October 17, 2017

iMonk Classic: The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism (1)

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism, part 1
A classic Michael Spencer iMonk post from Nov. 2008

NOTE: On Sundays in Lent, we will run these classic essays from Michael Spencer on the evangelical wilderness.

My posts on Christine Wicker’s and Julia Duin’s descriptions of evangelicalism’s winter are meant to be provocative, but they are also an attempt to hear something in the voices of our critics we rarely allow into our discussions: the scary truth.

The observations of these two reporters- one a Christian and one not- tell a similar story of a fragmented, declining evangelicalism; a movement whose energy and direction has badly dissipated.

Some of these observations are highly controversial. According to Christine Wicker’s model, evangelicalism began to come apart at the Scopes Trial and its end was actually hastened by the advent of critical thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Carl F.H. Henry. Such men gave evangelicals a non-fundamentalist option and started a process of accommodating various aspects of modernity.

In compromising at all with modernity, evangelicalism started a journey that will end with many of its thinkers and children abandoning its historic distinctives, its inerrant view of the authority of scripture and its commitment to the traditional church. Wicker believes modernity will triumph; in fact, has triumphed any time an evangelical’s child decides not to be a young earth creationist or to accept the possibility of gay marriage.

Julia Duin is more optimistic about evangelicalism. She believes that the flaws can be corrected by making choices to reject the shallowness and cultural captivity of evangelicalism. The demise of the evangelicalism of the Bush years is a good thing, and can be replaced by the best that evangelicalism has retained and learned. But Duin understands from within evangelicalism that there are genuine tensions whose lack of room for resolution is having affects few reflecting on evangelicalism want to admit.

I would like to suggest and explore another level to this consideration of evangelical demise: the personal level. Both Duin and Wicker skillfully describe personal stories of evangelical degeneration and abandonment. Both have personal experiences in their own evolution, both in moving through and out of evangelicalism under the pressure of some of these tensions.

The personal level I want to consider are those places where evangelical Christianity is fails for millions of evangelicals. It is the levels where so many evangelicals are painfully silent, but where the truth is discernible to the careful observer. These are some of the unresolved tensions of disillusionment among evangelical Christians.

What are these personal levels of disillusionment?

  • The level of disillusionment with the Christian worldview.
  • The level of disillusionment with Christian experience.
  • The level of disillusionment with Christian community.
  • The level of disillusionment with Christian commitment itself.

I will briefly touch on each one in a separate post.

Disllusionment with the Christian worldview.

The Christian worldview claims to be the absolute truth. An individual Christian undertakes no greater assignment than to assimilate the truth claims of the Christian worldview into his or her belief system, experience and personality.

This is not just a matter of remembering what the Bible says. This is the matter of taking the worldview of an ancient book from an alien culture and applying it into an ever-emerging world of modernity and secularism. It involves hermeneutics, interpretation and ongoing application. This isn’t the curriculum of your vacation Bible school. It is a daunting, intimidating task if considered honestly.

What is essential to evangelicalism’s worldview? At the core, the Bible is without error and truthful in all its descriptions of science, history and psychology. Its language and accounts are authoritative in all areas, not just specifically religious claims.

An evangelical is not going to get away with reading the Bible devotionally or selectively. He or she is going to have to have an answer for if the sun really stood still, why God ordered the slaughter of children and why Saul’s apparently mental illness is the result of an evil spirit sent from God.

The serious evangelical may want to major on the love of God for individuals, but they will be continually reminded of the issues of Biblical authority that define whether they really believe the Bible or are liberals headed for unbelief.

Let’s think for just a moment about what awaits a Christian student who has decided to be a doctor.

Unless they are going to a very unusual evangelical church, they will be confronted with the choice to embrace either:  (a) Ham/Hovind young earth creationism with all its various necessary supports, or (b) some form of Intelligent Design or (c) some form of theistic evolution.

