William H. Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church, is a theologian and preacher, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and the author of over fifty books. White Horse Inn producer Shane Rosenthal conducted this interview with Bishop Willimon for a White Horse Inn video documentary on American Christianity to be released this fall.
What's your take on evangelicalism?
It would take a mainline liberal Protestant type like me to say this, but I find contemporary evangelicalism disillusioning in some of its aspects and it's as if moralistic therapeutic deism has got all of us. I remember listening on TV-it's the only place I can hear evangelicals preach-and he's up there saying, "You're good and you mean well and God loves you and you need to work harder and believe more in yourself." I'm old enough to remember when you used to count on evangelicals to say, "Hey, it's in the Bible. Sorry that doesn't appeal to you, but God said it, we believe it, that ends it." I think we're really missing that kind of theological authorization for the church and its ministry-that's a dilemma we're in.
But isn't cultural relevance necessary for the church to get a hearing in society today?
Well, I'm part of a church ecclesiastical tradition in North America-mainline liberal Protestantism-where I did the cultural relevance thing up big, with the help of some great minds like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and others. I feel that in reaching out to the culture, we fell in face down. We woke up one day and we weren't really saying anything different from the message that people could get at any other segment of the culture; or as one of my friends said, we woke up one day and there was no difference between church and Rotary, and Rotary at least meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch. And that's a problem.
This is talking as a preacher, but I got the impression when I was in seminary that my job was to sort of close the gap between this primitive Christian faith and the brave new self-critical modern world, and that in twenty minutes I was to bring those two worlds together. Well, later in my ministry I decided that my challenge is to open up the gap, to say in my preaching in a sense, "Gee, you really don't know Jesus, do you?" and "We are not faithful to the historic Christian faith, are we?" Because it's in that gap that I think the Holy Spirit works and moves, and in that recognition. You know, "Depart from me, I'm a sinful man." That was the effect that Jesus had on some of the first people he talked to. Christianity is not just another lifestyle option, not another sort of project that I can enlist in getting whatever it is I wanted before I met Jesus. I'm much more interested in cultural abrasiveness and cultural conflict than I am in cultural accommodation.
Part of the quest for cultural relevance hinges on the preacher's task of translation. Can we stop using words like "justification," "propitiation," or "atonement" and still claim to be orthodox?
I think most of the theology that I learned in seminary was what I would characterize as in the translation mode. We had some wonderful thinkers who said, "Now, you take the Christian faith and you reframe it, you re-describe it, you translate it." For Paul Tillich, you don't say "God," you say "ultimate reality." You don't say "faith," you talk about "ultimate concern." In other words, you take the Christian faith and you take the categories of au courant existentialist philosophy; you just sift it through that and that's something you can preach.
Of course, nobody knows existentialism anymore or bothers with it, so where do we go with that? I think George Lindbeck in his book, The Nature of Doctrine, says that there is a peculiar sort of untranslatability to the Christian faith; that you just haven't said "salvation" when you say "self-esteem," and you haven't said the good news of Jesus Christ when you've said, "I have found a way to help your marriage work." In Christianity, you've got to sit and learn the language-just like you can't learn French by reading Madame Bovary in an English translation. You've got to sit and learn the vocabulary and the grammar.
I know my buddy Stanley Hauerwas says that the best training to be a pastor today is to have previously been a teacher of high school French; that the same skills to drive French verbs into the heads of adolescents are wonderfully transferable to the parish, because in a way Christianity is like learning a new language. If you've ever tried to learn French, you know that you're not just learning different labels; you're learning a different culture. You are moving through the words into a different world. So I'm not much on the translation mode. I think, as we sometimes say, something is "lost in translation." Well, that something may be absolutely crucial. When you say that you interview pastors and evangelicals and they say, "I translate into the mode," it's fascinating to me. I think that is the old discredited liberal project of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that many of us mainliners realize takes you nowhere. It's an incredible thinning out of the gospel. It is so disheartening to see evangelicals now jumping on that and buying it. We're all liberals now.
What's the relationship between what we preach and what we need? Does "self-help" preaching betray a self-centered theology that just doesn't need God anymore?
In my experience, people on top, people in positions of economic power, always feel good about themselves and their world: "Oh, this is God's world and God created it just like it is; and just like it is seems wonderful because it's my world and I'm in charge of it." I think a lot of the kind of self-help stuff you get in American preaching today is a commentary on our sort of economic cult-ness. Marx was right in a certain sense; that is, what you believe is more functional, what kind of car you drive, than it is what kind of God you think we've got.
One dilemma is that we North Americans can solve with our checkbooks so many of the dilemmas that people used to ask God to help them with. Like the Bible has a wonderfully modest view of human need: food, clothing, housing, things like that. But we can solve all of those with our checkbook; we don't need to ask God for any of that. So we move on to ask God for meaning in life, or purpose, or whatever-matters the Bible seems to care little about. And that's the problem. So I think the fact that we're into self-help and bootstraps theology-pull yourself up; if you think you can, you can. That was the message Norman Vincent Peale preached to mainline Protestantism back in the fifties when we had "made it." It's kind of sad to see some so-called evangelicals buying into that now, and I think it's more of a commentary on the economic location of the congregation than it is on any sort of discernment of the gospel.
It sounds like we're in danger of assuming the gospel.
