Category: Just Plain Sociology

The Sociology of Institutional Repentance

This idea has been kicking around in my head for about half a year. I first raised the question of institutional or structural apologies in a post last October I called Sorry About That . I wrote:

This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?

I’ve raised the issue of institutional confession and repentance with several theology or biblical studies colleagues. In general, people have said that it’s an interesting question that needs exploration. I look forward to hearing from those who can help me work through the question.

For now, I’ll simply use some sociological tools to explore why the idea of institutional repentance is so important. This week has provided four critical examples where institutional repentance is the only feasible response: Ta-Neisi Coates’ Atlantic article, the unfolding saga at Sovereign Grace Ministries (#IStandwithSGMVictims), new revelations about “normal life” at Mars Hill in Seattle, and the aftermath of the UCSB mass shooting (#YesAllWomen).

GiddensSir Anthony Giddens is one of my favorite sociological theorists. I was struck by his insights the first time I heard him in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he wrote The Constitution of Society, the first overarching explication of his theoretical perspective. The theory revolves around a remarkable idea — social structures and personal action form a duality. Each reproduces the other.

The structures that we live within impact the way we think and how we talk about our options. When we discuss potential actions and motivations, we react to the structural arrangements in which we’re located. But our actions also create fractures in the structures. The choices we make and the explanations we use can shape the structures for the future. But that depends upon a critical sociological and political variable: Power.

One of the ways power is exercised is in the definition of appropriate behavior and, by contrast, inappropriate behavior. As the “powers that be” define behavior, they can reshape understandings away from structural power toward individual choice.

This is the primary takeaway from Ta-Neisi Coates’ excellent article. While it is titled “The Case for Reparations“, it really makes the argument that structural arrangements favored an array of economic and political relationships that defined African Americans as not only having limited choices, but as feeling trapped by those choices. The legitimate structural arrangements of society shaped outcomes for individuals. Those same structural arrangements prefer a cultural argument to explain the presence of economic inequality. Coates argues, using both historic and modern examples, that the myriad ways in which African American outcomes are shaped is a direct result from the structural dynamics of the society. After a detailed description of confiscatory practices of redlining, predatory contract practices, and subprime mortgages, he suggests that there was a conscious attempt to deny African Americans of the assets associated with home ownership. And the pattern continues:

In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Too many commentators simultaneously do two things that perpetuate these outcomes. First, the decry claims of racism by assuming that “the race card” is an accusation of personal bigotry to which they take great offense. Then, they claim that we shouldn’t pay attention to race (as recent Supreme Court decisions attest). So there is no particular means to address the existing structural inequality.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King talks of being given a check marked “insufficient funds“. The reference is fascinating: the promises made in the Declaration of Independence were not fulfilled. There are echoes of reparations in that very speech. For us to focus only on the visionary closing of the speech is to perpetuate the structural inequality. Where were the people who would say, “that’s right, we did that“. Who calls out intentional practices of segregation? (Incidentally, Randall Balmer had a fascinating piece in Politico today about the relationship between segregation and rise of the religious right.)

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

It’s hard for us to think about collective repentance. It’s so ingrained in religious culture to focus on personal responsibility, individual appropriation of Christ’s sacrifice, and personal reordering of priorities. But since reading the Brueggemann book I referenced in my last post, I’ve been focused more on the history of Ancient Israel. I have come to realize that the instructions given to the people from the prophets or from The Lord are societal instructions. Repentance isn’t just a matter of a collection of individuals who turn from bad practices. It’s the fabric of society  — not that they were very good at it, which is actually part of my point.

What’s disturbing about the Sovereign Grace story is the idea that we would protect religious leaders from accusation and demonize accusers. What is problematic about Mars Hill is the elevation of loyalty above conscience. What’s upsetting about the UCSB shootings is the twin assumptions of male acquisition and female vulnerability within the broader society.

These patterns are not simply the poor choices of bad actors. They reflect the systems of expectations, rewards, power maintenance, and ideologies that are woven into our institutional patterns. We can isolate the bad actor but that doesn’t bring about institutional repentance.

Institutional Repentance will require us to name our practices, to turn from our past patterns (especially if we feel individually blameless), and to imagine new forms that allow us to “go and sin no more“.

“Millennial Deniers”

NextAmerica_3d_260x260I have been focused on millennials for several years now. In part, it’s an outgrowth of what I do for a living. Teaching Christian college students over three decades, I’ve been aware of how their interests and positions have shifted over time.

As I’ve examined these shifts sociologically, I’ve been struck by how a number of different sources seem to converge in telling separate aspects of a larger story. There is the perspective of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who sees the 20s as a period of Emerging Adulthood. This correlates with changing attitudes toward sexuality and later ages of marriage. It corresponds with a remarkable increase among millennials in likely to report no religious affiliation and a decline in traditional religious commitment. It shows up in the polling from Gallup and Pew that shows a truly remarkable shift in millennial attitudes toward same-sex marriage even over a two year time span. It shows up in David Kinnaman’s work on the previously religious who see the church as overly judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-doubt. It shows up in a generation whose economic prospects look very different from early generations, who may live at home for a season, but who seem more optimistic about future. It shows up in a generation that is more digitally adept than any before it, sifting information from a variety of sites and testing claims (even fact-checking sermons!).

As David Kinnaman puts it, this generation is “discontinuously different“. That difference deserves to be taken seriously.

So it baffles me when I read articles from leading religious figures arguing that there really isn’t anything to these differences. Or, if there are differences, it’s because the church has not been sufficiently firm on key issues. I saw a tweet today from Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention saying “the myth of the Liberal Evangelical Millennial is exactly that.” Others have pointed out that this depends upon what the meaning of liberal is (or, what the meaning of Evangelical is).

I grant that evangelical millennials don’t exactly mirror their general millennial peers in the issues I summarized above. By and large, they will skew somewhat more traditionally. But they are responding to the same social patterns, internet presence, and general anti-institutionalism the entire generation is responding to.

Here’s another example. Earlier this month, Rob Swartzwalder wrote a piece called “Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments Against the Conventional Wisdom“. To his credit, he recognizes that there has been some backlash among millennials against overreaching statements by conservative leaders. He also observes (quoting Bradley Wright) that we’ve seen younger people leave institutions before. He responds to a straw argument in a piece Carol Howard Merritt wrote four years ago about the impacts of sexism, intolerance, and conservatism. But he centers in on other reasons why evangelical youth might be leaving the church.

