Liberals, Evangelicals and Deep Church

Monday, 21st September 2009 at 12:17 UTC 15 comments

A year ago I read Amy and Frog Orr-Ewing’s book, “Deep”. I realised recently I never wrote anything on my blog about it, even though it provoked some useful thoughts. Their assessment of the state of the Church in Britain today is often very useful, inspired amongst other things, by work in deprived areas and mission trips to repressive Islamic regimes, including Afghanistan.

“Deep” is not a book many would expect me to read, and the Orr-Ewing’s are certainly more traditionally Evangelical than I am, but what they have to say often draws my interest, and this book was no different at all. First and foremost, this book is an attempt to engage with the issues raised by the post-Evangelical movement, one that I have a lot of sympathies with.

It is perhaps the most subtly insidious remark to accuse a fellow Christian’s theology of being shallow. One need not accuse someone of not being a Christian in order to do so, and the argument swings both ways between Liberals and Evangelicals. It runs something like this: the Liberal calls the Evangelical’s theology shallow because they take everything at surface-value, unprepared to consider deeper meanings and incapable of taking historical context into account. The Evangelical then accuses the Liberal of having shallow theology for being prepared to dismiss large chunks of the bible (though the Evangelical probably dismisses other chunks instead, and who bar God is to say which bits are more important).

One of my greatest problems with placing myself into that classification is that I want to be accused of neither. My social action and campaigning work is (I hope) rooted in the biblical call for Justice, Peace, etc, a part that many Liberals might accuse the Evangelicals of discarding. My involvement in churches that have placed a heavy emphasis on sharing Bread and WIne in services comes from a recognition that this is what Jesus exhorts his followers to do.

I don’t believe we should discount any part of the scriptures, nor do I believe we should attempt to simply read off the page and into my life, but rather to wrestle with the texts, often over a period of time. This appears to be something the Orr-Ewings are concerned with as well, as they challenge the Evangelical church with some of the same arguments raised by the post-Evangelical movement.

They essentially argue that we must seek depth first and foremost, not orthodoxy, a brand of faith or a position of forthrightness. Essentially when we forget to keep challenging the scriptures to yield more Truth to us, people will divide in two directions: those who are content with a shallow faith, and those who will look elsewhere as they are affronted by the shallowness.

My sympathy is largely with the latter group, which is why I get accused of being a Liberal half the time. But I see the path to a resolution of this problem in challenging the scriptures much more deeply, on the premise that they must contain a Truth beyond my own perception. I don’t, by the way, claim that I have some Truth that others do not or cannot attain; Gnosticism is a fallacy oft fallen into, and I’m very aware of this.

I love the challenge the Orr-Ewings present in their book; the challenge to find deeper passion for the Gospel, deeper understanding of what God is saying in the Bible, deeper personal transformation, and from it, deeper engagement with the world around us, especially in our increasingly urban contexts.

The authors start with the story of C S Lewis (author of the Narnia books) being asked if he saw himself as High or Low church, and Lewis’ response, a rejection of the question, as Deep Church. I want to expand that somewhat, and ask whether it matters if we are Liberal or Evangelical, or somewhere in between, but instead whether the depth of commitment, the depth we attempt in our understanding, and the depth with which we seek to live out that understanding, aren’t really what matters? After all, believing in God and living a life in relationship with him are two very very different things.

Deep is published by Authentic, 2008. Frog and Amy also explored the topics covered in their two Deep Church seminars at Momentum 2009. Frog (who’s name is actually Francis) is the vicar of All Saints, Peckham. Amy works for Zacharias Trust, a leading Christian Apologetics organisation..


Entry filed under: Church, Faith, Religion, Theology.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lois  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 14:30 UTC

    Thank you! I think we (ie the church) get far too caught up in deciding who’s a better Christian than others when that’s not something we should be condemning others for, but challenging them all to go ‘deeper’ with their faith in which ever tradition or method they find most helpful. Refusing to work with others Christians because they’re ‘liberal’ or refusing to listen to anything they have to say is only going to be counter-productive.

  • 2. Lois  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 14:31 UTC

    I suppose the only danger is that ‘deep church’ people then start to see themselves as superior to everyone else, and become just yet another classification!

  • 3. Greg  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 14:33 UTC

    I’ll post about this on the open mic topic, but I may need to count to ten first.

    One comment I’ll make here, however, is that your post seems to take it as given that liberals have, or at least are perceived as having, a deeper faith than evangelicals, and also that they’re more activist in terms of ‘social action’. I dispute both of those.

    It’s easy to point at some woolly-minded evangelical or charistmatic pew pusher and compare them with Paul Tillich or Jeffrey John, but that’s comparing the worst of one with the best of the other, and as such is a fallacy. Either compare the latter with Don Carson and Tom Wright, or else compare the former with one of the many liberal congregationers who have dispensed with salvation, redemption and most of the commandments without a thought for the bible’s authenticity, simply because they don’t like them (but who probably believe that “Father knows best”.

    Personally, “Evangelicals are unintelligent, simplistic literalists” strikes me as exactly the same sort of argument as “Evangelicals are unbiblical because they don’t care about social action”, that is, something invented by various liberal Christians so they can feel superior to evangelicals and dismiss offhand the allegation that they (the liberals) are, in CS Lewis’s words, drinking “Christianity and water”.

    The accusation about social action is particularly annoying because it is outdated and ignores the present day. It may have been true 30 years ago, but isn’t true now and hasn’t been true for most of Christian history. Anyone who wants to make the absurd claim that social action is any less a tenet of orthodox Christianity and of orthodox Christians than of the doctrinally questionable had better find a way to dispense with John Wesley, Thomas Banardo, William Wilberforce and many more. In the present day, we could leave aside such charities as Tearfund, A Rocha and Speak and remind you that your position is with an evangelical church. Yes, evangelicals had a blip in the 20th century, but I’ve heard this blamed on an urge to distance themselves from theological liberals who had already concentrated on social action, in order to find something to believe in once they’d dispensed with the tenets of their faith. I still hear many liberals use the social argument, but they’re wrong and they’re sidestepping the issues at hand.

