David P. Gushee, ed., A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, St. Louis (Chalice, 2012).
I’ve written before that there are substantial changes afoot in Western Christianity. For many, the standard evangelical ways of addressing questions of the faith in both belief and practice are themselves being questioned, largely from within. These challenges, further, are generally not the testing of a rebellious youth. Rather, on nearly every front, they are genuine questions based in a desire to better understand the Gospel in its fullness and to act it out faithfully.
I was excited, then, when I came across A New Evangelical Manifesto, hoping to find a collection of believers articulating this 21st century reformation. I came to the book hoping to find a promising articulation of Christian practice that extended beyond what has passed for faithful evangelicalism, especially in America. No longer is it enough to practice a private devotion to Christ and cast the appropriate conservative ballot each November. No, that type of Christianity simply won’t do. I had hoped to find a positive answer in this collection of essays.
A New Evangelical Manifesto is, like most things, a mixed bag. In some ways – some important ways – the volume expresses some massive improvements to thinking about our faith and its interaction in the public sphere. In other equally important ways, the solutions on offer here miss the mark by a wide margin.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, entitled “A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity…”, is an effort by seven writers to put into words the ideas behind their personal longings for a better way to be evangelical in America. This is followed by eight more essays on how to better love marginalized neighbors, such as women within the church or Muslims at home and abroad. Finally, the volume lands on seven public policy issues worth reassessing from biblical perspectives.
It is the first section, in which the writers hash out ideas for regaining an American church that better reflects the Gospel, that carries the most promise. As such, it is this part that will have my attention in this review.
The problem, as Brian McLaren sees it in the first essay, is that the American church has become too politicized, that we’ve sacrificed the ideal of Christ for the ideal of a nostalgic and nativist America. Fear has come to rule our churches as we look out onto the landscape of our nation. Naturally, political parties have used those fears to their own advantage, and co-opted many ardent believers.
This is best illustrated by the chapter from Richard Cizik, former Vice-President for Governmental Relations of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Here, Cizik describes an interview he gave in 2008, in which he candidly told his interviewer, Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” that he had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton. That admission, alongside remarks that he was personally wrestling with his stance on civil unions, led to his immediate dismissal from the NAE, which he had served for 28 years. One wonders, in the face of incidents like these, whether the organization would be better named the National Association of Republicans.
Steven Martin, a founding member alongside Cizik and editor David Gushee of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, picks up this thread in his essay, “Where the Church Went Wrong,” suggesting that the evangelical church in America has, whether knowingly unconsciously, sided with “worldly forms of power instead of God’s power” (12). Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. The church has been doing this for the bulk of its history. It’s an understandable temptation, he writes. After all, the church is ultimately called to do the impossible. Any power it might grasp could seem a gift from God. But, ultimately, “the basis for Christian life is the act of following Jesus” (15), who neatly carved a path apart from all political powers.
But are Christians to just disengage? Are we to avoid the temptation of political power by shrinking into our steepled enclaves? Paul N. Markham, in “A Theology That ‘Works,'” tells us that to do so would be an affront to our faith. “Our view of God,” he writes, “is one of a loving and just Creator, and it only takes a brief look around to see that the world is not what God would have it be. This is a problem. It’s our problem – and we see ourselves as workers with God to do something about it” (43, emphasis original). This faith cannot, must not, be private.
The final two-thirds of A New Evangelical Manifesto attempt to offer solutions to the problem staring down American Christianity. Some of these solutions, I’m afraid, make the same error the conservative church has been making, but in the opposite direction. They are keen to sidle up with the politically left in an effort to engage society. Other solutions on offer here do a relatively fine job of balancing the radical call of Jesus with civic engagement. None, however, seemed as radically enthralling as Jesus himself.
If you find yourself unsettled by the state of affairs in American evangelicalism, if at times the church feels more like the body of the Right than the body of Christ, then this is worth the read. It is a help to crystallize the problem at hand and the engage with other views that offer some way forward, even if this reviewer disagrees with those paths. A New Evangelical Manifesto is fine enough opening to this dialogue. It will not be the last word.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.