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Top 15 Books on Status of American Evangelicalism

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No Place for Truth by David Wells

These books represent the best analysis on the present status and recent history of evangelicalism.  This list is meant to be informative and not to be alarmist or disconcerting.  I think the classic Dicken’s line, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times‘ will apply the Christ’s church til He return.  It is implicit also in this list that works commending a Christian worldview, like Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth, are must reads.  I have also omitted more esoteric debates including books on open theism, federal vision, new perspectives on paul… etc.  The purpose of this list is zoomed out than those specific issues.

1.  No Place for Truth by David Wells  [e, p, s]

How modernity crept in and screwed up evangelicalism.  Absolute classic.

2.  The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll  [y, l, e, p, s]

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that it is so scarce and scant.  You may also want to read Os Guinness’ Fit Bodies Fat Minds, addressing evangelicalism’s intellectual laziness and preoccupation with the temporary.

3.  The Democritization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch  [e, p, s]

Fascinating analysis of the democritization of Christianity in America.  His historical analysis is keen and well-researched.

4.  Christianity and Liberalism by J. Greshem Machen  [e, p, s]

This classic work delineates the liberalism of the early 20th century as being a completely other faith than the historic orthodox Christian faith.  86 years later it is still relevant.

5.  God in the Wasteland by David Wells  [e, p, s]

Wells continues where he left off in No Place for Truth, by challenging evidenced consumerism in evangelicalism.

6.  The Courage to Be Protestant by David Wells  [e, p, s]

The title is a play on Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be.  Tillich’s work was a classic in early 20th century Protestant liberalism.  Wells draws connections between the emergent movement as really being a form of rehashed 20th century era liberalism.  Wells is also scathing on the level and abuse of marketing in modern evangelicalism.  As far as Wells goes, his Above All Earthly Pow’rs s also a worthwhile read:  in terms of analysis Pow’rs is to post-modernity what No Place for Truth was to modernity.

7.  The New Shape of World Christianity:  How American Experience Reflects Global Faith by Mark Noll  [e, p, s]

I am surprised by the lack of press for this book.  Noll examines the history of Christianity in America and draws parallels in key growth areas (Southern hemisphere and the East).  Noll is actually rather positive amid the torrent of bad press on what American Christians are exporting.  This is an important work because we are good to be reminded that American evangelicalism is not the height of church history.  Further, the church is Christ’s and she will prevail.  I think Noll has his fingers on the pulse of what is going on and what is next, we would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

8.  Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George Marsden  [e, p, s]

This is a must read if you seek to understand our history.  Also an important work is Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.

9.  Reclaiming the Center:  Confronting Evangelical Accomodation to Postmodern Times by Various Authors  [y, l, e, p, s]

Various heavyweights chime in on the necessity of remaining faithful to the preaching of the Word and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you like this work, I suggest also Os Guinness’, Prophetic Untimeliness:  Challenging the Idol of Relevance.

10.  Christless Christianity by Michael Horton  [y, l, e, p, s]

This books has caused a bit of a stir.  You can read John Frame’s book review here.  I have yet to read the book, but I thought it a worthwhile mention to engage in present dialogue over the status of the Gospel in evangelicalism.  From what I gather, Horton has guys like Joel Osteen in view when he speaks of a Christianity without Christ.

11.  Young, Restless, and Reformed by Colin Hansen  [y, l, e, p, s]

This book is an important first look at the growing demographic of young Reformed folk.  This is an area that needs further analysis and hopefully a good work will come soon.

12.  Respectable Sins:  Confronting the Sins We Tolerate by Jerry Bridges  [y, l, e, p, s]

Bridges is 100% right when he highlights several sins that evangelicals strangely tolerate:  gossip, anger, pride, jealousy, anxiety, and selfishness to name a few.

13.  Why Johnny Can’t Preach:  The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon  [e, p, s]

Gordon applies Marshall McLuhan’s keen insights to shed light on the dearth of serious bible teaching in evangelicalism.

14.  Confessions of a Reformission Rev by Mark Driscoll  [y, l, e, p, s]

I think Mark Driscoll is a very important voice in evangelicalism, moreso than many of my fellow Reformed brethren.  This book is a humorous yet insightful look into the story of the planting of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  There are many lessons weaved into the narrative that are wise and memorable.

