Why Al Mohler doesn’t get Rachel Held Evans

So Rachel Held Evans is apparently becoming this year’s Rob Bell. She’s written a book called A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she documents a year of taking absolutely literally a bunch of things that the Bible tells ancient Israelite and 1st century Palestinian women to do. I haven’t yet received my review copy, but from what I hear, it’s mischievous in a Tina Fey kind of way, which has predictably rankled the Southern Baptist “bishop” Al Mohler and his crew who made a video about Biblical inerrancy in which they called Rachel’s book a “mockery” of the Bible among other things. I think the reason Al Mohler and people of his mold don’t get Christians like Rachel is because they don’t speak irony, which is the first language of a large chunk of my generation and younger who inhabit the postmodern world outside the gated communities of suburban megachurchianity. Christians today who want to share the gospel with any credibility in postmodern culture must learn how to talk like Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, et all. Otherwise our evangelism is about as effective as a black and white Reefer Madness video in a junior high health class.

One of the most important things to understand about the postmodernity through which Christians like Rachel have to navigate is that it’s not something that was instigated by the snobby French philosophers who write about it. And it’s not “moral relativism.” You don’t get “infected” by it from majoring in English in college (which is how I learned how to talk about the postmodernity that already exists). Postmodernity is the product of an information age that is drowning in layer upon layer of commentary and addicted to scandal and hypocrisy. It is created every time the pundits on TV deconstruct the meticulous calculation behind every word choice that a politician makes, every time a preacher who rages against homosexuals gets sued for molesting little boys, every time a family values newsletter talks about the importance of denouncing the myth of global warming or defending the right to carry concealed weapons. Postmodernity happens every time people my age and younger encounter something that insults our intelligence, and it has nothing to do with elitism, because the kids I taught in high school who have not gone to college are more postmodern than I am.

One of the main things that is insulting to the intelligence of people 35-and-under who grew up outside of the Christian homeschool/gated community enclave is the way that “Biblical” has come to be used as a code word for issues that are associated with a specific political agenda. That adjective is almost always used in public discourse by evangelical “spokespeople” chosen by the media to talk about homosexuality, abortion, or putting wives back in the 1950’s kitchen where they belong. Al Mohler and his buddies can protest that this is all they ever get asked about, but they sure don’t seem to mind letting their lips flap. And when June Cleaver is seriously used as a model for women to follow at a “Biblical womanhood” conference, it’s obvious that a different agenda is at play than a call for Christian women to model their behavior after Sarah, Rebekah, Deborah, Miriam, Hannah, Esther, Mary, and the handful of other background female characters that made it into the male-dominated Biblical text.

That’s why Rachel had to write her book, because somebody needed to say that there are Christians who take the Bible seriously who don’t confuse it with black and white Pleasantville reruns. In order to establish credibility among a generation that has very legitimate reasons to be cynical, a postmodern evangelist like Rachel has to let her audience know that she’s not blind to the things that make her audience cynical. The trouble is you can’t be taken seriously in the world our generation inhabits if you get your undies in a bunch over sass and sarcasm. I have wrestled with this a lot as a blogger myself. I am often accused of throwing other Christians under the bus, but in my view, Christians my age who aren’t oblivious to the real challenges and stumbling blocks of reaching our generation have been thrown under the bus by those who have conflated the gospel with Fifties nostalgia. And I don’t think I have to be polite to them if being sassy will help my non-Christian friends know that we aren’t all like Ned Flanders.

When I look at how Jesus interacted with the Pharisees and what Paul had to say about his theological opponents, it sure doesn’t look like they were constrained by the pseudo-morality of the privileged that we call politeness. They called a spade a spade often quite rudely out of solidarity with the people who had been damaged by the bad theology of their opponents. Now I do agree that there is mockery that is just mockery, but there is also a legitimate role for teaching that follows Jesus’ model of “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” in order to let the rapidly expanding crowd of the ex-churched and never-churched know that the Pharisaic hypocrisy that made them leave the church or never consider it is not the only Christianity that’s out there.

I realize that a subset of our country’s population will never be postmodern. They’re frightened (legitimately) by the fragmentation of our world and so they flee to a gated community where life is simple and safe and structured. I don’t judge them, but I don’t think those are the only sheep that Jesus wants. There are so many smart kids growing up today who have gifts that God wants to use in His kingdom even though they would never be able to live in Pleasantville or believe that a guy named Jonah really spent 3 days without oxygen not being dissolved by the stomach acid of a whale (as if 2 Timothy 3:16 prohibits God from breathing out legends that are useful for teaching and equipping disciples). Rather than ridicule their “sophistication” and name it as spiritual pride, it is worth stepping out on the treacherous tight-rope of speaking the postmodern world’s language without getting sucked down into its nihilism. Not everyone has this mission field, but Rachel does.

