PB, yesterday, asked me to clarify a passing comment I'd made that we'd changed the terms of what faith in Jesus over the last century or so--both abandoning how people thought about this before and then lobbying that these new ways of seeing things were in fact the only ways. I commented that, line-drawing as this might seem (and I was lobbying against line-drawing), this view also misread what the Bible was driving at.
Interestingly, those two comments come together for me. If I were to give a shorthand in answering PB's question, I'd do it this way. In the last century or so, church leaders have--in fact if not in their intentions--made the Pharisees the good guys in the gospel story. The Pharisees, you'll recall, were the folks who pressed to have Jesus killed and were the only people Jesus was consistently scathing towards.
This is the basis of my point that reclaiming being "religious" as a good thing is an ill-fated idea. The Pharisees were the religious people of the gospels, and look how they turned out (and what Jesus thought about them).
But--or so it seems to me--a century or so of evangelical expansion started just great and then turned, all based on this issue. Evangelicals started great as a force lobbying both for important, gospel-based social reform (evangelicals played a major role in the abolitionist movement, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement) as well as for insisting on the centrality of embracing and believing in Jesus and studying and obeying the Bible. It's hard to argue with that legacy, and it's no surprise at all to me that this formula ultimately left the evangelicals as the big winners, growth-wise, by the second half of the 20th century.
But the seeds of implosion were there as well. The constant cultural battling that was central for those crucial benefits I've just mentioned, to my mind, hardened into a shell of its former self. The reflexive instinct towards cultural battle caused many faith-filled churches--and ultimately a large chunk of the entire culture of faith-filled churches--to turn inward and endlessly battle for and teach "orthodoxy." The emphasis that, in the end, what was most important was "right belief"--rather than faith, obedience to Jesus, and concrete acts of love--to my mind made for an aggressive emulation of the Pharisees rather than of Jesus or any of his subsequent interpreters (Paul, John and Peter, in particular). Being "the guardian of orthodoxy" turns out to have a major downside.
I do think this is central to the knee-jerk cultural battles that have become assumed as central by evangelicals (and, to emphasize, in my own strange way, I regard myself as an evangelical). In my experience, it's on this point that the challenges that Otto so eloquently described in his post this week show themselves. The "meat" of faith in Jesus has been twisted over the last century or so to be "a sort of Bible discussion that helps me understand the right way to think about 'x' cultural issue."
To briefly (one hopes) work out what I'm sure is my own wound on this last point: Several times a year I end up in a discussion on this with someone who wants more of this "meat." What always seems unarguable afterward to me is that, unless I'm missing it, by the assessment of the person I'm talking with at the time themselves (though it usually takes them awhile to see and concede this), we actually talk more about the Bible in the average sermon than was true in that biblically "meaty" church that they're yearning for. We employ more scripture, talk about it in more depth and teach it in more settings (right now our executive pastor Brian Housman is offering our small groups month-long in-depth experiences of a biblical book; he's just finished his time with those of our Tuesday groups looking for this experience and will be working his way through to the other days that have a lot of groups).
So what's the disconnect? Usually, after we talk this through, it's this issue. We don't use all that Bible time to empower sharper opinions about social issues or about right belief. We exclusively use it to encourage action. (In my most-recent discussion on this, a very hostile woman visiting us from a Bible church cursed me repeatedly for our lack of use of scripture. I was a little dumbfounded. In the sermon she'd just heard, I dealt with a full chapter of a difficult text, had painstakingly worked through it over maybe half the time of the sermon, and then had told vulnerable stories about my own faltering attempts to put this scripture into practice. Where had I gone wrong, on her terms? How much more "Bible" could she possibly have gotten in her Bible church than she'd gotten that morning? "You didn't do it RIGHT!" was her basic shout back my direction. "You didn't do it like any good Christian would!")
Now I'm sure I have blind spots on this, and those of you either currently or formerly in my church could, I'm sure, point them out to me in some very accurate detail. But my larger point is that this really is a divide.
Where has how we present biblical faith gone wrong in the last century? To my mind it's that we've emulated the Pharisees and have prized, above all, being "right" about a million things--a given verse in the Bible, a social position. We're putting tons of effort into teaching a reductionist view of "orthodoxy" rather than empowering and modeling living faith in a living God.
But, hey, I'm just one quirky voice. What's your view?