I think there is a kind of assumption in mainline North American Protestantism that being a Christian is roughly synonymous with being a thinking, caring, sensitive American; that being a Christian means to be a really nice person, a human being that is very caring and loving, etcetera. No, to be a Christian is to be someone who looks at this Jew from Nazareth, Jesus Christ, and says, "That's God, that's the reality, that's the key to the world." It's not something you generally come to over-night. It takes a lifetime of being gradually formed into that conviction; to not only believe it, but live it. I think that's a different way of thinking.
Lesslie Newbigin said, "Many of us are beginning to feel like missionaries in the very culture we thought we owned." I think-and this is one reason I like people under thirty, people I rarely meet in my church because we're aging out-that is a real sense among young Christians, that Christianity is weird; it is a countercultural, different way of living. As Malcolm Muggeridge said, "Only dead fish swim with the stream." By the way, one thing I really miss about being in campus ministry, being a college chaplain, is that no self-respecting college student would walk into a physics class where the professor says, "Now, about the second law of thermodynamics…" and they say, "Wait a minute, translate that into the words I already know." The professor would say, "Hey kid. Write this down. It's going to be on the exam. I'm going to define the second law of thermodynamics for you, and you'll need to memorize it and it will change your life, once you know this." I miss that because now I'm around people who are not in that kind of educational mode; they don't think they need to be converted to be Christians. Well, I'm just afraid that this is such a counter way of living in reality. You have to be born again. You're going to have to get a whole bunch of words that will eventually make you a different human being from you were before you met Jesus.
But it seems that one of the problems of the modern church (seen especially, perhaps, in megachurch youth ministry) is that reality must be pleasant, that fun and games are more preferential than the life-transforming power of the gospel. What hope do our kids have of being discipled if we're busy telling their parents how to be a better you?
There is an army base near my home where they're preparing people to go to Iraq; I've noticed they don't seem to do that with fun and games. They do it by saying, "Here are some skills you've got to have or you could die, and you could cause the death of other people." I think it's kind of an analogy. I feel sorry for kids that think Christianity is about skateboarding and fun and games, and then they go off to college and realize it's like we're in a kind of war. I would also say that as somebody who's been trying to follow Jesus for a long time, "Hey kid, this ain't easy." And it ain't easy because Jesus won't make it easy. He loves to take ordinary, faithless weak people and make them disciples and demand that they take over the world with him, in his way.
Years ago when I was a young pastor, William Sloan Coffin-a great icon of liberal mainline Christianity-asked a question: "How do you attract people to the gospel of Jesus Christ by appealing essentially to their selfish self-interest? How do you lure them in?" Because that's what we said we were doing. Well, we first reached them by appealing to their felt needs. How do you do that, and then jump somehow, switching bait, to Jesus Christ who says, "You want to find your life? Lose it. You want to live? Die. You want to grow up? Be born again." How do you do that?
To be a Christian is to be willing to be transformed by Jesus Christ. It's to be willing to have your life molded. That sounds kind of painful and all, and it sure can be. I'm a Wesleyan, a Methodist who actually believes that you can be a better person after you met Jesus than before-Calvinists and Lutherans are suspicious of that project. But we can say: "Hey, I'm sorry, I've got problems, but I know Jesus has pulled through the needle's eye. I'm being pulled. I'm different." So let the differences begin.
That sounds like a "downer." Shouldn't our worship services be upbeat?
One reason I believe the Bible is the Word of God is that the Bible manages to hit the full range of emotions one has when one is in the presence of a living God, as opposed to being in the presence of a fake God. Joy is a Christian emotion. I guess it's because I've worked with college students, but I'm suspicious of most claims of joy because I know the way they have a lot of joy yet also lament-the gnashing of teeth, wailing, the rending of garments, the broken and contrite spirit-these are also extolled as something that God sometimes does to people.
Again, I would say that people on top, people in power, tend toward joy, they tend toward praise. A great book I still think back to by Walter Brueggemann was called Israel's Praise, an analysis of the Psalms. Brueggemann argues that Israel's Psalter is based on reflexive praise; that is, "God, we were slaves in Egypt, God has delivered us with a mighty hand: Praise the Lord." Brueggemann says that degenerates from there into Psalm 150, a psalm I always particularly liked, which is praise for nothing. Get a tambourine, praise the Lord; let's just praise the Lord, for nothing. That worries me about worship defined as purely praise.
On the other hand, however, it means that when the church prays, when the church sings, there's a lot at stake there-particularly if you're like a Methodist. We really don't have any theology, or big statements of faith and all-we have the hymnal; but I'm worried that a lot of our churches are appearing to jettison the hymnal. I was at a so-called contemporary service awhile back and I said to the preacher, "You owe my grandmother an apology. I don't know that she was that wrong about God in the music she sang." There's a kind of arrogance that says, "Oh, we're so modern and we're so different, and we're the first generation ever to walk with Jesus; you can't trust anybody over thirty and so, here, let's sing this." I must say that that phenomenon appears to be more by people my age. The under-forty crowd seems to say, "Hey, old man, you got something to tell me? Tell me. I'm open for it. I'd like to know what you found helpful in your walk with Christ. What songs did you sing that enabled you to survive as a Christian? Would you teach them to me? I'm willing to learn." So I think we may be turning the corner on that. I do worry about churches that put all their eggs in that basket; but, hey, they can get born again too and next thing you know, they're back singing Charles Wesley.