For last 12 Decembers, Collin Hansen has analyzed the previous year to select 10 news stories that encapsulate key moments in theology. This past year held no shortage of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to current events relating to theology. How Christians should think about these events wasn’t always clear. In the introduction to his list, Hansen writes:
This year’s list of top theology stories shows how difficult it can be to separate rumors and lies from facts. There’s almost always more than meets the eye. Rarely does a theology story lend itself to clear-cut interpretation. The debate is often what makes the story noteworthy, what makes it rank on this year-end list.
TGC managing editor Matt Smethurst joined Hansen on this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast to ask him about how he selected these stories and why they matter. Be sure to read My Top 10 Theology Stories of 2019 to see if you agree with Hansen’s choices.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Matt Smethurst: Welcome to The Gospel Coalition podcast. My name is Matt Smethurst, and I serve as managing editor for TGC. And today, the host of The Gospel Coalition podcast that you’re used to Collin Hanson is the guest, and I have the privilege of chatting with Collin about a annual article that he writes and he has just published the 2019 version of it. It is his top theology stories. Collin, thank you for joining me on The Gospel Coalition podcast.
Collin Hansen: Oh, thanks for having me, Matt, on my own podcast. I appreciate that.
Smethurst: Collin, it’s been a joy to work with you for so many years at TGC and to think about these top theology stories at the end of every year and this year as is usually the case was filled with just opportunities to reflect on kind of the good, the bad, and the ugly as it relates to Christianity in the world, but particularly in the West. How long, first of all, have you been coming up with these top theology stories every year?
Hansen: If it weren’t linked from the article itself, Matt, I probably wouldn’t remember. So the article tells me that I started in 2008 back when I was writing the theology and the news column for “Christianity Today” online. And then I carried that over when I began as the editorial director for the Gospel Coalition in 2010 and it’s been an annual tradition ever since then for better and worse.
Smethurst: All right. Yeah. So I think this is the 12th installment. And how do you choose what goes on this list?
Hansen: That is not an easy thing to answer in part because there’s no magic formula for this. I have to give a really strong caveat every year at the very beginning, I have to say this is an admittedly foolhardy attempt. There’s a reason nobody else does this. Everybody does their best books of the year list, but nobody you know, dares to come up with their top theology stories of the year. Even 12 years in, it is a field that I own all to myself. And that’s probably simply because of my foolishness. I always have to give a caveat that it’s written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement. So I have a particular vantage point. I think there has to be some truth in advertising to that. And so I don’t have proximity to every single issue out there and I’m going to judge issues differently depending on my own theological beliefs, which I think is inevitable for everybody. But again, I just want to be clear about that for folks.
So when you’re trained in journalism school, one of the exercises you work through is news judgment. And you talk about things like how big is it? How new is it, how many people does it affect? Things like that. It’s not a formula. There’s a lot of debate around that. Different people are gonna come up with different things. It’s a feel, it’s an intuition some ways, although I will say I do have a benefit at The Gospel Coalition. That benefit is that I get to look at statistics. I get to look at what you people, the listeners. I get to see what you care about the most not maybe what we say we want to talk about the most, but what we actually think about the most. And those statistics are not necessarily foolproof. They can be misleading as well.
But I run through a number of things. I look through everything we’ve published. I looked through all the statistics, I began to compile it, and then from there it’s a little bit of sort of feeling my way around and I’ll seek some input from some other people as well. Though this year I didn’t quite seek as much input in part because I don’t wanna have to make people feel responsible for some of my mistakes or some of my particular judgments. But I tried to be responsible with that, but you know, somebody else might end up with a different conclusion than I reached.
Smethurst: Yeah, that’s a helpful way to frame it for folks listening, Collin. In your introduction to the piece you set the scene by talking about the effectiveness of lying. What are you getting out there?
