Saturday, December 14, 2013

Crisis of Evangelicalism (Intro)

I did a quick read of the introduction to the new buzz book in the evangelical blogosphere: Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. This book promises to be both delightful and challenging, whether we end up agreeing with everything in it or not.

1. She begins with something I hope is fairly obvious. The word "evangelical" is ambiguous. It can refer to everything from "churchly Virginia Baptists" to "nondenominational charismatics" in LA. It seems to be a "nebulous community that shares something, even if it is not always clear what that something is" (4).  Despite the power-brokers most associated with the name, she insists that individuals like my own tradition must be included in the discussion, people like "Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals," "communities on the fringes of evangelicalism's 'mainstream' that might contest the term altogether" (5).

What I like about the way she sets up the discussion (I put YES!!! in my margin with two additional underlines). She realizes that the definition of evangelicalism is NOT a question of core ideas or a core truth. "American evangelicals have a strong primitivist bent. They often prefer to think their faith indistinguishable from the faith of Christ's apostles, and scoff at history's claims on them. But they are creatures of history like everyone else, whether they like it or not" (4).

That is to say, she does not define evangelicalism in terms of some dreamy, abstract core like Bebbington (biblicism, cruciformism, conversionism, activism). Bebbington may use history as the foil for these principles, but many evangelicals use these four as if they dropped out of heaven like the image of Artemis that fell from heaven to Ephesus. Ironically, they make it the true catholic faith--one Lord, one faith, one evangelicalism. Pishah.

She hits the bull's eye smack center: "History--rather than theology or politics--is the most useful tool for pinning down today's evangelicals" (4). For background on why I respond enthusiastically to this comment, see here.

I might add that, true to history, she does not discuss African-American Protestants, Latinos, Asian evangelicals, and other immigrants. "Many, especially in the African-American community, view evangelicalism as a white word and claim the label rarely, and always cautiously" (5). She is not saying that these other groups would not have ideally been included, but that evangelicalism is such a white phenomenon in the US that, in the need to provide limits to her study, the lack of detailed focus on these groups actually contributes to her point.

2. She identifies three elemental concerns that drive evangelicalism historically: 1) How do you reconcile faith with reason, 2) how can you be saved and have a true relationship with God, and 3) how do you resolve the tension between personal belief and a secular age?

"The preoccupations that define evangelicalism emerged here, at the intersection of premodern dogma, personal religious experience, and modern anxieties" (6). She is speaking of the age in which Pietism emerged. Pietism was emphasizing the need for "heart religion" at the same time that the Enlightenment was on the rise as well. Herein arose the tension we have been playing out ever since.

"I believe" changed from a statement meaning something like "I love," "I will be faithful to" to the Enlightenment period's, "I assent to the following doctrinal proposition." This relates to what I have said over and over and over and over. The meaning of words is not in the words, nor is it self-evident in all contexts. There is a socio-cultural background that informs what words mean.

"Since that time a broad swath of Protestant believers have found themselves united, not by specific doctrines... but by questions borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era" (7).  Here is a key point: "While many ancient Christians assented to the basic doctrines that scholars mark as 'evangelical,' that assent took on a different character after the seventeenth-century rebirth of reason and the invention of our present-day notions of 'religious' and 'secular.'"

Again, the same words can have drastically different connotations in different contexts. This is why the "self-evident" meaning of the Bible to people today is often an invention of their own making (and their tradition's) rather than what the original authors understood. This is also the mechanism by which the Spirit gave new meanings to the OT words in the NT (and why Walter Kaiser is a hermeneutical imbecile who should generally be ignored). The Spirit continues to speak to us in this way today.

Another nugget: "The sundry believers who share the evangelical label have all lacked an extrabiblical authority powerful enough to guide them through these crises." Thus, I might add, Tillich's Protestant Principle--in the absence of a standard to determine what the Bible means, Protestantism will continue to multiply into tens of thousands of little groups, all of which are absolutely convinced that they are following the inerrant Bible alone. When you look at 20,000 Protestant denominations, sola scriptura is, from a practical standpoint, completely ineffective as an operating principle.

Evangelicals "are children of estranged parents--Pietism and the Enlightentment--but behave like orphans." That is to say, we pretend like we are following the Bible alone when in fact our beliefs and practices are historically located. She has a great way of saying what so MANY of us have been saying now FOREVER!

3. She ends with something so many of us wrestle with--the movements associated with the evangelical stream have tended toward the anti-intellectual. We might tout our educational institutions as islands of protection from the world and then wanted to be accredited so we could be respectable. These twin drives conflict with each other.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a long time ago, "Extreme orthodoxy betrays by its very frenzy that the poison of skepticism has entered the soul... Men insist most vehemently upon their certainties when their hold on them has been shaken" (8).  WOW!  Pictures of several individuals came immediately to mind.  "Frantic orthodoxy is a method for obscuring doubt" (also Niebuhr). I like how Worthen notes that so called "anti-intellectuals" are themselves "staunchly committed to ideas" (8).

The book is about the last 70 years of intellectual life (i.e., from the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s to today).  The introduction ends with this: "If American evangelicals do not share a single mind, they do share an imagination: one grounded in a substrate of basic questions about the relationship of faith and experience to human reason, and the direction of the modern world" (11).

The game is afoot!

5 comments:

Susan Moore said...