This student will be made painfully aware that the creationist position doesn’t view the other two positions as accepting the Bible as actually true. One exposure to the creationist position will make it obvious that this is a matter of minimal, essential Biblical belief. No quarter is going to be given to those who deny any creationist conclusion. Our student will find that deviation from creationism is the most slippery of slopes, if they are on the slope at all.

Should they attempt to maintain a creationist view, they will suffer in their academic and professional journey. If they embrace these limitations, they can fulfill their goals, but many doors will be closed. On the other hand, should they attempt to maintain intelligent design or some form of theistic evolution, their evangelical profession will be under constant suspicion.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Wheaton College. Such students can find evangelical communities where this tension is absent, but those communities are few and far between. Remaining in evangelicalism will mean that the evangelical worldview, and its inerrant Biblical basis, will be a constant tension; a tension that will cause continual intellectual battles, compromises and conflict.

This evangelical will meet many other evangelicals who claim to have compromise positions (old earth, but no evolution, for example.) But these compromises do not go forward to resolve the tensions. They attempt to create another space for belief without pressing the issues to the point of a necessary either/or.

Similar experiences abound in the areas of human psychology, parenting, history and even political belief.

What is the experience of someone who considers themselves a Bible-believing evangelical, but who is also a political liberal, supports some allowance for legal abortion, women in leadership, gay marriage and egalitarian marriage? What is the experience of someone who doesn’t view human experience through the lens of demonic/angelic activity? What is the experience of someone who, as an evangelical, doesn’t accept all the affirmations necessary for total depravity? Or doesn’t believe that the Old Testament accounts are all literal history? What happens to the evangelical who says they don’t accept the morality of Biblical statements of God commanding the death of children? What happens to the evangelical who sees a lot of ancient culture, not divine order, in the Biblical texts on marriage and gender?

Such a person will be ushered out of evangelicalism, or at least shown the door. Likely they will silently and unobtrusively leave on their own. They will grow weary of believing and being told they don’t believe. They will grow weary of hearing that there are no options. They will grow weary of people who don’t know an educated beginning about science or history of psychology telling them what they must believe about those things in all kinds of areas. They will grow tired of everything being equal, and everything being a matter of whether you really believe the Bible or not. They will grow tired of being told that their intellectual convictions must be submitted to the Biblical worldview in ways they deeply believe are wrong.

Evangelicalism may have, on its fringes and in its dwindling moderate wing, a place for those persons who differ with the evangelical distinctives while affirming the faith summarized in the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds. But it’s not much of a place to stand, and it’s not a welcome place to belong. This person won’t be an evangelical for long.

Marcus Borg? Your phone is ringing. Is that a bunch of intelligent evangelicals on the line? Rome? (With your acceptance of modern science in so many areas) Are those evangelicals at your doorstep? (About to take on another whole raft of problems.) Atheism? Are you really an option of more integrity for thousands who were raised in evangelicalism and sat in its pews nodding their affirmations? New Age? Are those evangelicals adopting your Oprah-esque view of the world?

Serous Evangelicals who are looking the other way don’t want these people in their churches unless they change what they believe. Megachurch folk want them there no matter what. The fact is, they aren’t going to stick around either way.

Next…the disillusionment of Christian Experience.

• • •

Note: Writing these posts is quite likely to excite some of my critics to the point of fainting. So let’s be clear: the post-evangelical option- my confessed faith- is precisely a way to say that I will not be cornered by what some evangelicals have decided is the “righteous path.” Within the diversity of broader, deeper more ancient Christian tradition and history, there is a place to stand on many of these issues and on these tensions. Evangelicalism, by and large, rejects that option in favor of forced uniformity at levels that are neither wise nor necessary. There is a welcome for those who confess the faith and believe the creeds among many Christians who see the faith-growth process as a journey that accepts unresolved tensions. Wicker has, if anything, stood too close to evangelicalism. Evangelicals do many things well, but accommodating the journey and making room for the doubting believer to stand is not one of them. My advice: If these issues trouble you, most of evangelicalism isn’t going to help you. If you stay there, it’s going to cost you to stay.

