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Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical liberal arts institution, and he is the author of A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. In this interview, he talks about what it means to be an evangelical, how it differs from mainline Protestantism, and how an evangelical like himself can be a serious academic thinker and also hold that the Bible is the truth. "I think everyone who claims that the Bible is truth lays hold of that claim by faith. And it's not faith that is unmarked by reflection and serious intellectual engagement." He also discusses the importance of the "born-again" experience to an evangelical, the steady growth of evangelical churches in recent decades, and why the evangelical community is so opposed to gay marriage. This interview was conducted on Dec. 8, 2003.

Tell me what it means to be evangelical.

One of the jokes that evangelicals like to tell is that you know you're an evangelical if liberals think you're a fundamentalist and if fundamentalists think you're a liberal. There is something of that middle ground character to evangelicalism.

The real problem that evangelicals have is not that we are harsh in our picture of sexual morality.  The problem is that we're not consistently obedient to Biblical teaching on a wide  range of issues. And that  is what makes us sound so harsh on the issues that we choose to focus on.

One of the things that people often say is that there are four characteristics that mark evangelicals. But it seems to me that there are two that you can grab hold of that are most important. One is the belief that the Bible is the word of God, that it is authoritative, it's binding upon us, that we need to be obedient to it.

The other thing is an emphasis on evangelism on the idea that the Gospel is not just for a few, but for everyone, and that it's the job of everyone who is a Christian to let everyone else know about the good news of Jesus Christ. I think all of us would be committed to that in one way or another. Now, of course, we will then have some interesting conversations about what the Bible means.

The fact that we are all committed to the authority of Scripture doesn't mean that we have exactly the same ideas about what every passage of Scripture means. We might have very different ideas about how it is that you're supposed to carry out the task of evangelism. Some people are happy to stand on street corners and pass out tracts. Other people would like to infiltrate organizations like PBS and work from within the structures of power in our society. But those two commitments, I think, are really at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical.

Saying that the Bible is the truth, something that was written and gathered together so many years ago -- doesn't that feel a bit archaic to you as a professor, as an academic intellectual thinker? How do you really say that that's the truth?

I think everyone who claims that the Bible is truth lays hold of that claim by faith. But it's no uninformed faith, and it's not faith that is unmarked by reflection and serious intellectual engagement. But it would be dishonest not to say that there is a very strong element of making a commitment to the authority of Scripture and testing it out, seeing how it works. It's not something that very many people would come to automatically or easily. But it is something that's worth a try, is what we would say.

Then there is that task of measuring it, testing it to see if it does answer to your experience and your beliefs, but also, the other side of the coin -- testing your own beliefs and your own experience against what Scripture says.

These are ancient books. They are very old. They come from a very strange culture. It may seem odd to say that books that are so old can be authoritative for us today. But I think one of the things that evangelicals tend to believe, or believe pretty strongly actually is in what G.K. Chesterton called the "democracy of the dead," the idea that we, in the early 21st century Western world, do not have a monopoly on truth.

We're very aware of all the ways in which we have learned things that are unknowable to previous cultures and perhaps even to other cultures that exist today. We're very aware of all the knowledge that we have that our predecessors and that our neighbors in other parts of the world don't have. But it's very hard for most of us to imagine that there may be things that other cultures knew, that other cultures know, and that past cultures knew that we have lost or that we have forgotten.

So it seems to me that there is something very consistent with being a serious intellectual and asking the question, "Do I really know everything? Do people in my time and my place and my culture have a monopoly on the truth? Or might it not be possible that, if I really study carefully these ancient writings, that I may discover that there is a wisdom there that is not accessible to me through any of the means that I normally use to get information in modern America?"

… I'll ask it to you a different way. What I think is really curious is that I think one of the stereotypes about evangelicals is that evangelicals just accept the Bible as truth, and there's no sort of questioning. There's no wrestling that's going on. You're blindly accepting this as truth. You know God is speaking through this book to you. It just seems very simple, and especially the way that reporters talk about it usually is very simple. Talk to me about that intellectual process, and why it might just be really appropriate that someone like you would believe in the Bible.

… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don't believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn't lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can't endorse.

So it's quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it's not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.

Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, "OK, if you want what I'm giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor." And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.

I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I'm thinking, "What is this passage demanding of me?" It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, "What does it mean for me?" So far, I haven't decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that's because I'm an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I'm not taking my beliefs seriously enough.

So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that's only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn't solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.

… It actually creates questions of, how do you live up to it, or how do you live up to being a good Christian? Is that what you're talking about?

Sure. The Bible is always putting to me and to anyone else who believes in its authority the question, "How can you live up to the witness that I give? How can you live up to what I'm telling you?" It's as though, when you're an evangelical or when you're someone else who committed to the authority of Scripture -- because evangelicals aren't the only people who are committed to the authority of Scripture -- you are being addressed by this text.

It's speaking to you almost as though it's a person speaking to you, and it makes demands upon you. Trying to figure out what those demands are is a pretty scary thing, because there's always the chance that, as evangelicals like to say, you'll be convicted by your reading of Scripture. That is, you will have this deep awareness that there are shortcomings in your life, or that there are whole areas of the Christian life, of the moral life, of the spiritual life, that you've neglected.

In fact, if you're going to be somebody who is really going to try to follow God through reading Scripture, you'd better be prepared for that sort of thing happening to you all the time. There aren't very many weeks or months go by that I don't read something in the Bible that makes me say, "Ouch;" that makes me realize that I'm not living up to the standards that it sets; that I'm someone who has a lot of shortcomings in that regard. I have so far to go, I don't even know where to begin.

It's not pleasant to commit yourself to a life where you're always having to face your shortcomings. But evangelical Christians also believe very strongly in the grace of God and in the forgiveness of God, and that he will not hold us to some sort of strict legal accountability for every detail of the Christian life and damn us or condemn us if we don't measure up. We are offered forgiveness right in the midst of our sins.

That's something that it's good to remind yourself of when you're feeling that you're going through a time when you're letting everybody down, and when you're also not living up to the standards of Scripture -- which is something that happens to me on a pretty much a weekly basis.

… You said that a joke amongst evangelicals is liberals think you're a fundamentalist and fundamentalists think you're a liberal. So what is it about being evangelical that makes evangelicals moderate? Talk about that. What's going on here? Is it theology? Is it the way you dress? Is it the way you talk? What really is moderate about this group of folk?

I'm not sure that many evangelicals would want to be called moderate. But if you do look at a range of Christians, in which you have liberal Christians at one end and fundamental Christians at another end, I guess we're sort of in the middle there, and therefore occupy a kind of moderate position.

Let's take a couple of examples that would illustrate this moderate character. Evangelicals are going to emphasize the authority of Scripture far more than liberal Christians will. However, they are not so strict and not so unanimous in their belief in how to interpret Scripture. Among fundamentalists, there would be almost universal consensus that the Book of Genesis is a literal historical narrative, that the creation was done in six days. In fact, that's one of the things that has historically marked fundamentalists -- this belief that Genesis is a very straightforward historical narrative. Evangelicals are not likely to be so quick to come to that conclusion.

In fact, these days maybe most evangelicals would not. That's hard. I really don't have the information to back that up. But I think that is a fair guess. Yet we nevertheless believe the Genesis is not a completely mythical story, it's not a completely fictional story. It is a story which is rooted in certain kinds of historical truth. But it's not necessarily the six-day creation.

I don't believe it's a six-day creation. I don't believe it's that sort of historic narrative. But I think that there's still that commitment to reading Genesis as the word of God that you would not necessarily find in liberal Christians.

… Describe for me, if you would, in a very simple way, what is the difference, would you say, between mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians?

I would say that the main difference between mainline Protestants and evangelicals -- or I should say, mainline Protestants who are not evangelicals, because there are evangelicals within mainline Protestant denominations. I am one of those. I'm an Episcopalian. So I'm both an evangelical and a mainline Protestant.

But the thing that differentiates evangelicals from most mainline Protestants with regard to Scripture in particular, I think can be best put this way. That mainline Protestants tend to judge the validity of Scripture by their experience. They look at their own experience. They take their sort of cultural framework that they're familiar with, and they subject Scripture to judgment by those standards.

