Online Discourse, Leadership, Progressive Evangelicalism, and the Value of Critics

The following are a few loosely related issues that I have been thinking about at various points over the last few days, in light of the millennials conversation and its aftermath. I have made a number of these comments in other contexts, but thought that it might be worth bringing them together here. A few of the points revisit ground that I have covered elsewhere.

1. The Shape and Dynamics of Discourse

For the last couple of years, I have continually returned to this point (I discussed these issues at greatest length here). Controversies such as this frequently arise and almost invariably exhibit a similar form and lifecycle. My contention is that many of our problems arise less on account of the issues themselves than they do the underlying structure and dynamics of our discourses and relationships. Our inattention to these things allows for a situation where the same dysfunctions replicate themselves every time a new controversy emerges.

The various problems that I have diagnosed in the past are partly structural, partly relational, partly ideological, and partly educational. The structural concerns include matters such as the form of our social media, which connect us so tightly in contexts of shared intimacy that vast emotionally hyper-conductive networks can develop. Locking people together in such close connections, where we are always vulnerable to being swept up with others in their reactivity, anxiety, or hostility, herding tendencies will often develop. Our forms of social media, within whose networks of relationships our thought is increasingly embedded and whose pace speeds up our interactions, discourage both the isolation and the patience that careful thought so typically requires. It also involves the collapsing of contexts of discourse into each other and the loss of representative discourse in favour of a discourse that treats all voices in the same way.

The relational issues are something that I will be dealing with more directly in a later point, but they are often closely related to and exacerbated by the structural issues. They particularly involve those ways in which we can have a reactive or anxious relationship to certain groups, issues, or persons, a sort of relationship that will stifle thought and imagination, producing emotional processes that will twist all of our interactions. Here I use ‘emotional’ in a sense broader than that of mere feeling, including within it the more instinctual ways that we operate in relation to different things, our kneejerk hostilities, underlying anxieties, and forms of reactivity. The most ‘rational’ of people can often be highly ‘emotional’ in this sense. At this point I am leaning heavily upon the insights of Edwin Friedman: I highly recommend that people read through my summary of his book as it will really shed a lot of light upon some of the things that I am describing here.

The ideological issues include such things as the resistance to anything that seems exclusive or restrictive of the rights of all individuals to speak for themselves in all discourses and a hostility or distrust towards authority structures and genuine leadership. Once again, these are related to the previous issues in various ways.

The educational issues have to do with the ways in which we have been formed and are being formed to read, to reason, and to dialogue. As I have argued in the past, fewer people are trained and gifted in the art of disputation. Also, as television, the Internet, and advertising have played a more formative role in the development of many people’s thinking, both reading and writing have become more impressionistic and disjointed in character, less capable of following extended arguments and more dependent upon the accumulation of successive impressions.

I am convinced that, until we start to take such issues seriously, little progress will be made. As usual in such cases, we must begin by examining our own practice, rather than simply laying accusations at the door of other parties.

As an example of just one of the many things that I am thinking about here, it is worth reflecting on the way that so many of our discourses take the form of competing monologues in echo chambers. Different parties don’t truly speak to each other but at and about each other from within their own online communities. The key figures in various parties all have their own blogs, whose comments are typically dominated by a chorus of approving supporters, a context within which it is almost impossible to have reasonable critical interaction.

As there isn’t much of a shared space within which conversation takes place and group identity tends to be articulated over against other parties, there is a natural tendency to focus upon the extremes: the figures, actions, and statements that seem the most outrageous and offensive, those things that are most productive of a polarizing effect. Also, as everyone is equally authorized to have a voice, the more unreasonable, shrill, polarizing, and aggressive voices can come to dominate the conversation. It is usually the case that, in order to hear more reasonable voices, time, space, and an exclusion of noise (i.e. the din produced by less reasonable voices) are required.

Let us suppose that, instead of focusing the conversation of polarized monologues on personal blogs and in opposing journal articles, some gifted, informed, reasonable, charitable, and non-reactive representatives from all parties joined together to establish a neutral shared context – a group blog, perhaps – closed the comments and started to talk through the issues together. Such a conversation could produce a productive rapprochement between the concerns of various camps, becoming a non-polarizing focal point and model for the wider conversation, leading to the muting or even marginalization of extreme and reactive voices. People would still disagree, sometimes sharply, but there would be much more of a chance that different parties could get along and forge common ground.

In an ideal scenario, such an approach would address the tendency of our thinking to become framed by our polarizations, producing an alternative situation where our non-reactive stance relative to the issues would frame our relations.

2. The Changing Nature of the Blogosphere (or at least my part of it)

I started blogging in 2003. Over the last several years, however, I have had the sense that the sort of conversation that I was engaged in was changing beneath my feet. When I first started blogging, it was an outgrowth of participation in theology forums. Most of the people that I was engaging with had blogs and I wanted to engage with them in that context too, to discuss important ideas, books, and interests at greater length. I didn’t perceive my blog as a means of publicization at all, or even as a means of getting my voice heard by some wider audience.

I didn’t have any great ideas worth hearing. I was writing for myself and for a limited group of online acquaintances. I wanted to think out loud and to post ideas in a context where I could receive people’s feedback and interaction, dialogue, debate, and dispute. It was a process of finding my voice, having my thought sharpened through challenge, forging a theological identity for myself, and learning how to fight my corner. There were several really smart people whose input I really valued and I wanted to expose my formative thinking to their judgment and guidance, while learning to stand on my own feet.

The strength of such old blogging communities was that they allowed for an engaged but aerated conversation. While the distinctness of various voices was maintained, they never stood on their own. Although there was plenty of pretension going around (all of the Latin blog names come to mind), there was less of a need to justify one’s blogging by having Something to Say. Most of us knew that we didn’t have a whole lot to say that wasn’t a recycling of the thoughts of much smarter people, but blogged as a means of engagement with a small community of online friends and peers.

Over my years of blogging, however, this dynamic seems to have changed. Christian blogging exploded, but those original communities I was part of soon thinned out and blogs became more isolated islands. Fewer people had active theology blogs and those who still did were less framed by a community of diverse peers. A number of us were uneasy as we felt that the sort of conversation that we were engaged in was being radically redefined. Rather than seeing our blogs as speaking into a particular community of people with deeper connections with each other, connections that didn’t exist only online, they were being regarded by readers as platforms for the general publicization of the bloggers’ viewpoints, which was not how most of us set out to write in the first place.

I gradually realized that I couldn’t just presume that I was throwing ideas out there for the judgment of my peers any more. Whereas I used to know the overwhelming majority of the few people who read and commented on my blog, nowadays I only know a small fraction of my readers personally and only a handful of people are consistent commenters here. Even of the more consistent commenters, most of them aren’t known to me beyond the comments on my blog. I would love to hear some thoughts from my readers in the comments. How do things appear from your perspective?

I suspect that the rise of Facebook and Twitter and certain e-mail discussion lists has a lot to do with this change, as much of the conversation moved to those places. Also, as more big names started to blog, many regular bloggers started to drop out, feeling that they had less to contribute. As blogs became thinner on the ground, far less closely related to each other, and the blogosphere became increasingly dominated by bigger names with Something to Say. The result was a situation where conversation between a wide range of voices started to be replaced by competing monologues or a series of echo chambers, with little substantial connection. This effect isn’t universal – I can think of some places that might represent partial exceptions to this trend – but it is widely observable.

