NTJ Is Risen!

The “journal” has not suffered another stroke but is simply delayed. The essay below appeared in the Winter 2012 issue and is a possible foretaste of what readers may enjoy in the next number. Consider this post the Old Life Theological Society variation on Advent.

More Scruton, Less Trueman

One of the advantages of reviewing a book several years after its publication is that the evaluation yields early returns on the test of time that book reviews written at the time of a title’s releases don’t. Which is to say, a new title demands attention simply because an author, editor, and publisher pooled resources to bring out a set of reflections that have not been seen before. After a couple of years when the newness wears off, perspective emerges on whether the author’s arguments were worthy of culling those resources. Obviously, since the marketing and publicity of books is tied to the review process, writing a book review three years after a book’s publication will not become a trend.

Still, Carl Trueman’s Republocrat may fail time’s test since it comes from an author who has increasingly collected thoughts originally produced on-line in books. In some ways, blogging and book writing is similar. Both use words, paragraphs, arguments, and depend on a measure of coherence. At the same time, blogs are to books what the sit-com “Friends” is to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. A blog post is like a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. It is here today and though not necessarily gone tomorrow thanks to the comments that posts provoke, it does not achieve the coherence that comes with a series of reflections that an author determines to take the form of a book. Simply stringing together posts and slapping them together in a book would be even less satisfying than a collection of George F. Will columns since the former likely have many arguments that are closer to notes for a book than an example that an author might use for a portion of a chapter. In other words, blogging is ephemeral; book writing is substantial. Readers may go to an old blog post to understand an opinion, but they go to books generally expecting to find arguments that endure beyond the window of a month or two.

The genre and style of blogs are arguably worthwhile considerations for understanding Trueman’s book on evangelicals and American politics since it has the feel of his previous compilations of on-line essays (The Wages of Spin and Minority Report). The style is generally breezy. The tone is often cutting and sarcastic – the word bloggers use is snark. And the arguments feel more off the cuff than systematic. It is in other words, like his other short books, Republocrat is a collection of personal reflections about the way that evangelical Protestants politicize the Christian faith and baptize partisan politics. This may explain why a book that both criticizes evangelical Protestantism and resembles the two-kingdom theology – themes close to the heart of the Old Life Theological Society – does not please as much as it should have. To his credit, Trueman brings an Englishman’s perspective to American-style religion and politics and the chance to see ourselves as outsiders observe us is almost always valuable. Even so, if the book fails to engage even those who are sympathetic, the reason may be that Trueman has fallen prey to writing books based on on-line reflections. The usually personal and occasional arguments of a blog do not translate well into the less subjective and more measured medium of pages between book covers.

Obviously, this is a long-winded way of pointing out the personal nature of Republocrat. Despite his disavowal at the beginning – “Despite the title of this book [Confessions of a Liberal Conservative], I do not plan to spend much time talking about myself” – the book turns into a fairly long series of rants about the heavy-handedness of Fox News, the silliness of the Republican Party, and the scandalous political theology of the Religious Right. These are all subjects worthy of a blog post given its op-ed character and immediacy. But readers of books want sustained arguments. For that reason, Trueman struggles mightily to organize his observations into a coherent whole. The best he can do is by bringing similar topics within chapter designations. This is not to say that Trueman’s punchy and witty reflections on American politics lack merit. If Protestants in the United States had to consider more than we do how Christians from other parts of the world see us, and particularly whether the worries we have really stand up as matters about which Christians worldwide might agree in the name of Christ, American Protestant appeals to faith or doctrine in the public square might be much more circumspect.