So if Jesus says something that strikes them as being particularly outrageous, or if the apostle Paul says something that strikes them as being particularly outrageous, then they're more likely to say, "This is something that's part of that time and place. This is something that's part of that world, the biblical world. It's not part of our world. It's, therefore, something that we can dispense with. So we will take the parts of Scripture that we feel are nourishing and that we feel are helpful. But we do not in any way feel bound to take it all." But it's our experience and our judgment of the world -- our culturally informed, historically informed judgment of the world -- that tells us what is valid in Scripture and what isn't.

Evangelicals -- at least theoretically, and I'm not sure that we are very consistent to this -- but at least theoretically we flip that. So instead of judging Scripture by our experience, we try to judge our experience by Scripture. The idea is that it doesn't matter whether something is universally culturally received or not. Doesn't matter. What matters is whether it meets the standards that are set forth in Scripture. That's how we are to do the judging.

Now, that's putting it very simply, and obviously that's a very, very difficult thing to do. You can never be absolutely sure that you are interpreting Scripture in the right way. But if you're seeking the authority of it, if you are seeking to follow what it teaches, then you stand a much better chance of getting it. Taking it seriously gives you a much better likelihood of getting it right, it seems to me.

I think that's true in everything in life. I mean, it seems to me that's not anything specific to the study of Scripture. We ask for the opinions of people on any number of subjects, who care most passionately and most deeply about those subjects.

So the belief that we have is that if you really love something and you care about it deeply, you're going to be a very good authority on it, as well. So that's the way that we feel about Scripture -- that it's something that we're more likely to be able to interpret rightly, simply because we care so much about getting it right. We care so much about not being disobedient and not being unfaithful. So that gives us a very large incentive to try to understand this extremely complicated set of texts as well as we can.

… What do you think is going on in America that mainline churches are seeing a decrease in membership, but evangelical churches are seeing a steady growth?

I think from my point of view, the big problem with mainline churches and the chief reason for their decline is that they try to conform themselves as closely as possible to the prevailing cultural norms. The idea is that, if you tell people, "Hey, what you already believe and what you're already comfortable with, we're comfortable with that, too. That's fine with us. You're not going to hear anything that will dramatically challenge your way of life."

That's what the mainline churches tend to say. They tend to affiliate themselves, it seems to me, with political or social causes that actually get started elsewhere. They get on that bandwagon and they can say, "Here we are. Us, too. We're right there with you."

Now, that will go a long way towards making a church inoffensive. But it doesn't go very far towards making the church something worth getting out of bed for on Sunday morning. It's one of the reasons that I would never go to a church that conformed to the norms and standards of the -- especially - media culture. One of the reasons I would never go to a church like that is [because] I can get Starbucks and I can get the New York Times and I can lie on my sofa and get pretty much the same set of ideas. Why would I want to go and sit on a hard pew for an hour and a half? It just doesn't seem to be a worthwhile activity.

By contrast, the evangelical churches -- and I think this is even more true of Pentecostal churches, which have a lot of overlap with evangelical churches, but are not the same -- are saying, "We offer you something different. We're offering you something that you will not find in the New York Times. We're offering you something you can't get at Starbucks. We are offering the possibility of transforming your life and the possibility of reinterpreting the whole world that you live in."

I mean, I'm talking sociologically here, I'm not even talking about questions of whether the message is true or false. I'm just saying that a church that offers you something dramatically different, something that will alter your way of thinking and your way of living, and especially if it promises you or at least tells you that it is possible for you to have freedom from whatever it is that holds you in bondage, whether it's fear or sin or some combination of those -- churches that offer some dramatic new life, something that is exciting and different, are the ones that are going to grow. A church that doesn't offer anything dramatic and excitedly new, but simply reaffirms what you can learn from other sources, is a church that may have temporary short-term success, but in the long-term, it's not going to grow, because it's not offering anything that can't be found somewhere else.

