Sammy Horner: Evaluating the book The Post Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson

Thursday 1st August 1996

Pondering the issues raised by the book The Post Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson is Christian apologist and Electrics frontman Sammy Horner. Here Sammy makes an incisive critique of the phenomenon of post evangelicalism.

Sammy Horner
Sammy Horner

With the publication of Dave Tomlinson's The Post Evangelical (SPCK) the Christian counter-culture was introduced to a new word and a new concept, that people could be converted, become members of evangelical churches before "outgrowing" evangelicalism and moving on to a new movement linked in some ways to a "post modernist culture". The Post Evangelical was heavily promoted at Greenbelt '95 and the Festival's chairman Martin Wroe has stated that post evangelicalism could almost be a mission statement of the festival.

Since its publication, Dave Tomlinson's slim little volume has produced a storm of controversy. In many ways the book is very good; Tomlinson is certainly asking many of the right questions. He covers (albeit briefly) issues such as the definition of family, the arts, the authority of Scripture and cultural issues and philosophies that are prevalent in western society today. The difficulty comes when we try to figure out exactly what 'post evangelical' actually means. In a sense, I am 'post evangelical' (as indeed is this magazine) in that I wholeheartedly agree that the evangelical church has often been great at 'getting people saved' but lousy at bringing them on in their faith. A dead evangelical church is possibly the worst kind of Christian experience that an individual can have - it offers so much but often delivers very little. In view of this we are forced to say amen to many of Tomlinson's comments.

Secondly, as Dave's book so rightly points out, the evangelical church often wants answers to everything. Anyone with any life experience will know that life isn't always fair and it certainly does not always make sense. To give one example, to quote Scriptures as handy answers or spiritual elastoplasts at people who are hurting or confused is insensitive, unloving and often reflects nothing of the compassion, understanding and tenderness of God. Tomlinson is right to critique such crass insensitivity and shows a genuine and deep pastoral concern for the ordinary punter and also a keen perception of culture and society. The question of what a post evangelical actually IS still needs to be unpacked. Even after reading this book you could be unsure save for a definition of someone who has left evangelicalism profoundly dissatisfied. When all is said and done, it is not Tomlinson's criticisms that will concern many thoughtful evangelicals (although the book is occasionally off handed about certain events such as Spring Harvest) but rather some of the author's conclusions.

The book is largely devoted to trying to make sense of the post modern culture in which we now live, a culture that has no real anchor point, a culture where relativism rules and a culture that does not want black and white answers but instead is constantly searching and questioning. Many of the insights are spot on. So, you ask, what's the problem? Being fed up with dead evangelicalism, not knowing all the answers, trying to interact with modern culture and wanting to move on in our faith makes us all post evangelical, right? Well, not really because according to Tomlinson there's more to it than that. According to his book, we simply cannot know ourselves without 'culture' is basically our identity, our means of communication and interaction. Now I would admit that culture is of immense importance and church history shows that when the Church has ignored culture it begins to languish. However, to insist that culture is everything that we need to know ourselves I believe is quite demonstrably in error.

Scripture gives a very clear picture of the state of man and the relentless love of God for his creation. From the very beginning we are informed that to know God and to understand his love and care for us is in fact how men and women understand themselves. Our role in society (and culture) as well as in the greater plan of things (including the environment, politics and relationship) are deeply imbedded in the image of God that is stamped on all men. Issues such as justice, courage, care, compassion and respect are found in every tribe and nation known to anthropologists. Are these simply survival instincts (if so, why does the idea of survival of the fittest or the strongest, fall to pieces when our children are threatened in any society?) or are they just sociological and cultural norms? It is not always in our interest to do what is right, but in all societies (especially tribal groups) people do what is right because it is beneficial to others. Anthropology cannot always explain the whys, but it does generally agree that on a worldwide scale, people basically do what is right for themselves and others...not just themselves.

In James Wilson's excellent book The Moral Sense, Wilson argues that there is something in mankind that is simply 'there'. He offers no explanation for the existence of justice and compassion in the world of men and women (although he contrasts it with the savageness of nature) but he asserts that 'it is there'. A postmodern culture will argue that there is nothing that is universal amongst mankind, everything is relative. Sadly, the post evangelical is basically saying the same thing. As a result of this even the Gospel is only relative to the culture that it is trying to impact. Here we hit the sticky problem of the fact that the Bible speaks across cultures even within its own pages. The Roman Christians and Greeks are warned against living the cultural norm within their society, because it was often far from the will of God. In other words anything within a culture that the Scripture teaches is sinful is still a non-starter for Christians living in that culture. That of course is profoundly still the case. We are not talking about the nickel and dime stuff like having a glass of wine or a cigarette. But issues such as human sexuality, basic family norms or universalism are not really interchangeable simply because the culture dictates it.

The pivotal issue of how we approach culture and the whole thrust of Tomlinson's book is our approach to Scripture. The author goes a long way to show us the problems with a literal, hyper-fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Yet in all honesty you would be hard put to find that many churches, in the UK at least, with such extreme exegetical blinkers. And Tomlinson's favoured method of Bible interpretation is unconvincing and not altogether logical. Tomlinson provides a weak argument for a hyper-metaphorical interpretation (which has just as many problems as an extreme literal stand). It must be said that the use of metaphor and symbol are of course a vital part of the Bible. But to interpret the whole book in such a way leads, I believe, to serious error. The theological liberals have for decades reduced the Bible to a lucky dip of spiritual insights (ie, the bits your culture feels reasonably comfortable with) set in a tub of archaic Jewish history written in less enlightened times. When all is said and done, the post evangelical adapts a similar mix 'n' match approach to Scripture.

This I believe is the crux of the matter. The post evangelical, as codified by Tomlinson, is not just someone who is sick of dead evangelicalism, he is a courageous free thinker determined to soar from the rigid religiosity of evangelicalism. Tragically those who make such a move do not become the enlightened pioneers of Tomlinson's fantasy, but believers prone to doubt and compromise who, wishing to interact with the culture in which they find themselves have allowed Scripture to be interpreted by the culture, not the other way around.

The Bible was, of course, written in another language and another very different culture. To get to grips with it we need to understand something of that culture and then try to make the connection within our own time and experience. Scripture, as it declares itself, is given for instruction and correction and while it is true that there are some issues in the Bible are totally cultural (eg, according to John Calvin, women wearing hats in church could change from culture to culture and was not an issue for all people all the time) other doctrines and values are not cultural - they are for all people all the time.

Theology can fill in the blanks of anthropology, sociology and philosophy, but the one universal norm is the image of God stamped on man. This in itself gives us anchor points that cannot be eroded away. Justice, concern, compassion and care are God given norms amongst all people. The language of all embracing love and compassion has in the world of the post evangelical been replaced with the language of cultural anthropology and this, at least for me, is where the definition (vague though it is) falls apart. To those who really want to move on, the position expounded in The Post Evangelical will eventually, I believe, leave you feeling as empty as dead evangelicalism did in the first place. For it is an intimate, God-breathed communicative relationship with Christ himself that each of us needs and we will only find some aspects of that relationship by staying rooted in Scripture because it is there that we find one who accepts us in spite of colour, culture and pathetic mistakes. The language of the love of God transcends all cultures in a much deeper way than the language of the post evangelical ever can.

Recommended reading
The Post Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
The Cutting Edge by John Smith
Translating The Message by L Sanneh*
Anthropology For Christian Mission by Darrel Whiteman*
Customs And Cultures by Eugene A Nida*
*These are fairly technical pieces of work.

Recommended listening
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For by Gavin McGrath. Teaching tape from L'Abri Fellowship. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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