I am pleased to announce the publication of a short piece in Converge Magazine, a periodical for young evangelicals based in Vancouver.
The article is concerned with what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called ‘culture wars,’ especially the notion that evangelicals in secular universities have a responsibility to take back academic space for Christ in a battle for the mind. After reviewing some of the prevailing evangelical approaches since the 1970s, I explain that these practices are not only naïve about the place of young people in universities, but that they may be distortions of Christian theological praxis. I base this article on a re-reading of what evangelicals call ‘the Great Commission,’ a quotation from Jesus at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (28.18-20) where he tells his followers to go make disciples of all nations, baptize them into Triune life, and teach them to obey everything he has commanded. I propose that readings of the Great Commission have become distorted because they fail to read it in the context of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s texts. In Matthew, Jesus’ call to repentance is to a kingdom founded on humility, charity, and forgiveness, with a mission that is based less on organized strategy as it is on living out this new mode of existence. Reflecting at the end on the notion of the ‘secular,’ I also make reference to the last chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as an alternative way through which the Great Commission can be practiced in secular universities.
The argument, of course, is nothing completely original and is part of a much larger discussion both among evangelicals and about evangelicals. Younger evangelicals have reportedly become disenchanted with the notion of culture wars, and books and blogs such as Rachel Held Evans‘s Evolving in Monkey Town, Jonathan Merritt’s A Faith of Our Own, and Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God are all good examples. These cases have also been highlighted in the flagship evangelical publication Christianity Today as a sign of a generational shift. Moreover, academic studies such as Martha Pally’s The New Evangelicals (see The Immament Frame’s blog series), Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition, and Christian Smith’s Christian America have observed these changes, and even William Connolly–a political scientist who has not been known to be sympathetic to evangelicals–gives a positive appraisal of these re-formulated paradgims in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. As for how Christians should participate in secular universities, there has been an ongoing discussion among theologians and social scientists in books like John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, Stanley Hauerwas’s State of the University, and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. In other words, what I am saying here isn’t completely new, but it is my own reflective theological reading of Christian praxis and positionality in secular universities.
My purpose in writing this article is to clarify my own positionality in my academic work for a popular evangelical audience. I began this project of public dissemination in a post I wrote for Schema Magazine, in which I detailed why being a Chinese Christian myself should not paste over my own personal intersectional complexities and thus continues to allow for what geographer Paul Cloke calls a simultaneous ‘critical distance’ and ‘critical proximity’ in ethnographic work. That piece was directed to a popular secular audience as an exercise in public academia, explaining my own social location in relation to my academic project to people who don’t do academic work for their day job. In this post, I speak more directly to evangelicals who may assume that my project is to take back the secular university for Christ, clarifying my own theological praxis while calling my brothers and sisters to reflect deeper on Matthew’s Gospel account. To address this audience more directly, I chose to publish popularly in an evangelical magazine, but I will reflect on my positionality to academic readers in a scholarly journal in the future. There is, of course, a great deal of precedent for academics in religious studies studying evangelicals to publish in evangelical magazines, including reflective pieces and regardless of their own theological orientations, such as those written by Christian Smith, Tanya Luhrmann, and Russell Jeung. Indeed, these are publics that academics studying evangelicals must engage both as a way of giving back to communities we have researched and by way of meeting our duties to contribute to public discourse.
I am pleased overall by the editors’ discretion in preparing the piece for publication, especially by clarifying my meaning in several places where my language was more convoluted. One slight modification, however, that is a bit more significant is the final sentence in which it reads that we ‘show this world another way of thinking and being, one based around His ways, rather than our own.’ My original draft was a more direct quotation from St. John’s Gospel (17.22-23) where Jesus prays for Christian unity that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son. As it is printed, it sounds like I am calling for Christians to be examples to others through their character. Yet as I read Jesus’ prayer in John and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, he doesn’t call Christians, including evangelicals, to lead from any moral high ground. Instead, the command is to simply be the church and live humbly in a sacramental ontology where justice is done precisely out of a humble spirituality and solidarity with the poor. This all said, though, the editorial choice is still sound if the reference to ‘His ways, not ours’ is taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (55.8) where he discusses divine grace in calling out from exile a people that is marked by their new-found humility and charity. If that is so, the Isaianic passage’s meaning converges with both John’s and Matthew’s Gospel accounts about practicing a radically humble ontology, and the sentence is not only clarified, but enhanced.
I want to thank Converge Magazine for printing this piece and especially to Shara Lee for encouraging this publication. As I wrote in the byline, my friends Sam, Diana, Anna, Karl, and Aaron were valuable advisors who sharpened the piece significantly. I am thankful to be able to publish to an evangelical audience, and I hope that the piece will provoke thought and stimulate further discussion on Christian praxis.