Still, Republocrat is not without substance. For starters, Trueman is, as the title suggests, critical of both the Left and the Right. For instance, in the chapter on the Left, Trueman observes astutely how the New Left, particularly in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, shifted the notion of oppression from economic realities to psychological neediness. In the process, an older quest for greater equality among the classes morphed into the politics of identity and the demand for affirmation of race, gender, and sexual orientation. What is odd about Trueman’s discussion of the Left is how much it revolves around European (even British) categories of liberalism and conservatism without explaining what the Right and Left in Europe have to do with Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Trueman also lands punches when he mocks the partisan nature of television cable news and wonders why evangelical Protestants are so loyal to Fox News and so suspicious of MSNBC when both networks manipulate politics to drive up ratings and generate advertizing revenue. Though again, part of what accounts for Trueman’s critical eye is the back story of his own experience as a British citizen and upbringing in England where Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox) has turned sensationalist journalism and raunchy programming into a highly lucrative formula. But Trueman’s point implicitly is that detecting Murdoch’s scheme should not take a European sensibility. American Protestants, especially Calvinists, should be able by virtue of what they know about human nature to see that the Fox media empire does not measure up well on the scale of family values and traditionalism.

A further useful point concerns the uncritical embrace of free market capitalism by American Protestants, a hug that for Trueman yields a piety that is not exactly characterized by the otherworldliness of the New Testament and that all too easily becomes a prosperity gospel, as in, wealth must be a sign of God’s blessing or favor. He argues effectively that capitalism creates wealth well but it is not a firm foundation for Christian morality or nurture. Capitalism, Trueman writes:

. . . can focus minds on economic prosperity in a way that is not biblical. Nobody wants to be poor — I certainly do not. There is no virtue in poverty considered in itself. But we need to be careful about simplistically identifying either wealth with divine blessing, or the impact of the gospel with economic prosperity. Neither is biblical. The story of Job makes it clear that there is no mechanistic connection between being right with God and enjoying earthly, material bounty. The life of Paul speaks to precisely the same thing. To read of his sufferings in the book of Acts, or his own description of his ministry, especially in 2 Corinthians, is to enter a world where it is not wealth and ease but rather hardship and poverty that flow from his fidelity to the cross.

Trueman also makes the point effectively that for all of political conservatives’ talk about ties between capitalism and personal virtues (such as responsibility, industry, thrift), market economies are also premised on the necessity of consumption. And reliance upon the desires of consumers communicates an ethic very different from, if not hostile to, the Christian religion:

. . . consumerism is good to the extent that it drives our economies and helps in the creation of wealth; but it is always going to tend toward the message that the meaning of life is found in the accumulation of property — a vain exercise, as the Preacher makes clear in Ecclesiastes 2. This is simply another form of idolatry — an ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power.

Yet, for all of these insights into the mind of the Religious Right, Trueman has little to say about an alternative outlook. The best he can do is to observe that Christians should not be so gullible. Trueman’s conclusion is littered with the words, “thoughtful,” “critical,” and “realistic.” He adds to these words the language of imperatives, as in Christians should be wise. This point is not wrong. It is actually correct. But it seems obvious, one that social conservatives would hardly dispute. Still, instead of offering an alternative political outlook, Trueman simply bases his shoulds on the notion that Christians have an obligation to model good citizenship. His biblical rationale for this is the idea that believers must maintain good reputations with outsiders:

. . . a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome clichés, character assassinations, and Manichaean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process.

Had Trueman written less about the conceits of the Religious Right and more about the authors from whom he has learned about politics (or added a section of political reflection), he might have produced a more substantial book. In the introduction, Trueman mentions William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Terry Eagleton, Nat Hentoff, P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, John Lukacs, Charles Moore, and Roger Scruton as writers from whom he has learned how to think about the world of politics and economics. Exposing these authors and their political perspectives to an audience addicted to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, Trueman missed his chance.

As it stands, that audience will likely dismiss Trueman as little more than a British contrarian, not someone to be taken seriously. In fact, the book’s foreword gives a good indication that this will be the response of American evangelicals addicted to Fox News and Glenn Beck. Written by Peter A. Lillback, to whom Trueman dedicates the book, the foreword attempts to be “suitably contemptuous” for a book with an “oxymoronic” title. First, Lillback notes with good natured glee the self-contradictory qualities of the author:

Here is a man who has memorized the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, but prefers to sing only the Psalms on the Lord’s Day. Here’s a dean who only under coercion reluctantly walks the 26.2 steps to the president’s office from the dean’s office for fear of being asked to do some extra work, but regularly delights in running 26.2 miles, even if it means there will be icicles hanging from his running shorts and oozing wounds from his ice-nicked ankles. Here is a scholar who relishes the writings of Karl Marx, but who is inherently, instinctively, and immutably committed to the Reformation spirit of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Here is a man who refuses to go to counseling to address these oxymoronic traits, but who nevertheless is soon psychoanalyzed by all who associate with him.

