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Consuming Jesus 4

posted by xscot mcknight

How best to transform the evangelical church so it will gain sight to eliminate its blindness to such things as racism and classism and consumerism? Here Paul Metzger, in Consuming Jesus, reveals his evangelicalism.
The solution is a theology that begins with personal conversion that works itself out into genuine reconciliation with others and downwardly mobile ethic.
[My contention: Either evangelicalism is filled, big-time filled, with unconverted folks or this strategy is just words. The fact is that many, if not most, of evangelicals — or those who claim personal conversion — are not that involved in the anticonsumerist and antiracist and anticlassist agenda Metzger advocates.]
“The fight against racialization and related problems requires regeneration, repentance, and forgiveness — the key ingredients of being ‘born again'” (89). One must assume personal responsiblity: “In addition to overturning victimizing structures, people should never make excuses for taking part in victimizing activities and should never play the victim card” (89).
Two dangers involved in “reordering the Christian’s life”: moralism and escapism. “A neglect of the vertical dimension leads to moralism, while a neglect of the horizontal dimension leads to escapism” (91).
1. Moralism: “According to a properly framed evangelical ethics, the unilateral relationship between the vertical and horizontal dimensions implies that a converted heart will manifest itself in concern for the neighbor… But the flipside of that is not equally true: concern for the neighbor does not necessarily flow from a converted heart” (92). Here’s a bold claim: “those who find favor with God give themselves on behalf of the poor” (97).
In this section he appeals lots to Jonathan Edwards. Authentic Christianity is contrary to moralism.
2. Escapism: looking inward and looking upward are the two forms of escapism. Giving family security instead of following Christ.
“In light of the preceding discussion, we need to ask ourselves whether we are truly converted” (106). Are we calling the consumer church to its knees? Here he appeals to Martin Luther King Jr.
“Converting consumer structures inside and outside the evangelical church, as well as converting consumerist souls, is necessary if we are to realize King’s dream, if the new world order is to come into being, if there is to be truly one people of God — one people from differnent ethnicities and classes who are united in Christ by the Spirit and united by faith” (110).

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posted November 19, 2007 at 3:49 am

When I’m explaining about the importance of faithful covenant-keeping, I like to challenge people to really ponder what Jesus was talking about in Matthew when he’s sorting out sheep and goats…asking folks to consider whether their actions will show horns.
We don’t like to think about whether our actions (or lack thereof) nullify our covenant vows…like in a marriage that has never been consummated, or one that has been shattered by adultery or abandonment.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted November 19, 2007 at 7:50 am

I too wonder about whether conversion to Christ means people automatically walk in the way of Jesus. I think not. Too often we walk too much according to teh American way or some other way, I’m afraid.

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Bob Brague

posted November 19, 2007 at 8:35 am

I get nervous when people talk about “the new world order.” It brings to mind the Council on Foreign Relations and for some reason I can’t explain, George Herbert Walker Bush.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 8:35 am

Metzgar’s book sounds like an updated and more evangelical version of the liberation theology of the 1970s. I have not read the book, but it sounds like he kind of jumps over the “conversion” process … the key to changing unjust external social structures has to be the real change in internal structures of the soul: the kingdom of God is within you.
Dallas Willard has focused most of his writings on this internal process of true spiritual formation and discipleship. In his recent book, The Great Omission he makes a bold statement that he is not aware of a single ministry or church in the United States that has a primary focus on inward spiritual formation.
How to bring the inward dimension of spiritual formation together with the outward need for transformation of society and economic sturtures? thats a research question for a lifetime.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 8:53 am

Jim Wallis, I think, has been saying this for years. I may not entirely agree with him on all matters, but his point is that Christians need to be involved in affairs of justice because we are here to reflect and advance God’s kindgom.
For example, what is the Church’s reaction to the spewing of hatred towards the illegal alien? A nation has a right to protect its borders and security, but the evilness I hear spouted against illegal aliens is entirely unjust and Christians must stand up against this hatred.
Two good books that I am reading now that speaks of cultural transformation:
Discipling the Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures
Walking with the Poor,
Each helps to address the issue of the impact on development that the christian can and must play.
Pastor Chris

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posted November 19, 2007 at 9:33 am

