catapult magazine

catapult magazine


evangelical posture on engaging the world


Jan 27 2004
10:12 pm

I think what I was responding to was a visceral recognition of the way the symptom – that particular form of paralysis – is evident in ALL areas in which the evangelical tradition attempts to engage culture. I was pretty specific about the arts because that is where I have the most experience, but I think the dilemma described by the quote manifests itself in a variety of ways. The absolutism/voluntarism duality is definitely real, but I think it is one of many expressions of the somewhat schizophrenic relationship that many thoughtful evangelical Christians have with their theology.

I agree completely that many “evangelicals maintain a basically untenable posture in the face of the pluralism of contemporary culture” and that this cripples their ability to go about transforming that culture. I wouldn’t say that the effort breaks down “especially” in the area of political and social engagement, although there is plenty of evidence on this website that it breaks down there too.

I think there is a lot of brokenness in all areas where evangelical Christians attempt to engage the plurality of contemporary culture. And so we don’t. We create a substitute for culture. This is where we start using the word “Christian” as an adjective. We slip it in front of cultural activities we would like to see transformed and we talk about Christian literature, Christian theatre, Christian politics and so on. But this does not transform culture, it builds ghettoes where we can live comfortably with the illusion of culture. The word Christian is a noun, and it describes people who believe in Christ. Period. I agree with you that the term evangelical has become so culturally loaded that I no longer claim it for myself.

There is a tremendously rich vein of imaginative and important contributions to the life of culture that members of the body of Christ from all traditions – Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Christian Reformed – have made over the course of the past two thousand years and all of that is available for us to draw on. There are many Christians who are making real contributions to the transformation of all of culture in hundreds of big and little ways, and we can learn from their examples.

I really do feel that the reason the evangelical traditions struggle in particular, is that they have cut themselves off from the transformative power of the imagination. Faith is fundamentally an imaginative act. It asks us to believe in what we have not seen. And yet it happens so often in discussions about the arts that evangelical Christians shy away from the transformative power of the imagination. They seek over and over to put the imagination in the service of theology, the story in the service of doctrine. Whenever the Pharisees sought to trap Christ with one of their theological paradoxes, he always told them a story, because a story can not be trapped. There’s a rabbinical saying that the only thing truer than the truth is a story.

I’m sorry, Janel, if I’ve taken your discussion off on a tangent again, but your quote really did strike quite close to a number of issues that I have been struggling with for some time. Pluralism is a fact, and wishful thinking won’t make it go away, so for me, there is no room for the absolutist position, which is what I think I was getting at with my comment about the growing irrelevance of C.S. Lewis’ apologetics. He’s preaching to the choir. He is very popular among evangelical Christians because they relate well to the strong allegorical nature of his stories – this symbol means this, that symbol means that – and, yes, the Narnia stories are good stories for adults and children, and are enjoyed by audiences outside of the church community.

My point about Tolkien is that he is so completely steeped in the power of story, and his imaginative vision is so rich, and deeply Christian without being explicitly so, that it, in my opinion, his work has engaged and transformed our complex and complicated culture on a variety of levels and will continue to do so for a long time. Tolkien succeeds where logical analysis fails. His stories DO provide us with a vocabulary to deal with systematized evil and injustice, because as Tolkien himself would put it, every good story is ultimately a reflection of the divine narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, whether its author would see it in those terms or not.

I hope this makes sense/is helpful to you in terms of your own attempts to navigate these tensions, as you put it. Ultimately, we have the gift of scripture to help us do that. But I think we undervalue the role imagination can play in our reading of scripture. We have equated the “logos” of the Word too closely with the logical bias of Western culture, and tend to forget that there is a healthy dose of “mythos” in there as well. And before anyone freaks out on me, “myth” does NOT mean something that is “untrue”, or that “never happened”.

And this is Henry, by the way, not Blisster. I’m too much of a technological illiterate to figure out what I’m doing wrong with the logging in/out.