15.  Why We’re Not Emergent:  From Two Guys That Should Be and Why We Love the Church:  In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck  [y, l, e, p, s]

The first book is a solid book on the emergent church.  I also wanted to end this list with on a positive note with Why We Love the Church.  Many times we can get so bogged down in self-criticism that we forget to praise God for all the truly good things he is doing in and through the church in America.

What we need is always adherence to the same three things:  orthodoxy, orthopathos, and orthopraxis.

(c=children; y=young adult; l=lay leader; e=elder; p=pastor; s=scholar)


Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 9: Balance

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"Because the deck of life is always shifting..."

Because the deck of life is always shifting balance can be nothing more than momentary synchronicity.  (Richard Pratt)

Balance is something that evangelicals know very little of.  We were birthed as a reaction against liberalism.  In doing so, much of the conservative theology and philosophy of ministry were an equal and opposite reaction against liberalism.  For much of fundamentalism-turned-evangelicalism’s existence, we defined ourselves anegativa against liberalism, rather than forming a positive definition from Scripture alone.  In many ways, early evangelicalism required liberalism to exist, in order for it to exist.

Moving forward, here are 9 (non-comprehensive) areas where evangelicals ought to seek balance:

1.  Words and Deeds

Some churches like to show the gospel, some like to preach the gospel – we should do birth.  The lost should see and hear Christ preached.

2.  Evangelism and Discipleship

Jesus called us to make disciples and this includes evangelism.  Jesus modeled evangelism as a part of his disipleship.  In many cases, Jesus sent out his disciples before him.  These two things go together.  When we do not model how to share our faith, we cannot expect that our disciples will ever multiply themselves.

3.  Boldness and Clarity

Boldness corresponds to preaching the gospel.  Clarity corresponds to showing the gospel in relationship.  Paul did both.

4.  Immanence and Transcendence

Immanence emphasizes God’s nearness.  Transcendence emphasizes God’s bigness and incomprehensibility.  Both are true and both need to be reflected in our personal and corporate worship.  Some like to emphasize God’s immanence at the expense of his transcendence (Pentecostalism).  Some like to emphasize God’s transcendence at the cost of his immanence (Liturgical).  We need to help people see both and not just pander to one or the other.  Who cares about the form of worship style if God is presented in both his immanence and transcendence.

5.  Preservation and Adaptation

We need to honor the vast tradition of the history of the church – preservation.  We need to innovate to adapt to the language of the culture (obviously, without over-contextualizing).

6.  Individual and Communal

We are saved as individuals.  We are called out to a community.  We are not saved by merely being in the church while we are called out to a church.

7.  “Already/Now” and “Not Yet”

Christ has already risen from the dead; Christ has not yet returned.  We stand between two worlds and must yearn for the one to come, while seeking to affect change on the one we reside.

8.  Reaching-up and Reaching-in and Reaching-out

Reaching-up is the vertical ministry of our relationship with God.  Reaching-in is the horizontal and inward ministry of those in our church.  Reaching-out is the horizontal outward ministry to the world.  If we fail to do any one of these, we have been deficient as a church.

9.  Orthodoxy and Orthopathos and Orthopraxis

All of the previous balances can be summarized in this final one.  Right belief, Right emotion, Right practice.  Balance is critical here.  If we are seeking sound doctrine it ought to produce right practice and right emotion.  If we are seeking right emotion it ought to produce right belief and right practice.  If we are seeking right practice it ought to produce right doctrine and right belief.

What balances would you add?

Moving forward, balance is critical.  Up next, we will look at some summarizing thoughts regarding evangelicalism in the future.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 8: Contextualization

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Contextualization: Are you balanced?

Moving forward, I am not sure if there is a more important issue for evangelicals than proper contextualization (assuming we are holding to orthodox Christianity). Contextualization is the art of explaining the Bible (especially the Gospel) without sacrificing the message, to people with varying cultural distance everywhere in ways they understand.  We are always contextualizing; under/over-contextualization is still contextualization.  We speak differently to children than adults; Westerners, than the Near East, than the Far East.  Contextualization is far too big a topic for one post, so this post serves the purpose of barely introducing the subject.

There are two obvious dangers in contextualization:  Under-contextualization and Over-contextualization:

Under-contextualization [fundamentalism, traditionalism]

Under-contextualization occurs when we ignore real cultural differences that are barriers to understanding the Gospel.  The fundamentalists were notorious under-contextualizers.  The main mistake that most under-contextualizers make is stating that all contextualization is wrong.  The problem with this kind of statement is that we can never avoid contextualization.  Language is the carrier of culture.  If I speak in English (or any other language), I am contextualizing.  It is ethnocentric of the highest order to think that when you speak all people should be able to understand you.