A red flag went up for me with the statement that evangelicalism is viewed by the African-American community as a ‘white word’, and is a white phenomenon in the U.S.
According to the estranged church in my own community (which is primarily African-American), the ‘evangelical’ churches tend to be cessationist in their beliefs, follow a works-theology, and/or are not accepting of African Americans or other non-white individuals.
It is believed that the evangelical beliefs that lead to or arise from white supremacy thinking, also gives rise to oppression of women and of anyone not married and white. That is to say that there seems to be a direct correlation between the ones who identify themselves as evangelicals and the beliefs that they ‘own’ others (that others are to submit to them based on their self-given authority over those others. The identity of the ‘others’ may change over time).
Whereas it seems that African-American Christians prefer a full-gospel approach that does not exclude the heavens being open to God’s direct and unexpected action on human life through signs, wonders and miracles (for reference, check this past Sunday’s CWC’s sermon).
Because of their full-gospel preference, and being oppressed by white churches, the churched African-American community has their own leaders that proclaim Him, and who are educated, ordained and African-American.
Therefore, if Pentecostals, Wesleyans and others desire to be included in that evangelical terminology, then, based on their histories, it may prove exceedingly wise for them to take the lead and re-define that word “evangelical” so that its meaning includes all Christians; if indeed it does.
Some of us may be gifted in proclaiming Him, but the current label of ‘evangelical’ seems to be one that even Jesus would not agree to wear.

John Mark said...

I have wondered, prompted mostly by reading you, what my faith history would have been like had I been raised in England of Continental Europe. Of course I realize--even if I don't know particulars--that there is cultural 'baggage' for lack of a better term in any situation.
We have been influenced by fundamentalism, so it would seem, far more than we have, or should I say, I have even been aware at times. My history is of course that I thought I was part of a church that understood Christian living far better than any other church I knew anything about. Not only (no one actually said this) did I think we were 'better' than liberals who preached the social gospel, or other conservative groups that believed in eternal security, we might just be the only crowd that made it. Worthen has done an incredible amount of research. I would love to know what if any personal religious beliefs she holds to. She is almost contemptuous (I'm probably reading too much into good journalism) towards some groups and individuals. I wonder, too, if this will change anything at all in the current religious landscape here. It may change how some people think of themselves.
I confess to being thrilled by the fact that a book written about American Christianity mentions Wiley and others; historically we have been treated, in my view, as if we don't even exist.
A fascinating book. I look forward to further reviews from you.

John Mark said...

I'm going on too long, but to be clear, I meant to say that even though at one time many of us in the holiness movement thought we were sacred guardians of the Bible's teaching, or at least of the Pietist tradition, Apostles makes a case that under pressure we gradually adapted to the fundamentalist and Calvinistic world we lived in. I think Keith Drury has spoken of this many time; we did it simply to be respectable. Will we ever recover what we lost? Should we?

Susan Moore said...

Tossing and turning. Something still wants to be said. Let me struggle again.
“What I’m asking you is –do you still believe the heavens are open? Do you think that God can ascend and descend at will? Do you think that donkeys can speak and ax heads can float? Do you think that bushes can speak and never burn up? Do you think 12 year old kids can fell giants? Do you think water can be rolled back? Do you think someone can walk on water? Do you think He can raise the dead at a funeral? Better yet; can He raise Himself at His own funeral?
If God can do all things then He is intimately involved in our affairs today. Therefore, O Church, do not give up” (Rev. Steve DeNeff, College Wesleyan Church, retrieved from 12/08/13 sermon).
It seems that currently the ones who are considered the Evangelicals deny the one, true God who is still alive and active in human life through signs, wonders and miracles. These people profess to follow the teachings of scripture and yet completely miss the fact that all the above examples, and many more, come from those same scriptures. Their minds don’t ‘see’ the signs, wonders and miracles of God: it is a spiritual defense mechanism against their disappointments in life - the times that they were hurting and struggling and God did not seem to be there for them. Their lack of vision is a spiritual defense mechanism that combines denial with projection, scapegoating and dissociation. Feeling abandoned and oppressed by God, they deny the works of the Spirit in the physical world, project their feelings of oppression through the scapegoating and oppression of others, and dissociate the remaining God into Father and Son, and cling to the one who died for their sins, Jesus. Those are the ones currently referred to as evangelicals. They evangelize out of a desire to be obedient to Jesus’ great commission.
On the other hand are the ones who do not deny the Spirit, who are Spirit-filled and evangelize by grace through faith. These evangelize from the love of God. Not the loving of God, but the actual love of God Himself who indwells them and fills them and leaks out in evangelization. If one of those people would choose not to allow the Spirit to evangelize through them, it would have the same long-term useless effect as sticking one’s finger in the hole of a dam.
Perhaps the best way Wesleyans and others can enter the world of the Evangelicals, is to address their spiritual pain.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The "Protestant Principle" is still at work, be it in individual churches, denominations and even, some families. The Protestant Principle does bring division because of difference in interpretation of Scripture.

The Catholic (and some Wesleyans) argues for Tradition/orthodoxy, as much as Scripture. Scripture apart from understanding Tradition, which really is about Jewish roots, is hyper-spiritualized and disconnected from history.

America's "tradition" is Protestantism in the Christian tradition, which has led to individualism and "secularism". Some believe this is bad, but others think it good. Whether Protestantism is viewed as neutral, good or evil depends on whether you are grounded in a foundation of mysticism (supernaturalism) or reason (naturalism).

America was indeed "inspired" by dissent (religious liberty), pursuit of material gain (gold rush,Protestant work ethic, private property), and a healthy dose of reality in fighting for "liberty". Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in this sense is for each citizen and some Christians fight for human rights defending the "natural rights" argument of Christian tradition.

Reason is man's best measure for what is in his best interests. Mysticism leaves humans open to "other ends", than their own end. Self annihlation is not "good news", no matter how it is expressed as to rewards in heaven!

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