Let's talk about that born-again experience, the experience of coming to Jesus and how important that personal relationship is to evangelicals. I'm sure that's what you're talking about here. … Tell me why that's so important to evangelicals.

I think that you have to make a distinction between people who were born into evangelical homes and people who are converts. To be frank with you, I don't understand the people who were born into evangelical homes very well, because I wasn't.

I was not born into a home where we talked about the Bible. We were like almost all homes in the South; we were nominally Christian. Or at least we were Baptist, or as we say in Alabama, "Bab-dists." But I'm not sure I ever would have learned a whole lot about Scripture or about Jesus if I had to rely on what went on in my household. It was not that kind of home.

Most of my students come from Christian homes. They were raised with it. I find that kind of sociologically, or anthropologically fascinating. But it's still never something I've really been able to understand, because my experience was one of an encounter with Jesus that happened when I was in college. This is an experience that taught me that the path that I was living was a dead-end path. It was one that revealed to me that I was going nowhere fast. In many respects, I was regressing as a person. I was not growing morally; I was not growing spiritually. I was getting progressively unhappier with the path that I had gone. So what the Gospel offered to me was, in one sense, a chance to start over.

But I think more than that, really, what it offered me -- this is the way it appeared to me at the time -- what it offered me was the ability to understand my life. That was huge. Not many people, I think, have this particular experience. But my experience didn't happen as a result of going to a revival or anything like that. It didn't happen in church.

It was primarily a result of reading the letters of the apostle Paul, and believing and recognizing myself quite dramatically in the picture that Paul painted of a person who was in bondage to sin. I wasn't living a flamboyantly sinful life. I was too timid to live a flamboyantly sinful life. But I was living a life where I was sort of frittering my life away in petty sins, in trivial ways to screw your life up. But Paul offered a diagnosis of my condition. When I read his account of what it's like to be a person who is in bondage to sin, I thought, "That sounds exactly like how I feel."

So because he had diagnosed my case so profoundly, I was inclined to trust him when he told me the way that you could be released from this condition. So that conversion experience, which didn't happen instantaneously, but happened over a period of months, was vitally important for me. I have very, very strong memories of what I was like before this happened, and I don't want to go back there. I don't want to be that kind of person again.

I feel like that, to put it in a really classically evangelical way, that walking with Jesus has really transformed my life. I still, as I have already told you, have a very, very long way to go. Sometimes I feel like I've only made it about six inches along the road. But it's when I think about the kind of person that I was before, it seems like a world of difference.

… President Bush has talked a lot about his personal transformation. I think it really speaks to evangelicals. So let's not talk politically, let's talk about this personal transformation. He's never called himself evangelical. … Never even said he's born again. He used the word "reawakening" and other words to describe what you're talking about. …

Yes, I believe him. But you know really the answer is, I don't think about it beyond that. Bush doesn't interest me as a person. So it's just not something that I think about when he tells the story about his life having been changed. When that's confirmed by his wife, I think, "Cool. That's great. I'm happy for you." And that's as far as my thinking on the subject goes. So whether President Bush is one of us or not is not an issue that really concerns me, because I'm not sure how much of a difference that makes in policy actually.

Jimmy Carter was certainly one of us. Jimmy Carter was the first evangelical president, and in the modern sense of the term evangelical. Yet most evangelical Protestants think that Jimmy Carter was a terrible president. We're so glad that the voters threw him out on his ear and brought us Ronald Reagan instead, who no one has ever described as an evangelical. So I'm happy for George Bush and his family, but his conversion has no further ramifications for me, nor is it very interesting to me.

… Let's talk about social issues or political issues. What would you say the whole evangelical community believes are the issues that matter to them the most?

Well, the central issue for evangelicals for a long time has been the abortion issue. In evangelical circles, it's called the pro-life issue. Of course, there are many evangelicals who say that the majority of evangelicals are not consistently pro-life, because they focus on the abortion issue to the exclusion of others. I think there's some legitimacy to that. I think that's a warranted criticism -- that evangelicals have not, in a broad sense, been consistently pro-life. But the abortion issue is the key issue.

