The Future of Evangelical Colleges: From Neo-Evangelicalism to Neo-Fundamentalism?

Written by Bruce Ellis Benson

Bruce Ellis Benson is Executive Director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. He works in aesthetics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. He is the author or editor of a dozen books. Among his most recent books are Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship and (with J. Aaron Simmons) The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction.

old cross


Whatever else resulted from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth-century, the fundamentalists emerged rather scathed. At least in the eyes of much of society, they appeared to be ignorant and backward. Even the fundamentalist Bernard Ramm once wrote of his fellow fundamentalists that “many times they were dogmatic beyond evidence, or were intractable of disposition, or were obnoxiously anti-cultural, anti-scientific, and anti-educational.”

There’s an old joke to the effect that “fundamentalism” is “no fun, all damn, and no mental.” To what extent that was simply a caricature is certainly open to debate. Yet what is not at all open to debate is that fundamentalists were largely marginalized, both by themselves and by society at large. Partly this results from the very ideal of fundamentalism, the insistence that true Christians should be “set apart” from society at large. Thus, fundamentalists practiced what was called “double separationism,” and so attempted to have as little to do with “the world” as possible. With this in mind, for instance, it’s not surprisingly that fundamentalists didn’t go to Hollywood movies or Broadway plays: they realized that paying for a ticket was subsidizing industries that they saw as inimical to their very identity. Of course, Hollywood and Broadway returned the favor: fundamentalist Christians were generally portrayed as out-of-touch bumpkins.

But, in the forties, a certain group of fundamentalists wanted to break away from that identity and perception. They wanted a different sort of climate, one that still held to what they perceived as the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but without being dogmatic and divisive. They were open to scientific research and education in general. They were also open to historical-critical study of the Bible. In short, they wanted to move away from the fear that had generated fundamentalism in the first place. Among these reformers were Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry. They realized that, if they were to become relevant to society at large, they had to move away from their narrow enclaves and become players in a broader cultural context. But given their fundamentalist history and the prominent social perceptions of that history, they needed a serious makeover. In place of the word “fundamentalist,” they adopted the word “evangelical” or “neo-evangelical.” To be sure, the word “evangelical” had been around for a long time, but now it was being repurposed. It was a shrewd move. The fundamentalists were known for their fiery rhetoric against the “liberals,” but these new evangelicals wanted to tone things down. Not surprisingly, the classic fundamentalists responded, well, just as you would expect. John R. Rice wrote: “Although they claim to believe the Bible, they are buddy-buddies with the infidels who spit on the blood of Jesus, deny the inspiration of the Bible and the blood of the atonement, while they despise us fundamentalists.” Showing the historical connection between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the historian George Marsden defines a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who is angry about something.”

The questions and challenges faced by Graham and Henry are not simply of historical note. They remain important today in the context of the very evangelical colleges and universities that were established in light of the neo-evangelical upsurge. But, how does one, practically, continue to move away from the angry, fearful world of fundamentalism within an evangelical academic setting? One way is to broaden the curriculum to include more mainstream theology while teaching students theories regarding how the Bible came to be within specific historical and cultural settings. Or, another way might be to take philosophy seriously and to present evolution as a view worth considering. Further, one might invite speakers to campus who don’t necessarily sound or look like the student body or faculty. Yet another way is to admit of disagreement and allow flexibility regarding lifestyle expectations for both faculty and students. Such steps are certainly in keeping with the history of evangelical colleges. For example, it is hard for many students at such colleges today to fathom that, not so long ago, students were not allowed to use tobacco or alcohol or attend movies or play cards, and that their professors were expected to live by the same rules. In general, most evangelical colleges have made these and other moves in the attempt to live into the dual vision of the initial neo-evangelical reformers: standing for what they took to be Christian truth while also standing for the importance of intellectual rigor. In other words, evangelical colleges have historically been defined by an attempt to bring the life of the mind and the life of faith together as a lived reality.

