David Opderbeck is known to all readers of this blog; he weighs in today on the soul-sort narrative I have done on Brian McLaren.
That Other Soul-Sort Narrative: The Problem of People as Targets
We’ve had some good and robust conversation about Brian McLaren’s “soul-sort” narrative. Many of us resonate in some way with the problem Brian identifies, even though we can’t go down the road of his solution.
I say resonate “in some way” because I suspect that, for most of us, the problem isn’t that there will be a final judgment — a “sort” of “souls” in which some people will be separated from God and judged. In fact, I think most people intuitively know that judgment is a good thing. There can be no “justice” without “judgment.” God would not be “just” or “good” if horrific crimes — such as Priests and parents sexually abusing children, Hutus killing Tutsis families with machetes, Thai girls being sold into sex slavery — were never judged and punished. The same is true for the multitudes of seemingly petty acts of violence, lies, and corruption in our world — husbands cheating on their wives, children spitting in the faces of their parents, businesses lying to their customers, and on, and on, and on.
I wonder: how many of you have had moments of existential angst in which you have thought, “almost everything I do in life is ultimately meaningless, apart from witnessing to the gospel?” And how many of you, somewhere deep down, have believed that your primary task in this life is to convince everyone else to think, believe, worship and live pretty much like you?
I suspect that, for most of us who are Christians, the
problem also isn’t that God’s plan of redemption runs exclusively through
Christ. When we take the bread and
the cup during communion, when we meditate on Christ’s cry of “my God, my
God, why have you forsaken me,” we understand at some deep gut level that
only in this way, only by God Himself becoming man and bearing the full weight
of evil, could atonement be made for, and victory achieved over, the terrible
weight of sin.
The vague discomfort many of us feel, discomfort which at
times bubbles up into despair, I think, is about how we believe the power of
the Cross is made available to the
world and about our own roles in that
process. Many of us have grown up
to believe that people are basically targets for the marketing of the
“gospel” and that nothing in life really matters other than
“telling people about Jesus.” It is a sort of “Christian nihilism” about life in
There is no doubt that the logic of the “Chick
Tract” gospel, the “evangelism explosion,” the “Four
Spiritual Laws,” and so on, produces the beliefs I described above. And there is no doubt that this logic
has fueled Evangelicalism at the popular level at least since the Great
Awakenings. This is the kind of
“soul sort” narrative that I believe cries out for correction.
The spirituality produced by this kind of soteriology is a
perduring sense of crushing obligation, interlaced with tired resignation, and
underwritten by a gnawing doubt that this whole project is a delusion in which
a tiny, tiny handful of people convince themselves that they alone among the
billions of souls in the world are “chosen” or “special.” This resignation, obligation, and doubt,
turned inwards, produces bitterness, anger, and defensiveness. Does any of this sound familiar with
respect to North American Evangelicalism?
This kind of spirituality, produced by this kind of
soteriology, causes us to view people as “targets” rather than as
human beings. Brian McLaren made
an observation like this in one of his early books that literally moved me to
tears. Tony Jones described
something similar in one of his books about his early experiences in campus
ministry. Their honesty about this
is what first drew me to the emerging church conversation a number of years
ago. Oh, to be free of the feeling
that every moment with an “unbeliever” is at heart a fraught,
spiritually supercharged encounter with someone “other,” one of the
“lost,” in which my primary objective, perhaps my only meaningful
objective, must be to “win” a convert! Oh, to be free to relate simply to others around me as human
beings, to understand their religious and social views and practices
respectfully on their own terms, to enter into the concerns of their lives
without making judgments, to explain gently and lovingly the basis for my hope
in Christ, and to leave the future in God’s hands, with great hope in God’s
goodness! Oh, to follow Jesus in a
way that flows out organically from my being, to take up his “light”
burden and yoke, to be as Jesus at
the table fellowshipping unselfconsciously with sinners!
Alternatively, many others will opt for a spirituality of
blithe selfishness — one which simply ignores the problem and focuses
primarily therapeutically on self.
Out of this therapeutic spirituality a self-contained sub-culture
emerges to provide products and services that allow adherents to reassure
themselves that they are, in fact, special. Does any of this sound
familiar with respect to North American Evangelicalism? Oh, to participate in significant and
subtle expressions of culture that are honest about the human experience and
honest with God!
So, what sort of
soteriology can produce this different kind of spirituality?
Is it necessary to give up on the notion
of “judgment” altogether?
Is it better to think of “God” as some sort of benevolent
spirit that infuses the evolving consciousness of the world, rather than as the
transcendent Triune God of historic Christian theology? Is it best to think of Jesus primarily
as a moral teacher rather than as the Christ who made atonement for sin?
I think the answer to these last three questions is a
resounding “no.” In
fact, I think the only way forward is
to recapture a thick understanding of the Triune God and the atoning work of
Christ. In my view, the tragic
irony of popular evangelical “soul sort” spirituality is that it
ultimately has very little to do with the Triune God, the power of Christ’s
death and resurrection, or the justice of God’s judgments. More on that in a later post.