Messy Middle?


The middle can be messy and misunderstood.  It can also be apathetic and atrophying.  It all depends on whether this “middle” is merely ignoring and hiding from important issues, or taking a reasoned stand in a different place.

A recent study by Baylor University suggests that the “messy middle” among evaneglicals is growing, specifically in regard to homosexuality (i.e. the “messy middle” are “evangelicals who oppose homosexuality on moral grounds but support equal rights such as civil unions for gays.”).  Also from the report:

For their study — “How the Messy Middle Finds a Voice: Evangelicals and Structured Ambivalence toward Gays and Lesbians” — researchers analyzed national data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, a random sample of 1,714 individuals across the country. Researchers found that 24 percent of evangelicals fit into the ambivalent category, supporting gay civil unions even though they are morally opposed to homosexuality. The survey, designed by Baylor University scholars and conducted by The Gallup Organization, included more than 300 items dealing with religion and the attitudes, beliefs and values of the American public.

“We’ve known that moderate and ambivalent evangelicals are there, but now they are actually starting to have a voice and beginning to be more political,” Martinez said.

I think this “messy middle” is probably growing around other issues as well (justice, economic equality, racism, the gospel, mission, and biblical interpretation).

But can this “messy middle” hold?

Tony Jones, through whom I noticed this report, thinks this “messy middle” is actually a movement to the left (progressive or liberals depending on how you use those terms).  He thinks the middle cannot (should not?) hold.

What do you think? Will this “messy middle” inevitably fall into a right/left polarization?
Or might something else break out?

If you hope something else is in store for the “messy middle” then please connect with Missio Alliance, and/or pick Prodigal Christianity, both of which are seeking a more “radical middle” become conservative and progressive.

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12 Replies to “Messy Middle?”

  1. I think this is yet another example of asking the wrong question, motivated once again by the sadly predictable need to control and own the kingdom. According to Jesus, it comes without observation, but that doesn’t seem to temper the zeal of each new generation of management freaks as they try to quantify the un-quantifiable.  The study and the question sound important, and needful, but I would counter that its only practical importance is for journalistic fodder. The time of top down control and and grading the church is fast coming to an end, as the younger Christian generations question the results of 500 years of competitive hierarchy, power tripping and waning social influence for the better. My answer to the question is: Does it matter?

    1. gregathome Greg, I think I’m right there with you.  Are saying that right/middle/left doesn’t really matter, we just need to seek the kingdom?

    2. gregathome agreed. it doesn’t really matter. so, “the messier the better!” but also “middle-shmiddle!” messy is a relative term – correlative to a particular framework of order (which can then be organize on a spectrum from left to right). “messsy” is only a derogatory or undesirable term if one wishes to fit on the spectrum.

  2. I think this is what evangelicalism is about. Evangelicalism as a political force wants to contain within the fold the median voter, the swing voter. But it is hard to maintain that position when the culture outside of evangelicalism is shifting, and when evangelicalism is gaining new members and losing some old ones. 
    But then there is factionalization within evangelicalism. This again is an attempt to contain within any given faction enough members of the larger evangelical coalition so that it can control the coalition. Only at this level the one-person-one vote calculus breaks down, and personality takes on much greater force. 
    We should expect to see opportunistic behavior whenever evangelicalism becomes too polarized. Some political-theological entrepreneur will posit some new reading of scripture in such a way as to attract either some of the existing coalition to him, or by recruiting new folks into evangelicalism, but in such a way that they do not join the existing factions.
    Among tasks present in my research agenda, showing this phenomenon in various circumstances when there is an explosion in theological differentiation is the deepest and most exciting.
    My personal perspective, to reveal the bias I have going into this work, is that theology gets used as a bargaining tool as soon as the church tries to achieve any of its peculiar mandates through the state. The only way to keep theology pure, and thus to keep praxis uncorrupted, is to avoid trying to achieve any of the peculiar mandates of the gospel through the state. What God has called the church to do, and what God calls the Christian to do, must be done in response to the Holy Spirit, whether individually, or according to communally discerned objectives. I think the resources of the state should be rejected as well.

    1. jurisnaturalist I think as far as a socio-political reading of evangelicalism you are right on in the sense that evangelicals have always been culturally savvy (or at least hoped to be).  But I think there are also theological reasons (evangelistic outreach and pietistic inwardness) that also keep the middle messy. 
      But I would love to hear more about “opportunistic behavior whenever evangelicalism becomes too polarized” and political-theological enterpreneurs”.  What do you mean by that? I’d love to hear your perspective.

      1. geoffholsclaw jurisnaturalist Let’s assume there is a “right theology.” That’s kind-of what we are aiming for, isn’t it? This first assertion would be challenged by many, but I think you and Fitch hold onto the idea that there is a right theology, only it has been subjected to much confusion. Then, okay, there might also be an earnest searching for the right theology, and I’ll allow that the right theology can change a little in response to culture and other outside influences.  Then we might observe a meandering about among those in search of truth, always getting closer to the truth, but never quite arriving. (assymptotically approaching truth in mathematical terms). Or, as you mention, evangelistic outreach introduces new truth searchers into the group, which can cause a little meandering, and emphasis on piety, or praxis, over doxis, can affect the tightness of the distribution of those searching for theological truth (this is getting interesting…). So those elements will always be somewhat messy. And in a normal and good way. 
        But what causes harmful messiness? When do we move away from messiness that is moving in a good direction to messiness that is moving in a bad direction?
        I think it happens when someone wants to grab some power. We see this in the local church, in denominations, in faddish movements (ack! missional/emergent!), in factions (moral majority/sojourners), and in broader coalitions (evangelicalism). 
        Once evangelicalism has a “seat at the table” the question becomes: “Who is in charge of evangelicalism?” Then power-seekers will deliberately differentiate themselves, maybe even inventing new theology, or maybe just making major issues out of minor differences, in order to attract people and thus power to themselves. Often, this is well-intentioned! “If we let ‘them’ get control of the coalition we will wind up with those godless liberals/conservatives…” 
        This kind of behavior *is* politics. Getting involved in politics as a positive tool for the peculiar mandates Christ has given us results unambiguously in this kind of activity. 
        The political-theological entrepreneur, again, may be coming up with something new (Darby-Scoffield) or maybe not. Look for teleological messages. But in all likelihood he is focussing on a differentiation (or creating a distinction from a difference) in order to attract a following from others already in the evangelical fold. This resonates with Fitch’s distinction between missional and attractional.

        1. jurisnaturalist geoffholsclaw Missional/Emergent is not merely a faddish movement! Oh, wait. Nevermind.  Thanks for the great clarification.  
          Part of the question is whether evangelicals really need that “seat at the table” and whether they can stay open to the good messiness, or productive conflict as I call it.

        2. geoffholsclaw jurisnaturalist Yeah, part of the impulse of the bad messiness is to squash the good messiness. And I think that having a seat at the table is not useful. Here, both Falwell and Wallis were wrong.
          If anything, I would stand apart from the table and call the table itself evil. (But I’m an anarchist at heart.) I’m having visions from Monty Python Holy Grail (Now we see the violence inherent in the system!!!). We ought to walk away from the table, and take our chair with us, then work hard at identifying with and living among those being squashed by the table.

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