All along, though, faculty at these institutions realized that there were limits as to just how much they could say and what they could teach, even if those limits were constantly changing and never perfectly defined as evangelicalism itself continued to change. Yet before we can address this concern, it is important to set these limitations in a wider context. Consider the following claim: “We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like.” While that line could easily come from a professor at an evangelical college, it is actually from a lecture (L’ordre du discours) Michel Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1970. In other words, there are always boundaries, whether we are talking about colleges, or the Rotary Club, or your kid’s soccer game. One can argue that the climate—at least in American colleges and universities—is more restrictive than it would have been for Foucault in Paris. Today it is common to hear that “political correctness” restricts speech on college campuses, both by faculty and students (and even speakers who get “uninvited” if they are perceived to be saying something one can’t say). No doubt, these complaints have some basis in fact. Yet the idea of “political correctness” hadn’t even been invented when Foucault made that statement. Indeed, Foucault is speaking about social discourse in general, not just academic discourse.

So what do we make of his point about discursive limits when applied to the task and identity of evangelical colleges? Some might argue that evangelical colleges actually are more upfront than secular institutions about what can and cannot be said, since the former have doctrinal statements and the latter don’t. The thinking behind this line of argumentation is quite simple: every place has its exclusions and prohibitions, but they are more explicit at evangelical colleges due to their Christian commitments. In such cases, maybe it is better because at least you know which things are not open to discussion. In contrast, at secular institutions, very little is spelled out and yet the limits continue to exist. There is something to this argument that should not be too quickly ignored. By having a doctrinal statement that everyone is expected to endorse, the limitations are made public. Most evangelical colleges even have such statements on their websites.

Yet, as always, the devil is in the details. What normally is not published—on websites or anywhere else—is exactly what those statements (and individual clauses) mean and, more important, what those statements entail. In regard to the former, if the clause concerns something like the inerrancy of the Bible, what does it mean to say that the Bible has no errors? In other words, define “error.” This seems like an easy enough task, until one actually tries to do it. Socrates was particularly deft at showing that things like “virtue” that we all supposedly understand turn out to be really difficult to define. Alternatively, by entailments, I simply mean: if you believe X, what other things are you thereby affirming (however implicitly)?

It should go without saying that documents are not self-interpreting (though perhaps our current cultural and political climate would benefit from more people actually saying it more often). The stability of a doctrinal statement depends upon who gets to do the defining and determining the entailments. So things aren’t nearly as cut and dried as they might seem. With this in mind, the argument that evangelical colleges are more upfront about their prohibitions than secular institutions loses a good deal of its force because it all depends on

  • how narrowly or broadly these documents are interpreted,
  • how far reaching those entailments go, and
  • who defines these two items.

Likely, this varies significantly among evangelical institutions. So one needs to know the culture of the institution in order to know how its principal documents have been interpreted and what the entailments are as a result. But then we are right back to the situation found on secular campuses, namely that there are unwritten codes about what you can and cannot say. Since they are unwritten, a faculty member has to figure them out by asking colleagues (who may or may not be forthcoming, often out of fear). So, not only is discussion limited by explicit statements, it is likewise limited by all of the implicit statements that go along with them. And one may not find out what those implicit statements actually are until one has already said something that conflicts with them. But by then it may be too late. If you add into the equation that the doctrinal statements of most evangelical colleges take quite a lot off of the table for discussion to begin with, then it is hard to think that evangelical colleges really have as much intellectual freedom as might be ideally desired for an academic institution, regardless of its religious affiliation.

You may have noticed that the title of this blog post ends with a question mark. That is because I’m wondering what is happening at evangelical colleges, today, at this particular moment in time. Part of why I say that I am “wondering” about this, rather than that I believe that such and such is the case for them, is that there are quite a few evangelical colleges and it would be rather presumptuous to claim to understand them all. Actually, it’s hard enough to understand any one in particular. As Foucault also reminds us, discourses aren’t really “owned” by anyone. Power is much more diffuse than that. So one can’t point to faculty or students or administration and say “well, there’s your answer” to the state of evangelical colleges.