When Lillback turns to the substance of Trueman’s book, he concedes that the British historical theologian’s “unmasking of the well-camouflaged foolishness on all points of the political spectrum elicit chortles and deserve admiration.” But that does not mean that Trueman succeeds. According to Lillback, Trueman’s opponents may fall “to his wit, words, and wallop,” but just because “Bill O’Reilly is illogical at times and Glenn Beck’s histrionics are more stage than sage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to avoid the socialization of medicine and the limitation of the Second Amendment rights.” So Lillback indicates that he will wait for another occasion to “tear apart the straw men” lurking in Trueman’s arguments and for the moment will pick up on a problem that stands out, namely, Trueman’s own admission that he uses “outrageous overstatement to make a point.”

In other words, evangelicals committed to the Republican Party and prone to be persuaded by Sean Hannity will likely react the way that Lillback does – dismissal. Perhaps if Trueman had avoided the popular writing he traffics in on-line and instead applied the considerable intellectual skills he reserves for theology and church history to the subject of politics in the United States, he might have engaged in a significant teaching moment. As it is, Republocrat will inflame more than it instructs, thus leaving the Reformed wing of the Religious Right confirmed in their prejudice that Europeans don’t get us because they are simply jealous of “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.”

Finally the NTJ

Here is January 2022 (woops). And here is how the NTJ will operate in a post-USPS environment (from the current issue with a little help from Scribd):

The new iteration of the NTJ comes with fewer strings and but a couple wrinkles. The journal will be available as a PDF attachment at Oldlife.org and Nicotinetheologicaljournal.org. It will be free initially and then move to a subscription basis through the latter of the two websites (for now that’s the plan but technology being what it is and editors being the age they are, who knows?). The reason for subscriptions is mainly to cover expenses of websites and the small print runs of the journal we will produce for the sake of publicity. This means that readers who want a print copy will need to produce their own.

David French Rarely Speaks Truth to Evangelical Power

If you recall the controversy over Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College, when the professor of political science lost her post for among other things saying that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God, you may also remember that David French came out in defense of the Wheaton College administration:

Terminating a Christian professor — or any other employee of a Christian institution — for expressing beliefs out of line with the organization’s statement of faith is common and should be uncontroversial. Christian organizations have the same right to define their mission and message as any other expressive organization. Does anyone think it’s unjust that the Sierra Club won’t hire fracking advocates or that LGBT activist organizations aren’t open to Christian conservatives?

Why then would he object to Baptists — BAPTISTS — who put the congregation in congregational polity, taking issue with the pastor of their congregation? Can anyone seriously object to a Baptist organization having the right to run its institutions according to Baptist polity? David French can and the reason may be that he is impressed by evangelical celebrity:

David Platt is a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C.

Although he is an attorney who seems to have a certain expertise about constitutional questions, the plight of Baptists not being able to vote in congregational elections is of no interest to French.

Platt is facing a revolt from self-described “conservative” congregants, a revolt that culminated in a lawsuit filed against the church by a group of its own members, demanding that a Virginia state court intervene in the church’s elder selection process to, among other things, preserve their alleged right to vote in those elections and to mandate a secret ballot.

Turning to the civil courts for protection of ecclesiastical rights may be unusual — but wasn’t a famous letter that Thomas Jefferson sent to Baptists who had certain legal questions — but why isn’t French, the attorney, at all interested?

Why too does he not see that using his platform to make one side in a church dispute look bad does not make him look good? What sort of norms and expectations would I upset if, say, during a trial in a presbytery of the OPC, I wrote an article about it for the wider world and took sides? Whatever influence I may have (or not), the seemingly appropriate thing to do is to stand back and let the process play out. Writing about themes or tensions relevant to such a case may be okay. But outsiders opinions in disputes at which they are not present have no stake are not helpful or welcome. They should but out.

