The Story of Power and the Power of Story

[My final contribution to the Respectful Conversation project in which we each have to stake our own positions on “The Future of Evangelicalism”.]

Being part of this Respectful Conversation over the past seven months has been invigorating. It’s required me to look for themes in the writings of my collaborators and commenters, to uncover where the defining questions lie, and to apply my sociological imagination toward making sense of contemporary American Evangelicalism. The process has required me to reflect on my own argument as I imagined others reading it and to be far more attentive to major shifts in contemporary religious discourse. Knowing that I had to stake my personal claim in December hopefully sharpened my thinking.

1. What is your vision for the future of American Evangelicalism?

My June post made reference to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in which he contrasts differing views of connections between evangelicals and the broader society. After reviewing “Purity From”, “Relevant To”, and “Defensive Against” (which was my reference), he ends by calling for “Faithful Presence”. This simple notion is profound in its implications. He says that Faithful Presence “is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

While there are a variety of voices competing for dominance in American Evangelicalism (and religion more broadly), I believe that the next decade will see an outbreak of Faithful Presence over more combative views of faith and culture. Some of this stems from changes we’re seeing in the faith of millennials. Even those who haven’t left the church are seeing the faith-culture relationship in very different ways than their parents and grandparents. They are far more aware of their identity as strangers in a foreign land who are trying to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

It’s entirely possible that the short term will see more combative language from many quarters. To quote former Vice President Cheney (though he was overly optimistic), “we’re seeing the last throes of the insurgency”. If the past four decades of American Evangelicalism has been defined by the power dynamics of culture wars, it’s going to be hard for major players (and their intellectual heirs) to simply give up the fight.

Over the long run, however, the posturing and argumentation of the former style will prove no match for the honesty and humility of Faithful Presence. This is because the Defensive Against posture must rely on overstatement, generalization, and politicization while Faithful Presence depends on old-fashioned testimony. To tell one’s story of faith in the midst of complexity yields an authenticity that is beyond reproach. In an age suspicious of posturing and hungry for relationship, one’s story has a power very different from the kind we’ve been chasing in the past.

2. What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities we face?

There are two major challenges to my vision of an evangelical future: one external and one internal. The external challenge is the legacy of Christendom. We’ve created a perception of Christianity as pursuing a religiously oriented vision of a moral society gained through the influence of political power. The attempts to control outcomes become trigger events for pushback from secular audiences. These issues become part of the larger drama of charges and countercharges between evangelical public figures on the one hand and neo-atheists on the other.

This is buttressed by a more internal challenge: the cognitive frameworks defined by the idea of Worldview. Fifteen years ago, Christian Smith argued in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998) that evangelicalism developed a subcultural identity based on being under assault from secularism and liberal Protestantism. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. However, it is a tenuous position. As Hunter observed in his book on Evangelicals sixteen years earlier, the realities of the modern world and the desire for acceptance or influence make separatism harder to maintain.

These two conditions are especially threatened by the dynamics of social change. The political vision is expressed in concerns over loss of control (even if control had never really been in reach). The worldview vision sees every shift in attitude or new interpretation as the beginning of the slippery slope toward worldliness.

But much has changed in the last two decades. The younger generation seems more willing to maintain diverse views due to their connection to social media. Some expressions of postmodernism allow a focus on dialogue arising from one’s clear values. Increased concern for those who are powerless (the poor, the trafficked, the innocent) prioritizes compassion over being right and separate. Heightened levels of education within evangelicalism have allowed a more complex view of engagement with those outside the subculture.

All of these shifts present an opportunity to rethink cultural engagement that allows faithful Christian testimony while avoiding the political name-calling of the Christendom argument or the isolation of the worldview argument. Rather than adopting the incorrect assumptions of secularization, it actually creates a tremendous opening for Faithful Presence.

3. What steps should American evangelical Christians take to respond to these challenges and opportunities?

One key changes necessary is to learn to be honest about our real situation. In recent months, Missio Alliance has posted a series of blogs about “The Scandal of Evangelical Memory”. These point out the ways in which we’ve told ourselves a history that isn’t complete. Two related points of argument come from careful histories, which separate our imaginings from what really happened. Edward Larsen’s Summer for the Gods (1997) documents how the Scopes trial unfolded in ways very different from how we’ve told the story (the town’s reply to an ACLU ad was one of the biggest surprises for me). An even timelier example is found in Robert McKenzie’s excellent new book about The First Thanksgiving, which documents both the real history of the Pilgrim settlers and the ways the fictional communal dinner was used to support later American values.

A second key is found in changing the way we use scripture as a point of argument. Ken Schenck argues that there is great value in focusing on the broad common themes of the scriptural story rather than on the verses that divide. He correctly argues that we pick contentious verses as argument-enders instead of advancing the full Gospel story.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to find our way to trust the Holy Spirit to lead. This is part of the public’s interest in the recent actions and statements of Pope Francis. This morning, Father James Martin was on NPR talking about the pope. Scott Simon asked if the College of Cardinals were expecting these changes from Francis. Father Martin responded, “it shows you once again the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit wants to do.”

There is no better hope for the future of evangelicalism than that.

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