I have reluctantly given some ground to this redefinition, taking on board the fact that what I am doing when I am blogging has been redefined. I do use my blog in a slightly more authoritative manner from time to time, recognizing that I will be read in this way by many of my readers, whether I like it or not. However, I don’t want to accept it entirely. I still want to be able to treat my blog as in some sense a sandbox for my thinking, a place where my peers can come and see what I am thinking and give their thoughts, rather than a platform for authoritative pronouncements. I also love the cut and thrust of a good debate.

3. The Nature of Progressive Evangelicalism

I recently saw it observed by a leading progressive evangelical blogger that there are few progressive evangelical churches. This, I believe, is a crucial point to reflect upon, if we are to understand the dynamics of the progressive evangelical movement and online debates surrounding the movement.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online. It is formed of many people who are survivors of abusive churches, of discontented people who have a deep personal animus towards churches they have left, of individuals who bear painful relational wounds, and of young people who feel alienated by their evangelical church upbringing. It is a movement dominated by refugees, spiritual migrants, and discontents.

In other words, the progressive evangelical movement is not formed around a positive core of shared beliefs, patterns of discipleship, and a shared life and identity in self-confident and self-defined communities, but around a deeply felt and often visceral reaction against dysfunctional evangelical contexts and the isolation, anger, and sense of betrayal that results from broken relations. It is defined more by its common resistance to evangelicalism than by any concrete and coherent alternative.

When a movement lacks strong and self-defined spiritual formation of its own, but finds its common identity more in a shared rejection of a previous context of formation, a context to which many of its members still feel exposed and vulnerable, it is prone to a number of dangerous tendencies. The loose communities of disaffection that can result lack self-definition, constantly deriving their identity from reacting against evangelicalism in its worst forms. What results is akin to a community fed on medicine – material designed to counteract the toxic varieties of evangelical formation – rather than on solid and edifying food.

People who feel vulnerable and exposed in such a manner who often have a spiritual and personal immune system in hyperdrive. Anything that is perceived to present any sort of external challenge will tend to be viewed as hostile and attacked, which is why criticism can’t easily be handled. These dynamics are poisonous and, more troublingly, contagious and it is difficult to try to have critical engagement with such a community, which can act on pure emotional instinct, like a cornered animal. There is such a fixation upon self-protection from the former abusive context that often no alternative that isn’t the current reaction can seemingly be conceived and the reaction is adhered to with the strongest of resolve.

For such a reactive person practically anything that a perceived opponent says can be a cause for outrage. After a while one begins to realize that many things are objected to by such persons almost purely on account of the person who said them. If someone in their own camp had come out with the same statement, they wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. This is just one example of what a reactive antagonism likes like in practice.

A Girardian scapegoat mechanism can also easily become integral to the operation of such groups. The movement can find its unity in attacking evangelicalism. However, if evangelicalism were removed from the picture and it had to define itself on its own terms, it would be at risk of breaking up into infighting. When such an antagonism has become a constitutive focus of a community’s identity, the community will feel an almost existential need to present the scapegoated group, irrespective of the actual scale of its faults, in a highly negative light and to keep drawing attention to the antagonism, often in subtle ways.

This does not make for balanced and healthy thinking and theology. The progressive evangelical movement widely operates with conservative evangelicalism as its foil, a foil that is caricatured, typically presented in its worst light and in terms of its most dysfunctional forms, and viewed with the most jaundiced and suspicious of eyes. This leads to a locking of the imagination, and a polarization of parties, as everything starts to become framed in terms of the underlying antagonism.

When such an antagonism is in force (and progressive evangelicals are hardly the only party with such antagonisms – evangelicals have several of their own), it is very difficult for people to think in a balanced fashion. Every theological question will become mediated by the antagonism with evangelicalism, making it difficult to think in an imaginative or non-reactive manner, arriving at positions that are more determined by evidence or theological truth than by the existential need to maintain the antagonism with evangelicalism.

The only way that this will change is when progressive evangelicalism can become self-defined as a movement. This will require robust communities in which people can feel safe and no longer exposed to evangelicalism in abusive, unhealthy, or otherwise objectionable forms. As it starts to define itself as a movement, it will be able to give up its polarizing scapegoating of evangelicalism, replacing an antagonism that sets the terms for the movement with a knowledge of what it itself is within its own bounds. Unfortunately, without such self-definition, as a movement it will be especially prone to herd dynamics.

4. The Need for Online Leadership

Perhaps one of the greatest factors in producing healthy, non-reactive communities, who feel a confident and secure sense of self-identity, is strong leadership. We so often focus upon Christian leaders as mere communicators of information that we seldom reflect upon the way that Christian leaders communicate emotional dynamics to their communities.

A leader sets the tone for a community. If they are highly reactive themselves, they will be the figure that sets the herd stampeding. However, if they can keep a cool head and respond rather than react (whether aggressively or defensively), their entire community will begin to share in their leader’s own non-reactive self-definition. This is one of the reasons why being intelligent and engaging isn’t sufficient for healthy online leadership.

Many bloggers exercise a sort of leadership online, setting the tone for large numbers of people’s responses. One of the biggest problems in such situations is not so much the content of teaching (although that is definitely an issue), but the way that the immaturity of persons who have been thrust into positions of great influence and limited accountability before they had learned to develop the self-control required to complement their considerable gifts can lead to the creation of deeply unhealthy dynamics in the communities that form around them. Great damage can result, much of which could be avoided if their scale of influence was restricted until greater maturity had been developed under the guidance of wise older mentors.

The fact that some of us are in the position to set the tone for many thousands by the way that we either react or respond reveals the immense responsibility of the Christian blogger. A blogger who cannot control their reactivity can cause immense and unnecessary relational fallout, resulting in fractures and damage in the lives of churches. This is one reason why I have so frequently drawn attention to the dynamics of reactivity in certain contexts and the way that some leading figures fuel it. The way that certain bloggers communicate their reactivity to a wide audience renders them far more of a danger to the health of the Church than any of the errors that they might teach (although it is incredibly difficult to challenge the errors of a reactive person). Such persons are an immense liability and one reason why we need to look for deep emotional maturity and self-control in those who lead us, not merely smart minds and engaging words.

As bloggers we create contexts of communal thought and emotional (once again, in a broader sense of the word) engagement, and we must bear responsibility for what we encourage. We have more of an influence upon the tone of the conversations in our comments than we might like to admit. If we often can’t control our reactions, our comment threads and readers will start to be dominated by that dynamic. The blogger can be the spiritual immune system of a community, maintaining a non-reactive presence that encourages balanced and healthy thought and engagement. However, the reactive blogger can create great bitterness, hostility, fear, and anxiety, producing poisonous dynamics that damage lives and churches.

Reactivity can be intoxicating and is also very easy to create and encourage. It comes naturally to us. It feels great to be a member of the stampeding herd and it is hard to resist joining when everyone around you seems to be. Fostering non-reactivity in our communities is a much more challenging task and requires people who have first mastered themselves.

5. The Value of Critics

This is another thing that I have been struck by lately – how immensely important smart and non-reactive interlocutors who firmly disagree with me or truly test me are, and how highly I have come to value them. I generally presume that I won’t persuade such individuals, not because I consider them to be intellectually dishonest or possessing an emotionally unhealthy relationship to the issues. Rather, I presume, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that they have moved towards their current viewpoint, not out of an extreme reaction to abuse elsewhere, but through considered and responsible engagement with and balanced reflection upon the issues. I believe that this will generally be revealed in the way that such persons can deal non-reactively and charitably with opposing voices.

