For Those Without Ears to Hear

Justin Taylor revives Billy Sunday’s career by collecting comments on what the evangelist sounded like and even a few clips of the preacher himself. Taylor leaves out arguably the most insightful observer of Sunday, H. L. Mencken, whose critique extends as much to evangelicalism as to the baseball-player-turned-evangelist himself:

As for his extraordinary success in drawing crowds and in performing the hollow magic commonly called conversion, it should be easily explicable to anyone who has seen him in action. His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

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19 thoughts on “For Those Without Ears to Hear

  1. CW, truth is that Billy Sunday succeeded because Presbyterians (and others) failed at engaging their congregations. Sunday is to Christianity what Trump is to Republicans. He’s a nightmare, but ineffectual leadership is the (part of) reason for the development. Just my 2 cents.

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  2. Brandon, it’s a good analogy (and may help explain some of the appeal of Trump to eeeevangelicals), but isn’t that a form of blaming the victims?

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  3. cw l’unificateur says: [cue Ali extolling the virtues of Bro. Billy and the preferability of his approach to that of OL]

    everybody has his/her assignment, cw. I’m sure I’m supposed to say a lot about it, but for now just to DG says “hollow magic commonly called conversion”

    if conversion is ‘hollow’ (empty, nothing to it) , we’re all in big, big trouble

    btw, speaking of assignments, I see today, cw yours is : #CWtweetspositivelyfor8hours.
    Hilarious. You must be having a difficult, difficult day – if you make it though – definitely revival!

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  4. Ali, that’s exactly the critique of conversion in relation to revivalism–manipulated and decisionistic. Recipe for hollow and rote, which is the great irony of revivalists who decry creedal faith for being rote. Revivalism has its techniques and rules, as well as litmus tests for what’s genuine and what’s feigned as a result.

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  5. Dear Zrim, as we both agree I’m sure, salvation is of the Lord. Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. As many as receive Him (Jesus) to them He gives the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who are born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

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  6. Zrim,

    Not sure I know exactly what you mean. I’m not speaking of the congregants (or voting constituents). I’m referencing the ministers (Republican leaders). I don’t believe the leaders are “victims” in the way the masses are. When a Sunday or Trump rises to power it may be that the masses have completely lost their mind *but* those particular historical cases don’t bear that out, IMO.

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  7. Ali, right, but revivalism doesn’t believe that, or at the very least twists an interpretation to fit revivalist assumptions.

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  8. Brandon, right, the leadership. But is it really fair to blame shoddy Presbyterian officers for revivalism? I know you said “sort of” so maybe, but that’s where I suspect the analogy breaks down–works for the GOP to say Trump signals internal leadership (and, sorry, even constituency) rot but seems more of stretch to lay much blame at the feet of P&R leadership’s feet for revivalism. In the case of the former, I tend to think it’s a problem within the pew.

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  9. Zrim,

    Fair enough. It’s a tricky balance. Parsing the amount of “blame” that goes to shoddy Presbyterian leadership is difficult. It should require self-reflection. Even Mencken, in his summary of Sunday, is lambasting the leadership of the “establishment” because they were aloof from the regular guy in the pew. I won’t pretend to know if Mencken’s characterization is entirely fair, but I suspect it’s not completely divorced from reality.

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  10. Brandon, have you considered that the Bible is aloof from the regular guy in the pew? How many regular guys read books written two millennia ago?

    It’s not Huck Finn or Harry Potter. You figure out how to make the Bible regular and not gut it of its import, you let us know.

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  11. DGH,

    Calvin’s success/failure in Geneva is interesting. He certainly had his detractors and got kicked out of the city for a period of time, as you know. He did seem to resonate with numerous people throughout Europe, though. And his work was brilliant. That doesn’t mean he was a perfect leader though, nor that he couldn’t have done things better. You agree, right?

    How many regular guys read books written two millennia ago?

    The Bible is read by ‘regular’ guys all the time! Teaching and engaging people with the Bible in all its “irregularity” is the task of church leaders. When pastors fail to inspire their congregants, I believe they need to do some soul-searching.