Over-contextualization [syncretism]

I think it was Mike Glodo, who said that,

Missionaries are the best heretics.

His point is that as missionaries are advancing the Gospel in culturally distant places, they face difficult decisions on how to far to go to explain the Christian message.  Do you allow ancestor worship in Japan?  Do you allow polygamy?  Do you worship at the mosque as a follower of Allah and Isa (Jesus) in a Muslim country? Do you think there are believers in the Roman Catholic church, and if so, do you partner with them in Italy?

The great danger of over-contextualization is compromise.  We compromise the Gospel when we marry it to some other worldview/faith that is against the Gospel.  It is inappropriate for us to marry Christianity to modernism (as evangelicals have done for some time), post-modernism (as the emergent church encourages), or any religion Islam/Voodoo/Oprah-Tolle.  This is syncretism.

Most of us will not be facing questions of how far to go to evangelize Muslims in the middle East but we do need to think through how far is inappropriate in trying to seek the lost here in America.  On this matter, Gregg Allison (Southern Seminary) has a more substantive paper addressing contextualization in the emergent church that is worth reading.

Proper contextualization

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was famously quoted as saying (in reference to defining hard-core pornography),

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it

I cannot define proper contextualization, but I know it when I see it.  Proper contextualization is an art and not a science.  Proper contextualization requires spiritual maturity.

If you were to spend time listening/watching a single treatment of the matter, I would highly commend D.A. Carson’s speech on contextualization in this video from closing message from The Gospel Coalition, 2009.  You can tell he has really though through the subject in his speech and that is likely do to his thoughtful book, Christ and Culture Revisited.  Here is a snarky little snippet from the Gospel Coalition message:

Paul refuses to circumcise Titus, even when it was demanded by many in the Jerusalem crowd, not because it didn’t matter to them, but because it mattered so much that if he acquiesced, he would have been giving the impression that faith in Jesus is not enough for salvation: one has to become a Jew first, before one can become a Christian. That would jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.  To create a contemporary analogy: If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.” Paul is flexible and therefore prepared to circumcise Timothy when the exclusive sufficiency of Christ is not at stake and when a little cultural accommodation will advance the gospel; he is rigidly inflexible and therefore refuses to circumcise Titus when people are saying that Gentiles must be circumcised and become Jews to accept the Jewish Messiah.

The operative question is what is the proper relationship of the church to the world.  Ray Pennings has a nice summary of the four Reformed positions on the churches relationship to the world:

So to summarize the discussion within Reformed circles today: The neocalvinist says the fundamental presuppositions underlying the debate need to be changed if we are to have meaningful engagement. The two kingdom perspective responds that it won’t happen; when we try to engage in discussion, we end up calling things Christian that really aren’t, resulting in pride and a misrepresentation of the gospel. The neopuritans say that that is why we should avoid a systemic approach; we should focus more on the individual needs of our neighbors and show them, both in ministries of mercy as well as by positive examples, that faith makes a difference. The Old Calvinists say that in all of this activity, we are losing our focus and getting dirty as we dig around in the garbage cans of culture to retrieve a penny or two of value from the bottom. We and our culture need heart-surgery, not band-aids.

Here are a handful of other helpful articles/links:  Jonathan Dodson, and Hunter Beaumont.

Moving forward, my encouragement to evangelicalism is to think through this relationship thoughtfully.  This will require balance, which is the final subject in this series of posts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 4b

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Suburbanization:  Evangelicalism's Physical Cultural Sequestering

Suburbanization: Evangelicalism's Physical Cultural Sequestering

So, Protestantism tore in two:  liberal and fundamentalist.

We must consider the affects of denying inerrancy on how we view the story of the Bible.  Recall that higher criticism read the Bible through rationalistic eyes.   The net result was the demythologization of the Bible.  Demythologization means exactly what it looks like – taking the supernatural and mythological elements out of the text.  So, liberal Protestants recast Jesus as a  more charitable/moral, kinder, gentler and better way to be human – rather than the substitionary sacrifice to save sinners from the wrath of God and an eternity in hell.  Jesus is boiled down to the moral teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.  The concept of the Kingdom of God is not salvific but merely social in nature.  For the deconstructed liberals, Jesus’ mission statement was something to the effect of:  I came to make society better by showing an unselfish way of living.  Jesus’ vision statement would be something like:  By showing a better way to live, people will follow my example and gradually make the world a better place.

