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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

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Scandal of the Conscience

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One of the people I've appreciated reading in the past who speaks not from an emergent place, but as a prophetic voice within established evangelicalism has been Ron Sider from Evangelicals for Social Action..  His book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was eye opening to many people when it was published back in 1977 and has remained a seminal book for many people.  Sider tried to articulate underlying causes of poverty, provide some practical solutions, and engage Christians in the task.  He was at it again in his recent book, Just Generosity: a vision for overcoming poverty in America.  Whether you agree with his view, particular the place of the government in solving poverty, you can argue with his call to Christians to be involved in poverty issues around the globe.  But he hasn't just focused on poverty.  In 2005, Sider came out with the book, Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, (whose title is ripped off from Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which I hope to talk about in a post coming up.)  Anyway, as we talk about the resurgence of the social conscience of American Christians, particularly evangelicals, this is an important book that tried to sound the alarm.  I recently read an article published in Books & Culture that I printed awhile back by John G. Stackhouse who I like, but was disappointed with both here and recently on his blog.  The article was entitled "What scandal?  Whose conscience?" 

Stackhouse clearly articulates Sider's thesis this way: 

"American evangelicals fail so badly to live according to the gospel that we are, in many respects, indistinguishable from the world around us." 

Then, he proceeds to undermine Sider's work and argument based on several items.  First, he challenges the definition of evanglicalism - which, to his credit is fair.  The problem, however, is not so much Sider's problem (although he could have talked about how he defined evangelical, as could I because I throw the word around a lot.)  He says that unfortunately Sider doesn't really tell us who he's talking about, and therefore can't make such a judgment.  In fact, Stackhouse goes so far as to say in a sense that because there are so many nominal evangelicals, its unfair to judge them by these standards - that we should only make such valuative judgments when we know people are really committed evangelicals (whatever the definition) and not merely nominal ones.  But that's exactly the point.  It's become easy to have and hold the name evangelical precisely because it now means so little and demands, really, even less.  One can don the name evangelical today and still maintain a pretty normal American lifestyle.  No sacrifice; no difficult counter-cultural living; no personal inner struggle from being a sojourner in a strange land.

Second, Stackhouse moves to undermining the surveys of Gallup and Barna (similar research as that used in the UnChristian book).  In fact, he tries to turn the data on its head to say that evangelicals have truly been living lives of holiness and genuine Christian conviction.  He even goes so far as to sound like he's justifying either to himself or someone else that we've done an awful lot, so we should stop asking such questions.  Like this quote when talking about money:

"So should we give more?  Undoubtedly.  Yet is it as bas as Sider says?  I'm pretty sure it isn't, and we need a clearer picture to know just what God is requiring of us." 

Do we really need to know more?  Really?  Do we not really know what is required of us?  I don't think he's listening to what Sider is saying.  Sider is trying to sound an alarm about how little Christians - or even so-called Christians, or nominal Christians - are making a lasting, impactful, influential difference in major world issues - particularly things like personal poverty, third-world national debt, AIDS, the dessimation of our cities, etc.  However, he does get it at this point at least.  He says this:

"So what exactly is Sider's concern?  That many Americans call themselves 'evangelicals,' or answer a few questions about doctrine and conviction affirmatively, but then do not in fact practice a full-fledged obedience?  One must agree that those are, indeed, valid grounds for concern."

That is it.  Unfortunately, Stackhouse then moves from that important issue and seems to continue to quiet the alarm Sider is calling by getting us stuck in more and more questions that feel more like justifications or nit-picky issues than dealing with the real, burning question:  Where are all the Christians who are making a real difference?  Sure, they're out there.  I know many of them, and so do you.  But the question is whether the difference we make in the world is even close to commensurate to the amount of money spent, the number of people involved or who self-identify as Christians, the many words spoken and preached and exhorted and pontificated? 

Stackhouse is brilliant, and I'd have preferred he used his time in Books & Culture to engage that issue and help to mobilize a virtual army of arm-chair Christians.


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