This reminds me of the question you posed in the EMC review, “If ‘X’ is the gospel (solution), what’s the problem being solved?” Evangelicalism tends to define that problem (exclusively) as God’s judgment. We get “saved” from that. Judicial justification = salvation. I personally think “saved from sins” alone is much, much bigger than that, but c’est la vie.
Based on Metzger’s solution you contend that “[e]ither evangelicalism is filled, big-time filled, with unconverted folks or this strategy is just words. The fact is that many, if not most, of evangelicals ? or those who claim personal conversion ? are not that involved in the anticonsumerist and antiracist and anticlassist agenda Metzger advocates.”
On the one hand I agree with you, and I can completely see how the gospel I described above doesn’t include these horizontal concerns in the conversion itself.
But on the other hand I remember, at my conversion, feeling surprise at most of the church’s lack of passion about all kinds of things that to me were obvious (including some version of Metzger’s concerns). I was consumed, overwhelmed, with mercy. They were happy for me, but simultaneously began the Church’s training by example that the gospel doesn’t really radically change absolutely everything in life, which was a big stumbling block for me. Maybe conversion does do what Metzger claims (through the Holy Spirit alone) but the Church begins immediately (through example and to a lesser extent teaching) to reduce the gospel’s scope.

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David B Johnson

posted November 19, 2007 at 10:05 am

Evangelicals (a term which begs for definition) have emphasized being born again. However, I do not think they have done an adequate job in defining what that means. Or maybe they have, but I don’t agree with their definition. The only extended treatment Jesus gives the subject (of which I’m aware) is in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Most evangelicals read “born again” or “born from above” in John 3 and ascribe a “presentist” defintion from the 19th-21st century. It seems to me that when Jesus uses the phrase and when John records it, their primary focus is on what it means to a member of God’s covenant community. For Nicodemus, he believed that being born a Jew (born of flesh) guaranteed that he would “see” the kingdom, because being a Jew meant he was a part of ethnic Israel that could call itself, the Son of God. Jesus counters that thinking with the need to be born again. “That which is born of flesh is flesh. That which is born of Spirit is Spirit.” In other words, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “The time has come. Ezekiel’s prophecy is coming true (ch. 36). Your idenity is no longer wrapped up in being an ethnic Jew. Rather, it is connected to reception of the Spirit” (i.e. being born again). Therefore, when we discuss being born again or being personally converted, we must include how that now identifies the converted with the covenant community God is creating for the transformation of all things. If this is an integral part of gospel we preach, those who are truly converted will practice the “good works” God has prepared for his people (Eph 2.10).

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posted November 19, 2007 at 11:29 am

Maybe we are putting too much weight on “conversion.” Evangelicals often assume the conversion experience changes a person from the inside out, on the spot.
What if real change happens from the outside in, and as a process? Wouldn’t that reshape our expectations?

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John Frye

posted November 19, 2007 at 11:51 am

Metzger seems to be echoing Emerson and Smith, the authors of *Divided by Faith.* It is possible to have an evangelical theology and yet have it framed in such a way that it divides people racially rather than uniting them “in Christ.” No “theology,” no matter how good, will unite diverse peoples. Only relationships will.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 1:18 pm

Either evangelicalism is filled, big-time filled, with unconverted folks or this strategy is just words.
Before we resort to the “people who don’t think like me aren’t saved” approach, I think we can consider another option.
I know a number of professing Christians who seem to sense something’s wrong with their lives but they just don’t know what it is. I was like that for most of my teens. I felt terribly incomplete and began to question my salvation because of it. What I eventually found I was missing was discipleship.
People have been told for a long time (e.g., see Willow Creek’s latest epiphany) that the Christian life consists of listening to the right music, buying the right books, and going to enough Bible studies. I think a great many people feel like that’s not it, but they don’t know what to do.
Someone needs to tell them that the Christian life is not just about taking care of their families and doing the right churchy stuff.
(BTW, I think there are a lot of unconverted people at church, and Jesus warned us about that. I just think we need to be cautious in making that diagnosis for a problem.)

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posted November 19, 2007 at 5:05 pm

Echoing some of Chris’s thoughts in #9, I wonder, Scot, if you would clarify what you meant in your parenthetical comments?

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posted November 19, 2007 at 5:09 pm

I my blog today, I am talking about Biblical Spirituality, would love to hear some thoughts.

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Scot McKnight

posted November 19, 2007 at 5:26 pm

The strategy of saying internal conversion leads to external change. If that is supposed to work, we’d see more fighting against inherent injustices.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 5:32 pm

Thanks, Scot.
But shouldn’t it? Or am I seeing things too idealistically? Surely the way we live out our faith should result in external change. Or, what am I missing?

