Jennifer Knapp, Glenn Beck, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and a whole bunch of professors from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary walk into a bar. Or, onto a web page. Or, into my head.

These are the figures that represent the events and ideas that have been swirling around in my mind for the last couple of months. It all started back in early March when I got the heads up that Glenn Beck told his radio listeners to leave their church if it espouses social justice. I blogged about it here, and in the days that followed that post became one of our most read items.

Then, a few weeks later, my brother-in-law pointed me to a video of R. Albert Mohler Jr. and his fellow Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professors taking author and activist Brian McLaren to the cleaners over his latest book, A New Kind of Christianity. My commentary on this was another popular post here, and a story that garnered widespread media attention.

Finally, just last week, Contemporary Christian Music star Jennifer Knapp came out of the closet in, of all media venues, Christianity Today. This news obviously elicited a wide range of reactions, from calling for her to repent to thanking her for offering solidarity. But mostly, calling for her to repent.

These stories have occupied a significant portion of my thoughts as each broke, and with the addition of each it feels more and more like something big is happening in evangelicalism. I have been accused by a good friend of making too many connections, of not allowing anything to occupy its own space but always trying to string it onto something else. This is true. I can’t help it.

I see in these three events a conversation that is wanting to happen. And I see it going down this way. Brian McLaren and his book A New Kind of Christianity stand squarely in the middle, curating a discussion that is long overdue. A significant portion of his book deals with the way that we have been misinterpreting scripture. In short, McLaren says that we’ve been looking at it as if it is a constitution, when all along it has been a community library, a collection of books that shows us how God relates to us and we to God. (That this redefinition has been cause of so many hostile retaliations is telling of, I think more than anything, a profound disrespect for libraries.) In light of this revelation, says McLaren, the scriptures aren’t used to make cases or prove points, but to help members of a community understand and belong to that community.

This protocol can and should be applied to the other two “scandals” of the last few months. I think that probably the reaction of too many Christians to Jennifer Knapp’s announcement has been based on the fact that so many of us still believe the Bible should be used to build a case against a person and his or her actions. This feels like it falls short of fully understanding, of helping people belong.

On the other hand, whereas Mr. Beck and others would like to use this same kind of constitutional reading of the Bible to support their claims of individual responsibility in opposition to social justice, I think time has shown that the “evidence” is against them. But, to Jim Wallis’ credit, in his response to Beck’s sometimes brutal attacks, he has not resorted to this kind of verse-grabbing, rather he has shown that the arc of God’s story bends toward social justice.

Something is happening in evangelicalism. I’m sure of it. Just what it is and where it all will land is yet to be seen. So, Jennifer Knapp, Glenn Beck, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and a whole bunch of professors from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary walk into a bar…

And I’m not sure of the punch line just yet.

 
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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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