bible_cross_candle.jpgFor those readers who have been looking forward to the second part of my original “Failing Religion” post back in … what, March, was it?… I apologize for the delay. But I’m ready now.

It is a little tough to find a good entree to the topic here, so perhaps a story is the way to go. Beloved Wife spent her morning listening to the teens in our church announce their intent to seek confirmation as members in our church, for which each prospective confirmand would read their own personal statement of faith and the church Board would vote to confirm the statement and the “stater” as a member of the community.

Sounded good, if a little routine and rather “going through the motions”-ish. While this was happening in the hall, I was leading a small gathering of folks in our continued study of the Epistle of Jude. Eventually we caught up with each other after church, and Beloved Wife, member of our voting Board of Elders, was clearly distraught, having been absolutely shocked and appalled by what she was hearing from our teen-aged Seekers and which was being approved as Christian statements of faith and worthy of membership into our Christian community of faith. I’m actually being told that “appalled” is not even the right word, even though it’s true; she feels more “betrayed.” Suffice it to say that if she did not know where she was, she would not have been able to discern the difference between our Christian church, our community of faith in Jesus of Nazareth, and any typical Unitarian-Universalist congregation, based on what was acceptable as “Christian” statements of faith.

And so where our religious education has failed Americans in general in their responsibilities as members of both local and global socio-political-cultural communities, it is failing our young people today even in our own communities of faith. I can only speak, of course, from my own experience, but I can safely say that my Muslim and Jewish friends in this country admit of the same problem in their own faith communities. In a word, the problem is that our churches today have simply not learned an appropriate, Christian response to the very fact that we live in a pluralistic world and have largely been unable to steer a course between a theological wishy-washiness that doesn’t even resemble anything remotely Christian or hyper-biblicistic stance that is unable to see the good in that which is not “us.” In other words, the failure of Christian faith communities in both the mainline and evangelical worlds is resulting in the inability of these communities to define who they are in a way that is “Christian” in any meaningful way.

What is interesting is that the mainline and evangelical Protestant wings of American Christianity seem aware of this, at least to an extent. In very broad, admittedly unfair, general terms, mainline Christians have historically excelled at recognizing the social and political importance of the Gospel of Jesus and the good news of the Hebrew Prophets, but overtime these aspects have overshadowed the importance of actually teaching the Text itself, which is now only incidental in the mission to work towards a just world. To be sure, I believe that this is absolutely a crucial component of the Gospel of Christ, and any Gospel that fails to preach and live out this most evident and tangible call of the Prophets and of Christ is half a gospel at best. But it is increasingly evident that this aspect of creating a just world is assumed, not taught, and accordingly the young people in today’s social-justice-aware mainline churches have no idea what the Bible’s actual teachings are on justice, poverty, stewardship, ethical community politics and economics, and so forth. The result is that the majority of these young people who stay in a faith community see little or no difference between Christianity and other religions and faith traditions who may be undertaking the same thing, and feel themselves to be free to hold any beliefs they want so long as their community supports them as Christian members.

The mainstream evangelical world, on the other hand, has historically been strong in its Christian and biblical education and in perpetuating its community identity through identification with its interpretation and knowledge of the Bible. Evangelicalism’s emphasis on the biblical basis of salvation theology through the Messiahship of Jesus is perhaps unparalleled except for Fundamentalist churches. The emphasis on Jesus’ Messiahship is, after all, the defining difference between Christians and those of other faith traditions and communities, and evangelicalism’s emphasis has preserved that identity perhaps more than any other “flavor” of American Christianity. On the other hand, my long experience with evangelical communities is that where they are strong in basic bible knowledge and in promoting Jesus as the Messiah, the tendency has been for the last 3 or 4 decades to emphasize this aspect at the nearly complete expense of the socio-political dynamic that is so strong in the mainline churches, along with an over emphasis on the God-given authority of the State and the nearly complete absence of emphasis on the prophetic critique of power in the prophets and in Jesus’ life. (Which leads, by the way, to a complete misapprehension of the book of Revelation, but that’s a topic for another day.) The implications of these shortcomings are enormous, and they are disturbing, and fortunately more and more people (mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, from what I can tell, although obviously there are exceptions) are being convicted by evangelicalism’s complicity in the apocalyptic state of affairs that we currently find the world in.

I know that these are generalizations, and that there is a huge group of silent witnesses, as it were, between these two typical representations. But the bottom line is that mainline Protestantism and mainstream evangelicalism are both at a crossroads. The former are in jeopardy of losing their rich heritage and identity as socially-conscious Christians, and the latter are in danger of losing the once-honorable badge of “evangelical” as more and more younger evangelicals are shifting their attention to the traditional emphases of liberal protestant churches. The mainliners are terrified that if they “go biblical” in their social program they will be identified as “fundamentalists” and believe they will have no choice but to join with “the powers,” as they believe evangelicals have done. On the other side, evangelicals cannot see how to become more socially prophetic and critical of “the powers” without either becoming “godless liberal relativists” and cultural pluralists or feel like they are abandoning “the clear teachings of the Bible” on a proper Christian relationship to the State.

Once again, I think it comes down to religious, and in this case specifically Christian, education. Neither “side” demonstrates an ability to provide a more authentically prophetic Biblical and Christian interpretation of either Bible or World. Churches such as the one I belong to need to reassert their Christian identity through deeper wrestling with the Word, and churches such as those who emphasize the Word made Flesh need to reaffirm their presence in the World that “judges not, lest ye be judged.” We are beginning to see some glimpses of both beginning to do just this, which is tremendous. Still, we have a long way to go, and a lot of work to be done. I feel that the first task to accomplish is to simply talk to each other, and not in the way Democratic and Republican politicians do, and certainly not in the way liberal and conservative Christians have done. Let’s actually sit and read the text together and learn how an authentically Christian prophetic ministry can speak to power, affirm justice, and serve as stewards in this world in a way that is recognizably Christian, even while we recognize our indebtedness to those who do not share our specific faith.