Whimpering Radishes, Leftward Routes


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Originally prepared March 2012 for a course at Liberty University. Routes & Radishes: And Other Things To Talk About At The Evangelical Crossroads, by Mark Russell, Allen Yeh, Michelle Sanchez, Chelle Stearns, and Dwight Friesen (with an Afterword by Lynne Hybels). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010. Soft cover. ISBN 978-0-310-32468-3. 1

In Routes & Radishes, five “younger Evangelical leaders ” offer thoughts in what the publisher’s blurb calls “a unique, interactive format ” (back cover), but which actually just imports Facebook- or blog-style comments (complete with profile pictures!) into an otherwise standard a-couple-chapters-per-contributor format. The contributors are, in chapter order: Allen L. Yeh, D.Phil. Oxford, Assistant Professor of History and Theology at Biola University; Michelle Sanchez, M.Div., Th.M. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, pastor of Christian Formation at Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington, Massachusetts; Mark L. Russell, Ph.D. Asbury Theological Seminary, co-founder of Russell Media with past missionary experience in Russia, Chile, and Germany; Chelle Stearns, Ph.D. University of St. Andrews, Assistant Professor of Theology at Mars Hill Graduate School; and Dwight J. Friesen, D.Min. George Fox University, Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Mars Hill Graduate School. This review will look briefly at each of these individual’s contributions, offering criticisms as appropriate.

The first section is “Allen[ Yeh]’s Historical Perspective: Who Are Evangelicals? ” (11-50), with chapters titled “The Road We Travel ” and “The Road Ahead. ” In his first chapter, Yeh provides a history of efforts to define Evangelicalism. In doing this, a big concern of Yeh’s, which he shares with Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Seminary), is to find a definition that severs the tie between the Evangelical identification and viewpoints associated with the Religious Right (14). One definition Yeh shows some liking for is the Bebbington Quadrilateral, named for its creator, British historian David Bebbington (18). This definition, as Yeh summarizes it, identifies Evangelicalism as characterized by four characteristics:

[1] conversionism (the importance of confession for salvation); [2] activism (ministry and missions in both the evangelistic and social justice senses); [3] biblicism (taking the Bible as the sole supreme authority of Christian faith and practice); and [4] crucicentrism (emphasis on the sacrificial redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross) ” (18, emphasis added).
Yeh makes a special point of defending the “and social justice ” statement as necessary to the definition, implying that anyone not involved in social justice activism is not really an Evangelical (19). Though one can, in theory, use the term “social justice ” to mean a variety of things, it carries strong connotations of government-centered action, connotations that generally incline those who oppose leftist ( “liberal ”) politics to avoid expressing approval for “social justice. ” What Yeh has in mind when he speaks of “social justice ” does seem to be just such concerns as typically energize the Left, such as trying to eliminate poverty through government action ( “poverty is the new slavery, ” he quotes Jim Wallis [19]). Throughout both his chapters, Yeh emphasizes his dissatisfaction with “two issue ” (abortion and marriage) Religious Right politics. At one point, in fact, he suggests that he could “advocate abortion…in the cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger ” (233 n4; most active in the pro-life movement would not “advocate ” abortion even in these circumstances, though some would be unwilling to outlaw it in such cases). Yeh also expresses a liking for the the fifteen-point Lausanne Covenant as an expansion of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (21).

