Tag: evangelicalism

A Kaleidoscopic Deity: Matthew Paul Turner’s Our Great Big American God

Yesterday I finished Matthew Paul Turner’s new book, Our Great Big American God. It purports to be a biography of God in America. Through most of the book, one gets the idea that God is a taken-for-granted character supporting those around whom the story revolves. The character that seems to be behind everything but always interpreted by others, like Nick Fury to the Avengers.kaleidoscope

So in reality, God is only visible in the book through the explanations of the main characters, who themselves only got a quick glimpse  of God that fit their understanding of their world at the time. It’s like looking though the kaleidoscope I had as a child. You look through the tube and see an interesting design. A simple turn of the little lens at the end shifted the image and gave rise to an entirely different design. There is little coherence between one and another. So it appears to be with America’s understanding of God.

Turner picks up astutely on the ways in which Americans from William Bradford to Walter Rauschenbusch to Jerry Falwell read God into their work. It’s not that they were using God, exactly. They just only saw one pattern. And that pattern seemed to remarkably fit where their own interests lie. Abraham Lincoln’s caution that we should try to find ourselves on God’s side rather than wanting God on our side was lost on many American religious leaders throughout history.

OGBAGThe Puritans had a harsh God that was impossible to please, which was okay as long as you were one of the elect in spite of your depravity. The kaleidoscope shifts and we begin to focus on a God that speaks directly to people (even women!). Then a great awakening comes to America and Jesus moves to the forefront. Methodism likes the kaleidoscope pattern that best relates to westward expansion and circuit riding preachers. There are different patterns in North and South during the civil war (and for decades afterward). The Fundamentalists tried to hold their pattern in place against a shifting civil society. The Pentecostals brought a new patterns, introducing spectacle and celebrity. The political evangelicalism of the of the 1980s through recent years read a pattern that called for them to act because God needed their help.

There is great history in the book. If you read the endnotes, you’ll find citations from some of the best religious historians around: George Marsden, Thomas Kidd, Mark Noll, Stephen Prothero. In the last year I’ve read Robert McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (on the rise of evangelicalism), and Randall Balmer’s biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. All of these books, plus others I’ve read tell similar stories to what Turner shares in this little book. In other words, his history is solid even if understandably abbreviated.

The writing style is a combination of Sarah Vowell and Kurt Vonnegut; wry, slightly irreverent, managing social commentary while quietly admiring the intent of the actors in the story (for the most part). It made me miss the days when I faithfully read The Wittenberg Door.

What’s surprising about the book is that it’s more than a funny read of issues in American religion. Pay attention and you find a deep analysis of the dangers of syncretism and civil religion. It’s what happens when we pay more attention to ourselves and our own religious systems that we do to the God who is acting in our midst.

The book also provides something of an atlas to the contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. The kaleidoscope patterns that defined early groups can still be found in today’s expression. While Turner helps connect those dots along the way, it’s pretty easy to see how the varied strands of religious expression continue to take shape.

Yes, the book is a light-hearted look at the way we think about God in America. But more than that, it’s about how people wrestle to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. It calls out those who would reduce that God to a product to be managed (which he characterizes as GOD®) and requires us to maintain an appropriate intellectual humility.

Maybe then we can understand the story that God is actually writing rather than the patterns we think we see.

 

 

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Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism

This is a follow-up piece on last week’s post that connected Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the changing nature of American Evangelicalism. It also builds off of the post I wrote for the Respectful Conversations dialogue on the future of evangelicalism. Finally, it’s informed by my reading of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason on the early years of evangelical establishment.

To be fair, this is still a work in progress (isn’t that what blogs are for?). I’m trying to wrestle with some distinctions that can align with some of what we’re seeing in a number of areas in both the sociology of religion and contemporary evangelicalism. I want to contrast two forms of evangelical expression: Industry Evangelicalism and Testimonial Evangelicalism.

WeberFrom a purely sociological perspective, I’m using what Max Weber called “ideal types”. These are ideal only in the sense that they don’t exist in real life. In fact, the differentiation between the forms may exaggerate characteristics in ways that border on caricature. But that’s still useful from a theoretical standpoint. Weber was able to contrast real-world situations with his ideal types to understand the social dynamics in operation. Two of his most famous analyses based on idea types are his examination of economic systems (the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and his church-sect typology.