I regard my interactions with such persons as a form of charitable but determined sparring. The primary purpose of such sparring, as I see it, is that of maintaining lines of communication between Christians who hold sharply differing viewpoints. Such lines of communication make it difficult for us to caricature each other. It also keeps us both on our toes, knowing that any weak arguments will be revealed and punctured and our blindspots will be exposed. I relish such a challenge to sharpen my thinking in dialogue with different viewpoints, which is why I seek out smart people with whom I differ. Such critics can perform a tremendously important ministry in our lives. I learn more from engaging with such persons than I do from the vast majority of the people with whom I agree. If my friendly critics started agreeing with me, I would feel that I had lost something important. They are the rigorous stress-testers of my thought. I feel safest when I know that they are committed to their task!

I also seek out contexts and persons who will maintain a sense of discomfort and unease in me and who will consistently raise the difficult and uncomfortable questions that I would like to dodge. I also try to provide such an unsettling effect within contexts that might risk becoming unhealthy echo chambers. Reading people from such contexts is a way that I retain a sense of urgency in myself concerning many of the issues that they are addressing. I may disagree with their proposed alternatives, but I want to be kept acutely aware of the problems they identify. For instance, while I have significant disagreements with most forms of feminism, I make sure to read and follow several feminists closely, and not just to ensure that I am not dealing with a caricature. I want to be alert to the existential tensions that others are experiencing and the great responsibility arising from the role that my own position could play in relieving or exacerbating them.

Even if we never see eye to eye, I believe that entering imaginatively into the tensions that our opponents are experiencing is a crucial dimension of our own responsibility of thought. Through challenging but non-reactive conversations as Christians we can maintain a healthy discomfort in each other, maintaining bonds of communication despite huge disagreements. We can break differences down to their appropriate size, sharpen our thinking and arguments, expose our blindspots, break down caricatures, acquire self-control of our emotions, improve our understanding of opposing positions, acquaint ourselves deeply with the existential force that the debate has for the other, and seek to reframe the issues imaginatively together.

Rather than entering into critical sparring with others with the all or nothing task of changing opponents’ minds, if our focus is upon sharpening our own minds, exposing ourselves and our thought to the stresses and tensions of a reality beyond our immediate experience, puncturing errors in our thinking and practice and revealing blindspots, opening our opinions up to the interrogation of those seeking to prosecute the case of Scripture and other authorities against us, and practicing non-reactive and charitable engagement, every critical interaction can become a beneficial experience from which, wisely approached and handled, we may gain much.

Conclusion

In short, most of my concerns relate to the ways in which the dynamics, structures, and leaders of our online conversations are ill-equipped to produce healthy results, instead creating something that is poisonously reactive and polarizing. It is causing huge damage to the Church and producing a lot of bitterness. As I have observed, this is less about the issues themselves than it is about the way that the issues are being handled and the unhealthy emotional dynamics that prevail in many communities.

If people want to understand my resistance to much progressive evangelicalism, it is in large measure on account of the reactive and polarizing processes that surround it. Until progressive evangelicalism produces self-defined communities, its reactivity will be a dangerous liability, no less problematic for the health and unity of the Church than many of the reactive and abusive churches that many of the members of the movement left behind. This needs to be reflected upon. We also need to reflect upon the way in which those of us who are not progressive evangelicals can, by our non-reactive responses to progressive evangelicals foster a weakening of the antagonisms.

A recurring theme in my blogging has been the nature and dynamics of Internet communities and discourse. I have discussed at length in the past the role that outrage plays, for instance. I really do not believe that any progress will be made until we establish the spiritual health of our communities of discourse, create forms of discourse more conducive to careful negotiation of the issues, and find ways to maintain bonds between those from different camps. This is a task especially incumbent upon any of us who have widely read blogs. As I have observed, the blogger can be the spiritual immune system of such a community, maintaining a non-reactive presence that encourages balanced and healthy thought and engagement or they can be the trigger that starts the panic.

I have argued in the past that there has been a breaking down of the healthy barriers between discourses, as we have often abandoned former modes of discourse where a limited group of trained, highly informed, and self-controlled representatives advocated for positions in a public arena with a set process and moderation, in exchange for a free for all, where victims or survivors who feel vulnerable and have not developed a healthy emotional distance from the issues under discussion start to engage in a sort of publicizing theological discourse that pushes issues in a reactive manner but cannot sustain the sort of counter-challenge that is essential for true discourse. It seems to me that, for the health of our discourses and the spiritual and psychological health of all parties, we need to establish a better way of dealing with such things, one that could be much less polarizing. Simply by virtue of the way that emotional dynamics work, only parties with a clearly defined and non-reactive sense of identity can really carry out such discourse effectively.

While this position challenges evangelical culture’s hyper-democratic instincts, I am firmly persuaded that the concerns of victims and survivors in progressive evangelical circles could be dealt with much more effectively if their cause were represented by gifted advocates who were less likely to have a reactive relationship to the issues under discussion. The conversation would be very exclusive when it came to the voices permitted to participate, but representative in its goal. Rather than different sides reacting to each other at their worst, we might then forge a sort of dialogue in shared spaces between the sides at their best, which would marginalize and lead to the exposure of abusive, vicious, and polarizing elements and quell the dynamics of reactivity. It might also foster a healthy mutual understanding and responsibility and develop the sort of conversational tension out of which more chastened insight can emerge.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, The Blogosphere, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

65 Responses to Online Discourse, Leadership, Progressive Evangelicalism, and the Value of Critics

  1. Jake Belder says:

    I have found the blogging world to change in the way you describe. Like yourself, I started blogging a long time ago whilst in university, and pretty much all those who read and commented were known to me, many personally. I rarely get comments any more, however, and if there is response to a post I’ve written, it’s usually a tweet (or a retweet), or a FB comment. I don’t particularly mind this – like you, my blog is a forum for me to jot down things I’m thinking about, or work through different ideas.

    One other thing I have noticed, however, is how many people talk about giving up on reading blogs. There are probably numerous reasons for this – maybe because we live in the sound-byte age, or perhaps the sometimes overwhelming noise of Twitter and FB have something to do with it – but I don’t know many people who regularly read blogs any longer, with the exception of maybe some of the most high-profile ones.

    • Yes, I have noticed that too. I suspect that one of the reasons why people might stop reading blogs has to do with the way that RSS never truly became mainstream and with the fact that blogs are outside of the social network contexts where people usually engage. When the centre of gravity of people’s online engagement shifts, there really needs to be a powerful incentive to engage with material on the periphery of their usual realms of interaction. This was a further nail in the coffin of the smaller blogs with less of a draw.

  2. You have lumped so many things together here that it is hard to know where to start. I will concentrate on point 3 – your comment, or should I say criticism, or progressive Evangelicals.

    Firstly, you make the judgement that the movement doesn’t have communities but is merely disaffected voices on the interweb. Can I suggest that our lack of knowledge about such groups doesn’t mean they don’t exist. By nature of the Internet most of our conversations will be with individuals and not groups. Let us suppose that you interact with 100 progressive evangelicals. Are you supposing that this represents all of the people who are holding these beliefs. Let us know what research you have done to make the judgement that there are no communities that are having a progressive journey in an evangelical context.

    Secondly, you state that ‘It is a movement dominated by refugees, spiritual migrants, and discontents.’ Is that not too easy a charge to make against those that you disagree with. It seems to me that you might be missing your own high standard of ‘balanced fashion’ thinking. Perhaps you have looked at the journey and circumstances of some of those that you have debated with and then projected their lives on the rest of us.

    Thirdly, you present us with a picture that progressive evangelicals are only focussed on its reaction to evangelicalism; not having ‘positions that are more determined by evidence or theological truth’. Again just because you haven’t seen, heard, or read them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    I would add to your discussion that deconstruction is a very important part of the formation of new ideas. It is all too easy to view this deconstruction as ‘reactive antagonism’ to this who are within the construct being addressed. In fact often those holding a more conservative position can seem to employ ‘reactive antagonism’ – the difference is that theirs can appear calm and reasoned. A bit like a passive aggressive stance doesn’t look aggressive.

