What I've Been Sayin'

Talk about epistemological uncertainty:

“The term ‘evangelical’ is squishy because people use the term differently,” Green said in an email. “This is not uncommon — think of words like ‘middle class,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘extreme.'” (Indeed, in one recent survey, 87 percent of Americans saw themselves as some form of “middle class.”)

Consider that a Catholic could easily believe in spreading his or her faith, as Bailey does, or leading a godly life, like Lemieux does. And, indeed, Catholics will sometimes self-identify as “evangelical,” according to Smith. But by many religious or denominational definitions, Catholics are not evangelicals.

Even within the confines of Protestantism, “evangelical” does not always mean evangelical. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. — are mainline protestants, according to Pew’s denominational definition.

To add to the confusion, here’s another wrinkle: Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are considered evangelical. (Another curveball: they don’t necessarily go to church in Missouri and Wisconsin.)

Sound familiar?

. . . the assertion that evangelicalism is largely a constructed ideal without any real substance is highly debatable. Part of what makes such a point contested is almost sixty years of publications, organizations, and Protestant leaders from an evangelical perspective, cheerleading for the cause. How can anyone reasonably state that evangelicalism is the creation of certain beholders’ imaginations when magazines such as Christianity Today and Books & Culture, schools such as Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Fuller Seminary, and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association not only exist but thrive? If evangelicalism is not the best way to describe these institutions, some may ask, then what is? What is more, if these agencies are evangelical then evangelicalism, ipso facto, must be real; it must stand for a certain strand of Christian faith and practice.

Another factor that makes questioning evangelicalism’s reality difficult is the large number of North Americans who regard themselves as evangelical. In 1976, the so-called “Year of the Evangelical” (another indication of something really there), the Gallup Organization started asking respondents the following question: “would you describe yourself as a ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian?” The initial response from the 1,000 Americans surveyed was an impressive 34 percent. Since then the annual responses have varied, with 1987 representing the low point (33 percent) and 1998 the high (47 percent). The responses from the 2001 survey yielded a still sturdy figure of 40 percent of Americans who considered themselves to be evangelical. Scholars of American religion, never slow to spot a trend, have picked up on such statistics to churn out a remarkable range of studies devoted to this sizeable segment of the American population. Religious historians, for instance, have charted the fortunes of evangelicalism since its emergence in the eighteenth-century North American British colonies. Meanwhile, sociologists of American religion have documented recent manifestations of evangelical zeal in electoral politics as well as everyday domestic life. So again, readers could well ask, before donating this book to the local public library’s annual book sale, who would be so foolish as to challenge so many signals indicating the existence and vitality of this religious phenomenon called evangelicalism?

Yet, the central claim of Deconstructing Evangelicalism is precisely to question the statistics and scholarship on evangelicalism. The reason is not simply to be perverse or provocative. Good reasons exist for raising questions about whether something like evangelicalism actually exists. In the case of religious observance, evangelical faith and practice have become increasingly porous, so much so that some born-again Christians have left the fold for more historic expressions of the Christian faith, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. At the same time, in the sphere of religious scholarship, evangelicalism has become such a popular category of explanation that it has ceased to be useful. Better reasons, however, may also be offered for looking behind the evangelical facade to see what is really there. As the following chapters attempt to show, evangelicalism has been a religious construction of particular salience during the late twentieth century. The general contractors in building this edifice were the leaders of the 1940s neo-evangelical movement who sought to breathe new life into American Christianity by toning down the cussedness of fundamentalism while also tapping conservative Protestantism’s devotion and faith. Yet, without the subcontractors in this construction effort, the neo-evangelical movement would have frayed and so failed much quicker than it did. The carpenters, plumbers, and painters in the manufacturing of evangelicalism have been the historians, sociologists and pollsters of American religion who applied the religious categories developed by neo-evangelicals to answer the questions their academic peers were asking about Protestantism in the United States. The emergence of evangelicalism as a significant factor in American electoral politics did not hurt these efforts and, in fact, may have functioned as the funding necessary for completing the evangelical edifice. Especially after the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 and the formation of the so-called Religious Right, religious leaders and religion scholars had a much easier time than before convincing skeptical academics, policy wonks, publishers and pundits that evangelicalism was a given of American life, a thriving movement, and therefore important.

