Monday, August 1, 2011

"Evangelicalism Without Blowhards"

That's the title of a recent NYT editorial by Nicholas Kristof. (HT: DZ) Excerpt:
IN these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as “evangelical Christian.”

That’s partly because evangelicals came to be associated over the last 25 years with blowhard scolds. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed on television whether the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishment on feminists, gays and secularists, God should have sued them for defamation.


Those self-appointed evangelical leaders come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him. Some seem homophobic, and many who claim to be “pro-life” seem little concerned with human life post-uterus. Those are the preachers who won headlines and disdain.

But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.
One remark that I thought was particularly interesting was this one:
Centuries ago, serious religious study was extraordinarily demanding and rigorous; in contrast, anyone could declare himself a scientist and go in the business of, say, alchemy. These days, it’s the reverse. A Ph.D. in chemistry is a rigorous degree, while a preacher can explain the Bible on television without mastering Hebrew or Greek — or even showing interest in the nuances of the original texts.
In context, what this comment indicates is how progressives see a link between expertise and ability/desire to help others. The more enlightened you are, the better equipped you are to save the world. Evangelicals, by contrast, are apt to see the gospel as a story of God using common people to do extraordinary things. I think this difference might be the biggest contributor to the "God gulf" to which Kristof refers.

The way I see it, on either side of the gulf is a sort of triumphalism that needs to be avoided. Changing the world through intellectual prowess and changing the world through "one heart at a time" are equally presumptuous goals. The only way to bridge the gap, in my view, is to learn to say those three little words which we all find so hard to say: I don't know.

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