    Hope that helps.

    • Alan,
      It would be easier to take your critique more seriously if you would actually point of examples of communities and the like instead of, “They could exist somewhere that you have yet to look”. You identify with progressive evangelicals so you should be able to produce the counters to Alastair’s claims. It is much easier for you to justify your stance with examples instead of calling on Alastair to prove the universal negative.

      Next, deconstruction is important in the formation of new ideas but there is such a thing as bad/faulty deconstruction. I think Alastair’s recent post in response to RHE points out her bad attempt at deconstruction and having not thought through her position.

      • There are examples of progressive evangelical churches and communities. However, my point was that such communities don’t seem to be the primary contexts of formation for most. My point was about the dearth of such communities, not their complete absence. Proving a universal negative is rather pointless as I never claimed one in the first place.

        My point might be better illustrated by contrasting evangelical and progressive evangelical responses to such questions as the following:

        1. Are you a member of a church?
        2. Do you identify with the teaching position of your church?
        3. Has the vast majority of your spiritual formation occurred within this movement?
        4. Who are the leading figures in your movement and where did their primary spiritual formation occur?
        5. Did you move to your current church context or community from a different theological context?
        6. Do most of your peers in your context share your theological persuasions?
        7. To what extent does your experience mirror that of your peers who share your position?
        etc.

      • Not sure that it is down to me to come up with the information. Alastair sets out a view that there are not many communities of progressive evangelical. I am saying that his judgement is made upon the few people that he has either read about or debated with.

        Perhaps most of the churches/leaders are just getting on with the job.

        In addition Alastair’s judgement about the lack of substance is made on an analysis of those he has spoken with. It doesn’t prove that there are not people doing serious constructive theological study that could be counted as, in Alastair’s words, ‘solid and edifying food’.

        His assesment is made on just a few examples of those who are connected with the Internet and does not necessarily represent the whole picture.

      • Alan,
        There are both good and bad foundations for skepticism. An example of a good foundation is that some X is accepted as true by all sides and some other claim, Y, is inconsistent with that X. Therefore one is skeptical of Y.

        A bad foundation for skepticism is to claim that someone doesn’t know what they are talking about because you seem not to like their conclusion. Skepticism is not free but is properly based on what one knows or accepts to be true.

        Lastly,
        I think your comments about deconstruction are very important. If one does not deconstruction the dominant paradigm properly then how can one expect to build a proper alternative?

      • Hermonta. Thanks for your response.

        I am not saying that I don’t like Alastair’s conclusion. If it is true then it is true and I will have to deal with it.

        My point is that he has come to the conclusion on the relatively few contacts that he has. In this context I feel he is mistaken: or at least his conclusion that much of it is not providing ‘solid and edifying food’ is not a full enough explanation.

    • Thanks for commenting, Alan.

      My primary purpose in my third point about progressive evangelicalism was not to criticize, but to observe the particular dangers to which a movement of its kind can be exposed. I didn’t say that the movement was just disaffected voices on the Internet, with no actual communities. I know of a number of more progressive evangelical communities. My point was rather that such communities aren’t that widespread and that much of the movement isn’t rooted in such offline communities. Even the progressive evangelicalism that does exist in such a form is often composed in large measure of people who are refugees, migrants, and discontents of conservative evangelical contexts, rather than from people who have experienced the entirety of their spiritual formation in such contexts. The question that I was trying to answer was, given the dearth of actual progressive evangelical churches, how exactly is this movement being formed?

      As for my claim, which I have repeated, that it is a movement dominated by refugees, spiritual migrants, and discontents, once again I wasn’t making a universal claim. There are many progressive evangelicals who don’t fit in any of these categories. However, of those who most vocally identify with progressive evangelicalism online, how many have experienced the entirety of their spiritual formation in progressive evangelical contexts? In claiming that it is a movement dominated by such persons, I am not just speaking of numbers, but also of voices within the movement. If the leading voices were overwhelmingly people who were lifetime progressive evangelicals, we would be dealing with a very different sort of movement.

      In response to your third point, once again I am speaking about general patterns and tendencies, not hard and fast universal rules that apply in each and every case. There are some very balanced progressive evangelical voices out there, who think about Christian truth in a very non-reactive fashion. Richard Beck, who incidentally said that my remark, ‘the progressive evangelical movement is not formed around a positive core of shared beliefs, formation, and a shared life and identity in self-confident and self-defined communities, but around a deeply felt and often visceral reaction against dysfunctional evangelical contexts and the isolation and anger that results from broken relations and a sense of betrayal’ was ‘extraordinarily profound and powerful’, is one example that springs to mind. I have been following his blog for years and he is an admirable non-reactive person.

      And, yes, deconstruction is an important process. However, it is a very dangerous process for those who aren’t following careful procedures, as it can easily lock us into reactive patterns of thought. Constructive thought, undertaken in a manner unframed by any background opposition, is always our primary task. People who haven’t achieved balance in this area will find their thought driven by existential urges of anxiety, hostility, opposition, reactivity, etc., rather than being able to think unswayed by such things.

      There is an abundance of reactivity in conservative evangelical circles too. I made that point within my post and have commented on it elsewhere on many occasions. But we need to beware of using the failures of other parties to absolve our own. ‘He hit me first!’ or ‘she’s doing it too!’ approaches are reactivity in a fairly pure form. We must all take responsibility for our own actions.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      • I think what I struggle with here is that you present a construct by which you judge and presume that this construct is correct otherwise there is danger. You seem to be looking for non-emotional responses as if these are of higher value than some other kind of response.

        You seem to be looking for communities that somehow mirror the usual format of evangelical communities (eg they are vocal and readily apparent to you the observer).

        In addition your list of questions presumes that these are reasonable indicators of the truth about people’s rootedness.

        I am concerned that your frame of reference is too limited to give the kind of conclusions that you suggest.

      • Thanks for the comment, Alan. What I am looking for is not a non-emotional response (in the narrow sense of a response without feeling), but a non-reactive response, which is a response that is more reflective than instinctive. The way that emotion plays into this will be far more carefully managed, and far less vulnerable to uncontrolled anger, hostility, anxiety, outrage, offence, frustration, fear, etc.

        And, yes, a non-reactive response is considerably more valuable than a reactive one, because a non-reactive response is more determined by self-controlled and reflective engagement with the truth and reality than it is with the dysfunctional relational dynamics of a party that cannot truly define itself.

        What I am pointing out is that progressive evangelicalism: a) isn’t a very coherent or ecclesially rooted movement on the ground and a very considerable number of progressive evangelicals do not have a church to call their own; b) has shared sensibilities and a shared opposition to evangelicalism in its conservative forms, but the theological and ideological agreement of the movement is much more limited, to the extent that it exists; c) gets a significant amount of its numbers from those leaving conservative evangelicalism; d) is characterized in many of its most vocal forms by a powerful resistance to conservative evangelicalism. This has been the nature of the evangelical left more or less since its inception.

        Now, for some clarifications:

        1. I am talking about the North American situation here, not the situation as it exists in the UK or elsewhere. This is for various reasons. First, evangelicalism is a very different sort of beast in the UK, and so it is best to tackle the situations separately. Second, my comments were originally occasioned by a discussion of the American scene. Third, almost 70% of my blog readership is North American. Only about 10% come from the UK. If I were addressing the UK, my analysis would differ somewhat.