1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.

2. Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.

3. Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.

4. Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable.

In short, the solution to preparing today’s evangelical millennials to be faithful Christians is to go back to old separatist patterns of rhetoric.

I just finished Paul Taylor’s The Next America (pictured). Taylor, president of the Pew Research Center, summarizes a vast array of data on the generational differences separating the four living generations in America: Silents, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. One of the subtexts of the book is the inherent competition between Boomers and Millennials, especially in terms of economics, jobs, and social security.

He distinguishes, as do many excellent sociologists, between three different factors shaping generational differences: Life Cycle Effects, Period Effects, and Cohort Effects. For example, the first looks at how all 18 year olds of any era handle transition from parental structures. The second, looks at pivotal events that affected all generations (e.g., JFK assassination, Moon landing, 9/11). The third, which is his primary focus, examines how the social milieu surrounding a generation coming of age differs from those that came before.

Taylor’s book is very good. While we won’t have a great war over social security (because relationships trump policy for millennials), there are intractable changes afoot. And like social security, this will pit Boomer priorities against Millennial priorities.

If we keep characterizing this as a zero-sum game, there will be no winners. Instead we’ll see increasing populations shifting into the “religious none” category (which has lost its social opprobrium).

Why would religious leaders be so interested in denying the reality of millennial change? I’d suggest a couple of reasons.

First,  having denied the ways in which the church has responded to culture in the past, they hold an exaggerated view of constancy. I’d argue that the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement was a direct response to the suburbanization of baby boomers who weren’t affiliated with evangelical churches. To legitimize millennial culture change is threatening to worldview arguments. It confuses life cycle effects with the other factors.

Second, their view of orthodoxy is maintained by stereotyping the younger generation rather than engaging it. I don’t know exactly what Moore meant by Liberal Evangelicals. With such a fuzzy label, he may be speaking of some group other than the evangelical millennials I know on the internet and in real life. But rhetorically, he’s able to say “they aren’t all like that” without responding to the very real shifts that are going on.

Third, as I’ve been writing for some time, the millennial generation privileges relationship over abstract principle. This embrace of diversity is disruptive to systematic approaches to apologetics. Hence, the retreat to slippery slope arguments. This is the key to the cohort effect.

I’m the first to admit that millennials are a diverse bunch. “They really aren’t all like that.” But their understanding of and commitment to diversity is the secret to their strength. It is in the messiness of that variability that God is moving.

To my colleagues who are concerned about excesses of the millennial generation, I beg you to engage the dialogue in open ways and leave behind the stereotyping and demagoguery for authentic engagement. I hear some of my evangelical millennial colleagues calling for that kind of open dialogue that leaves behind labeling and name-calling. This is a very encouraging sign and provides us with an opportunity to be the church at work.

 

A Follow-up to Yesterday’s Civil Religion Post

There was something about yesterday’s post that felt unfinished. It’s bugged me ever since I hit the “publish” button. So I thought it was worth exploring a little more about what I’m thinking (besides, I have papers to grade and this is more fun).

There were two concepts in the post that I used and didn’t quite do justice to either. I began talking about civil religion in the way that Robert Bellah used it in the 1960s and others have used it since. It specifically deals with quasi-religious beliefs about the nation. There are ideas that God is on our side, that there’s some kind of divine destiny for the country, and so on. This is part of our nationalist celebrations at baseball games — “God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand Beside Her and Guide Her/Thru the Night with the Light From Above” (written by the Christian Patriot, Irving Berlin!). It’s a vague sense of Exceptionalism with religious overtones.

I think some of the nostalgia imbedded in today’s political and religious rhetoric is an attempt to harken back to a time when Irving Berlin’s words were shared by all in the society. But that time never existed. Besides I have no idea what the lyric is supposed to mean! Does God Stand Beside America in ways different than he stands beside Canada? (Erik Parker, that was for you!)

So what I’m picking up with the slightly-incorrect usage of civil religion is the way in which our social assumptions about the world get “sacralized”. They take on religious tones and let us believe that we are acting for God because he would certainly support our values. This is Emile Durkheim’s take on religion in modern form.

It’s also what’s happening when we overlay religious imagery on top of existing social patterns. That’s the definition of my other concept: syncretism. Syncretism is well known to church historians and missionaries. We celebrate certain holidays when we do because the early church repurposed pagan holidays. Some aspects of Christianity in non-Western lands intermingle Christian faith with indigenous traditions.

This is what happens when we assume America is a Christian nation. We take existing patterns of behavior and bless them with the light from above. It brings me back to the polling data I mentioned. For decades, large majorities of the American public have reported a belief in God. But that belief is very diffuse, even more than Christian Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. I’d argue that it’s much closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd step (“believing in a higher power however you define it”).

Whether we’re talking about church as a central community institution or fighting about the latest Christian outrage on Facebook, we’re dealing with one of these two concepts. We are either celebrating free-floating definitions of what it means to be Christian or we’re Christianizing secular patterns.

The Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom of God requires that we get much better at distinguishing between God’s Story and the revisions we keep writing. Our version may make us far more comfortable and provide justification in light of changing social conditions, but it’s an exercise in either civil religion or syncretism. We have to do better if we are going to be the witnesses we are called to be.

 

Doing Unto You Before You Do Unto Me

http://shop.lego.com/en-US/King-s-Castle-70404
http://shop.lego.com/en-US/King-s-Castle-70404

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to explore some sociological dynamics of evangelical structure. I offered a summary of that argument in my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho. I’ve been doing a lot with wall metaphors: both in terms of how we construct isolating barriers and how we might tear them down.

Since I got back from Idaho, I’ve been pondering another implication of the wall metaphor. I think it helps explain the Industry Evangelicalism patterns I’ve been writing about. It also may explain a lot about how we do discourse within contemporary society. Whenever I get one of these ideas in my head, it feels like I’m constantly reading stuff on Facebook and Twitter that connect to the current hypothesis. The may be mistaken interpretation on my part, but it might just allow for a more careful unpacking of the social psychology at play within our varied group identities.