Still, my question boils down to this: are evangelical colleges at risk of sliding from neo-evangelicalism to something like “neo-fundamentalism”? In other words, are evangelical colleges (or perhaps evangelicals in general) making a retreat from the world and embracing a new sort of solitude? Fundamentalism, as we noted, is not just about standing for the truth but doing so in a way in which one purposely separates oneself from the “world.” Here I should point out that this question cannot be answered simply by saying “this is what evangelical colleges are ‘intending’ to do.” The famous principle of double effect is that one might well intend to do X and, in so doing, also do Y. So I’m not asking whether evangelical colleges are explicitly moving to neo-fundamentalism. Instead, I’m asking whether, given the ways in which they are responding to the world around them, neo-fundamentalism is actually the direction they are heading even without realizing it or intending to do so. Further, and perhaps this is where the real rubber meets the road, if they are sliding toward neo-fundamentalism, does this mean that they are becoming culturally irrelevant as a result?

Perhaps my question comes as a surprise. After all, there was a time during which evangelicals as a whole exerted an important influence on politics or culture at large in the US. Because of the election of Jimmy Carter, Newsweek named 1976 “the year of the evangelical” (a bit premature, since many evangelicals hate him—and I choose the word “hate” quite deliberately). In 2000, George W. Bush, a self-identified evangelical, became president. Even as recently as 2005, Time had a cover story on “America’s Twenty-Five Most Influential Evangelicals.” Yet, even though political commentators still talk about the “evangelical vote,” that influence seems to be waning. In effect, evangelicals marched right into the culture wars—and were soundly defeated. My impression of evangelical colleges is that they are hunkering down, rightly realizing that they are increasingly in the minority when it comes to academic institutions generally and, more specifically, the broad trends of cultural awareness and political orientations of the students they have traditionally attracted. And this gets us back to the whole motivation of fear. Earlier, we noted that fundamentalism was motivated by fear of the modernists. But were Graham and Henry—and those who followed in their footsteps—ever able to get beyond that fundamentalist fear? From all of my exposure to evangelicalism, I simply can’t think of a more powerful motivating emotion in its history.

So I wonder if that fear, which at best went underground in evangelicalism but was really running the show all along, has now become so acute that, in place of the expansion into the world at large, evangelical colleges are slowly creeping back toward their fundamentalist strongholds. It seems that they are not just holding on to the fundamentals of the faith, as it were, but are seeking a new sort of double separation from anything that is other than their own interpretation of those fundamentals (and the entailments of that interpretation). That fear of the other might be understood as directed toward “liberal” Christians (with whom they cannot associate for fear of being made “unclean”), or perhaps it can be seen in all-too-thinly-veiled attacks on Muslims, or even completely unveiled attacks on gays and transgendered people. Or, and perhaps this is the most troubling for both the church and the academy, maybe it is most often manifest in the difficulty of evangelical colleges (and, for that matter, evangelical churches) coping with faculty and students who simply ask too many questions.

Is what Graham and Henry tried in effect a grand experiment that is at risk of ultimately failing? Or is it slowly in the process of being revealed as the sham it always was such that evangelicals simply are fundamentalists—whether angry or not? Perhaps it is too soon to tell.



On Commonalities and Differences: How Intellectual Complexities Can Increase Worship

TreeWritten by John Lancaster

John Lancaster is a husband of 1, a father of 5, a campus minister who is in need of Jesus’ grace all the time. Just ask my family! I have been with Cru for 19 years in the Upstate of South Carolina while the last 6 years have been with Faculty Commons, the Cru ministry to professors at Clemson University and other colleges and universities in the Upstate.

When Aaron Simmons asked me to write something for Philosophy goes to Church, I felt appreciation and fear. I felt appreciation because the integration of faith and scholarship/work has become a passion/interest of mine over the past 8-10 years of ministry to professors and college students. I felt fear because of my worry that my writing would be judged as subpar by those very professors with whom I have worked. But I will try.

As a young Christian in college, it bothered me when friends stated after failing an exam, “It will burn anyways,” as an excuse for not studying. It seemed to me that college was a great place for ministry because of the people, but it should be a great place to learn about God’s creation whether it is Bernoulli’s Principle, or Thermodynamics, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Self-Actualization. To dismiss the importance of the life of the mind is not to take Christianity more seriously, but to downplay its relationship to serious thinking. Now years later as I have transitioned from working directly in college student ministry to faculty ministry, this realization can provide Christian professors with a God-given purpose to their teaching and research.

