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John Wilson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Greatly love the intellect


"Centrism" doesn't appear in James Moore's roll call of nineteenth-century isms (see "Darwinism Gone to Seed,"), nor did the word appear in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. There was an entry for "Centrist," defined as "a member of the Centre Party (France)," though the first usage citation, from the Daily News in 1872, suggests a broader application: "That weak-kneed congregation who sit in the middle of the House and call themselves 'Centrists.'" Books & Culture, alas, doesn't possess the up-to-date digital version of the OED (philanthropic readers, please take note: if given this resource, we would use it), but my now superseded first volume of the supplement, from the 1970s, does include an entry for "centrism," defined as "a middle position between extreme views," with first usage in 1935.

Centrism is a peculiarism, then, with a fluid identity. In politics, it often takes the form of handwringing over partisanship, as Ashley Woodiwiss shows in "Democracy Agonistes". Whereas James Q. Wilson and Edward Banfield began their classic study, City Politics (1966), with the frank acknowledgment that "politics arises out of conflicts, and it consists of the activities—for example, reasonable discussion, impassioned oratory, balloting, and street fighting—by which conflict is carried on," centrists claim to transcend partisanship, all the while painting their opponents as "extremists."

The battle over who gets to define the theological center is even more intense. As Michael Horton observes ("Who's Got the Center?"), "the 'center' is not innocent. It is a real place on the map, which demands that all 'others' be related to it as margins to the mainstream." One such attempt at defining the center—of evangelicalism—was "The Gospel Statement" first published in the June 14, 1999 issue of Christianity Today magazine, the subject of the exchange in this issue of B&C between Thomas Oden, one of the drafters of the statement, and Robert Gundry. Yet another perspective on this "remarkable show of unity" can be found in my article, "Whose Gospel Statement? The High-minded Highjacking of Evangelicalism," written last July for the online site, Beliefnet.

By contrast, evangelicals are excluded from the center in Ellen Charry's editorial for the January 2001 issue of Theology Today, "Will There Be a Protestant Center?" Here is how Charry begins:

The jury is still out on whether mainline Protestantism can be saved, but two forms of evangelism have geared up to give it the ol' college try. The two constitute a new twist on the culture war for the heart and soul of Protestant denominationalism. Although they may see each other as deadly enemies, they share some important ground. Each has picked its target population very carefully, attends acutely to contemporary culture, is postdenominational, and works from the same basic principle of social work: "Begin where the client is."

The "two forms of evangelism" Charry has in mind? The first is "the evangelical option," with the focus on parachurch youth ministries; the second is "the progressive option," which "tailors the peace and justice agenda to the tastes of the professional managerial class." In her analysis, Charry thus adopts one of the favorite rhetorical strategies of centrists: claiming that one's ideological "others," who appear to be polar opposites, are in fact fatally flawed in the same way—which can only be perceived, of course, from the vantage point of the center. So Charry explains that both the evangelical option and the progressive option "[cash] in on American individualism, consumerism, and pragmatism."

To be told that the local college chapter of InterVarsity, say, and the Boston-based Center for Progressive Christianity, "inspired by retired Episcopal bishop Jack Spong's attack on Christian theology," are despite their apparent "differences" closely akin because "both fit well with American consumerism and demand little" strikes me chiefly as evidence of how "consumerism" has become a cant word that attests the user's fine (anti-consumer) sensibilities, an ism someone else is guilty of.

But Charry's editorial doesn't conclude on a smug centrist note. "Has denominationalism exhausted itself," she asks,

as both sides seem to suggest? Will anything be lost if evangelical individualism and the post-Christian church prove to be the main "Protestant" options in the long run? Perhaps we are living through a seismic shift in Christian history. If so, we may do well to keep a period of holy silence in order to discern God's will.

Too much holy silence would put journals like Theology Today and Books & Culture out of business. But there's a provocative humility to Charry's conclusion that speaks to all parties across the theological spectrum.

"Why do we need a center at all?" Michael Horton asks. "Such 'golden mean' thinking seems somewhat naïve, especially since we all seem to grant to ourselves the self-portrait of moderation and middle ground." He has a point.

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