The picture above is Lego’s King’s Castle Siege. It illustrates how battlements were created to protect townspeople and nobles against the onslaughts of outsiders. But here’s what I notice: the construction of defensive positions actually allow offensive actions to be taken against the marauders. The rhetoric of defense is such that it winds up justifying first-strike capabilities.

This was true because the actual damage from a siege doesn’t involve battle but rather starvation. The point of the siege isn’t necessarily to overrun the walls but to cut off supply lines and isolate the kingdom. This results in two driving dynamics: demonizing the enemy and acting first before they gain a foothold on the walls.

Once the battlements are built, the kingdom is isolated from potential enemies. That brings safety but also allows one to imagine the worst possible motives of those enemies. Social psychologists refer to this as “fundamental attribution error” — I know my motives but yours are suspect. In fact, it’s likely that I’m imputing my darkest motives onto you because that’s how I imagine what you’d do if successful. This imputation then justifies any action I might decide to take because your imagined attack would be so much worse than my actual actions.

As I said, there are lots of other illustrations in social media of how this plays out. Alan Noble wrote this on Facebook today:

Theory: when someone becomes the face/ symbol/leader/figure of a radical movement which perceives itself to be oppressed, that person has very strong incentives to becoming increasingly radical in language, rhetoric, and position. To the point of absurdity.

He had a particular example in mind (Richard Dawkins) but one could easily put other players in the same position. In fact, Alan has previously done some wonderful work calling out the exaggerations of Todd Starnes and others who delight in cherry-picking isolated infringements on religion as illustrations of “what the world is coming to”. In a recent twitter exchange with Laura Ortberg Turner, I reflected on the linkage between persecution and prosecution — that somehow people will be arrested for their religious convictions. As I write this, Westboro Baptist minister Fred Phelps is near death. His particular form of striking aggressively to stop the visigoths approaching the gates has become legend (even though Christians have seen this as too extreme).

We see the same thing in the political realm. Jon Stewart’s continued takedown of Fox News imputing the worst possible motives to food stamp recipients shows the same pattern. One must imagine the takers and then strike out against them. But the motives imputed only characterize a tiny percentage of those affected.

Joshua Dubois, author of The President’s Devotional, wrote a fascinating piece today about Dr. Ben Carlson. Joshua describes the important role model Dr. Carlson provided for young black men for a generation and how that got transformed into a voice that justified outrageous comment in support of partisan position. It’s an example of how staying inside the battlements provides self-justifying rationales but at the price of the potential positive impact on all those outside the walls.

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland devotes early chapters to how easy it is for us to demonize out-groups and describes the rich (and depressing) social psychological experimental research that illustrates the tendency. As I wrote in the tearing down walls piece, she ends her book with solid insights on how to reverse those patterns.

As I was working on this post, Frederich Buechner (or at least the people that run his Facebook page) posted this quote from Brian McClaren’s 2012 book.

Yes, something good still shines from the heart of our religions – a saving drive toward peace, goodness, self-control, integrity, charity, beauty, duty. And something shadowy struggles to overcome that luminosity – a hostile drive, dangerous, resilient, and deeply ingrained, a black hole in our identity that needs an enemy to help us know who we are and how good we are.

My point is that building battlements has certain predictable results. Once we’ve got the walls, we begin to imagine who might be lingering outside. We worry about what they might do. Then we act to prevent them from doing that thing we imagined. We’re self-justified in the process — just imagine what might have happened had we done nothing!

But we imagined the impending attack. It kept us behind the parapets. It stopped us from engaging with those different than ourselves. That’s true whether it’s conservatives in the walls afraid of what liberals might do or liberals worried about conservative rhetorical attacks. It’s true whether we’re conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals imagining what will be on The Cosmos tonight or the scientific community worried about creationist legislators.

This week Christ & Pop Culture had a piece by Bradford William Davis titled “Why We Argue Like Jerks“. He points out that we don’t like asking good questions, that we do not seek to understand, and that we don’t like risking being wrong. In short, we fail to deal with the other as he/she really is but instead how we imagine him/her to be. We do battle in our imaginations, feeling victorious because we once again held our imagined foe at bay.

Maybe it’s the building of battlements (great for ages 7-12!) that’s the real problem. If we didn’t have battlements, we wouldn’t fear the siege. We wouldn’t imagine the enemy over the hill. We wouldn’t imagine the awful things they intended. We wouldn’t demonize them and look for means of attack (defensively, of course).

We might just get that Golden Rule right.

 

Tectonic Shifts

TectonicI’m here in Idaho for the annual meetings of the Wesleyan Theological Society. Yesterday, Northwest Nazarene hosted a pre-conference event titled “WESLEYTALKS” (using the model of TED Talks). In addition to a number of video presentations and discussions, we had a series of afternoon workshops.

I made back-to-back presentations of the Industry Evangelicalism and Testimony Evangelicalism distinction I’ve been blogging about. I wasn’t sure how it would be received because it was the first time I’d unpacked these ideas when people could actually see me, challenge the presentation, and ask questions.

My presentation was built around a series of geologic metaphors. My overall point was that there is a massive shift going on in evangelicalism. It is a move from Industry Evangelicalism, based on structures both physical and sociological, to Testimony Evangelicalism, based on authenticity and interpersonal engagement. Just as the movement of tectonic plates gives rise to volcanic eruptions and earthquake activity, the shift in evangelicalism’s tectonic plates gives rise to various crises, conflicts, and concerns.

In other words, the visible activity is a result of the underlying movement. To understand the volcanic eruption, we need to understand the underlying geology. To understand the latest evangelical twitter fight, we need to look beneath the surface.

The presentation wove together a number of sources I’ve written on before but never tied together quite as well. I worked through the component parts of Industry Evangelicalism, based on boundaries, structures, charismatic leadership, conformity of followers, and a general combative stance with the broader culture. This is part of what Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace spoke to and is also reflected in much of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. Putnam and Campbell describe the building of evangelical infrastructure as the first aftershock (another geology reference) to the earthquake that was the 1960s. While Worthen’s timeframe starts earlier than that, her book similarly places the expansion of evangelical visibility in the same era.

