Thursday, July 02, 2009

Those rare moments when I think "I am a Baptist..."

Let's be honest. I've often not been proud of my Baptist heritage.

I grew up in Texas Southern Baptist (SBC) churches. Multiple generations of SBC members and ministers in my family. But in the past couple of decades as an adult, I've shied away from self-identifying as a Baptist.

Part of it is my postmodern bent, I guess, or the times in which we live. Brand loyalty is gone, especially in religious communal choices. Our pro-choice, consumeristic church world has left us skeptical of any labels. Especially labels that come with the baggage of Southern Baptists.

Last week I read Christine Wicker's book from last year called "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation." I thought I was cynical. Wicker, who I heard speak at last year's Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) general assembly, was for more than a decade the religion editor at the Dallas Morning News. My guess is you learn enough in a job like that about the human frailties of supposed holy men and women that cynicism almost sounds optimistic.

The book by and large was good, written primarily to introduce a non-evangelical-church-going world to the realm of Evangelicalism. She makes the case that the conservative Christian movement is not what it has claimed to be, not a powerful force of maybe 50% of the population, but in reality something more like 7% at best. But that's not really the point of this little thought. Just wanted to note that I read that back and was reminded again of my shame at my traditionally Baptist brethren, or at least at some of them.

But tonight, back at this year's CBF assembly, I heard a man speak that always makes me think "I AM a Baptist." His name is Bill Leonard, and he's the founding dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest.

Bill Leonard is a historian, maybe the premier Baptist historian of our time. Okay, not maybe. I say he is. The first time I heard Dr. Leonard speak at Baylor University a few years ago, it was at a conference discussing among other things, how the Baptist influence has waned and the Christian light has dimmed at several traditionally Baptist schools, and Wake Forest was listed among them. This physically small man in a bowtie stood before the crowd and challenged the supposition that because a university no longer touts a certain line, it means that God has departed and the light has left. He basically said that he would wait right there for a few moments for an apology, and if one was not forthcoming he would return to North Carolina without delivering anything further of his speech. An apology was offered, and he continued, showing only grace and wisdom in the rest of his speech.

As a Baptist historian, he understands about the last 400 years since the first self-identified Baptists returned to England and opposed the state church there. (NOTE: Happy Birthday, Baptists.) Baptists have from the beginning been dissidents, who believe that religious liberty is not true of anyone if it's not true of everyone. Baptists were kicked out of most of the colonies, tried and often killed as heretics. My forbears believed that the church was a local community of believers who were called to prophetically bear witness to the grace and love and liberty found in Jesus Christ.

When I hear Bill speak, I think that perhaps I am a Baptist.

Perhaps. But then I think of stuff like this, and I think perhaps not. At least not in today's vernacular.

1 comment:

BWolf30 said...

Hey Arnie, trying to understand what you are saying - you want to be a Baptist as far as the denomination continues to be comprised of "local communit[ies] of believers who [are] called to prophetically bear witness to the grace and love and liberty found in Jesus Christ," but this apparently doesn't include standing against churches/institutaions who endorse homosexuality? Perhaps I am reading into it or have misunderstood, but it seems like the opposite is the case for you - acting like it is no big deal would be the way to go, harmony without conviction is better than going against dominant cultural trends. Hope you can clarify