Yeh emphasizes that he embraces “radical ” rather than “established ” Evangelicalism (24). 2 Whereas established Evangelicalism is conservative ( “cling[ing] to the status quo, ” voting Republican), radical Evangelicalism claims to “return to the roots ” of Christianity, which may mean “starting to vote Democrat because [one] see[s] more biblical values in that political party than in the Republican Party ” (24, 27). Of course, this justification for supporting an officially and radically pro-abortion party, which gets much of its justification from Ron Sider’s “completely pro-life ” rationalization (27; Yeh calls it being “holistically pro-life ”), assumes that issues on which the Democratic party is (allegedly) correct are just as important, and the moral issues involved with them just as clear, as is the case with such Republican issues as abortion. But is this true? A Republican who strongly supports (and heavily donates to) private charity may oppose government wealth redistribution because he believes it immoral to confiscate honestly earned wealth from one person against his will in order to give it to someone else. This does not seem to place the Republican on the wrong side of a clear moral issue, no matter what a Yeh or Sider (or Wallis or Mouw…or perhaps Mao) might claim. When, however, a Democrat opposes placing legal restrictions on abortion, while admitting he believes the entity destroyed by abortion is (or even just “might be ”) a human person, the immorality of his position is patent. Contrary to Yeh’s assertion, “The term Christian left is [still] an oxymoron ” (27), so far as I can tell.

Yeh’s second chapter, which seeks to identify what issues should be deemed essential and nonessential for Evangelicals, also exhibits a great concern for “social justice, ” and for emphasizing how it is acceptable, even laudable, for a Christian to be a Democrat. He writes:

…have you ever thought that both political parties are pro-life but in different ways? I define pro-life more broadly than just “antiabortion. ” Pro-life is not just about life before birth; it is about life after birth. Republicans are pro-life when they are against abortion. Democrats are pro-life when they are against poverty, starvation, AIDS, malaria, and water-borne diseases. (37)
Again, this is reasoning straight out of Ron Sider’s “completely pro-life ” rationalization. Note the implicit accusation against Republicans who oppose using government force to correct “social injustices ” (unequal social outcomes) not traceable to any person or persons’ unjust or dishonest action: Republicans, unlike Democrats, are for “poverty, starvation, AIDS, malaria, and water-borne diseases ” (37). Of course, no one is actually for any of those things; some, however, do not believe government confiscation of justly earned wealth is necessarily the most moral (or the most pragmatically sound) way to solve (or raise money to solve) these problems. But whether or not one believes one group of people (pregnant women, medical doctors) should be free to actively kill another group of people (unborn children) is a fundamentally (a radically) different sort of issue, one which no Christian should see as morally ambiguous.

The second section is “Michelle[ Sanchez]’s Trinitarian Perspective: Who Is the God of Evangelicals? ” (51-100), with chapters titled “Who Is Our Guide? ” and “Finding Our Way When We Find Our Guide. ” These chapters explore the possible benefits of a Christian spirituality, and of Christian spiritual practices, that takes God’s Trinitarian nature into account. The core idea, which relies heavily on the thinking of Simon Chan, is that each person of the Trinity, considered in isolation, supports a certain type of spirituality and spiritual practices, so that a spirituality that focuses too much on one divine Person to the exclusion of others tends to be unbalanced. For instance, Father-focused spirituality is said to encourage mystic recognition of God’s unsearchable otherness and to favor ritualistic ( “smells and bells ” 3) liturgical practices. In broad outline, this line of reasoning may not be problematic—contemplation of God and His nature seems unlikely to be a bad thing for one’s Christian growth. Nevertheless, at least a few statements in the chapters should be read with caution. One example especially stands out: Sanchez’s support for “developing the ability to hear the Spirit’s voice, sense the Spirit’s movement, and align with the Spirit’s heart ” (78). This idea that “God whispers ” to contemporary believers (as Greg Koukl phrased it in a newsletter not too long ago, in which Koukl was critical of the idea) is not without danger. As John MacArthur once said, “If you want to know what God says, open your Bible and see what God wrote. ” Whenever claim is made to prophet-like direct access to divine guidance in our day, when completed Scripture is available, there is a risk that what God wrote might be overridden (such as by allegedly Spirit-guided reinterpretation) on the basis of subjectively interpreted personal experiences of uncertain origin. In fact, Sanchez’s own justification of an egalitarian perspective on the issue of female leadership in the church (i.e., women may freely take on any leadership role they sense themselves called to take on) finds justification in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement’s appeal to “prophetic authority ” over “priestly [more accurately, over biblical] authority ” (85 ff.; cf. 223). Instead of “testing the spirits ” by perspicuous Scripture, Sanchez proposes testing (reinterpreting) the Scripture based on perceived action of the Spirit.

