This essay was originally posted in November 2014. From a personal point of view it was the culmination of a long and important journey, and yet once it was published I felt unexpectedly free to move on. The idea that I would call myself an evangelical now seems something consigned to a distant past. For a long time, however, it was a world in which I insisted on keeping a stake. In retrospect this essay is a farewell. It is also, I believe, the most widely-read piece of writing I have produced to date.
Evangelicalism has hit a crossroads. It’s been coming for a while, but when the Evangelical Alliance ‘discontinued’ the membership of Oasis over its stance on sexuality it provoked not just an internet furore but wide-ranging and genuine soul-searching on the part of a large number of Evangelicals, unsure whether the movement is still for them.
I have struggled for many years with whether to call myself an evangelical. In many ways it doesn’t feel that important – what is a label after all? My journey is from clearly evangelical roots; I grew up in a conservative Baptist church and during my teenage years spent Easter at Spring Harvest and summer on Urban Saints holidays or at Soul Survivor. But while at London Bible College I used the resources of my evangelical upbringing to discover a new expression of faith. For me it was a faithful journey, but to others it was me abandoning important evangelical ideas. Over the following decade I’ve found increasing numbers of people who have taken a similar journey – in fact the numbers have increased exponentially as the years have gone by.
There is a community of people and organisations in Britain who come from somewhere broadly ‘evangelical’. We share a common theological and ecclesiological heritage, we are fluent in a certain version of Christian language and we share similar church histories, especially in the detailed journeys of the last 30 years. We may have taken quite different paths, but we come from the same place.
In this sense Evangelicalism is a family, albeit one in which the parents now sleep in separate rooms. For me this is personal. I have many friendships once forged by faith and now divided by common language, sometimes staring uncomprehending at each other across the divide. My quest to articulate a future for Evangelicalism is not an abstract adventure; it is about finding a way to still share a table.
This article is adapted from of a paper I submitted to the EA Council in Nov 2013 – at their request – on the future of the movement. It seeks to articulate a new kind of Evangelicalism, one that is historically faithful but can also embrace the new and rapidly changing world in which we live and breathe.
A new paradigm
Evangelical faith developed within a paradigm of authority. In other words, authority is the lens through which evangelicals have seen the big questions of life and faith. This wouldn’t have been a particularly interesting observation at the dawn of evangelicalism; everyone lived and breathed a paradigm of authority. During the Reformation the question was not whether authority, but whose. Our contemporary culture has moved on, however. The moment in history generally characterized as ‘postmodern’ is defined by a suspicion of authority as a tool of power. And the paradigm of authority is under threat.
We should be clear: that doesn’t mean we can always articulate our suspicion of authority; it doesn’t mean that we do not perpetrate similar certainty ourselves or fail to recognise it in the wider unquestioned elements of our culture. But there is a residual scepticism of final authority now entrenched in postmodern culture, and with good reason. The evidence is everywhere that politicians, bankers, religious leaders and media moguls abuse their power and use it for personal profit. While the rich get richer, the poor get poorer; authority means power and power corrupts.
Many of us have undergone a ‘paradigm shift’ in relation to authority. We don’t want anarchy or the rampant autonomy of the individual; shifting from a paradigm of authority does not mean rejecting authority altogether. What it does mean is that authority is no longer the primary lens through which we see questions of faith. This can be hard to understand. Many evangelicals see God’s relationship with humankind fundamentally in terms of God’s authority and human rebellion. When you live within a paradigm of authority it is hard to see authority as anything other than absolute. But I believe there is a way to find an authentic story of faith through a different paradigm, one which finds itself authentically within the trajectory of evangelicalism and the biblical story. To do this requires a new paradigm: a paradigm of participation.
Losing position to recapture movement
At the conclusion of his excellent theological and sociological study (Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966 – 2001), Rob Warner correctly predicted the widening gulf between differing versions of evangelicalism during this last decade and the increase in trenchant posturing as communities experience their faith under threat. Yet as Warner points out, when faith becomes about defending a position it loses its transformational power; it is by definition static and you cannot participate in something inert. If we are to offer a story of faith that is compelling it will require the openness and life of movement.