In this challenge to integrate my faith with and my academic setting and interests, I was influenced early on by two books: Love God with all your Mind (1997) by J. P. Moreland. and Darwin’s Black Box (1996) by Michael Behe. Moreland makes the general claim that from the Second Century C.E until 150 years ago, the Christian pastor was the most educated person in a community. Now, however, too many Christians are seen as anti-intellectual, Illogical, bigoted and ignorant. Sadly, for many Christians, there is good reason for such labels. Moreland compellingly argues that Christians have drawn back from intellectual and academic engagements with their faith, and have resorted to a simplistic response of “Take it by faith.” Despite such a situation, Moreland gives hope that the Christian community can recover its intellectual foundation in order to give hope and blessing to this world. While Moreland opened my eyes to the wider world with his account of the historical context, Behe opened up the molecular world to me in his account of the way that life itself requires serious intellectual consideration. He used several chapters to discuss the molecular complexities of such common items and events such as the cilium, the bacterial flagellum, and blood clotting. I am still amazed whenever I or one of my children have a cut or scrape because the body begins 27 chemical switches to make the blood clot so we don’t bleed out. Being aware of those complexities increases my worship, not decreases it.

As I have thought about this struggle between Intellect/the Academy and Faith/the Church, I wanted to think through what values are inherent in these two as well as the challenges and opportunities that these values represent and those for which they allow.

In my limited experience, here are some things that the Academy values:

  • Books (peer-reviewed, intellectual, not popular bestsellers unless it matches the Academy’s priorities and focus)
  • Research
  • Logic
  • Position
  • Credited sources

It does not value:

  • Personal feelings or opinions unless supported by logic and/or research or a respected source

Alternatively, the Church values:

  • Faith
  • Humility
  • Authoritative Scripture/sources
  • Logic

One might think there isn’t much common ground between these two areas, but I would offer a few areas of commonality:

  • Humility: This is valued in the church by name. In the Academy it is not valued by that term, but in all articles, books, papers authors cite their sources. One does not take credit for someone else’s work. There is a humility in giving others credit. There is also the threat of plagiarism but its root is in honesty and not taking credit for something one didn’t do.
  • Authoritative sources: The two groups don’t agree on which sources are authoritative, but they do value sources.
  • Logic: Both groups value logic and supporting their claims, yet probably most in the church have not been trained in Logic or Critical thinking skills like professors have been, and what counts as support might look different in the different communities (in some ways this results from the different authoritative sources operative in the different spaces).

In light of these commonalities, there are still important challenges that remain for a substantive engagement between the church, specifically the Evangelical church, and the academy.

Generally the evangelical church as a whole:

  • Doesn’t read much (a lot depends on specific denominational tradition here)
  • Fails to think about the other person’s point of view, but instead reads disagreement as a sign of someone’s being immature or immoral
  • Can be Argumentative in ways that stifle genuine argument
  • Fails to appreciate the expertise that professors have as an important resource for the church

Alternatively, generally the Academy:

  • Reads voraciously, but this can create a situation in which it is difficult for the church to catch up
  • Is particular about words in ways that can put off outsiders without the technical background and vocabulary
  • Fails to think about the other person’s view, especially when that “other” is not also an academic
  • Can be argumentative in ways that assume all engagement must be argumentative

Importantly, however, these differences can make for unique opportunities that should not be missed by either the church or the academy. 

Within the Church: By embracing the Academy, the Church can re-open a world of history & science that has been hidden. This leads to greater worship as we discover the complexity of life. In the past, I would gloss over the miracles that Jesus and others accomplished like they were cool magic tricks. I didn’t put much thought into them. But as I am beginning to understand the need to worship well and to think deeply, I see biblical miracles not as magic tricks but as a matter of complex healing. In order to heal someone of blindness Jesus would need to repair the optic nerve, rods, cones, lens, pupil, etc. He must understand it and control it all on a molecular level, even an atomic and subatomic level! So knowledge can lead to greater worship, not less.

