Evangelism After Pluralism (Bryan Stone) -- A Review

EVANGELISM AFTER PLURALISM: The Ethics of Christian Witness. By Bryan Stone. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2018. Vii + 151 pages.


How does one evangelize in a pluralistic culture? That is a question that has dogged many Mainline Protestants. This is in part due to having seen heavy-handed efforts used to convert people to the Christian faith. We would like our churches to grow, but we would rather not seem coercive and intolerant. Knocking on doors and handing out tracks isn't our cup of tea. So, we keep quiet about faith matters. Besides, we live in a pluralistic culture, where differences out to be respected. So, who am I to try to convert my neighbor who happens to be part of faith tradition different from mine. Thus, we shy away from what some might call proselytism.

Martha Grace Reese tried to address this challenge a decade back in her Unbinding the Gospel books, which were addressed to congregations struggling with this issue. As helpful as those books were, we still seem to be struggling with this question. Enter Bryan Stone, the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Boston University School of Theology (a United Methodist related seminary, and thus part of the Protestant mainline, and situated in the rather secular Northeast). Considering his position, one should not expect a hard-edged fundamentalist viewpoint, and they will not be disappointed.  While conversion may result from the kind of evangelism he advocates, that is not the end game. What he does is invite Mainliners to reconsider the nature of evangelism. He does so by rooting it in Christian ethics. He also emphasizing witness over proselytism. He wants to make a strong distinction between evangelism as witness and conversion-oriented proselytism, because he wants us to think of evangelism as something other than competing for space. This isn't a competition for bodies and souls, which represents a more consumerist vision of church life. 

The title of the book speaks of evangelism after pluralism. I didn’t catch at first the reference to the word “after.” My assumption as I began the book was that he was speaking of evangelism in a pluralistic context, but he seems to want us to consider the possibility that we are moving beyond pluralisms (he thinks in terms of the plural pluralisms) at this point in time. It is this idea of a multiplicity of pluralisms that leads him to the move beyond pluralism, looking to find a different context for a witness to Jesus to emerge. To get there we must acknowledge that besides a plurality of religious voices, there are also pluralisms of militarism, consumerism, just to name two.

I will admit that I went into the book thinking that it would speak of evangelism in a context of religious pluralism. He does that, but it’s only one component. Indeed, he focuses on developing an "ecclesial ethics." In other words, when it comes to the ethics of evangelism, we start with the ecclesia. This isn't an issue of church growth, but of making sure that Christian witness is grounded in the church. When it comes to salvation, we're not talking simply about getting to heaven, we're talking about a new way of life. When it comes to religious pluralism, Stone wants us to consider the influence of civil religion, which he believes is the true American religion. 

Regarding civil religion, he suggests that it is an "amalgam of patriotism, militarism, and capitalism." He suggests this amalgam, which often has a Christian veneer, is more of a contrast to Christianity than is Buddhism or Islam. Thus, he devotes significant attention to civil religion. So, after setting out an ethics of evangelism, in contrast to proselytism, he takes up issues of empire and rival citizenships, as well as pluralism in the nation-state and military. In between these two he develops his ecclesiality of salvation. In a time when church is seen as irrelevant to faith, he wants to see it as an instrument of salvation. It is a counterweight to empire. He explores in the book the challenges of chaplaincy in the military, for the military is by definition a pluralism. To proselytize there is not welcome, which is interesting since the majority of chaplains today are evangelicals. Stone is a pacifist. He believes strongly in nonviolence, which makes being a chaplain to the empire problematic. However, in his view, our witness as Christians should reflect Jesus and thus nonviolence.

Chapter seven deconstructs, you might say, consumer culture. We have been sucked in and much evangelism is consumerist (attractional). I found it interesting that he describes much interfaith conversation as consumerist in form, in that the vision of coexisting seeks to boil everything down to a palatable commonality that sells. I had never thought of the coexist bumper sticker in this way, and I'm not sure I totally agree, however there may be something to this. His concern is that too often "religious pluralism is constructed by imposing onto the plurality of religions the unity of the marketplace" (p. 88). It is important to remember that he is speaking of evangelism after pluralism. He doesn't deny the plurality of religious options but is concerned that the marketplace is constricting our understandings of religion. Again, I need to work through this.

It is chapter 8 where he finally speaks to religious pluralism specifically, and this is a relatively brief chapter. Thus, what I was looking for when I picked up the book is not the primary focus. That said, he raises some interesting issues, noting that postcolonial theologians have raised concerns about traditional pluralistic theologies, like that of John Hick, work. The concern here is cultural appropriation, which we borrow and steal without truly understanding the differences. Thus, he wants us to consider something other than either exclusivism and pluralism as typically constructed. He points us to Mark Heim's idea that when it comes to things salvation the different religions aren't necessarily talking about the same thing. Thus, we must allow them to speak on their own terms. This is a more radical form of pluralism, and Stone wants to go a step further to something he calls deep pluralism. In this form, "the importance of evangelistic witness" is preserved "without accepting the terms of competition intrinsic to the kind of religious absolutism that characterizes exclusivist Christian soteriologies and the theologies of evangelism associated with them" (p. 112). Stone develops this idea in conversation with his Wesleyan background, which includes the idea of prevenient grace. Grace is nonviolent, and thus it doesn't impose itself, and neither does the kind of witness offered here. There is much to this idea that attracts me as one who engages in interfaith work, thus, I would like more of this. But perhaps this is but the beginning.

All of this leads to a conversation about evangelism and beauty. There is something beautiful about Jesus and the saints, that too often gets lost. He argues for the diversity of faith, a recognition of plurality within Christianity that witnesses to God's beauty. He writes that "what God has revealed to the world in Israel, Christ, and the church as the body of Christ is a way of living together—a rich tapestry of social patterns, habits, and practices that, while requiring us to remember, critique, reform, and contextualize, nonetheless reveal the beauty of God" (p. 131). This beauty of God in Christ ought to be the starting point for evangelism.

Interestingly, he closes with a discussion of the meaningless of apologetics, that arm of theology that seeks to prove God's existence and the superiority of the Christian faith. In his opinion, as a theologian who focuses his attention of evangelism, it simply doesn't work. In the end "the good news is a gift and can only be received by faith. But when the goodness is imposed imperially, defended with intellectually airtight arguments, or subjected to the logic of marketplace exchanges, the gift is no longer a gift" (p. 140). Thus, evangelism must be something other than making converts within the marketplace. It must have something to do with grace. 

This is a compelling book. It is written with an academic audience of some form in mind. The imprint is BakerAcademic, suggesting that it is designed to speak to other academic practioners, as well as clergy. It think clergy are a good target here, as Stone does help us rethink what it is we’re trying to do as church in bringing witness to Jesus. As I read the book, I will admit getting lost in the middle with the conversation about military and nonviolence, but in the end it holds together. I might not share his disdain for the coexist bumper sticker but do recognize the danger of imposing a unity on religions that doesn't fully represent what they are. There is a plurality of religions. They’re not the same in beliefs and practices. A true witness to Jesus will understand these realities, and other realities of pluralism, and pursue a form of Christian evangelism that reflects Jesus, in that it is humble and gracious and winsome.  For that reason, this is a book that should have a wide audience among Mainline Protestants and more open or progressive Evangelicals.

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