At the same time, when you are a national columnist and need a religious subject for your Lord’s Day column, David Platt makes perfect sense.

When You Might Want a Mulligan

A 2007 estimate of evangelical leaders (read elites):

Since 1976, hundreds of evangelicals. . . have risen to positions of public influence. But they have not done so by chance. The rise of evangelicalism is the result of the efforts of a select group of leaders seeking to implement their vision of moral leadership. They have founded organizations, formed social networks, exercised what I call “convening power,” and drawn upon formal and informal positions of authority to advance the movement. Sociologist Randall Collins has argued that recognition and acclaim are bestowed upon leaders and ideas through structured, status-oriented networks. Over the last three decades, the legitimacy that has come to the evangelical movement has come through the political, corporate, and cultural leaders who were willing publicly associate with it. Evangelicalism, with its history of spanning denominational boundaries is well suited to help evangelicals build connections and important leaders and prestigious institutions. They have formed alliances with diverse groups, giving the movement additional cachet and power in surprising ways. Leaders are often at the vanguard of a movement, and this book shows how evangelicals endowed with public responsibility have been at the forefront of social change over the last thirty years. By building networks of powerful people, they have introduced evangelicalism into the higher circles of American life. The moral leadership they practice certainly grows out of their evangelical convictions, but it also reflects the privilege they enjoy and the power they wield. Indeed, their leadership is an extension of-not a departure from-the elite social worlds they inhabit. (Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power, 11-12)

Were Bush-era evangelicals ever set up for a fall?

The lesson here is beware when sociologists praise your movement, that includes you Young, Restless, Reformed, you.

What Does Evangelicalism Have to Do with Church Membership?

A recent Gallup Poll shows church membership dipping below 50% for the first time in eight decades. The results have provided observers with a chance to take the temperature of religion in the U.S. Some worry about America’s national identity if faith declines. Others regard this as evidence that religious “nones” are almost as numerous as evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Still others notice that the drop has been most significant for Roman Catholics and Democrats who are religious. And among evangelicals, the lesson to learn is either that church membership is necessary and biblical or that Americans are leaving churches because evangelicals are — believe it or not — hypocritical.

What few seem to notice is that evangelicalism, for one, is not a church. It is an impulse or dynamic that turns Presbyterians into Presbyterian evangelicals, or Anglicans into low-church Anglicans. Evangelicalism is not a communion.

For another, the very point of the new birth, as George Whitefield explained it, was to place church membership several rungs below (in importance) a personal relationship with Jesus:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion. . . . it is certainly a blessing to have the outward government and discipline of the Church exercised; but then, if you place religion merely in being of this or that sect–if you contend to monopolize or confine the grace of God to your particular party–if you rest in that, you place the kingdom of God in something in which it does not consist. (“The Kingdom of God,” 1741)

That stress upon the internal as opposed to the external of religion, on the heart over the head, on experience over liturgical forms, is one reason why evangelicals may not be as troubled by the decline in church membership.

Thomas Kidd, who wrote a biography of Whitefield, applies the logic of the evangelist’s sermon to the recent data:

The overall picture of declining church membership should be of interest, but not special worry to Reformed and evangelical believers. We’re not so much concerned with “mere” church members, but “regenerate” church members. And evangelicals have been at their best—such as during the First and Second Great Awakenings—when they had to work hard at drawing people into church with crystal-clear proclamation of the gospel, and with caring service to the needs of congregations.

Because of this elevation of conversion over church membership, perhaps the evangelicalism in its aggregate character is more like Antifa than the church. Here is how Mark Bray described Antifa last May:

Trump cannot designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization because antifa is not an organization. Rather, it is a politics of revolutionary opposition to the far right. There are antifa groups, such as Rose City Antifa in Portland and NYC Antifa, just as there are feminist groups, such as Code Pink. But neither antifa nor feminism is itself an organization. You cannot subpoena an idea or a movement. That’s not to say that antifa doesn’t exist, of course. Antifa is “very real,” . . .but not in the monolithic, hierarchical way in which he and many other Americans are accustomed to thinking of political associations.