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is based on the authentic sharing of story. It is based on interpersonal relationships. Any power that is involved is the social psychological power of personal story. The story is authentic because it rings true. It avoids pat answers and mischaracterization. It is willing to risk holding contradictory positions and tolerating ambiguity. In short, it is best expressed in John 9:25: when asked how Jesus had healed him, the blind man said “I don’t know: what I do know is that once I was blind and now I see.

What I am suggesting is that we’re seeing a shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimonial Evangelicalism. This is an important distinction. What many see as a decline in Christian commitment within society is not a decline but is a transformation. This is always the way God’s church has remained fresh and vital in the midst of a society prone to the syncretism of combining religious perspectives and affirmation of distinctive cultural values.

I’ll unpack the theoretical implications of Testimonial Evangelicalism in my next post. First, it’s necessary to explore Industry Evangelicalism.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued that one of the contributing factors for the growth of religious “nones” is the dogmatism and harsh stances of evangelical leaders. Younger generations found public comments and harsh tones to be a bridge too far, essentially saying “if this is what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.” This pattern is replicated in work on millennial questions about evangelicalism. I’d also suggest that the gulf between evangelical churches and mainline churches is as much this matter of tone and dogmatism as it is about theology.

There are a host of examples of Industry Evangelicalism. I’ll ignore the Duck Dynasty controversy here because I’ve already addressed it except to wonder who put out those Facebook pages about “standing with Phil Robertson“. Were these put up by some individual DD viewer? Probably not. It is far more likely that organizations that search for religious conflict put together these Facebook pages and asked Christians to “like” them. If I were really cynical, I’d think that “liking” got you on some mailing list. I’m sure that happens in the political arena and fear that the same models are being used in Industry Evangelicalism.

This week offered some concrete examples of the ideal type. I don’t have all the details behind these examples, which is where Weber’s approach is useful. They offer some indicators even if they aren’t perfect matches to the ideal type.

A group of Baptist college and seminary presidents raised concerns over the role of biblical inerrancy espoused (or not espoused) by their faculty. In the process, they raised concerns about academic freedom as generally understood within the academy. Peter Enns, reflecting on the article today, suggests “There is no hope here of reasoned, learned, discourse. Only circling the wagon and protecting turf.” Circling wagons and protecting the institutional turf reflects the prioritization of “our position” above all else.

Christianity Today had an interesting article this week on changing ties between Christian colleges and their sponsoring denominations. It’s a good piece and reflects the tensions present between attempting to build an inclusive enrollment (the article connects to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) while the alumni and trustees are denominationally connected. The article observes that denominational giving is down compared to years past. While Union University president David Dockery does a good job of connecting these changes to non-denominationalism, he’s quoted at the end of the article expressing concern that loss of denominational structure “will likely lead to a weakening of the college’s Christian identity.” There is a presumption that it is organizational form and control that protects identity and that a college’s ethos (and the commitment of its faculty) is not strong enough to maintain identity. The impression this gives, while softer than the Baptist presidents above, still privileges institutional form above exploration and authentic dialogue.

Also this week Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and seen on thousands of television screens each week, released advanced information from his new book in which he says that President Obama is setting the stage for the Antichrist. It may be progress that he doesn’t think the president IS the antichrist but it still reflects a conflictual style that takes a legitimate disagreement (same-sex marriage) and puts it in the starkest possible context. It will sell books for sure. More importantly, to be called out in the Huffington Post is exactly what Industry Evangelicalism needs for success. The HP folks will ridicule the position taken by Pastor Jefress and he (and his folks) will take great solace in being disliked and misunderstood by HP. It’s good for the “brand”. (The similarity between this strategy and political structures is particularly disconcerting).

Yesterday Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle (and subject of lots of questions about the originality of his books) tweeted “If you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. It’s not unkind to say that. It’s unkind not to say that.” I’m not really trying to explore the theology of universalism. I was really trying to figure out what prompted the tweet in the first place. Driscoll’s followers wouldn’t be surprised at the tweet. His detractors would be outraged. Was he hoping for push back on what he saw as unquestionably Christian orthodoxy? Or, as my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wondered, is it about the need to present a simply constructed worldview where answers are easy and uncomplicated?  Again, I’d argue that the tweet operates to keep the organizational position consistent in the face of complexity.

