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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is a "Personal Relationship with Jesus" Part of the Feminization of Christianity?

I'm taking another short break from my "Vision Thing" series to strike while the iron's hot on a post by David Murrow called Why we call it "a personal relationship with Jesus."

Murrow's shtick is called Church for Men, and the passion that drives his writing and speaking is to see the church become a place that isn't a foreign cultural landscape to men, a place where men don't have to act like women in subtle ways in order to belong and thrive. Noting the pervasive tendency of churches to be numerically dominated by females, Murrow incisively critiques the habits, practices, verbiage, and ideas that we have come to take for granted in the Christian church that form obstacles against most men becoming strong Christians. He is probably the expert on this topic.

I love what Murrow is about and avidly follow his online stuff. (In fact, stay tuned for a coming post in which I link to a triad of recent posts by him that blew my mind.) A couple days ago Murrow posted his investigation into the origin of the ubiquitous evangelical phrase "personal relationship with Jesus," which he claims is "the number one term evangelicals use to describe the Christian walk." In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, Murrow claims that this phrase "frames the gospel in terms of a woman's deepest desire—a personal relationship with a man who loves her unconditionally. It's imagery that delights women—and baffles men."

According to a search for this phrase in Google's large scanned literary corpus, the phrase first appears in the late Victorian era (ca. 1880). Interestingly, as a percentage of all phrases in all of English-language publishing, "personal relationship with Jesus" enjoyed small and temporary but noticeable upsurges during both World Wars, while men were fighting, not writing. But it was still fairly obscure language until the mid-1960s. Since then its prominence has rocketed up steadily and may not have peaked yet. Murrow points out that "This was the growth era of the evangelical subculture and its focus on female consumers. Christian books, music, and media outlets proliferated, all heavily dependent on female buyers and viewers. [So true.] Savvy authors and preachers realized this and began using female-friendly metaphors in their books and sermons. [Max Lucado, we're looking at you.] Chief among these: a personal relationship with Jesus."

Murrow claims that unlike women, "Men are obsessed with mission. . . . Men are happiest when they're on a mission, and that mission is going well. . . . [M]en also enjoy good relationships, but they are often a secondary concern." He suggests that if evangelicals want to present the gospel of Jesus to men, they need to replace the invitation to a passive or contemplative "personal relationship with Jesus" with something active. He also suggests that "personal relationship" implies equality with Jesus which minimizes his transcedence as a commander above us. If so, that is important theologically as well as evangelistically.

Murrow isn't wrong that a "personal relationship with Jesus" appeals to women today in a deep, primal way that it does not to most men. But he is wrong that the term, or at least the concept behind the term, is inherently feminine.

In order to understand "personal relationship with Jesus" verbiage, you have to go back further than the Victorians. You have to go back to the Pietist movement in German Lutheranism and the Evangelical Revival/Great Awakening in Britain and her colonies in the 18th century. Notwithstanding evangelicals' rightful claim to descent from the Reformation and the Apostles themselves, that awakening almost 300 years ago is where evangelicalism as such was born.

The early evangelicals/Pietists emerged as a renewal movement that fought battles on two fronts. The front we're familiar with consisted of the Enlightenment types whose ideas would eventually make theological liberalism possible by undercutting confidence in the reliability of Scripture. But at the time, the battle on the other front was even more intense. Those opponents were orthodox dogmatists. They defended ornate creeds that synthesized the biblical witness with rigorously logical philosophical speculation.

The evangelicals didn't have a problem with the creeds. In fact, the disparate creeds that they subscribed to (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Baptist) frequently limited how closely they worked together. The evangelicals' problem was that these creeds were all that the orthodox that dominated the church believed. They did not know the God that the creeds spoke about. As a result, though the orthodox analysis of justification was spot-on, their preaching simply urged people to religious practices that kept institutional worship rolling. It did not save, nor did it transform lives.

