Walking (way past) the Line

Now this post is another review, but not (as the title might suggest) a movie review. Here’s an unfinished quote from a book:

I remember a conversation with friends who were biblical scholars from a more liberal tradition than mine. … They questioned me on my theology concerning the resurrection of Christ. “Your belief in the resurrection is more literal than ours,” they said. “Ours is more metaphorical. But we come out at the same place politically. Is that alright?”

Before you click-through to the rest of the review, take a sec to consider what your answer to that question would be. OK, time’s up, pencils down. What’s your answer? Mine is, in short


But Jim Wallis, in God’s Politics, Why the Right Gets it Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It, misses an opportunity to take a stand for basic, fundamental (and not in the “fundamentalist” sense) “mere” Christianity when he coyly responds:

It is at this point in the conversation that the liberal/evangelical debate about the resurrection usually begins. But that debate is often a mostly intellectual one, with heady arguments flying back and forth, and usually ends up quite unresolved. Their sincere question prompted a different response in me. I simply asked a question back: “In the heat of South Africa’s oppression and the heart of apartheid’s despair, do you think that a merely metaphorical resurrection would have been enough for Archbishop Desmond Tutu? It wouldn’t have been for me.” Mere intellectual debates aren’t enough when it comes to faith. It is what we face in our real lives and in the real world that has the most capacity to deepen our faith.

WOW! I’ll say it backwards, WOW! I’ll say it upside down, MOM! That exchange leaves me wondering if there is anything MORE important than believing in the truth of the resurrection? Is it possible/meaningful to believe that Jesus is really the Son of God, if you don’t believe he has power over life and death? Is it possible/meaningful to believe in justification by faith if you believe in a Christ who is continually crucified, but never resurrected? Of course it does no good to remind these liberal “theologians” how Paul answered their exact question, because you can’t make arguments from scripture with people who don’t believe in scripture!

Wallis leaves himself only a tiny crack of daylight into Christian truth, by giving an emotional/experiental reason to believe in the resurrection. But he didn’t answer their yes/no question: “is that alright?” If their question is really in a political context only (“We come out at the the same place politically. Is that alright?”, as in, can we get back to working together on our political campaign, or our crusade against poverty, or whatever), then the answer is at best “Politics, shmolitics! What do you mean ‘metaphorical’?”. But Wallis answers not a question about politics, but about the resurrection. This is a perfect example of why the modern church is in trouble. Because people like Jim Wallis are too willing to let the true Gospel play second fiddle to social justice; to use religion as a feel-good poultice in a humanistic crusade to solve all our problems; to use the Bible (and other religious texts) as a buffet of motivational slogans to pick and choose from as suits our purposes.

OK, now that I’ve got that rant out of the way, I can say what I really thought about the book. Given the title, I was hoping for a more balanced view. Living on the right, as I do, I was willing to take 50% of the hits (and try to really learn from them), and in exchange, relax and enjoy and agree with the other 50% of the hits. But the split was really more 80/20. The message, bottom-line, is basically, “Hey fellow liberals; we all want the same thing! Just stop attacking religion, and we’ll be able to destroy those awful fundamentalist right-wing zealots!”

My eyes were opened somewhat by his arguments that scripture has a lot more to say about fighting poverty than the right generally cares to take action on. By some measure I don’t remember, he places social justice second in biblical volume behind idolatry. And in my Bible reading since I read this book, I have indeed paid more attention to these verses (which are definitely all over).

There is some (but not enough, IMO) skewering of the Left for its continued rejection of religion and values. I’d be interested in hearing from self-identified liberals who have read this book, to see what they thought about it. Do I perceive more criticism of the right than left in the book because Wallis is correct and I am just more sensitive to criticism of me than of others, or because Wallis is a commie pinko liberal, and most of his beefs truly are against me and mine?

The part of the book I most enjoyed is, happily, also available from the Sojourners’ website: the concluding list of predictions for the new millenium. I’m not as optimistic as Wallis, so I think that as predictions he will not score very well. But he’s got some very provocative statements in there that are worth accepting as personal and societal goals.

It’s been about 6 months now since I read the book, and the above is all that really stood out for me. My advice is this: if you are already liberal, and want some biblical ammo to shoot against the religious right, buy and read the book. But if you are already in the religious right, skip the book, prayerfully search the scriptures for how God wants us to deal with the poor and disenfranchised, and thoughtfully read the predictions for the new millenium.

PS For those who might be stymied by Sojourners registration, I reproduce the list of predictions here. Let’s all pray for 3, 8, 16, 18, 20 and 21.

1. Faith in the new millennium will be defined much more by action than by doctrine.

2. At the same time, religious fundamentalism will continue to rise in the face of moral decline.

3. Bible study will continue to grow in popularity among a wide variety of people.

4. Prayer will be even more important than it is now.

5. The Religious Right will pass from the scene.

6. The secular Left will give up its hostility to religion and spirituality or die.

7. The Spice Girls won’t be remembered, and Martin Luther King Jr. will.

8. Family Values (meaning what’s good for parents and their kids) will be embraced by people across the political spectrum.

9. Women in leadership in every area of life will become a given.

10. Overcoming poverty will be the great moral issue as we enter the new millennium.

11. Dealing with the unfinished agenda of racism will be impossible to ignore in the face of increasing diversity.

12. Internet pornography will quietly undermine people’s lives and relationships, without any restraint.

13. Nelson Mandela’s stature will grow as a role model for moral integrity and spiritual discipline, while Bill Clinton will be quickly and gratefully forgotten.