One last note: I am bitterly disappointed in Christian leaders who dodge this issue. I’m particularly disappointed in men who insinuate that they are old earth, non-evolutionists, but don’t detail how they are resolving the tension. That’s an abdication of leadership and it’s costing a lot of young evangelicals the opportunity to deal with this and other issues within their faith context.

Comments

  1. “He or she is going to have to have an answer for if the sun really stood still, why God ordered the slaughter of children and why Saul’s apparently mental illness is the result of an evil spirit sent from God.”

    Really, now? Most evangelicals have no idea how to answer those questions and just mutter something about how God makes them feel all warm inside. The closest thing to apologetics most evangelicals know is how to defend YEC; people well-versed in apologetics, doctrine, and theology are few and far between, and often rejected by the anti-intellectualism of the very churches they want to serve!

    There are plenty of others he didn’t mention. What about men who are tired of being told they’re all rapists and wife-beaters from the pulpit even as women are practically elevated to semi-divine status on Mother’s Day, and divorce – which Jesus said he HATES, by the way – is virtually always allowed, with no consequences within the church for anyone who does it, and never preached against. Not all of the victims of the evangelical church are liberals – its problems affect conservatives, too. And I’d argue that the divorce-stained mockery that passes for marriage in the US is a far greater threat than the inconsequential gay marriage.

  2. Excellent points, Kyle. Any faith-expression that is at odds with verifiable science makes a fool of its God and its believers. My Catholic Church learned this lesson the hard way, but it did learn. God gave us brains and eyes as well as hearts and souls, and expects us to use them all!

    The YEC folks make all Christians a target for mockery…NOT in the way we SHOULD be mocked, for loving the unloveable, ignoring power and money for service, and standing fast in our belief in our crazy God who says that the last shall be first and this earth is just boot camp for real life. Instead, YEC belief makes Christians look like idiotic rubes who think the earth is flat and carbon dating is a tool of the devil. Please…..we have enough trouble trying to explain the gospel without that garbage.

    And again, if the Bible is inerrant, what about “Whatever sins you forgive are forgiven, whatever sins you bind and bind” and “This IS my body, do this in memory of me” and “Who ever divorces his wife commits adultry” and “You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

    NOT trying to convert anyone, but these contradictions, along with all that Micheal noted, can’t be swept under the rug.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Excellent points, Kyle. Any faith-expression that is at odds with verifiable science makes a fool of its God and its believers.

      St Augustine wrote on that subject 1600 years ago, and reached the same conclusion.

    • Sooooooooooooooooo…the Catholic church learned through Galileo while the fundagelicals learned through the Scopes Monkey Trial? I may have to arrange to have flowers put on Clarance Darrow’s grave!! 😀

  3. Pattie and Kyle, excellent points. Looking back over my life, I can see how my association with evangelical beliefs has been a detriment. Why? It has led me so often in my younger years to “magical thinking”. The Bible is absolutely true, so I didn’t need to really study the sciences because most of it is a lie anyway. I actually had teachers in my Christian elementary school back in the 60s tell me that men had one less rib than women, thus proving that the creation story is true. And we believed it!
    I didn’t need to plan a career too much because I knew that God had a great plan for me and He would show me the way when the time came. My purpose was to look for non-believers to pluck out of their miserable lives, even if they didn’t seem miserable, and enlighten them.
    But where does that leave you in the end? Where do you go when you dare wonder if the Bible isn’t more of a mythical story told to help us understand the intricacies of life? What happens when you dare to think that demon possession might just be a way of describing mental illness?
    Add the political climate that says you must vote one way or another as a litmus test for your true faith, and the constant drumbeat of the fight against the war on Christianity, and I am tired of caring about any of it. I think many are in the same state as me. We don’t fling Christianity aside completely; we just don’t much care anymore.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I actually had teachers in my Christian elementary school back in the 60s tell me that men had one less rib than women, thus proving that the creation story is true. And we believed it!

      My mother believed that, too (and she was a lapsed Catholic). All I can figure is it was probably an old folk belief.