Hansen: Every year Matt, I try to set the scene, as you said, for understanding some sort of trend from within the last year. Something that I am intuiting about the nature of our discourse of different things that emerged within the last year. And one of the things that I’ve picked up on is not just that there are a lot of people out there who lie, I guess in service of truth, like they lie saying that they’re doing this for Jesus’s sake. It’s a little confusing to me, but I guess that’s not entirely new, but here’s what I’m seeing this year. It’s effective, it’s working, it’s destroying people’s reputations, it’s harming institutions. It’s confusing international readers who don’t understand the different dynamics of what they’re reading on social media or on websites. And so I’m wondering how do we get to this place of at a sort of an epistemological crisis, a crisis of truth.
And I know we’ve talked about that in the broader culture and maybe we just lagged within the church that people have picked up on the sort of politics of lying that if you simply lie often enough, then it’s kind of hard for people to discern the difference there. And if you just continue and you keep up that volume, eventually people begin to believe that that’s something is true or that it just doesn’t matter. Or you know, maybe you are right that once and so therefore it justifies all of the other lying that’s been done. But I do wonder about that of how theology is wielded in ungodly ways for supposedly godly ends. It’s not quite something I understand, but as you’ll see in this list from this last year, there’s a lot in here where really it’s less about, I don’t know, how does anybody judge the actual effect of a theology news story. But you’ll see that so much of the debate about interpretation and sometimes also deliberate misinformation is itself a major component to why I’ve judged that new story to be news worthy for this list.
Smethurst: Okay. So without further ado, let’s go ahead and walk through the list. We will walk through it starting with number 10, going toward number 1. And I’d love for you to just give a few sentences on at least most of these. I’m not sure if we’re gonna be able to hit everyone, but a few sentences about the significance of the event or the story and why you chose to include it in this list and the way you did. Sound good?
Hansen: Yeah, let’s do it.
Smethurst: All right. Number 10, prosperity preacher takes job in Trump administration.
Hansen: So is it a theology story? Well, maybe, maybe not. The story is in the debate around it. So Paula White joined the Trump administration. She effectively had really been as such a strong defender of the president. She had been. I mean, I don’t know how much of a practical difference it makes for her to be in that position. But the thing that’s so interesting to me about this is the way that so many prominent Southern Baptist pastors and other sort of denominational leaders whose theology would strongly reject prosperity preaching such as that from Paula White, nevertheless came to her defense. And I think the way I reflect on that is to see that we all do this to one degree or another. But I think we’re especially prone to doing that now where our theology is really secondary. I often hear Matt, pastors tell me that if they get their theology wrong, a lot of people in their church wouldn’t notice. But if they said the wrong thing politically they’d get fired. So in a lot of ways the theology story itself is that theology has been subsumed to our political alliances. That’s why I put this piece at number 10.
Smethurst: And the number nine, are we supposed to boycott Chick-fil-A now?
Hansen: Yeah, this was a thing that came out fairly recently. So this is sort of an end of the year thing that jumped onto the list. Now you can look at it from a couple of different perspectives. One of them is from simply, now you and I talked about this before, Matt, this sort of emerging theological, theological consensus of progressive activists as it relates to our sexuality. Make no mistake, they are not making scientific observations. They are making philosophical and theological observations about the nature of humanity, about the nature of gender, about the nature of sexuality.
So we have competing theologies at work between a lot of the people who’ve been critical of Chick-fil-A and places like the Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes that they had previously supported. But then of course Matt, there’s also a faith and work component here, which is what is the obligation of a Christian company to begin with? Is there such a thing as the Christian chicken as people talk about their, why do people have this sort of expectation of Chick-fil-A? Maybe it’s simply because it’s their own fault. They made us feel that way in a sort of marketing effort or it could be that perhaps we’re expecting things of, let’s be clear, a fast food purveyor of chicken sandwiches that really we should only be expecting of churches.
Smethurst: Yeah. And Collin, isn’t a lot of the story here not even so, I mean there, there is some disparity on whether or to what degree Chick-fil-A caved to the pressure here, exactly what they were up to. But a lot of the story is what is the precursor here? Like what is this forecasting for the future of companies who are wanting to hold the line in a biblically faithful manner. Is that even tenable in our post-Christian age?
Hansen: Right. That’s Joe Carter’s observations writing for us that we can debate about whether or not they should have done this or why they did this or what’s really happening. But what we can’t confuse is that whether you’re a company or a church or an individual Christian, it’s simply difficult to be able to hold to a biblical theology of sexuality. I mean, this is a trend. I mean, I think Matt, you could go back to my earliest theology stories of the year lists and you could see this trend emerging consistently throughout that time.
