This is a feature review I did of Tim Suttle’s “An Evangelical Social Gospel? Finding God’s Story in the Midst of Extremes” for Englewood Review of Books. It was published there on Friday under the title “In Search of a Third Way”, but here it is again in its entirety (at 1300+ words, you may want to grab a cup of coffee first). I’d love your comments either here or over at ERB.
Over the course of the past decade, as a member of a fairly large, conservative evangelical church in a part of the country fairly saturated with other conservative evangelical churches, I have become increasingly interested in and committed to the sort of faith the prophet Micah describes: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
If we’re honest, though, that’s not what evangelicals have been particularly known for. Rather, we have often been caricatured — with varying degrees of accuracy, to be sure — as just the opposite: unkind, unconcerned, and yes, just a wee bit holier-than-thou. Why is this the case?
One way to answer the question would be to say that we are sinners, just like everybody else, and God knows that justice, kindness and humility don’t come easily for any of us. Another approach would require looking back at the past hundred years, back to a seismic split in North American Christianity, between theological conservatism on the one hand and theological liberalism on the other. Broadly speaking, the conservatives emphasized the need for personal faith in Jesus Christ, to the exclusion of what were considered “worldly” concerns. The liberals, meanwhile, guided by the so-called “Social Gospel” movement, taught that Christ’s mission and ours was to transform society, not individuals.
Like many people my age in recent years, I’ve been grappling with this split, in search of a better way, one that embraces the best of both without falling prey to the traps of either. For these reasons I was fascinated when I heard about Tim Suttle’s new book, An Evangelical Social Gospel?: Finding God’s Story in the Midst of Extremes (Cascade, 2011).
Suttle, a self-described evangelical, is a pastor in Kansas City and the former front man for the Christian rock band Satellite Soul. He tells of experiencing a growing suspicion that although his ministries were deemed “successful” by all prevailing standards, he wasn’t sure they were actually making any real, lasting impact. This book, he says, is an “honest and passionate attempt to help the church be more faithful and effective.” It quickly becomes apparent that for Suttle, this means critiquing (if not rejecting) an individualistic faith and embracing a more communal one. He does so, by and large, by appealing to Walter Rauschenbusch, who he describes as “an incredible pastor and theologian who is generally misunderstood and unduly maligned.”
Serving in New York’s blighted Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Rauschenbusch “began to realize that his message of personal conversion lacked power in his new environment. The poor people of his congregation were already Christians. So were the wealthy barons who treated them like chattel. Personal conversion had little impact upon the miserable social situation of Hell’s Kitchen.”
Rooted in his experiences in the midst of incredible human suffering, Rauschenbusch began to articulate a new sort of gospel, one he felt would have the power to make an immediate impact in the lives of those among whom he ministered. With the publication of books including Christianity and the Social Crisis and A Theology for the Social Gospel, he gained nationwide notoriety and soon came to be known as the father of the Social Gospel movement. And, as Suttle notes, he “paved the way for many subsequent theologians and philosophers who began to deconstruct individualism in favor of personhood.”
Individualism, Suttle rightly says, “is part of the American narrative.” He goes on to write, “Evangelicals have been formed in this narrative of individualism, so it should be no surprise that the gospel we tell in America should have an individualistic bent. But, the story of individualism is not synonymous with the story of Christianity.”
Suttle’s underlying premise, if I read him correctly, is that the gospel, understood and embraced in its entirety, will inherently have both personal and social dimensions. He repeatedly urges Christians not to embrace one without the other. But he wavers between approaching the issue as a matter of “both/and” and “either/or.” While he is quick to point out the flaws in the individualistic version of the gospel, he is not sufficiently forthcoming about the limitations of the proposed alternative. The title and subtitle of the book appear to explicitly support a both/and approach, aiming at nuance rather than polarity. But writing as a self-identified evangelical appealing to other evangelicals, his choice to appeal (uncritically, for the most part) to the person and teachings of a polarizing figure from the other camp is puzzling, to say the least.
American history over the past hundred years has revealed the flaws of individualized expressions of faith, and Suttle is right to point them out. But we have also seen the flaws of the Social Gospel and in many cases, its failures to truly transform church or society in positive, lasting ways. While appealing somewhat romantically to Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement, Suttle doesn’t say much about the state of Mainline Protestant churches today which reveal, with limited exceptions, neutralizing accommodation to secular culture, a distinct lack of spiritual vibrancy, and a general trend of numerical decline.
It seems to me that if we evangelicals are truly interested in a third way “in the midst of extremes” we ought to be willing to look for examples of spiritual life elsewhere, beyond these two erring poles. We might look for signs of life in Africa, Asia and Latin America, for instance, where churches continue to spring up in new and dynamic forms. Christians in these places are embracing the gospel, are experiencing both individual and community transformation, and are continuing to work out faithful and contextual expressions of the faith in their churches and beyond. In Latin America, the region with which I’m most familiar, Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar stand out as evangelicals leading the way to discern theologies and ecclesiologies that are faithful to Scripture and relevant to their tumultuous social, political and economic contexts. All of us would do well to learn from brothers and sisters in various parts of the world who can reveal to us our cultural blind spots and provide correctives to any polarities that are more reactionary than biblical.
In the final chapters of his book, Suttle does articulate what I’d consider to be a genuinely evangelical, missional expression of faith, concluding: “If you choose the way of Jesus, you choose the way of life, and you are given a mission. Your mission is the person next to you, wherever you may be. Your job is to bear witness to them by being the hands and feet of Jesus. Your job is not to fight and scrap yourself to the top of the cultural heap. Your job is not to collect, hoard, accumulate, or even survive. Your job is to die empty, having given the last full measure of devotion to the lowly and forgotten people of the world… Having died with Christ you will share in his resurrection. This is how the kingdom comes.”
I found this an inspiring, powerful and unifying way to conclude the book, though it struck me as interesting that in these final chapters, Rauschenbusch’s influence noticeably recedes and Suttle’s appeals to Scripture take more prominence than in earlier parts of the work.
An Evangelical Social Gospel? is a welcome addition to the discussion of what it means to truly live the kind of faith Micah describes in the context of the here and now. And by introducing many of us to Rauschenbusch for the very first time, Suttle is doing us an important service, if for no other reason than to help us better understand the historical roots of contemporary North American Christianity. While I wish Suttle would have been equally willing to critique the pitfalls of the Social Gospel movement along with his critiques of individualistic expressions of faith, I hope that many readers will be challenged to dig deeper into Scripture and together seek a “third way” free from the constraints of warring camps, and driven instead by a shared commitment to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.