The third section is “Mark[ Russell]’s Missional Perspective: What Is Our Mission? ” (101-150), with chapters titled “How Evangelicals Go off the Road ” and “Getting Evangelicals Back on the Road. ” The distinguishing characteristic of Mark’s chapters is rejection of certitude and a pervasive perspectivism or cultural relativism, joined to an epistemology that places Scripture on a level with other sources of information. The unsettled nature of Russell’s convictions is suggested early-on when he writes, “I enjoy engaging a variety of Christian traditions and am confident that I could grow spiritually and minister effectively in most churches that would not be considered by most to be Evangelical. One day I just might ” (104). Is this an attitude other Christians should aspire to? Or does it manifest a lack of conviction and commitment they should wish to avoid? I suspect the latter. In any case, Russell’s main argument is that Evangelicalism is on the wrong track because it underemphasizes “love ” and overemphasizes truth. “Prioritizing truth over love ” is, in his opinion, unwise, unbiblical, and harmful.

Russell bases his argument, predictably enough, on “the two great commandments ” passage in Matthew 22. (This is not the only passage he appeals to, but it is central.) What Russell misses in his argument—and this flaw is fatal—is that this passage in fact sanctions the very prioritizing of truth over “love ” for other humans to which his argument objects. Here’s what it says:

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting [testing] him, and saying, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? ” Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. ” (Matt. 22:35-40, quotation marks and emphasis added) 4
In terms of Russell’s argument, what stands out about this passage is that our Lord clearly sets up a priority ranking of the two great commandments to love. First in importance is, not love of one’s fellow humans, but love of God, including love of God with one’s mind. Loving God’s with all one’s mind means (or at least includes) loving God’s truth. Love of other humans comes after this, and falls below it in priority. Contrary to Russell’s claim that this passage justifies deemphasizing defense of the truth in order to be more “loving ” toward our fellow human beings, the passage in fact teaches that truth, God’s truth, must take priority over “love ” (which, as interlocutor Michelle Sanchez rightly notes in one of her comment boxes, Russell never defines with any clarity anyway [107]). Don’t get me wrong, I would certainly agree with Russell that we should strive to be charitable, humble (that is, humble about ourselves, but bold and uncompromising about all the truths in God’s Word, to the extent we’ve come to understand them), and (insofar as we can be so without yielding to compromise) irenic in dialog with those we believe are in error. Russell’s attempt to make Christians more “loving ” in their behavior by deemphasizing truth (or by eroding certainty about truth [see his remarks on Bible interpretation, 224]) is badly misguided. Also misguided, I think, is his suggestion that, in place of an “excessive ” reliance on Scripture (as we interpret it), we should rely on a “Pentalateral ” of sources of knowledge (the traditional Wesleyan Quadrilateral, where Scripture is one of multiple “interdependent ” sources of knowledge, with “the created order ” added as a fifth source of knowledge) (134-35). But I leave detailed analysis of that suggestion to the reader.

The fourth section is “Chelle[ Stearns]’s Artistic Perspective: Who Are We As a Community? ” (151-180), with chapters titled “Rock Star Worship ” and “The Holy Spirit and Worship ” (167-180). Stearns is a musicians and has written two chapters about church music ministry. She believes that music ministry in many Evangelical churches is too focused on reproducing the sounds of popular recorded music, and that this results in a forced homogeneity of style that prevents individual participants from expressing their unique gifts in the musical context. This is a personally relevant issue to her, since her classical violin training doesn’t fit with the recorded sound of most popular Christian “worship ” music. One point of criticism of these fairly unobjectionable chapters is that they throughout are really speaking about issues of concern to members of “worship teams, ” musicians and singers who lead congregational worship; yet, Stearns refers multiple times to the need for “the entire congregation ” to participate in the worship, when the “the entire congregation ” is nowhere the actual focus of her observations and suggestions.