        2. I am not making absolute statements, just observing general patterns, trends, and tendencies. Incidentally, my observations here largely spring out of Richard Beck’s remarks that he and Rachel Held Evans are looking for a form of church that is ‘scarce’ and ‘rare’ and that most progressive evangelicals will lack and that, when Evans speaks for millennials in relationship to the Church, this is what she is speaking about (she agreed, by the way). He describes the experience of many progressive evangelicals having been raised within conservative evangelical contexts, wanting to leave that particular expression of evangelicalism, but having nowhere to go that really feels comfortable.

        3. None of this denies the progressive evangelical churches that exist, but just points out that a very significant and highly vocal number of those who identify as progressive evangelicals in the US can’t comfortably stay in the churches of their upbringing, but lack an alternative home. Progressive evangelicalism as a movement has never had the same degree of ecclesial groundedness or institutional coherence as conservative evangelicalism has, depending a lot more upon journals, key figures, blogs, etc. to hold a fairly disparate constituency together. I am not saying this to slight it as a movement, merely to point out the fact.

      • Chris E says:

        “However, of those who most vocally identify with progressive evangelicalism online, how many have experienced the entirety of their spiritual formation in progressive evangelical contexts?”

        .. but isn’t this the case of many movements as they are represented online? Almost inevitably the ‘converts’ – and those still in a ‘cage stage’ – will be amongst the most vocal. If we go back 3-4 years, you could rewrite the sentence with ‘New Reformed’ substituted in and it would make perfect sense. Which wouldn’t necessarily mean that the traditional Reformed denominations had failed at spiritual formation.

        That said, I think you are right about the scarcity of progressive communities – but in the US geography plays a large part in this. I suspect the communities that Richard Beck looks for are more likely to exist in New York than the middle of Texas.

      • Thanks for the comment, Chris.

        Yes, the same could be said of many different groups of persons, not least ‘cage-stage’ Reformed types. We call it the ‘cage-stage’ because we all know that highly reactive, opinionated, and polarizing converts would be best off locked in a cage until they develop the maturity and knowledge to handle things carefully. A movement with established teachers and churches will always have its cage-stage types, but they will be much less defining of the movement. While the converts may make the most noise, they are less likely to monopolize the attention.

        The key issue with the progressive evangelical movement is that, without settled and self-defined church communities, this reactivity will only be heightened as progressive evangelicals lack contexts with clear boundaries for their identity.

  3. >>there are few progressive evangelical churches<>It is formed of many people who are survivors of abusive churches<<

    What if you're the survivor of an abusive progressive church? Where do you go then? (In my case the post-Vatican II 60's and 70's Roman Catholic Church. The Church has come slightly- *slightly*- back to the right since then.) Seriously why does nobody ever think this is a problem? Progressives couldn't care less about the harm they do to other people, in fact they are quite self-righteous and proud about it.

    The problem that progressive evangelicals have is the same problem all progressives have, that they don't 100% control all of society. Progressives who are not evangelicals figure that evangelical churches are places where loser weirdos can get together and nurse their resentments and can be pretty much ignored. Progressives who grew up with evangelical Christianity and like the feeling of community can't accept the fact there are a hundred other places to go, and have to put up a rainbow flag on the evangelical church.

    If you are a progressive I will say to you you already have a religion, progressivism, and you can be a faux-Christian lots of places, so just leave evangelicals alone.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      My point about people who left abusive churches is not intended as a judgment, but as an observation. People should leave such abusive churches and they need safe alternatives. However, when a movement has a lot of vocal survivors of particular abusive contexts, it is vulnerable to a number of problems, especially that of a reactive relationship with their former context dominating their subsequent thinking and alignment. That was my primary point.

      I don’t want these comments to descend into mud-slinging. One of the central points of my post was that we need to forge a non-reactive conversation with different parties at their very best. By creating a robust conversation, we can start to de-emphasize the extremes.

      Is it really the case that most progressive evangelicals fit the description that you have given above? In my experience, many of them have far more modest expectations and less radical beliefs. In fact, I would suggest that one of the things that can most predictably drive people to the extremes is the polarizing stereotypes that they are subjected to when they voice moderate positions.

      • I can only talk about what I know. My experience is of course limited, but so is everyone else’s. One of the things I hated most as a child was being told, directly or by implication, “You didn’t see that. You didn’t hear that. You didn’t experience that.” So I’m talking about liberation theology Catholics- the people I grew up around and was instructed by, and the people I read in the books and magazines my parents read. Progressive protestants are a little more mellow, not having the radical streak you find in Catholicism, but if you are talking about progressive Christians addressing what they regard as right and wrong and good and evil I would say yes.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      I wouldn’t say my emergent-y ex-church was abusive, or even close to meriting that description. But, there were definitely some cringe worthy moments.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        The point being that many of the problems with churches aren’t related to whether they are conservative or progressive in theology.

  4. Another thing that I’ve observed that relates to the echo-chamber phenomenon is that we don’t regularly read those outside our own communities with until they say something controversial. The problem of this is that we tend to form opinions based on that controversial comment alone. If a progressive only ever encounters the thoughts of conservative writers when those thoughts conflict with their own, they will, by necessity, form an impression of said position and person that is limited to those negative words alone. (And vice versa, of course.) Point being, in order to understand those you disagree with, it is not enough to read only their writings that are controversial; you must extend the charity of reading them more faithfully in order to form a full understanding of who they are or what shapes their argument. We may still strongly disagree but we’ll know better why and what the core differences are instead of simply reacting to controversial posts.

    • Thanks for commenting, Hannah. That is an extremely important point. This is one of the reasons why I found the demise of Google Reader and the failure of RSS to become mainstream so concerning. As I commented in a post on the subject, if we get all of our information from sharing on social media, we will primarily be reading controversial and otherwise objectionable material from other parties, rather than their standard output. However, subscribing to a blog’s feed ensures that you are exposed to everything that interlocutor writes, not just their controversial posts.

      This is also one of the things that I find disappointing about my own blogging. People’s impression of you comes to be founded upon your controversial pieces, precisely because they are the ones with the widest circulation. However, most of my output isn’t intended to be controversial at all. Unfortunately, my readership plummets when I post something such as a long series on the theme of Exodus in the Bible.

      • Alastair,
        I think your readership numbers are at least somewhat related to how long your posts are. If the subject does not interest a person immediately, then they will not spend the time reading your thoughts when there is so much other stuff available on so many subjects.

      • Thanks for the comment, Hermonta. That is quite possible. Interestingly, however, long posts are not in and of themselves a disincentive to readers. My longest post (almost 11,000 words long) is also one of my most widely read.

    • I take your point Hannah. It is important. I just think that Alastair has done this here. He seems to be reading a particular set of progressive evangelical responses and presuming they represent the whole.

      • As I pointed out above, my comments were primarily based upon two leading progressive evangelicals’ own characterization of their movement. Don’t just take this on my word.

    • Hannah,
      I think that reading an author outside of simply the controversial topics is necessary not only to properly understand the differences etc but also to simply humanize them. It is much easier to bring the temperature of the conversation down a few notches, if the opponent is not seen as being comprehensively defined as a destroyer of the church, a hater of science, or a supporter of the oppression of a certain race, sex, etc.

  5. Wayne says:

    Reading #2 I was struck with a bit of nostalgia for 40 Bicycles.🙂

    • I felt a little myself! Yesterday I visited it for the first time in nearly a year and clicked on about twenty of the links in the blog roll. Sadly, the overwhelming majority were now inactive and many had disappeared entirely. I really miss the way that our corner of the blogosphere felt like in those days. A few of the old names are still blogging, but there is much less engagement with each other’s blogs nowadays.

