gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it’s been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, and how we’ve managed for years to say the Lord’s Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, “Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.” And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That’s ek tou kosmoutoutou. It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.
The key to mission is always worship. You can only be reflecting the love of God into the world if you are worshiping the true God who creates the world out of overflowing self-giving love. The more you look at that God and celebrate that love, the more you have to be reflecting that overflowing self-giving love into the world.