      I didn’t need to plan a career too much because I knew that God had a great plan for me and He would show me the way when the time came.

      Could have been worse. Could have been you didn’t need to plan a career because “Christ Is Coming Soon! All the End Time Prophecies Are Being Fulfilled Even As We Speak!” and there would be NO future.

      My purpose was to look for non-believers to pluck out of their miserable lives, even if they didn’t seem miserable, and enlighten them.

      i.e. Wretched Urgency Witnessing — “Look out! The Heathen’s Getting Away!”

      • The one-more-rib thing would make sense as a folk belief. Women’s ribs are angled more downwards than men’s, making for a longer ribcage (as well as longer neck and different torso shape). It could look like they have more ribs if you observed closely, but never dissected. But it’s silly to use such a thing for something important like an argument for Biblical innerancy when anatomical textbooks and knowledge are commonplace.

  4. I think they start with the wrong anthropology.

    That being that we are basically good, or that we have a bent towards goodness and with a little help from God and a little effort from ourselves we can become what God intends us to be, and make this world into what God intended it to be.

    It’s far too late for all of that.

  5. I read both Duin and Wicklow’s books back in 2008, at about the same time I discovered Michael’s blog and started to get back in touch with what was going on within the Evangelicalism I’d been away from for 15 years or so. Wicklow’s book, in particular, had several themes that I’ve since heard discussed elsewhere. In particular:

    1) Young people are alienated by the Religious Right. It’s not that they’re all liberals; it’s that they resent the way poltics has intruded into the life of the church. After 30+ years of this, it’s all young people can have ever known. Robert Putnam’s research makes this crystal clear as well. Is this understood by evangelical leaders? To some degree, I think, the answer is “yes.” But to what degree?

    2) The way upper-middle class parents raise their children is just different from the traditional model. This difference persists regardless of liberal/conservative political views. Charles Murray’s recent work (“Coming Apart”) looks at such differences from the perspective of class and would appear to conform to Wicklow’s observations. Personally, I am always taken aback whenever I encounter older adults who opine that their adult children turned out fine primarily because they were spanked as children/teens whenever the occassion called for it, so I recognize the attitude in myself.

    3) Megachurches will implode. Here, I have to admit that the economic winter of our discontent hasn’t really yet confirmed this view as I had expected. Perhaps she’s on to something regarding the way generational changes from baby boomers to Gen Xers, etc. will eventually work against megachurches, but could it be that they will in fact survive for reasons she doesn’t consider?

    4) A major point Kyle also made above was the changing attitude towards divorce. Here again, modern social science research of the sort Murray is doing is illuminating: at the upper end of the income scale, divorce has become pretty rare, while at the low end — where so many think (incorrectly) the heart and soul of evangelicalism resides — is experiencing family chaos, of which divorce is but one aspect. All of this makes for remarkable cognitive dissonance at several different levels. The godless liberals of Manhattan are living more recognizably traditional family lives than you find in many small American towns today.

    • “Liberal” is vague, and culture-bound. American University students for example tend to be liberal on gay marriage (not to mention heterosexual fornication in all its varieties, from hook-ups to living together), but rarely show much enthusiasm for raising taxes / increasing social programs, and seem divided on the Middle Eastern wars. Racial prejudices which my grandfather considered normal and obvious (“Come on, you’d rather have a white airline pilot than a black one, wouldn’t you?”) are for them quite beyond the pale–this generation supported Obama big-time–but affirmative action is still divisive. When it comes to the Bible, I see more outright ignorance than liberal-principled exegesis. Okay, granted, we all are ignorant to some extent (it’s a complicated book), but the generation now in university has been exposed to the Bible mainly from TV (including TV evangelists and politicians) and movies like Mel Gibson’s. And of course whatever their church may read to them from the pulpit, for those who attend and pay attention.

