There's been lots of buzz in the media lately about whether "liberal" or "progressive" Christianity (whatever those almost-useless terms mean) can survive.
By media, I mean places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other similar top-cabin outlets.
I thought a top Episcopal bishop got it right when he responded to the Journal's piece with a letter to the editor.
Although I've given you a link to that letter, the Journal often doesn't let such links stay live for very long. So I've decided to reprint the letter here because I think it makes a point that needs to be made again and again, which is that Christianity is not an easy religion to follow.
If you really seek to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you inevitably will run into opposition. And you inevitably will have to stand against the prevailing culture. In many ways that's what's happening to various "liberal" or "progressive" branches of the faith now. (I also can't guarantee that the link contained within the bishop's letter will work for long.)
Here's how Bishop Stacy F. Sauls put it:
Space does not permit a correction of the numerous factual points I could dispute in Jay Akasie's "What Ails the Episcopalians" (Houses of Worship, July 13). Instead, I offer a spiritual correction.
The church has been captive to the dominant culture, which has rewarded it with power, privilege and prestige for a long, long time. The Episcopal Church is now liberating itself from that, and as the author correctly notes, paying the price. I hardly see paying the price as what ails us. I see it as what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Many years ago when I was a parish priest in Savannah, a local politician and disaffected Episcopalian began a conversation with me. In that case the subject was homosexuality. It could have been any of the things mentioned last week as our ailments. "I just think the church should not be governed by the culture," he said. I replied that I agreed with him, but that "I just hadn't noticed that the culture was all that hospitable toward gay people." He stammered. "Well, maybe not here in Georgia."
The Episcopal Church is on record as standing by those the culture marginalizes whether that be nonwhite people, female people or gay people. The author calls that political correctness hostile to tradition.
I call it profoundly countercultural but hardly untraditional. In fact, it is deeply true to the tradition of Jesus, Jesus who offended the "traditionalists" of his own day, Jesus who was known to associate with the less than desirable, Jesus who told his followers to seek him among the poor. It is deeply true to the tradition of the Apostle Paul who decried human barriers of race, sex, or status (Galatians 3:28).
What ails the Episcopalians is that this once most-established class of American Christianity is taking the risk to be radically true to its tradition. There is a price to be paid for that. There is also a promise of abundant life in it.
Bishop Stacy F. Sauls
Chief Operating Officer
The Episcopal Church
As a Presbyterian, I agree that many Mainline churches got caught up getting seduced by the culture, which helped lead to their remarkable popularity in the 1940s through the 1960s, their golden statistical era. But now that many of them are seeking to be a more consistent voice for the voiceless, lots of folks in the culture aren't very interested in staying with the Mainlines.
And as for church growth, remember that Jesus started out with 12 and ended up with 11.
(By the way, the excellent religion scholar Martin E. Marty wrote about this subject recently in one of his "Sightings" pieces. To read it, click here. And to this mix I add this excellent column by church consultant Tom Ehrich.)
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THE BOOK CORNER
A year after Rob Bell's controversial (to some) book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, was published, it has been released in paperback along with a reissue of several other Bell books. In fact, Bell held a release event the other day to talk about the reaction to the book over the past year, especially among Christians who identify themselves as evangelical or conservative. The book casts serious doubts about whether hell even exists and about traditional views of heaven, though the author gives himself wiggle room. To say that not all evangelicals liked the book is an understatement. For those of us in Mainline churches, by contrast, Love Wins seems to be an argument against the kind of rigid theology that we don't hold, so to us, reading the book is sort of like sitting on the sidelines of a fight in which we have no dog. Thus, the seriousness with which Bell takes on the manipulative theology that tries to scare people into a some-day heaven by threatening them with an eternal hell seems a bit overdrawn, given that, as I say, many of us Mainliners (Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.) give little credence to that approach to the faith. The other Bell books that have been redesigned and repackaged to go with the paperback version of Love Wins are Sex God,
Jesus Wants to Save Christians
, Drops Like Stars
and Velvet Elvis
. For more about Bell, visit his website by clicking here
. And you can order the set of books here
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P.S.: MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -- I'm here at a reunion with my three sisters and most of our kids and grandkids for the next several days. So although there will be regular posts here this coming week, there mostly won't be extra comments on breaking news. Besides, you'll be busy watching the Olympics.