Mockingbird Interviews Mark Galli (Slight Return)

Last year, many of us at Mockingbird discovered the writings of Mark Galli, Senior Managing […]

Mockingbird / 2.23.11

Last year, many of us at Mockingbird discovered the writings of Mark Galli, Senior Managing Editor of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of Evangelicalism (started in 1956 by none other than Billy Graham). Galli’s grasp of the Gospel—God’s grace in Jesus Christ to broken human beings, including Christians who can’t get it together—was as deeply refreshing as it was (almost) unique in the wider world of Evangelical Christianity. We were so intrigued that we sought him out for an interview. Needless to say, it turned out to be a fascinating conversation, looking at the current landscape of Evangelicalism, the radical nature of the Gospel, and the pattern of the Christian life. We were so impressed, in fact, that we invited him to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming 2011 Mockingbird Conference in New York City (3/31-4/2). In anticipation of the event, we’ve re-posted the interview below in its entirety. If you’ve read it before, it’s very much worth a second look – if you haven’t, well, today’s your lucky day:

Mockingbird: Christianity Today is a magazine written for a broad spectrum of theological perspectives. But in your regular Soulwork column, you have a distinct theological perspective that emphasizes God’s radical grace in the face of our human brokenness and narcissism. What’s the origin of your perspective and what role does it play in the magazine?

Mark Galli: You’re right that Christianity Today is a magazine for all evangelicals. So my job involves publishing stuff I may disagree with on a personal theological level. But CT is like a village green. People from all backgrounds can come together and talk about what they think they should be doing in the name of Christ in the world. In that, there’s a certain continuity and coherence, maybe less than there used to be, but it’s still there: a passion to love Christ and serve him in the world.

This kind of activism has characterized evangelicalism from day one. That, to me, is our movement’s greatest strength and our Achilles heel. That is, on the one hand, I’m just always impressed how when you go to the far reaches of the planet and you find people who are working in the worst situations, they’re evangelicals. But at the same time, that activism is almost like an addiction. We need a voice in there saying, “Now, let’s remember from whence all this activism comes; what is its root and where is it leading?”

So one of my concerns as a writer and as the Senior Managing Editor of CT is to keep ringing that bell, that it all begins with God. And it all ends in God. And that it’s all done through God and through his grace. Anything that we achieve or call an achievement—even using that word “achievement” is problematic—has to be understood as God’s achievement. So in fact, the cover story, which I wrote, for the October 2010 issue was called, “In the Beginning, Grace” [ed. note: must-read!]. And it’s an overview of what I consider to be the main concern with the evangelical movement right now; it’s addicted to the horizontal: what we do, what we’re doing wrong and how we should fix it. And I make a case that the very first thing we should do when we see a horizontal problem in the movement is that we should think vertically. We should be looking to the cross, first and foremost. So that is kind of a public setting of a statement that I hope we will be emphasizing in the magazine. And again, not at the expense of all the great things evangelicals are doing, but to keep pounding home the priority of grace in everything we do.

There was a lot of heated response to your recent column, “The Scandal of the Public Evangelical.” You said that being sanctified in this life is mostly about becoming increasingly aware of just how much we are, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “miserable offenders” and there “is no health in us.” Essentially, realizing how bad we are, and the immensity of God’s grace, and simply relying on that. Some people loved it, some hated it. One guy called it “appalling grace.” Why are people so heated in their response to this?

I don’t know that I’ve talked about grace in the radical nature in which Paul and the New Testament talk about it unless people are shocked and appalled by what I’ve said. The doctrine of grace is so radical and so contrary to our assumptions about what religion is about, that once we express it in a clear fashion, it will appall people. Because we’re all so anxious—even people like me who preach grace—to justify our lives. We want our lives to be meaningful, purposeful, useful. So we hook our futures to God and think, “Now I can really make my life purposeful and useful and I can do something for God in the world. And if I work with God, he’s going to change me.” We’re not so interested in God a lot of times, we’re tired of who we are and we’re more interested in wanting to be a different kind of person so we can feel better about ourselves. So much of our religious language and religious motive is about ourselves: justifying ourselves or improving ourselves, with God as a means to that end. Well, the fact of the matter is it’s not about you. But that’s shocking and appalling to most people because we’re so used to thinking that religion is about us, even though we’ve learned to use religious language to suggest otherwise. But in fact, it really ends up being all about us.

The other thing is the whole business of “transformation.” I notice how often that word comes up—our lives can be transformed, our churches can be transformed, our culture can be transformed. We imagine if we do everything right according to what the New Testament teaches us, that things will be completely changed. And if they aren’t completely changed, I’ve either bet my life on something that’s not true, or the Gospel itself is not true.