But earthquakes and aftershocks create damage. That damage results in instability. And in some cases, the best we can do is to construct complicated scaffolding to protect the institution from further damage. I used the pictures below as an illustration. This shows the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. following the August 2011 earthquake.

Cathedral

Part of the damage done by Industry Evangelicalism is seen in declining percentages of Americans identifying with evangelicalism in national polls and the dramatic rise in religious “nones” among the millennial population.

I suggested that Testimony Evangelicalism is the emerging understanding that subsumes the Industry tectonic plate. Testimony Evangelism, as I’ve written before, is based on story and interpersonal engagement. It affirms contact over boundaries and puts a priority on authentic and ongoing relationship.

Here is the image I’ve adopted to represent Testimony Evangelicalism.

Ned

There’s just something about Ned Flanders. He may be one of the most clearly evangelical characters on television. Sure, he can be kind of nerdy and Homer and Bart enjoy picking on him.

But Ned never goes away. He keeps building that relationship with Homer and the family. He tries to enter into their lives even if they don’t fully understand his. I observed that Ned’s approach is in sharp contrast with Rev. Lovejoy, the other expression of a person of faith (there’s another blog post in here for sure).

When I reviewed the Worthen book, I observed that there were always alternative voices to those building Industry Evangelicalism. Because I was at a Nazarene school, I especially celebrated the role of H. Orton Wiley and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop. They were forerunners of my Testimony approach.

Putnam and Campbell see the rise of the religious nones, especially among the millennials, as a response to the organizational structures of Industry Evangelicalism (watch Jeff Bethke’s “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”). This is consistent with the argument David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons make in You Lost Me.

I suggested that we could begin to see how Testimony Evangelicalism could work if we simply took Kinnaman’s themes describing the estrangement of millennials and reversed them. Instead of being over-protective, it would be known as a place of trust. Instead of focusing on pat answers, it would wrestle with complexity and tolerate ambiguity. Instead of being concerned about science or societal changes, it would give freedom for hard conversations.

In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that there have been three dominant styles the evangelical church has used to engage culture. The first is “defensive against”, which sees culture as an enemy bringing siege to the battlements. This is the response of Industry Evangelicalism. The second is “relevant to”, which embraces culture and simply folds it into the church. While it’s easy to pick on historic mainlines, the consumerism of seeker sensitivity and the prosperity gospel both fit this form. The third is “purity from”, which describes the Amish and some Holiness groups. Culture should be avoided to avoid infection. Hunter sets these up to talk of a fourth style: Faithful Presence:

Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer; we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives toward the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love.

This is the style best representing Testimony Evangelicalism.

I had a good crowd in both sessions. Most of those attending were pastors and lay leaders from the region. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

But I was absolutely thrilled by the response both in the discussion period that followed by presentation and conversations I’ve had over the past 24 hours. Church leaders, at least those who opted to spend some time at a theology conference, saw this shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimony Evangelicalism as a sign of hope within their ministries. I was asked what we could do to get denominational leaders to pay attention to the argument, but there was also a recognition that this just might be the old form of the question.

One of the most encouraging moments happened at dinner last night. Bob, a senior pastor in Washington, told his district superintendent pretty much the entire presentation and recommended it as a topic for future meetings. More important, he told me he wished he was just starting his 40 year career today because the opportunities are so bright. It’s what happens when we faithfully give people the opportunity to speak authentically.

As Ned would say, “Hi-dilly-ho, neighborinos!”

Ripping Down Towers of Babel

Brueghel-tower-of-babelThe picture to the left is Bruegel the Elder’s take on the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel. In the scripture, we’re told that there was only one language and the people came together to build a city with a great tower that would reach to the heavens. In response, the LORD comes down to check it out and confuses their languages and scatters the people across the nations.

I’m not a biblical scholar — I’m a sociologist. So my first inclination is to treat this story as a cosmological allegory of “why the people down the road don’t talk like us”. It’s the kind of story that fits within an oral tradition explaining to children why things are the way they are.

But I did do some quick internet research and was pleased to find this entry from the Oxford Bible Studies Online. I was pleased for several reasons. First, the author is Brent Strawn from Candler Seminary at Emory and I’ve been friends with his father and brother for several years. Second, because the piece also used the Bruegel painting as illustration. And Third, because Brent’s analysis is directly applicable to the issue of religious group boundaries I’ve been exploring for several months.

Brent suggests that there are two interpretations of why the tower was a problem. One option is that it has something to do with pride. Building a huge edifice would let everyone know that these were cool people who had things together. He goes on to say that this chapter stands in stark contrast to the calling of Abram; there it is God who does great things through people. The second option Brent explores is the role of fear. They needed the city to protect them from being scattered across the earth (as was God’s plan). The “hunkering down” as he calls it, is in resistance to the world as they found it.

As I said, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which evangelical groups build artifices to separate those on the inside from those on the outside (for samples, see here and here). And I’ve come to a useful image that helps explain the process.

We tore down the Tower of Babel and then used the self same bricks to build enclaves of our own desiring.

And we did it for the same two reasons the Tower was built in the first place: Pride and Fear.

Pride comes in when we attract hordes of followers to show that we are right. Zack Hoag has consistently exposed the ways in which the evangelical church (both conservative and progressive) have been seduced by the culture of celebrity. I am not immune. I want page views, retweets, Facebook likes, and recognition. I want people to tell each other about my writing. I want to have access to publishing empires that turns a lecture series into a book and a set of DVDs.

We build our enclaves because it allows us to sit inside our secure walls and lob critiques at those walled enclaves down the block. We hope that doing so will prove how smart we are, how right we are, how close to God we are. Especially if we can demonstrate that by comparison to those wrong-headed folks next door.

Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece today discussing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the critiques lobbed over the wall. It’s a story of hurt and misunderstanding, of false accusation and presumption. But it also contains some deep introspection to make sure that parallel assumptions don’t result about other groups.

I’ve been reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. It’s a wonderful book (not surprisingly, it’s chock full of good social psychology!). I’m only partway through, but already the implications are powerful. We find comfort and identity through our groups within our walls. But that very comfort and identification contributes to our misreading and misunderstanding the other groups. Our pride causes us to overstate our own position and not really listen to others.

If pride makes us overstate our correctness, fear calls us to demonize all opposition even if we can’t name them. We build our walls so high that we don’t know what’s out there. We just know it can’t be good because it’s not what we have in here.