The same applies to evangelicalism. It is an experience, a piety, a sentiment, but not an organization. Fuller Seminary or The Gospel Coalition may be evangelical organizations. But evangelicalism is not monolithic or hierarchical. Evangelicalism does not function like a Christian church.

Why Do Christians Hate on Christians (the preposition takes the edge off sin)

It was striking to see the difference between the initial Christian interpretation of the riot at the Capitol on January 6th.

David French called it a Christian insurrection. He had to be honest.

Michael Gerson specifically identified evangelicals as Trump’s chief supporters in his column about the riot:  “It was their malignant approach to politics that forced our country into its current nightmare. As white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, misogynists, anarchists, criminals and terrorists took hold of the Republican Party, many evangelicals blessed it under the banner ‘Jesus Saves.'”

In a tweet he added: “Trump evangelicals have tightly connected their movement to insurrectionists and domestic terrorists. They have done massive damage to the reputation of Christians in politics.”

Odd to worry more about evangelicals’ reputation than the damage done to the nation’s political system.

John Fea analyzed the prayer of the QAnon Shamon and decided that it used the basic cadences and tropes of evangelical prayers.

You might think then that the New York Times’ story about the protestors so far arrested would indicate the religious background of these people. But they mention evangelicalism zero times.

At least 21 of those charged so far had ties to militant groups and militias, according to court documents and other records. At least 22 said they were current or former members of the military. More than a dozen were clear supporters of the conspiracy theory QAnon. But a majority expressed few organizing principles, outside a fervent belief in the false assertion that President Donald J. Trump had won re-election.

The accused came from at least 39 states, as far away as Hawaii. At least three were state or local officials, and three were police officers. Some were business owners; others were unemployed or made their living as conservative social media personalities. Many made comments alluding to revolution and violence, while others said the protests had been largely peaceful.

A New York Times review of federal cases through the end of January suggests that many of those in the horde were likely disorganized, but some groups and individuals came to the events of Jan. 6 trained and prepared for battle. The early charges set the stage for those to come as the Justice Department promises to prosecute even those accused of misdemeanor trespass and also devotes resources to more serious crimes, like conspiracy and homicide.

This is even more surprising since one of the Times’ original stories about the January 6 events, written by two graduates of Wheaton College, were quick to link the protests to evangelicals:

The fruits of the alliance between far-right groups — Christian and otherwise — were clear on Wednesday, before the rioting began, as thousands of Trump supporters gathered to protest the certification of the presidential election results, with Joseph R. Biden Jr. definitively defeating Mr. Trump, even after attempts to discredit the election. Many in attendance were white evangelicals who felt called to travel hundreds of miles from home to Washington.

All the more reason to raise questions about the way evangelicals regard evangelicals. It doesn’t feel loving.

What Could Have Gone Wrong?

Has American evangelicals’ love affair with Dutch Calvinism (in its w-w forms) finally run out of steam?

Remember back to Francis Schaeffer who popularized Kuyperianism for figures like Jerry Falwell (the elder) and Tim LaHaye. In Christian Manifesto (1981), Schaeffer wrote:

The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years or so, in regard
to society and in regard to government, is that they have seen things in bits and pieces
instead of totals. They have very gradually become disturbed over permissiveness,
pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and finally abortion. But
they have not seen this as a totality—each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much
larger problem. They have failed to see that all of this has come about due to a shift in
world view—that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think and
view the world and life as a whole. The shift has been away from a world view that was
at least vaguely Christian in people’s memory (even if they were not individually
Christian) toward something completely different—impersonal matter or energy shaped
into its present form by impersonal chance.

W(orld)-(vie)w analysis basically had free reign among evangelicals for the next thirty-five years thanks to its comprehensiveness. Everything became spiritual or religiously meaningful because everything was under the Lordship of Christ. Even if you raised questions about the differences between the spiritual and the temporal, or the ecclesiastical and civil, such “dualism” was in denial of Christ’s sovereignty.

