Tag: Molly Worthen

Intellectual Inquiry in the Christian University

Last week Daniel Silliman reported out a fascinating story for Christianity Today. The centerpiece of the story involved research conducted by Southeastern University scholar Jennifer Clark on how students’ faith patterns change during their educational journey. She found that students at evangelical colleges commonly “feel unsettled about spiritual matters, unsure of their beliefs, disillusioned with their religious upbringing, distant from God, or angry with God.” Surprisingly, these doubts occurred not when they arrived at college (which was true for more secular institutions) but later in their college careers.

People outside Christian higher education may find this surprising. They too often assume that Christian universities are indoctrination institutions, where students simply learn the Christian answers. Those of us on the inside recognize that students have selected a Christian university for a variety of reasons (or had it selected for them) but haven’t really thought deeply about what they expect — which may be why admissions viewbooks sell the images of happy Christian community. You can make that mean whatever you want.

If students arrived on our campus this past week as eager Christian learners, what accounts for the faith challenge? There are as many reasons as there are students, but I can make some general suggestions. First, there is the obvious separation from family and home church. No longer being at home and now being challenged to take personal responsibility for one’s positions creates anxiety. Second, there are the classes students take. One of the “liberating” parts of liberal arts is that the students are exposed to ideas and readings that are hard to square with one’s upbringing. (It’s very important not to demonize that upbringing — students have enough challenges on their own.) Third, they take classes from Christian faculty who have walked similar paths. To see a biology or sociology or english faculty member who has engaged the complexity of the world without abandoning faith provides an encouragement to students that confronting that complexity has rewards and that one’s faith is strong enough to handle it. Finally and maybe most importantly, students are shaped by their peers. To discover that students at one’s dinner table are also Christians yet have very different viewpoints from what you grew up with can be disconcerting.

Yesterday The Atlantic posted a piece from the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, on the role of religion in his classroom. As a Wesleyan, I was happy with his acknowledgement of John Wesley’s impact on both personal spirituality and social impact. Yet Roth’s reflections on religion raise questions about the nature of critical engagement in secular institutions (even if formerly religious):

Yet classroom discussions of these very subjects often seem threatening to even students of faith, who tell me they don’t want to be “outed” on campus. These undergrads encounter mostly secular professors who sometimes treat religious believers as somehow intellectually deficient, or as morally compromised by their commitments to traditions that their teachers have left behind.

To be fair, most students at Christian universities are not likely to share their faith challenges in class for exactly the same fear of being “outed” –except reversed. They don’t want professors (and mostly peers) to think that they’ve “lost their way”.

And yet most Christian universities provide the space and climate for students to wrestle even with the most challenging issues: justice, racial animus, sexual orientation, war and peace, and the role of the church in modern society. Silliman’s story shows that many leaders in some fairly conservative evangelical schools are aware of the faith challenges our students face. The parents and donors may not like having that publicly noted, but it is key to the educational journey.

Molly Worthen wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times this weekend exploring conservative concerns over perceived exclusion of conservative voices on college campuses. She does a great job of showing that while the concern of activist groups is overblown, there may be some valid critique:

The conservative boogeyman of the tenured atheist radical who brainwashes innocent undergraduates is more myth than reality. It’s true that academia has long leaned to the left, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and activist professors do exist. But they are a minority. Where professors more commonly fall down, I suspect, is in our failure to grasp how changes in the broader culture — like omnipresent social media and polarized, cruel politics — have made students reluctant to embrace the freedom that we like to believe our classrooms provide.

This is likely true on Christian campuses as well. Increased polarization and expectation that one’s views will simply be affirmed without engagement is a problem to be addressed. In my experience, this usually happens by expecting students to grapple with the implications of their sociological readings while not mandating specific policy outcomes that their author (or their professor) might prefer.

Worthen explores campuses where the ethos of hospitality to ideas is more available than others. She cites Great Books programs and Civil Discourse Clubs as examples. It makes me think that an overarching campus culture that affirms conversation while maintaining the interdependence of its members (faculty, students, and staff) goes a long way toward supporting the kind of inquiry that allows both faith and learning to be affirmed.

As recent analysis has suggested, the road ahead for Christian universities will be a rough one. As the percentage of today’s rising generation is less likely to be evangelical (8% by recent measures), the market for students seeking a Christian university will become much tighter with noticeable winners and losers. Financial pressures from external costs to internal amenities to attract that share of students will be real.

Those pressures are pushing many schools to rethink their curriculum. To pick one significant example, Gordon College announced this year a major shift in their programmatic focus, shrinking some traditional liberal arts majors to create room for other, more vocational, majors. As they explain on their webpage:

Gordon is once again making necessary adjustments to respond to the market realities of today that demand greater affordability and adaptability. The next chapter not only retains the core Christian liberal arts foundation, but makes it more accessible and relevant for what students and families want from college and what employers want from graduates.

The shift of liberal arts education to a core foundation is somehow set against what students, parents, and employers want. As a cabinet member of CCCU institutions over 17 years, I understand the market sensitivity the changes reflect. And yet I fear that the changes reflect a move away from the community orientation of the Christian university toward a balkanized pursuit of personal economic worth.

Where, exactly, will future Christian university students find the support as they work through the faith crises of learning seen as part of the process of affirming both faith and work? I wish I knew the answer.

As I have begun my final year of teaching before retirement, I will work to be acutely aware of the students Jennifer Clark identifies in her research. They will work to navigate the doubts they are confronting and I want to support them in that journey.

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.

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.