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posted November 19, 2007 at 5:35 pm

“The fact is that many, if not most, of evangelicals ? or those who claim personal conversion ? are not that involved in the anticonsumerist and antiracist and anticlassist agenda Metzger advocates.”
But does that mean that Metzger is wrong, or that we’re not living out the full message of the gospel? Maybe Metzger is right, and we’re deficient in our practice.

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Scot McKnight

posted November 19, 2007 at 5:44 pm

Essentially I’m agreeing except that this means that either the church is filled with non-converts or that the process has been sabotaged — which I think it has by the gospel we preach.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 5:48 pm

Maybe there is something in the doing that is important for internal change. Maybe internal change is facilitated by me being intentional about correcting an injustice or showing compassion, rather than me “being” compassionate and then doing something.
If there is any validity to this process, then maybe all those church goers who aren’t doing much are missing an important part of spiritual formation.

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Scott M

posted November 19, 2007 at 7:12 pm

This brought back to mind a quote from a Catholic Bishop (sorry, but I don’t remember the reference at all) about the problem of their pews being filled by baptized non-Christians.
I do believe our Lord is generous and anxious to save, but how deficient can our gospel become and still provide a reliable path to life — the salvation of our whole being? I don’t attempt to judge who is being saved and who is not. That strikes me as a judgment reserved for God. But if we are guilty of teaching in a way that provides a false confidence to those entrusted to our care, then we are guilty indeed.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 7:13 pm

I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say that this describes it well. But Scot, from what you posted, it strikes me that there is a couple of concerns. One is related to the nature of our relationwhip with Christ and our understanding of just what is this thing called Christianity. Complaints about reductions of Christianity that make it a moralism or an escapism. But then there’s this outcome based view, this pre-determined view of what a lived Christianity would look like. And that’s where I get hung up, because there’s a danger that one can make similar reductions of what Christianity is by defining it as being socially active against this or that societal trend or injustice. But isn’t that also a reduction and thus wrong?
This was my chief complaint I made to Jim Wallis about a seminar he taught once on economic issues. In his examination of what was wrong with the world he approached things with a good degree of fairness and openness for what is and what experience teaches. In other words, it was fairly objective and rooted in discovering truth. But when the conversation shifted to solutions, it was just a liberal activist agenda. And I didn’t take issue with that being the agenda as much as the way it was arrived at. It wasn’t the result of a similar examination of experience and openness to what it teaches, but instead a result of Jim’s adherence to a particular ideology. And I took the guy as nothing but well meaning. My lament, as I told him, is that if he had only continued on the same path as he started with in terms of his looking at the problem when he turned to looking for solutions, he’d likely find he’d have *more* supporters. Instead, he left half of the people at the dock, those of us who see the same problem but couldn’t jump on his ideological ship, who were precisely looking for an answer driven by reality and not ideology.
That’s my worry from what I’ve read here so far, Scot. To what extent is the rightful concern about moralist and escapist reductions of Christianity being overshadowed when it comes to the “action” piece, by an ideological point of view as to what the solution might be?

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posted November 19, 2007 at 7:16 pm

I think there is probably a significant difference between being a ‘convert’ and being a ‘follower.’ I don’t think that conversion (as defined by evangelicals) equals internal spiritual formation or transformation.
Although there may be plenty of ‘converts’ to Christianity as a religion, I would tend to say, Scot, that the institutional church is filled with non-followers, who have not implemented the teachings of Jesus and have not experienced internal formation of the kingdom of God.
The kind of “Jesus-style” internal formation that leads to keeping his commands and being his “friends”, and the experiential reality of his kingdom (Rom. 15: Righteousness, peace and joy) must also evolve into social transformation — not as a political agenda but in a bottom-up process of social change much along the lines that Max Weber described in the Protestant Work Ethic.

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posted November 19, 2007 at 7:28 pm

Scot and all,
This is really reminding me of the dynamic recent conversation over at Alan Hirsch’s blog:
…where we have been discussing Alan’s challenge to act our way into a new way of thinking.
Have any of you followed that thread’s line of thinking?

