Recently I’ve been reading two books by Roger E. Olsen that have jazzed that side of me that has struggled a bit with elements of this wonderful movement called evangelicalism – well for the most part wonderful. Hey, I am very much a product of this movement and owe a great debt of gratitude to it. Yet right from my first experience with this great movement, I’ve always experienced a bit of cringe and even embarrassment at how we express our views and faith. It has caused me to be able to sympathize with some of the push back evangelicals get from their fellow Canadians. Well certainly not the push back published in the Globe this week, which was pure ignorance.
My introduction to the evangelical stream came through a wonderful Christian camp that played a huge role in my faith journey. Later on it would be my privilege to serve as it’s General Director for a couple of years. However my faith journey predates my introduction to the evangelical stream through that camp. Really it began in a grade one Roman Catholic classroom, where God used a godly teacher to introduce me to a personal walk with Jesus. At that point in time however, several leaders in that camp could not accept the idea that I had had a legitimate experience with Jesus in a Roman Catholic setting. That view was later reinforced by some “guest” speakers at a large evangelical church I began to attend near my home in Toronto.
So from the get go I had this sense of not fully fitting into the black and white world of mainstream evangelicalism. I knew that my passion for God that was growing with the help of both this camp as well as the church I was attending, was rooted in my experience of a grade one Roman Catholic classroom. I remember well the crisis I created when I became the first “Roman Catholic” to serve on the staff team of that camp! The crisis calmed down when they discovered I had begun stick my head into a local evangelical church.
I remember the first time I heard that very strong black and white expression, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me!!” It was way back in 1969 and it was an expression I heard a lot in those early years. But even at 12 years of age, knowing enough of the Bible from consistently attending Mass with its three Bible readings every Sunday, such a proposition struck me as improbable. What about gouging out your eye if it causes you to sin? What about never wearing clothes made of more than one material? I also discovered quickly that asking questions is anathema.
Yet my love for God and desire to serve Him continued to grow over the years. Over the years I discovered that there were many within this evangelical movement who shared my cynicism. For the most part we have tended to be a little more on the quiet side. The reality was, the dominant culture within the evangelical movement seemed well able to effectively silence those who asked tough questions.
But with evangelicalism now experiencing decline both in Canada and the U.S. for the first time in the history of our nations, those of us who are a bit jaded by the black and white simplicity that has contributed to the decline of our movement have found a new voice. Those of us who think beyond the simplicity of black and white are no longer renegades.
One of the voices I have come to appreciate as our movement begins to emerge from the simplicity of past black and white thinking is that of Roger E. Olson. He’s a professor of theology at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. Like Scot McKnight who now teaches at Northern Seminary, Olson is attempting to be a voice for reason and moderation in the evangelical movement. And similar to McKnight, Olson is seeking to write a few things for the “average reader” out there and not just for the academics. I have found two of his books to be particularly insightful and easy to read, one being “Questions To All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith,” and the other being “How To Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative.” Olson also maintains a blog titled Roger E. Olson, which is worth reading.
It is nice to know that the cringe I’ve felt right back to my first introduction to this movement as a 12 year old over 40 years ago, is a cringe shared by many. Roger Olson offers a biblical way out of the cringe leading to a robust Spirit empowered faith that that can effectively reach the growing numbers in our culture who like Jesus but not the church, especially not the evangelical church.
I particularly commend Olson’s book, “Questions To All of Your Answers,” as a great place to start your own journey from classic black and white evangelicalism to a vibrant examined faith.