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Challenging the old labels

Review of Keeping Alive the Rumour of God by Martin Camroux.

Will you allow me to ask a taboo question? What constitutes a liberal or a conservative Christian? Is it whether you prefer a piano or guitar in the worship service instead of an organ? Is it how you think about Genesis and the scientific measurements of the age and history of the universe? Is it simply whether you have women serving as elders in your council or not?

Why do Christians, of all people, continue to rely on these crude cultural categories for making theological judgments? Related questions are just as discomforting: why has “liberal” become such a negative word for so many evangelical Christians today? When did “conservative Christianity” come to be equated synonymously with “truly-biblical Christianity” and “liberal Christianity” came to mean “choose-your-own-truth Christianity”?

Martin Camroux is a retired pastor in Britain’s United Reformed Church. His new book, Keeping Alive the Rumor of God, contains his personal reflections on a life of full-time Christian service in the midst of a rapidly changing culture. Let the reader be warned, though: these pages are geared towards the rehabilitation of the word “liberal” as a genuinely authentic form of Christian faith and practice for today. Fine; if we’re going to insist on using these uncharitable categories, then I’m happy to see someone advocating for the underdog!

In many ways, I’m encouraged by how global Reformed Christians think and perform their faith. Here in North America, we’re so deep in civic religion, nationalism, and a posture of antagonism towards anyone deemed “other.” But Camroux consistently pulls us back to the unrelenting witness of Scripture: that the God we come to know definitively in Jesus Christ is love (Deut 7:8; John 3:16; 1Jn 4:8). In our diverse world, Christians missionally engaged with our culture should be known by tangible acts of love and service. So, Camroux’s subtitle could easily be: “Dare to be liberal!”

Love and service are complicated and challenging vocations, especially if they are pursued as ends in themselves and not just as means to triumphalist dreams. North America is awash with celebrity preachers selling quick-fix certainty and easy answers. Camroux reminds us that “Christian theology is a wrestling with the questions [of life], more than a set of conclusions.”

It is precisely the questions of life that have been taken advantage of to create our polarized culture. Powerful forces in our midst know that economic and political gains can be made through a strategy of “divide and conquer” along cultural fault lines. Camroux understands that as we Christians have given into (or participated in) this division, we have failed to be faithful. As many young adults today recognize: “Today the old simple binary distinction between the liberal social gospel and evangelical political quietism no longer applies.”

It’s these old labels that obscure the pathway before us. We should be lamenting the utter catastrophe of injustice that’s systematically inflicted on our siblings all around us for our comfort. Instead, we’re blinded to the idea that “When [Jesus] speaks of salvation in terms of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, he speaks as a devout Jew, for whom the spiritual is in the first place a matter of how one behaves towards others. Rather than being a distraction, justice was at the center of his spirituality.”

Loving service and justice: the hallmarks of the biblical prophetic tradition that we need to recover today. Or, Camroux wonders, do we, also, prefer to look the other way?


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