Saturday, March 12, 2016

Carl Trueman's "The Last Waltz" on the possible eve of the end for evangelicalism's empire in America, cross-links to Michael Spenser's The Coming Evangelical Collapse


American evangelicalism certainly appears comparatively robust. It has numbers. It has enthusiasm. It has brand recognition. But, despite the scholarship it has at its disposal, its public leadership too often lacks depth and seems to have pitched for populism. The biggest organizations have controlled the conversation by buying up the talent or, where that fails, simply isolating and ignoring dissenting voices, and its foot soldiers seem happy to play along. Every outlet of influence has to be ‘on message.' Patriarchal misogynists are given a platform while egalitarians have, by definition, nothing to contribute. It is why some of us who used to think ourselves at least sympathetic to aspects of the movement can barely be bothered with it today.

Brands have a place—but not at the center of the Christian life. If conservative evangelicalism cannot wean itself off using brands as a primary focus of identity—brands that are tied to particular personalities, that cost a lot of money to maintain, and which often exude a breathtaking sense of importance (all for the sake of Jesus, of course) then the kind of corruption noted above will continue. Moreover, the future is simply unsustainable in anything like its present form. Economically, patterns of parachurch funding are set to change dramatically in the next ten years, even without any change in tax exempt status rules. The future may be hard to predict with precision but it will be different. And now is the time to prepare for that.

Having spent the bulk of a month going through Jacques Ellul's book Propaganda at this blog and discussing how its concepts can explain the history of Mars Hill and the methods of Mark Driscoll, I'm inclined to agree with what Trueman wrote there.  I would say that the trouble with evangelicalism (in its politically left as well as right leaning forms) is that it has been dominated by a type of aristocracy that Ellul described as propagandists half a century ago.  Rather than practicing the Christian faith as the Christian faith American partisans for the right and left alike have formulated red state and blue state civic religions.  Whether it's Sanders or Trump the appeal is methodologically the same regardless of what the platform is.  Ellul's warning was that propaganda had become a social dynamic and use of media that was an end unto itself.  Its power drew upon the viability of social science and its application and that social science bore responsibility for the refinement of propagandistic techniques in the way that applied physics bore responsibility for the invention of the atomic bomb.  Ellul seems to have been right to say that the social scientists are responsible for creating the tools of psychological manipulation as physicists were for the atomic bomb.

Alastair Roberts' piece from years ago comes to mind, "The Ad Man's Gospel", where he proposed that if the sixteenth century theologian resembled a lawyer today's theologian resembles a marketing representative. 

Trueman is, in a way, late to observing the end of the party.  Michael Spenser called the end of evangelicalism as we know it years ago.

I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”
A vast number of parachurch ministries are going to become far less influential, and many will vanish. The same will likely be true from everything from Christian media to publishing.

Ah, like what Trueman recently wrote, eh? In a remarkable irony, back in 2013 Mark Driscoll predicted there would be a coming crisis in Christian publishing.  To go by the headlines of the last few years if there even "was" a scandal or a crisis in Christian publishing it was, ironically, the plagiarism controversy that swirled around Mark Driscoll's own books.

Will the coming evangelical collapse get evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about its loss of substance and power? I tend to believe that even with large declines in numbers and an evidence “earthquake” of evangelical loyalty, the purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in full form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time. (I rejoice in those megachurches that fulfill their role as places of influence and resource for other ministries without insisting on imitation.)

Conflating a practice of the Christian faith with the left or right of the United States is to sell Christianity off to Babylon, to make the Christian faith subordinate to an empire.  It doesn't matter whether it's to the left or the right.  To the extent that American Christians fine-tuned Christian confession into a platform for either the Democratic or Republican national conventions is the extent to which they have corrupted the Christian confession for the politics of American empire.  It may be more obvious that the evangelical right has embraced the use of propaganda but it may just be because it's easier to recognize the Social Gospel of the right over the last forty years than to remember the Social Gospel of the left from a previous century.

What both movements did was reverse-engineer for us a Christ who is not so much king of kings and lord of lords but the endorser of a particular utopian vision on a political spectrum.  What we have had from the left and right are transformations of Christian confession into propaganda for either progressive/socialist policies or reactionary/capitalist policies.  What if both are abominations that have as their ultimate goal not the proclamation of Christ crucified but a particular vision of an ascendant American empire? Yes, that's obviously a rhetorical question. :)

The coming evangelical collapse, however it comes, might simply underline a warning Ellul had for the church half a century ago about what it would lose if it embraced the power of using mass media and the methods of propaganda.

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 230
... Propaganda is a total system that one must accept or reject in its entirety.

If the church accepts it, two important consequences follow. First of all, Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity. [emphasis added] We have already seen the effect of propaganda on ideology. In fact, what happens as soon as the church avails itself of propaganda is a reduction of Christianity to the level of all other ideologies or secular religions.

This can be seen happening throughout history. Every time a church tried to act through the propaganda devices accepted by an epoch, the truth and authenticity of Christianity were debased. This happened in the fourth, ninth, and seventeenth centuries (of course, this does not mean that no more Christians were left as a result).

In such moments (when acting through propaganda), Christianity ceases to be an overwhelming power and spiritual adventure and becomes institutionalized in all its expressions and compromised in all its actions. It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax. In such times there appear innumerable sweetenings and adaptations, which denature Christianity by adjusting it to the milieu.

Thus reduced to nothing more than an ideology, Christianity will be treated as such by the propagandist. [emphasis added] And in the modern world we can repeat in connection with this particular ideology what we have already said on the subject of ideologies in general. What happens is that the church will be able to move the masses and convert thousands of people to its ideology. But this ideology will no longer be Christianity. It will be just another doctrine, though it will still contain (sometimes, but not always) some of the original principles and the Christian vocabulary. [emphasis added]

The other consequence affects the church itself. When it uses propaganda, the church succeeds, just as all other organizations. It reaches the masses, influences collective opinions, leads sociological movements, and even makes many people accept what seems to be Christianity. But in doing that the church becomes a false church. it acquires power and influence that are of this world, and through them integrates itself into this world.

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