A consistent theme in Apostles of Reason is the development of evangelical infrastructures against supposed critics and pitfalls from outside. While there are major stories of accommodation to cultural changes (I just finished the chapter about Christian colleges pursing secular accreditation), those are always seen as pragmatic moves that must be watched closely to protect the institution from outside interference.

In short, then, I’d offer three keys to knowing if we’re dealing with Industry Evangelicalism: 1) is maintaining the status quo necessary to protect institutional power; 2) is there money to be made or followers to be developed through the immediate controversy; and 3) do the players hyperbolize their position and exaggerate their victimhood?

As I’ll argue in my next post, Testimonial Evangelicalism offers an entirely different set of characteristics that are more reflective of life in a complex, postmodern, messy, diverse culture. It’s not less Christian. It’s a different expression of the Truth of the Gospel.

And Liberty and Justice for All

[My September submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Evangelicalism and Politics.]

An introductory comment: A reader responding to a recent post asked if I (and other writers in this series) saw any future in evangelicalism at all because he read the posts as attacking evangelical positions. I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks and realize that I could be clearer on my intent. I’m raising concerns about some aspects of evangelical culture in an attempt to call out the latent consequences those pieces may have — especially in terms of the broader culture hearing the heart of evangelicalism as it shares the love of Christ in prophetic ways to the broader society. After the critique, I’ll try to do a better job of speaking to the positive future.

It was the fall of 1981 and I was teaching my very first Introduction to Sociology class. I’d been a TA for the course in grad school but now I was responsible for the lectures myself. When I got to the broad institutional areas (of which Politics is one), I contrasted different views of governance: town hall democracy, Jeffersonian government by elites, oligarchy, and special interests. As I finished giving the lecture, I suggested that many in the church had adopted special interest tactics and that I was worried that the Body of Christ would be seen as simply another advocacy group.

The Moral Majority had been formally established just two years prior and CNN the year after that. Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell could regularly be found on the new cable news outlet speaking on political issues on behalf of Christians. It had been eight years since the Roe v. Wade decision but was still five years away from the formation of Operation Rescue.

Sociology professors talking to undergraduates are  not prophets. Yet in my own small way, I was trying to be a voice about something that could prove problematic. Maybe if my undergrads paid attention and acted differently as a result, we’d find a better way of engaging the political realm.

The last three decades have seen my meager warnings come to full flower. We now have major political organizations organized around Christian themes (e.g., Family Research Council). Or are they Christian organizations organized around political themes (e.g., The Family Leader)? When political candidates flock to the  Value Voters Summit (“Faith, Family, and Opportunity for All”) to prove their conservative credential to a room full of Christian delegates, the lines between religion and politics seem to disappear.

The impact of “evangelical as special interest group” has been well documented. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? suggested about a decade ago that evangelical voters were enticed into voting for political candidates on promises to address social issues like abortion and prayer in schools but those issues didn’t remain important to the candidates after the election. He argues quite cynically (Frank is really good at cynicism) that if the issues were addressed, the voters might return to their economic interests as a basis for voting. Perversely, one of the outcomes of the special interest approach is that the establishment keeps the issue on the table to maintain funding and voter participation but doesn’t create the desired social change.

The dynamics of the special interest approach show up in the midst of the “millennials leaving church” argument. The Barna Group’s data suggests that at least some of the disaffection of today’s young people comes from seeing church leaders as overly strident on social issues, being anti-science, anti-homosexual. In short, it’s about being known for what one is against and not what one is for.

Listen to any news program discuss what “evangelical voters” care about. Sure, they’ll take about their concerns over abortion or traditional definitions of marriage. But you’re just as likely to hear them decry Obamacare, support lower taxes and limited government, and favor a strong military. This is another outgrowth of the special interest approach — parties build “big tents” of various special interests and those coalitions start to bleed over into common talking points.

Evangelicals may have access to varied outlets in television, radio, or internet, but it doesn’t change the basic principle of electoral politics: numbers. Consider the following chart produced by UConn sociologist Bradley Wright from General Social Survey data. It’s his estimate of the percentage of Americans who can be classified as evangelicals.

