It’s Below the Water Line or, Newbigin Illustrated in Duren, Horton, McKnight, and Merritt

We prefer to re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic than look below the water line. My mentor uses the first part of this imagery to describe the ways in which new fangled approaches to church were really little more than eye candy. My friend Spencer Burke refers to what is below the water line when he thinks about the theological subjects we refuse to discuss because many believe they are “settled” matters.

Scot McKnight illustrates how we re-arrange the deck chairs. Scot continues to review books that have come out of the cottage-industry-for-Christian-writers-created-by-various-publishers answering the question, “What is the Gospel?” This is of course in response to the “Gospel-centered” movement. If the Gospel is at the center, then someone gets to define it. And, there is no shortage of takers who want their vision to win the day.

The King Jesus Gospel represents Scot’s foray into the discussion. But, outside of N.T. Wright among popular writers, every offering seems to be a nuance on the same theme. At least that is how McKnight is finding things. Scot labels what most Evangelicals cut their teeth on as the “Soterian Gospel.” The focus and locus of Gospel is about the individual and personal salvation. McKnight, like Wright, does not deny the human need for redemption but sees this act as part of a much larger story rather than the sum total of the story.

Many who have read N.T. Wright will find some common points along the way. Scot seems to be getting a better response than Wright. Maybe Evangelicals prefer Anabaptists to Anglicans.

To date, McKnight still sees the conversation and the accompanying vocabulary to come up short of his proposal. I have not seen anyone engage McKnight as Andrew Perriman does with N.T. Wright at this point. Perriman does not refute Wright so much as he looks to propose how his own vision fills in some gaps and avoids some of what he sees as unintended consequences of Wright’s project.

Jonathan Merritt demonstrates what happens when we fail to look below the water line. Today McKnight reviews Merritt’s new book, A Faith of Our Own. Someone should consider looking into the way Merritt articulates a vision of/for Evangelicalism going forward as part of the trajectory begun by Richard Quebedeaux’s, The Young Evangelicals, tracing the differences through Webber’s, The Younger Evangelicals. McKnight quotes Merritt,

Many on the Christian left speak as if the kingdom of God entails implementing a ‘social justice’ agenda in Washington, getting our troops off the battlefield, and obliterating the reign of the Christian right.

For those on the right, the kingdom amounts to voting Christians into office, making abortion and gay marriage illegal, reinstating prayer in public schools, and posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

When either of these agendas becomes the ultimate measure of faithfulness, the kingdom of God is supplanted by our political strategies (17-18, italics mine).

There is a further point Spencer makes when he references those theological subjects below the water line. He notes that most people are willing to talk about the top 10-20 percent of our theological projects as negotiable but we rarely if ever talk about the 80-90 percent below the water line. Look back over the past thirty years and every time a group suggests the need for a new theological proposal for a new context, the gatekeepers – on both the left and the right – come out of the proverbial woodwork equipped with the same categories and same arguments touting the ever-present slippery slope. Oh that we would require a course in logic.

Polarization is the name of the game. If we can be convinced that one wrong turn will plunge us into the pits of either Fundamentalism or Liberalism then you will be sure sides will be taken and swords drawn. The Merritt quote illustrates what gets gutted in the process – Gospel and Kingdom.

Leslie Newbigin helped readers think about the way we create false polarities in the Western Church in The Gospel In the Pluralistic Society. He underscored the way we have enculturated Constitutional rights and made of them religious rights. Listen to the way this gets utilized. People in the United States have been given by their Creator certain the inalienable rights, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Ministers adopt this language as if there is a chapter and verse to support such a claim. Where would we even find the trajectory? Surely you cannot read about Jesus in Jerusalem under Roman domination and draw such a conclusion.

And this leads us straightway into Duren and Horton. Marty Duren writes from within the Church. Greg Horton pens his thoughts from outside the Church. They both have some suggestions about the way the current conversation on gay marriage gets discussed in public discourse. Marty writes to those who hold certain Christian commitments. Greg writes to those who have self-identified as other than Christian. On the subject Duren offers,

3) Christians are years too late recognizing the root of this issue. Some still do not. The root of this issue is not marriage for gays. The root of this issue is equality under the law for all citizens of the United States of America of which “marriage” has become symbolic of that effort (gay marriage is sometimes called “marriage equality”).

And here is Greg Horton on the same point,

First, let’s be clear about one thing; it simply doesn’t matter what the Bible says about this issue. It’s a Constitutional issue, not a theological one. Our legislators aren’t paid to parse Scripture and debate hermeneutics. They suck at English and ethics; we don’t want them tampering with sacred texts.

What Evangelicalism has settled on in the West, in America, is the notion that we may conflate Constitutional rights with Creator rights. This is a matter below the water line for it would require of most to explore what has long been settled in our Country. And, we do not have the stomach, right or left, for the work involved in extricating the Gospel Good News from political ideologies for then we would be forfeiting power.

But wait . . . is not that what Jesus did at every turn?

If, as both Duren and Horton point out to their respective audiences, that the conversation around gay marriage is a Constitutional matter, then what would it mean to our theological projects in America if we were to loose it from the bonds of political ideologies and move forward with the Gospel Good News of Jesus? We would stop re-arrangint the deck chairs on the Titanic and we would be willing to explore what lies below the water line that has settled on to the great hull of a Tradition that should be living rather than dead.


About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

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