    According to Mencken, the “establishment” became pompous and aloof. As you quoted above,

    His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority

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  12. Zrim says:Ali, right, but revivalism doesn’t believe that, or at the very least twists an interpretation to fit revivalist assumptions.

    Zrim, no one can be manipulated to salvation. There. Is that what you wanted me to say.
    God’s knows the heart and is in charge of the heart. Sometimes I say to myself I’m thinking some here don’t believe that. If some did, agreeing that God is the one that ‘vives’ and ‘revives’, some would not pooh, pooh/ diminish/be snide about/ reject praying for it. Don’t you wonder what it would be like if we actually believed God.

    If you being evil, know how to give good gifts (the Spirit, in Luke 11:13) to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him. Matt 7:11

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  13. Brandon, read the register of the Company of Pastors and see how challenging it was for the “regular” guy to be in the reformed church. That doesn’t mean I think Calvin was wrong. I do think it means your populism (pro-Sunday) is selective.

    Sure lots of people read the Bible. And lots of people bought Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.

    How many people get Vos? Does Vos get the Bible? How’s that make Billy Sunday look? (And Vos was hardly the “establishment.” Why are you going Trump?)

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  14. DGH,

    I do think it means your populism (pro-Sunday) is selective.

    Just to clarify, I”m not pro-Sunday (I described him as “a nightmare”!).

    How many people get Vos? Does Vos get the Bible? How’s that make Billy Sunday look? (And Vos was hardly the “establishment.” Why are you going Trump?)

    Not many people read Vos, but they should. Pastors should try to communicate his biblical theology to their congregations in their preaching. Sunday is a nightmare because he’s completely disconnected from the depth of the Christian tradition. The problem, as Mencken relates it (and I believe this was probably accurate), was pompous and aloof ministers. It’s a false dichotomy to assume one is either with the aloof Presbyterians or Billy Sunday.

    I’m not even saying there is a mediating position between them–Poor catechesis by ineffectual leadership leaves congregants uninspired and uninterested in Christianity (Conservatism). That creates the soil for a Billy Sunday (Donald Trump) to come along. We don’t need to be more like Billy Sunday (Donald Trump). We just need to be better at communicating Presbyterianism…

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  15. Ali, I can name 40 people in my life who got all worked up in a revival frenzy at church basketball tournaments or Christian rock concerts, or other such venues. And nothing happened after and they were worse off towards God than before because it “did not work”. And then those who whooped up the people were defrocked for gross immorality down the road.

    Will you come to their funerals and give a little heartwarming statement they are in heaven because they were emotionally manipulated into coming forward and signing a card and being totally sincere about it?

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  16. Ali, even the most strident revivalist would affirm that on its face. Easier said than believed and practiced though. In my experience with eeevangelicals, to suggest, for example, that the worship service should conclude with communion instead of some variation on an altar call draws deep gasps. That’s because they don’t really believe God alone saves sinners.

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  17. Sure, preachers can be pompous and aloof in their manner of sermonizing and shepherding of the flock, and thus be guilty of being disconnected from the “regular guy” in the pew. An aloof undershepherd (who, like the Chief Shepherd, is to know his sheep) is a contradiction in terms, and is inexcusable from a biblical standpoint. A minister of the word guilty of such pomposity ought to be taken to task by his elders (and, if necessary, by his Presbytery as well).

    But, seems to me, the problem is probably more often intellectually-lazy congregants who misinterpret their pastor’s refusal to dumb down the Word as aloofness and pomposity, than it is actual pomposity and aloofness on the part of the pastor. As Carl Trueman has written: “If the standard level of what is done in a worship service is set at that which the newest, least informed Christian can understand, we are doomed to remain forever in spiritual infancy. As Christians, we should expect worship always to be a learning experience.” (p. 146, The Creedal Imperative)

    Dumbed down worship led by pastors eager to be hip, “relevant”, authentic and relatable, only leads to dumbed-down Christians, and a dumbed-down church. And dumbed-down churches are dying churches.

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