Sunday, January 8, 2012

Living Between Polarities

(The last attempt to publish this had a glitch. Let’s try again).

I grew up in a small cotton farming community in West Texas. Located in the center of town was the Baptist church where our family held membership. Today, I would use the term "evangelical" to describe its theological stance. The folks themselves didn't use that word. They were just good, loving people who offered me a lot of encouragement. They were not fundamentalists. They held strongly to certain fundamentals, but they were not mean about it, always relating with a kind of edge to their conversation, and offering a litmus test they designed that everyone else must pass before really being accepted. They just weren't like that. And I will be forever grateful.

I have moved a long way in my lifetime from that particular stance. Some of those folk would look at me in a quizzical sort of way today, but I'm convinced they would still love me.

I'm not the only one who has moved. Many evangelicals have also. And they have moved in the same direction as I - to the left. A big part of that movement has been in reaction to the craziness of the extreme religious and political right. It began with folk like the Sojourners group in Washington who, in being faithful to their witness, also developed a strong social awareness and conscience. They began to tackle hard issues. They started taking stands in some of the arenas that before had only been the domain of the left. For some, that process was painful, but they were willing to move nonetheless.

Today, there is more rising from the ranks of evangelicals. It is called the "emerging church movement." I am pleased with what I see and plan to work with some of their thinking in my preaching this year. I think, for this time in the 21st century, theirs is a voice that needs to be heard and I am anxious to see how, on the one hand, they can inform my thinking and shape my life. I admire the passion with which they struggle.

Opposite the emerging church is another pole from which I draw challenge. It is the renewed area of biblical and theological criticism that finds expression in such bodies as the Jesus Seminar, historical studies, and other contemporary scholarly pursuits. Their presentations, both oral and written, are understandable and have made the last two decades of work the most exciting of my life.

Can these two polarities come together in such a way as to better equip our lives? I really think so, but it will be difficult. “Emergents” are already delving into a deeper biblical criticism, but evidence seems to state that it is very hard for some of them. It will rattle some cages for such neo-evangelicals to really have to consider, for instance, that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem and that the Bethlehem narrative was set to show that the birth of this special One revealed a person that was greater than David or Caesar. To have to re-think the atonement and what “the death of Jesus” means is going to be excruciating for some. But re-think it we must. It goes to the very character of God.

And for all of the giftedness of their brilliant minds, some scholars need to let go of a perceived sense of arrogance and come into the market place in a pursuit of justice instead of just talking about it. A good dose of evangelical passion might be the right tonic for such a time as this.

I live now between two poles. Truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

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