The Story of Power and the Power of Story (Director’s Cut)

[My final contribution to the Respectful Conversation project in which we each have to stake our own positions on “The Future of Evangelicalism”. I had to cut things out and leave things unsaid to fit the 1200 word limit. Following a trend from DVD’s where the director puts back scenes cut for time, here’s an expanded version. Additions are in red.]

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.

These shifts are not limited to the young. There is a parallel shift happening in the lives of many senior citizens. Looking back on the harshness of their culture war rhetoric and legalism, they now wonder if it was worth it. You won’t find such reflection in those whose living depends upon being firm and dogmatic, but you will find them in nearly every congregation.

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. The power of story speaks out of experience in the midst of complexity and uncertainty. It says, “I believe even though it’s not always easy”.

Such storytelling has the potential for building community because I don’t stop with simply telling my story. I listen to yours as well. And together we listen to a third. Along the way, we become aware of our own uniqueness but that it is set against the backdrop of the Larger Narrative that includes us all.

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 and Constantinianism. A belief that somehow America and Christianity were co-mingled often has led us to believing that our task was to promote a particular form of society. These attempts 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 with accusations of superstition and desire for theocracy that cut across the ethos of a pluralistic culture. 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. In fact, both groups thrive on such charges. That’s why we make news from the isolated school principal who bans Christmas Carols. It’s why we fight zoning decisions on the proper citing of mosques. It’s why we fight over civil decisions regarding conditions for marriage.

Somehow, we need to gain a better sense of perspective. At the very least, we need to pick battles more carefully. Every request for a Facebook “like” don’t need to be liked. Every e-mail claiming outrage isn’t of the same weight. We need to let stuff go to break the hold of Christendom — because it’s had far more impact on evangelicals themselves than it has had on the broader society.

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. In fact, too much of evangelicalism’s history has been a struggle to define itself as “not those other people.” This cognitive strategy is a never-ending effort at managing the boundaries that I wrote about in my last post. There’s always another group. to contrast. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. Christian higher education has been particularly susceptible to such definitions of other. 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. Hunter had argued that modernity presented a quandary for evangelicals as we deal with diversity and become educated and successful. I’d go even farther. Our very success as power-brokers and cultural-influencers has changed our cognitive identity from being misunderstood or marginalized to believing we know best.

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. Both of these get caught up in concerns about secularization, the idea that we are seeing religion removed from the public sphere. This view was popular in sociology 50 years ago, thinking that religion would fall away (there’s some leftover Comte in that). But research in the sociology of religion over the last half century shows the secularization thesis generally unsupported. 

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. They have not left their past friends behind in pursuit of Christian enclaves. They’ve wrestled with diverse positions their who lives. Some expressions of postmodernism allow a focus on dialogue arising from one’s clear values without arguing that values are social constructions. Increased concern for those who are powerless (the poor, the trafficked, the innocent) prioritizes compassion over being right and separate. There is a sense of pragmatism that persists. 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. Consider two examples of how telling the real story frees us up to engage in new ways. 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.  Dayton’s reply to an ACLU ad looking for a test case (with Scopes at the table) was one of the biggest surprises for me. Bryan’s views would cause trouble for young-earth creationists. To be able to tell the real, complex story keeps us from creating shibboleths that fit on bumper stickers or Facebook memes. 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. It’s important to know that the Pilgrims didn’t come to America primarily for religious freedom (they had it in the Netherlands). They came as part of economic development that fit their own needs. The big dinner with the Native Americans is largely a creation of historical fiction (McKenzie observes that they didn’t have tables, or forks, or serving plates, and probably didn’t eat the fast-running wild turkeys). We layered  a set of American individualistic assumptions on top of little-known historical events and used the fiction for our own ends.

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. This is a very Wesleyan approach to scripture and has much to commend it against proof-texting. Schenck correctly argues that we pick contentious verses as argument-enders instead of advancing the full Gospel story. Rather than focusing on a radical message that gender and status aren’t important in the New Kingdom (a theme running throughout the New Testament), we pick out a verse about women’s roles in leadership and allow that single verse to trump all else. We need a better narrative of scripture.

A third key is related to the history piece. We must take responsibility for harm we’ve done both institutionally and individually. The evangelical church has taken stances in the past that were on the wrong side of history. In other times, we may have been right but caused harm when doing so (I’m thinking of the shaming of women at abortion clinics who were already suffering enough). Then there’s the impact of our strong-armed evangelistic tactics. I’ve been amazed over the years at the high percentage of people who’ve had an overzealous cousin confront them over eternal destiny while waiting at Grandma’s buffet table to get more stuffing. Some people carry deep scars from what the church institutionally and individually has done to them. Most are not longer in the church. Those that are still there present an under-developed faith because they never want to be mistaken for Cousin Tony. To pursue the vision I’m proposing, we have to find a way to acknowledge, repent, and atone for the harms done. It may not be as dramatic as the Reed College scene in Blue Like Jazz when Don Miller and friends apologize for the church’s actions, but it’s in the right direction. 

A fourth key relates to Christian Colleges and Universities. Guarding against secularism and secularization aren’t our key reason for being. What is far more important is to stand with our students as they figure out their stories, informed by history, literature, biology, physiology, or sociology, and add those stories to the rich mix that is modern society. As I’ve written before, we have a unique ability to see faith and learning as wholes and not as enemies. We must help our students live that out if we are to have fewer of them carrying deep scars and/or leaving the church at the end of their four years of school. We can and must help them (and their parents and pastors) navigate this complex postmodern culture.

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. Hardly a day goes by that Francis doesn’t say or do something that seems to reflect a paradigmatic shift in the entire Roman Catholic establishment. If this is happening in an institution as complex and tradition-bound as the Roman Catholic Church, it can certainly happen in Evangelicalism if we’re open to it. On Weekend Edition Saturday, 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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