That explains why even Baptist English professors drank Kuyper with gusto:

Within the North American context, Mouw explains, these core points can be boiled down to “an appreciation for the ‘not-one-square-inch’ manifesto regarding the kingship of Jesus, a broad acceptance of the idea of sphere sovereignty, and a commitment to the integration of faith and learning.” Mouw’s examination of these essentials—fleshed out and applied with varying levels of specificity within the thirteen essays which cover topics including public theology, education, and baptism, as well as more esoteric intra-reformed issues—reveal just how great an influence Kuyper has wielded, even among those of us caught unaware. The reading leaves me with awe and gratitude in the recognition that even my own quintessentially Baptist and evangelical educational institution would not be what it is without Kuyper and his fellows. After all, our university catalog promises in its “Statement on Worldview” that students will “receive an education that integrates [a] Christian and biblical worldview,” and the institution increasingly equips, expects, and holds accountable faculty for doing just that—even more noteworthy considering that the memory of a time when “Christian education” was understood there and elsewhere to consist of opening class in prayer has not quite faded into the past.

Even as late as two years ago, Kuyper drew appreciation from the likes of the Muslim-American political theorist, Shadi Hamid, though a non-Christian appropriation of the Dutch statesman would lean toward the pluralism (and the pillarization that went along with it in twentieth-century Dutch society) in Kuyper’s thought:

Christian pluralism sees the city of man as inherently broken and fallen from sin, which, in turn, means that politics must be acknowledged as a site of uncertainty, rather than certainty. The solution, then, wouldn’t be walling off one’s Christianity from the domain of Caesar, but rather applying it in a more self-conscious manner.

That was not how evangelicals read Kuyper. Pluralism went with secular humanism and watch out if you have a diversity of views among Christians about the actual structures of Christ’s Lordship.

But now that many know (what they always knew) about the true nature of Donald Trump and now that the likes of Betsy De Vos and Josh Hawley, Trump supporters of different degrees, have made positive references to Kuyper — now, Trump has finally revealed the problems of Kuyperianism:

we who inherit the legacies of white Christianity are called to acknowledge and seek to repair harm that has been committed on behalf of our traditions. Kuyper’s notion of the lordship of Jesus, articulated in the famous “square inch” quote, has more problems than it being used to baptize a wide range of questionable endeavors or to convey that Christians are the arbiters of the kingdom of God. The very notion of Jesus’ ownership of all things has imperialistic overtones, reflecting Kuyper’s Victorian-era white/European Protestant Christian triumphalism. While Kuyper celebrated cultural “pluriformity,” he maintained that outside of Europe and North America, most cultures had not benefited humanity as a whole. . . .

Even when taken on his own terms, there is much in Kuyper’s legacy to repudiate. And while it would be unfair to label Kuyper a white Christian nationalist, it is easy to see how his ideas could be employed in the service of white Christian nationalism, with its grievance ethos, its “color blindness” as a cover for its racism, its paternalism, its patriarchy, and its “populism” favoring white working-class interests.

What I don’t understand, once again, is why the flip-flops among evangelical scholars — evangelicalism used to be good but now its bad, Kuyper used to inspire but now he’s troubling — don’t raise more questions about the flops. Isn’t it obvious that the change of perception is largely a function of opposition to Donald Trump? If part of the Protestant world showed an attachment to Trump and we are dissecting those Protestants to see what ideas they held so we can purge those notions (and Trump) from our midst, is this really very deep? Isn’t it just another indication of the hold that Trump has on the minds of his biggest foes (and supporters)?

But if not for Trump, evangelicalism and Kuyper would be salvageable, right?

Can You Write This After 2019? (finale)

Another entry under the category of timelines, to go with part one and part two.

What did the black church need roughly fifteen years ago?

We are now living in a generation of African Americans who are significantly unchurched. For three centuries, the black church stood as the central institution of black life. Its relevance was unquestioned and its moral and spiritual capital unparalleled. Now, the church is largely viewed as irrelevant by vast numbers of mostly young African Americans, despite concerted efforts to make the church a multipurpose human service organization with housing, child care, after school, health care, economic development and other social service programs. It seems the more the church does the less relevant it becomes.

