My problem with pluralism

On Friday, I attended afternoon prayers at the local Islamic Center with my colleagues from CPE. After the prayers were over, one of the Muslim gentlemen came over to our group and started to evangelize us with stories about how the Quran explains that Jesus did not die on the cross.

I appreciated his efforts, even if they were a bit of an embarrassment to our host. Our host tried to get us away from our evangelizer and apologized for his brother in the faith’s tactics. As it turns out, many advocates of interfaith pluralism find evangelism awkward and uncouth.

This is a big part of why I find pluralism so difficult to embrace.

I find it difficult because I live in a culture that wants to put claims on people that are inconsistent with the gospel. And here, when I speak of the culture contrary to the gospel, I do not mean people like my Muslim evangelizer. I mean majority American culture.

Pluralism is the watchword of that culture. It says what we believe about God does not really matter, so long as we keep it to ourselves. As long as what we believe stays locked up inside our own heads and behind our church doors, everything is fine. The culture wants us buying Big Macs and paying our taxes on time. Religion gets in the way of that, and so our culture tries to keep religion a private matter, something best not shared or discussed in mixed company. Our culture uses the word “preach” as a pejorative term. “Don’t preach at me.”

Preaching itself is a struggle against the notion that every American has a God-given right to decide for himself or herself what the truth is and to live the life that they think best suits them. Opening up a Bible and saying the God revealed in its pages is the one who should determine who we are and how we live crashes head long into much of the value system promoted in American culture.

This message goes under the cover of saying Christians should not try to convert Jews or Muslims, but there is no reason at all why the logic of the message is limited to fellow monotheists. Americans have a lot of beliefs and practices that run counter to the gospel.

If we think it is wrong to try to evangelize Jews or Muslims or Hindus, then why should we consider it okay to evangelize pagans or materialists or those who are vaguely spiritual but not religious?

In other words, I have a hard time with pluralism precisely because I believe the people in the churches I serve need Jesus Christ. If I thought they could be just as well off with any set of beliefs that they happened to find suitable for themselves, then I would not bother to preach. But if I am convinced that preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel is good for the people who show up in the pews where I serve, then I should think it is good for people who worship other gods as well.

Or that is how it seems to me.

Whitefield or Spong?

A pastoral colleague made this observation in passing recently. He noted that more entrepreneurial and risk-taking congregations tended to be ones with more “conservative” theology, by which he meant theology that looked a lot more like John Wesley and George Whitefield than John Shelby Spong.

I’m sure this is not a universal truth. I’m sure there are some Spong-loving congregations that do all kinds of new and risky things to reach new people. But I do wonder how true the the observation might be.

It does seem logical that a group of people who share a mission that places a strong emphasis on evangelism — as most “conservative” churches do — would be more likely to say results matter more than the methods by which those results are achieved. You could expect that to foster a spirit that favors more risk-taking.

What has your experience been? Do congregations that make evangelism a center piece of their mission tend to be more open to risk-taking?

Less Methodist = More Wesleyan?

Talbot Davis argues that a church becomes more Wesleyan by looking less Methodist.

[T]he sad irony is that many of the structures a local United Methodist congregation adopts in its effort to be faithfully United Methodist — structures that by and large arose in the 20th century — actually inhibit that church’s ability to be authentically Wesleyan.

What do you think?

Welcome to Corinth?

An online pornography site is taking its advertising public.

This story about the ad campaign — which I can’t figure out how to link to without linking to, but it would not be appropriate for reading in church, so be warned — calls the ads tasteful. This is a new meaning of the word “tasteful” that is unfamiliar to me.

This is the culture that tells the church it needs to loosen up about sex.

Hauerwas, Rolling Stone, and Mars Hill

It is probably because I’m reading Resident Aliens again, but I keep hearing Stanley Hauerwas when I’m reading other things.

For instance, this Christianity Today piece on this Rolling Stone article about the sex lives and norms of Millennials strikes me as something straight out of Hauerwas. (BTW, read the Rolling Stone piece and tell me again how polyamory is not something the church needs to be able to talk about.)

The gist of the CT piece is the author’s shock at the sexual norms of Millennials followed by the realization that advocating for conventional biblical sexual norms will either be drowned out or will drive people away from the church. Instead, the author comes to realize, all that talk about what to do with our private parts is intended not for the pagan culture outside the church but for those inside the church trying to live a new people.

From the records we have, we can deduce that Paul talked about sex with people who were already within a church community. He didn’t stand up on Mars Hill in Athens and preach about immorality. He told the story of Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. He didn’t argue about “lifestyle issues” with pagans. If he argued about anything, it was about grace and truth and love. And then he told the story of Jesus again. (See Acts 13, and Acts 17 for two examples.)

Of course Paul writes plenty about sex, but again, he does so to people in Christian communities and he almost always does so in the context of whole-life change. Sex is one moral issue amidst a host of others. Paul assumes that for these Christians to change—whether in what they eat or who they sleep with or how they talk or anything else—Paul assumes change will be radical, positive, and ongoing. He assumes it will only happen with the help of the Spirit, in the context of Christian community, and only as they grow up in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Christian speech is only intelligible inside the community called church. This sounds a lot like Hauerwas to me.

The writer concludes that she should not speak of biblical morality at all outside the church community. I’m not convinced that is the right approach.

I’m certainly not advocating getting on a soap box and screaming “fornicators!” at people on the street. But there is something to be said, I think, for the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and he offers something that all the sexual exploits in the world cannot. When Paul stood up in Athens, he did not shy away from saying he knew something about God that all their searching and striving had missed.

We should never be smug. To be a Christian is to be humble and meek. But I don’t think we want to hide the holiness of Jesus Christ under a basket.

I could be argued out of this thought. What do you think?