I just keep on coming back to Luther’s truth that we are simultaneously justified and sinners. I keep on looking at my own life, and at church history, and I realize that when the Gospel talks about transformation, it can’t possibly mean an actual, literal change in this life of a dramatic nature, except in a few instances. It must be primarily eschatological; it must be referring to the fact that we will in fact be changed. The essential thing to make change possible has occurred—Christ died and rose again. (And in this life we will see flashes of that, just like in Jesus’ ministry there were moments when the Kingdom broke in and we see a miracle. And these moments tell us there is something better awaiting for us and God is gracious enough at times to allow a person or a church or a community to experience transformation at some level.) But we can’t get into the habit of thinking that this dramatic change is normal, this side of the Kingdom. What’s normal this side of the Kingdom is falling into sin (in big or small ways), and then appropriating the grace of God and looking forward to the transformation to come.

Now, some people would say that it’s depressing that I can’t change. Well, it’s not depressing, it’s freeing! It’s depressing and oppressive to think every morning that I somehow have to be better than I was the day before to justify my Christian religion and to justify my faith. That’s the oppressive thing. The freeing thing is to realize that I am a sinner and God has accepted me as such. And yes, of course we’re called to strive and be better and to love and all those things—duh!—that’s not the issue. The issue is the motive out of which that comes and what we actually expect to happen as a result of that.

A lot of this is driven by my own personal spiritual journey and is hammered home by the biblical message, and something that Luther got really well: the harder I try to be a good Christian, I notice the worse Christian I am: more self-righteous, more impatient, more frustrated. But when I stop trying to be a good Christian and just realize I am a sinner and that God has accepted me, and that’s the way it is, that, for some reason, releases the striving part of me that makes life harder, and all of a sudden I find myself, surprisingly, more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental and more joyful. So I think that kind of personal experience is a merely reflection of what the Gospel truth is. And those moments when I experience that, that’s wonderful.

Many people have a personal story of going from legalistic Christianity to a new Gospel-focused faith centered on the cross, often due to some personal crisis. You talk in your book Jesus Mean and Wild about suffering being that thing which “plows the field” of the human heart so that grace can come in. Was that you?

Well, that for me is what sanctification is all about. It’s the see-saw, the going back-and-forth. The natural human nature wants to take over and begin building that tower that reaches to the heavens. That is part of the original sin of wanting to know the difference between good and evil, so we’re going to pluck that fruit from the tree. We just want to do it all the time; I want to do it all the time. There have been many moments, many times in my life when I’ve had to stop and say, “You know, this isn’t working. And the reason it’s not working is that I’m trying to build this tower up to the heavens.” And I think that’s the nature of the Christian life, building the tower and then have it come crashing down, and then having the reality of the Gospel sink deeper and deeper into your life. It’s something as a preacher and a speaker you have to face into.

When I was a preacher, one of the ways I had to learn it was every single week I had to stand up and say something to the congregation. And there were some weeks when I could stand up there and say, “I’m doing okay in this regard.” But most weeks, “I don’t know why I’m standing up here saying this. I don’t know that I have my act together.” What occurred to me was that it wasn’t about me as a preacher having my act together before I can proclaim the grace and mercy of God. It’s about something bigger than myself. And that thing that a preacher is forced to confront every Sunday morning, if he has any sense of self-awareness, is the same thing that all of us have to confront when we step out of bed: “Whose day is this? Is this my day to show God how much I can achieve for him? Or is this my day to live in his grace and see what comes of it?”

Who have been your theological allies and mentors along this path? Who has influenced you? You’ve talked about Luther, you’ve mentioned Barth. Who else would you put on that list?

Probably those two would be the most important. Though who I’ve read the most is Karl Barth. Especially recently. That’s probably why you’re seeing a new intensity in my writing on this. I’m exploring writing a book on Barth. And in the course of doing that I was reminded how much I really like this guy. I had not read him in twenty years, but whenever I do read him, he absolutely thrills me with the radical nature of God’s grace to us. What I’m really trying to do is to understand in Barthian terms, how that moment of God’s alienation, when we feel alienated by God, when we feel judged by God, that God is the stranger, that God disapproves of us, that at that very moment it’s the God of mercy who’s beginning to work in our lives. And that’s what I’d like to bring out in a book.

Bonhoeffer in my 20s was really important. I’ve also read a lot of Orthodox spirituality. There are two types – there’s the “climb the spiritual ladder” type, which always feels dreary to me. And there’s another type of Orthodox theology which is radically God-initiated and grace-centered. And that’s what I’ve always appreciated.