Consequently, evangelicalism as the term is used is a construct developed over the last half of the twentieth century. Prior to 1950 the word had not been used the way religious leaders and academics now use it. And even then it was not a coherent set of convictions or practices. For that reason its construction is as novel as it is misleading. This book offers an explanation of why evangelicalism as currently used became a useful category for journalists, scholars and believing Protestants. But it is more than simply an account of a specific word’s usage. It is also an argument about the damage the construction of evangelicalism has done to historic Christianity. As much as the American public thinks of evangelicalism as the “old-time religion,” whether positively or negatively, this expression of Christianity has severed most ties to the ways and beliefs of Christians living in previous eras. For that reason, it needs to be deconstructed.

Trending: Counter-Cultural, TKNY

If the Gospel Allies have this much trouble interpreting their council members, how reliable are they on matters more important?

Dan Olson (thanks to our southern correspondent) tries to raise funds for The Gospel Coalition by trying to portray Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC as one of the better examples of the Benedict Option:

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller serves as senior pastor, an effective example of the Benedict Option for our twenty-first century, post-Christian context. Like other TGC-inspired communities, Redeemer aims to blend countercultural biblical faithfulness with a Christ-exalting, city-embracing vision.

See what he did there? He took one trending subject, the Benedict Option, and added another trending subject to it.

But this doesn’t sound very counter-cultural:

“I think one of our biggest problems as a denomination or as Reformed people and evangelicals is that we don’t really know how to talk to late modern culture. When I hear the average PCA pastor, it is very clear to me that they are preaching to the person who feels like they ought to be in church somewhere. Most of us have been conditioned to speak to people who don’t have one foot out the door. … You’re not used to preaching to people who do have one foot out the door, and when they do leave, they’ll never come back to any kind of church at all. … The relativism, the individualism, the pragmatism which is late modern culture — most pastors don’t have that in mind.”

That’s why we need to grow and strengthen groups such as Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), he explained.

According to Keller, if you’re on a college campus, you’re on the culture’s cutting edge. It is, he says, our best leadership development pipeline. By exposing people to the cutting edge of culture where they have to deal with the modern mindset, where they have to deal with non-Christians — that, in Keller’s opinion, is the best way to develop pastors and lay leaders.

Similarly, Keller pointed out that we as a denomination can grow in helping people better integrate their private life and their public work.

“We have to make sure people aren’t sealing off their faith from their work, only being Christians inside the church. Reformed people have more resources for that than any other group,” he says. “But the ways to support people out there right now are pretty weak. We need to be better about supporting nonclergy in their work. We need to be commissioning them and praying over them, and not just over pastors and missionaries.”

Lastly, if the PCA really wants to have a cultural impact, we can’t ignore the good work of other Gospel-spreading movements, Keller added.

“As Reformed people, we tend to be dismissive of the charismatic movement,” Keller said. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “unfortunate and bad theology there,” including the “prosperity gospel,” which is often integrated into charismatic teaching. But Keller points out that Pentecostalism is the most vital, fastest growing, and most multiracial, multiethnic movement in the world.

If TGC wanted an example of counter-cultural Christianity, they might have chosen the pastor of the RPCNA congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Or you could keep your culturally engaged celebrity pastor and simply ignore the Benedict Option or point out where it’s flawed.

But when you live in the world of cultural trends and celebrity, you sometimes lose your way.

P.S. I hope Rod is paying attention. A sure way to discredit the substance of the Benedict Option is to turn it into a fad.

P.P.S. Here is how truly counter-cultural Protestants worry about relevance and isolation:

Today, “missional,” liberal and evangelical Mennonites all seek it. A Mennonite Church USA Executive Board resolution encourages delegates to this summer’s convention to get over the “matters that divide us and to focus attention on the missional vision that unites us.” The busier we get, the better we will fix the world and the less we will worry about our own brokenness, boundaries and baggage.

Today’s Mennonite north stars are just as privileged as Leaman’s white Protestantism but more numerous. There is the fiction of an Anabaptist essence without the tribal baggage. There is church-management literature and the amorphous “missional” vernacular. There is the restless cycle of new causes for justice, celebrity activism or evangelical “revival.”

We think of these impulses as playing on a progressive-versus- evangelical divide, but their posture is fundamentally the same: the pressure to use religious and cultural privilege to lecture the world, along with the wish to never be tribal and broken again.

Many find it virtually impossible to imagine a life-giving Anabaptist spirituality without stressing activism and unity. Mainstream Mennonites now mostly function like the culturally white Protestants Leaman once admired — neither tribal nor marginal. Other Christians, we hope, will see us as active, opinionated — and pretty impressive.

Troubling

Rod Dreher continues to acquire material for his next book — the one on the Benedict Option. (Make that Benedictine Option and I’m there — like yesterday.) And he posts this from a Protestant pastor who supports the notion of some kind of cultural resistance:

I just wanted to let you know that your writings about the Benedict Option have moved me deeply. Your thoughts, plus the guidance of the Spirit, led me to propose a youth discipleship class for the teenagers in our church to our Pastor — a proposal that he quickly endorsed.

A line that you had in a recent blog post “If they’ve heard anything from the Church, it’s something like, ‘Don’t do this because the Bible says not to’ — which is not enough in this time and place.” is exactly what we are trying to combat. It is almost word for word what a youngish (~25) member of our church told me a few weeks ago. She said that when she was growing up and would ask if she could do something that was verboten, her parents would tell her, “No, you can’t do that.” “Why?” “It’s against our religion.” No further explanation was given.

So we are putting together this class and starting it with hard questions. Why do you go to church? Would you go to church if your parents didn’t make you? Is God important to you? Why?

From there, it will lead into discussions about our doctrines, the importance of prayer, how to pray, how to read/study/meditate on the Bible, holiness, how to handle failures, etc. When we start discussing the things that the Lord hates, we aren’t just going to point at the Bible and say, “God says no, so don’t.” One of the questions we will keep bringing up is, “God said don’t do X or that he hates X. Why would God say that?” We want them to be able to put those admonitions into a larger framework.

Why did God say that? Wasn’t that the Serpent’s question to Eve (of course, in a figurative way, vd,t)? Why isn’t a thus saith the Lord sufficient for not doing something? Does this pastor really think he can go behind the curtain of God’s prescriptive will and come back alive?

Speaking from my own experience, parental instruction not to do something, backed up by serious consequences for the backside at younger stages and coping with parental disapproval at later ones, was an effective moral code. Did I observe it? Of course, not. Now that the parents are in the grave (and not eavesdropping on everything I say or think), I can admit that the first movie I saw in a theater was Straw Dogs. How did a 14-year old get pass the ticket taker? I looked old for my age. What did I tell my parents, who specified that their boys were not allowed to go to movies? I told them I went to the Mall, which was sort of true. But on the whole I broke at least 2 commandments that night — the fifth and the ninth — and if you’re keeping score at home with Greg the Terrible, watching this movie likely broke the seventh as well.

But the lesson here is not how to fool fundamentalist parents. It is that a firm set of moral guidelines, even without elaborate moral reasoning apart from the appeal to authority, was as remarkably good way to grow up. I obtained a clear sense of living inside or outside that moral code and I couldn’t blame anyone but myself if I got caught and had to face the music.

It seems to me in a just sayin’ way that if you want a real Benedict option, it is not to turn adolescents into people who can compete with Benedict XVI or Alasdair MacIntyre on virtue ethics. It is rather to create a moral universe akin to Benedict’s monastery where those who belong to the community have a clear sense of what’s right and wrong on the inside and how that differs from the world outside. In other words, respecting authority is more important than explaining why authority is important.

Postscript: this was NOT my experience:

Sadly, in spite of my Christian upbringing, no one ever told me what was wrong with the hook up culture. In fact, sex before marriage was encouraged by much of my Christian family and by the unanimous agreement of my Christian friends, who both mentioned preventing unwanted pregnancies, but never voiced the option of abstinence. What is worse, I never heard about the topic of sex in church. It was not until my involvement with a Christian campus ministry that I heard someone speak against premarital sex using biblical teaching.

This being my experience, I urge the Church, particularly parents raising children in the Church, to speak out on this issue and embrace the God’s intention for sex. Parents, do not make your child wait until he is a legal adult to hear about it from someone else. Talking about it may be awkward, but it could save your child from making a huge mistake and dealing with a lifetime of baggage for it.

Jay and Ellen Hart didn’t talk about the mechanics but Don and Darryl knew full well that sex outside marriage was verboten (inside marriage, well, okay, if you must).

A Fundamentalist Is A Mean Evangelical

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. Evangelicalism of the Billy Graham variety was supposed to present a kinder gentler conservative Protestantism. But as Tommie Kidd recently observed, evangelicals rarely receive positive press these days:

It’s nice to be liked. But it also comes with temptation – that of focusing all the church’s work on things that will engender the world’s approval. A hundred years ago, social gospel Christians began to suggest that service and aid, not evangelism, should encompass all of a believer’s missionary responsibility. Thus began one of the most important turns away from evangelical Christianity which has haunted the mainline denominations in America ever since.

That lesson may be one that advocates of a progressive brand of evangelicalism may want to remember. I mean, if Jimmy Carter is the best you can do for presenting a positive image of evangelicalism, then you may not be operating from a position of strength. Unless, that is, you want to make this all about Christian truth and devotion and turn Jimmy Carter’s critics, whether political or Southern Baptist, into mean SOBs who don’t trust Jesus as their personal savior. In which case, the kinder, gentler, progressive version of evangelicalism is no less intolerant than fundamentalism.

The subject of evangelical meanness is much in the news these days with all the hysteria over Indiana’s religious freedom laws. It’s a hysteria that has the socially conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals (and some Eastern Orthodox) pitted against the secular left who as some people tell it are out to destroy freedom in America. I had wanted to follow Eric’s advice and sit this one out with this assessment of the situation:

What we have here it seems to me are 3% of the population who would not do business with gay people in a fight with a minority of gay people who would try to force someone who is hostile to them to perform services for them or sell goods to them. Meanwhile the rest of the population takes sides and gets mad at each other over it while politicians of all stripes posture.

For the defenders of this law not to think that gay marriage is the subtext is well-nigh inconceivable and suggests a level of naivete that is truly destructive of politics since politics goes best when people admit self-interest rather than thinking themselves innocent.

Just as helpful was the Reformed Episcopal Curmudgeon’s point about the flaws of Civil Rights legislation and a legitimate question of whether the federal government should have such social engineering power as to legislate business transactions:

What the “public accommodations” law required, if originally in a limited fashion, was that businesses which provided “accommodations” were required to do business with anyone regardless of race. Goldwater believed it was morally repugnant to practice racial discrimination in providing “public accommodations,” but he believed the federal government had no power to coerce businesses that provided “public accommodations” to provide them to anyone who wanted to do business with them. In other words, the government should not force hotels to sell rooms, restaurants to sell food, or movie theaters to sell tickets to anyone who wanted to do business with them. Those were decisions for business owners to make.

What does this have to do with gay rights? We have accepted as a society that civil rights includes the requirement that all businesses sell their goods and services without discrimination. We believe that a person, regardless of race, ethnicity, or color has the right to buy gasoline from any business that sells gasoline. . . .

It seems to me that the only protection against being forced to do business with gays who want to marry is if there were a recognized right not to have to do business with anyone you don’t want to do business with. It is too late by much, but perhaps, if Goldwater had prevailed in 1964 and the freedom to do business or not do business with anyone you please, even if you are wrong, had been established, those with moral objections to doing business related to gay weddings would be protected. Put another way, perhaps protecting the freedom of people to do wrong (discriminate in doing business with blacks if that is what you want to do) is the only way to protect their freedom to do right when when an action violates their moral code (not do business with gays planning marriage).

Sheesh, what will the obedience boys do with civil magistrates who protect the freedoms of citizens to do wrong?

I still don’t understand why a gay or black person (caution, we’re treading in microaggression territory) would want to give business (and the inherent profits) to someone whose views they find repugnant. I understand the importance of sit-ins during the Civil Rights protests. But conceivably, an African-American who objected to Jim Crow could occupy a lunch-counter seat and not purchase anything. But after segregation laws went away, did African-Americans return to businesses that had refused to serve them? I could well imagine why they wouldn’t. So why do gay people and their enablers want to make anti-gay bakers make a cake for gay weddings and have gay people pay anti-gay people for such services? The whole understanding of human motivation is off. Doesn’t anyone fear an inedible cake? Or will the government set standards for tastiness to which all business must comply?

What I understand even less is the sensitivity of religious consciences to gay marriage. I do not support the legalization of gay marriage on social grounds. But I have no idea why some consciences object to gay marriage but not to providing services for other breakers of the Decalogue. Would a Protestant baker object to making a wedding cake for a marriage in a Roman Catholic church even when Rome’s teaching on marriage violates the sufficiency of God’s word? Or what about a cake for non-believers? I get it. Their money spends. But are we really supposed to think that homosexuals are the only ones with sin entering into nuptials?

Lean and Means

Charles Pope — good for him, none of this Rodney King, CTC pose — takes issue with Protestants for separating faith from works, grace from transformation (ugh), and Scripture from church authority:

There are a lot of “solos” sung by our Protestant brethren: Sola Fide (saved by faith alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the rule of faith), and sola gratia (grace alone). (See the Protestant logo to the right.) Generally, one ought to be suspicious and careful of claims that things work “alone.” It is our usual experience that many things work together in harmony, that things are interrelated. Very seldom is anyone or anything “alone.”

The problem of the “solos” emerges (it seems to me) in our minds, where it is possible to separate things out. But the fact is, just because we can separate something out in our mind does not mean that we can separate it out in reality.

What Pope doesn’t seem to consider, first of all, is that the solas of the Reformation were not mere intellectual exercises but efforts to restore the supremacy of Christ and his accomplishments (both in redemption and revelation). You clutter up Christ with images and pilgrimages and stigmata and saints and the next thing you know you don’t have Christ alone. And where will you be on that great day?

But, second of all, does Pope ever wonder how sloppy Christianity gets when you don’t eliminate some of the clutter? When it comes to marriage and divorce, Pope can sound pretty sola himself. He doesn’t want divorcees to be harmonized with faithful spouses, or marriage between husband and wife cluttered with gay marriage.

So either Pope is selective in the way he separates things or is unaware of the importance of such separation. Either way, for those Christians who wanted a reform of the Western Christian Church, Pope’s desire for seeing the interrelations of things is an important reason for doubting that a reformation of Rome will ever happen. As Mike Horton said somewhere, you can’t keep adding pages to the notebook. At some point, you need to take out the page the conflicts with the one you just inserted. After Vatican 2, though, the Roman church’s mode seems to be insertionamento.

Deconstructing Evangelicalism

BE074639Philip Yancey writes at Christianity Today one of his last columns for a while. He is not entirely encouraged by what evangelicalism has become, though he also finds room for encouragement. As is typical of so much writing about evangelicalism, Yancey notes the ying and yang that at once makes evangelicalism successful and destructive.

On the yang, Yancey writes, “In the past year I have visited the Middle East, India, Africa, Latin America, and Europe as the guest of churches and ministries. In each place, evangelicals exude life and energy. While staid churches change slowly, evangelicals tend to be light on their feet, adapting quickly to cultural trends.”

But for yang Yancey also observes that evangelicals are slaves to innovation (some might call it idolatry but we refuse to use such freighted language — good for us!). “The Jesus movement,” he writes, “the house-church movement, seeker-friendly churches, emergent churches—evangelicals have spawned all of these. In their wake, worship bands have replaced organs and choirs, PowerPoint slides and movie clips now enliven sermons, and espresso bars keep congregants awake. If a technique doesn’t work, find one that does.”

Yancey cautions “that mimicking cultural trends has a downside. At a recent youth workers conference I attended, worship meant a DJ playing techno music at jet-engine volume while a sweaty audience crowded the stage, jumping up and down while shouting spiritual one-liners. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I couldn’t help questioning the depth of worship.”

Well, I’m sorry but you can’t have it both ways. Innovation means a certain kind of vigor, one that attracts “new” followers. Innovation also means you disrespect tradition and also that you have no tradition – other than a perpetual quest for innovation. Evangelicalism as conservative Protestantism — are you kidding?

But none of this prevents Yancey from staying the course with evangelicalism, and advising against not abandoning the name, but “living up to it.” In fact, he observes one encouraging trend, namely, the evangelical embrace of the Social Gospel. “The fundamentalist-social gospel divide that marked the church a century ago has long since disappeared. Now evangelical organizations lead the way in such efforts as relief and development, microcredit, HIV/AIDS ministries, and outreach to sex workers.”

What Yancey fails to realize is that the Social Gospel was originally an evangelical enterprise that married word and deed in such a way that evangelicals gave deeds of mercy equal weight with word and sacrament. Over time this evangelical wedding of evangelism and reform led to an inability to see that the eternal things of word and sacrament were truly more important than temporary forms of relief and development. In other words, evangelicalism became the path to liberal Protestantism. Evangelicalism as conservative Protestantism — are you still kidding?

Along with the email that included a link to Yancey’s article came other links to other CT articles on evangelicals. One of those by Kevin Offner in 1995 – almost 15 years ago!! – included yet another depressing assessment of evangelicalism:

Just how does one define “evangelical” today? Until recently it was clearly understood, implicitly if not explicitly, that evangelicals were fully committed to two truths: the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth. And the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who saves us from our sins, was the common object of adoration. One evangelical might disagree with another on secondary matters but they both shared a common, nonnegotiable center.

Today this center has become fuzzy and elusive as American pluralism hits evangelicalism with a vengeance. Lines are being drawn not over whether one does or does not wholeheartedly affirm the gospel but over secondary matters, which in turn are often set up as litmus tests for unity.

All of this invites the question: why is anyone still considering “evangelical” a meaningful Christian identity? I sort of understand why CT does, it being the flagship magazine of “the movement.” But if Yancey and Offer see these problems, what good is keeping the evangelical moniker in use? Even more poignant is why conservative Presbyterians would continue to want to call themselves evangelical.