Category Archives: Refudiations

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.

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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.

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.


Why Evangelicals Are Not the New Mainline (Stephen)

In a recent interview with Timothy Dalrymple (found via Joe Carter), historian Rodney Stark (an interesting fellow, but odd if only in that he has a book called The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) makes some pretty astonishing claims about American evangelicalism, claiming that it has replaced the old mainline churches in the US.  While the numbers seem on his side, I believe that he is horribly mistaken and blindly triumphalist in his claims (though he is largely right about mainline Protestant denominations).  Unfortunately, many evangelicals are likely to buy his erroneous claims, not only because they sound appealing, but also because they cohere with the experience of an older generation that saw the movement of people from mainline denominations into evangelical churches first-hand.

For one thing, Stark repeatedly claims that people were disenchanted with mainline churches because of far-left politics among clergy and denominational officials.  While such officials were certainly left-leaning at times (though how many thousands of conservative rural pastors did not fit into this category?), they were probably less so in the late 20th century (during the largest numerical shift) than at other points in US history.

For example, the progressive evangelicals of the 19th century brought down slavery and eventually won voting rights for women and the prohibition of alcohol, not to mention their numerous social reform initiatives.  While I could be mistaken, I don’t recall ever hearing about an exodus from their churches as a result of these social and political endeavors.  Similarly, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that they left a denomination because of communist sympathizers.  Although it is possible that this happened, Stark gives absolutely no evidence for it, instead letting his personal disdain for left-of-center politics drive his opining.

On another issue that he brings up, the use of technology in church liturgies, Stark first meticulously sets up a straw man: Somewhere out there, people think that evangelicals are technologically backwards.  (If anyone still does believe this, they should read Joel Carpenter’s account of 1920s-40s American fundamentalism to be disabused of this notion.)  As far as I can tell, the New Yorker-reading crowd has gotten more than a few journalistic glimpses of fog-machine-using, head-banging evangelical mega-churches on the Colorado frontier – perhaps too many, given the fact that the vast majority of US evangelicals (and Protestants in general) attend relatively small churches that struggle to keep up with such carnival festivities.

But let’s just suppose that Stark didn’t invent this notion “that conservative religious people are hostile and uncomfortable with technology” out of thin air (let alone attribute such a notion to “intellectuals”).  If we do so, it seems that he has developed a fool-proof method of discerning doctrinal orthodoxy:

If you led me blindfolded into a church, and I didn’t know whether it was a liberal or conservative church, then you ripped off my blindfold, I could tell you instantly whether it was a liberal or evangelical church. Are there hymn books in racks on the back of the pews? If there are, it’s a liberal church.  Conservatives got rid of that stuff long ago, because they know we don’t sing real well with our chins on our chests, and we spend too much time leafing through the hymn book.

By evangelical, he seems to mean everything from Joel Osteen on up.  At the end of the day, Stark is not concerned so much with doctrinal orthodoxy as with beating up on liberals, who are ignorant and wrong about every conceivable thing.  As a result, he even makes the assumption that the use of technology is a nearly unmitigated good – without, again, bothering to even give a reason why that is so.

So these various personal antipathies prevent Stark from focusing on a real story here: As sociologists have argued for some time, more conservative and demanding religious movements (from the LDS to the AG to the newly-conservative SBC) do better numerically simply because they believe in something, whereas more doctrinally and socially loose movements (and congregations) usually end up declining before long, for obvious reasons.  Thus, Stark observes that in Jamestown, North Dakota there is now a large Assemblies of God church and a flourishing Nazarene church while the mainline Methodist and Presbyterian churches are fading into insignificance.

But this by no means points to a continuing evangelical renaissance that will result in mainline status for a loose coalition of free churches, if only because they are just that.  As Stark remarks, non-denominational evangelical churches are, after the SBC, the second largest group of Protestant churches in the US today.  What he fails to note is the fact that the old mainline was the result of frantic ecumenical mergers, as more conservative and revivalist churches (such as the rapidly-growing Baptist and Methodist movements) and immigrant churches (such as Reformed and Lutheran churches) rapidly joined forces.  By the mid-to-late 20th century, virtually the entirety of mainline Protestantism was united within several large denominational structures, usually one for each expression (e.g., the PCUSA as the only significant mainline expression of Presbyterianism).

In contrast, neo-evangelicalism always remained a loose coalition, with the NAE serving as nothing more than an umbrella for now-moderate fundamentalists.  With the rise of non-denominational churches and the decline in influence of para-church Religious Right organizations like Focus on the Family, what cohesion was there is now dissipating.  Perhaps in the wake of overwhelming numerical growth evangelicalism has fallen victim to its own success.

Whereas a previous generation could be fairly confident that a Bible college was virtually the same thing in most contexts (though the Pentecostals could be a bit different from the usual fare); today, evangelical higher education has splintered into a variety of unique offerings: Calvin on the Reformed left, Eastern on the generically-evangelical left, Biola on the center-right, Baylor in an odd Texas mix – and that is only within the realm of liberal arts schools.  Similarly, the Christian music scene is no longer the province of Fanny Crosby or even Keith Green, instead ranging from Over the Rhine to Michael W. Smith to Jason Upton to Paramore.  If you said “who?” when reading the name of any of those major Christian musical artists, then you’ve made my point.

Because American evangelicalism has gotten so numerically large without any institutional unity (unless you really think that the NAE provides such unity), its disintegration into various factions is both inevitable and presently happening.  If you say that the Holy Spirit will provide such unity by bringing a mighty revival, you’re likely a Pentecostal.  If you say that the Gospel is a sure intellectual foundation for men of God who will lead, you’re likely Reformed.  If you say that it doesn’t matter anyhow because we’ve got to be absorbed in the process of reforming our belief and restoring creation, you’re likely emergent.

Although these differences have been latent for some time, the cultural and political demise of the neo-evangelical coalition has made them evident once again, showing the work of Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Edward J. Carnell to be only a temporary truce.  Consequently, there is no new evangelical mainline, and even the numerical success of the movement will likely be fleeting, presaging a devastating decline within one or two generations.

As Stark conveniently fails to mention, while the mainline churches are declining because they are old (to put it bluntly), evangelical churches are not young: They are merely younger.  In the face of rising secularism, Christian America is demographically doomed (on this, see for example Christian Smith’s research on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”), so evangelicals would do well to not gloat in ephemeral successes while US culture takes the last steps toward secular hegemony.