Furthermore, the Pleasantville to which many evangelicals think we need to return is not the kingdom; it’s actually the reason that many Christians today do not live in the kingdom. How are we so sure that Pleasantville is not the worldliness that Jesus calls us to leave behind? The ancient church fathers defined “the world” in terms of wealth and privilege, not exposure to MTV. So if Rachel’s satire is helpful to calling out our Pleasantvilles, then it is beneficial not only to the ex and never-churched, but also to Christians whose nostalgia for white picket fences compromises their ability to join the company of the crucified. If Rachel’s book is anything like her blog posts, then her mischief is a subversive way of tricking us postmoderns into engaging in serious Bible study without realizing that’s what we’re doing.

31 thoughts on “Why Al Mohler doesn’t get Rachel Held Evans

  1. Interesting post. I appreciate the sentiment that comes out in it, and there is certainly valid criticism in much of this–the Bible has been used as a weapon or a tool to strengthen a political argument too many times, and all of the hypocrisy of the church and the leaders within it has led to a serious loss of mistrust by society.

    But I struggle with the concept of books like RHE’s. To me, the idea of them seems to be to make a mockery of the things within the text that were intended for another day and age. I understand the point that she’s making, and I think it’s a fair one–we have to wrestle with what ‘Biblical’ actually means. And maybe her way of doing this is valid–I know many people certainly appreciate it (far more people read her blog than mine, so she’s obviously connecting in a way I am not!). I just always cringe, because from my perspective, it feels a little like every time one of these books is written, and there are many, it seems a little like giving permission for everyone to take the Bible a lot less seriously because we’re all so busy laughing at the ridiculousness of some of the demands. I think the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and we are all weaker for the loss of seeing the Bible as the Word of God, given to us as a gift from God, inspired by the Spirit. I am sure she adds nuance to the argument and tries to help the reader flush out the meaning of what Scripture has to say to us today, but I think it’s hard to have these books flooding the market and then continue to view the Bible as authoritative for us today.

    I’m a pastor, if it matters in this comment, under the age of 35, who tries to take the Bible seriously while also trying to figure out how we interpret some of Scripture’s more obviously dated references. It’s an ongoing struggle.

    • You’ve got a very legitimate point and your humility and sincerity lend to its credibility. I do agree we need to back off on the stunts and the snark, and to engage in searching for a more wholesome alternative interpretation. It’s very easy in our age to get lost in our cynicism.

  2. Pingback: Looking Back on 2012: Oct-Dec | Mercy not Sacrifice

  3. Pingback: Biblical Womanhood: What Kathy Keller missed « Mercy not Sacrifice

  4. An excellent post Morgan. Thank you. Honestly, as somebody who feels loyalty both to my own postmodern generation that I am called to reach and to my parents’ generation from whom I have learned so much, this is difficult to hear but it needs to be said. I commend you for your humility and vulnerability in keeping your ears and heart open for how you may come across to those who disagree with you. For what its worth, I think you tread a reasonably good balance in this post.

    • It’s a tricky tightrope we have to walk. I often fall into the trap of engaging in unfriendly friendly fire when I’m trying to be all things to all postmoderns. There are very legit things that need to be named and critiqued and there’s also just cynicism. 1 Cor 13:12 is my guide, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” That sort of captures the distinction between cynicism and prophecy for me.

  5. Great post. Living in Louisville, I have the privilege of seeing and hearing Al Mohler serve as a biblical and theological authority on most every issue. And, yes, I am being sarcastic here and I’m 56! The rest of us more open-minded, and postmodern (maybe?), educated, ordained clergy types in the area don’t get asked our thoughts on much of anything. If this is “flapping,” then “flap on!”

  6. Using media-created stereotypes (“Pleasantville”) made of straw for people we do not like or understand is not a legitimate basis for ridiculing and disrespecting them. The phrase “letting their lips flap” was an insulting personal reference to Al Mohler and his generation. References to “a gated community where life is simple and safe and structured”, and the phrase “back in the 1950′s kitchen where they belong” are made of straw and demeaning. Human beings live and think differently and generations are far too diverse to be so stereotyped. The article claims that this generation “has very legitimate reasons to be cynical” as if this generation has more legitimate grounds for cynicism than previous ones that suffered differently than this generation. Truth told, anyone who WANTS to be cynical can find reasons. Referring to others as “Pharisees” is also easy disrespect with presumptions of superiority. Referring to the previous generation, this blogger wrote, “I don’t think I have to be polite to them…” Sadly, I think the author really believes that and writes accordingly.