So it’s not a new thing, but it’s a perennial challenge that what Christians believe theologically about the body is not what our larger culture believes, which is one reason why theologically speaking, so many people are going back to study the Roman period, the early church and discovering lo and behold, that was precisely the thing that put Christians on a crash course of conflict against the Roman empire. And at the same time, it also was something that was appealing to people, especially those people who suffered sexually under the repression of the Roman Empire’s mores of that day. So all kinds of different angles to that story.
Smethurst: Yeah. Number eight you write Hong Kong fights for freedom.
Hansen: Yeah. I think Matt, you’d probably be the expert to turn to on this topic there, but we see a number of protests, especially toward the end of this year in Hong Kong, increasingly violent conflicts between a number of younger protesters advocating in a generic way, in a general way for freedom. And also there are some specific policies I’m at play there as well. But the theological angle that comes in here is the debate that we talked about in a piece called Hope for Hong Kong that’s linked here in this article about what is the obligation of churches here? Should churches be engaged? Should they be right there on the front lines? Should they be leading the charge or should they be trying to stay above the fray?
This is not a unique challenge for the churches of Hong Kong to think through. It’s not a unique challenge for Christians throughout time, but I think that’s why it registered so high on my list is this as a perennial challenge. What does the Bible obligate us to do when it comes to these sort of broader social cultural, political debates the Christians of Goodwill and trust in God’s word have disagreed on that topic over time and over place.
Smethurst: Yeah, and obviously that’s an unfolding story. It seems like every week or two we see more headlines not only from Hong Kong but also from what’s going on with the repression of Muslims in Western China and Xinjiang Province. And so any Christian who cares about the global church ought to be at least somewhat dialed into what many of our brothers and sisters in the faith are facing in Hong Kong as well as in parts of China. Collin, for number seven, you wrote the Notre Dame cathedral fire unites believers and unbelievers, Catholics and Protestants. What are you getting at there?
Hansen: Yeah, this is a theology story list. So it’s not just a religion story list. I would imagine this piece will be, this event will figure prominently in many of the year-end lists of news stories you see around the world. But the theological angle here is why were Protestants feeling this way? Why we’re Americans feeling this way? Why were unbelievers feeling this way? Why were they mourning the loss of this place? And I think it speaks to the persistent longing of for transcendence, for solidity even among unbelievers. But I think at the same time, it also speaks to the way Protestants have an implicit theology of sacred spaces.
And it’s one of those things, Matt, where you might have somebody say, I don’t care where we worship until you’re engaged in a capital campaign and until there’s debate. And all of a sudden, people have a lot of really strongly held, even theological assumptions about what a church should feel like about where a church should be located. And that speaks to often unarticulated theology of place and a theology of aesthetics that even Protestants bear whether or not they’ll admit it.
Smethurst: Right. And even though it’s true in one sense, that the church is the people, the people need a place. And if they never gather then they’re not a church.
Collin on number six, I’m sure that the United Methodist have showed up more than once before on your year-end stories. And here they show up in what I think is kind of a surprising story this year when they formally upheld biblical sexuality. What do you see as the significance there?
Hansen: Yeah. Somebody who grew up United Methodist, I’m often tracking these trends, but at the same time, the United Methodist are still the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States behind the Southern Baptist. So what happens within the UMC has significant ramifications even as a mainline denomination that in a variety of ways does not really align with The Gospel Coalition. But insofar as we do share with our evangelical brothers and sisters in the United Methodist church, this view of biblical sexuality, it’s a significant story for us. But the particular angle that I’m looking at here theologically speaking as the emergence of the majority world, that’s another one of those trends that’s not new. And it’s not going to stop probably Matt for as long as you and I are working in this or some other position.
The real trendsetters here have been the majority world leaders within the UMC. They’re the ones who have the numbers and they’re going to continue to have the numbers to be able to vote on these policies. And so you have these massive mega churches in the United States, including some that are pretty liberal and certainly revisionist when it comes to biblical sexuality. But ultimately they’re not the ones who wield the power because they can’t change the votes.
