Evangelical Christianity, the Perpetual Road Trip

The recent death of John Stott has given people who are normally hostile to Evangelical Christianity an opportunity to say some good things about an individual whose high place in the movement is deserved.  Such praise is generally joined with criticism of those who had the bad taste to carry the movement into the political realm.  I say “bad taste” because political vitriol is inevitably a sign that you are an existential threat to someone.  Had same people rallied to the “religious left,” they would have given the same fawning adulation as the likes of Jim Wallis (well, most of the time.)  But face it: just because you or your movement comes to an end doesn’t mean that the world will stop.

Or was it more than bad taste?  Was getting into politics really the crime that everyone says it was?  Before I deal with that subject (once more with feeling, I might add) I want to make an analogy based on my own elite (?) experience.

This fall and spring the prep school I attended, the St. Andrew’s School of Boca Raton, Florida, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary.  To start and grow a private school in this country isn’t as easy as it looks in hindsight.  With no support from the state, private schools are forced to build a giving constituency, not always a straightforward business.  Sometimes schools don’t make it; St. Andrew’s almost didn’t.  It started with a reasonable seed and built a reasonable physical plant, but the early years were dicey financially.  Once it built its original physical plant, it had to make do with it for a good while.

That physical plant had gaps that most public schools wouldn’t be caught without.  One of those was a proper gymnasium.  The “workout room” it had was okay for wrestling, but too small for the sport that defines gyms: basketball.  That sport was relegated to an outdoor court, which consisted of the following:

  1. Asphalt court.
  2. Two (2) goals, one at each end.

In the school’s “back forty,” there were no bleachers, no fences, and no lights.  (The fence budget went, as one would expect, for the tennis courts.)  Practice was weather dependent.  But the core problem was that the basketball teams couldn’t play at home.  Their schedule was a perpetual road trip, and that affected their performance.

Below: finding a complete photo of this athletic facility was impossible, so I resort to a composite, from 1973-4.  Left, the corner of the court.  Right, one of my schoolmates takes a shot at the goal.  Women’s athletics were in their infancy at St. Andrew’s (which only admitted women at all in 1971) but the formation of a women’s basketball team was an especially unhurried business.  The school would not get a proper gymnasium until 1981.

In a way, however, a school that professed and called itself Christian unwittingly made a statement in this sad state of affairs.  Isn’t Christianity a perpetual road trip of its own kind?  Didn’t Jesus pray the following?

I have given them thy Message; and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world, even as I do not belong to the world. I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from Evil. They do not belong to the world, even as I do not belong to the world. (John 17:14-16)

“In the world but not of it” is a classic Christian formula.  And what about this?

But all this is the work of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the Ministry of Reconciliation– To proclaim that God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning men’s offences against them, and that he had entrusted us with the Message of this reconciliation. It is, then, on Christ’s behalf that we are acting as ambassadors, God, as it were, appealing to you through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf–Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

An ambassador is someone who is on an extended road trip on behalf of his or her country.

That “other-worldly” aspect has led to the charge that Christianity is basically escapist and irrelevant to everyday life.  Probably no time was that other-worldly emphasis more in vogue than the Middle Ages.  Christian life may have been other worldly, but the church that proclaimed it was anything but.  It could claim that emperors were literally beating the pope’s door down to pay him homage.  It was a very worldly practice of the church—the sale of indulgences—that sparked the Reformation.

By the time the dust and warfare had settled on that explosion, the church scene had transformed from one church with state support to multiple churches with state support.  In most countries the Catholic Church had been effectively nationalized, its episcopal structure transformed to new masters.  Only in places such as Geneva and Scotland (the Scots were never much on structure of any kind) was the episcopacy done away with, but the state enforcement of the religion was there all the same.  The main outliers in this scene were the Anabaptists, and nobody liked them.

As years passed, this arrangement frayed about the edges, both in Europe and certainly in some of the colonies (especially the British) they started.  We started seeing groups come to prominence such as the Moravians, Quakers, Methodists and the aforementioned Baptists, groups with no history of state sanction.  And we started to see Christians in and out of the state churches who took their Christianity seriously begin to take a hard look at some of the evils that civilization had taken to granted up to that time, especially slavery.  With the emergence of democratic institutions which allowed the petition for redress of grievances, many of these evils were banished over time, although in the case of slavery in the U.S. it took Mr. Lincoln’s Army to accomplish that.  It was the Fundamentalist-Modernist split which made it unfashionable for those who took the Evangelical label to shy away from social action—until the 1960’s changed everything again, at which point Evangelicals’ reaction to same made them as unpopular as the Anabaptists during the Reformation.

This unpopularity has brought a lot of soul searching in Evangelical circles.  But it should not obscure two central facts.

The first is that present unpopularity does not mean eternal error.  The Anabaptists faced the wrong end of state churches and the states that backed them up, but we only need to look around to see their long-term legacy.  The totalitarian nature of modern states will make that course more difficult, but we should be mindful of this:

Jesus looked at them, and answered: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for everything is possible with God.”

“But we,” began Peter, “we left everything and have followed you.”

“I tell you,” said Jesus, “there is no one who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or land, on my account and on account of the Good News, Who will not receive a hundred times as much, even now in the present–houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and land–though not without persecutions, and, in the age that is coming, Immortal Life. But many who are first now will then be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:27-31)

The second is that following Christ is really a perpetual road trip.  What we do to make things better in this life is important.  When it becomes our entire agenda, we become irrelevant both ways: that’s the central lesson of liberal churches such as the Episcopal Church.  But we must never lose sight of what really endures:

Then indeed I shall know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and all that it means to share his sufferings, in the hope that, if I become like him in death, I may possibly attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already laid hold of it, or that I am already made perfect. But I press on, in the hope of actually laying hold of that for which indeed I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. For I, Brothers, do not regard myself as having yet laid hold of it. But this one thing I do–forgetting what lies behind, and straining every nerve for that which lies in front, I press on to the goal, to gain the prize of that heavenward Call which God gave me through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)

Note: a fill in detail or two in this diatribe can be found in A History of St. Andrew’s School: The First Thirty-Five Years by William M. Posey, whose son John Posey is a well known Hollywood figure.

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