Friday, January 16, 2009

"The New Evangelical Scandal" same as the Old Evangelical scandal part 2


In addition to their political, national, and familial affiliations, young evangelicals have slowly moved away from identifying with their own theological systems and heritage (the trend of evangelical converts to Anglicanism that Robert Webber first noted has not abated—if anything, it has expanded toward Rome and Constantinople). Such conversions belie, I think, evangelicalism’s failure to articulate its own theological distinctives and advantages and its rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Few young evangelicals who convert have read—much less heard of—the writings of John Wesley, Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer or other giants of the evangelical past (one wonders whether the new evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and others have read them). And even fewer evangelicals are inclined to give the tradition in which they were raised the benefit of the doubt, to see the errors and problems and remain regardless.

This paragraph is intriguing and the dead give away of the problem beneath the diagnosis of the problem comes with the big names dropped at the end. John Wesley (as in Wesleyan), Andrew Murray (Dutch Reformed), and A. W. Tozer (Christian Missionary Alliance, and all attendent to that). We're talking three drastically different approaches to spiritual formation and even understanding of major and often divisive secondary doctrines. Anderson is hitting on the problem without fully realizing. Evangelicalism does not represent a unified intellectual or spiritual tradition and hasn't for ... a long time I'll put it that way.

Let's consider two patron saints of evangelicalism in thumbnail sketch, shall we? Franics Schaeffer (Presbyterian background) and Clive Staples Lewis (Anglican). On different sides of the pond and surely on different sides regarding doctrines about election and the level at which we could affirm things like inerrancy. Lewis was not an evangelical by any stretch of the imagination and Schaeffer's views on the arts are so idiosyncratic as to be helpful provided you filter them with a bit more depth in individual fields of study than Schaeffer himself got around to.

Anderson evidently doesn't consider Anglicanism to be part of evangelicalism. Yet consider not just C. S. Lewis but the contributions of other Anglicans such as J. I. Packer, John Stott, Leslie Newbegin, and N. T. Wright. These are Anglicans who have lent more intellectual and spiritual heft to evangelicals than many other evangelical Protestant pastors. Not that I never learned anything from Charles Stanley or Chuck Swindoll or Vernon McGee (the guy just had a cool sounding voice even if I didn't consider that he was a basic but very solid Bible teacher). But I admit that in the last ten years I have found that the broad category of Reformed/Calvinist Anglicans have been a group I really appreciate. They are in many respects more articulate proponents of what could be called core doctrines and beliefs of evangelicalism than ... well, I don't know who Anderson would name now, really. Piper? Keller? Witherignton?

That the evangelical tradition is so varied is part of the problem. If you talk to people from Europe they may not help things because they might say there is the Catholic church or state church and then there's all the evangelicals, who basically are Protestants that aren't the state church of where ever you're talking about. As I mentioned earlier, if American Christians are starting to distinguish between their faith as servants of Christ and their role as American citizens who is really to say that is a bad thing? It "might" be but it is impossible to say for sure that it is. Haven't wee seen enough cycles of religious right and left to see how things didn't work out. Does Anderson believe the evangelical right may yet succeed where the religious left failed? Or did the religious left fail? We are about to celebrate Martin Luther King day in a bit and many people would argue, strenuously, that King began sort of evangelical but ended up being a liberal. That may be but where are the conservative evangelicals that have holidays in this country that would be some counterpoint to Rev. King? Fill me in if you know of a national holiday for one of those evangelical conservatives.

This is not me stumping for liberalism, far from it. I hasten to add here that i consider myself a moderate actual conservative rather than a neo-conservative. I'm just pointing out that at this point Anderson seems to have forgotten something. When he says, "Such conversions belie, I think, evangelicalism’s failure to articulate its own theological distinctives and advantages and its rich intellectual and spiritual heritage." I go back to Mark Noll. The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn't much of a mind there. What intellectual heritage? Seriously. Anderson is talking about theologians and teachers from half a century ago. Not that that's bad or anything but it raise the issue of how much history evangelicalism has that Anderson thinks we should immerse ourselves in.

