Anarchist punks are out and the socially-aware hipsters are in (even though they don’t want to say they’re “in”). A little over a decade ago, the hipster scene made its biggest comeback since the 1940s. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, many contemporary hipsters can be found riding their fixed-gear bikes to the farmers’ market or at a bar in skinny jeans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.
An interesting sub-category has emerged: Christian hipsters. According to Brett McCracken in an article titled Hipster Faith in Christianity Today, Christian hipsters are rebelling against the over-spiritualized Christian culture they were raised in. Some of them say they have been scarred by contemporary Christian music, door-to-door evangelism and the non-denominational megachurches of their childhood. McCracken, also the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says Christian hipsters are rebelling against
…the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.
McCracken says the Christian hipster culture is small, but influential. Christian hipsters are returning to a more intellectual, traditional and back-to-basics Christianity. They are Protestants who may secretly wish they were Orthodox or Catholic in some respects. Chances are they read books by C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and probably prefer traditional hymns and Sufjan Stevens to Hillsong. Christian hipsters might like shopping at thrift stores, studying abroad, reading philosophy, drinking organic coffee, smoking cigars and serving beer or scotch at bible study.
Christian hipsters also express themselves theologically:
…through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.
As mentioned in McCracken’s book, the theological beliefs of the typical Christian hipster can be linked with the Emerging Church, which is associated with authors and pastors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. According to an article in Christianity Today titled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, the doctrine of the Emerging Church is hard to define because systematic theology is viewed suspiciously. Since living out the Gospel is more emphasized than doctrinal beliefs, Christian hipsters who associate themselves with the Emerging Church are generally more focused on helping the poor rather than evangelism.
So what are the economic implications of the Emerging Church? They have been criticized for placing a heavier focus on the material world rather than the spiritual world, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Social Gospel movement in America led by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th century, according to McKnight:
Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the Social Gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual Gospel, he led his followers into the Social Gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.
The Social Gospel promotes the postmillennial view that Christ will not return until social evils are rid by human effort. Rauschenbusch was very critical towards capitalism and viewed socialism as the means to achieve justice on earth. It is too soon to tell if Christian hipsters and the Emerging Church will reflect the Social Gospel movement as strong as the past, but certain figures in the movement certainly echo a similar economic theme.
In his controversial book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren’s theological views have been criticized for twisting the Gospel and suggesting social and economic issues are more important than spiritual issues. On page 210 of his book, McLaren says,
Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth: it can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.
Some claim McLaren has replaced biblical themes with political and economic themes of consumption and class warfare (reminds me of someone named Karl Marx).
I do not fault McLaren’s desire to live in a better world. We all desire a better world because we were made for something far greater. Nevertheless, if McLaren believes human efforts can bring The Kingdom of God to earth, his beliefs are not biblical. In the words of Christ,
My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight for Me. But now My Kingdom is from elsewhere. (John 18:36)
Though the Christian hipster culture might not have a definitive doctrinal theology or a sound economic philosophy, they do have a deep passion for the poor and the desire to live out the Gospel. As Christians, the question is not if we should care for the poor, but how to care for the poor. We cannot properly care for the needy if we over-spiritualize or over-materialize the world because the church is called to address both spiritual and physical needs. Effectively caring for the physical needs of the poor requires a solid economic philosophy that fosters competition, innovation and wealth creation.
During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.
Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.
Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.
Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.
During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).
In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”
Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.
Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here. This week, I contributed a piece on Jim Wallis’ new book.
This class of the very poor – those who are just on the borders of pauperism or fairly over the borders – is rapidly growing. Wealth is increasing very fast; poverty, even pauperism, is increasing still more rapidly. – Washington Gladden, Applied Christianity (1886)
For three decades, we have experienced a social engineered inequality that is really a sin – of biblical proportions. We have indeed seen class warfare, but this war has been waged by the wealthy and their political allies against the poor and the middle class. – Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (2010)
One of Jim Wallis’ long running aims at Sojourners is to cast himself as a moderate or centrist (God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat). This is howling nonsense to anyone who pays attention to his policy prescriptions or watches the progressive/liberal company he keeps. With his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), Wallis drops all pretense to holding the center as he piles on with the horde of religious left activists and others now demonizing Wall Street. The book, a clip-file pastiche of easy eat-the-rich moralizing, relentlessly pushes for the sort of collectivist policies that even the Obama administration is reluctant to take on directly (to Wallis’ chagrin).