Wright Evangels-in-US

The GSS data suggests that evangelical strength peaked in about 1990 and has been slowly waning since. Other data suggests it’s waning even more rapidly among the young with the percentage evangelical for those under 30 falling to 17% in 2010. This means that evangelicals cannot shape public policy without significant assistance from non-evangelicals. That 24% of the public may be strident and therefore more likely to vote than the average citizen, but elections are likely to follow demographic trends similar to the 2012 election.

Here ends the negative griping. What is the alternative going forward? Let me suggest three strategies.

First, we should recognize the difference between what is scriptural priority (to some eyes) and what makes for public policy solutions. If evangelicals are only a quarter of the population, we’ll need to find better ways of engaging with those who don’t share our faith perspectives. It means being willing to influence those things we can while not fighting over the things we can’t. For example, there is interesting data from a recent Baylor Religion study suggesting that a segment of the evangelical public isn’t fighting gay marriage as a matter of social policy. A debate is brewing among some Christian bloggers about whether this represents caving to liberalism or crafting a “messy middle” My read of the report suggests the latter. The correlation data suggests that these Ambivalent Evangelicals (really needs a new label) share few if any characteristics with liberals. (I’m in conversation with the Baylor sociology folks to get a better read on the data and may update this as that comes together.)

Second, regardless of one’s view of Christian America rhetoric (there are a vast number of good Christian history sources laying the claim to rest, but it survives in spite of it), we need to craft an understanding of the country based on the current realities. Let’s not fight over Jefferson’s views on religion or the church memberships of the signers of the Declaration. We live in a culture that is marked by demographic diversity. We are surrounded by ideological diversity. We need to engage that discussion on the basis of guiding values and not on claims of superiority. It will require much patience, careful listening, and far less pronouncing. While 24% of the public isn’t majority language, it’s worth being heard as evangelicals.

Third, evangelicals are at our best when we’re advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. This has been the heart of the pro-life movement. But it goes beyond that. It means that we are passionate about justice — not just in a narrow partisan sense but in the “least of these” sense. Let’s worry less about political party orientation and think together with non-evangelicals about how we speak on behalf of those without voice. The poor, the broken, the abandoned, the hurting, the addicted, the dispirited. As people reflecting God who gave himself up for us, we cannot be guilty of a self-interested approach to democracy. It’s not about us. We already received more than we could possible imaging.

It’s about “liberty and justice for all”. There’s a reason the pledge ends with that line. It’s the hope of the nation and evangelicals have a unique role in seeing that hope come to fruition.

Singing Canaries: Why the Church Needs Millennials

Canaries

The “millennials and church” conversation continues. That’s a good thing. But it’s not an easy matter to work through.

If, somehow,  you haven’t been aware of  this discussion, ten days ago Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece titled “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” on CNN’s Belief Blog. It summarized recent data on religious affiliations (or lack thereof) among today’s under-30 population. While what she summarized wasn’t new (this data has been around for several years), her post seemed to focus attention in new ways. I lost track of the number of people who jumped into the fray from various perspectives. I was one of those and was grateful that a number of people found last week’s post helpful. Thanks to Rachel in particular for sharing the post with her readers.

My argument was that the disaffection of millennials with organized religion will portend how the church interacts with society in the coming decades. The millennials are, I argued, the “canary in the mine” that lets miners know the air is bad and they are in danger.

This weekend, Rachel posted a follow-up on CNN’s page. This one is called “Why Millenials Need the Church” It’s a nice addition to the first piece and points to the ways in which congregational participation, particularly in celebrating the sacraments, can counter some of the angst and excess of the millennial life.

When this weekend’s piece came out, I suggested to Rachel that there was a logical third piece for her to write: Why the church needs millennials. She agreed but said that people might be tired of the topic by then. She may well be right. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I hope she writes her piece. In the meantime, here’s mine.

So my metaphor last week was about the canary in the mine. Kind of a sad story. We need to keep watch and if the canary dies, then we had all run away.

But most of the time canaries don’t live in mines. They live where birds live — in the wild or in a nice cage in someone’s house. And they can be trained to sing. If you don’t know canary song, here’s a handy YouTube video .

If I’m going to think of Millennials as canaries, I have to listen to their song. It’s just possible that what they are “singing” is something that will strengthen the church in the coming decades rather than weaken it. If we listen.

In the midst of all the “what about millennials?” dialogue this week, I got a tweet from Zack Hunt (check his stuff out at http://theamericanjesus.net/ — it’s really good). Zack was announcing that the movie Saved! was now streaming on Netflix. I had watched it years ago, but thought it would be a good time for  a repeat.

