When God Disturbs the Peace
If one calling of preachers is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, then Fleming Rutledge is a master of preaching. Her sermons, collected in several popular books, including The Undoing of Death and, most recently, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (Eerdmans), combine vivid and searching readings of Scripture with acute observations of contemporary culture, international politics, and literature. In her preaching vocation, Rutledge often stands at the crossroads of mainline and evangelical contexts, at once guiding mainline audiences back to biblically orthodox roots and helping evangelicals grasp the utterly earth-shattering implications of the Good News. In this article, Rutledge responds to this year's CVP question, Is our gospel too small?, with fresh tellings of the ways God has animated some of the great social movements of the last century.
There are two competing ways of understanding and presenting the Christian gospel in America. They are equally valid and ideally should complement one another, but unfortunately, battle lines have been drawn on both sides. Some Christians emphasize the gospel as purely a matter of individual salvation; others see it essentially in terms of community and of social justice. This problem is partly cultural, but more significantly, it arises from insufficient knowledge of the Scriptures: "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God" (Matt. 22:29).
American Christians of both the Right and Left find it difficult to read Scripture from the perspective of communities other than our own. On one hand, teaching in the mainline churches is often detached from any foundational convictions about "the Scriptures or the power of God." A service may begin, "Let us worship God," but then go on to celebrate the possibilities inherent in human nature. Transcendent power is not in view; "inclusion" is the operative word.
On the other hand, worship in many American evangelical and Pentecostal churches, while appearing to extol the power of God, focuses attention on very specific and limited categories. Often the spotlight is on redemption from particular sins, like freedom from whatever one's addiction might be (very popular at the moment). Sometimes it is healing of a specific physical ailment, or it may be a version of the prosperity gospel.
Often in these evangelical-Pentecostal settings, however, the power of God is proclaimed as deliverance from demonic forces. This is a perspective that liberals and evangelicals might be able to share. For some time now, the academic guilds have been moving away from a rationalistic mode of biblical interpretation. This development opens the way for a new appropriation of the conceptual world of the New Testament, in which the presence of the demonic is presupposed. This perspective shapes theo-ethical thinking in two crucial ways: First, it allows Christians to view opponents not as evil in themselves, but as those who are in the grip of external forces. This conviction empowered Martin Luther King in his consistent message that blacks and whites together were in need of deliverance. Second, the worldview that acknowledges the agency of an active Enemy in world events encourages Christians to look for the power of God not only in stories of individual deliverance, but also in the great social movements of our time.