Challenging this dead dogmatism in the early 1700s, Pietistic theologian August Hermann Francke wrote in "The Idea of a Student of Theology" that Christianity does not consist in "knowing, averring, and chattering, nor in high speculations" or "in all kinds of strange opinions." Rather, "true Christianity consists in this, that one acknowledge the Lord Jesus as personal Savior and Lord." Personal Savior and Lord—could have been written yesterday, right? But what Francke meant three centuries ago was that the core of Christianity was not intellectual cognition or institutional allegiance but a direct connection to ultimate spiritual reality, which is not merely an idea, but a person.

As a result of that connection, the true believer wouldn't have mere "head-knowledge" but also "heart-knowledge." There would be a direct spiritual perception of divine things, including a supernatural experience like John Wesley's experience of his "heart strangely warmed." The subjective experience emerged from an objective reality—not only "Christ for us" but "Christ for me" and "Christ in me." That objective reality necessarily involves a complete reorientation of the stuff of the human psyche, the understanding, emotion, and will, a reorientation called conversion.

As Jonathan Edwards put it, "True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections" (in his aptly titled Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections). Edwards didn't just mean "emotions" by the term "affections." He meant the wellsprings of our choices, those deep-seated, subrational loves and hates, preferences and revulsions, that move us to want what we want and act as we act. True Christianity is about God's reformation of the believer's affections to be holy, as he is holy. It is about more than emotion, but it is not about less, because our affections reveal themselves in part in our emotional responses to God and to our world.

As it happens, "holy affections" caused the early evangelicals—conspicuously led by young men—to do amazing things. They were anything but passive; they were men on a mission. Gripped by a personal connection to Jesus Christ, they preached to thousands, defied ecclesiastical authorities, and did absolutely, wildly courageous stuff like the two guys described in this video:

So taking Christ as one's personal Savior—an extrabiblical phrase that the early evangelicals freely employed—meant Christ living his life in and through the believer in a direct, unmediated, supernatural fashion a la Galatians 2:20. This is the heart of the personal relationship with Jesus.

But as time changes, so does culture, and as culture changes, so does the meaning of language. The irrationalism simmering under the surface of the rationalistic 18th century finally blew up into Romanticism, which affected both liberal and evangelical Protestantism. By the time of its full bloom in the latter part of the 19th century, it reduced affections to emotions, and it drew intense attention to God's love, expressed by liberals as a friendly benevolence for the whole human race (see the lyrics for "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee") and by evangelicals as a quasi-romance with the individual (see "I Am His and He Is Mine"). This is the late Victorian influence on the concept of the personal relationship with Jesus that Murrow talks about in his post.

But the other impact is the Sexual Revolution, which coincided with the surge of "personal relationship with Jesus" that Murrow notes in the mid-1960s. Since then, in ordinary parlance the connotation of the word "relationship" has become sexualized because our concept of intimacy has been so heavily sexualized. But that's not the heart of the word "relationship" (or the concept of intimacy), at least not traditionally. "Relationship" used to refer merely to the nature of the connection between two persons, extrapersonal entities (like states), or ideas. On its own, there is nothing about the word "relationship" that implies equality between the related parties. It simply means that they are, in fact, related. The idea that a personal relationship with Jesus means that that relationship isn't the relationship of Master to servant, Commander to soldier, Sender to sent reveals just how vastly the Sexual Revolution has impacted our language and way of thinking.

But this is the world in which we live, and it does require us to be careful with our language. Murrow's post reveals that when we use the term "personal relationship with Jesus," men and women may be inferring things we don't mean to imply, and we have to be rigorous with our speech to prevent that. But does that mean that men don't need a personal relationship with Jesus? Absolutely not. A personal relationship with Jesus, rightly defined, is central to salvation. Any way around that, even if pragmatically successful in winning guys, will just win them to works-righteousness that is every bit as deadly as the naked sin they were living in before we met them. A personal relationship with Jesus isn't feminine fantasy. Rather, without a personal relationship with Jesus, rightly understood, there is no gospel.

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