SavedThe movie, made in 2004, is set at American Eagle Christian School (love the overlap with patriotism or consumerism, whichever you prefer). The students at this evangelical school are good, well-meaning Christian kids. Most of them, anyway. There’s the jewish girl who attends because she was thrown out of everywhere else and the wheelchair bound slacker who isn’t sure what he believes.

The story revolves around two girls: Hillary Fay and Mary. Hillary Faye is the top-notch girl who overChristianizes everything — it’s Mean Girls in Christian school. Mary is your average kid, part of HF’s band (literally) who gets pregnant (because she was trying to cure her gay boyfriend). The movie revolves around issues of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, mistakes, forgiveness, grace. There’s is a clueless mother,  over-eager principal Skip, and Skip’s son back from his missionary tour in skateboard ministries.

Here’s the surprising thing. The movie never makes fun of Christianity. It does point out Hillary Faye’s control issues (which stem from past trauma) and Skip’s temptations. But those characters are seen as evangelicals who don’t quite get it. They are sympathetic and you hope they learned from their experiences.

Mary doesn’t abandon her faith or her friends and she has a baby at the end of the movie. Everyone seems happy, mostly.

I realized that Saved! is the early version of the Millenials and church story. While the authors of the screenplay are too old, they capture the contrast between issues of a complex world and the controlled environment of AECS. The movie got me thinking more about what millennials bring to church that my generation needs to hear. (There are blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that illustrate all these points, but many are far too personal to simply link to).

1.  Millennials know that family situations are complicated. I’m continually amazed at how commonplace it is to learn that one of my Christian university students is dealing with a parental divorce. Or managing the two-families that resulted from the earlier divorce. Or have dealt with some form of abuse at the hands of loved ones. As much as the church wants to “family-friendly”, we know that the broader culture isn’t. Millenials can help the church learn to deal with the complexity of family life in addition to happy couple study groups.

2. Millennials know people who struggle with tough issues in life: drugs and alcohol abuse, depression, ostracism, homelessness, poverty, suicidal thoughts. Because they are such a digital group, they remain connected to people my generation lost along the way. When we talk about abstractions like substance abuse, they know people’s stories. We need to hear those stories, as painful as they are. It helps our theology.

Because they’ve grown up in an era where all those issues are out in the open rather than talked about in hushed tones (or, like Hillary Faye, under the guise of prayer concerns) they can help us deal with the reality of the situation instead of how we might imagine things to be.

3. They’re culturally aware. I confess that I didn’t see Saved! when it first came out. I assumed it was attacking religion. But today’s generation sees beyond the reactionary elements of popular culture and finds the moral story within. The Christianity Today film reviews by folks like Alissa Wilkinson (this one is a good example) are able to sort through complex stories and find the important messages influencing modern society. Millenials will help us navigate a rapidly changing cultural landscape in which subcultural isolation is unsustainable.

4. They are politically and socially diverse. They see a range of viewpoints on many issues. Some are more narrowly defined (abortion, for example), But others reflect a breadth of perspectives. Embracing that breadth can help the church avoid assuming everyone fits in narrow categories.

5. They are searching for a theology that works. Even if that means dealing with issues we’ve been avoiding (see #1). They aren’t anti-Bible. They want the Bible to inform their lives in the midst of a complicated world. They could help churches reaching out to a religiously ambiguous society find value in God’s story without proof-texting everything to death.

6. They bring a social compassion that is unmatched. They expect to change the world. We need them doing so in our circles, helping us learn about sex trafficking, invisible children, inner-city poverty, violence and hopelessness. That’s not an addition to our Sunday worship — it’s directly connected to Kingdom thinking.

Since getting involved in the whole “what about millennials” discussion, I’ve been aware that there are those voices who say that this is simply a natural sociological trend of 20-somethings breaking from institutional religion until their families get settled. Others have observed that the losses among evangelicals are fairly low (at least so far). I can give my reasons for why I don’t think that’ the case but I won’t do so here. Maybe another day. It may take a decade to know who’s right anyway.

What I do know is that today’s generation has a great deal to offer today’s church. I’m much rather engage them in meaningful ways that simply wait to see if they come back in 2023.