One of the things that concerns me about my fellow evangelicals is a sense that too many of them believe that the American political and economic system is consistent with Christianity and with the Gospel message. I think that one of the things that has been hardest for evangelicals is to be appropriately critical of the money economy. There are other economics than the economy of money. I think it has been hard for us to focus on the ways in which we collectively and individually sin with our wealth. So preserving a political order that allows for the creation and the sustaining of wealth has been pretty important to a lot of evangelicals. But in my view, that's not really to our credit.

… I read the Bible. Jesus really talks about the poor … really talks about charity, really talks about issues that could be translated into welfare and social services. But I don't see evangelicals really advocating for that. If I was an evangelical, I would assume, reading the Bible, if the Bible is the truth, that everybody would be Democrats. They'd be pro-welfare, they'd be pro-anything that would help the poor.

I think one of the reasons many evangelicals are not Democrats is that they don't necessarily believe that the government is the best avenue for helping the poor. It's often said, if you look at evangelicals, [that] you don't see them working for the poor and working to alleviate poverty, but they are. A lot of them are. A much higher percentage of evangelicals are at work in a serious way to try to alleviate poverty and other forms of suffering in this country than almost any other group.

The problem is that, even though we actually do have a huge presence in trying to make a difference in this country and elsewhere to alleviate suffering, alleviat[e] poverty. Evangelicals have been tremendously active especially in the last year or two in fighting AIDS in Africa. [This is] something which came on to the evangelical radar screen pretty late but it's a case that's been taken up with real fervor and real enthusiasm.

I think you can look at it in a way that shows us as being about as active a group as there is in American society in those respects. But they're just too many of us who aren't. One of the things about evangelicals, there [are] a lot of us. There are 50 million or more. If you only have a fifth of those people spending any serious time, energy and money trying to alleviate poverty and suffering, one way to look at it is to say, "Only a fifth?" Another way to look at it is to say, "Ten million people in this country are really trying to make a difference in that regard."

So this is a coin that definitely has two very distinct sides. While I consider it shameful how little attention that evangelicals have given to questions of poverty, there's no doubt that we do better than we are given credit for doing, and that the number of socially conscious evangelicals is rising.

Now what you're going to find, I think, often is that they will continue to be mistrustful. Evangelicals will continue to be mistrustful of government, and will be mistrustful of government policies and programs, and believe that suffering is best alleviated in other ways.

Why do the evangelicals mistrust the government? I never understood that.

I think there are a couple of reasons that evangelicals mistrust the government. One is the complicated set of historical circumstances that led to evangelicals being associated with the Republican Party, and the Republican Party being a party of small government. That's a development that I don't even pretend to have any understanding of.

But the other reason that evangelicals tend to be somewhat skeptical of government is that evangelicals are very aware that there's another political organization that they take very seriously, and that's the church. The church is itself a political organization. There is a very strong tradition -- not just primarily in mainline Protestantism, but in evangelicalism -- that the church is the political organization that is best trusted with dealing with social issues.

Stanley Harakas, the great theologian from Duke University, likes to say that the church should not have a social strategy, because the church is a social strategy. I think, properly understood, that's exactly what the church is, that the alleviation of poverty and suffering is intrinsically a part of the mission of the church.

So when evangelicals are mistrustful of government, one of the reasons is that we don't think the government can do as good a job as the church can. The government is bound up with a lot of regulations and a lot of red tape and a lot of bureaucratic garbage that churches don't have to be involved in.

… One of the problems the evangelical churches have had in accepting government money has been [that] all these regulations come. You can't proselytize, [but] you can evangelize.

Right. … One of the reasons that evangelicals who want to be involved in alleviating social problems in this country are so reluctant to take government money is that they feel that by taking government money, they're agreeing to split themselves in half; that they're supposed to separate their desire to alleviate suffering and help the poor from the commandment and Scripture to do these things in the name of Jesus Christ, and as part of the Gospel. So what you're asking us to do, if you are a government agency and you're establishing rules for us to use your money, is you're asking us to take the Gospel, split it in half, throw one half away, and keep only the other half.

