What is revive? A blog about labels…

Welcome phrase in different languages. Word clouds concept.

On Sunday night we continued our conversation about what God is saying to us about the future of revive and I (Simon) was called out for excessive theological jargon. Fair cop! I apologise. My only defense is that in the world of clergy these labels are used constantly.

Let me outline roughly what I said:

There are many LGBTQ people who would like to find a home in a church with an evangelical-charismatic emphasis, whereas at the moment most – if not all – of the churches in Leeds that publicly declare their inclusion of queer people are liberal Anglican.

I was invited to explain some of those words and of course a business meeting is not the ideal place to do that. Also, in revive there is a general resistance to labels, so there were also comments about whether any of these names is helpful.

I think it’s worth looking at these labels, if only because so many people still use them. Then I will try to answer the question, ‘What kind of church is revive?’

Firstly, a bit of history.
You’ve probably heard of ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. This was a period from the mid-seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries in which scientific advances occurred rapidly and regularly and paved the way for the industrial revolution. Isaac Newton is the most important British figure in this time of intellectual revolution, and his most revolutionary idea was that the universe can be described as a gigantic machine. This meant two big things: firstly,  that God was not necessary to explain anything in the universe, and secondly, that it should be possible to explain everything in the universe through maths and science. As this intellectual movement matured it turned into what we now call modernity.

How should Christianity respond to this huge intellectual transformation? Here are three options:

1) One option is that of acceptance and integration. These new discoveries change our understanding of the cosmos and there is no going back. Our sacred texts were written in a different time in which weather and mental illness were thought to be the actions of angels and demons. It would be foolish of us to continue with these superstitions. Religion can only be saved if it accepts the new intellectual landscape.

At the time, this meant that many people claimed that they were deists, believing in a God that created the universe like a giant machine and after starting it up, is completely absent from it. Many of the ‘fathers’ of Leeds were prominent deists and this explains why there is a Unitarian Church in City Square rather than the more traditional Anglican cathedral.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann was advocating the ‘demythologisation’ of the Christian tradition, removing everything from faith that was counter to science and common sense. Bultmann is a towering figure in the movement known as theological liberalism.

In short, liberal Christianity is a way of trying to find truth using science, philosophy and logic, giving little or no authority to either the Bible or church tradition. That doesn’t mean the Bible and tradition are unimportant, just that they are studied with intellectual rigour.

2) Another option is what we would now call contextualisation. That is, how can a traditional Christian faith be reborn in this new world of ideas? With a scientific worldview on the rise, could Christianity present itself as a rational system of thought while maintaining its historic claims about God’s activity in the world?

It’s important to realise that describing this process as contextualisation is a retrospective judgement. Christian preachers and debaters of the time like George Whitefield saw themselves as defending the historic faith, it’s only looking back that we can see they were using the logic and methodology of science to create a ‘systematic theology’.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw many public debates in which more conservative Christians tried to work this out. Ultimately, the authority of the Bible became central to their case, so that anything that was stated in the scriptures was beyond questioning. The ongoing debate about evolution and how it relates to the early chapters of Genesis is probably the most famous example of this. William Wilberforce’s son Samuel famously debated evolution with the biologist T H Huxley in the middle of the 19th century. What’s important is that proponents of this new conservative Christianity sought to prove that belief in the events and declarations of the Bible was reasonable.

This movement became known as evangelicalism, from the Greek word for good news, euangelion. The historian David Bebbington has said that evangelicalism (and its extremist cousin fundamentalism) has four key tenets:

* Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
* Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
* Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
* Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in some kind of practical action

(You can explore this in more detail here)

While the early Baptists of the seventeenth century were not quite like this, they were caught up in the evangelical movement at the end of the eighteenth century and currently the Baptist Union of Great Britain is a member of the Evangelical Alliance.

3) Another option is creative rebellion. In the wider culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries artists and creatives who wanted to live outside the mechanistic and emotionless world of science started to make work that fought against this. While it was never a self-conscious movement, nowadays we call what they got up to romanticism. This was a movement motivated by experience, beauty and pleasure, phenomena that can not be described by science and which are not subject to laws or formulae. Lord Byron’s self-indulgent life and early death sum up the caricature of the Romantic period, but it was also an intellectual movement, frustrated at the coldness and rigidity of the new science. In the long run however, science brought wealth and empire, and in many ways seemed to have ‘won’.