This post was prompted by one shared by Peter Enns over the weekend. It was about a conference announcement about a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The brochure is titled “The Liberal Seepage into the Evangelical Culture” and shows a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’ll let the word “seepage” go for now (sounds like a medical problem). But the very identification of “evangelical culture” as a thing is the very essence of wall-building. See, THEY are infiltrating into the space WE have created for ourselves. Even if our concerns about them are based on irrationality and exaggeration.

In the words of Elmer Fudd, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid.

Fear take us funny places. It makes it easy to do things or say things about brothers and sisters we would not otherwise do or say. Because somebody has to. Otherwise, how would we protect the walls from intruders? Don’t you know what the stakes are?

Christians aren’t motivated by pride. Christians aren’t directed by fear.

We are following in the way of the Christ who sacrificed his status and position to inaugurate a new way of living through death on the cross and launching of a Kingdom at hand. We have an assurance running throughout scripture that we are not alone but have the very God of the universe with us.

What happens if we tear down our walls? I’m still working on this but I think we find that we are able to engage those around us. We find them reasonable people who ask interesting questions, who have fascinating life stories, who have real struggles. In short, we find them to be people created in the image of God. People who, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, are both representatives of Christ and perhaps unaware Kingdom-builders (“When did we do that?”).

In short, trusting Christ and his Kingdom journey means that we don’t need walls and boundaries. Because God is already at work building the Kingdom. We’re just along for the ride to offer water when asked.

I’m also reading Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Their writing both resonates with my thinking and makes me feel like they’ve already said it better. The central thesis of their book is the God went into the Far Country (where we live) and we are called to do likewise.

Going into the Far Country requires trust in God and deep courage. In that way it becomes a matter of testimony to the Greater Story of which we are all apart.

As Mr. Reagan said to Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down Those Walls!

Conservative Protestants, Divorce, and Culture: Durkheim would be proud

Red State MarriageSociologists made the news this week. Mostly we just do our research and our teaching, wondering if anybody notices. Then word comes out that a study will appear in this month’s American Journal of Sociology that raises questions about the connections between religious affiliation and divorce. The article, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, examines patterns in county divorce rates as they were correlated with other factors.

Religion news outlets got on the story. The Religion News Service story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey did a very good job. The Huffington Post summarized the story, while seeming to gloat a little on red-state problems or support of abstinence programs. One of the clearest summaries is in a press release from the Council on Contemporary Families (operated by Stephanie Coontz, one of the best marriage experts in the country).

There was some spirited dialogue about the study on Facebook and Twitter and I shared what I could. But I realized that it was hard to evaluate the argument without seeing the actual article, which isn’t out yet. But the intrepid Director of the White Library at Spring Arbor, Robbie Bolton, found me a copy of a conference paper Glass and Levchak had done three years ago that looks to be a similar argument and is likely the initial version of what became the AJS paper.

It’s a very interesting paper (if you like ordinary least squares regression). It does a very nice review of the literature, looking at the dynamics impacting divorce decisions, conservative protestantism, early marriage, attitudes toward cohabitation, and so on.

Curiously, it seems that much of the push-back on the internet comes from observations in the lit review. At least one article states, “as the authors wrote in the paper“, which while technically true isn’t the point of their analysis. They site what Mark Regnerus calls the “evangelical anomaly”, in which conservative attitudes against premarital sex don’t impact sexual behavior, resulting in higher than average rates of both teen pregnancy and early marriage. They summarize research that posits a Southern Culture. They discuss the relationships between educational level, economic structure, and divorce. All of these are in their paper but the real focus in on how county patterns co-vary.

This is important sociologically — we must pay attention to units of analysis. You can’t use county level data to explain individual divorces or attitudes of local conservative protestant congregations. Anyone who has done either is using the study in ways that aren’t appropriate.

What Glass and Levchak are doing has a sociological history running back to Durkheim. In his classic study Suicide (1897), he examined how suicide rates vary by region in ways that co-varied with characteristics within the region (protestant vs catholic provinces in the classic example). Obviously, individual suicides don’t vary in the same way (he was quite dismissive of theories of abnormality to explain collective behavior). He suggested that what happens is that there is a general “social current” within a culture that intersects with individuals considering suicide. The result is a tremendous stability in suicide rates over time (not for individuals, of course, they don’t have an “over time”!).

It’s in this context that the Red State-Divorce connection should be read. Their results suggest that counties with higher percentages of the population affiliated with conservative protestant churches contrasted with mainline churches have higher rates of divorce than those counties with lower percentages of the same. (When unaffiliated percentages are compared to mainline, the impact on divorce is three times as high). They then control for standard variables like race, social class, and age of first marriage to see if the initial relationship was an artifact of something else. It persists throughout the analysis.

They had already demonstrated in the literature review that attendance in an evangelical church appears to operate as inoculation against divorce. This maybe be due to the social supports provided by the congregation and/or the social opprobrium against divorce. So they aren’t really arguing that conservative protestants are contributing to divorce. Their argument is more subtle than that.

The data seems to suggest that increased rates of divorce in the counties with higher percentages in conservative churches is due to the behaviors of the non-attending crowd. Theoretically, this would suggest that the churches were helping to shape the norms and values of the local culture (as they might have hoped). However, for those without social supports, the result of premarital sex and cohabitation is to push people into early marriage and early childbirth and avoiding higher education. This, in turn, contributes to one parent working at lower wage jobs. That, finally, contributes to marital dissolution.

Durkheim would love this on both counts — the congregation provides value reinforcement and the social currents impact individual behaviors, regardless of religious preference. The result of these social patterns is a divorce rate that is consistently different from those counties that have a lower percentage of adherents to evangelical religious groups.

But therein is a cautionary tale for the evangelical church. For all our desire to impact the broader culture so that Biblical values are represented, there is a probability that those attitudes will impact that culture in unanticipated ways. They may provide rationales for beliefs or behaviors that actually run counter to what we were trying to promote. As the values espoused become a part of the social currents, they impact behavior but with little theological content whatsoever. Perversely, the religious values get subsumed into the general civil religion of the society (Durkheim saw that one coming as well).