    • What do you do when the majority of a community ‘goes Garver’?😉

  6. Morgan Guyton says:

    I just started following your blog and I’m glad I did. I guess I’m one of those progressive evangelicals you probably disagree with a lot. I think that a lot of progressive evangelicals have hair-trigger responses because we’re used to being “disciplined” for asking too many questions and not toeing the party line in our churches. And so we jump the gun when we hear someone going down a similar path to the way that soft-spoken, kind, but also patronizing leaders have gone in conversations in the past.

    The phenomenon of progressive evangelicalism as it currently exists is a very recent development. At least in America, it’s the kids who grew up in the Reagan age of American Christianity. I know that I’m very invested myself in pursuing the project you’ve described of creating a constructive, positive theological space. For example, what does original sin look like if Adam is an allegorical representation of the human race and not a historical figure? What does sexual holiness look like if you really believe that Paul’s “marry rather than burn” concession can be applied to people who are sexually other? So I look forward to future dialogue with you.

    Last thing I’ll say is there are progressive evangelical denominations. Evangelical Covenant comes to mind. Many United Methodists like myself identify as evangelical. Basically the Wesleyan branch of evangelicalism tends to be more progressive in my experience. Anyway thanks for your thoughtful 3000 word posts. I actually get annoyed at the more typical 500 word posts out there that don’t really say much of anything. God’s peace.

    • Thanks for the comment, Morgan. It is good to have you here. It is also good to know that, even though we probably disagree sharply on several issues, as you observe, we can have significant ends in common. The creation of a space for challenging and constructive theological engagement in conversational tension has much that would benefit all parties, I believe.

      The sort of questions that you are asking are important ones and I want to see places established where they can be wrestled with. As just one small example, you might find these two recent posts interesting.

      The way that many progressive evangelicals might feel at home in the context of United Methodists was observed in an article linked from my earlier post on the millennials and the Church. Taxonomy comes into play at this point, but I would be inclined to identify the United Methodists primarily with the mainline, rather than with evangelicalism in its more contemporary parachurch focused guise, even though you are right to point out the presence of evangelical identifying elements.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      What does sexual holiness look like if you really believe that Paul’s “marry rather than burn” concession can be applied to people who are sexually other?

      Poetic decoration for utilitarianism.

  7. As someone who only became a Christian a few years ago, and who began in the 1970s as an atheist idealistic Leftist – I find that the progressive evangelicals (so far as I have sampled them online) are focused on identical issues, and recapitulating highly analogous arguments, to those which were part of mainstream culture in the late 1960s and through the 70s.

    Secular progressives won, of course – with the result that we now have several decades of documentation of what happened.

    To me, therefore, it seems obvious what *will* happen if progressives get what they want in the evangelical movement – which is that such change once started will lead to further change, and evagleicals will have stepped onot a slippery slope to becoming ‘liberal Christians’ in other words, Christians-in-name-only who are in a constant flux of adjusting Christianity to the latest concerns of secular Leftism.

    As I say, this seems so obvious to me – on the basis of several decades of mainstream socio-cultural experience – that I wonder whether progressive evangelicals are aware of the facts, or whether they perhaps believe that they can have just as much of the progressive trend as they want – and then stop at that ideal point (which mainstream culture has utterly failed to do). Or whether they are perhaps prepared to accept the probability of going all out into lebralism, if only this will destroy those aspects of evangelicalism that they regard as intolerable.

    *

    A further point is that the post seems very idealistic to me in terms of hoping for a focused converstaion which is also very inclusive – the description of early blogging sounds focused but not inclusive, modern blogging is usually the opposite. I personally am delighted to have a focused conversation among a couple of dozen people on my blog – and I don’t much care about missing out on the non-participating billions!

    • Thanks for the comment, Bruce. Part of my point in this post is to suggest that progressive evangelicalism gains much of its momentum from a reactivity spawned by contexts of abusive within conservative evangelicalism or by conservative evangelicalism’s own reactive character, which produces a fear of questions that are perceived to be threatening and the ostracization of those who ask them.

      In other words, the very reason that the evangelical left is gaining power has a lot to do with the dynamic that exists between conservative evangelicalism and many who have left it, who end up throwing themselves into the arms of the evangelical left through the kickback of the shots that they are firing at conservative evangelicalism.

      My suggestion is that, if we can start to defuse much of the reactive dynamic between conservative evangelicalism and those who don’t quite fit within it, the polarizing effect would be dulled and there might not be a straightforward development of an evangelical left at all. Nor would we have a reactive evangelical right that runs to its own extremes. This doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be a left and a right, but they wouldn’t be as diametrically opposed.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        In other words, the very reason that the evangelical left is gaining power has a lot to do with the dynamic that exists between conservative evangelicalism and many who have left it, who end up throwing themselves into the arms of the evangelical left through the kickback of the shots that they are firing at conservative evangelicalism.

        How much power does it really have though? It’s entirely dependent on reaction, which you notoriously can’t pass on to your kids. They simply won’t have that emotional entanglement with conservative evangelicalism that drives their progressive evangelical parents. Progressive evangelicalism really is largely a transitional response to the belated secularization of the U.S.

        I’d also note that, to the extent the evangelical left has anything positive on hand, it is basically a combination of the smug, boring parts of conservative evangelicalism with the smug and boring thing that is political correctness. That’s a horrible stew to be selling. Out and out PC at least allows for the superficial charms of hedonism, and in any event most secular people are fairly hypocritical and inconsistent in their application of PC to their lives. Corruption has it’s uses.

      • Reactivity may not be sustainable, but it is powerful in the short term.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Even now, it doesn’t have enough numbers to actually get churches up and running, and you can go on for years in evangelical circles without ever encountering this stuff. Internet activity does not give an accurate indication of strength.

      • True, but to the extent that the movement fuels reactivity, its power shouldn’t be measured solely by its capacity to construct something new, but by its power to fracture and damage its host contexts.

      • But, yes, the point about online visibility not equating to actual real world presence and impact is very important. It wouldn’t be the only movement whose online prominence might give a deceptive sense of its more general significance.

        On the other hand, the real world impact of the Internet is only going to increase. The Internet facilitates the formation and communication of large groups of people who are isolated in their immediate contexts. These communities, communities which don’t have organized or institutional existence offline, will start to have a much more powerful influence on offline contexts, even though they are don’t have offline presence. This is largely a new phenomenon, but something that we need to take into account.

  8. Troy Greene says:

    Well…..I just tried to put up a long post but something happened. I don’t know. Let me know if you didn’t get it.

  9. Troy Greene says:

    Crud buckets! Well….. it was a LONG post. But basically……Where’s the place in your desire for dialogue for prophetic zeal that is necessary to rebuke or correct much of what passes in the criticisms of the church. Also the place for hyperbole with zeal like in Paul “why not just cut the whole thing off!” Many of the “questions” I see by the progressive types are really accusations against the church not genuine questions in search of truth. Anyway, it was a great post. The best really in this whole discussion.🙂 Too bad I forgot my password and it some how disappeared. Peace, Troyt

    • Thanks for the questions, Troy. It really is a shame that your original comment was lost.

      I think that my key concern is recognizing the sort of people with whom we are dealing. In many cases, I don’t think that progressive evangelicals start off with such accusations. Rather, they begin with genuine questions that are given facile or dismissive answers, or no answers at all. My conviction is that, if we set a consistent pattern of acting responsibly and non-reactively in truly addressing genuine questions, and giving a thoughtful account of the truth, facing up to the tough questions, we will be in a better position to recognize people who are deserving of such prophetic rebuke from those that we have alienated.