At the same time that the Romantic movement flourished, so did Methodism, a form of Anglicanism that was evangelical in nature but also highly personal and emotional. John Wesley, its founding preacher, reports in his diary that there was plenty of fainting and crying during his sermons, and George Whitefield was considered to be the greatest ‘performer’ of his time, stirring up emotions in his audience that made famous actors of his day jealous.

What Methodism, Pentecostalism (which came out of Wesleyanism in California) and the charismatic movement (which was a middle class appropriation of the more working class Pentecostalism) have in common is a belief that The Enlightenment is a misstep, that belief in God is not meant to be reasonable, it is essentially supernatural. John Wimber, who founded the Vineyard movement and who was a huge influence on this writer, used to say that in order to experience God we need to get our minds back to before The Enlightenment in order to believe that God can work in our lives (For the record, I don’t think this is possible or helpful).

These different movements all have a focus on personal experience of God as another route that God can speak to us, which has historically caused some tension between them and evangelicals, who hold that the Bible is the ultimate authority. (For the record, Baptists – correctly, imho – hold that Jesus is the ultimate authority, and we study the scriptures and listen to the Spirit in order to know him).

So those are the three words that I used on Sunday night: liberal, evangelical and charismatic. Now I want to add another one: post.

Over the last fifty years, philosophers (particularly French ones) have started to dismantle the certainties of modernity. Their movement (if it can be called such, since it is primarily about deconstruction rather than creation) is now called postmodernism. The easiest way to sum up postmodernism as a philosophy is a definition by one of its proponents, Jean-Francois Lyotard: ‘Incredulity towards metanarratives’. Before you give up, let me explain that quickly! It simply means that we should be sceptical about any system of thought that suggests it has the answers to every question (metanarrative means something like ‘overarching story’). And you might think Lyotard is having a go at religion, but that’s not the case. He is primarily focusing his displeasure towards the scientific worldview we call modernism. Hence the name post-modernism, where post means after.

So now we are living in a world in which the all-encompassing certainties of the modern era are starting to undo. When a scientist says she believes one day she will be able to explain love or art with an equation, lots of us laugh at her arrogance. When a Christian sect claims to be the ‘one true church’, we find it all rather loopy since we wouldn’t think of saying that about our own church or denomination. That’s a very post-modern attitude: this is my truth, tell me yours.

Christianity is responding to these changes. So now we have postliberal and postevangelical theologies. The charismatic movement is  probably the most influential Christian movement in the UK in our time, reaching a growing proportion of younger people and therefore cementing its influence on the future of the church in the UK. In many ways it is romantic/postmodern, with a very strong emphasis on personal experience, although parts of it are still tied to evangelical ideas of truth and certainty.

So what does this make revive? Whatever we are, we are definitely post. By that I mean we don’t want to be defined and constrained by any of these definitions. This ability to refuse boundaries means that we can cross boundaries and borrow from Christian traditions that might have once been the ‘enemies’ of our spiritual parents or grandparents. That’s why I like the subtitle of Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy: ‘Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.’

Maybe that’s what we are – not nothing, but everything. I prefer this to just being ‘post’ something. In reality, I personally consider myself an evangelical and a charismatic more than a liberal, because I give both the scriptures and my experience of God more influence in my life than is reasonable.  And because that is the Christian family that raised me.

Why is this important (and well done for getting this far!)? My main answer would be that while most of us have a time of enjoying the certainty of either evangelicalism or liberalism (and believe me, liberals can be just as bigoted and judgmental as evangelicals), many then find that the obsession with truth turns out not to be true to the messiness of human existence. Our lives doesn’t work out the way they’re supposed to, or the system of belief we subscribed to turns out to be held together not by reason but by peer pressure and denial.

It’s my conviction that there are a bunch of people in Leeds who would be blessed by encountering God through what we would call charismatic faith, but perhaps need to be intellectually honest and exploratory at the same time. Getting these two things together is really hard to do, but it’s something we try really hard to do in revive.

This is not just about LGBTQ people by any stretch of the imagination, but since they are one of the few groups of people in which the church colludes in their marginalisation, perhaps we have a particular call to swim against the tide on their behalf. Like lots of other people, some LGBTQ folk find life in charismatic-evangelical churches, it’s just that they have to hide who they are to participate in them. That is why it matters that a church like revive, which is part of that family, comes out and says, ‘All welcome.’ That’s why I’m happy to use words like evangelical and charismatic to describe revive, even if I’m mentally adding all kinds of footnotes and quotation marks when I say them.

Let me know what you think.


P.S. The absolute best way to get a feel for the premodern, modern and romantic/postmodern worldviews is to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The three central characters represent the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective brilliantly…

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