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Scott Watson

posted November 20, 2007 at 1:16 pm

What it comes down to is praxis;for Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,not every one who says ‘Lord,Lord’ will enter the the kingdom…but only those who do the will of the Father. This will is incapsulated in the Sermon with its “ethic” of unconditional forgiveness,non-retaliation,love of enemies,faith in YWHH as the solution to fear which leads to anxiety about possessions and greed,subverting the acquisitiveness of lust and the abuse of divorce,etc. If one has done spectacular “Christian” works, even charismatic ones, and failed to live the kingdom ethic, your (my) @$% is grass.As my African American ancestors use to say in response to the often incongruous, self-serving Evangelical gospel preached by many whites in the Antebellum period,’Everybody talkin”bout heaven ain’t goin’. It’s interesting to read some of the slave testimonies which recount that at the end of the days of the master,many would call the slaves to ask them to grant them forgiveness,for fear that they would go to Hell,and some,in fateful resignation,stated on their deathbed that they were going to Hell.
This should lead to a sense of self-reflection and “conversion” and a staggering sense of humility. The prayer of us all should be the prayer of the publican,and our actions should mirror that we to face the judgment.

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tim atwater

posted November 20, 2007 at 2:26 pm

amen and amen, Scot Watson…
blindness to our own condition is the hardest of hard stuff to deal with… and we all seem to have a serious dose of this disease…
but certainly the more power and money, chief powers/principalities/idols in actual biblical theology (as opposed to culturally selective readings of the bible) the deeper the blindness.
Joel Green’s reading of Luke (New International Commentary) has been v encouraging for me, as he, a caucasian evangelical, still somehow manages to basically drill this same point Scot W is making, all through Luke’s gospel. The proof of faith is in the praxis/practice of faith. And everybody talking about it aint going there…
Too many articles about ‘evangelical’ opinion don’t even bother to footnote when they are talking, in reality, not about evangelical opinion but about more or less self-consciously de-limited caucasian evangelical North American opinion.
Surveys of evangelical thought and practice that don’t include African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Philippino/a (my wife and family and me by marriage, one flesh…) give a very distorted picture and entrench the insularity of racism, classism, sexism…
But it’s not just evangelicals. This is all of us, in all sectors of the church to some degree. This is the human condition too. So lots of compassion’s gotta be in the mix…
thanks Scot and Scot and all

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posted November 20, 2007 at 7:18 pm

It strikes me that perhaps the emphasis is on the wrong spot. We can debate conversion experiences forever, but ultimately it means little. No one gets a certificate from God. People’s behavior over time says more than some emotional experience. More importantly however, in my opinion, is not a debate about conversion but rather what drives it, mainly eschatology. Evangelicals emphasize, with a capital E, a millennium worldview in which the world will be burned up in preparation for a new Jerusalem. I for one, and am certainly not alone, strongly believe this is a gross and obscene interpretation of scripture. Texts used for this worldview more accurately belong in the Apocalyptic Literature genre, meaning literature written about current times, often with thinly-veiled references to dominant forces or individuals. However, as pretty much all evangelicals do believe in this distortion, their faith is backward shaped by it. Salvation, as defined by evangelicals, must therefore be a clear point in time. After all, if we are actually being shaped into Christ’s image over time, this begs the uncomfortable question of who is in and who is out at the “rapture.” (don’t get me started on that) Being “in” and “out” is a fundamental (no pun intended) guiding force for evangelicals. I won’t even go into the control issues and problems that manifest because of this belief. Finally, because of the backward shaping of theology, evangelicals have misinterpreted the key verses they use to claim a born-again experience. Jesus never talked about a conversion that amounted to lip service to a set of beliefs. He preached a way of living that, with spiritual practices such as prayer and contemplation, not only open our eyes (born again) to the Kingdom of God but also put us more into God’s plan for the world.

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Jason Barr

posted November 20, 2007 at 9:04 pm

I don’t see the point in getting into a “he said/she said” discussion over whether or not one has really converted (as the above poster said, we don’t exactly get a certificate from God we can frame up on our wall), but perhaps what the author is getting at is that we need to rethink our notion of what “conversion” means, in the sense of it inherently requiring not just a change in intellectual belief but the commitment to change one’s way of life to follow the pattern set by Jesus and the early church. In other words, to put teeth with the words, so it does not become (as you say) a strategy that is merely words – but also I think it has to involve some re-education of the church to enable people to see that when they signed on for this Jesus thing they weren’t signing on to a a club where you sign the membership statement, try to be nicer to people, and largely keep on doing the same things you were doing before (with certain moral changes the extent to which “lifestyle transformation” goes).

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Dianne P

posted November 20, 2007 at 11:58 pm

Oh Brian and Jason, #24 and 25, thank you so much for that line – “we don’t exactly get a certificate from God we can frame upon our wall.” So so weary of all those church-goers who think they have the certificate, and those going to the church down the road (fill in the blank) do not.

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