    The danger with complex arguments is that they’re often complex attempts to disguise simple truth. Deep cuts hurt, and a mark of deep faith is that it doesn’t shy away from the pain. Someone’s theology may be complex and that may make it deep, but it may also make it sophistry.

  • 4. Greg  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 14:38 UTC

    Something else I forgot to say: since when has Christianity consisted only of liberals and evangelicals? You’re missing out the Penties, the Romans, the (genuine) anglocatholics, the few MOR types that actually exist, and the plain odd. I’ll let you off the Orthodox because they’re even rarer than the MORs.

    RC theology is particularly relevant, since many Catholics could be accused of being doctrinally shallow, but the RC church has an extremely deep, internally consistent theology of its own.

  • 5. Steve thack  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 16:48 UTC

    Firstly think greg is mistaken, don’t think g implied liberals had deeper faith, g mainly acknowledges the prevailent stereo types each camp often has of the other. Also greg seems to view orthodox as rare- only from a western european perspective. Guessing i fit in the ‘odd’. And if anyone wants to call my theology shallow feel free. Sorry my degree was economics. You get used to competing contradicing models most of which are useful at some point.

  • 6. Steve thack  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 17:00 UTC

    Do think greg made good point the blip where evangelicals left social action to the liberals was very short lived. Think my spiritality owes most to evangelical tradition . (With touch of catholic mystic but its the fundamentalists who introduced me to that! :)) My theology is such a mess i doubt anyone would want to admit to influencing it! 😉 radical liberal with evangelical off days maybe.

  • 7. Helen  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 17:00 UTC

    hello Graham
    i think I have a couple of their books, I’ve definitly heard them at Soul survivor

    I’m never entirely sure about classifications about theology and faith and the like.
    I don’t really feel I know exactly what is meant by evangelical or liberal.
    I think its often easier to talk about actions, what a person or church is doing or is involved with
    also theres the whole holy spirit business and what peoples attitudes to manifestions and gifts of the spirit are

    I guess its just tricky

  • 8. Steve thack  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 17:58 UTC

    Part of the prob is these terms are basically defined in opposition to each other. And to be honest both belong to the modern era . Both need to redefine what they mean in post modernity. Still as a general rule of thumb if soul survivor doesn’t totally alienate you, you are charismatic evangelical! Great respect for a lot of folks in that camp and get the impression some things are improving since i left.

  • 9. Greg  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 19:32 UTC

    Steve, do I know you? Whatever, sorry for the misunderstanding about the Orthodox. I mean from a UK perspective – I could hardly ignore several hundred million believers otherwise. I was thinking of Graham’s local perspective (and mine), which is York.

    As for the liberal bias I perceive, here … you asked for it:

    In para 3 he makes apologies for the hypothetical liberal’s arguments, but not for the hypothetical evangelical’s. In para 4, he implicitly associates himself with the liberal position on justice & peace issues, or at least does nothing to deny the position he reports, though he’s reporting one side of a two sided story. He then throws more fuel on the fire aimed at protestants in general with his note about sacramentalism, while ignoring the massive problems the Catholics have had with people taking mass every week and leaving their faith there – I don’t have any axe to grind but I do speak from experience.

    I could similarly deconstruct each of the following paragraphs, but I really don’t want to appear nasty (though para 7 sentence 1 is particularly juicy). My gripe is that if he reports both stereotypes, he gives a lot more air time to one of them, and doesn’t do anything to challenge its status as truth, rather than just a stereotype. Discussing it as actually being true and particular to one sort of Christian, gives that idea credence that it doesn’t deserve. The difference between the Orr-Ewings and Graham is that they’re very obviously criticising their own tradition, while Graham is, as he admits at the start, not so close into that tradition, and so needs to be more careful lest he be seen to be throwing stones.

    • 10. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 21:02 UTC

      For once, I think you’re actually being paranoid, Greg. First I thought it was just myself being silly, but it does appear Steve read the post in exactly the way I intended, so I can begin to assume that the English I wrote matches reasonably closely to the meaning I intended to convey. It does appear that you are in fact the one trying to find stones to throw.

  • 11. Steve thack  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 20:58 UTC

    Hi greg we have met briefly i seem to recal. Year or two back. You make fair points, but lack of balance in blog has less to do with where g is coming from than limits of space in the format. Far as where g is coming from you know he is evangelical at heart whatever he claims. 😉

  • 12. Betty  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 21:05 UTC

    I remember the days when I thought charismatic evangelical was the only kind of evangelical. *sigh* Then I moved to London/univeristy and found more in common with charsimatic Catholics than my evangelical brothers.
    Are the deep talks worth a download? Or would it be better to try to borrow the book from somwhere?

    • 13. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 23:06 UTC

      Borrow the book. I’ve offered mine to Lois, though.

  • 14. Steve thack  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 21:26 UTC

    Graham i will agree your paragraph four is either badly written or ill thought out. And does make the unfounded link between social action and liberalism. Though greg manages to link liberalism with ‘ father knows best’ christianity. Can we all agree that churches like that regardless of nominal theology should just be labeled ‘shite’? Prob on social action is liberals are less likely to do their action under a christian banner.

  • 15. Steve thack  |  Monday, 21st September 2009 at 21:41 UTC

    Back to your original post, can’t comment on amy and frog’s book but just reading their blog and thats just dull! 😦


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