And I did, though, specifically say formally upheld because it remains to be seen and perhaps it will be left to 2020 to sort out. What are these more liberal or left-leaning revisionist churches going to do because we still see the policy on the books, but that hasn’t stopped them year after year after year from trying to change it. So does this mean they leave? Does this mean they splinter in a number of different directions? Does this mean they leave but they get to take their church buildings and they get to take entire seminaries, entire other ministries? There’s a lot that still has to play out here. But theologically, it’s so interesting to see that it’s not like people can just sit in the United States anymore and call the shots. The global church has a strong voice.
Smethurst: You mentioned the United Methodist are the second largest Protestant denomination. The first is highlighted in number five. You write sex abuse in SBC sparks broader debate over gender roles.
Hansen: Yeah. I don’t know Matt, how exactly those things are connected, but they are somehow. That much is obvious. So you have the sort of reporting turn that started about 20 years ago with “The Boston Globe” and the Roman Catholic Church, that sort of spotlight of reporters looking at sexual abuse within the institutions of American life. And that’s one thing I do wanna make clear. We know a lot about what’s happening in the church, but this reckoning is coming to so many different institutions of American life. I saw fairly recently that it’s now coming to places like Uber and Lyft, the sexual assault crisis within those places as well.
So this year, sort of the reporting focus looked at the SBC and somehow connected to that in some way. it sparked a bigger conversation about the sort of place of women within the SBC, which as a denomination is explicitly committed to complementarianism, which at the very minimum means that at least sort of a lead or pastor or elders or those sort of leaders of a church would be men. And yet there’s a lot of still debate about theologically speaking and practically speaking how that works out and what are sort of the obligations of the church in light of the boundaries between a healthy complementarianism on the one hand and a sort of unhealthy misogyny and when does one give way to the other and how can you differentiate between them and can we speak up with one voice about the evils of abuse without the same time imagining that our complementarianism is responsible for it or some might say that it is responsible for it. So, so many different angles here theologically.
It’s kind of surprising that it was only number five on my list, which makes you wonder what’s higher on there because this at least consumed a whole lot of a mind space on Twitter over the summer. But it is also another example where I think a lot of that debate was more on social media than it was necessarily popular in other places. And that’s probably one thing that differentiates that story from the top four on my list.
Smethurst: Yeah, of course. We could devote an entire episode to every single one of these, especially these last five are just massive stories in many of them such as the sex abuse in the SBC that that was uncovered by “The Houston Chronicle” and has really been an a major news story the whole year. Just the horror of that evil is something that does complicate and just make difficult having the complementarian discussion right now. Collin, number for you write, can the president visit your church?
Hansen: So this is a little bit of an echo to number 10, the piece about Paula White. So it’s the way that politics, so shape our theology. Now biblically speaking, what we’re told to do for our leaders is pretty clear. And I think when President Trump visited McLean Bible Church with almost no notice and showed up on the platform with David Platt, David Platt did what the Bible would ask him to do, command him to do, he prayed for him. But again, this was not a situation that he could “win” in the court of popular opinion, especially on social media where a number of people are going to say he didn’t do enough to honor the president. And a number of other people are going to say that he had no business even allowing the president to enter the building and certainly not honoring him even through a prayer there.
And so our theology debates are really subsumed in so many ways to this never-ending culture war. And it makes you wonder, Matt, if churches are going to be allowed or if churches are going to find a way to insist on letting the priority of the gospel, the priority of our biblical convictions to rise above the pervasive demonization of our cultural enemies and our political opponents. And that’s not to minimize the legitimate political critiques that people have. We don’t wanna be quietist about this, but at the same time, it does make you wonder what happens when our biblical theology is really beside the point compared to our first political principles. That’s a scary place for the church to be.
Smethurst: And that is a theme that clearly runs through many of these and will only ramp up as we approach the 2020 election.
Number three, and this is a sobering one that that I say with a heavy heart, Joshua Harris deconstructs his faith.