This requires a liberal instinct which has not generally been at home in evangelicalism. We must redeem ‘liberal’ from the prison of Liberalism (with a capital ‘L’); a worn-out movement cannot be allowed to lay sole claim to an approach to life and faith with its roots in liberty and generosity! Likewise we require a certain conservative instinct, but not in maintaining Conservative (with a capital ‘C’) theological positions. We have the opportunity to form a theological movement which carefully conserves the defining hallmarks of evangelicalism but approaches them with a liberal openness to new insight. Indeed, as I shall argue below, we can best articulate faith within a paradigm of participation by seeking to recover and conserve four important things we have lost.
For a lens with which to both look back and look forward I shall use David Bebbington’s well-established ‘quadrilateral’: the four hallmarks of Evangelicalism articulated in his authoritative account of the movement in Britain from the 1730s to the 1980s. These are: Bible, Cross, Conversion and Activism.
I hope to articulate a new kind of evangelicalism – one that approaches faith through a paradigm of participation and remains faithful to these four defining hallmarks. It involves reaching back into Christian tradition to recover four key ideas, and looking forward to an alternative way of articulating and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.
1. We recover the Scriptures as lived story to explore
I imagine being curled up on a sofa on a freezing winter’s day. I’ve got The Magician’s Nephew (by C.S.Lewis) in my hand and outside the icy snow is swirling. As I look up, Jack Frost breathes hard on my window panes and forms white snowflakes on the glass. I turn back to my book and Aslan breathes his deep, long roar from which the whole of Narnia comes into life. I ask myself which of these two types of breath is most like the breath of God in the Bible. Is it the breath of Jack Frost that forms fixed patterns of intricate design? Or is it the breath of Aslan that births dynamic unpredictability?
For me there is no question that the answer is Aslan. The breath of God in the first chapters of Genesis is literally the Hebrew ruach – the rushing wind. It is dynamic and alive – and, as Genesis ch 3 shows, does not control.
So why when we read 2 Tim 3:16 – that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ – do we think God is like Jack Frost?
Under a paradigm of authority evangelicals have approached the Scriptures as a fixed pattern to understand and apply. From within a paradigm of participation, however, evangelicals are increasingly approaching the Scriptures as an open story to explore.
The problem with the paradigm of authority is that any text requires a reader for it to be interpreted and applied so the authority of the text is always mediated. In other words, we can ‘sit under Scripture’, but only because we are holding it over our heads – it is still in our hands! A paradigm of participation doesn’t mean the Scriptures cannot carry authority, but it does mean that authority is not absolute or beyond question.
A paradigm of participation means we find ways to experience the Scriptures, not just read them; we live the story, not just apply it; and we engage in raw, honest, deep community wrestling, not just submit in individual obedience.
As we reimagine our relationship to the Scriptures through a paradigm of participation, we find ourselves within its pages and open up the possibilities for meaning – to hear the words of God in different, unexpected ways. Our story becomes part of this dynamic and unpredictable God-story, and we discover the ending is yet to be written – one we write with our lives.
This is not a new idea; it is the way of the ancient Rabbis. The practice of midrash liberates the text by opening it to discussion, debate and creative reapplication. Indeed this is the model of Scriptural reading used by Jesus throughout the gospels. It is a superbly ignored fact that Jesus would fail every exegesis exam in every evangelical Bible college! He quotes and misquotes wildly. But when he does, his words slice open seams of reality in front of him, like a two-edged sword that pierces bone and marrow.
We are the custodians of a world-changing story. But to release its power we have to allow people to participate in it as an open story, one which offers the creative possibility of splicing and remixing, of wrestling our reality into the text, and so finding our own story within it.
2. We recover the cross as radical critique of power
Under a paradigm of authority evangelicals have understood the cross as fundamentally about the reconciliation of sinful individuals to a holy God (through a particular reading of judicial biblical metaphors). The starting premise is that humans have ‘sinned and fallen short’, in other words we have trespassed against a fundamental and universal authority – God’s.
