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“If we want to say we have progressed in our understanding of Biblical Christianity, the answer is not to run away from thinking about alcohol, entertainment, and more. The answer is to make our grandparents proud by applying the Bible rigorously in these complicated areas.”
Someone said that not knowing your history is like being a leaf that doesn’t realize it’s part of a tree. This is why studying history can be fascinating (contra many people’s experience in high school): as a leaf is shaped a certain way because of the tree, so we are shaped a certain way because of our history.
The other classic line about history is that those who don’t know it are doomed to repeat it. It’s not that the exact same events will happen over and over again—knowing our history can show us errors we would have otherwise been blind to. What may seem entirely normal can, in light of our history, be an overreaction to previous generations or an under-reaction to problems that previous generations saw more clearly.
Most evangelicals don’t know very much about our history. We know a bit about the early church, we know about the protestant reformation, we know that at some point a bunch of denominations started, and we know that Billy Graham was kind of a big deal. Besides that, we aren’t very informed and aren’t very worried about it. The Bible is our authority, and since we have that we’ll be fine.
I’d quickly agree that having the Bible means we will be fine. But our evangelical history—especially our recent history, over the last century—has often shaped the way we treat our Bible, and the way we over- or under-react in our Christian lives. What if the ways we are reading our Bible are affected by our history and we have no idea?
Case in point: the gray areas of the Christian life. We have a hazy recollection of fundamentalism—namely, that it took secondary issues like alcohol, movies, or gambling and made them primary. (Now, this is quite unfair to fundamentalists, who are the grandparents of contemporary evangelicalism, but that’s for another time.) We see now that they over-reacted. Only the gospel is of first importance, and secondary matters like alcohol or entertainment can’t be used as litmus tests of true Christianity. In other words, Christians must not be defined by whether they “drink, chew, or go with girls who do” (to borrow a youth group phrase from those times). We must instead be known as those who love Jesus and his gospel above all else.
Today it’s common to malign the “culture wars” and do our best to show a secular culture that we Christians aren’t just killjoys who are obsessed with abstaining from alcohol and only watch the Left Behind movies. Like a high schooler gunning for some popularity, we are sometimes a bit too excited to talk about how we are totally cool with craft beer and love the deep human themes in Breaking Bad. It’s very important that you know we aren’t our fundamentalist grandfather.
But this is a selective memory at best, and a cruel caricature at worst. Fundamentalism was at its core an attempt to take the Bible seriously. We evangelicals learned to love the Bible on our fundamentalist grandfather’s knee. Simply because that grandfather thought too much about alcohol and entertainment doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about them at all.
And that’s what has happened, generally. The only guidance many evangelicals have when it comes to the gray areas is, “Well, I know I shouldn’t obsess about them; I know the gospel is more important than these issues.” But the leaf of evangelicalism is growing on the tree of robust, Biblical Christianity. The kind that asks us to take the love for the Bible we inherited from fundamentalism and apply it even more robustly to these gray areas. If we want to say we have progressed in our understanding of Biblical Christianity, the answer is not to run away from thinking about alcohol, entertainment, and more. The answer is to make our grandparents proud by applying the Bible rigorously in these complicated areas. Knowing our history, I am confident that even if we find ourselves in disagreement with our forebears about some of these issues, they will be quite happy if we disagree because we are so in love with our Bibles.
Click here to listen to audio from our Gray Areas conference, where we navigated just a few of these complexities together with regard to social media, entertainment, food, and alcohol.
Brian serves the church by overseeing preaching and Sunday morning services at Cornerstone.
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