14. Liberalism still won’t get the values questions right, and conservatism still won’t really care about poor people.

15. So a new option will emerge: conservative in personal values, radical for social justice.

16. A new alliance across political lines between parents of all stripes will take on the moral pollution of the culture by Hollywood, the Internet, and the corporate advertising world.

17. Old ecumenical structures will gradually dissolve in favor of new tables that bring together evangelicals, pentecostals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and the historic black churches.

18. The abortion rate will continue to decline as moral concern grows and practical alternatives spread.

19. The challenge of pluralism will replace the challenge of secularism as many diverse religious and spiritual traditions have to learn to live with one another.

20. Sexual restraint, fidelity, and integrity will make a comeback as the results of “sexual freedom” are rejected, by young and old alike.

21. More parents will choose good books over mindless and soulless television.

22. Those who don’t will produce children who are increasingly mindless and soulless.

23. The enormous and growing gap between the rich and the rest of us will finally be recognized as a real problem for democracy, shaking up our two-party politics (which are really only one party of the very rich and powerful).

24. The Jubilee 2000 campaign will succeed in eliminating unpayable Third World debt.

25. Nuclear weapons will become a big issue again, but the real question is whether anything will really be done about them until a city is incinerated.

26. Human rights will replace national sovereignty as the key international issue.

27. Wealthy countries will become inundated with immigrants unless the North/South economic divide is faced.

28. Billy Graham will be remembered with more respect than all the presidents he knew.

29. More and more affluent families will get off the pressure train and adopt more simple lifestyles.

30. More churches will throw their arms around at-risk kids, but it won’t be enough unless the whole society puts children first.

31. Faith-based organizations will become critical partners in forging new social policy.

32. The need for prophetic religion will grow.

33. More and more people will ask why we’re spending more for cosmetics, pet food, and ice cream than on making a decent and dignified life possible for the world’s poorest people.

34. Television will get worse.

35. Radio will become more and more important as an alternative media.

36. The Internet will further isolate the poor, and the Internet will help create greater democracy—raising the question of whether those two trends ultimately are reconcilable.

37. In the Catholic Church, we’ll have married and women priests, and the importance of lay and female leadership will continue to grow.

38. The churches finally will not divide over homosexuality.

39. The concept and discipline of the Sabbath will see a great comeback in the lives of overworked and overstressed people.

40. Violence will be a culture-wide issue, not just an inner-city problem.

41. Peacemaking and conflict resolution will be regarded among our most highly valued skills.

42. We will have to learn much more about forgiveness and reconciliation if we are to heal the violence.

43. Having fun will become more important.

44. Raising children will be seen as the most important thing.

45. Hope will be the most essential ingredient for social change.

8 Responses

  1. I would read the click-thru but to do so I would have to become a registered socialist, and I don’t want to put my security clearance in jeopardy.

    But I do know for a fact that others of your readership have read the book. Hopefully, they can chime in.

  2. Haven’t read the book, but my feeling is that I would love to have the dems fight for my vote. I really would like to have more of a choice in elections, but their platform leaves us no room to vote for them.

    As to the social justice issue, I’ve heard that complaint from libs for years (Tony Campolo and others) but I just don’t believe it’s true that conservative Christians don’t feed the poor and clothe the needy.

    Some of the largest ministries to the down-and-out are from conservative churches and groups. We give locally to the Salvation Army, which was founded by a conservative Christian, William Booth. Look at what Tommy Barnett’s son is doing in downtown LA (The Dream Center http://www.dreamcenter.org/ ), and Jerry Falwell (every lib’s whipping boy) has one of the largest facilities in America dedicated to helping the homeless and especially single moms. (Elim Home for alcoholic men, the Liberty Godparent Home for unwed mothers) I guess I’m not buying the premise that the most enthusiastic preachers of the Gospel neglect social concerns.

  3. Read the CT review of it paired with a review of a book by Charles Marsh about the evangelical basis for social justice (he recently wrote an editorial in the Times too….). Maybe three months ago now. I gave BOTH books to your grandfather for Christmas.

  4. You no longer have to register as a So(cialist/journer) to read the list: I have cut & pasted it for your convenience.

  5. My conservative PCA church just finished a week of feeding and housing more than 15 homeless men. So I’m with the Albino — I’m not buying the bigoted premise. Isn’t that line about conservatives not caring about the poor getting a little tired?

    I read through the predictions. When were they written? A great many of them were already evident in the late 90’s.

  6. The page I copied from lists itself as the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Sojourners. It seems that quite a lot of this book is other stuff Jim Wallis / Sojourners has put out, cobbled together with some gluetext.

    I also remember the social vision of FCF (PCA); while maintaining the true gospel, they were running a food kitchen, after-school (summer?) programs, all-night vigils in the local playground to keep the drug dealers out, and perhaps most importantly, encouraging (middle-upper class) church members to buy homes and move into the sketchy neighborhood.

  7. The line about conservatives not caring about the poor might be tired, but conservtives still aren’t getting it. Because they won’t admit that a systems that works to their own material advantage works to others’ material disadvantage. To take up the cross and follow Jesus means to be willing to look at things from the perspective of the downtrodden. We wouldn’t need the gospel today if everything was okay as it is.

  8. The line about conservatives not caring about the poor might be tired, but conservtives still aren’t getting it. Because they won’t admit that a systems that works to their own material advantage works to others’ material disadvantage. To take up the cross and follow Jesus means to be willing to look at things from the perspective of the downtrodden.

    That’s a strange assertion following the comments from the Albino and myself. I suggest a reread.

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