Billy Graham has always been a life-long learner, passionate about preaching the gospel but always ready to understand more about what that gospel means in the world. It was never surprising to me that this southern born and raised American evangelist decided early on to insist on preaching only to racially integrated coliseums and crusades, when many others just went along with their culture. Later, as a result of falling in love with the new congregations we was preaching too in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, had a "change of heart" on the nuclear arms race-which we featured in a cover interview with the evangelist in Sojourners magazine. Billy Graham has also been willing to admit his mistakes and grew from them, which is something all of us as "leaders" need to constantly learn from. And while a conservative evangelical all his life, Graham was never drawn to the hard edged and politicized fundamentalism of the "Religious Right" but instead often winced at them.
Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn't experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting or open-minded.
After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn't wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim "evangelical" for what it is supposed to mean.
Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to have both tradition and innovation happening at the same time in House for All Sinners and Saints, a mission church she founded in Denver, Colorado, that's part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Her church follows the ancient liturgy of the church, yet during Easter Vigil, for example, members are asked to tell the resurrection story in teams. People have made films, written original pieces of choral music and acted out scenes with Barbie dolls.
"We'll call that ancient/future church and different stuff like that, but I find that's what people are drawn to," said Bolz-Weber, who earned a master of divinity degree from Iliff School of Theology.
She has become a leading voice of the emerging church after a hard-drinking life as a stand-up comedian and restaurant worker, and has been described as a "6-foot-1 Christian billboard" for her tattoo-covered arms.
Bolz-Weber spoke with Jesse James DeConto for Faith & Leadership about communicating a historic doctrine in today's culture and holding on to something old in an identifiably Christian way. The following is an edited transcript.
A week or two after the 2004 election, I was dining with some friends in New York when the conversation turned to religion and politics -- the two things that you're never supposed to discuss in polite company.
George W. Bush had just been re-elected with the help of what was described in the media as "evangelical voters." And knowing that I am an evangelical Christian, my friends were terribly curious.
"What, exactly, is an evangelical?" one gentleman asked, as if he were inquiring about my time living among the lowland gorillas of Cameroon.
I suddenly found myself as cultural translator for the evangelical mind.
"As I understand it," I began, "what 'evangelical' really means is that a person believes in Jesus Christ, has a personal relationship with him and because of that relationship feels compelled to share their experience of God's love with other people. "How they choose to share that 'good news' with others is entirely up to the individual. Beyond that, the rest is details and style."
The Christianized Jesus -- the turning of a radical into a conservative shadow of his former self -- explains our problem of establishing and celebrating freedom fighters today. It is important that our progressive heroes be given their deserved fame, an accurately reported fame, and this is crucial in ways that impact our own activism.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a Peak Performance Strategist as the prosperity preachers would have it. Nor was he a foreigner-hating patriot as the tea party would argue. Obviously American politicians and their lobbyists pursue so many policies that are against the teachings of Jesus but are supported by mainstream Christian opinion. In fact, Jesus' parables and sayings push the spiritual revolution of gift economies, and of justice through radical forgiveness.
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
--Excerpts from Matthew 13
It's been a rough weekend. Watching the devastation that the combination of mental illness and fundamentalism brought to the people of Norway. Watching what the combination of drug addiction and fame brought to a talented singer, who, like so many who went before her, is now dead at the age of 27. Something they don't tell you when you get clean and sober is that if, by the grace of God, you manage to stay that way -- you get a much better life -- but year after year you also watch people you love die of the same disease. So yesterday when I heard that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her home, it brought me back to nine years ago when my dear friend PJ was also found dead in his home.