The fifth and final section is “Dwight[ Friesen]’s Contextual Perspective: How Do We Relate to Other Christians in the Future? ” (181-220), with chapters titled “Celebrating the Construction Crew through Our Rearview Mirror ” (183-202) and “Evangelicals Visit the Optometrist ” (203-220). Friesen’s first chapter points to some correspondences between mid-twentieth-century Evangelicalism and preceding existentialism and pragmatism, correspondences that he believes “demonstrate that our movement has been shaped by the cultural expressions of existentialism and pragmatism ” (185). Among the Evangelical emphases he sees as indicating existentialist and pragmatist influence are individualism (existentialist) and a focus on practical methodologies (pragmatist). Friesen want to suggest, it seems, that this shaping of Evangelicalism in terms of existing cultural forces was a good thing, contextualizing the gospel in a way helping to promote the cause of Christ in the mid-twentieth-century. This assessment is (presumably) supposed to lead naturally into his next chapter, where he hopes to suggest ways to contextualize the gospel for our current environment. In fact, however, his second chapter seems more about regulating our belief and behavior than about contextualizing the gospel for communication to others. As he lays out his own vision,

The Evangelical movement without ecclesial tradition can appear ahistorical, rudderless, and individualized; without the Emerging conversation [he does not like the wording “Emerging Church ”], Evangelicalism can appear arrogant, judgmental, and closed. Ecclesial tradition without the Emerging conversation can become culturally irrelevant, stale, and ingrown; without the Evangelical movement, ecclesial tradition can lose sight of the authority of Scripture, personal experience of Christ, or the passion to bear witness to the good news. The Emerging conversation without ecclesial tradition can simply reinvent the Church without a sense of belonging; without the Evangelical movement, the Emerging conversation can be lost to relativism or driven by culture more than the norming narrative of Scripture. But when held in dynamic relationship, these three lenses form a beautiful new prescription bringing the Christian identify into clearer focus. (218)
This proposal bears some similarity to Russell’s “Pentalateral. ” Both systems propose setting multiple sources of knowledge or guidance “in dynamic relationship, ” rather than privileging any single source of knowledge or guidance above others. Though certainly one must draw upon all sources of genuinely true information or genuinely wise guidance, I cannot help but be troubled by this tendency to prefer approaches to knowledge and practical guidance that do not explicitly emphasize Scripture’s superiority over all other sources of knowledge and wisdom.

What can one say in conclusion about this mixed collection of papers? I confess, this is not a book I would have read had it not been specifically assigned to me by a professor. And, having read it, I can claim no great excitement about anything in it. My first thought is, “how art thou fallen, Evangelicalism, from prior heights? ” The writers are educated and attempt to be thoughtful, but there is a lack of solid foundation, a lack of “thus says the Lord ” certitude in proclaiming the truth, evident throughout. The content feels soft and squishy, or perhaps vaporous, to me, and nothing in it strongly engages my mind or excites my passion. I realize these are all subjective impressions, but my objective criticism I’ve offered above and see no need to repeat here. All I offer as my concluding thought is that, if this book is the shape of Evangelicalism to come, T. S. Eliot was indeed correct to predict that the world (at least, the Evangelical world) will not end with a bang, but with a whimper.


Notes

1 Page references to Routes & Radishes appear in parentheses in the body of the paper.

2 He also emphasizes this in his introduction to the book, “On-Ramp: Charting the Course (Introduction) ” (7-10), where he states on behalf of all contributors, “we all have a radical edge to our Evangelicalism, ” by which he means that they “all look back to Christian origins for inspiration. ” This desire to be radical is also, he explains, the source of the title, radishes being related etymologically to root via the Latin for root, radix, and routes being a play on the word root (9)

3 Not a phrase Sanchez uses!

4 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the King James Version, Blayney Edition (Public Domain, 1769 [first edition date 1611]), with any archaic spelling or word use modified by myself.

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