I'm more likely to hear, when I hear people say we should explore the roots of the evangelical faith, that we should go back to Luther's Bondage of the Will, Calvin's Institutes, Augustine's City of God, maybe even more obscure stuff like John Murry's The IMputation of Adam's Sin. But even among evangelicals I'm likely to hear reference to John Stott's The Cross of Christ, to N. T. Wright's Jesus & the Victory of God or The Resurrection of the Son of God, or J. I. Packer's Knowing God. Maybe evangelicals are shifting to Anglicanism because Anglicans, when they actually are evangelical in their outlook, are better at preserving the intellectual legacy of Protestantism than the home grown varieties in the United States.

Anderson doesn't really define what "evangelical" even means. He seems to exclude the mainline denominations as best we might understand those. He obviously excludes Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy and believes that conversions to those traditions indicate a failure of young evangelicals to engage with the intellectual riches of their native traditions. Well, what if Noll had a point more than a decade ago and those intellectual riches aren't there now, or are so far back that finding them means you have to go outside what would now be considered "evangelical" by Anderson?

I hardly mean to suggest that people can't or shouldn't stay in a tradition even if there are flaws in such a tradition but let me give an example from my own life. I have attended Mars Hill for years. What tradition does it embody? Calvinism? Well, they reject infant baptism and Calvin was into that. They affirm adult believer baptism which would make them anabaptist. They hold to an elder managed government which applied across multiple campuses means there's a sort of episcopate. Campus pastors run things locally and the executive board runs the strategic things and no member input or member meetings have any bearing on major purchases or financial decisions. That could be construed as vaguely presbyterian in terms of church polity, especially with Calvinism ... but there is also no higher or mid range liturgy. It's as though it's a sort of presbyterian church government writ tiny with a Baptist ultra-low liturgical approach and approach to the sacraments. Yet is it also ostensibly charismatic yet no gifts are ever demonstrated in any services so in a sense it is charismatic in theory but not observably so.

So which tradition applies? All? None? If Anderson is concerned about the design-your-own evangelicallism Mars Hill exemplifies this at a very personal and perhaps even idiosyncratic level. Driscoll formed his own evangelical denomination on the fly, so much on the fly he couldn't have possibly planned it that way, but Mars Hill is poised to become something like another Calvary Fellowship or Calvary Chapel type movement.

But let's consider how Driscoll has approached the legacies within evangelicalism in light of Anderson's complaint. What if Driscoll has read all those authors and still engineers a new sort of evangelicalism from a grab bag because he has found things wanting in each individual tradition? His background was apparently the jackest of jack Catholics so he has come to a Protestant evangelical faith from the other side and may have a, not to put it too coldly, a very pragmatic and utilitarian approach. He would rather jettison the sorts of traditions Anderson asks us to embrace than embrace them and embrace the baggage they bring with them across generations.

So when Anderson reaches the point where he says:
All this bodes badly for the future of evangelicalism. In the face of declining partisanship, patriotism, and eroding family ties, young evangelicals have increasingly turned away from their roots in search of a sense of grounding and stability. They have the intelligence to notice the flaws, but often lack the charity and the patience to work to fix them.

I halfway agree. Driscoll said he started Mars Hill partly because he didn't like any of the other churches and wanted to start one that had a heart for missions like he did. That sure sounds like not having the charity or patience to work within an evangelical tradition tofix things. That's Dricoll for you. Thing is, would Anderson say Driscoll was wrong to do that? Driscoll has avoided the kind of activist and politicized soap boxing that older evangelicals, not least Dobson, seem to have embraced. In a setting like Seattle where people lean liberal in their politics and as liberal in personal ethics Driscoll hasn't really compromised on ethics but has steered clear of attempting to argue for more partisanship, more patriotism, as though that was needed. It's not. Jesus said that we would be known by our love for one another, not by the uniformity of our ballots cast in favor of this or that political candidate.

This doesn't mean it doesn't matter what candidates say or do regarding abortion, captial punishment, fiscal policy, or any number of other things. But what I would suggest it does mean is that evangelicals have made thems irrelevant when they have embraced a culture war to win back the culture for Christ. Even Francis Schaeffer, who spent decades telling us America had become a post-Christian culture, got talked into activism a bit by his son Frank, who now has repudiated both what he considers hsi father's fundamentalist background and the right-wing politics he goaded his father into.