      Old people are practically socialists. Senior citizens as a group love their government entitlements, and are quite prepared to crucify any politician who threatens to cut them. The more public-minded of them call for raising taxes. (Young Americans, by contrast, are pessimists who don’t expect to benefit from such programs at all, and view insurance as just another kind of tax.) They often feel similarly about selected social issues (guns, Israel, Cuba, gays, race relations) and their voting behavior can be interpreted as a kind of defense of what is familiar. Elderly evangelicals approach religion in the same way, reacting to calls to accept gay marriage in much the same way as proposals to change their church’s music. To some, the role of the church has some similarities with a socialist government–taking care of people, ensuring correct behavior, etc.

      • Heinz:

        A nicely nuanced description of the way things are. I in particular would agree that it’s more “outright ignorance than liberal-principled exegisis” that explains typical Biblical perspectives, though I would seriously discount TV preachers’ direct influence on anyone under, say, 45 of 50. (Their indirect influence through books, and hence Sunday School classes, etc. is perhaps greater, however.)

        Cheers,

    • To refresh my memory…isn’t Julia Duin the religion reporter for the Washington Times?

  6. “The godless liberals of Manhattan are living more recognizably traditional family lives than you find in many small American towns today.” So true.
    I live in the rural midwest. I can’t tell you how many good church going people I know who don’t bat an eye when their kid is picked up for a DUI (well, kids will be kids) or buy the booze so their underage kids can drink at home (at least we know where they are and who they are with), have Newt Gingrich syndrome when it comes to marriage (I’ll just keep trying til I get it right), and celebrate the birth of their grandchild by their teen-age daughter (wasn’t it wonderful when her brother cut the umbilical cord!). But it’s all ok because we go visit the Creation Museum every summer….

    • Suzanne:

      I am originally from the rural Midwest (southern Illinois/Indiana) myself. What you’re describing doesn’t surprise me, but only because I mostly just read about it now secondhand, living as I do in the ‘burbs. It was a lot less true when I was younger, though a far-sighted sociologist might have seen it all coming. What’s happening now is that the pathologies once thought confined to inner city minorities are showing up throughout the lower income range regardless of ethnicity or rural/urban environment. It’s all extremely troubling.

      • Truly Trevis. My son is in the social services profession and after taking just a few classes, he said, “Mom, there really isn’t much difference between the inner city and where we live, is there?” I could only agree.

    • I heard of such stories in rural Wisconsin as well…

  7. Normally I read the entire post and all the comments, but you stopped me short with a phrase I have never seen before and hope never to see again. That phrase is “the evangelicalism of the Bush years.”

    Just what is the evangelicalism of the Bush years, and why did you use that phrase, assuming it has a meaning?

    • Oh, wait, this post is my Michael Spencer and he isn’t around to answer the question. Can someone else help me out here?

      • Bob,

        Michael is talking about Duin’s book at that point, though I don’t recall that phrase within her book, or even that she references politics per se much at all.

        If I had to guess, by “the evangelicalism of the Bush years,” Michael might specifically have had in mind unquestioning support for the Afghan and Iraq Wars, and for all of the accompanying war on terror efforts. Other than that, I can’t really think of anything that was all that dramatically different in evangelicalism “under Bush” from what preceded it.

        • In the early years of his presidency, Bush (the son) tried to bill himself as a “compassionate conservative.” All that ended after 9-11. Bush gravitated to a certain triumphalism, which can be seen in his military policies (“Mission Accomplished!”) as well as in his outspoken profession of Christianity (at one point he opined that atheists don’t really count as citizens). Recall that he began associating with the secretive Bible study group in Washington (called the Fellowship or the Family) that organizes the National Prayer Breakfast, and that his robust Middle Eastern policy was to some extent inspired by this group, which instilled in him a kind of religious-motivated overconfidence or “imperial hubris.” Bush’s attitudes were mirrored by evangelical Christianity generally (it is debatable which one led to the other), at least until his second term, when it became increasingly clear that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a disaster for both countries. This made Bush an unfortunate symbol of this robust Christianity–even more unfortunate when the U.S. economy began to tank–and has resulted, not unreasonably, in a certain amount of blame being assigned to this religious subculture for its role in this mess.

