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.