So if we come back to Driscoll as an example of a new evangellical, what would Anderson say? Did Mark lack the charity and patience to attempt to fix things from within? If so is that a problem? If it IS a problem then what is significant about that? Is the design-your-own-evangelicalism because you don't like the traditions around you a sign of uber-American individualism? Yeah, sure, I'd agree with that. That can become a problem in as much as without a unified tradition to appeal to the capacity to have a historical basis in which to cultivate and also correct excesses in an evangelical stream of thought don't exist. If things are too fluid then there is no basis for accepted communal behavior.

For instance, Wesleyans and Holiness movement folks tend to look askance on dancing and drinking. They don't do those things. Individuals might but as a group policy is to abstain from those things. There are a few ways to deal with this if you're a Methodist who likes to drink.

1. You can just drink in defiance of your tradition,
2. you can not drink and hold firm that no Methodist should drink alcohol,
3. you can decide that it would be hypocritical to affirm Wesleyan teaching in general but ignore precedent on alcohol and decide to go somewhere where there is no tension between your personal convictions about alcohol and those of your church ...
4. or you can attempt to "fix" what you consider to be a mishandling of scripture on the issue of alcohol.

Which would Anderson advise you to do based on the above paragraph? Why #4 of course. Which options make more sense at a personal level or at the level of wanting to be part of a spiritual community that has shared values and convictions? One or three.

Take infant baptism. If your church refuses to baptise infants but you believe you should path 3 is your only option. No one who takes the baptism of infants seriously wants to do it themselves even if they consider themselves the priest or pastor to their own family. To be a child of the covenant means having a part in the family of God, purchased by the blood of Christ and since baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of being part of the covenanted people of God it only makes sense that you baptise your infant before the body of believers. Would it really make any sense to try to "fix" a tradition from within if you know there is a centuries long history of that evangelical tradition not budging?

We have such a mobile society now that Anderson may underestimate the difficult of what he is suggesting. If you attempt to "fix" things within your evangelical tradition, whatever Anderson means by evangelical, you could quickly get labeled divisive or be asked to leave. If I had stayed in an Assemblies of God church with my Calvinist leanings and my firm belief that not only are tongues not necessary but that there is no clear biblical warrant that spiritual gifts once given are had for any longer than they may be a blessing to the local church. In other words, I'm saying a person may temporarily have a spiritual gift to bless the church that might be recalled. The gifts of God are without recall doesn't mean you always have a spiritual gift like tongues because where there are tongues they shall cease. The changes I came to studying Scripture caused me to so drastically reassess pneumatology and soteriology that I realize the most respectful thing I could do was not stay in the Pentecostal tradition and start finding a place where I did fit.

If the boomers church hopped why wouldn't their children? Anderson doesn't even seem to address this in a way that could provide a solution, if there is one.


JS Bangs said...

You comment that, to get intellectual heft in the evangelical tradition, you have to go so far back or so far out that you're not clearly evangelical. This is true if we define evangelicalism by its recent American manifestations and exclude the Anglicans and Presbyterians who would otherwise identify with evangelical theology.

But isn't this part of IMonk's point, at least? That we should re-expand the tent of Evangelicalism to embrace these traditions (which were the original groups known as "evangelicals", anyway), in order to benefit from their intellectual and liturgical riches?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Yeah, Anderson's definition of evangelical is problematic because he
1) frontloads Republicanism into the definition of evangelicalism as a tacit preference
2) he conflates nationalism and patriotism with evangelicalism, which I believe is a Cold War carry-over evangelicals will need to temper
3) he equates dispensationalist eschatology with evangelicalism in a way that betrays a lack of knowledge or willfulness about just how long evangelicals have been around and what a recent innovation dispensationalism actually is.

Not only has iMonk dealt with these things Mark Noll touched on these issues all the way back in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and more besides. That's why this series has its title and why I'm playing with a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" theme through this series.

I should probably mentioned I've mapped out the issues I want to explore from this article and it's now at ten parts. So you're totally right and I DO plan to get to that but it may take a while. :) If Anderson were generous enough to include more conservative Anglicans and Presbyterians as evangelical instead of seeming to dismiss them as mainline he'd find that the bestt stuff in evangelicalism is still around and that its the move BACK to that that may be bothering him, not the apparent movement "away". The Christian Right really seems so far right that a move to a centrist position would look like a move to the left for them.