The Wallis publicity machine casts him in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets with their fiery visions and passion for the social application of faith. Alas, he can only scold: “It’s clear that Wall Street has learned nothing, wants to learn nothing, and instead just wants to go back to the same old behaviors.”
With this new book, Wallis has ventured into the nation’s economic life with his cheap outrage. There, he has exposed himself as utterly ignorant of even the most basic economic principles. Not even a disinterested undergraduate halfway through a compulsory Econ 101 would make these mistakes. Case in point:
The market’s fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of the loving God. And the first commandment of the Market: “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictum of God’s economy: namely, there is enough, if we share it.
Well, no, wrong. You cannot wish scarcity away. It is one of the most fundamental realities of economic life, involving everything from raw materials to money to the very time we have on God’s green earth. Still less can you wish away scarcity with shallow sentiment and decree that all of humanity will have enough (what is enough?) if we follow the “dictum” of “God’s economy.” Scarcity is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, you might say.
The ninth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The ninth and final leg of the journey took the bikers from St. Catharines, Ontario, to Jersey City, a total distance of 430 miles. By the end of tour, the riders had covered 3881 miles.
The “Shifting Gears” devotional contained a key biblical point in the day 57 entry. Reflecting on the separation from family members over the 9 weeks of the tour, hope was expressed that such an experience might “make us more aware of those who are constantly torn from their loved ones and remind us that the water of baptism is thicker than family blood.” As I concluded in a 2005 post, “The water of Christian baptism is thicker than the blood of natural flesh. ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.'” The reality of baptism sets upon a path of service to our neighbors. This is a good point of departure for discussing questions of poverty and prosperity.
A good deal of the devotional focuses on the particularities of the experience of riding a bike. This is fitting because the text was designed for use by the riders of the poverty tour. But a few weeks ago I discussed another kind of bike rider, Pastor Bike of China, who was imprisoned because of his bicycle-based evangelism.
The good news coming out of China this week is that Pastor Bike has been released. Praise God.
My concern in following the CRC Sea to Sea bike tour over the last months has focused on the relation of material poverty to spiritual poverty. This remains an open question for me regarding the social justice advocacy of the denomination. There is a real danger that the social justice focus of the Christian Reformed Church will lapse into a post-milllenialist form of the Social Gospel.
The texts and materials of the tour itself were a bit uneven on this. In the end I think the focus is rightly aimed at divine reality. But the prudential judgments about how material poverty relates to spiritual concerns remains under-developed. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” he was effectively saying that until he comes again we will always have to deal with the realities of sin and imperfection.
But he gave us guidance as to how to live in the midst of this sinful reality: “You can help them any time you want.” The one lesson we should take from this tour is that there is a real and pervasive Christian responsibility to give to the relief of the poor in a way that addresses both material and spiritual realities. Give thoughtfully and prayerfully. But be sure to give. For a moving testimony on this, see “Auntie Anne’s Pretzels founder cites personal faith, Bible verses as reasons to give.”
I’ll be blogging more about this week’s developments in the CRC Sea to Sea Tour in my regular Monday entry, but I wanted to note that the tour is making a pit stop in Grand Rapids this Sunday, August 17.
So far the “Shifting Gears” devotional has not been too overt in promoting the government as the primary agent in wealth redistribution, although admittedly I’ve been attempting to go through the book with a devotional rather than a critical eye.
I have yet to see how cycling against poverty is explicitly connected in any concrete way to the Great Commission, however. And on that point, it’s appropriate to keep in mind how another Christian has used the bicycle as a means to promote the cause of Christ.
