October 10, 2013
The Polyglot Gospel
Learning to Learn the Language of the Liberal City
I grew up listening to National Public Radio. With that awakened an early love for the modern, progressive, thoughtful existence that Democrats dream and preach about. My old man, more than any, instilled a handful of progressive ideals into my young soul—respect, tolerance, and civic engagement. Driving me to school—slurping his fair trade coffee from a reusable Alcoholics Anonymous mug that rested perfectly on the dashboard of our Subaru—he’d fine-tune the dial to the soft-sounding voices of NPR commentators such as Neil Conan, Robin Young, and Robert Siegel.
If NPR and TED Talks are church for the progressive mind, then I was raised in church.
God sounds like Neil Conan, right?
I loved NPR’s Neil Conan the most. His voice sounded like God; or, at least, what I imagined God might sound like at that time in my life. I’ve heard that people raised in fundamentalist churches have a hard time shaking the image of an angry, disapproving God.
I’ve never had to shake that image. For me, God was like Neil Conan—nice, thoughtful, non-judgmental, progressive, humble, passionate, and, like the classy radio hosts during a pledge drive, hated asking for money.
God, in those years, was nice and didn’t seem to involve Himself much with our day-to-day lives. He was always super ticked at Christians for their closed-mindedness, judgmentalism and hypocrisy. But when it came to addicts, and sinners, and non-Christians, God never judged them. Nor did he judge me. He let me do what I wanted to do. Kind of like my grandpa who lived in Montana. Grandpa always gave me money to go the candy store and took me fishing during the summers. Yes, God was like grandpa—senile, distant, and benevolent.
But through a series of bizarre providential events, I experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity at 16.
An awkward conversion
I first started giving Christianity a good deal of thought after a guy named Matt at the YMCA told me late one evening that if I didn’t believe in Jesus, I would go to hell. As a cradle progressive, I was naturally offended. All ways lead to God and God doesn’t judge, I assumed. I rode the bus home that evening and thought about what Matt said. I was fascinated by the idea that there were people in our world who actually believed that there was a God who had something to say and wanted to be in relationship with people. His words also caused me to consider hell, judgment, and the afterlife. Oddly, the idea of hell produced within me a real hunger; hunger for truth, for God, and for answers. The NPR God that sounded like Neil Conan was a nice God to have around but didn’t seem to really care about dealing with the real issues in my life: the emptiness of a 16-year-old’s soul.
One day, as they say, I got saved. I found a church, started reading my Bible, and burned all of my non-Christian CDs after hearing a sermon about the evil of the secular world. For a time, I swung to the opposite of my upbringing and became staunchly conservative.
Telling my parents about my conversion was difficult. Neither of them knew exactly what to do with my new thoughts or behavior. One time, for instance, I fasted for four days. My mom worried I’d joined a cult. I told her I was just doing “what Jesus told me to do.” That didn’t ease her concerns. Telling my dad was even harder. I can only imagine it compares to some tiny extent the pain a gay kid experiences coming out to his conservative parents—I just happened to be a Christian coming out to his liberal parents. They both loved me, and still do, but it was awkward.
Since my conversion, I’ve longed to translate the gospel for liberal, progressive people. By saying this, I don’t mean to imply that the gospel is necessarily absent from “liberal” thought, or present in “conservative” though. In fact, progressive Christianity, as I’ve observed, actually practices Jesus’ social ethics of loving the poor, caring for the widow, and fighting injustice better than anyone. Yet, conservative Christianity, for all its problems, still actually talks about the atoning work of the cross for a sinful world. Painting with broad strokes, one movement emphasizes orthopraxy and the other orthodoxy. Both, of course, are essential for Christianity. But in our current context, many Christians with strong orthodoxy need to learn how to speak to liberals.
How does the church speak to the liberal?
In Acts 2 we find a model that a church in a diverse, liberal metropolis can emulate. All tribes, nations, and tongues were present in Jerusalem for Pentecost. The church gathered in a house in the center of bustling Jerusalem. Perched from the upper room above, the disciples utter the unlearned tongues of those below—Medes, Parthians, Cretans, and Arabs. Broadly, Scripture describes two varieties of tongue-speech: xenolalia (speaking in foreign tongues for missional purposes) and glossolalia (speaking in spiritual languages for edification)—the latter of which is widely practiced among Pentecostals and charismatics to this day. The former, however, is what Acts 2 portrays—tongue-speech for the express purpose of evangelizing the world. The event undoubtedly represents a mesmerizing, and critical, detail of a Pentecost church. Imbued with the Spirit, the church now emerges as a community of polyglots. Now, in view of the brute force of the Spirit’s power, Jesus’ church is provided the fresh capability to boldly, intelligibly, and faithfully proclaim the good news in any and all languages to the global, diverse, city below.
