Why I Am Probably an Evangelical (Blake)

I never considered converting to Catholicism until my second year at Flagship Evangelical College. Sure, late-adolescent identity formation was partly to blame. But evangelicalism’s syncretistic streak did trouble me. To my mind, evangelicals’ piecemeal rejection of this or that “worldly” aspect of mainstream American culture served only to mask their wholesale adoption of the underlying consumerist logic of American society. To read the objection now it sounds heady and cold, but at the time it was a fleshy, hot-blooded critique:  contemporary services, powerpoint slides, and church marketing campaigns incited riots in my intestines. If Christianity was going to be something worthwhile, it would have to be a different animal altogether. And Catholicism was old enough and out of touch enough to be that different animal. Its ancient traditions and institutions could exist alongside capital-M Modernity, retain their integrity, and call Modernity into question; evangelicalism, on the other hand, seemed too complicit in Modernity to offer a substantive critique.  I suppose these thoughts, together with a timely discovery of Alasdair MacIntyre’s corpus, carried me to the banks of the Rubicon.  But I never crossed.

Conversion, David Bebbington will tell us, is integral to the logic of evangelical Protestant faith and practice. For evangelicals, to remember God’s mighty acts in history means, first and foremost, to remember God’s mighty acts in one’s own life, especially one’s conversion. As that conversion fades from memory, or one fails to see any mighty acts for awhile, the evangelical naturally longs to be born again again. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the most committed and thoughtful evangelical Protestants end up converting to the one true faith—whether it be Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Indeed, converting from evangelicalism may be the consummate moment in the life of the evangelical, especially for those who grew up within the evangelical tradition and can identify no moment of conversion to evangelicalism.

Having once recognized my longing to convert to Catholicism as an evangelical impulse, I really had no choice but to begin to reconcile myself to being evangelical. And that’s where I am now, reconciling myself to evangelicalism by blogging my testimony. I’ve learned to tell a conversion story that embraces my infant baptism rather than apologizing for it. I’ve got Chris Tomlin on my iPod. I’m a youth pastor. Contemporary services, powerpoint slides, and church marketing campaigns still incite riots in my intestines. Actually, just the large intestine anymore.

I’m not sure of the term evangelical’s social-scientific cash value, but it does name a group of people to whom and with whom I belong. Perhaps our historical roots are in The Great Awakening. Perhaps we exhibit Bebbington’s four markers [to be covered extensively soon enough]. I prefer, however, to think of us as a people committed to an unattainable ideal: to be thoroughly orthodox while thoroughly modern. Whatever else it may be, living into that ideal is our evangelical future.

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Comments

  • Stephen  On August 10, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Your second to last sentence reminds me of Bruce McCormack’s book on Barth, Orthodox and Modern, even though I think that you mean something slightly different. I’m not sure if that’s a tenable balance, but it’s a really good way of summarizing the “essence of evangelicalism” – at least since the modernist-fundamentalist controversy (in which both parties were probably equally modern, but the fundamentalists were more orthodox). Do you think that others are moving in the same direction toward the future or is evangelical orthodoxy numerically in retreat? That is, either through conversion or retention of young people, is doctrinally orthodox evangelicalism still offsetting the loss of young people (which is nothing new)?

    • Blake  On August 11, 2010 at 4:59 am

      Stephen,
      I have been on a bit of a Bruce McCormack kick lately, and I do think that McCormack’s Barth is an exemplary evangelical. But you’re right, I have in mind Carl (Henry), not Karl (Barth).
      You also mention that you’re not sure that being orthodox and modern is a tenable balance. If you mean that it is not a resolvable tension, then I wholeheartedly agree. When we resolve the tension, we tend to lapse into flaccid liberalism or intransigent fundamentalism.
      But if by tenable you mean inhabitable, then I agree half-heartedly. On the one hand, you’re right, the tension between orthodoxy and modernity is not fit for occupancy. It is liable to collapse at any moment, and often does: Christianity Today’s failure to cover the civil rights marches, Billy Graham’s segregated crusades, certain denominations’ treatment of women, Rev. Megachurch Pastor’s failure to mention the Resurrection in his Easter Sunday sermon. On the other hand, I think it is evangelicals’ unique calling to inhabit that dangerous space where embarrassment looms always overhead.
      Regarding your final question, my sense is that the evangelical network is growing. At the same time, however, my intuition is that evangelical catechesis is at best atrocious and at worst non-existent.

      Disclaimer: I’m only taking into account American Evangelicalism.

      Also big ‘E’ or little ‘e’?

      Finally, looking forward to reading your latest post.

      • Stephen  On August 11, 2010 at 10:02 pm

        Blake,

        I guess by ‘tenable’ I mean something that can both last and exist as more than an alien influence in a society. For example, Russian Orthodoxy informed Russian culture (literature, art, music) and German Lutheranism informed its culture (through the Luther Bible) in ways that American evangelicalism no longer seems equipped to do. In the 19th century, it obviously had a huge impact on society. In the middle of the 20th century, it also played a key role in shaping what it meant to be an American, with the “born again experience” taking center stage. But if it doesn’t have that kind of cultural influence today (and if it won’t in the future), we have to ask if it is a relative failure, since it is good enough to sustain individuals but not its own nation.

        As for the evangelical network, its growth is part of what concerns me; growth without catechesis is like the seeds that fell on the rocky soil, sprung up quickly, and then withered because they had no root. That is what I fear about American evangelicalism today, that its young people lack the experiential and doctrinal roots that their parents usually had (or that those who do are increasingly isolated from those who don’t). That’s also part of what I mean by “not tenable.”

  • Todd  On August 29, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Your post is familiar to me, as I walked that same road from Evangelicalism (I’m a Liberty University grad) to the Catholic Church – I’ve also read and heard enough to know that I am not alone, although it sometimes felt that way at the time – this is a massive movement, after the sugar-high of evangelical effervescence passed, believers want (and need) more depth and substance

    —todd
    http:\\catholicsojourner.blogspot.com

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