Hansen: Lot of theological or pseudo-theological terms, Matt that emerged within this last year around the high profile deconstruction for Joshua Harris. So a term like deconstruction itself, the sense in which you go back and you pick off piece by piece these elements of your worldview, of your faith, of your upbringing, of your perspective on things to try to eliminate and to separate yourself from this sort of toxicity, which would be how unbelievers would often see that or at least if not all of your Christian faith and at least your evangelicalism faith there. So other terms deconversion or purity culture, that’s a big one that was debated quite a bit this year.
I don’t really know how to describe it as a theological story, but Rachel Held Evans died this year as well, unexpectedly, at only 37 years old. And as Joshua Harris sort of joined these ex-evangelical ranks, he joined that kind of movement that Rachel for so many years was really a prominent leader in. And it makes you wonder with the movement dynamics of our theological tribes, where did things go from here with these different groups? So what does that kind of progressive ex-evangelical world look like without Rachel? There’s still many people who share those theological beliefs and they’ll still speak with confidence about those things. But she was a pretty singularly influential figure in that trend. Likewise, Josh was such a significant leader when it came to things like what’s now been dubbed at this purity culture and within movements like sovereign grace that have really fragmented where he was a major leader for so many years.
But I would say just in summary, Matt, on this, I mean, this is not sort of idle speculation for us. I’m trying to use this list as a way of thinking about what God’s doing in our age and in our time. And what I’m wondering for our listeners here is just to think, does your theology help wavering believers to doubt toward God? And I’m not saying that doubt is itself a virtue. I think sometimes people can go too far with that. But I do wanna say that if your church stigmatizes doubt and questions, then I think you have to be prepared for more people like Josh, who emerge thinking that theology is merely a set of principles that you must adopt as opposed to a life that God calls us into, a dynamic life that God calls us into that includes, especially in this secular age, some measure of questioning about the truth of these things, but to emerge stronger through that. So that’s the theology element of that story in particular as we look toward these last couple stories.
Smethurst: Yeah. And may we be people who have conviction and backbone and yet as Jude says, “Have mercy on those who doubt.”
Number two. When is a hug more than a hug?
Hansen: You know, when I first saw this story break this year, Matt, it just seemed like a pretty simple good news story. The brother of the murdered Botham Jean asked the judge to allow him to hug the convicted killer in an act of forgiveness. And that murderer had received that forgiveness gratefully. In fact, went further than that, the judge actually handed that woman her Bible and encouraged her to read that.
But I think the challenge here, Matt, is you’ve got a couple different things going on and one of them is a theme that we’ve been talking about here in general where a lot of other issues, cultural, political, are more important to us than theological. And so all of a sudden this became not an issue of the gospel of grace and of forgiveness, but it became an issue of sort of just a political and social and racial posturing about grievance and you know, privilege and things like that.
So that was a major component to this. But I think there was also another angle where our theology of forgiveness has been so widely misunderstood. We’ve really lost touch with what the Bible teaches about forgiveness and that we make it seem like forgiveness is just releasing everybody from the consequences of their actions. But the fact is that forgiveness can go hand in hand and in fact must go hand in hand with repentance and also is accompanied by God’s heart for justice to be done. So these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but in a therapeutic notion of forgiveness, they do become competitors with each other and thus to confusion, I think that ensued in this particular case.
Smethurst: All right. And number one, Collin? Kanye walks the aisle.
Hansen: Yeah, I was with you, Matt, the first time I’d heard a rumor about this, and you can recall, I saw somebody posted on The Gospel Coalition’s Facebook page that Kanye had enrolled at The Master’s seminary. And I remember walking back, it was with all of our editors and I joked, “Can you guys believe this? I just saw the most ridiculous thing.” And do you remember how everybody reacted to it, Matt?
Smethurst: Did we think it was a Babylon Bee article?
Hansen: No, no. Everybody was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard the same thing.” It’s like, “Yeah, sounds true to me.” Now, it didn’t really turn out to be true, but it didn’t turn out…
Smethurst: I had heard that same rumor.