It’s hard to talk about evangelicals and the cross without being drawn into the debate about penal substitution provoked by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s The Lost Message of Jesus. This is a problem because a paradigm of participation doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning certain understandings of the atonement (though for some that has been an honest conclusion).
The problem that Chalke and Mann articulated relates to the idea that on the cross God is both perpetrator and victim, executioner and executed. When using the language of ‘Father’ for authority and ‘Son’ for sacrifice the relationship appears abusive, something that thankfully provokes much deeper concerns in our more abuse-aware culture. It’s a question of how we respond to divine violence. Evangelicals who live under a paradigm of authority often appear insensitive to the problem, and not just with the cross. Each ‘apology’ for divine violence in the Bible increasingly sounds a lot like intellectual gymnastics in a desperate attempt to defend a violent God.
A paradigm of participation starts with the theology that on the cross the fullness of God suffers – as God participates in the suffering. Crucially, in relation to the recent atonement debate, this does not necessarily invalidate all penal substitutionary metaphors; C.S. Lewis famously described the judge who administers the verdict, then steps into the dock to endure it. The point is that God is one, and Jesus’ death and resurrection is the story of God’s subjugation to the powerful of the world.
From within a paradigm of participation, evangelicals are taking a different approach and using the cross to participate in the powerlessness of God. There are many biblical precedents for this, but as one example, let’s come to the cross via an alternative route and start with a moment of intense violence: the Exodus, an event of deep moral contradiction as Yahweh liberates his people at the cost of every firstborn Egyptian son. Like a 3D camera needs two lenses, we need two different lenses on this story if we are to get beyond a surface-level reading and start seeing the contours of the story in 3D.
The first lens is the untold story, literally the story that nobody wrote: the powerless female Hebrew slave who probably experiences extreme violence, whose husband experiences daily exploitation at the hands of his taskmasters, and whose eldest son has just been killed at the command of Pharaoh. I ask myself what she wants of God – who she needs God to be. Does her liberation at the hands of Yahweh, a relatively unknown, small tribal deity – who just overthrew the most powerful empire in the world – not feel like justice? Is the violence of this Yahweh not justified in the face of Egypt’s heinous oppression? I find that question difficult. But I want that nameless woman’s voice to be heard, and to let her pain jostle for my attention.
The second lens is the cross. I imagine myself in the Upper Room, reliving the Passover meal once again, celebrating the night my people escaped from Egypt. And I’m introduced to a whole new idea – a new covenant – which turns the Exodus on its head. Because this time God himself suffers through his son, and the Empire is not overthrown with the power of plagues or the storms of the sea – indeed the Empire is hardly overthrown at all. Whereas Yahweh played Pharaoh at his own game and won, Jesus barely troubled Caesar. Yet there is something about the way he asks God to forgive his Roman executioners that exposes their brutality. And something about the way that just days after his death he is sat next to the Sea of Tiberius, the sea named after the Caesar in whose name he was killed, quietly frying some fish for his friends. It asks questions of power – about what power really means. About whether power is in plagues or armies or thrones. Or whether power is in the terrible, earth-shaking, deafening quiet of love and forgiveness and loss.
The lens of the cross together with the lens of the untold story create a powerful image. There are countless untold stories across the world today; silent screams for justice in the face of political, social or economic oppression. From within a paradigm of participation we ask how we can follow the radical God who gave up the power of the Empire for the deeper power of love’s powerlessness. By participating in the cross as a radical critique of power we are participating in the earth-shaking reconciliation of the world to a God who thunders with divine justice.
3. We recover conversion as a political commitment
The first gospel to be written opens with the line ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Messiah, the Son of God.’ When Mark penned these words, the word ‘gospel’ – evangelion – was well known in the Roman Empire. Whenever a Caesar won a military victory his ambassadors would ride across the realm, proclaiming the evangelion of Caesar, the ‘good news’ that Rome had prevailed. So when Mark instead writes about the evangelion of Jesus, whom he calls the Messiah (a title people knew belonged to political dissidents), and describes him as the ‘Son of God’, a status also infamously claimed by Caesar, we have all the makings of a political challenge.
