May 18, 2011

The number of blogs that deal with matters of Christian faith from what might be called a “post-fundamentalist” or “liberal evangelical” standpoint is already large.  In starting this blog, I hope mostly to clarify my own thoughts about some important issues, and perhaps to join in with the broader conversations already floating around the blogosphere at some point.

For now, I’ll show my colours as an academic-in-training by discussing a few important terms that are–and will be–meaningful here.

Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist“: two highly contested terms.  To many, they smack of all kinds of unpleasant connotations, like rigidity, intolerance, judgment, bitterness, reaction.  To (perhaps) even more, they are equated almost immediately with “conservative,” although whether that connotation is unpleasant or pleasant is highly subjective.

As descriptive words, “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” both have positives to offer.  “Fundamentalist,” in a literal sense, merely connotes an insistence on certain doctrines that are held as foundational, and a laissez-faire attitude toward less important doctrines that are more or less up to individual preference.  However, if this word started out as a fairly empty container, it has filled up with a lot of junk over the years: a sense of moral superiority and of victimization by a conspiracy of secularists, a willingness to pronounce judgment on “sinners” and to define who those sinners are, an insistence on a particularly bizarre cut-and-paste interpretation of Scripture called “dispensationalism” that can only be construed as a “literal interpretation” in the loosest sense of the term “literal,” an obsession with “genital politics” instead of economic and social justice (and a consequent defaulting into certain political parties), and a dogged conviction that faith in God depends on believing that the earth was created in six 24-hour days no more than 6,000 years ago.  For these reasons, I feel comfortable leaving “fundamentalist” behind as a descriptive term for myself, even though I have my own set of fundamentals.

By now, I’ve already tipped my hand.  But let’s look at the term “evangelical” for those who are about to excommunicate me.  The early members of the evangelical movement, such as Billy Graham and the founders of Christianity Today, actually founded that movement as a rejection of fundamentalist cultural separatism, feeling it important to actually engage with non-Christians and take an active interest in reaching them as full human beings–not only feeding their souls, but their bellies and minds as well.  More importantly, though, “evangelical” means some kind of association with the good news.

Good news is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Good News is the promise of a better way and maybe even of wholeness somewhere down the line.  Good News is proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour, setting the oppressed and the prisoner free, restoring the sight of the blind (Luke 4:18).  Good News is for the poor, the sick, the lame, the broken, the OK, the rich, the great, the proud, the humble.  The Jew, the Gentile, the Greek, the Arab.  The conservative, the liberal, the communist, the terrorist, the activist, the professor, the gay man, the lesbian, the libertarian.  The soldier, the banker, the prostitute, the bartender, the drunk.  The Good News is that we are all equal in the sight of God, and all loved and cherished.

Most of all, Good News is grace.  For these reasons, I am unwilling to completely throw the term “evangelical” away.  Although I understand the reasoning of people like Tony Campolo, who prefer to go by “Red-Letter Christians” to escape the negative connotations of fundamentalist and evangelical, I think “good news” is still a powerful overarching description of what Christianity should be.

In “dispensing grace,” I hope to show how one follower of Christ understands the relevance of Christ in a pluralistic, complicated world.  I’m also “dispensing with” a few things here.  Dispensing with the default link between Christianity and conservative politics (not because those politics are all bad, but because they’re politics–not Christianity).  Hopefully dispensing with evangelical Christianity’s frequent fear of the “other” (whether that other is homosexual, Muslim, atheist, etc.).  Definitely dispensing with dispensationalism.

But I want this to be more than just another fundie-bash.  Fundamentalists are people too, who profess to believe in the same God and Christ that I do.  It would be arrogant of me to paint all fundamentalists with the same brush–there are millions, after all, spread throughout hundreds of denominations and reaching every corner of the globe.  For the most part, their intentions are good.  I still have things to learn from them, such as a love for service and a personal willingness to give their money to charity.

But I also believe that there is more to the Christian story than the fundamentalist way.  More than the Anglican or Russian Orthodox way, too.  We can all learn from each other, as we are reminded of the heart of Christianity: the Good News brought by Jesus.