Posts Tagged evangelicalism
In Part I, I briefly detailed the history of American Evangelicalism, tracing its roots to the 2nd Great Awakening and the contemporary emergence of a post-Christian society.
Before delving further into our exploration of how Evangelicals might move forward in this post-Christian world, it is important to acknowledge their triumphs in the previous one. I mentioned earlier that the Evangelical movement was a movement for reform of society and of the men in it. It aimed for a transformation of impious, irreligious nominalism into a devout, serious minded faith. It aimed further for the culture itself to be ‘renewed’; for reform in labour laws, for the abolition of slavery, for a deep change in the understanding of marriage, for the raw mercantile capitalism of the day to be tamed, and on and on.
Well the good news is that it largely worked. Gradually, locally and then more systematically, the reforms of manners and customs that evangelicals championed were enacted. Within the US context for example, abolition of slavery was preceded by a change in the terms of argument employed by opponents of abolition; it had now to be justified as being more beneficial and humanitarian than the alternatives, whereas previously it was justified simply by its profitability. In hindsight it is an utterly unconvincing argument, but the fact that it was even put forth as an argument at all shows the power of the society wide change that was taking place under evangelical Christian influence. Eventually of course, slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Labour rights were secured. Public drunkenness, rampant gambling and other ‘vices’ became taboo in polite society. And finally, in what might eventually be seen as the last great flourish of the evangelically inspired reformist movement, legalised racial oppression was struck down.
Now some of these reforms were backed by liberals and others by conservatives and some were opposed by them, but they were all products of the Evangelical Revival and each were making their case on the terms of Christian commitment to a ‘Christian’ society that shared, at least theoretically, those same commitments.
What is all the more striking is that the soteriological framework of Evangelical thought, complete with its focus on crisis, awareness of guilt for sin, recognition of the need for external aid, emotional & spiritual responsiveness, etc., has become the framework by which Americans generally understand social or personal change. This obtains whether they are Christian or not, and indeed even if they are intentionally aggressively anti-Christian. The so-called new atheists (who are generally much less interesting than the old ones) describe their embrace of atheism in ways that would not be out of place in an old time fundamentalist revival meeting. The same is true for gays as well, with ‘coming out’ absorbing the abandoned space of testimony of salvation, except in this case it is usually a testimony of deliverance from the false life of lying to oneself and ones family before finally surrendering to the higher truth of their identity and finding hope and acceptance within a new LGBT community.
In other ways too Evangelicalism won. We take for granted the calm that stalks our city streets, the absence of widespread and open bribery of public officials, the assumptions of trustworthiness that lubricates our business and social interactions, the fact that children are not openly abused or sold into servitude. Yet none of these could have been taken for granted in the rough and tumble, money obsessed days just prior to the Great Awakening. Britain for example was awash in cheap gin, with the concomitant social problems that entailed. The American South, where slavery was common, was a veritable wasteland of irreligion and impiety with most people concerned about little more than profit taking and the enjoyment of life at whatever cost. New Englanders, steeped in a hypocrisy that belied their Puritan heritage, mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of trafficked slaves from whom they derived the vast profits that drove their mercantile enterprises. In other words, virtually all the ‘normalcy’ of American life that we now enjoy is light years away from what was normal at the nation’s founding and is largely the result of the long shadow of the evangelical movement.
The Evangelicals in some ways won much of the culture, but because they were a movement birthed in revolt against the institutional structures of ‘Christendom’, they tended to disregard the need to control or substantively reform the structures of society, seeing this as superfluous and perhaps even harmful to their project of societal transformation. What mattered was the heart and the Christendom model, wherein the institutional structures of society were under the control of the church, had mostly failed in their estimation to bring about real social and personal reform. Consequently the institutional structures of society, such as the arts, media, universities, and government among other things, which for a long time maintained their ‘Christian’ character as a hold-over of the Christendom ideal, eventually were taken captive by antichristian forces.
Over time Evangelicals, both of the liberal and conservative stripe, mostly ignored these institutions. The liberals did not generally see them as a threat and even applauded at times as they were subverted, seeing in their evolution away from ‘Christendom’ something to be celebrated; a further liberation from the old prejudices and inadequacies of the past. The conservatives mostly saw them as irredeemably corrupt and thus avoid entering them altogether, while occasionally using their declining social influence to rail against this or that excess. The commanding heights of the culture were thus secured by the non-Christian and anti-Christian heirs of the Enlightenment; it was only a matter of time before the rest of society would fall.
It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this. These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.
Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.
The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!
But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.
Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.
By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.
This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.
We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.
“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”
So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference. The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.” Praise God for such a vision! And praise God for the organizers of this event. Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event. Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”
The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids. Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference. These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music. They will surge and sing. They will cry and commit. And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).
The faces on the stage matter. If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band. These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.
They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy. It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was). The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone. The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.
Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse? Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material? Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?
Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves. Call it FUBU for White people.
The truth is, the faces do matter. And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think. Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters. Think I’m wrong? Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself. You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important. Call it the incarnation experience. You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.
It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.
Perhaps you’ve already read this article about the coming collapse of evangelicalism in the Christian Science Monitor, or perhaps you’ve seen discussions around the blogosphere. My fellow blogger Eugene Cho is talking about it, and despite his posting before me, I’m not copying him.
The article combined the recent results of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College indicates what we have all long suspected: Americans are not as religious as they were previously and the most religious of them all, evangelicals, are losing dominance and influence in American life, so much so that it is being called a “collapse.”
There are many who are celebrating this collapse, both within and outside of evangelical circles. Some because they believe it will lead to a needed reformation, or because they are sick of the culture of evangelicalism. Others are glad because they believe that Christians are altogether wrong, that religion is unhelpful and the bane of civilization. Some share his concern about the dumbing down of Christianity in order to generate mass appeal.
The article makes several good points, but his second particularly is striking for someone who works with young adults. He asserts:
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
I can testify to the truth of this assertion. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Biblical illiteracy Christian students are woefully ignorant about their own faith. Combined with a thrust for activism, I foresee that evangelicalism will not so much collapse as cease to be orthodox. Of course orthodox (small o) Christian is thriving in America and around the world There is a subtle assumption in Spencer’s article that evangelical = white middle class American. It does not.
Though we may not care to remember it, and some now view evangelicals as out of touch, evangelicalism was (and is) the movement of the non-elites in American society. It thrived, in all its various forms, among those who were not especially well educated and certainly who viewed themselves as not being among the “in-crowd.” During the hey-day of mainline churches in America, evangelicals (then called fundamentalists) were definitely not the cool kids. They still aren’t. Despite their perceived political strength, they are, at best, the red-headed step child of the Republican party, which likes the evangelical vote, but is somewhat less enamored of actual evangelicals. The evangelical left, which has increasingly become associated with the Democratic Party treats run of the mill evangelicals like the crazy uncle that embarrasses you whenever you have friends over. You can’t really disown them, but if you could get away with you’d like to keep him lock in the attic. In fact I daresay that evangelicals probably get worse press than any other religious group in America, far out of proportion to their numbers or influence.