Tag: Scott McKnight

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.

 

New Ways of Thinking — Part Two

I finished drafting the chapter I wrote about last week (on schedule!). The second half of the chapter explores a couple of ideas from social psychology. While my intent is to help students remain open to learning new things, there are broader implications for the evangelical community.

I began with the concept of schemas. Social psychologists see these as mental structures we use to organize information. I conceptualize them as similar to the file folders in my computer. There is a particular structure that we have learned and we try to fit any new information into the existing structure. Most of the time this works well. But sometimes it fails. The situation that we thought was just the same as some previous encounter proves to be nothing like that at all. There is a balance drawn between our prior knowledge and the new information being processed.

For a college student recently moved from home, the abundance of new information can be challenging and result in a higher error rate than will be true later on. Some things will be misinterpreted and others will just be missed.

Occasionally, the new information is nearly impossible to incorporate into existing schemas. This is one of the important functions of a Christian university: helping students navigate the re-ordering of their schemas. We expect that to happen and have constructed mechanisms and support groups to aid in the hard work of restructuring.

Heuristics are related to schemas. Think of them as master categories that shape what we attend to. Much of our contemporary political discussions are heuristics. We begin with a paradigm and fit information into that. We need mechanisms for sorting out new information and heuristics give us rules for evaluating our schemas.

Finally, I discussed the work of Sharon Daloz Parks as it relates to meaning-making. Like other developmental approaches I explored in the first of these posts, she sees the  transition away from authority based meaning as critically important for young people. Following a brief period of relativism, she says that individuals move through probing commitments through tested commitments to convictional commitment. The period associated with college and emerging adulthood is best matched with probing commitment. Parks argues that questioning is essential to personal growth.

Just as I did last time, I see these mental processes operating in most of our discussions about evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the larger culture. There are many examples I can pick from, but let me focus on a couple.

First, I’d argue that the challenges evangelicalism faces when dealing with social change comes from an overly rigid schematic structure. Because the mental structures are tightly constructed, there is no room for new information. Scientific advances become problematic so even more elaborate alternative structures must be constructed (see intelligent design). Social change is denounced because the mental structures get confounded with a number of non-scriptural assumptions (see Rachel Held Evans’ Year of Biblical Womanhood). Political shifts are seen as evidences of slippery slopes (see same-sex marriage, demographic change, or religious pluralism). A more flexible approach to information would allow more faith in God’s leading and an openness to new paths of outreach. I’ve consistently written on how young evangelicals are particularly pushed away by this cognitive rigidity.

Second, heuristics are big in the religious world. The biggest of all is “what the Bible clearly teaches”. Any number of writers have pointed out the challenges of exaggerating the role of scripture. My “respectful conversation” colleague Vincent Bacotte pointed out the problem when “sola scriptura” is exalted above other considerations. Zack Hunt had this excellent piece last week. Scott McKnight has a number of excellent pieces but this one from yesterday was particularly good.

Third, Parks’ approach to meaning making demonstrates the importance of process in our testimony. If she’s right, and I’m persuaded she is, then the shift from authority-based meaning to relativism isn’t some dichotomy, but simply one step in the journey. It seems that conservative protestantism could benefit from a good dose of probing commitments. We may prefer for people to engage from convictional commitments but without working through that meaning process carefully as Christian disciples, we adopt positions we think we’re supposed to take. Because these aren’t well grounded in our mental structures, they come off as forced pat answers.

This morning Jamie Smith tweeted the following question: “How would a Christian account of pluralism look different if we assumed that Christian proclamation could actually be persuasive?” I think it’s an excellent question. The more we have worked through informed processes of mental structures and meaning-making, the better Christians will be able to engage a changing world.