Occasionally I read books that trigger an “I wish I had written that!” response, books that put in writing exactly what I have been thinking. But never have I had that feeling as strongly as when I read Roger Olson’s How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative
. Olson gently but firmly implodes all the false dichotomies and artificial structures that evangelical Christians have created around themselves, those elements that have become anything but
evangelicalism.Olson is one of the leaders of a new kind of evangelicalism (what he calls “radical evangelicalism”)—one that leaves behind the fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and dare I say even evangelical mainstays like James Dobson. Though Falwell and Robertson are different from Dobson in degree
, they are not different in kind
. Each of these leaders artificially adds or equates many things in this world to Christianity, things which have little or nothing to do with Christianity.
Yet Olson is not really advocating a new type of evangelicalism, he is reforming evangelicalism. In promoting radical evangelicalism, he is not creating something new, but restoring something that was lost—indeed, the word radical means roots, etymologically confirming Olson’s usage of the word. He hearkens back to the evangelicalism of Billy Graham (and even further back, to Jesus), who refuses to equate evangelicalism with a political party, with an ideology, or with anything more or less than the kingdom of God. And that is the problem with all of the other kinds of evangelicalisms—like barnacle-encrusted whales, their underlying natures have become so obscured by peripheral augmentations that we forget the whales are even there, or even worse, we mistake the barnacles for the whales.
Olson’s main tack in How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative is to expose false dichotomies by showing how the opposite of one extreme is not the other extreme. His essential message is that the opposite of liberalism is not extreme conservatism (aka fundamentalism) but moderation. And it is not a desire to please all sides that determines moderation, but the Bible. For example, when some Christians see the dangers of alcoholism (this is my example), their reaction is to promote the opposite extreme. They fight alcoholism with teetotalism. However, both positions are unbiblical. The former is “freedom to sin,” and the latter is legalism. Neither side is nuanced, and nuance is necessary for having a moderate/biblical perspective on alcohol (e.g., drink but don’t get drunk; don’t drink if it will stumble some people, see Rom 14).
Extremism is best exemplified by the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), which should really be called the parable of the Two Lost Sons. The younger son believes that he has freedom to sin, and the elder son believes that joyless duty makes him righteous. Although both sons need to experience the Father’s love and forgiveness, only the younger son’s sins are so glaringly obvious that he seeks out the Father. The elder son doesn’t believe that he needs forgiveness from sins. And perhaps this is why, in another story (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus says to the Pharisees about the “sinful” woman in a thinly disguised rebuke, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” The younger son represents all those people in the world who are so obviously sinners whereas the elder son represents the religiously “superior,” those who speak from a moral “higher ground,” judging people instead of rebuking and correcting in righteousness. So what is the difference between judging (which we are expressly forbidden to do) and rebuking (which we are commanded to do)? It’s all in the attitude; it’s the difference between “I’m better than you so let me tell you what you need to do” and “I’m a sinner too, so let’s walk this road together toward holiness.”
It is interesting that legalism is the number one sin that Jesus condemned, and yet that is exactly what some sectors of evangelicalism have become. They are either harsh in their condemnation of certain sins (especially homosexuality and abortion) but not others, or they shelter themselves from all the corruptions of the world in a cocoon of conservatism.
As a result, many evangelicals have allowed the world to define them instead of defining the world themselves. They are reactive instead of proactive. They uncritically think the opposite of one extreme is the other extreme. In response, Roger Olson’s chapters attempt to illustrate that the opposite of rejection of the Bible is not biblical literalism but a nuanced sense of the authority of scripture, that the opposite of secularism is not more religiosity but a nuanced missional relationship with the world, that the opposite of an unpatriotic attitude is not extreme nationalism but a nuanced sense of citizenship, that the opposite of relativism is not absolute rigidity of Truth but a nuanced sense of truth (we can know some things but only God can know all things), and that the opposite of feminism is not male chauvinism but a nuanced view of gender as different but equal.
In the history of Christianity, heresy is often not a matter of content but of degree. It is people who take the extreme stance (on either side) who end up blaspheming. The opposite of liberalism is not conservatism; it is biblicism. To be “conservative” is to adhere to the status quo, and any person with common sense can see that there are many things about the status quo that are far from perfect. The Bible needs to be our measuring rod, not a cultural concept of conservatism.
