I recently reviewed David Kinnaman’s UnChristian (see my September 7 post), which I found to be enlightening as well as misleading. This week an interesting response to Kinnaman’s book hits the shelves: Russell Rathbun’s nuChristian (Judson Press). Rathbun is an emergent pastor at the House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is doing a blog tour and asked if he could make a stop here at Wisdom and Folly, so I’ve included below a short conversation. But, first, a quick summary of the book…
In nuChristian Rathbun aims to inspire a redemptive response to the grim statistics that Kinnaman discusses in UnChristian. For the most part, Rathbun accepts the charges leveled against Christians by “outsiders,” as Kinnaman dubs unbelievers. Yes, we are often hypocritical, judgmental, homophobic, and more concerned with making converts than loving people. And in response to this we should seek to be open and honest about these failings, to be more authentic in our relationships with others, and to be more welcoming toward others, regardless of our differences. Above all, we should seek the transforming love of God rather than an impossibly high standard of moral perfection. To take such an approach, says Rathbun, is what it means to be a “nuChristian.”
Rathbun does, however, reject some of the charges in Kinnaman’s surveys. For example, in regards to the notion that Christians are sheltered, Rathbun rightly finds the idea preposterous. Given the media saturation of all Westerners, through television, Hollywood films, and the internet, Rathbun asks, “how could anyone remain sheltered from the world?” (62). At the same time, he observes, too many churches make superficial efforts at being “culturally relevant,” only to reveal their ignorance about culture. Here Rathbun makes an insightful distinction between cultural relevance and cultural literacy. Even if one can achieve the former, this far from guarantees the latter.
Rathbun also challenges the claim that Christians are too involved in politics. On the contrary, he says, “it seems to me that the problem isn’t that Christians are too political; it may be that they’re not political enough. The Christian political spokespeople who make the most noise and have received the most media coverage are not engaged in true politics, but in incendiary ideological rhetoric” (72). Well put. If only we could hear more from the likes of Marvin Olasky, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Jay Budziszewksi, then outsiders might clamor for more, not less, Christian political input.
Finally, I especially appreciated Rathbun’s take on evangelism. As he puts it, “We are not called to save people; we are called to love people. You don’t love people by trying to sell them something or convince them of something…. Love does not have an ulterior motive” (40). And elsewhere, he comments on the Great Commission in Matthew 28, saying “Making disciples sounds a lot more like the process of loving people, serving people, being with people, and teaching them…than it does getting someone to make a verbal commitment…regarding the eternal state of his or her soul” (41).
As is always the case when I read emergent stuff, I found myself disagreeing with some of aspects of nuChristian as well. However, rather than simply state my criticisms here, I decided to give the author an opportunity to respond to my critical points, which I offered to Rathbun as challenges in our conversation below. As you’ll see, his responses are thoughtful and gracious.
Spiegel: You say “a nuChristian does not seek moral or ethical perfection any more than he seeks to love perfectly of his own accord” (p. xi). So how does this square with Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48) as well as many other biblical passages which so strongly emphasize moral sanctification (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and 1 Tim. 4:7-8)?
Rathbun: I think it is a good point. The context of that verse in Matthew is that Jesus is telling them to love their enemies and then goes on to tell them not to practice their righteousness in public like the Pharisees. Are we supposed to do that on our own? I don’t have the ability.
Spiegel: In chapter two you propose looking at Scripture “not as a book of answers, but as a book of really good questions” (p. 18). While this is an interesting angle of approach, don’t you commit the (rather modern) fallacy of false dichotomy in suggesting that we must take one of these two approaches (as opposed to seeing the Bible in neither of these ways but rather, say, as a collection of literary genres in which God’s truth is made known in a variety of ways)? Or, to challenge you in another way, isn’t the notion that the Bible is a book of questions just as reductionist as the “answer book” approach (and for this reason just as problematic)?
Rathbun: Yes, it is. You are right.
Spiegel: Having written a book on the subject of hypocrisy, I was especially interested to read chapter 3 of nuChristian, in which you deal with this topic. I appreciated many of your points and insights. However, I was concerned that you miscategorized Peter’s sin of denying Christ as hypocrisy (cf. p. 33). It seems to me (as I claim in my book) that Peter’s problem is actually moral weakness rather than hypocrisy. The difference is that a hypocrite intends to deceive others rather than to do the good, while someone who is morally weak intends to do the good but succumbs to temptation because of a weak will. What do you think about this?
Rathbun: I haven’t read your book, but it sounds interesting. One can define a word in many different ways. Of course words have different shades of meaning and a writer or a thinker or a preacher emphasizes different shades to explore a particular issue in a particular way. I was exploring the idea that most people don’t actually try to deceive others but are unclear about an issue themselves. I think we act out of self-interest and lack of self awareness. What is moral weakness? We all give in to temptation because of a weak will. I don’t know if I even believe in the notion that we have a will that can be strong or believe that if we could have a strong will that would be a good thing. God is weak, continually goes back on his commitment to justice and what is morally right by not punishing humanity for our transgressions. God destroys the world by flood because of humanity’s wickedness. Then when humanity continues to be wicked after that, God basically says, “Well, I don’t want to destroy them, even if they continue to act wickedly” We might think of that as giving in, lack of consistent consequences, maybe even moral weakness. Of course we are not God and my particular take on the subject is just one.
Spiegel: In chapter five you discuss judgmentalism and emphasize that as Christians we should not judge others, that judging is the “opposite of love,” etc. But there are two senses of judgment: 1) judgment as condemnation (cf. Luke 6:37) and 2) judgment as discernment. The former is inappropriate, while the latter is essential to the moral life, as is evident in Paul’s admonition to judge others in the church in such passages as 1 Cor. 5:3, 12; 1 Cor. 6:2-5. Shouldn’t this be borne in mind when we consider that “outsiders” often criticize Christians for being judgmental? Perhaps they are sometimes judging us (in the sense of condemnation) for simply using good judgment (in the sense of discernment)!
Rathbun: I personally don’t have the capacity to judge people without acting self interestedly. I am judgmental and I lack discernment. Also, I say there are many other things to work out in our own faith before we get to discerning the actions of others.