There’s also a cautionary tale for Christian universities here. While on the one hand, we’ve (thankfully) moved well beyond the old jokes about getting one’s MRS degree, the culture of a Christian university celebrates relationship. We teach courses in marriage and family, in relationship building, and have lots of social activities to bring people together. Of course the 60-40 gender split means that a significant number of individuals won’t be in relationship. For those that are, the lessons about abstinence are taken to heart but run up against lots of close interaction, plenty of free time, and freedom from supervision. It’s been a long-term fear of mine that we encourage young people to pair up and plan weddings long before they are ready. Better to marry than burn. Better to stay together than explain to everybody what went wrong. As emerging adults continue to delay marriage in general, our lessons on premarital sex may have more troubling consequences down the road.

We need to be aware of how our values are experienced by individuals. When we don’t provide the social support involving honest communication, we can become complicit in broader trends without intending to. In Moral Education (published in 1922 after his death), Durkheim suggested that morality involved discipline, attachment, and autonomy. The first keeps ego in check. The second connects us to the group. The third allows us to make moral choices.

While Glass and Levchak can’t get at these factors from their county-level demographic data, it’s good to keep in mind. All three factors are necessary to shape both individual and collective behavior.

Lessons from Apostles (of Reason)

Apostles of ReasonAs I mentioned in the last several posts, I’ve been reading Molly Worthen’s wonderful history of the modern evangelical movement, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

A number of colleagues have been commenting chapter by chapter, but I was drawn to some broad themes that cut across her history. These themes remain very timely when it comes to thinking about what evangelicalism will look like over the next twenty years.

As I worked through the book, there were five threads I kept running across: 1) the convergence of American exceptionalism and evangelical thought, 2) the diversity of thought sitting right underneath an apparent consensus, 3) the importance of infrastructure, 4) the simultaneous pull of legitimacy and separatism,  and 5) the effectiveness of simple arguments over complex ones.

1. Battling for national identity: From the outset, the movement we know as modern evangelicalism (expressed as the NAE) was tied up in protecting an American way of life as it had been known. Worthen writes:

Without a firm defense of biblical inerrancy, [NAE president Harold] Ockenga predicted, America would fall to enemies within and without, as had imperial Rome. Western civilization was sick with secularism and socialism, the spores that had overrun their hosts in the Soviet Union (26).

The linkage of a “biblical worldview” that leads to conservative political stances is somewhat hard to figure. While one might argue that inerrancy could hold sway in moral discussions, such a straight endorsement of the nation-state is surprising. What struck me was that the conservative political leaning of neo-evangelicals was not a result of the Moral Majority or the political maneuvering of Karl Rove. It seems to be a natural affinity between a particular view of a threatening outside world and a desire for protection against that threat. The Christian Reconstructionist movement that originated in the late 1960s seemed to draw form John Birchers and defeated Goldwater supporters. A new view of faith was needed to struggle against LBJ’s Great Society. The same sentiment gives rise to a pragmatic partnership with Catholics over social issues like abortion and homosexuality. The countervailing tendency seems to occur as missionaries learn about cultural embeddedness and Global Christians in the late 20th century express syncretistic approaches to religion (it’s always easier to see culture conflated with religion in somebody else’s culture!).

2. We’re not all like that: This was one of the real surprises for me. When I was at Point Loma Nazarene University, I became enamored with H. Orton Wiley who was president twice. He wrote a definitive theology for the Church of the Nazarene and served as editor the denominational magazine for several years. Wiley gets great praise in Worthen’s book as an intellectual voice that did not follow the script of the neo-evangelical worldview and inerrancy arguments. So do Nazarenes Timothy Smith and Mildred Wynkoop. In addition to their voices, we can add the voices of the Anabaptists (primarily in John Howard Yoder) and the Restorationist churches. Underneath what looks like a monolithic movement of evangelicals, there were and are many voices saying, “Wait a minute. Let’s look at this differently.” That critique continues in a number of quarters, Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, the 1970s Young Evangelicals, the rise of Pentecostalism, and others. It seems to me that most of these alternative voices were speaking within their own communities ABOUT neo-evangelicals but not contesting the position in a larger debate. Perhaps they ceded the label “evangelical” to others (I had such a debate when I celebrated the Nazarenes joining the NAE and was told that “we were Holiness people”). Some of the same ceding is happening today (“if that’s what it means, I don’t want it”). But if we focus on the multiple strands of voicing, we find that evangelicalism is far more complex and more robust than one might otherwise think.

3. The Organization: From the outset, control over institutions was important. The story of Fuller Seminary is particularly interesting as it began as staunchly conservative but shifted its position over the course of the book. But construction of publications (like Christianity Today) and ministries and educational institutions was crucial. There were certain institutions deemed “right” and the network of mentors, mentees, and fellow-students aligns with the best social network analysis. In the 1960s and 1970s, new organizations are created. The 1980s sees conservatives take over Southern Baptist organizations and the rise of publishing empires. Celebrity voices use radio, television, and mass publication to create an impression of dominance in the public eye. These become the focal point for secular media coverage. It was particularly striking to read of the moderates during the Baptist fights. They really didn’t pay attention to issues of political power. I might even say that they thought too highly of the motivations of their opponents. Moderates don’t organize well. We want to hear others’ voices. We recognize complexity (more below) and seem to like nuance. Instead, those conservative organizations focus on maintaining consistent message and leveraging the power of public acclamation. The current crop of moderate writers/bloggers may have great conferences but don’t yet have the strength of infrastructure present among the conservatives. There’s work to do on that front.

4. You Like Me, You Really Like Me: This trend can also been seen at many points along the evangelicals’ journey. On the one hand, the focus on presuppositionalism and worldview means that there is a continual attempt to separate from the secular, socialist, modernist, views of the popular culture. “Our ways are different from their ways.” At the same time, there is a desire for legitimacy through having schools accredited, having scholars recognized, having evidence tested by modernist strategies. Throughout the book, Worthen returns to this tendency of evangelicals to use enlightenment rhetorical strategies in ways that their biblicism won’t quite allow. This theme connects back to the linkage to politics as evangelicals (especially in the Iowa caucuses) desire to shape elections while fighting culture wars.