Yet what we really need to do, in fact what's very hard for us to do -- we have enough troubles anyway, without the government making it harder for us -- is to bring those two things together. That's why a lot of evangelicals love to talk about what they call "holistic ministry," and that's become such a cliche, that I hate even uttering the words.

But it does refer to something really significant, and that is that, if you separate the proclamation of the Gospel from compassionate ministry to people who are suffering, neither of them will live. If you bring them together, they will both have greater life.

That, I think, has been an insight which has really captured the evangelical movement in the last 20 or 30 years, and has led to a completely radically different way of dealing with social programs, especially in various para-church ministries. For instance … organizations like World Relief and World Vision are so important, because they really try to keep those two halves of Christian ministry together.

So government money is tricky, then?

Government money is tricky. Of course, money is always very close to being irresistible. When people offer you large chunks of money, you think, "Look at all the wonderful things that we can do with that." In fact, the history of many evangelical service agencies is that they've gotten more and more entangled with the government simply because, once you discover that pipeline of money, it's awfully hard to say, "No, thanks. We don't want any more."

President Bush founded the Faith-Based Initiatives Office in the White House. He did the partial birth abortion ban. He reinitiated the gag rule. He's done a bunch of things along the way that fit what I think evangelicals would want. What do you think? Is he an ally in the White House of things you believe in?

I think President Bush is an ally to me in many ways. I'm not uniformly supportive [of him], but in many ways he is [an ally]. Seems to me that, while I've applauded many of his initiatives, it's also discouraging to see how many of the ones that I'm most enthusiastic about tend to get bogged down in congressional politics of one kind or another.

I think the faith-based initiatives program is one that has really gotten entangled in all sorts of red tape, and has been much less successful than it promised to be. I was very excited at the amount of money that the president pledged to fight the AIDS crisis, especially in Africa. It was, as many AIDS activists said, the most dramatic and impressive commitment that any U.S. president has made. But almost as soon as he announced that, the congressmen came in with their axes, and started hacking away at it.

So I think that on many of the issues that are more important to me, I'm proud of the job that President Bush has done, but disappointed at how those efforts have been weakened. That may be an intractable Congress. That may be bad strategy and tactics on the part of the Bush administration. I don't know. I'm not a political insider, so I can't really say whose fault it is. I just know that I'm sad about it.

The issue of gay marriage has come up a lot since the Massachusetts court decision. Tell me what you think about it. Why do evangelicals care so much about this in particular?

Evangelicals care about gay marriage because they care about Christian marriage. The tradition of Christian marriage has been uniform throughout the history of the church. It is a monogamous and permanent union between one man and one woman. That's the way that it has always been. Anything other than that has been seen as deficient, at best.

For instance, there are cases in which Jesus authorizes divorce, but he thinks of divorce as always a tragedy, as always something that is deeply regrettable. Then other deviations from that norm, that standard, are typically presented as being sinful.

Evangelical Christians care about Christian marriage, therefore they care about marriage as it is understood by the state. My own view is that it's more a non-view than it is a view. I feel that the church is so confused about what sexuality is and is so confused about what marriage is that … all of my energies have been devoted to trying to increase the church's understanding of what sexuality is, and what the biblical and historically Christian picture of marriage is. I haven't had any time left over to worry about what the state thinks that marriage is.

But you're speaking about your church, right? The Episcopalian Church?

Well, I think there is obviously a crisis right now in the Episcopal Church over what are the appropriate expressions of human sexuality and what Christian marriage is or should be. But that just happens to be the denomination that's at the center of the controversy right now.

I think throughout the church, and including even in evangelical churches, there is a lot of confusion and a limited understanding of what the biblical picture of sexuality and marriage is. So I focus my interest on that. Perhaps I should be more interested in what the state thinks that marriage is. But that seems to me to be very much secondary for a Christian to the question of what the church thinks that marriage is.

That's interesting. ... But on certain issues evangelicals have very hard lines, which sound very harsh … especially to gay people … or people who choose other types of lifestyles. … Premarital sex; people who live with their boyfriend or girlfriend before they get married; whatever it is. Talk about that. The face of being evangelical is very nice. It's very kind. It's very seeker-friendly.

Then there's the dark side.