Hansen: So it turned out instead that yes, he had indeed gone through this pretty high profile, dramatic conversion that sort of announced itself with the release of his major album this year. But this is the theology angle here. Of course, it’s a huge story and a cause for much celebration and Thanksgiving to God for his for just the power to save. But I think what makes it so interesting theologically is that it doesn’t take us long before we start to really pick this whole thing apart. Instead of just celebrating that somebody has come from death to life, through the domain of darkness into the kingdom of light. Instead we wanna know, why is he hanging out with Joel Osteen? Is he going to be woke enough? Does he believe in limited atonement?
And those are all important things. I mean, I don’t want him hanging out with Joel Osteen. That’s not going to be a positive example for him. I agonize for him who’s trying to wrestle through all of these different dynamics of justice and race and everything like that. I think studying limited atonement as an important thing, but mostly it made me thank God that he spared me from working out my theology in the world’s brightest spotlight.
Smethurst: Yeah. And there’s no denying that Kanye has made a career on being a provocateur and a loose cannon, and he has said some irresponsible things. There’s no doubt about it. But if God has indeed changed his heart and the Holy Spirit is indwelling him, then I would hope that we could all join the angels and celebrating his new life, but also praying that God would preserve him, like you said, on such a prominent stage where I certainly am happy that I didn’t have to live out, especially in my early years in the limelight.
Well, Collin, thank you for giving us a quick survey of this and I would encourage readers to check out the article that we’ve just published at TGC. It is titled “My Top 10 Theology Stories of 2019” by Collin Hansen. So thanks, Collin, for sitting on the other side of the table today and talking with me. Thank you for putting so much thought into this list and to all the work that you do for us here at TGC. I know you want to say one more thing before we wrap up on this last podcast of the year.
Hansen: Yeah. Thank you, Matt. It’s just really fun to be able to talk through this with you and a privilege to be able to work with you every day very closely on all of this at The Gospel Coalition. Well, it seems kind of strange just sitting here in my office at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, just sort of staring off into nothing, but I feel like I have a special connection with the folks who listen to The Gospel Coalition podcast and have listened to it for many years as I’ve been privileged to be the host and where I’ve had the privilege of doing so many interviews. It’s just really been an honor and I’m grateful to all those people who have come up to me and thanked me for that, for a specific interview that we did or for a talk that we ran or for a conversation that we moderated.
This is really one of the most enjoyable parts of my job as the editorial director, and so I’m signing off for this year of 2019 for The Gospel Coalition’podcast, but I’m also signing off from the ”Gospel Coalition” podcast permanently. We’ve got a number of changes coming to the Gospel Coalition with our podcasts in the upcoming year. Changes that I think you’re going to be very excited for if you’re a fan of what we’ve been doing with our podcasts at TGC, this is all good news for you. The good news is that we’re just gonna be doing a lot more with our new network of podcasts. So you can expect an announcement of that very, very, very soon, including one thing I want you to be looking out for in particular is that these interviews that I’ve been doing for all these years, we’re going to put them on their own podcast going forward, which is really exciting.
So if that’s one of the things that you look forward to on The Gospel Coalition podcast, there’s a lot more of that to come. So instead of a monthly pattern of those interviews, we’re actually aiming now for a pattern. So you’re gonna get a lot more of that. So if you like hearing from me, and more importantly, if you like hearing from what God’s doing and a lot of the people who are in the news and who are writing books and are making a difference for the Kingdom of God out there in the world, then I would just encourage you to subscribe to that podcast as we launched that in 2020.
But one last word before I hang up on The Gospel Coalition podcast, I wanna thank my friend and colleague Betsy Childs Howard for her incredible work all these years. She’s still gonna be working on various aspects of The Gospel Coalition podcasts. Certainly she’s going to be helping me with this other new podcast. She’s got some other changes going on in her life that will necessitate some further changes. But mainly I just wanted to say thank you to her publicly, wanted to acknowledge her for her excellent work on helping with the content and with the scheduling and with all of the behind the scenes production, editing my mistakes on this podcast. She’s done amazing, remarkable work. And she’s just been an absolute joy to work with all those years. So for all of you out there who’ve been listening she deserves much of your appreciation as well for that. So it’s just been a privilege on the ”Gospel Coalition” podcast.
I hope you’ll keep listening as we seek to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ.