An Off-site Piece (Stephen)

If there are any readers stopping by here still, they might be interested in an essay that I recently wrote for Wunderkammer Magazine. Beginning with last month’s controversy surrounding Rob Bell, it tries to define Evangelicalism as a “reactionary movement” through an analysis of Evangelical history.


Another Brian McLaren Sighting

As usual, Martin E. Marty knows what’s going on.  Apparently, Brian McLaren has begun promoting some sort of “Evolutionary Christianity,” which has something to do with both biological evolution and the historical evolution of Christianity.  As Marty notes, first of all, joining these two issues is a horrible category mistake.  Secondly, McLaren’s shocking revelations regarding the development of doctrine come about two centuries after John Henry Newman’s sytematic reflections on the subject.

Poser Christianity (As Demolished by Jamie Smith) (Stephen)

Recently, Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity criticized younger Emergent types for paying too much attention to style and for trying to fit in with cultural trends.  To be sure, he has a point.  In a scathing review, though, James K. A. Smith points out McCracken more or less assumes that everyone is as much of a poser as he apparently is.  That is to say, only someone consumed with a young group mentality would ascribe to “hipster Christians” the motivations that McCracken does.  In addition, he, I think, rightly implies that the measured and moderate Evangelicalism of much of the Relevant Magazine crowd is a front for continued acceptance of a politics of war and torture, if only because of its focus on trivial pop cultural issues and its rootedness in white culture.  Still, Smith could use more appreciation for the importance of individual salvation/sanctification as an integral part of his vision of communal Christianity.

A Time to Tear Down? Thoughts on Evangelicalism’s Supposed Political and Musical Divisions (James)

[I beg forgiveness for the looseness of this argument. Though it is meant to counteract what I view as hazy notions of Evangelicalism, I’m not sure that at present I can provide much more than hazy notions of its past.]

Though some observers argue that the Evangelical distinctives of worship style and conservative politics may not abide much longer, I argue that neither is essential to Evangelicalism, nor its specific axis (the Ockenga, Graham et al. coalition formed in the 1940s) under consideration on this blog. It is possible, though, that they have become integral to the present American instance of Evangelicalism, and that their demise spells that of our coalition.

Evangelicalism is a coalition. The NAE’s earliest members included Methodists, Mennonites and Pentecostals. Against my confrere’s fright at the present diffuseness of Evangelical music, I find it hard to imagine a 1940s member of any of the these denominations easily and humanly adapting to the worship style of another. We’ve moved a long way from the era of Keith Green, yes, but Evangelicals did well to exist as a coalition before the 1970s. While today one may keep to one’s own sphere of any sort of Christian or semi-Christian music, even in the time of Green, one might have preferred Larry Norman, or any number of Gospel quartets, or the even listening to the simple inoffensiveness of Pat Boone or Lawrence Welk. Musical diversity is nothing new. Perhaps the praise music phenomenon should be viewed as a blight not only on lyrical and chordal creativity, but also on musical diversity in the church. At its beginning, Evangelical music comprised classic Protestant hymnody, the Harmonia Sacra and Gospel music.

As with Contemporary Christian Music, the Evangelical coalition preceded by decades the Southern Strategy and the Moral Majority. If we find that today’s young Evangelicals are rejecting the Dobsons, Falwells and Robertsons of their youth, we should judge this as classical Evangelical behavior, for evangelicals have always striven to strike a balance between piety and action, culture building and culture critique. The Fundamentalists were children of the Progressivists. D.L. Moody, to pick just one example, is known both for soul-saving and for concern for the impoverished. Closer to home, the Evangelical Left, though largely redacted from our self-understanding, has the same institutional and intellectual pedigree of the Republicanism we assume Evangelicalism to stand for (George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 74-75).

Of course, the very existence of concerned observers suggests that not all is well. To my mind, it is the understanding by many Evangelicals of these distinctives as markers of true faith that threatens the existence of the broad coalition. Evangelicalism cannot last if disagreement over worship style and politics fester. In my experience, the compromise of singing traditional tunes at 8 am and newer ones at 10 am, if overly accommodating, has kept us worshipping together (or at least in the same building). The greater present concern seems to be the political. We will not dwell together in unity if we reject the tension between critique and construction our forbears wrestled. I’m not sure many Evangelicals know the provenance of their conservatism; I certainly was unfamiliar with the legitimacy of politically liberal Evangelicalism until very recently, so perhaps education regarding the breadth of Evangelical political opinion and the ingratiating strategies of the political right wing would restore unity. But, again, we must decide whether we are truly at a point threatening disunity.

I’m tempted to say that we have gone from an era of political breadth to one of two disparate parties; however, I’m not sure that at any point during the coalition those at the political poles wouldn’t have appeared to belong to separate parties. It seems a matter of historical fact that both Jim Wallis and George W. Bush are Evangelicals. In the political matters, they are at each other’s throats, but both still hold to the same Evangelical creed. The same is true today of Ben Lowe and those evangelicals attempting to ‘restore honor‘ to American life. Evangelicalism, we must always remind ourselves, is something rather basic and low-level. It is a trans-denominational commitment and pattern of belief and action. It is not trans-denominational and not non-denominational; it encompasses and does not erase differences of theological, political and doxological belief and practice. Sociologically, we will continue to be Evangelical while we hold to the Gospel in the manner described by Bebbington. May we not betray this unity of thought and action with anathemas by one political pole against the other.

Roger Olsen on Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Stephen)

In an insightful blog post, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger E. Olsen has pointed to an intriguing and yet disconcerting shift in the definition of evangelicalism.  Whereas Fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Dallas Theological Seminary would have at one time held themselves at a distance from neo-evangelicalism, by the 1980s they were claiming that title for themselves:

The general attitude of most post-fundamentalist evangelicals throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s was “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (a motto touted by the National Association of Evangelicals).

Then something changed.  I experienced it first hand.  While I was in seminary Harold Lindsell’s horrible book The Battle for the Bible fell like a bombshell on American evangelicalism.  The editor of Christianity Today declared quite unequivocally that a person could not be authentically evangelical while rejecting biblical inerrancy (as he defined it).  He named names and implied that evangelical institutions should purge themselves of non-inerrantists.

My seminary never had a doctrinal statement that included inerrancy.  Neither did or does the National Association of Evangelicals.  We were satisfied with “inspiration” and “authority.”  But Lindsell scared the grassroots of evangelicals and opened the door to an influx of fundamentalists who now wanted to be called “evangelical.”  (Sometime during the 1980s Jerry Falwell, among other self-proclaimed fundamentalists, began to call himself an evangelical and somehow managed to get the media to regard his as a leading spokesman for evangelicals.)

It seems to me that PERHAPS what held the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist evangelical movement together were two powerful forces: the NAE (founded in 1942 to be inclusive of many different “styles” of being evangelical) and the huge organizational influence of Billy Graham (who was disliked by fundamentalists for his inclusiveness).  Now, both are waning in influence.  How many contemporary evangelicals listen to the NAE?  Many know little about Billy Graham and his influence is minimal (although he is still considered an icon).

In the absence of any central, unifying force(s) evangelicalism is simply fragmenting.

I can vividly remember a faculty member at a Gordon College faculty forum remarking that the Fundamentalist/neo-evangelical battle is over because the Fundamentalists lost and, for the most part, disappeared.  What Roger Olsen has put his finger on, though, is that this is not in fact the case.  Instead, the majority of American Fundamentalists stealthily migrated into what had been the neo-evangelical coalition (with the shift from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham serving as an illustration of this change in belief and tone), using the same name but taking more extreme positions on issues like dispensationalism, abortion, and biblical inerrancy than had the neo-evangelicals of the 50s.

At the same time, the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention led to a situation in which one had to be a Calvinist and a biblical inerrantist to avoid suspicion within that denomination.  Soon after this, Southern Baptists became perhaps the dominant voice within evangelicalism, its center having shifted from places like Chicago and Minneapolis to places like Louisville and Orange County, in large part via the political influence of Colorado Springs.  With no “central, unifying force,” as Olsen calls it, the era of a sane evangelical center seems to have passed.

But What is the Gospel? (Stephen)

[As I note at the end of this post, it is very speculative, and I am mostly just interested to see what others have to contribute either in the poll or in comments.]

Since their origins in the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have focused on the importance of the Gospel above almost anything else.  If neo-evangelicalism is fracturing today, we would expect to see its account of the Gospel fracturing first.  And this is, I think, what is happening.

As Brett McCracken notes, this past spring two large conferences prominently promoted divergent (though not necessarily entirely contradictory) accounts of the Gospel: While the Wheaton College Theology Conference was centered on the work of N. T. Wright, who promotes a revisionist (no, that doesn’t have to mean “bad”) account of Paul’s notion of “justification,” Together for the Gospel had a conference that aggressively pushed “neo-Reformed” theology, a perspective that owes much to John Piper’s view of justification (about which he and Wright have debated).  And these are only two perspectives.  Here, I think, is a (hopefully) fair summary of the major accounts on offer today in what used to be evangelicalism:

Neo-Evangelical: This is the Billy Graham/Josh McDowell emphasis on human sinfulness, the divine intervention in the form of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and a joyful and life-changing experience of conversion, of being born again.  Such cultural institutions as “finding Jesus Christ,” the “Four Spiritual Laws,” the “Romans Road,” the “ABC’s of Salvation,” and Gospel tracts are usually associated with this account.  While many who were converted to evangelicalism using this model still hold to this account, few use the traditional methods mentioned above when propagating it.  Actually, most of these people no longer have enough “unsaved” acquaintances to make these methods worthwhile to them.  [James has added that forensic justification is usually assumed as part of this account.]

Pentecostal: While they were part of the neo-evangelical coalition, white Pentecostals held to substitutionary atonement as the means by which Jesus is Savior, a means that had been inherited from the Fundamentalist emphasis on the significance of substitutionary atonement (over against the Modernist rejection of this theory).  This, however, was slowly replacing the four-fold emphasis on Jesus as Savior, Healer, Spirit-Baptizer, and Coming King that had marked early Pentecostalism.  Now, though, some Pentecostals are drifting more fully into something like neo-evangelicalism while others are diverging.  For those who are diverging from this stream, the Gospel looks like a manifestation of the Spirit’s power and the reenactment of New Testament church life than like the emphasis on forgiveness from sin.  As a result, pursuit of a better life and use of God as a good-luck charm of sorts (don’t be so quick to judge) are characteristic of the decreasingly evangelical wing of Pentecostalism.

(Neo-)Reformed: As Christianity Today says, they are “Young, Restless, Reformed.”  Unflinchingly dogmatic (not always a bad thing), this faction is largely inspired by John Piper and emphasizes the glory and sovereignty of a God who elects for salvation those whom He (yes, He – it’s very important) wishes to elect.  For these people, “justification” is forensic; it is a court-room scene in which Jesus is made the substitute for the elect.  This perspective has much in common with the magisterial Reformation, but it was less well-represented for some decades during the neo-evangelical coalition.

Emergent: No one is really sure what this is, so I use it as a “catch-all” for those who are intentionally moving beyond neo-evangelicalism.  This “movement” includes the vagueness of Brian McLaren’s approach, the revisionism of N. T. Wright’s nature-saving, society-transforming emphasis on human cooperation with God, and the deep digging of Robert Webber’s return to the liturgy of the ancient church.  For these people, the Gospel is too big to be narrowed down to substitutionary atonement or a three-step prayer; instead, they emphasize process and a holistic approach that sometimes lends itself to a lack of clarity about beliefs.

So do you fit into one or more or these categories?  Take the poll below, and feel free to comment if you don’t fit into any category or if you object to the way I’ve described one or more of them.

The Kids are Alright (James)

“[A] group of positive fundamentalist intellectuals began organizing a move away from dispensationalist emphases. …they recognized that it would be necessary to build on fundamentalism’s claim to stand in the broad tradition of Augustinian orthodoxy, rather than to promote the more narrow dispensationalist teachings of recent invention.  They also deplored fundamentalism’s emphasis on personal ethical prohibitions at the expense of a positive social program…They were embarassed, furthermore, by the anti-intellectualism that had come to be associated with dispensational fundamentalism, which had been promoted primarily through Bible institutes and pragmatic popularizers.”  (Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, George M. Marsden, p. 72)

So George Marsden describes the origins of the Ockenga, Graham, et al. Evangelical coalition, and so mutatis mutandis, could we describe the stirrings in Evangelical young people today which some fear will rend Evangelicalism.

(1)  Unsatisfied young Evangelicals want to find Jesus outside of the now narrow-seeming evangelical box and appreciate “Augustinian orthodoxy” wherever it can be found (the phrase’s patristic ring is an added bonus), with some seeking to move into extra-Augustinian, Eastern territory.  They strive to find true expressions of Christ that are yet further removed from Fundamentalism and its reaction to modernity which doomed it to be modern itself.  They also by and large deem dispensationalism a failed theology, if it ever even reaches their attention.  One qualification to be made to this general description is that while many seek to move within the whole stream of “Augustinian orthodoxy,” a number seem to be content with ressourcement only of particular Protestant teachings, thereby becoming more entrenched in their denomination rather than finding an openness to a wide range of theological expressions of the Gospel.

(2)  Though a good number of young Evangelicals will inherit the lifestyles of their parents, most active and thoughtful Evangelical young people assume the necessity of making social ethics more central to their lives and faith.  Witness the rise of ‘creation care,’ ‘intentional living,’ and ‘social justice.’  Evangelical youth desire a consistent ethic and are at times willing to cross political lines and forgo cultural practices to embody one.  Perhaps most importantly, there is an ever-strengthening critique of the American bourgeois lifestyle.  While few readers of Wendell Berry will become truly agrarian, even those that don’t will have recognized the dangers inherent in suburban life.  (This trend extends beyond Evangelical youth.)  The frightening thing, of course, is that when service becomes more palatable than proclamation, and it is for many or most young Evangelicals, we can forget the necessity of our euangelion.

