Protestantism

Thinking about that 'evangelical' label: Tim Keller on life after this Donald Trump earthquake

Thinking about that 'evangelical' label: Tim Keller on life after this Donald Trump earthquake

What's the easiest way to pick the think piece for any given weekend?

That's easy. All I have to do is look in my email files and note which non-news article (but an article that is directly linked to religion news) was sent to me over and over and over during the previous week. It that article was also all over Twitter, you know you have a winner.

It was easy to spot THAT ARTICLE this past week. It was the New Yorker essay by the Rev. Timothy Keller, the recently retired leader of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. The timely headline: "Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?"

Obviously, the next question that readers have to ask is this: "How do you define 'evangelicalism'?" I've been wrestling with that one for several decades -- all the way back to when I was, well, an evangelical.

There are many key passages in the Keller piece. Let's start with his own story:

When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. Shortly thereafter, I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. It was one of the many institutions that Graham, Harold Ockenga, and J. Howard Pew, and other neo-evangelicals, as they were sometimes called, established. In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S. When I moved to Manhattan to start a new church, in 1989, most people I met found the church and its ministry to be a curiosity in secular New York but not a threat. And, if they heard the word “evangelical” around the congregation, a name we seldom used, they usually asked what it meant.

You know what happened next. The word "evangelical" morphed into something else, something cultural and, yes, political. For some reason, Keller left mainstream journalism out of this mix.

The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc. When they survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria.

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How can journalists begin to comprehend all those labels that divide Christians?

How can journalists begin to comprehend all those labels that divide Christians?

WENDI’S QUESTION (paraphrased):

Denominational. Non-denominational. Fundamentalist. Baptist. Mormon. Methodist. Assembly of God. Etc. Etc.: How do we know what type of beliefs these are? Why or why not claim to be ‘Christian’ without anything else added? This is confusing me.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Wendi has good reason to be confused, especially about the incredibly complex situation in the United States this article will seek to unscramble. By contrast, one or two churches often denominate in European countries and there are fewer minorities. The same was once generally true in developing nations that now have an ever-increasing variety of churches.

Contrast that with the New Testament, where followers of Jesus Christ were simply “Christians” or adherents of “the way.” Jesus himself prayed to God the Father that his followers “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved me” (John 17:23).

On the church’s founding day, Pentecost, barriers of language and ethnicity miraculously vanished (Acts 2). The Apostle Paul taught that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in God’s kingdom “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and that Christians share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Such is the Christian ideal. But does this spiritual unity require membership within one organization, as the ancient churches -- Catholic and Orthodox -- believe (though they have many distinct subgroups)? Are separate organizations based on culture or doctrinal details appropriate?

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Does the Bible’s ban on 'graven images' forbid icons and sacred art in church?

Does the Bible’s ban on 'graven images' forbid icons and sacred art in church?

BRAD’S QUESTION:

Why don’t Catholics have a problem with the graven images that surround them in church?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Brad is obviously Protestant in his cultural outlook. That is, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches encourage religious art in church, seen as aids to devotion.

Protestants’ policies vary (as on most things!) but they broadly unite with Judaism in limiting visual images in worship settings to avoid any association with idolatry. Some Protestants prohibit all art in sanctuaries. Others allow abstractions and symbols but not human or animal forms. Some may depict Jesus Christ or saints, typically in stained glass, rarely in statues, and never as the objects of veneration. Further, some forbid flags in church to prevent idolatry toward the nation.

The discussion begins with this from the Bible’s venerable Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:8 and summarized elsewhere, e.g. Leviticus 16:1). “Graven image” means a stature or carving, while “any likeness” covers any and all visual representations.

Jewish scholars say the ban applies to art only in worship contexts due to the “bow down” and “serve” phrasing along with the immediately preceding statement that “you shall have no other gods before me.”

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500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

Is the divide between Protestants and Catholics growing or shrinking?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” 

The Atlantic attached that overwrought headline to a sober analysis of internal Catholic tensions written by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

No, Francis won’t, despite weighty issues the article surveyed. But a dramatic “break” did actually happen, beginning in 1517 when Martin Luther posted what history calls the “95 Theses.” The German Catholic priest protested sales of indulgences to help the pope build St. Peter’s Basilica “with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” (Text here.)

Thus began the Protestant Reformation, which quickly raised many other church issues, defied the papacy, split European Christendom, changed the course of civil society and government — and echoes loudly to the present day.

The big 500th anniversary upcoming in 2017 will feature academic confabs and many other observances. The Religion Guy has already received a glossy brochure mailed by the German tourist agency titled “Luther 2017: 500 Years Since the Reformation.” A subhead reads “In the beginning was the Word.”

Indeed, Luther’s Bible translation shaped the modern German language and inspired many other popular translations that supplanted Catholicism’s authorized Latin version. Sadly, Luther’s own devotion to the Bible and its teachings has a diminishing hold on the nominal Protestants of his homeland.

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