5. It’s Simple, Really: This theme is especially evident in the chapter on folks like Francis Shaeffer, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, James Dobson, and others. Arguments are made that oversimplify the case, that caricature alternative views, that hyperbolize isolated situations, that lack context, or that don’t hold up to informed critique (maybe that’s why many evangelicals like Fox News). This rhetorical style, while effective, isn’t informative and may do harm in the long run. I’m reminded of some research from social psychology about attitude change: strong source characteristics trump weak message until doubt sets in; then there’s nothing the source can do to regain influence. This is what Putnam and Campbell called the second aftershock, where the overreach of evangelical celebrities pushed people away. I think this is also consistent with the negative views millennials have toward contemporary evangelicalism. They know that they live in a complex world and expect their organizations and leaders to speak accordingly.

I highly recommend this book. For anyone trying to understand how evangelicalism got where it is today, or more importantly, what its future holds, it’s full of clear and helpful insights. I know I’ll return to these themes as I continue my own work. Well done, Molly!

Industry v. Testimonial Evangelicalism: Concrete Examples

I have been headed for this particular post for several months now. My sociological rambling and pondering has remained abstract and appropriately theoretical. But exploring the implications of what I’ve been thinking requires me to get specific.

This is a scary thing because it requires vulnerability. I stake my claim and then you can blog about me, send angry e-mails, invite trolls to inhabit my otherwise friendly pages, or write nasty letters to my administrators. Maybe all of the above. But writing has its responsibilities and possibly being taken to task for what seems to make sense at the moment is part of the obligation.

First, a quick summary of the previous two posts: I define Industry Evangelicalism as that form of evangelical thought and conversation dedicated to maintaining a particular place in the social milieux. This is expressed in celebrity speakers maintaining a following, in worldview advocates building airtight systematics, in organizations maintaining their stance against perceived incursions from hostile others, in polemics maintaining an argument in spite of changing circumstances. As I’m conceptualizing it, you can have Industry Evangelicalism on the Right and on the Left (and maybe even in the Middle but the examples are harder to come by). The strategy is similar: pick an outrage from outside the boundary, organize against it, and demonstrate the comparative value of your position (and the comparative wrongness of the other). To stay with my Weberian ideal types, they share more characteristics than not.

I define Testimonial Evangelicalism as that form of evangelical expression that comes from sharing one’s story. This is not a pre-packaged Four Spiritual Laws approach but a real sharing of joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, certainty and question, strength and weakness, success and failure. God’s Grace and forgiveness is part of that story; it’s likely the central thread or pivotal motif of that story. But it’s not a trump card one plays. It’s an invitation into dialogue. And as people dialogue as individuals created in God’s image, the Holy Spirit moves to build community and common understanding.  We need to be able to tell our stories and hear other’s stories in ways that maintain authenticity and dignity for all. Conservatives have good stories. Progressives have good stories. Athiests have good stories. Religious Nones have good stories. The telling of our story is the beginning of the dialogue that must avoid prioritizing MY story as the one that should be heard.

Enough theorizing. Let’s get concrete with all this.

Concrete Example One: Homosexuality (No Duck Dynasty references, I promise.) Yes, I’m starting with one of the most emotionally charged issues in Evangelical World. Because it is one of the clearest illustrations of the distinction I’m making. It’s useful to examine how it’s been addressed by various groups. On the conservative side, we hear calls for Believing the Bible, Biblical Marriage (at least in Genesis 2, later polygamous relationships are ignored), callous comments about “Adam and Steve”, or worries about body parts (I’m not going there because I promised no DD references). On the progressive side we hear accusations of homophobia and calls to affirm loving relationships.  But a Testimonial approach begins in an entirely different place; where people really live. A few years ago I was in a discussion with some 20-something Christian women and Prop 8 came up. I asked them how they engaged the question and they said “we had to decide what we thought about homosexuality in seventh grade show choir when that guy came out in rehearsal“. It was a brilliant answer. They had to wrestle with their belief system AND their compassion for their friend. Micah Murray expressed the same sentiment very well in this Huffington Post Live segment (especially the first 4 1/2 minutes). I have had many colleagues who learned their loved ones were gay. They know all the “right arguments” but prioritize remaining a part of their loved one’s lives. They are interested in the broad philosophical or theological debates, but they can bracket those for the time being to give priority to those they care about. A few years ago, I had a student ask me “how I thought” about same-sex marriage. I was struck with the hospitable invitation to honestly explore the range of ideas surrounding the topic.

Concrete Example Two: Creation/Evolution Easy to illustrate the Industry Evangelicalism version of this one — just Google “Bill Nye to debate Ken Ham”. Those on the Ken Ham side demonize the science side, engage in ridicule, and hold to their own view of science that is consistent with their perspective. Those who don’t like Ham and the Creation Museum write dismissive pieces (with some good science) that border on caricature. Which works for Ham because it allows him to play the victim card. On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is far more careful in acknowledging the difficulties of working through faith/science issues. I’ve known several biology professors over the years who share the story of their difficult journey to keep their faith and science in dialogue.  They readily explain their position while maintaining deep compassion for their hearers. This works for nonscientists as well. My friend Tom Oord has helped organize a fascinating site called “Nazarenes Exploring Evolution“. It contains first-person statements from a variety of denominational folks (pastors, educators, and scientists) reflecting on their journeys. No definitive answers wrapped in a neat bow. Just faithful telling of what they’re learning about God.

Concrete Example Three: Biblical Interpretation On the Industry Evangelicalism side, supporters elevate specific passages of the Bible to special status. The Scripture becomes the ultimate trump card that ends all conversation, especially when the verse shared is prefaced with “God Says…”. It used to be expressed as “God said it, I believe it, and that’s Good Enough for me.” To question is to doubt God, His Power, and His Plan. Molly Worthen’s book explores the interesting connection between enlightenment scientism and inerrancy (she gives a short version of the argument in this piece she posted today). The Industry version sees any questioning of the scripture as unacceptable (see this story on Cedarville University as an example). Testimonial Evangelicalism, on the other hand, explores the meaning of scriptures in spiritual formation. It allows biblical scholars to wrestle openly with difficult issues of alignment, purpose, and context of scripture. It gives people the freedom to hold a high view of scripture, to share how the Story of God intersects with our story (people should read N.T. Wright, Scott McKnight, Peter Enns, and others for illustration). It doesn’t require easy and tight answers but allows us to wrestle with the meaning of scripture for our lives as an unfolding exploration leading us closer to God.

