Oh man this post turned out to be a lot harder to write than I thought! It’s been a two-week slog chipping away practically every day, but I got there. Finally.
The first chapter of Red Letter Christianity focuses on the history of orthodox Protestant Christianity and the gradual morphing of that identity from “fundamentalist” to “evangelical” to (Tony argues) “Red Letter”.
Tony’s overview of that history is very simplistic and US-centric, and I’m not sure “Red Letter” will supplant “evangelical” as the primary identifier for theologically conservative, socially engaged Protestants. Still, I understand the desire to identify with something other than evangelicalism because like Tony and Shane, my relationship with that school of theology is complicated.
The Uniting Church has a reputation for being a fairly progressive church, but the truth is more complicated than that. It’s actually patchy and broad; the Uniting Church is both mainline and evangelical. I grew up in the evangelical strain, but shed that identity pretty quickly after leaving high school. I remained in the Uniting Church, but I suppose you’d say I was post-evangelical.
I wound up describing myself as evangelical again when I moved to Iona because it helpfully described a difference in my worldview compared to my coworkers, most of whom were from decidedly mainline church traditions. But the troubles I had with evangelicalism before I left for Scotland still remained: I found that it is sometimes intellectually dishonest; it puts too much pressure on the individual Christian, ignoring the responsibility of the community and it is obsessed with controlling and being at the centre of culture.
Now I’m back in the Uniting Church and somewhere in the post-evangelical middle. The tension between identifying with evangelicalism and being repelled by it has actually been pretty helpful for me working in the Uniting Church where I need to represent the broad spectrum of believers who worship there.
Ecumenism in post-evangelicalism
The Red Letter approach to the Bible is not new to me. It has been helpful in the past and has sustained my faith, but it’s only a sliver of my post-evangelical theology. My clumsy forays into Catholic, Orthodox and “other Protestant” theology (Quaker, Anabaptist, etc) has been just as useful, and I don’t think a fully-fledged post-evangelicalism is possible without an ecumenical outlook. Without it Red Letter Christianity will age into yet another unfashionable tag and be discarded just like “fundamentalist” did.
The Uniting Church is uniquely placed to live out a post-evangelical faith in Australia. It’s a denomination that is rooted in ecumenism: Its very foundation was an ecumenical act, and ecumenical dialogue is ongoing. There’s an openness to difference in the Uniting Church I haven’t been able to find elsewhere, even in ecumenical groups like the Iona Community. There are factions, but on the whole they are used to collaborating with each other, and all decisions are made by consensus.
There are many ways in which the Uniting Church falls short of its ideal, but it’s also a place where this kind of theology could find real expression at a denominational level.
Shane and Tony back me up a little at the end of the chapter as they talk about discipleship and living out Christian theology in a practical way. The Uniting Church is placing an emphasis on making disciples; 2014 is the year of discipleship in the national Assembly and the Queensland Synod (where I work) has been riffing on discipleship for a few years now.
The way the church is governs itself means that if a congregation doesn’t want to participate, the emphasis on discipleship won’t happen there. This makes it hard to tell just how effective this focus is, but the fact that it’s a discussion happening in this denomination indicates to me that the Uniting Church is already some way down the path Shane and Tony are describing here.
Alright I think that’s enough—this post is already long overdue! Hopefully this serves as a good background and I’ll be able to expand on anything I haven’t outlined properly in a later post.