Sunday, May 18, 2008

Evangelical: Manifesto

So, if you haven’t heard, some evangelicals put out a manifesto. It runs about 20 pages, while a summary for the media-saturated runs 6. I read the 6-page summary and the varying opinions surrounding it.

For as bold as the title suggests, the punch of the actual document is, by most accounts, rather dull. The Manifesto was released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a place, it seems, meant to garner some attention. This public thrust seems in keeping from what I gathered from the summary. Os Guinness, the instigator of this Manifesto, writes on Christianity Today’s website, “An Evangelical Manifesto, released Wednesday, is, in part, a proposal for a civil public square.” The Manifesto is intent upon a civil conversation in the public square, a conversation that includes people of all faiths and of those who claim no faith. Unfortunately, the public square we call “mass media” is generating more heat than light these days. Al Mohler, president of the SBC, calls the Manifesto “an exercise in public relations,” calling the National Press Club, “not a usual venue for theological discussion.”

I think that this is exactly the point. The Manifesto was released at the National Press Club precisely because its writers are seeking to create a civil dialogue in the public square. What’s more, in a venue generating more heat than light, a theological discussion might be cool things down and brighten things up. Why shouldn’t theology be a public discussion? Mohler’s criticism seems to miss the document’s purpose, to create proactive dialogue in the public sphere.

Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College (IL) sees the Manifesto as an attempt “to establish the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.” Guinness puts it this way: “The statement addresses the confusions about evangelicalism within and the consternation without, and re-affirms what "evangelical" means and who evangelicals are.” Jacobs’ analysis: “the heart of the document is a kind of urgent appeal: Please don't call us fundamentalists or confuse us with them.” Jacobs criticizes this as “defensive” and, in some sense, concerned with the superficial. “Besides, people who make the kinds of theological statements found in this document . . . are going to be called fundamentalists no matter what else they say,” according to Jacobs.

Mohler’s opinion is that these theological statements are too paltry. “I must judge ‘An Evangelical Manifesto’ to be too expansive in terms of public relations and too thin in terms of theology.” Even though he seems to affirm nearly everything it does say, he refuses to sign it. “I agree with the framers that Evangelicals should be defined theologically, rather than politically, culturally, or socially.” But “this document will have to be much more theological for it to accomplish its own stated purpose.” No, he criticizes it for what it doesn’t say: “It leaves out the question of the exclusivity of salvation to those who have come to Christ by faith. The use of the phrase ‘for us’ in strategic sentences makes one wonder if room is left for some manner of inclusivism or universalism? The door is certainly not adequately closed.” It seems that Mohler’s greatest concern surrounding the Manifesto is theological.

But the Manifesto is not a theological treatise but a cultural document. Guinness writes, “The core problem is not simply an American problem but a global challenge: How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious, racial, and ideological?” In other words, he’s offering an Evangelical response to the question of how they relate to the world in light of such deep divisions. An Evangelical Manifesto is not setting out the theological dividing lines, the way Mohler wants, but that is not its purpose.

Jacobs sees this Manifesto as a cultural one also. While “the core problem is not simply an American” one, he writes, this “Manifesto is a very American document, the product of an election year, and a strong reaction against a quarter-century of evangelical identification with the Republican Party.” The Manifesto goes only far enough theologically to distinguish Evangelicals culturally, no more. They are not seeking to explain how Evangelicals define salvation but how Evangelicals define their relationship to their culture.

Jacobs criticizes the Manifesto from a more literary standpoint. He writes, “At the bottom of page 15, these words appear: ‘The Evangelical soul is not for sale.’ This is what is called "burying the lead." Had the Evangelical Manifesto begun with this affirmation, it could have been a manifesto indeed -- a declaration of political, cultural and intellectual independence. ‘We're fed up with being the Republicans’ lapdogs, but don't think we're joining the Democratic kennel’ -- if only the document had spoken so clearly, so forcefully!” In other words, Evangelicals are not a target market or political constituency.

While the theological message might have been better refined, and its boldness as a Manifesto might have been more brash, its medium reinforced the intentions of its authors. Releasing it at the National Press Club communicated cultural engagement and proactive public discourse. It says as much to the audience about the message as the words the authors wrote. They reinforced the message by finding the right medium. Many Evangelicals fail to consider the medium in delivering their message and, like Mohler, criticize the document without considering the context. They would do well to take a cue from Guinness and friends.

What others are saying.

Pulpit Magazine, Ed Stetzer, Darrell Bock, The Search, Tim Challies, and more controversy!

Update (5/19): Evangelicals of the Manifesto can't believe in evolution, or young-earth creationism either.

Susan Jacoby says they can't be evolutionists: "The first section of this manifesto, titled 'Our Identity,' states that evangelicals regard the Bible as 'God's Word written, fully trustworthy as our final guide to faith and practice.' If the Bible is indeed 'God's Word written'--as opposed to a human interpretation of divine will that may be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally--then it should be impossible (at least for the evangelicals who signed on to this manifesto) to accept evolution while practicing their faith."

While Al Mohler concludes that they are pushing out young-earth proponents: "Who are these believers who represent 'caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith?' The context would seem to implicate those who believe in a young earth cosmology."

And Alan Jacobs sees a similar implication: "The first involves science: 'Some among us have betrayed the strong Christian tradition of a high view of science . . . and made themselves vulnerable to caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith.' It's hard not to read this as a repudiation of young-earth creationism and similar movements."

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