December 13, 2012

Evangelicals, Gospel, Culture and “Q”

(Andy Crouch at a “Q” event earlier this year in Washington, D.C.)

Today and tomorrow I’m at a “Q” conference in New York featuring Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch and New York pastor Tim Keller of famed Redeemer Presbyterian, a church highly successful in attracting Manhattan yuppies and many others. “Q” is mostly aimed at intellectual young urban evangelicals. It strives to be centrist though sometimes its content is somewhat left of center, certainly more liberal than most conservative evangelicals. This event, like typical “Q” gatherings, focuses on shaping culture through the Gospel.

Crouch spoke today, Wednesday, and he is a commanding speaker, easily holding the audience across nearly 5 hours stretching from morning until late afternoon. At the start he accurately noted how Mainline Protestantism had “lost its way” with its early 20th century faith in “constant progress,” without sacrifice or Christ’s shed blood. It naively sought a world of brotherhood under God’s fatherhood without factoring the obstacle of human sin.

Commendably, Crouch defended institutions, religious and otherwise, when too many evangelicals seek an impossible de-institutionalized Christianity. Institutions can achieve what solitary individuals cannot, and institutions are essential for culture shaping, he declared. Institutions are niches were human gifts develop, and they make room for God’s image bearers to flourish. Institutions also allow human actions to become sufficiently durable to persist across generations. Evangelical movements built around large personalities often fail to endure as multi-generational institutions, Crouch regretted.

Also commendably, Crouch chided the “idea spreading like an infection among evangelical young people” that the church should “just focus on meeting people’s needs,” without evangelistically including the Gospel message. “If we don’t name the Name…we’re missing the whole resource of culture change,” he warned.

Crouch assailed the human propensity to displace God with idolatrous human power. He cited as the “root of poverty” that “somebody has played God to somebody else.” He also condemned as God-playing the widespread U.S. deployment of drones against terrorist targets without risk to American lives. “We are all implicated,” as a society for reliance on drones, he bemoaned, including even Anabaptist critics of war, as Americans allow the U.S. government to “play God on our behalf.” Crouch insisted he is himself not a pacifist. But he did not explain a morally preferable alternative.

Fallen humanity has preferred idols and injustice to serving as image bearers of God, Crouch said. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were summoned by God across generations to reconstitute an image bearing people, which culminated with Jesus Christ. His sacrifice upon the cross “announced victory to captives set free by the True Image Bearer.”

When asked whether a comprehensive evangelical culture shaping perspective depends on the Reformed tradition, Crouch responded that he is himself not Reformed or Calvinist. He commended John Wesley’s “catholic” and “baptized imagination” that applied the Gospel to both the spiritual and secular. Wesleyanism was “congenial to image bearing,” and Wesley himself was steeped in the early church fathers. Although he established a strong foundation, Methodists, unlike many Calvinists, often lacked a “sense of cultural power.” Methodism did not produce “great writing on culture,” Crouch surmised, partly because it initially thrived “among those with lower agency,” often in the working class, who were focused on survival and practicality.

In response to another question, which suggested early Christianity was laudably uninstitutional but “went off the rails” after the Council of Nicaea, Crouch admitted he was once “sympathetic” to this perspective. But he now more fully understands that the early church had organized structures. And he now sees that the early church was “not shy about engaging with Caesar.” The church saw Constantine’s professed conversion as an “opportunity” to show that rulers should seek human flourishing. “New Testament writers are not as anti-imperial as we sometimes think,” Crouch said. Noting that the king is called to be an image bearer of God, he described the Kingdom of God as replicating God’s image and justice everywhere.

As a United Methodist, of course I appreciated Crouch’s explanation of Methodism’s failure to offer an intellectual framework for culture and society on par with Calvinism. And I am grateful for Crouch’s challenge to the often popular neo-Anabaptist hostility to Constantine’s legacy and the “empire.” Looking forward to Rev. Keller’s presentation tomorrow.

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