There are undoubtedly other examples that I could unpack. But this is a beginning.

I’m not saying that Industry Evangelicalism is going away. I am saying that it will be harder to maintain as an option within a rapidly changing, religiously diverse, postmodern society. Testimonial Evangelicalism begins with an expression of one’s values. When treated with dignity and a grant of authority, it can be shared with the values that are authentic to dialogue partners. In that dialogue we will find the Grace that allows Evangelicalism to flourish in the contemporary age.

 

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Testimonial Evangelicalism

St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna
St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna

In my previous post, O Theophilus…..

Please forgive my “borrowing” from the Apostle Luke from the beginning of Acts. I’ve done so because I’m trying to figure out the nature of testimony.

Long before we studied Biblical Theology to figure out the systematic meanings of doctrines, the writings of the new testament were actually written from real people to other real people. When we say, “I just want to follow the Bible“, we need to remember that we’re following things particular people wrote as expression of what they had seen and believed.

I am not taking anything away from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when it comes to scripture. But the scriptures we hold so dear are full of reminders of personal relationship. While we don’t know all of the details of the house churches in Corinth or Rome, it’s safe to assume that Paul had particular people in mind as he wrote letters to those churches. When the letters were read in the church, the hearers would be remembering their prior conversations with Paul. His instruction carried weight because they knew him and his character.

This is where what I’m calling Testimonial Evangelicalism begins. At its heart we find basic communication between two human beings. The one sharing puts a priority on being understood by the one listening. That’s all. As Parker Palmer put it, “No fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight”. It is simply about the sharing of one’s experience with another.

This is different from actual testimony services I heard in church when I was younger. I don’t want to be unkind to those well-meaning souls who stood up and shared their struggles, but it often seemed to be an early form of performance art designed to elicit a duly sympathetic response — We’ll pray for you; hang in there and trust Jesus. Those collective settings stopped short of actual engagement between individuals.

Back to Palmer’s quote: the interaction between individuals in testimonial evangelicalism is not utilitarian. In other words, it’s not designed to bring about a designated end-product. Too much of evangelistic crusades involved orchestration to bring the end goal of coming forward. Too much of apologetics is designed to bring about the end goal of the listener acquiescing to the speaker’s argument. Too much of relationship evangelism was about being nice to neighbors so that you could bring them to church and then Jesus. (I always worried that the neighbors would come on some contest Sunday and they’d think they were there so I would win accolades.)

I just finished the chapter in Molly Worthen’s book where the pentecostal movement “catches fire” (sorry, it was too easy) in American culture. The pentecostals, and to a lesser extent the holiness movement and the anabaptists, presented a challenge to the neo-evangelical structures that existed. The challenge comes because they aren’t looking to provide answers — they are sharing experience.

The Wesleyan in me wants that experience to be mediated by the rest of the “quadrilateral”. It must be tested against scripture. It must be seen in light of church tradition. And it must stand up to some measure of rationality. We don’t just have experiences — we use them to construct larger understandings.

This is important because those larger understandings are malleable. It’s not that we lack commitment. It’s that we build what Peter Berger calls plausibility structures: scaffolding which make sense of the experience. In his classic Invitation to Sociology, he has this remarkable passage about alternation:

The intellectual situation just described brings with it the possibility that an individual may alternate back and forth between logically contradictory meaning systems. Each time, the meaning system he enters provides him with an interpretation of his existence and of his world, including in this interpretation an explanation of the meaning system he has abandoned.

This is far different from the ideological certainty of Industry Evangelicalism. The point here is to tell of the experience is such a way as to best connect with the experience of the hearer. One cannot afford to presume to know their meaning system and seek ways to combat it.

Let me push a bit deeper. Proof-texting play no role in the kind of evangelicalism I’m imagining because there is no way to know a) if the hearer is biblically literate (or the speaker, but that’s another post) b) if their interpretation of the quoted passage matches the speaker’s, or c) if they prefer an altogether different passage that doesn’t align with the speaker’s view.

What then is the speaker to do? Perhaps it’s enough to explain why that particular passage is meaningful. Not that it’s right or the answer to all questions. But that it’s been borne out in the life of the speaker in authentic ways that the hearer can relate to, at least in part.

This is where the millennial focus on authenticity come in, even in the honest sharing of doubt. The conversation becomes about how each person makes sense of things. More correctly, this is an honest conversation that doesn’t always make sense. Things get left undone. All the pieces don’t come together all at once and maybe not at all.

But maybe fitting the pieces together isn’t the point. Maybe it’s enough to share the attempt. I mentioned earlier that I found it helpful to imagine the church in Rome hearing Paul’s letter read. When he gets to the point in chapter 7 where he says that he does not do the good he wants but finds himself doing bad, do they nod in understanding? Do they say, “oh yeah, like that time when…“?

I’m reminded of a book Bethel University professor Daniel Taylor wrote called The Myth of Certainty. It was used in a number of classes in schools where I’ve been. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it. But I did read his Tell Me A Story. In the latter work, he examines how our lives unfold in narrative and what it means for us to act as characters in each other’s plots. I think that Certainty gets in the way of Story because it denies the possibility that there are perspectives I haven’t considered or experiences I can’t possibly imagine.

The most powerful pieces we read on the internet are not systematic explications of how this and such worked together. They are painful moments of real life: the miscarriage experienced by a young couple, the struggle another couple had with infertility, the sometimes crippling nature of depression, the happy couple in their first apartment, the birth of a grandchild, the completion of a doctorate.

And in the midst of all that is faith. Not a blind faith that says that “God has a plan” but one that says that God is present in the struggle and the joy and the accomplishment. Testimony of that sort can change the world.

Testimonial Evangelicalism is trying to Bear Witness.

It denies power because it’s not trying to prove anything. It doesn’t need celebrity because celebrity calls forth emotional distance in place of authenticity. And it can deal with the complexities and vagaries of life because it can leave closure to the work of the Holy Spirit, just like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

In my next post, I’ll try to unpack what Testimony looks like in real life when set alongside Industry Evangelicalism.