It's very firm.

Yes. Then there's the dark side. I think [it] is impossible for some aspects of Christian morality and Biblical teaching not to feel very harsh. It just is part and parcel of it. I think that many Christians -- maybe most Christians, maybe all Christians at some time or another -- shy away from the strictness of biblical teaching about something or another.

It seems to me that we shy away on a fairly consistent basis from the harshness of biblical teachings about money, about how you are to treat the poor, how you are to treat strangers. Hospitality is so big in Scripture. Yet, most cultures throughout this world, past and present, would consider American culture, including American Christian culture, to be woefully, tragically deficient in relation to hospitality.

So there are a whole range of issues on which Scripture speaks really forcefully and really strongly -- more forcefully than I'm comfortable with. So I think that, for me, the real problem that evangelicals have is not that we are harsh in our picture of sexual morality. The real problem is that we're not consistently obedient to biblical teaching on a wide range of things.

That, I think, is what makes us sound so harsh on the issues that we choose to focus on. There are some issues where we will say, "OK, we're drawing a line in the sand here. We're not going to give on this." If we led a more consistently biblical life, if we were showed ourselves willing to follow the teachings of Scripture across the board about money, about hospitality, about everything else that Scripture teaches, and then we said, "We're also going to hold to a firm line on matters of sexuality," I don't think it would look so mean-spirited. If we showed that we were holding ourselves to a very strict standard, and that we confessed and repented when we failed to keep that standard, then I think people would say, "They're not just being hard on us; they're being hard on themselves, as well."

But one of the things that we Christians -- not just evangelicals, but all Christians -- tend to do is to be extremely tolerant towards the sins that we are most likely to commit, and then draw the line in the sand with the sins that other people are likely to commit. …

… When I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia and I began to teach, I was teaching a class in basic composition. I remember walking to class every day with two other instructors who had their own sections of basic composition at the same time that I did.

One of them was a guy whose entire life was shaped by his commitment to feminism. He wanted to bring about a feminist revolution. This was his heart and soul. He poured his heart and soul into his class. He shaped the readings for his class and the assignments for his class in such a way that it would help to bring about this revolution that he so desired.

Then the other person that I walked to class with was a woman whose commitments were Marxist. She tried to bring her belief in the need for political revolution, a somewhat different sort of political revolution, into her class. She was able to do that.

And no one said "Boo" to her about that. No one said "Boo" to this guy. They were able to take the things that drove them, the things that they were committed to, and put those things into practice, those commitments into practice in their teaching every day, and that was totally cool. Nobody had a problem with that, except maybe some of the students who didn't want to feel that they were being politically manipulated. But the institution didn't have a problem with them teaching their passions.

Now if I had gone in there and I had said, "Well, my passion in life is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So we're going to center our basic composition class around the teachings of Jesus and around introduction to Christianity," I would have been out on my can in no time. I simply did not have the freedom that my two colleagues did.

Now you can argue that perhaps they should have had that freedom and I shouldn't have. But all I know is that I felt very strongly the inability to teach from part of myself, and that's why I came to Wheaton College.

At Wheaton College, I am free to do that. I am free to do that with students who believe that this is something worth exploring. Not every one of them agrees with my point of view, and not every one of them actually is going to come out of here as a Christian. But they are people who believe that wrestling with these issues and wrestling with these questions that are central to the academic life, from a Christian perspective, is something very much worth doing.

It's a wonderful place to teach, because Wheaton students combine a level of intellectual seriousness and spiritual seriousness that I've not seen anywhere else. I've seen students who are equally serious intellectually, and I've seen students who were equally serious spiritually. But I haven't seen the same high level of both embodied in one set of people the way that I have at Wheaton.

So it's a tremendous challenge to me, and a tremendous stimulation. That's why I'm still here after 19 years. I came here on a one-year appointment. I thought I was going try it out and see what it was like and then go back to UVA [University of Virginia] and finish my Ph.D. But once I got here, I just didn't want to leave, because it is such a rewarding environment in which to teach. It's a rewarding environment in which to teach, because of the people that I get to teach.

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posted april 29, 2004

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