Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Not Playing in Your Local Pulpit

So if I wasn't supposed to be nice, ecumenical, and pastoral, I'd be really angry right now. I flipped to the back page of the New York Times Book Review, and encountered an advertisement for a video series bible study, Living the Questions, that a quasi-progressive group of Christian intellectuals has been touting for some time.

Here's why I'm angry, or sad, or frustrated, or confused, or whatever it is that got my hackles raised when I read the advertisement. So, they give it the title, "Not Playing in your local pulpit," with a a sub-head, "If you've ever walked out of church thinking this can't be the whole story, now you can hear the leading voices of progressive Christianity tell it like you've never heard it before."

The leading voices recorded on this DVD are: Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass, John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Amy-Jill Levine, Brian McLaren, Robin Meyers, Helen Prejean, John Shelby Spong, and Mel White, among others.

The problem I have with this advertisement: it sets up an opposition between most churches and progressive Christianity that is neither true nor helpful. It's actually almost libel, and if not that, at least a violation of the 8th commandment to not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Here's why it bothers me. It seems that progressive Christians (at least the ones funding this advertisement) have decided to use the kind of rhetoric to publicize their form of Christianity, emphasize divisions in the church, and play the kind of partisan politics the rest of us are so tired of.

Additionally, I happen to know a lot of progressive Christians who regularly read everyone listed above and incorporate their insights (or at least some of them) into their preaching and teaching. So my guess is that in basically any place you find yourself, you can find a faithful pastor "living the questions" and playing progressive Christianity from the pulpit.

If the advertisers of "Living the Questions" really believe in social justice engagement and concrete spiritual practices, I can recommend two.

Spiritual practice: reconciliation. Instead of setting up false oppositions between progressive, academic Christianity and the rest of the pulpits around the country, be reconciled, admit common ground, and advertise that what you're putting on this DVD can supplement rather than replace what is preached from so many pulpits.

Social justice engagement: Support the ministries of local congregations. Instead of offering a DVD as a replacement for preaching in local congregations, provide links to, or even advertise, congregations engaged in such practices, teaching, preaching, and ministry together with your DVD.

And then a challenge: come visit my church, and hear what is preached from this pulpit, and see if your advertisement is true. I dare you. :)

And a second challenge: perhaps the theologians and preachers who are in this series didn't know about or approve this advertisement. Given some of their forms of ministry and preaching, I'm guessing that may be the case. If that's so, then take the time to make sure this kind of advertising stops, and disavow it. Thank you.


  1. Eric Evers8:48 AM


    I hate to say it, but this is old news. These folks really believe they are intellectually, morally, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically superior to "others" who are not as progressive, didn't attend the right graduate schools, and weren't born in the proper (blue) states. I probably count as a "right wing fundy" in these folks' eyes (which is sort of funny), and since before seminary, I have been dismayed at the utter contempt aimed, in the name of sophistication and cultural superiority, at beliefs and believers that may not line up 100% with my understanding of the Faith, but which are certainly reasonable and faithful.

    I've seen this for a long time. I have come to believe that the arrogance and closed-mindedness of "progressive Christianity" (which is often neither progressive nor Christian, at least in a Nicene sense) are, at best, close rivals to the arrogance and closed-mindedness of the "fundamentalists" (a label which, in some of the progressives' eyes, is appropriate for anyone who can say the Apostles' Creed without snickering).

    This is the state of the Body. Alas.


  2. Jackson Day10:51 AM

    Besides, Amy-Jill Levine is a really great speaker, but she's Jewish, not Christian. Progressive or otherwise.

  3. Evers, thanks for your insights. I admit, I've known the position of progressive Christians for a while, so I agree with you it's old news. What's new is apparently they now have the funding to do bang-up advertisements in my favorite book review. That chafes.

    Jackson, I welcome theological conversation that includes Jewish thinkers and preachers, because I don't think we as the Christian community can be who we are without the continuing existence of the synagogue. Can you help me understand a bit more the distinction you're trying to point out? Thanks.

  4. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Over here, on the Delmarva, my husband and I have sought to find a church. Born and raised Lutheran, Luther Leaguer, Gettysburg College. I have gone to an Episcopalian church, but felt unaccepted because we are not progressive enough. We both shuddered at a priest, who would bad mouth specific units of our armed forces. There is a LCMS church in town that is very conservative naturally. I feel like I am in the middle of a road that leads nowhere. Since when is political correctness the oopen door to a church . . . progessive or conservative? What has happened to the churches we belonged to at one time? Right now, we are not going to any church and hesitate to try one.

  5. Where is the Delmarva? That's new to me. You've been at the Episcopalian church and LCMS, have you visited ELCA congregations in your area? I typically find them welcoming of both sides of the progressive/conservative divide. I agree with you that it should not be divisive in the church, as we are called to be one in Christ. I'm sorry to hear about your experience. God bless you.

  6. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Delmarva is the Eastern shore, where Delaware, Maryland and Virginia all reside and includes Atlantic beaches, i.e. Rehoboth Beach. There is an ELCA about 20-25 miles, from our home. As seniors, we were hoping to find one closer. I think we will try it. I feel most comfortable with ELCA. It just seems everything has become so political. My husband and I have different views and have been together for 47 years. Also, I do believe that salvation comes from belief in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. Without him, we are lost.