      • Troy Greene says:

        Alastair,
        As a pastor, I would disagree to some extent, but I want to maintain your desire for genuine dialogue. I have seen much of the dialogue you are desiring cut short or ignored.

        For example, IMO, I find that the recent millennial discussion went viral because of a post about LGBT and the word “church” were combined. This is picked up by the media and published widely. Like you pointed out, it was less than 750 words. I found it lacked substance. I really appreciated much of your post in response, but I thought such a response also needed to recognize the principalities and powers at work as well. There is definitely a place to recognize the humanity at work in the questioners and even accusers. The NPP has been really helpful in this regard to the Pharisees. For me, the NPP has put flesh on the Pharisees. I see their longing for Israel, their zeal–although w/o knowledge, god-given desires misaligned and let astray. Having said that, these desires–and the respect we can show for their humanity–should not allow for us to lose a prophetic voice against those who lead many away from the church with constant complaints, accusations, questions-without-a-desire-for-answers-from-the-Word (think Rob Bell types). I wonder if your desire to interact with them is really impossible because your desire for the truth is imputed to them, when time and again, their desires have proven otherwise. I am concerned that a desire for genuine dialogue can only be had by those who pursue the fruit of the Spirit: humility–in particular, Therefore, we need to recognize the work of an Accuser, like a Trojan horse, disguised as a 750 word open conversation covering an much more fundamental agenda.

      • Thanks for the follow-up comment. A few thoughts:

        1. We need to distinguish between those with the responsibilities of leadership and those who are followers. I have written strongly against Rachel Held Evans, for instance, on several occasions. My reasons for opposing her and her positions so strongly is not merely on account of my disagreement with her beliefs and claims. It is because she is in a position where she wields considerable influence, but is using it in many respects in a harmful and divisive manner.

        I believe that she has shown herself, time and again, to be a reactive presence in the conversation, a voice which triggers stampedes and kneejerk polarizations. I do not believe that she is qualified, whether in terms of biblical wisdom, theological acumen, character, or in self-control and temperament, to be wielding the sort of influence that she does. She is obviously a witty, intelligent, and tremendously engaging individual, with a singular manner of showing a sense of empathy with people. I am sure that we could get on very well in other circumstances in person. However, just because I can imagine myself enjoying having a beer and a stimulating conversation with someone doesn’t mean that they should be a significant influence of the kind that she is within certain circles of Christ’s Church (I would feel compelled mercilessly to oppose some close friends if they ran for high political office!). Evans’ failure to master her own temperament, apart from anything else, makes her a liability, and has led her to cause considerable and unnecessary damage. By the way, this doesn’t mean that she couldn’t play another role, no less prominent, in a manner that would be very healthy.

        This is a hard word, but I think that we need to be more prepared to see and to say such things when they are the case.

        2. While it may look as if I am writing primarily to engage with figures such as Rachel Held Evans, this isn’t in fact that case. My focus has always been upon the person who is listening in, who finds many of the things that she says persuasive. I want to take the questions that they will be asking with complete seriousness and respond to them carefully, rather than just reacting. I want to treat them in a respectful manner one which doesn’t presume that they are just wilfully trying to overturn or to reject the truth. There are a lot of people in pews who need calm answers to the questions that they are raising and if we just condemn people as heretics they won’t receive any.

        I also want my thought to be exposed to the tensions and stresses that emerge in and through the challenges posed by such as Evans.

        3. Having a genuine conversation does not mean that we don’t believe that there are deep errors in the other party’s thought. We can talk through the issues charitably and respectfully, while being firm in holding that anyone teaching certain things in our churches would be subject to discipline. Both approaches demand clear self-definition of us. To talk issues through non-reactively requires of us a firm grounding in an identity and the possession and establishment of clear boundaries. Within the boundaries of our immediate church contexts, we should treat someone propagating certain teachings differently from someone doing the same thing without (just as we should treat people asking questions differently from those teaching positions outside of the bounds of our tradition’s orthodoxy). The fact that I believe that there is a place for a conversation about such matters and that the conversation is important, doesn’t mean that I believe that most of the questions raised are to be treated as open ones within a conservative Protestant church context. Likewise, I believe that there is much to be gained and learned from intense interaction and conversation with Roman Catholics, for instance, and that such engagement is really important. However, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t vigorously oppose someone teaching certain Catholic positions within my immediate Church context.

        4. I don’t want to make negative presumptions about the motives and desires of my interlocutors. Those emerge over time and are not the same for all members of a party. Motives are not my primary concern. If someone is teaching a dangerous error, their motives really don’t matter that much: the most well-meaning teacher of error must be vigorously opposed. I have no reason to believe that Rachel Held Evans is driven by vicious or evil motives. I think that she is highlighting and attacking groups and teachings that she sees (very often correctly) to be abusive. However, I do think that she is causing a lot of damage and spreading a lot of error in the way that she is doing this and must be opposed, no matter how well-intentioned she may be.

        5. Your mention of the media brings in another important factor here. The media seems to love to incite and to fuel reactivity among Christians and to employ Christians as their means of attacking and discrediting other Christians. The Huffington Post Religion section is a great example of the media using and fuelling the reactive relationship between progressive and conservative evangelicals to serve interests that show little evidence of being Christian at all, rather than just constantly concern trolling us in a manner designed to keep us fractured and infighting so that we are powerless to challenge wider cultural developments. Perhaps I am representing them unfairly here, but this is the impression I have gained from a long time reading articles there.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I have no reason to believe that Rachel Held Evans is driven by vicious or evil motives.

        Yes, it needs to be said that Evans, while deeply flawed, is not a fundamentally evil person.

      • Yes, it needs to be said that Evans, while deeply flawed, is not a fundamentally evil person.

        I really don’t believe that Evans is a deeply flawed person, just a deeply flawed leader. These are two very different things. I have no issue with her as a person at all.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I’ll pull the trigger. Evans is vain, pretentious and manipulative (she admits the last). She has behaved absolutely abominably online on more than one occasion, and I just can’t see how all of that does not reflect on her as a person. Evans is not merely incompetent. If I had to interact with her regularly in real life, I would exhibit a certain amount of well justified caution. That said, she is not a monster, and has many fine qualities as well.

        A good contrast is with, say, Tony Campolo, who seems to me naive, shallow, and often unhelpful, but basically benign as a person.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Rather, they begin with genuine questions that are given facile or dismissive answers, or no answers at all.

        I wonder if this has much explanatory power. In my experience, the people asking questions tend not to be terribly satisfied with the more theologically sophisticated answers either. Or the wrong questions are being asked. Something else seems to be going on here.

    • Sorry you lost your comment Troy – that is so annoying.

      Surely you cannot know that our questions are ‘not genuine searches for truth’.

      I do have a concern that however well meaning Alastair is being he is caught in his own construct and therefore judging the other by standards that may well not be true.

      I think your comment highlights what often happens. Perhaps rather than your conclusion that our motives are wrong it is just that they way we address these issues is constructed differently than the way you would.

  10. Pingback: 7 Good Questions | Christian Vagabond

  11. @Alastair – “Part of my point in this post is to suggest that progressive evangelicalism gains much of its momentum from a reactivity spawned by contexts of abusive within conservative evangelicalism or by conservative evangelicalism’s own reactive character, which produces a fear of questions that are perceived to be threatening and the ostracization of those who ask them.”

    This is a very interesting remark – and may well prove to be true: that conserative evangelicalism is a reaction against secular modernity; and progressive evangelicalism a reaction against conservtaive evangelicalism (which nonetheless is trying to avoid simply going full circle, merging with secular mondernity).

