Category Archives: Initial Thoughts

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).

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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.

Evangelicalism is Dead, and We Have Killed It (Stephen)

Right now this blog has three contributors; to get things going, each will present his assessment of the current state of Evangelicalism. Here’s Stephen’s take:

Like Nietzsche’s “God” (a fill-in for ontological stability, social cohesion, and moral structure), evangelicalism was a fragile thing; we really didn’t know that it was going to leave so quickly, but now we are left picking up the pieces.  As I build my initial post here, arguing (like the other contributors) for a particular take on the question, I will list both characteristics of neo-evangelicalism as it grew into its own cultural matrix and ways in which these characteristics have been and are being irreparably eroded.  [I should make clear here that I am talking about American evangelicalism and about not its relatives in the developing world, which, though related, are usually culturally distinct in important ways.]

Consequently, I will portray neo-evangelicalism as a movement that c. 1942-2008 inherited the mantle of fundamentalism (and of the longer tradition of Anglophone evangelicalism, with roots in German Pietism, British Wesleyanism, and American revivalism) only to watch that mantle dissolve into thin air.  As a result, we now see the spiritual heirs of Billy Graham and Carl Henry left in much the same situation as were American Fundamentalists after the devastating Scopes trial: Without a cultural home or a persuasive political outlet.  Only this time, the silence will be permanent: There will be no evangelical resurrection because the cultural preconditions for neo-evangelicalism and its spiritual forebears have dissipated; whatever comes next will only bear a passing resemblance to the neo-evangelical coalition.

1. Conversionism: At the heart of evangelicalism has always been the free church and revivalist emphasis on personal decision to follow Christ and to accept his substitutionary atonement.  But, as many of the remaining evangelicals among us often lament, sermons about the necessity of salvation from sin, let alone about hell, are becoming rare.  Because of the recent cultural bent toward absolute religious tolerance, even people who believe in exclusivist accounts of human salvation (accounts in which some, even most, will suffer eternally in hell) are reluctant to bring this up.  Despite the hostility directed toward the “seeker sensitive” movement, almost all conservative Protestants in the US are now seeker sensitive whether they like it or not, hesitating to bring up theological convictions that may deeply offend others.

2. Religion in the Public Square: This hesitation is the result of a massive shift in the location of the “public square” in American life.  Whereas the 1954 addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag captured the mood of a nation in which at least the appearance of Christian piety was demanded of its leaders, by 1992 (500 years after Columbus’ journey) remorse about the treatment of Native Americans had shifted the playing field such that any party could take offense and receive compensation in social capital (not that this was entirely a bad thing).  This feeling of guilt toward the non-white other was accompanied by a religious de-centering away from the evangelical and mainline Protestant core of American religious life.  Regardless of the continued numerical dominance of Protestantism, it seemed that common decency forbade too robust a Protestant presence in American public life.  Although civic religion was nothing new, it used to be more explicitly monotheistic (Judeo-Christian, as they say) and to lend itself to an assumed common foundation in vaguely Protestant Christianity as a least common denominator.

3. Cultural Authority: In a related manner, what Upton Sinclair’s Elmer Gantry failed to do to the continued cultural authority of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, and ministers was gradually done by a wide array of cultural actors.  Within evangelicalism, televangelist scandals, residual fundamentalist rigidity, and rejections of scientific consensus on issues like biological evolution made enough of a combined impact to lighten the weight that was formerly ascribed to the claims of evangelical Christians.  Furthermore, the sexual revolution (and other cultural shifts), along with disappointment toward the cultural establishment involved in Vietnam and Watergate, had the effect of moving American culture away from residual respect for social (including religious) authority.

4. Political Friction: While we cannot uncritically accept claims that young people are leaving evangelicalism because of its connection (since 1978 or so) with the Republican Party, the fact that evangelicals joined with Catholics on issues of human life and sexuality has caused some friction.  And it is not that young (post)-evangelicals are pro-choice or even rabidly environmentalist on the whole.  Rather, the previous generations who were associated with neo-evangelicalism (more or less those who voted for Ronald Reagan) imbibed a whole host of cultural and political assumptions – worldview garnish, if you will – that are anathema to the generation of evangelicals who cast their first votes for Barack Obama.  These shifts in cultural assumptions range from the turn to multiculturalism during the early 90s (which today’s young post-evangelicals experienced as children) to a lack of fear regarding nations on other continents among people too young to remember any Soviet leader before Gorbachev.  Of course, not all young evangelicals are Democrats or even politically left-leaning, but the lens through which they filter political drama is markedly different from that of their parents (e.g., even mildly racist humor is seen as utterly unacceptable); this phenomenon is linked to the alienation of young people (who once heavily preferred Reagan and George H. W. Bush) from the Republican party.