I’m sure the onlookers were caught off guard hearing the story of a dead carpenter in their own tongues while in foreign city. What stands out is this: the Pentecost event takes place in the context of great diversity. Furthermore, this newly born polyglot church is empowered to speak every tongue for the spread of the gospel.
Portland, where I pastor, is one of the most progressive cities in America. I’ve learned some good, hard lessons about being a Spirit-filled polyglot church that not only welcomes but also shares the gospel to liberal neighbors. Here are some thoughts about what the church of the 21st century must learn about learning the liberal tongues of the diverse city:
1. Care for things liberals care about—listen, listen, and then listen some more. Keep your ear to NPR, have a never-ending stream of Ted Talks at your fingertips, and read the newspaper. On one hand, the Spirit of God has, does, and will speak through many progressives in our world and in the church. But more importantly, if we’re unwilling to lend some compassion toward the issues important to the progressive personality (the environment, racial justice, LGBT conversation), they won’t lend their ear to hear what is important to the church. I call this mutual compassion. If we expect others to care about our issues, we must begin by caring about theirs. Does this mean we agree with the conclusions? Certainly not. In fact, I often land in very different places than my liberal friends. But I care enough to enter the conversation. It’s hard to share the gospel if you never enter a conversation about something you know little or nothing about. Risk being an amateur. This is, of course, is not to suggest that conservative Christianity doesn’t care about these issues. They certainly do. But a liberal has a certain take on them, and it is important that the church hear those issues from their angle.
2. Acknowledge injustices wherever they reside—injustice, oppression, and abuse are the cardinal sins to the liberal mind. Wherever and whenever the church has done them, they must be judged, even if they have taken place in our own communities. It goes a long way to be wildly open about the sins of your communities; confess them, discuss them, and repent of them. Humility is the most affective apologetic strategy to educated, progressive people. It speaks of openness, transparency, and open-mindedness, the hallmarks of progressive virtue.
3. Share your story—a liberal will always hear your story even if they think it’s silly. It is your story. And for a community that believes one’s story has the right to define someone’s identity, they will extend the same grace to a Christian. The truth is I did not come to Christianity because of a fine-sounding argument or a story someone made up. I had a dramatic conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ in my car as I drove down the road. That is my story. And my story is my story. No one can really take away what I have experienced to be deeply true. And that story is my slice of the gospel for the world.
4. Ardently preach the exclusivity of Jesus —many, even conservatives, might question this claim. But ultimately I can’t find any model of orthodox Christianity either historically or experientially, which denies the exclusivity of the claims of Jesus regarding his divinity or His Kingdom. Jesus is God and Jesus is the only Son of God. The trick is, here, being humble and acknowledging that you, as a Christian, are still doing all you can to find Jesus. If Jesus is the only way, it means I’m not the only way. Christians aren’t the only way. The church isn’t the only way.
Jesus Christ, the one who hung on a cross is the only way.
It makes your claim of the exclusivity of Jesus come alive to a liberal when you are humble enough to admit that even you struggle, at times, to find Jesus.
Disruptive disagreement, wholehearted worship
Ultimately, I would suggest that we must crucify the idea that some of us are “conservative Christians” and others of us are “liberal Christians.” The Bible does not offer us language to describe ourselves as such. We are Christians—common Christians who weekly come together and break the body and drink the blood of the savior of the world. Nothing else outside of that defines us. And as I dream of the church of the 21st century, I can imagine a church brimming with both conservatives and liberals who weekly gather, in disruptive disagreement, to worship wholeheartedly the God of Creation who stands as Lord above all of our politics and differences.
I’m reminded of Jesus on the cross. When Jesus died, there was a sign above his head that read: “The King of the Jews.” It was written in three languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. The gospel is still like that. The gospel is only the gospel if it is a polyglot gospel. And if isn’t for the whole world, then it isn’t for anybody.
And I’d think the whole world includes those pesky liberals.
A.J. Swoboda is a pastor, writer, and professor in Portland, Oregon.