    The phenomenon of a reaction against a reaction – ‘A’ goes to ‘anti-A’ goes to ‘anti-anti-A’ – in which anti-anti-A remains separate from A was, in fact, seen with Fascism.

    First came Tradition’ (Christianity and Capitalism) – Communism reacted against Tradition – and Fascism reacted against Communism – yer Fascism remained different from Tradition (especially in remaining secular, while rejecting Communist internationalism and socialist economics).

    In this instance we start from Secular Leftist Modernity which is reacted against by Conservative Evangelicalism – which is reacted against Progressive Evangelicals (who reject the Conservative element, and retain the Evangelical element).

    Fascism turned out to be incoherent and unsustainable; will progressive evangelicalism prove more successful? I doubt it.

    Aside from all this reactivity is anti-modernity, traditionalism, restorationists of one kind or another – who seek not to react-against modern arrangements, but to return-to pre-modern arrangments.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      One of the worst things about Evan’s blog is the “you go girl” cheerleading in the comment section. One of the reasons she and her community connect so well with the disaffected is the essentially uncritical acceptance she and they give to such people.

      I was honestly surprised I wasn’t banned.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Wasn’t intended as a reply to Dr. Charlton.

      • I think that this article on ‘ladyblogs’ captures something of the dynamic well.

        I typically get myself in trouble for pointing this out, but there are recognizably distinct forms of online gendered sociality. By this I don’t mean that there is one masculine form and one feminine form, but that there are dozens of forms and that several of these forms are ones in which either women or men will predictably predominate. This doesn’t of course mean that all men prefer certain forms and women others, that every form of online sociality is gendered, or that any form is exclusive to one sex or the other, but that there are forms of sociality within one sex will almost invariably predominate.

        I have pointed this out in the context of theological blogging, for instance. Theological blogging is a world dominated by men and always has been. There are many Christian women who blog and a number who blog on theological issues. However, once you have bracketed out specifically feminist theological pieces or other pieces of theology more directly related to women’s particular lived experience, there really is rather little regular theological blogging from women. For instance, where are the women bloggers who blog extensively, widely, and frequently on liturgical theology, on patristics, on academic political theology, on Christian use of continental philosophy, on Pauline theology, on the field of OT theology, on denominational history, on the Eucharistic debates of the Reformers, on analysis of Mosaic case law, on the typology of the book of 1 Kings, etc., beyond the relevance of these subjects to Christian womanhood and feminism? I am aware that some such women exist, and I follow them when I find them, but they are relatively few and far between.

        This isn’t because women lack theological insight or expertise: I know a number of women with brilliant theological minds from a number of backgrounds. However, they don’t seem to be as motivated as their male peers to be part of these conversations.

        This isn’t just among Christians: similar patterns have been observed in non-Christian fields. For instance, 90% of Wikipedia’s editors, and the most active ones, are men. While some might like to attribute this to some inherent misogyny in the system, I suspect that it has a lot more to do with the fact that men are generally far more motivated to devote time to and form communities around arguing about ideas that have no immediate personal relevance (when the only reward is a sense of personal fulfilment and enjoyment), so most such communities will have a heavily male flavour.

        What one sees in the comments of Evans’ blog and in related blogs is one of the more distinctly feminine forms of online sociality. As the article on ladyblogs observes, such a form emphasizes intimacy and affirmation in a way that makes it difficult to handle criticism, everyone being a friend, enemy, or traitor. However, such a form of online sociality is disastrously dysfunctional for theological discourse. Effective theological discourse requires thick skins, non-reactivity, openness to challenge and criticism, and an ability to handle robust disagreement. At some level we need to recognize the gendered dynamics of all of this, and how complicated it makes matters, not least when two radically different forms of online sociality and discourse collide.

    • Fascism attempted to adapt tradition to the modern world. It got stomped by progressivism. Now that progressivism is coming up short, fascism is making a comeback.

  12. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    It is defined more by its common resistance to evangelicalism than by any concrete and coherent alternative.

    This is one of the differences that I’ve noticed about progressive evangelicalism and mainline liberalism. The mainline liberals came from a position of power in the church. They were the establishment, and the evangelicals were the outsiders. I don’t particularly like mainline liberalism, but you can’t exactly say that Schweitzer, Harnack, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs were reactive. But nowdays all the life left in the church is in the evangelical wing.

    Summary of some of the differences between progressive evangelicalism and mainline liberalism:

    1. They’re in a much weaker position institutionally than mainline liberals.
    2. They come out of more congregational denominations, so their ecclesiology is more diffuse and less institutional.
    3. They come after post-modern philosophy, so often adopt a different tack than their high modernist precursors.*

    *The differences between modernism and post-modernism are often exaggerated. Post-modernism is really hyper-modernism. And, in any event, progressive evangelicals bow their heads to both genuine science and scientism, when it suits them.

    • Yes, the differences between progressive evangelicalism and mainline liberalism are really worth reflecting upon. Liberalism produced some titanic minds, with an incredible depth, scope, and profundity of theological vision. You can’t read people like Schleiermacher, Schweitzer, Bultmann, etc. without being to some degree awed by their brilliance. Unfortunately, progressive evangelicalism tends to take after evangelicalism more generally. Evangelicalism’s demotic instincts are really not conducive to the creation of a higher intellectual culture.

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  14. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    My own thoughts on this after some further reflection: What other Christian bloggers are there that are fueling this kind of reactiveness? Is this actually a troublemaking movement here, or just one muckraking blog, and some scattered individuals for followers, and maybe a few more not very often read blogs? I don’t actually see any other figures of the same type out there.

    There have been a couple of other controversial figures to come out of Evangelicalism: Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, but that seems about it. I’d also note that a. they aren’t bloggers and b. they’ve also seemed to effectively exile themselves from the broader Evangelical tent by endorsing (monogamous) gay sex, so they haven’t been able to generate all that much controversy anymore. Likewise, nobody cares about the likes of Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt. Leonard Sweet, who cares? Richard Beck, who cares? They’ve kind of written themselves out of the narrative. If Rachel didn’t link to them, they might as well not exist.

    There are a few older progressive Evangelical figures, like Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne, but even they have limited ability to make controversy too. I might disagree with them on a lot, but I honestly can’t bring myself to think about them all that much. They’re dotty old (or youngish) fogeys, but are mostly careful to respect traditional teachings in theology and morals.

    So, sure, Evans is good at getting under people’s skin (she’s gotten under mine more than once) and is good at making a big splash. But I’m not really worried about her or progressive Evangelicalism. I don’t think I would have even heard of her, had I not wandered into the wrong church (an emergent-y type church pastored by an orthodox guy, but with a revolving door of the disgruntled and dissatisfied for parishoners) because it had a superficially more positive attitude towards the arts. This is a church of maybe 50 people in a city of 1 million. I was also in a tempestuous relationship with someone who had more liberal theological leanings than I initially thought. But stepping back from that, I come to realize that a lot of this is a tempest in a teapot.

  15. Troy Greene says:

    Alastair,
    On another note you noticed that much of the theological discourse has moved offline or behind closed discussion list. From an American standpoint, you need to factor in the politicization of theological discourse in Reformed churches. Many men have lost their jobs or been put on trial because of what they have written or said on blogs, sermons recorded, etc. This primarily of the issues of NPP and the FV. Yet, I would like to think that many of your readers have been gathered from many Reformed churches and denominations to some extent. When you first started blogging many people underestimated the permanence of their words posted on the internet and spoke freely in thiese forums. Yet, I know now that many are very hesitant to interact in such a manner, not because they don’t want to or have nothing the say, but because there could be a cost to them personally for posting an opinion. There’s a reason for “Going Garver”. Peace, Troy

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