One of the unique contributions of How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative to the ongoing dialogue about the state of evangelicalism today is its suggestion of a fifth characteristic to the famous “Bebbington Quadrilateral”1 of evangelicalism. To biblicism, activism, crucicentrism, and conversionism, Olson adds respect for the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine. It is interesting that a book disavowing conservatism would sound a call to respect tradition! Olson is not one to throw out the baby with the bathwater; he holds on to those things which ought to be held onto, and holds lightly to those things which are clearly extraneous or distorting. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to theology and doctrine, but we do need to remove the rust and grime that has accumulated on that wheel.
This is a smart and timely book for evangelicals who believe that the world is not divided into neat little categories but that there is subtlety to theology. It is a much-needed prophetic call for modern evangelicalism. Indeed, in his recent book UnChristian, David Kinnaman, the head of the Barna Research Group, described the typical perceptions of outsiders toward evangelicals as being judgmental, hypocritical, sheltered, and overly political. In a sense, How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative is thus a fitting “sequel” to UnChristian; Kinnaman’s UnChristian diagnoses some major problems, and Olson’s How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative offers some very real solutions.
Yet despite these solutions, despite my great enthusiasm for Olson’s message, I admit experiencing some defensiveness when he ventures into dialogue with the idea of open theism. But I must check myself and remember to heed Olson’s advice. If Olson is correct, we evangelicals must lend an ear to even those theologies that at first seem “suspect”; after all, wasn’t Martin Luther also seen as suspect in his day? Willingness to dialogue does not mean naïveté, but it does mean being a little more flexible and open to what God may be doing or saying to us today. To think that we’ve reached the pinnacle, that we should be frozen in time just as we are, leads one to presume that we’re perfect. And oh how far from perfect we are! I hope to God that we aren’t “conservative” in the sense of “conserving” the present moment. There is so much more improvement that needs to be done in every facet of our lives. Evangelicals are, frankly (as David Kinnaman terms us), so very UnChristian in much of what we do and say. We cannot stay like this.
Less troubling than open theism, but still a point of concern, is that Olson bases his case for female equality on the analogy of black/white racial relations. As an egalitarian in the same mode as Olson (i.e., not a feminist but someone who cares about the equality of the sexes), I stand against any ideology that pronounces the sexes “equal but subordinate,” but I would not argue for egalitarianism based on the race analogy. Whenever I hear people equating “women, minorities, and gays,” I cringe; the only thing that the three have in common is that all have a history of persecution. That is where the analogy ends. Gender, race, and sexual orientation are all, by their very nature, different things with different implications, and I always hesitate to lump them together or to even compare. It is often a case of apples and oranges. For example, homosexuality has nothing to do with what one looks like on the outside, and everything to do with one’s internal workings. I would never know if someone is gay unless I see their actions (which spring from their internal desires) or they verbally tell me their inner thoughts. In contrast, race has nothing to do with one’s inside and everything to do with one’s physical appearance. Whether or not we “act black” (whatever that means) doesn’t change whether or not we are black; we can act any way we want, and our race will not change. But gender is a mixed bag—while it is clearly physical (certain different biological organs), there is also something internal about being a woman. Olson even acknowledges as much: “From a Christian point of view, male and female differences should be accepted as ontological and not merely biological. God made the genders to complement, not copy, each other. Each has something different to offer the other and both have been affected by the fall into sin in different ways.” In conclusion, I would say that I reach the same egalitarian conclusions as Olson but through different means. Yet this is but a small criticism within a book chock-full of wonderful exhortations.
How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative is a welcome addition to the panoply of new evangelical voices. One of the most pressing issues today is evangelical engagement with social justice, as reflected in the writings of people such as Gary Haugen, Jim Wallis, and Ron Sider. However, Olson takes this new radical evangelicalism far beyond social justice into other realms of non-conservatism (his preferred term is postconservativism). He points out to that, far from being liberal, a postconservative stance must be truly biblical. Olson is a tried-and-true evangelical—his evangelical credentials are unquestionable—who admonishes the movement as someone from within, someone who cares about the well-being of his readers, his fellow evangelicals who are part of his theological and ecclesiological “family.” How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative provides much-needed balance by courageously taking that difficult middle ground that is open to fire from both sides. Olson issues this call to radical evangelicalism in a manner reflective of its content: without judgment and seasoned with grace. This is an important book, and evangelicals would do well to heed it.
1. It is known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral because it is David Bebbington who first developed these four points to summarize evangelicalism. See David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2-3.