It’s in this light that we should read Jesus’ baptism. Submersion in the Jordan was a deliberately embodied re-enactment of Israel’s liberation from Egypt through the Red Sea. To ‘repent for the kingdom of God is at hand’ is not primarily a call to say sorry for sinful behaviour. It is a call to defect, to pledge allegiance to an alternative political reality.
Evangelical engagement in Politics has grown in scope and sophistication over the last thirty years. Yet while Politics with a big ‘P’ is important, we tend to neglect the more grounded – and ultimately more important – conversations about politics generally. This more general politics is concerned with the means by which we organise ourselves at all levels of society, both formal and informal. It consists of the unspoken assumptions about who has power and who does not; about who gets to decide our collective future, be it within family, friendship, school, workplace or local community.
Under a paradigm of authority Evangelicals have understood conversion as a moment of submission: a confession of guilt in relation to God’s requirements for living, belief in certain claims about Christ and a commitment to follow him in every aspect of life.
Within a paradigm of participation evangelicals are increasingly understanding conversion as a political commitment. This is definitely not about which type of Party Politics you follow; it is much deeper than that. A biblical understanding of conversion is fundamentally political and therefore places all other questions into the context of our relationships with others. Crucially it asks who has the power and in what spaces does the kingdom of God call for an alternative reality?
To ‘convert’ is to pledge allegiance to that alternative reality, whatever the cost; to live it into being. A paradigm of participation means that conversion cannot just be about changing your mind; it must change your life and the lives of others.
4. We recover activism as prophetic alternative (a.k.a. “church”)
This last area grounds all the previous ideas, for there is nothing more irrelevant to a postmodern generation than inauthentic religion. It is in concrete communities which live differently that the gospel will be found, the cross embodied and the sacred story of faith told and retold. It is in the lived activism of the church that we lose position to recapture movement. Not activity in the sense of busyness and programmes, but the simple alternative of our day-to-day lives.
It would be easy to look back on the last decade and conclude that evangelicalism has seen a revival in activism. Who would have predicted at the end of the 90s the coming revolution in the pursuit of social impact in our communities? The scale and speed of that change is truly breathtaking and its collective effect immense.
But we must still ask from what theological groundwork this activism comes. From under a paradigm of authority much evangelical social action still comes with the agenda of hoped-for conversions and so risks undermining itself. There is no doubt that for evangelicals operating with either paradigm much social action is simply rooted in compassionate care – and that is a powerful reason for anything. Yet it is from the soil of eschatology that the church can truly find its mission: the resolute belief that another world is possible, and is already here. This is the priority of the paradigm of participation.
This is the gospel for a postmodern generation. Not first and foremost a call to repent, but a call to participate. God’s mission to recreate the world requires co-creators, people who will take up their role as image-bearers of the Creator and with great faith look upon the darkness and say ‘let there be light’, who will walk into this world that is passing away and live a prophetic alternative. This gospel does not reduce the need for repentance; quite the opposite. To defect from the present system requires genuine metanoia, a full change of direction. But it does not imagine repentance primarily as a response to disobedience – the focus of the authority paradigm. Instead it heeds the divine call for a new world and with fear and trembling begins treading the path to that future.
This is the activism that is more than programmes and projects. It is participation in a prophetic alternative.
Evangelicalism and the next generation
Evangelicalism is at a crossroads. Our differences are growing ever more stark, and we have all but snapped and parted ways. But to do this would be to sacrifice movement on the altar of position. We desperately need strong conservative evangelicals, but to guard the ancient values that underpin our movement, not to defend the positions we’ve come to hold. And we must empower bold progressives who won’t be put on trial every time they have a new idea, but who are encouraged to do the difficult work of reimagination; to eschew the cheap alternatives in order to articulate new forms of faithful, biblical faith that give us a future. Without that, we consign ourselves to history and fail the next generation.