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Liberal Protestantism:  History and Personality
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Bernard M G Reardon
Liberal Protestantism (London:  Adam & Charles Black, 1968.  244p.)

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I bought this volume years ago in Kenya, primarily for its historical value, addressing a major European social and religious movement in its time.  But I never got around to reading the whole thing till 2007.  I thought it would be interesting to read an analysis of the Liberal Protestant movement from a perspective of almost 40 years ago, when it was more prominent than now.

Since that time, the movement called "Post-Modernism" has become the perspective most prominent in American culture.  Both traditional mainline (generally equivalent to "liberal" in the United States) and evangelical (includes fundamentalist in the US) have become about equally irrelevant in their focus on their traditional ideological positions and focus and terminology.

This book was written from the British perspective, so should also provide a good analysis of the movement from its home context in Europe.

Evangelical Resurgence
Since Reardon's time, we have seen the neo-Evangelical, especially charismatic, churches surge in growth, visibility and social presence.  These younger, more-in-tune churches experienced a growth in the last two decades of the 20th century.

A welcome change in the personality and presentation of evangelical Christianity was witnessed.  Fundamental to this new growth was their attention to the culture around them and the questions being asked.  Many evangelicals began making a serious attempt to really communicate with people, not just repeat dogma, catch phases and code words.

Prominent factors in this growing communication and the movement of young people to these vibrant young churches were modernization of language (they began actually talking to their neighbours), format of worship and other activities and musical style.

We saw evangelicals (even some "Fundamentalists") become more sensitive to interpersonal dynamics.  The new generation realized that insulting people did not open communication.  There was an apparent new awareness that Good News should sound good to people!

Confrontational evangelism turned into relationship evangelism, with sensitivity for people's worldview and self-concept, and a respect for the beliefs of others.  Christians focused on communicating rather than commanding.  Approaches to non-believers acknowledged what people believed as the starting point for communication, and dealt with relational needs, as Jesus did, rather than the earlier programmatic attempts at ideological conversion.

Rise and Demise
More to the point of this particular book, Reardon has captured well the positive ethos and intention of what was called "Liberalism" in its own sphere, assisting us to overcome some of the polemic and hateful caricatures opponents spread in a shower of scare tactics for decades of the 20th century.

Reardon seriously evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the movement in a historical perspective that defines some of the major personalities and key issues of the Liberal Protestant movement.  We can see in his portrayal why the movement bred the seeds of its own demise.

Moribund remnants are all that still are found of the movement that was called Liberalism.  The term "liberal" has changed (as all social and ideological terms change), used in new ways, related more to attitude and temperament, with a connotation of sensitivity to others, not a particular theological or social agenda.

Unfortunately in the US, labels and labeling of others is still a prominent part of the Frontier cultural of confrontation still so evident in that rowdy culture.  Cowboy shoot-em-ups are not found only on the silver screen.  They occur in people's attitudes, words and in the actual guns in their hands which so often are still used to settle their scores.

You can easily dismiss someone and not have to consider what they say if you call them "Liberal."  Why do people have so little respect for the others around them?  I often wonder why everything in America has to be posed in terms of competition and defeat.  Why does one candidate "defeat" another, when what really happens is that more people vote for that one than for another?  In what way did one defeat another?

American Conflict Model
Why is the war-defeat model used to approach problems?  Why does someone always have to win?  Can't we just acknowledge there are problems in being human, in living with other humans, and put our efforts toward working together with people who are different from us?  Oh, how naive, you say.  OK, say it.  What is your solution?

How long must the rest of the world suffer this American compulsion for domination?  Why do Americans feel they must always win?  Why must someone always be "right?"  Why is it so satisfying to throw a label at someone so you can then dismiss the person?  The label categorizes and dismisses the person.  Why?

Why can't problems, beliefs and options just be discussed?  Perhaps it is time for America to grow up.  Perhaps the church could help in this process by becoming peacemakers, as Jesus portrays:  "Blessed are the Peacemakers, because they will be called the Children of God!"

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Graduation to Reality — The Church Emerging
[Review] Postmodern Challenges to a Rising Evangelicalism
[Review] Postmodernism — The Church's Challenge and Opportunity
[Review] Progressive Foundations for Postmodern Christianity
[TXT] Resources for Diversity
[Review] The Rich, Persistent Centre

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Initial reading notes written 9 December 2007
Expanded 8-9 November 2008
Last edited 24 November 2008
Posted on Amazon 2 March 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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