Thursday, August 02, 2007

Debrief From the Steve Chalke Talk

Last night I had the privilege of listening to the prominent social activist Steve Chalke at the Wesley Centre. Chalke spoke powerfully as he argued that as Christians we must allow our Christology to determine our missiology, which in turn determines our ecclesiology. All too often, he suggested, Christology and missiology takes place within the ivory towers of the church and thus our mission becomes ineffective while our Christology becomes distorted. By seeing how Christ does mission and how he understands community, we can be far more effective in mission while being more genuine in community.

Recounting his first ever sermon as an ordained minister which centred around the narrative of Jesus turned water into wine, Chalke suggested that according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is a "party for the poor". Jesus came first and foremost to the sick, the sinful and the disenfranchised to bring healing to a broken world. Although Jesus came to bring spiritual healing, he also came to heal people emotionally, physically and financially. To Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not some otherworldly phenomenon - it is an imminent reality based in the present. Chalke suggested that we cannot think of the good news of Jesus without of our responsibility to bring holistic healing to disenfranchised individuals. While this doesn't mean that people will always be in good health, it does mean that we should do whatever we can to make affordable and effective health care attainable. While this doesn't mean that people will be rich, it does mean that we should do whatever we can to fight against structures that exploit the poverty of others. While this doesn't mean that people will always be happy, we should do whatever we can to bring grieving people comfort. To do all of these things is to do the work of God and indeed to proclaim the gospel.

I found Chalke's talk quite thought provoking at many points, but what surprised me was the level of importance that he granted to theology. He rightly asserted that everybody, even the village atheist does theology - the only question is whether we do good theology or bad theology. All of this would be music to the ears of conservative evangelicals, who have long suggested that good theology is of critical importance. That is, until they discover that Chalke believes that conservative evangelicalism does quite terrible theology at several critical points.

It may come as no surprise to my readers that I have come to the conclusion that Chalke is right both about the importance of theology and the fact that conservative evangelicalism does theology incredibly poorly. Indeed, during his talk Chalke made reference of a newspaper article that suggested that "evangelical scholarship" is a contradiction in terms. I believe that there is some substance to this accusation. By and large, evangelical scholarship is concerned not with open and honest enquiry, which should be the object of true scholarship, but with defending the parameters of evangelicalism. Evangelical scholarship is not so much scholarship as it is glorified apologetics. And because theology is so cherished in evangelical circles, those who rise to the ranks of greatness in evangelical scholarship become cult figures adored by their followers. That is until these evangelical scholars do what scholars should do and actually act in a scholarly manner by not being afraid to take one's thoughts to their logical conclusion, at which point they dramatically change from hero to villain, becoming pariahs in the evangelical community and traitors to the tribe. There is no more perfect example of this than in the case of N.T. Wright. It is still a source of much amusement to me that evangelicals who are in raptures of Wright's more orthodox arguments think that the same brilliant mind has lost the plot when it comes to his writings on subjects on which they disagree with him.

While I am utterly convinced of the fact that conservative evangelicalism does theology incredibly poorly, I would have to concede that progressive Christianity does not do theology much better at lay level. I believe that this might be because there is generally a poor level of Bible knowledge among progressive Christians. I guess this is where I believe I have a role to play. To its credit, conservative evangelicalism has endowed me with not only a fairly strong knowledge of the Bible, but also a great love for the words within. But unbeknown to them and indeed unbeknown to myself at the time, they created a monster of their own making. I believed that to properly read the Bible was more important than simply defending the sacred cows of the tribe. Indeed, if reading the Bible led me to believe that the sacred cows should be slaughtered, I believed it was my responsibility to do so. I still believe that it is my responsibility to do so. With all of this in mind, conservative evangelicals should realise that to the extent that I undermine the foundations of conservative evangelicalism, it is conservative evangelicalism that is responsible for what occurs. I can say with the utmost of sincerity that I have conservative theology to thank for equipping me with the tools to knock over their Tower of Babel and conservative evangelicals only have conservative evangelicals to blame for its unwilling and unwitting assistance in my mission.

I would like to encourage all of those progressive Christians out there to become better acquainted with your Bible and particularly with the teachings of Jesus. Let me suggest that it is not only your privilege to be able to read the Bible, but it is your birthright and your responsibility. It is your responsibility because we live in a society that believes that the message that Christianity has to offer is that God hates them. Indeed, last night I learnt the disturbing statistic that over half of all people who commit suicide and leave a note in the United States have committed suicide for issues relating to their sexuality. A significant proportion of these people have had considerable exposure to conservative evangelicalism. This cannot continue. This must not continue. We cannot allow conservative evangelicalism to claim the title "Biblical Christianity" for itself by default. The time for action is now.


emblazoned said...

This is a very interesting read as I myself consider the merits of progressive Christianity...I am dissatisfied with the fundamentalist framework that i have been given.

Do keep us informed.

David Castor said...

Hey Emblazoned,

My article does sound rather harsh against conservative evangelicalism, so I should just point out that I have had much to learn from conservative evangelicalism in the past and will learn much from them in the future. Despite our differences, I regard them as cherished brothers and sisters in Christ.

Concerning doing theology well, I'd suggest that the first litmus test is whether you have a theology that operates in practice or whether your theology is little more than a system of propositional statements. If it is the latter, then I'd suggest your theology is absolutely useless at best and profoundly harmful at worst.

Where to start when we approach the Bible is theology is probably the most difficult question in the world - or at least it is to me. Calvin started with the reasonable premise that "God is sovereign" - but what dictates this premise as a starting point? Chalke suggested that perhaps "God is love" could be a starting point, considering that the claim is explicitly made in the Bible, namely 1 John. Paraphrasing Karl Barth, Chalke said that it is reasonable to talk about the judgement of God, but if we talk about the judgement of God outside of the context of God being a God of love, we begin to run into problems. That is, the fact that God judges and is a God of love needs to held in tension.

Perhaps an interesting exercise I'd suggest is to read the gospels and try to interpret what Jesus says without reference to the rest of the Bible. That is, don't try to harmonise what Jesus says in Matthew with what Paul says in Romans. I believe that this is only in which Jesus words can stand up for themselves.

michael jensen said...

A good theologian would know that that wasn't where Calvin started!

Come on now David this is just a rant!

David Castor said...

Michael, concerning my comment about Calvin, I remember taking my cues from a talk I heard recently by John Piper, although I'm perfectly willing to admit that I may have misunderstood what Piper was saying.

Concerning the suggestion that this post is a rant, what can I say except "Guilty as Charged"? Generally I try to write my blog posts with at least a modicum of balance and diplomacy, but there are definitely times when I allow myself to get carried away when writing about an issue I am passionate about. My only defence is that I am an artist and not an academic - I try to prevent myself from stifling the creative process through self-censorship. Notwithstanding this, I have to confess that I am a shameless sophist and rhetorician!