Within the Academy: Professors want to meet life-long learners. Generally, faculty are thrilled to find someone interested in their work. They can be surprised when Christians demonstrate humility and interest in academic pursuits which in turn can open doors to further dialogue.

I would love to see the church value higher education in substantive and theological ways, not just as a matter of bragging about what college one’s child gets into. Instead, higher education should be a place where Christians pursue graduate degrees, cultivate trust in God for answers to tough research questions, and welcome truth seekers. Ultimately, the university can be a place where doubters are encouraged by Christians who are professors, rather than simply a place that pastors warn their congregants to avoid for fear of their becoming atheists, or even worse, liberals. When we pay attention to the commonalities and also the differences between the church and the academy, we can better appreciate the ways in which differences do not need to be signs of antagonism, but rather sites for mutual understanding, and more effectively appropriate the commonalities as foundations for continued work together.

How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling

Written by Mark Reynolds as a follow up to last week’s post about the Culture of Success.

Mark E. Reynolds is currently the senior pastor at Shepherd’s Community United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL, but will be moving to First UMC Cocoa Beach, FL, in June 2016. The author of New Life in Christ: Understanding Your Decision to Follow Jesus and Finding Your Next Steps, Reynolds holds graduate degrees from Emory University and Vanderbilt University and teaches as part of the course of study at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.







Dear God,

Ministry is wearing me out, and I’m not seeing the kind of fruit I envisioned at the beginning. I’ve become so busy doing your work that my devotional life is a distant memory. I know that I should practice what I preach, so I’m recommitting myself to daily spiritual discipline.

I’m confident that this will improve my life. Spending time with you will lead to a deeper sense of peace, joy, and wisdom, making me more attractive to others. I’m also convinced that more devotional time will help me write better sermons that draw bigger crowds.

As these crowds are transformed by my anointed preaching, they will gain buy-in to what we are doing around here and the money will finally start to flow! The church will pay all of its bills—including one-hundred percent of apportionments. The excess that is “pressed down, shaken together, and running over,” will be used to improve our environments, technology, production value, and programing. We will hire new staff and start new building campaigns. Since people want to feel like they are part of an organization that really makes a difference in the world, we will increase our missional giving and constantly remind everyone of the difference their money is making through heartwarming stories. All of this will bring in more people and expand our influence in the surrounding community.

Given the world in which we live, all of this will be highly visible on social media. As my colleagues see posts touting my accomplishments in ministry, I’ll be admired (and maybe even envied). The District Superintendent will promote my church as a model of vitality, and (knowing how important I have become) exempt me from mandatory clergy meetings. The Bishop will see me as a rising star in the Conference, and my hard work will be reward with more prestigious and lucrative appointments. I will be recruited into the inner circles of the higher-ups and consulted on important issues in the life of the church. These accolades will open doors for publishing opportunities and speaking engagements. Given all this evidence, there will be no doubt that I am a good pastor.

Thank you, God, for the spiritual disciples, for the tools that allow me to advance on the way of salvation. Give me the strength to persist in daily devotion and reward my obedience with success, so that people will know that I’m living in your will.

In all of this, may you be glorified. Less of me and more of you.

In Jesus name, amen.


This “make believe” prayer articulates the temptation of pastors inhabiting a culture driven by an obsession with success. It is in no way intended to be an insult to my clergy friends who serve large congregations, especially since those of us serving smaller churches are probably more susceptible to this corruption of our calling. One of my clergy friends serving a huge church once told me that the only difference between my job and his was about three zeros added to all of our common problems. What is at stake in this imaginative exercise is not church size. Small, medium, and large churches can be healthy or unhealthy. The real issue is related to our motivation and value system. Are we pursuing success or faithfulness?

Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?


Written by Mark E. Reynolds

Mark E. Reynolds is currently the senior pastor at Shepherd’s Community United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL, but will be moving to First UMC Cocoa Beach, FL, in June 2016. The author of New Life in Christ: Understanding Your Decision to Follow Jesus and Finding Your Next Steps, Reynolds holds graduate degrees from Emory University and Vanderbilt University and teaches as part of the course of study at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.


crossIntroduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

money-bagsSuccess: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)


[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.