5. A Decline in Institutional Commitment: As James noted below, younger evangelicals usually no longer identify with specific denominations.  Even those who do, though, do so apologetically and with the understanding that their particular denomination is by no means perfect in its beliefs or history.  Although one could look for exceptions among the neo-Reformed wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, even there a new ecumenical irenicism (at least toward fellow conservative Reformed evangelicals, though usually farther reaching) has taken hold.  So it is, for instance, unlikely that the younger generation would have taken the step of banning Southern Baptists who have spoken in tongues from serving as SBC missionaries (while the generation in power did just that) – even neo-Reformed folks are sometimes charismatic.  At the same time, the trend away from institutional attachment mirrors a broader trend in American culture, as Robert Putnam famously argued has occurred in Bowling Alone; organizations have little hold on us even if we wish that they did.

6. Media-Driven Fragmentation: This phenomenon has prevented the preservation of the neo-evangelical coalition in the wake of the decline of institutional commitment.  Although we might be optimistic in light of the apparent ecumenical orientation of many younger evangelicals, this mostly holds true among the college-educated set and even there is not unanimous.  Instead, evangelicals (who once held to a least common denominator theology and a cohesive political perspective) have divided into multiple tribes, each with their own media outlets and conferences.  There is no longer a standard-bearer such as Christianity Today that can act as the undisputed and objective referee among the various factions.  As Scot McKnight notes, conferences such as the N. T. Wright extravaganza at Wheaton College and the Together for the Gospel gathering this past year (let alone the multiplicity of emergent and Pentecostal/charismatic conferences that you haven’t even heard about) act as focal points of distinct tribes within what used to be evangelicalism.  Now, though, they have less and less in common, not even agreeing on what “the gospel” is.  This is a clear sign of the demise of neo-evangelicalism as a cohesive cultural or social entity, whatever its claim to theological truth may have been (back when it existed).

Is Evangelicalism? (James)

Right now this blog has three contributors; to get things going, each will present his assessment of the current state of Evangelicalism. Here’s James’ take:

I remember, in my first weekend at Flagship Evangelical College, assessing potential friends by their criticisms of the typically Evangelical Sunday service at the local Bible church. This one didn’t appreciate the worship team’s high production values. Another had issues with the crypto-Republicanism. A third—well, you understand. A heightened version of this game revolved around church camp horror stories.

My fellow students had inherited and adapted the trope of speaking of their denomination in the manner “I was raised this or that.” Unless, perhaps, you were attending an Anglican church, the statement of being raised in a certain denomination was not followed by an affirmation of one’s present denominational affiliation. If not affiliations outright, named affiliations were passé. I’m not entirely sure why.

Given its universality, many must have assumed this manner of speaking unthinkingly. For most, save a number of Baptists and Pentecostals, the coyness was not due to shame of their upbringing (though few students I knew felt the need to remain in churches of their home denomination). Most did seem to be averse to denominational commitment, either desiring to stay light on their feet during these years of intellectual and spiritual growth, or simply following the script of finding oneself and making one’s own decisions as a young adult, this script of course modified so that the answers found remained within Christianity.

The chief reason a change in denomination was desired was that no one seemed to think their church had it all. Integrity was sought by joining one’s low church experience to liturgy, or escaping one’s parents’ cessationism in a charismatic setting. It was never thought that one’s denomination could be alright. And, apart from the orthopractical woe of holding to a statement of belief—apparently a problem obvious to any young Evangelical, it was inconceivable that one would assent to another’s prescribed beliefs. In our theological youth, we expected perfection and had little taste for the scandal of denominational particularity.

Were we Evangelicals? In spite of our shirking denominational labels, and whatever our cleverly obscure Facebook “religious views” were listed as, and however much we may have wished to be post-Evangelical, none of us would doubt the term’s accuracy and helpfulness in describing our common faith. (Once, when discussing Evangelicalism with a group of visiting Catholics, given our knowledge of our churches’ flaws [in this encounter with the Other, we finally learned to call them “our” churches], we Evangelical students were amused with the Catholics’ eagerness to be counted as Evangelical, but ultimately glad for their company.)

I believe ‘Evangelical’ serves as more than a snapshot of a group at one point in time. For me, it describes a certain people, now moving in a particular manner. Though we were all dissatisfied with our ecclesial lives (perhaps the appropriate Protestant disposition), my classmates and I were all remedying them in a similar range of ways, in close social proximity, judging by similar commitments.

I will discuss what I see as our similar means, stomping grounds and values in (a) future post(s).