The reason for this state of affairs is that the unbelieving world tacitly understands that the primary reason for the church’s existence is not temporal. Though the world is wracked with pain and suffering, it intuitively grasps the fact that the answers it longs for are transcendent, not earthly. So, the more the church appeals to the world’s felt needs and physical deprivations, the more irrelevant it becomes to those who lack a true and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity [2007] 244-45)

Can You Write This After 2019? (part two)

Another entry under the category of timelines, this time with a striking contrast of narratives.

This is the narrative of the black evangelical church from 2019:

White Christianity is the offspring of evangelical revivalism and various forms of American exceptionalism. White Christianity then is a combination of biblical religion and a certain view of power, privilege, access and influence. It’s a religion that sees itself as best-suited for life at the top. It assumes that at the very least it should have influence over the entire culture and that it should shape the moral and ethical outlook of the citizenry. Certain varieties see the country as a “Christian nation” and sees progress as a matter of reclaiming this Christian ideal now largely lost or threatened. 

Black Christianity is the offspring of American evangelicalism and the “hush arbor.” The hush arbor is the term used to describe the worship of slaves who snuck away into the bush, usually at night, and worshipped according to the dictates of their own conscience and the needs of their own community. So black Christianity is one part biblical religion and public piety (evangelical revivalism). But it is also one part clandestine resistance and self-care. It views itself as working from the bottom and the margins, not to climb atop of everyone else, but to be free, whole, joyful, and useful. 

Because they share one parent (evangelical revivalism), they have a great deal in common. But because they also have different parents, they have very different characteristics too.

In 2007 the genealogy of the black church looked different and its recent expressions not so welcome:

Three theological streams flowed through the doctrine of salvation in African American history. The first stream was the Calvinism adopted by the earliest generation of northern writers, preachers and thinkers and the broadly reformed thinking of African Americans in the plantation South. Their convictions included the doctrines of radical depravity, sovereign election, the necessity of regeneration and a general denial of free will. . . .

The Wesleyan/Arminian tradition, sparked among African Americans by the labors of Methodist churchmen, was the second stream of thought. Institutionalized by Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Arminian soteriology with its higher view of human moral ability and freedom spread in African American faith communities during the 1800s. . . Holiness and Pentecostal revivals in the late 1800s and early 1900s represented flash floods of Arminianism and helped establish this soteriological view as the dominant perspective among African Americans to the present. . . .

The worst part of the decline came now with the move to Wesleyan/Arminiansm, which retained significant elements of orthodox doctrine found in the broader Reformation, but with the distortions of theological liberalism and word-of-faith and prosperity “gospel excesses on the other. Theologically liberal streams opened up in the mid-1900s in the mainstream ideas of the Civil Rights movement and the revolutionary propositions of Black Theology. Black Theology achieved some academic success and reputation, and the iconic stature of theologically liberal leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped shape much of the church’s social ethics. However African Americans remained largely evangelical in their view of Scripture and conversion. (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity [2007] 211-213)

I Prefer Metrosexual Evangelicalism

But such a category is not available, apparently.

Instead, the one that “thought leaders” are adopting is “cosmopolitan” evangelical as opposed to its “populist” evangelical sibling (or cousin, or in-law, or neighbor — the relationship is unclear). Dan Hummel tries to explain cosmopolitan evangelicalism:

“Cosmopolitan” does not necessarily mean “liberal” or “progressive.” What cosmopolitan denotes are the priorities and practices of a subculture. Following Lindsay’s schematic, cosmopolitan evangelicals are sociologically distinct (they “travel frequently, are involved in the arts, and live affluent lifestyles”); they possess cultural power (often affiliated with universities, “have greater access to powerful institutions, and the social networks they inhabit are populated by leaders in government, business, and entertainment”); and they eschew large-scale action and mass politics in favor of invited or “exclusive gatherings” or at least ones that bring together “social and professional peers” that have as their aim not immediate conversions but cultural legitimacy and cultivating long term influence (Faith in the Halls of Power, 218-222).