But in reality, I don’t often know who my influences have been. One of the weaknesses of my writing, is I can write long, long passages and never actually quote any. And I don’t quote anyone because I don’t consciously know where I’ve gotten this information. And I pridefully think, “Wow, this is good, this is fresh.” And then I’ll pick a book that’s gotten dusty on my shelves, that I’ve marked up 20 years ago and I’ll realize it’s all from that author. The older I am, I realize I don’t have an original idea in me.

Earlier you pointed out the tendency among Evangelicals towards activism, an “addiction to the horizontal.” As someone who’s been in the Evangelical world for a long time, do you see connections between the current activism (for example, in the Emergent Church movement) and earlier similar movements (like the Jesus people in the 1960s and 1970s)?

Well, certainly emergent folks like to think of themselves as breaking away from Evangelicalism, but there’s so much about their movement that’s just a new chapter of an old book. And actually, not even a new chapter, but a repeat of a lot of evangelical characterizations.

For example, first of all there’s the rejection of the establishment (which in their case is Evangelicalism) and second there’s this notion that somehow they can create a fresh a way of doing church that is somehow more biblical or authentic (which is another Evangelical assumption about the world), and third, that they’re very activist, that they’re going to go out and change the world. Now in this case, they’re not interested in evangelism as much as they’re interested social justice. But it’s very much about getting their hands dirty in the world, and doing something for Jesus. So in that regard, the emergent movement is very Evangelical. And of course, they’d be shocked and appalled to hear that, but that’s my take on their movement.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the emergent movement have pushed that envelope so far that I really can’t tell much difference between what they’re doing and nineteenth century liberalism, which led to dismal results, as far as I’m concerned, for the life of the church. I’d be happy to have a conversation with them about that.

As far as the contrast with the 1960s and 1970s, you do see this youthful idealism that says, first, there are things that are seriously wrong with the church and with Christianity as it is understood today; and second, we can do something about it.

Now, it seems to me that if a younger generation isn’t feeling those things there’s something seriously wrong with that generation. I don’t want to discourage younger Evangelicals from shaking their fists in anger at the sins of the church and their passion to want to make a difference.

What I’m concerned about of course, is the hubris that sometimes comes with that. It can make it all about us, and our reformation and our ability to make a change in the world, instead of pointing us to a couple of other realities. And the first of those realities, what we have to remember, is that the moribund, horrible, sinful, selfish, hypocritical, televangelist church, the one who is co-opted by technology and growth and all these things we find despicable is the church that Jesus died for. And it is the church that Jesus is so committed to that he is willing to have his name associated with it, with that church, with that group of people who we all find disgusting and frustrating and aggravating and hypocritical and so nominal.

Earlier you mentioned the current Christian buzzword, “transformation”; another big one now is “discipleship.” We see these emphases in the wider Christian subculture, and again, in parts of the Emergent Church movement. One Emergent pastor I’ve read has said “the gospel is not that Jesus died for your sins, but that God wants you to help him transform the world.” How do you understand transformation for Christians?

We have to maintain a realistic sense of what we mean when we talk about changing things and transforming things: what is it that we can accomplish this side of the kingdom and what can’t we. Because of course, if you enter into the fray with these grandiose notions that you’re going to be able to transform the whole world and your own church, you’re going to run into brick wall after brick wall after brick wall because of original sin. And you’re going to either do one of two things: you’ll either imagine you’re making a difference when you’re really not, just to self-justify your efforts; or you’re going to become so discouraged that you’re going to give up altogether. And neither of those are Christian responses: one is hypocrisy and one is despair.

But the Christian always lives by hope, even in the most miserable of situations. Because he lives by Grace, he doesn’t live by his achievements, or his successes. He lives by the call of God on his life. So in that regard, back to your earlier question, this generation is like the generation of the 1960s, very idealistic, very passionate, very activist—but I’d like to bring in this emphasis on grace and humility back to the center.

What place is there for things that we call spiritual disciplines and what do they look like? It seems that the standard program in Evangelicalism is read your Bible more, pray more, journal more, get some accountability and you’ll get better. And you have said in your articles that often people don’t get better, at least not in the way we think, and the more we focus on our problems, the worse they get. How would you respond to the cry for spiritual disciplines? What’s a healthy way to think about that?

In light of the new thinking I’ve been doing recently, I’m having to rethink how I understand that. But I think the way I’d approach it now, the spiritual disciplines are at some level means of grace. God knows that we are weak and foolish and hard-hearted people. And he not only condescends to become human for us, but he uses elements of his creation in order to teach us about who he really is and what our relationship with him really is like. So spiritual disciplines are more about God’s means of helping us grasp what the Gospel is really all about and how he in fact does transform us. But what’s happened to a lot of the spiritual discipline language is that it not about teaching us who God is and how he shapes us, but it’s about getting transformed. It becomes about us.