The tragic thing about the liberal social gospel is that there is truth to be found, the problem is that the truths are imbalanced by a lack of their necessary counterweights.  The reality is that the Gospel is both salvific and social in nature.  When God’s people take the Gospel to a new place, God’s rule/reign/authority comes along with it.  Where God’s rule/reign/authority is manifest, His blessing is also manifest.  That blessing is not full, final, and complete in the manner that it will be at the Second Coming of Christ – but it is present.  Unfortunately, the early fundamentalists did not fully embrace this consequence of the Gospel.

What happened was simple… the fundamentalists saw that the liberals were embracing and engaging culture because they had bought into a merely social gospel.  Hence, the fundamentalists reacted against the liberal engaging of culture and they decided they would disengage from culture and sequester themselves.  The core issue was the fundamentalists did not develop a positive identity, rather they defined themselves anegativa (the not-liberals and hence not-socially-engaged).  Fundamentalism became a negative term and eventually conservative Christians grew to self-identify as being “evangelicals” to avoid the negative connotations of the pejorative title of fundamentalist.  Recall that most evangelicals were already highly anti-intellectual at this point (with the notable exception of the Reformed Old Presbyterian folk), so a movement to disengage further from culture was devastating.  Conservative Christians receded from the world of academia, art, media, and other American cultural institutions.  A cursory look at the history of American Universities during this same period (first half of the 20th century) will show a rapid de-Christianization and the beginnings of secularization.  The receding of the conservative Christians from cultural interaction combined with the suburbanization and white flight of the mid-20th century created a huge void of Christian witness in America, particularly in city centers, the hub of cultural life.

Evangelicals have decried how godless/liberal our schools, Universities, media, art… etc. have become and are upset with urban decay.  The problem with this is that we are substantially culpable.  If only the Gospel brings God’s blessing on a society, and the people who still hold fast to that Gospel completely disconnect from society, we can only expect serious moral, intellectual, and social decay to follow.

Next, we shall look at the methodology of mid-late 20th century evangelicalism…

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 4a

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Friedrich Schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher

Ideas have consequences.

Essentially the ideas of two German men split American Protestants in two:  Friedrich Schleiermacher and Ferdinand Baur.  Schleiermacher started exploring something called Higher Criticism*.  Higher criticism is a kind of literary analysis that seeks to figure out the origins of a text.  Specifically, higher criticism looks at who wrote a text, to audience whom the text was written for, and the time the text was composed.   Higher criticism as applied to the Bible has its roots in rationalism.  In rationalism, reason alone is the source of knowledge… hence, the rationalists ultimately reject Scripture.  They reject Scripture because they see things in the Scripture that do not seem to fit their rational framework.  Baur comes on the scene after Schleiermacher, influenced by both Schleiermacher and Hegel.  Baur was the leader of the Tübingen school of theology at the University of Tübingen.  Baur and the Tübingen school of theology were  highly influential in the 19th century.  These ideas eventually crossed the Atlantic and Protestants were divided on how to handle the criticism of the Bible.

One cannot underestimate the impact of the thoughts of these isolated German nerds.  American Protestants split in two over higher criticism.  At issue was whether the Scriptures were without error or inerrant.  Half of Protestants followed the critics denying the inerrancy of Scripture and formed the liberal half of Protestantism called Mainline Protestantism (United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ… and a number of smaller denominations).  In reaction against the liberal Protestants, the other half of Protestants formed the conservative branch, at that time called, Fundamentalists.  The fundamentalists were influenced by the writings of the conservative Old Princeton theologians reacted stating five fundamental positions:  1.  Inerrancy of Scripture   2.  Virgin birth of Christ   3.  Christ’s death as atonement for sin   4.  Bodily resurrection of Jesus  5.  Historical reality of Christ’s miracles.  One can see how reading the Bible rationally, like a science textbook, would lead one to doubt miracles like virgin birth, penal substitution, and resurrection of the dead, leading one to conclude that the Bible had error.

Next we will continue to look at the split of Protestantism and its monumental impact on evangelicalism today…

*Eichhorn and Spinoza are also critical in the establishment of Higher Criticism.  But if we mention them, then we have to mention the influence of Kant on Schleiermacher and Hegel on Baur.  We can go on ad infinitum talking about the influence of Hume on Kant.  I am obviously being selective here.

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