Combating Cynicism

This is not something I do very easily. It’s my nature to be optimistic about a lot of things, but when it comes to attempting to see the motivations of people changing, I can only do so in the abstract.

Rachel Held Evans wrote yesterday about what she calls the “real evangelical disaster,” responding to Al Mohler’s comments regarding the election. The thrust of the piece is that she is starting to get tired of, over and over, having to explain her theology and why she can consider herself evangelical without embracing the two criteria that evangelical gatekeepers consider the only defining characteristics of their tribe: opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Moreover, the evangelical obsession with measuring success or failure through election results disappoints her to no end.

This, I believe, is the real evangelical disaster—not that Barack Obama is president and Mitt Romney is not, but that evangelicalism has gotten so enmeshed with politics, its success or failure can be gauged by an election. [emphasis hers]

She then goes on to explain, yet again, that if the church wants to win back young people rather than becoming, in Mohler’s words, “a retirement community,” that they have to…well, this is where we start to depart, since her solution is “preach the Gospel.”

The problem, of course, is that the “Gospel” is not some clear document, it’s a complex set of mutually contradictory stories, a bunch of letters written by some random convert, and another letter about some guy’s fever dream which may or may not be prophesy or a metaphor for contemporary problems. Al Mohler is pretty sure he is preaching the gospel, just not using a “hermenutic of love” in doing so.

Fred Clark shares a video today of a couple of WBC thugs on Russell Brand’s talk show (side note: who gave Russell Brand a talk show?). Brand gives them the leeway to explain themselves with enough time so they can’t say they were taken out of context. And they explain exactly what everyone thinks: they’ve convinced themselves that what they say is true and that it’s loving to inform people that “god hates fags” while it’s hateful to not let people know that they’re destined for hell. Seriously, that’s it. That’s the big misunderstanding. We just don’t understand why what they’re doing is loving.

And the thing that gets me is that, as Clark points out, “It’s remarkable, and disturbing, how many times in this interview we see that Westboro Baptist, apart from its nasty signs and slogans, is not all that different from mainstream American evangelicalism.”

The problem is that Clark is correct and these people have no less claim to being correct than others. This isn’t to say I don’t have a preference (other than “stop believing that stuff all together”), and I quite like the things that people like Clark, Evans, Warren Throckmorton, Richard Beck, and Dianna Anderson have to say about social justice issues. Progressive Christians and I get along very well, and at least one of my closest friends is a progressive evangelical minister who I feel bad for regularly due to being associated so often with people so unlike him.

However, I think Evans is being naive in her assertion that preaching the gospel is somehow enough to change things. Doing good things for unsound reasons is great, until those same unsound reasons are used to justify bad things. It’s a shifting standard that leaves us with people who think that informing others of how sinful they are on a constant basis (I promise you, we get it) and treating them as a means to personal glory.

Evans is aware of how to treat people decently. She attributes it to Jesus, but her conclusions are not reliably replicable, and I suspect if a Nazarene carpenter’s son never uttered a word, Evans would still be a pretty decent person. Similarly, I’m far too cynical to believe that the people who have very strong opinions against the “hermenutic of love” are suffering from a lack of gospel so much as an abundance of certainty, which isn’t conquered through theological debate. Generally it’s not conquered at all: it’s fought to a standstill and waited out.

I genuinely want to believe what Evans does. Not the Jesus stuff, but rather that what’s missing is just good news and love. If I could hug the world into sanity I would be knocking on doors right now instead of blogging.

Instead I’m here, grateful that Evans is out there, but with a bleak outlook regarding simple solutions.

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3 thoughts on “Combating Cynicism

  1. There are no simple solutions, but there are a few that give us great return on investment: separation of church and state, stop funding religion through tax breaks, treat all people equally under the law, tax religious meddilng with politics… basically, set religion apart from society in general. In the wide public we all have to play nice and be respectful. To get there we have to stop the groups who are trying to prevent that.

    • Those are all great solutions that limit the existential changes that need to happen in people. If you can’t stop yourself from hurting people, others step in to stop you. And the only “belief” it steps on is the fairly new one that freedom means “everybody do what I say.”

      • I have to say, I’m dead against ‘everybody do what I say’ mentality whether it comes from a theist or an atheist. Somewhere inside me is a latent anarchist I think.

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