One of Dallas Willard’s earlier works talks about the “spirit of the disciplines,” understanding how God changes lives. And there’s an emphasis that these are classic disciplines that have grown up in the church as a result of the leading of the Holy Spirit that have been instrumental—used by the Holy Spirit—to shape us.

But nowadays, you read books on spiritual formation with titles like “Spiritual Disciplines: Practices that Transform Us” and “Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation.” They’re all about us. And that’s where the emphasis has gone askew in the spiritual discipline world. Jesus, of course, talked about prayer and fasting, and was a regular attender of the synagogue (so he obviously attended worship, he listened to preaching and the reading of scripture). So all these are means by which a person is shaped and formed by God. But that is the point. And they will in fact have that affect. They will shape us and change us. If they don’t, something is fundamentally wrong. But that isn’t why we enter into them or what they’re about when we start them. It’s more about trying to enter into a human work/activity—prayer, Eucharist, preaching, Bible study—that opens us to the wonders of God’s grace.

I heard a sermon once where the preacher said that we need to clear things out of our lives, so that God can come in. And I said “Wait a second, if God wants to come in, He can.”

Exactly. He comes in people’s lives that are pretty darn cluttered.

I don’t think St. Paul cleared the road for Jesus to convert him. But often among Christians we talk about spiritual disciplines as if we are the only actors. But in reality, God is much more interested in your heart and soul than you are, and is probably already doing lots of things that you may or may not be aware of. He is disciplining you spiritually apart from anything you do.

Right. The very fact that you even have any desire to do spiritual disciplines might be a prompting of the Spirit in the first place. You’re not offering something up on your own initiative.
One example might be fasting. People talk about fasting in the terms you’ve talked about—clearing out space in our lives for God to enter in. For me, fasting is a physical parable that reminds me of how much of my life is focused on things that are non-God. Which is probably why I don’t do it very often. Fasting is something that always brings me to my knees in repentance. If it opens me up to God, it’s only because I recognize that I’m a person who’s not very open to God. And I think that’s true of all the disciplines on some level.

Last question: what are the bright spots in the Evangelical world? When you think about the future, what encourages you or gives you hope in light of all the muddled theology out there (a lot of which is pretty depressing)?

Well, I do think the neo-Calvinist movement is a hopeful sign. Everyone, when they talk about what young people are into these days, they’re always pointing to the radical emergent crowd. But when you actually look at the number of young twenty-something people who are actually going to church, or going to conferences, and giving their money to things, a huge number are in the Reformed crowd. I think they’re hungry to hear the message of the sovereignty of God, the prevenience of Grace. All the classical Christian understanding of the world. And the Reformed are really good at making that point. And they’re doing it really well right now.

The problem with a lot of the neo-Reformed movement is that they turn Grace—and you read some of the blogs, etc.—they turn Grace into a new Law. And they’re very judgmental and very critical of people who don’t talk about the Gospel in exactly terms they think it should be talked about. And they’re very quick to judge and to cast people off into outer darkness. This is the great weakness of the Neo-Reformed movement, as I can see it. But I nonetheless still think it’s a hopeful sign because it puts the emphasis on the right place: that it’s about God, first and foremost.

The other thing that’s a helpful movement, but could move in one of two directions, is the Ancient-Future movement. When people are trying to draw on the resources of Church historic, especially the early church fathers, and the church tradition that’s found in Catholic and Orthodox (and Anglican) circles, I think that is helpful, as long as it’s not being turned into a new traditional-ism, or it’s turned into a new religion. But drawing on the theological and ecclesial resources that the Church has offered us, that God has given to the church through the ages, has the potential to bring the Evangelical movement a more even keel and a breadth and a depth that could help sustain it in the decades ahead.

Of course, that’s just speaking on human level about two movements I tend to have some hope for. But in fact, in the end I really don’t care if Evangelicalism survives or not, as we know it today. God cares about Evangelicalism as he cares about the nations of the world—they’re a drop in the bucket. He doesn’t need Evangelicalism to further his cause in the world. And if Evangelicalism were to disappear tomorrow, we shouldn’t lose much sleep about it.

But the fact of the matter is that God in history has continued to raise up some group, somehow, somewhere that speaks out the truth of the Gospel in a way that is not only truthful but actually makes a difference in people’s lives. There were no evangelicals in 1500, but then God raised up Luther and John Calvin to remind us of that. There were no Evangelicals per se in 1700 but Whitefield and Wesley came along and started the preaching that led to the Great Awakening.

So the greatest hope I have for the future is what Evangelicals have traditionally stood for—the preaching of the Gospel. I have great hope in that, because God will not desert his church. How will that look? I have no idea. Will evangelicalism fragment? It may. I don’t think it will necessarily, but if it does, God will raise up something else.