  7. From the article: “Christians today who want to share the gospel with any credibility in postmodern culture must learn how to talk like Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, et all.” I disagree. The “seed” is still the word of God no matter what “language” you use in various contexts or frame you use for it and it still lands on four types of soil. What kind of soil you are is even more important than the language one speaks.

    • Actually you haven’t expressed a disagreement. Rachel is firmly in the right soil. She may not have the Southern Belle demeanor of Beth Moore but she is faithful to the Bible in what she teaches. She has been criticized for her style which is what I was defending without making a claim about the need to abandon the proper content. You can be playful and ironic like Tina Fey and still speak the truth.

  8. Using ridiculous (“Pleasantville”) media-created stereotypes for people you do not like or understand is not a legitimate basis for ridiculing and disrespecting them. And calling mockery “irony” does not mean it is not mockery. This article bleeds with self-righteous disdain for a generation that deserved respect and understanding, if not agreement.

    • Thanks for sharing. It’s helpful to hear how things sound to people who don’t agree with me. I have a lot of respect for my grandfather’s generation. I also think I have a prophetic duty to call fellow Christians to leave the world of privilege rather than viewing suburban child-rearing as the full measure of Christian discipleship. Perhaps my message is lost because I have the opposite of Al Mohler’s communication problem.

  9. I love what you say about postmodernism. Our generation has seen through the relativistic lies embedded in modernism, and there’s no turning back the clock. But the good news is that truth remains the same in every age, and in every age there have been saints who have held fast to Jesus. The gospel transcends and confronts every generation, and I’m actually quite hopeful about the current one. =)

    • I think so too. Postmodernity is a necessary corrective to the idolatry of human knowledge. We can use it to deconstruct modernity, but then move past it back to a premodern respect for God’s mystery.

  10. Absolutely flippin’ brilliant post. Wish I’d written it myself! 🙂

    Don’t exclude the over-35s though… I’m 39 (and British) and identify with every sentiment expressed in your article.

    I come out in a rash when I hear the word ‘Biblical’ used to mean ‘narrow modern right-wing fingers-in-ears knee-jerk one-size-fits-all evangelical version of something which may be mentioned in the Bible but which the Bible doesn’t set out to prescribe for all time’…

  11. Another perceptive post, Morgan. Having grown up Southern Baptist, I recall that prayer-meeting attitude that there were a lof of things you didn’t joke about, or speak about with any tone of irony. That was the 1960s and much hasn’t changed. What Evans points up so well is the contradiction between conservative evangelicals’ dogmatic views and the large degree to which they’ve made their peace with the modern (and post-modern) world they preach against. I’ve been prepared for years to ask my red-state brethren — okay, if you believe the Bible is inerrantly true about homosexuality, abortion and evolution, then do you think you should also give up lobster and shrimp (shellfish), allow slavery and polygamy, and tell your wives and daughters they should wear hijabs during worship? It’s all there too. Conservatives say liberal Christians pick and choose proof texts, but they’re every bit as prone to do it.

  12. Morgan,

    Your paragraph on what it means to be postmodern is probably one of the most astute things I’ve seen you write. Also, the irony thing. I’ve been thinking about it recently, my wife and I were at a party with a crowd, mostly older, and of a different sort of set than we grew up with, and I realized one of the main reasons I felt out of place was the total lack of an ironic sensibility. I mean, there was nothing wrong with these people, but I realized there was a level of communication, a tone, that I could not engage in without having to translate myself. I’ve also realized that it is painfully awkward to see people my own age who have no sense of irony. They’re like fish out of water flopping around on dry ground of our culture. Something I realize I’m trying to navigate is how to communicate with people in both places. For instance, my blog. My friends are ironic. My mom, who, btw, just started reading my blog, is not. She’s funny, gets things, but still, the generation thing is there. How do I write for both? I dunno, we’ll see. That’s actually why I like listening to Keller. Somehow he bridges the older people, and the ironic, New Yorker gap.

    This comment has nothing to do with RHE’s book. I haven’t read it. I suspect I’ll end up somewhere between you and the critics. Still, great post otherwise.


    • Yeah it’s weird. I honestly prefer the naive romanticism of Charles Dickens novels to postmodernity. It gets old but we have to navigate it. I remember in college I made a conscious choice to write sonnets in the Petrarchan form rather than Shakespearian because Shakespeare was too ironic for me and Petrarch was a worthless lovesick cheeseball like I was.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s