My precious virtual friend Vinoth Ramachandra, the IFES Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement, wrote today in an email:
The American (Eastern Orthodox) theologian David Bentley Hart raises some thought-provoking questions about the American church that if raised by others would immediately be brushed aside as symptomatic of “anti-Americanism”. In an article (“The Angels of Sacré-Coeur”) first published in 2011, Hart writes:
“It is very much an open and troubling question whether American religiosity has the resources to help sustain a culture as a culture- whether, that is, it can create a meaningful future, or whether it can only prepare for the end times. Is the American religious temperament so apocalyptic as to be incapable of culture in any but the most local and ephemeral sense? Does it know of any city other than Babylon the Great or the New Jerusalem? For all the moral will it engenders in persons and communities, can it cultivate the kind of moral intelligence necessary to live in eternity and in historical time simultaneously, without contradiction?”
And he ends with the sober judgment: “European Christendom has at least left a singularly presentable corpse behind. If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity.”
Harsh words, perhaps, but they stem from a passion to see the Lordship of Christ embracing and permeating every area of the church’s life and engagement with the world. The apostle Paul too used harsh language in denouncing the way the face of Christ was distorted by both false teaching and behaviour inconsistent with the Gospel.
American Christian Fundamentalism (ACF) has made deep inroads into churches all over the world since the Second World War, and its influence has been magnified with the rise of satellite TV and the Internet. I have often said that, with the decline of old-style European theological liberalism, ACF poses a far bigger threat to the global church than Islamist fundamentalism. Why? Because the biggest threats arise not from those who can only kill the body but from those who kill our souls in the name of religion.
Here are four reasons, among others, for my concern:
(1) ACF promotes religious hypocrisy. Its preachers rail against “worldliness” while baptising the consumerist “American dream” and right-wing political agendas; they announce that we are living in “the last days” but they don’t close down their bank deposit accounts or pull their children out of school; they teach that “preaching the Gospel” is the primary, if not the only thing, that matters to God, but they themselves spend most of their time in getting married, building a home, ensuring that their children get the best health care, education and employment. They preach that since the earth is going to be destroyed anyway, environmental concerns are a waste of time; but they spend an inordinate amount of time feeding and clothing their bodies, repairing their homes and cars- all of which are likewise doomed to perish. They teach that all who don’t hear the Gospel are “going to hell”, but that doesn’t seem to move them to give up marriage, children, jobs, money, etc., and go about rescuing as many souls as they can from this “eternal hell”. If they clearly don’t believe what they preach, why should we?
(2) ACF promotes mindlessness. It demonizes whatever it doesn’t understand, especially Secularism, Evolution, Feminism, Islam and the ancient Asian religions. Walk into an affluent ACF-influenced church, and you will see some highly educated men and women in the audience who have checked in their critical thinking at the door. They passively absorb the most outrageous theological notions, submit to authoritarian forms of leadership, and fail to see the glaring contradictions between the lifestyle of Jesus and that of the preacher-entertainers on the podium.
This “split-mind” among many ACF-influenced academics and professionals is a product of the narrow “Gospel” they have been introduced to (e.g. “being born again”, “going to heaven when I die”, “having a personal relationship with God”), so that they cannot see how their daily work, studies, political views, economic behaviour, and so on, have anything at all to do with the Gospel of Christ.
(3) ACF promotes divisiveness. By preaching a private, individualistic “Gospel”, it blinds its followers to the scandal of Christian fragmentation, rivalry and separation. It also encourages “personality cults” which are often disguised as “doctrinal distinctives.” ACF-influenced Christians believe they have nothing to learn from other Christians. The concern of Jesus that the visible unity of the church is the best apologetic to a watching world (e.g. John 13:34, 35; 17:20,21) and Paul’s teaching that the visible unity of the church is central to the message of the cross itself (Eph. 2:14ff) – these are completely ignored.
(4) ACF promotes Zionist views re the Middle East, reinforcing the apartheid practices of the Israeli state. The post-1948 secular state of Israel is bizarrely identified with Old Testament covenant Israel, and the politics of the region going back to the 19th-century is simply ignored. Most tragically, there is a profound and culpable neglect of the entire New Testament understanding of Christ as the fulfilment of all the Old Testament promises (e.g. where is “the land” ever mentioned in the New Testament?).
At root, all these spring from the sad fact that those who talk most loudly about the “authority of the Bible” and being “Bible-believing” Christians, don’t actually read the whole Bible. They read a “Bible within the Bible” (selected verses used as proof-texts) or they read the Bible through spectacles taken from their favourite preachers and authors.
Which is why we need a new Reformation among evangelical Protestants.