This week the Voice of the Martyrs reported that the Chinese pastor who was the inspiration for the VOM Olympic prayer bands has been arrested by Chinese authorities. A VOM email alert states, “Pastor Zhang ‘Bike’ Mingxuan, known for traveling across China on a bicycle to evangelize, was arrested by Chinese police just two days before the Olympics began.”
Here’s more on Pastor Bike:
Pastor Bike, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance, rode his bike more than 10,000 miles, visiting 24 Chinese provinces to introduce nonbelievers to Jesus Christ. Armed with a Bible and his business card, which declared “Believe in Jesus, Earn Eternal Life,” Pastor Bike brought the gospel to thousands of people. He and other Chinese evangelists have been repeatedly harassed by Chinese officials during this Olympic year. Please pray for the release of Pastor Bike and his wife.
Examples like Pastor Bike show us that in our concern for material poverty, represented in the CRC’s Sea to Sea Bike Tour, we need to keep a sharp eye on spiritual realities as well.
The challenge for social relief agencies and denominations engaged in advocating for and addresing the alleviation of material poverty is to connect that kind of work in an intentional and meaningful way to the spiritual truths of the Gospel. Without addressing those ultimate realities, concern for the poor risks becoming just another form of the Social Gospel.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy has issued a background report on the drafting of a new “Social Creed for the 21st Century” by members of the National Council of Churches. As Alan Wisdom and Ralph Webb point out, the “strong ideological tilt” at the NCC (that would be to your left) “contrasts sharply with the careful efforts at balance evident in public policy guidelines produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.”
What kind of society does the NCC, the longtime institutional voice of the Religious Left, hope to establish? The 20 goals of the new creed, IRD says, read “like a laundry list of primarily progressive causes.”
The new creed proclaims “a message of hope for a fearful time.” That hopeful message, according to the NCC, is “a vision of a society that shares more and consumes less, seeks compassion over suspicion and equality over domination, and finds security in joined hands rather than massed arms.” What follows is a list of 20 broad social and political goals, ranging from “sustainable communities marked by affordable housing, access to good jobs, and public safety” to “cooperation and dialogue for peace and environmental justice among the world’s religions.”
… There is a call for “an end to the death penalty.” There is a demand for “binding covenants to reduce global warming.” Blessings are pronounced upon “alternative energy sources and public transportation.” Censure is directed at “greed in economic life.” The United Nations must be “strengthened,” according to the new NCC social creed.
On the other hand, the creed makes no mention of any causes usually identified with more conservative Christian viewpoints. There are no echoes of the Hebrew prophet Samuel’s warning against an all-consuming government that levies burdensome taxes (1 Samuel 8:11–18). There is no concern expressed about regimes like North Korea and Iran that repress their own peoples and threaten annihilation of their neighbors. There is no sense of the need for a strong military to deter such threats.
The 2008 creed says nothing about the importance of upholding marriage as a fundamental social institution. (Virtually all NCC member communions define marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman.) While the creed advocates sparing the lives of convicted murderers, it does not speak up for the lives of unborn children being aborted, human embryos destroyed through experimentation, or the old and the infirm vulnerable to euthanasia. In seeking more liberal “immigration policies that protect family unity [and] safeguard worker’s rights,” the creed makes no request for enforcement of laws controlling who crosses U.S. borders.
The new creed also glosses over the deep theological divisions — if not political activism — that divides the NCC member churchs. As IRD notes: “The theology of the new creed is fairly minimal and bent toward a liberal social action perspective. That same combination — theological laxity and political one-sidedness — led the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America to leave the NCC in July 2005. The new social creed does not address the doctrinal or social policy differences between the member communions of the council.”
Writing in 1950, the late historian Henry Steele Commager observed that the Social Gospel movement in the United States naturally de-emphasized theological concerns in favor of a practical humanitarianism. “Americans naturalized God,” Commager wrote, “as they naturalized so many other concepts. Because they were optimistic, they insisted upon His benevolence … No American could believe that he was damned.”
It’s unclear if Commager considered that a positive development. In any case, he wouldn’t be surprised by anything in the NCC’s new “Social Creed.”