(3)  Perhaps the most obvious continuity between the Evangelicals described by Marsden and those that concern us here is a disappointment with anti-intellectualism.  Those institutions connected with the beginnings of the Evangelical coalition (identified by Marsden as Dallas, Fuller and Gordon seminaries, and Gordon, Moody and Wheaton undergraduate) thrive, exposing students, as Barbara mentioned in the last post, to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and mending it.

It seems that, if anything, today’s young Evangelicals’ discomforts with Evangelicalism are expressions of the very traits that characterize and animate the coalition.

At Least I’m Not A Fundamentalist (Barbara)

There was a time when I was instructed to mistrust anyone who called herself a Christian but did not attend the right kind of church; that is, our kind of church. The kind of church where more than sixty members was nearly unheard of, where the mourner’s bench was the most important facet of the church building, where old time religion was properly preached and preserved in generations of sweat, tears, and shouts. That time is over a decade past now, but I lived it for more than a decade. This tiny ‘denomination’ of sorts was certainly fundamentalist, but the label of “evangelical” does not quite fit; its members and leadership would shudder at the thought of being associated with any group besides their own.

I tell that story because it provides necessary context as to my sustained appreciation for the best evangelicalism has to offer. During my time at Flagship Evangelical College I certainly shared some of the misgivings expressed by fellow peers regarding the ugly side of evangelicalism. But those misgivings, while legitimate, seemed so very slight and at times downright trivial in comparison to my early church rearing. Had my family remained in that church, enrolling at Flagship would have been out of the question, if for no other reason than Billy Graham, the “liberal” evangelist, earned his degree there. Whereas to most of my college peers the pursuit of “integration of faith and learning” was a given, to me it was a novelty, a liberating force. In fact, my former church affiliation would not hesitate to ostracize even the most narrow-minded of evangelicals at Flagship.

I do not study charts and statistics and polls of evangelicals; somewhere around eleventh grade honors pre-cal I fell off the mathematics train. In other words, do not expect me to be throwing out percentages left and right in my blog posts. For now I am content with settling into my new life at seminary and observing the manifold stripes of evangelicalism and other ‘breeds’ of Christianity present in this context. And if in the process I happen to convert fellow seminarians to a great love for the thought of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, then so be it. They can thank me later (or immediately, if they’re wise).

Merchants of Eternal Life (Stephen)

Recently, Brett McCracken has offered an insightful Wall Street Journal opinion piece (found via First Thoughts).  After laying out the dire situation that evangelicalism faces among its younger generation (“70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly”), he rightly ridicules the tendency to try to seem cool or use shock tactics such as Mark Driscoll’s addressing of the topic “Biblical Oral Sex.”  To be blunt, no younger post-evangelical is fooled by such cheap pageantry – or, at the very least, a vanishingly small percentage are.  As McCracken indicates, we’ve seen it all before.  In youth groups, we were often the ones who were desperately trying to make God cool, so we know the game already.

Toward the end of the article, McCracken wisely quotes David Wells (from The Courage to be Protestant):

And the further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

If you eliminate the cross in exchange for Power Point presentations, in other words, you will have given away what little credibility you had.  As for McCracken’s solution, I found it both convincing and unconvincing:

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

While this is absolutely right, I don’t think that evangelicalism can offer this.  Instead, Wells’ vision of historic Protestantism may be necessary, since evangelicalism’s connection with marketing ploys runs deep.  If nothing else, the Fundamentalists were advertisers, and, from Billy Graham to Rick Warren, neo-evangelicals have likely been better at selling things than at anything else.  As we might be finding, though, you can’t really buy or sell eternal life in the long-term.

Brian McLaren’s Schleiermacherian View of Orthodoxy (Stephen)

In a recent interview by Scot McKnight (via Robert E. Sagers), Brian McLaren says probably hundreds of things with which I disagree.  In particular, though, at about 7:00 in the interview he talks about rejecting the Greco-Roman history of Christianity in favor of liberation and queer theologies.

Although there are dozens of holes that one could poke in his argument, one thing specifically stands out to me: McLaren is utterly convinced that there is an emotional and social content to “the Gospel” that is not culturally embedded via the mainstream history of early Christianity.  When he talks about “the faith,” he makes it clear that he is rejecting the notion of a “historic faith” as a set of orthodox beliefs and liturgical practices in favor of a notion of “faith” as individual emotional dependence on God, with social consequences.

This is hardly different (especially given their mutual tendency to pander to current fashions among the cultural elite) from the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism.  So congratulations, Brian McLaren, you’ve reinvented a certain non-functioning wheel, the use of which is at the core of a whole segment of what used to be evangelicalism.