Hummel goes on to locate cosmo eevees in a set of knowledge producing (or repackaging) institutions:

Perhaps drawing the circle beyond the “faculty lounge” to include study centers, independent artists, and a bunch of InterVarsity, Zondervan, Baker Academic, and Eerdmans authors doesn’t change the calculation much. But perhaps it is notable how much of the institutional infrastructure of evangelicalism is run by cosmopolitan types, from those Christian presses, to many of the Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries, to Christianity Today. Organizations like World Vision, the National Association of Evangelicals, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Made to Flourish fall into this category. And plenty of local churches craft identities that, to varying degrees, embrace some form of the above cosmopolitans.

Another marker is the knowledge cosmo eevee’s consume:

Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is fifth, and judged by numbers of reviews easily outperforms the book by Huckabee or books by Eric Metaxas. The new study by Robert P. Jones, White Too Long, is in the top ten, as is du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. Du Mez’s book outperforms Al Mohler’s The Gathering Storm, a perhaps more useful comparison because they both were released in June 2020 (and Mohler is a subject in du Mez’s book). Others in the top echelon include Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s Unsettling Truths, Giboney, Wear, and Chris Butler’s Compassion & Conviction, and Eric Mason’s Woke Church. Tisby’s forthcoming How to Fight Racism is already in the top fifty and does not release until 2021.

Decidedly missing is any recognition of the church or a Christian communion. These are places where cosmo’s might reasonably interact with populists (though it can go very badly) and where the two sides might recognize truths and practices each group has in common. Such unity could help to diminish the partisanship among evangelicals that often stems from differences in socio-economic status.

A recent read through Kenneth Woodward’s essay about growing up Roman Catholic in the Cleveland suburbs suggests that church and ecclesiastical life is pretty good at breaking down barriers that emerge from education, degrees, credentials, and salaries:

every religious group formed its own subculture, some more closed to the outside world than others. Lutherans, Adventists, and some (mostly Orthodox) Jews also operated their own religious schools, and in Utah, as in much of the South, Mormon and Southern Baptist majorities effectively determined the religious ethos of public classrooms. But at mid-century only Catholics inhabited a parallel culture that, by virtue of their numbers, ethnic diversity, wide geographical distribution, and complex of institutions mirrored the outside “public” culture yet was manifestly different. We were surrounded by a membrane, not a wall, one that absorbed as much as it left out. It was, in other words, the means by which we became American as well as Catholic.

Catholic education was the key. Through its networks of schools and athletic leagues, the church provided age-related levels of religious formation, learning, and belonging that extended through high school and, for some of us, on into college. Church, therefore, always connoted more than just the local parish: kids experienced it anywhere, including schools, where the Mass was said. In this way, Catholicism engendered a powerful sense of community—not because it sheltered Catholic kids from the outside world, as sectarian subcultures try to do, but because it embraced our dating and mating and football playing within an ambient world of shared symbolism, faith, and worship. In my adolescent years, for example, St. Christopher’s transformed its basement on Saturday nights into the “R Canteen” where teenagers from all over Cleveland’s West Side danced to juke-box music; a muscular young priest from the parish roamed the premises to prevent fights and keep the drunks at bay. Yes, Catholics felt like hyphenated Americans, but nothing in human experience, we also came to feel, was foreign to the church.

Perhaps this Roman Catholic culture was too thick for the good of finding a common enterprise in the wider society, though it is striking that when denominational consciousness was at it highest, national purpose was also clearest (at least during the twentieth-century). Forming religious ghettos could conceivably add to the fragmentation of national life that has only multiplied during the Trump presidency.

But, whatever thick religious identity that centers around the church means for the nation, worshiping together and belonging to the same communion is one important source for a common Christian identity. Of course, evangelicals do not have much of an ecclesiology so it may be asking too much of cosmo eevee’s to start now.

At the same time, the knowledge class of evangelicals might have acquaintance with scholarship on religious identity and awareness of other groups to prevent the creation of yet another stripe of evangelical.