          • Heinz, I get where you’re coming from, but your facts are a little muddled. I believe it was George H. W. Bush (the father) who opined that atheists don’t really count as citizens (or something similar to that), not W. (the son). And W.’s presidency began on Jan. 20, 2001 following his election the previous November. Since the tragedy of 9/11 occurred less than nine months after his inauguration, I don’t understand what you mean by “in the early years of his presidency” either.

  8. “According to Christine Wicker’s model, evangelicalism began to come apart at the Scopes Trial and its end was actually hastened by the advent of critical thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Carl F.H. Henry. Such men gave evangelicals a non-fundamentalist option and started a process of accommodating various aspects of modernity.”

    I think Wicker got it wrong, quite backward. Thinkers like C.S. Lewis (not to mention George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton) freed evangelicals from the modernistic bubble called “fundamentalism”. Fundamentalism is like a trip through the looking glass, where things appear opposite to the modernistic world, but can’t fathom that which doesn’t exist in the modernistic world. Much of the modernistic world is merely copied and re-labeled “Christian” inside fundamentalism. Fundamentalism claims to make prophetic criticisms of a few token evils, atrocities, and illogic of modernism, but accepts and even defends many, many others. The thinkers like Lewis may have indeed hastened the unraveling of evangelicalism, but not by drawing it into modernity but opening before it a world of thought far greater, imaginative, and ancient than modernism.

  9. “The fact is, they aren’t going to stick around either way.”

    Michael was once again prophetic here, at least in my personal experience. From a purely qualitative standpoint, I’m in my mid-twenties, and already I can report that a majority of the people who were in my college group at church have either left the faith completely or are no longer attending evangelical churches.

    I would add that not only is the world-view presented in most evangelical unable to hold up to the kind of intellectual material presented in college/grad school, it’s also unable to handle the enormous life challenges that are just part and parcel with being a part of the real world. For instance, a young man recently committed suicide at an evangelical church I was a part of for many years. From what I understand, he had displayed many warning signs of having serious struggles with mental illness. Yet he never received a bit of help from mental health professionals. Why? Because the church simply doesn’t believe in psychology. Period. Depression, schizophrenia, etc. is all either sin in a person’s life or it’s demonic. Either way, the solution from their point of view is spiritual, not medical. And now a young man has lost his life because of this deficient world view.

    A friend of mine walked away from the faith not all that long ago after returning from combat duty in Iraq. After watching his friends die in battle, and questioning the goodness of God in the midst of that, no one in his evangelical church had anything to say to him except “well, you’ve gotta trust that God is sovereign in this situation.”

    It’s not just that young evangelicals are disheartened by the disconnect between, say, young earth creationism and what they learn in science class. It’s the disconnect between what they hear from evangelical pulpits and real life.

    • Well said, Ryan.

    • Very well said.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “The fact is, they aren’t going to stick around either way.”

      Michael was once again prophetic here, at least in my personal experience. From a purely qualitative standpoint, I’m in my mid-twenties, and already I can report that a majority of the people who were in my college group at church have either left the faith completely or are no longer attending evangelical churches.

      I would add that not only is the world-view presented in most evangelical unable to hold up to the kind of intellectual material presented in college/grad school…

      Solution: NEVER let them outside the Christianese bubble. Ever. Everything outside the Bubble is of the Devil.

      Just like Santorum said playing to the Christianese base last week in the runup to today’s primary, how OBAMA Wants Your Kids to go to college so THEY Can Indoctrinate Them; 80% of students Lose Their FAITH in College.

      • If you’re kidding- you’re hilarious! If your serious… You’re exactly what’s wrong with us.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          The serious part was the Santorum quote. It made all the local news outlets, and dovetails so well with the attitudes dissected both here and at Christian Monist.

  10. What is essential to evangelicalism’s worldview? At the core, the Bible is without error and truthful in all its descriptions of science, history and psychology. Its language and accounts are authoritative in all areas, not just specifically religious claims.

    I’m not sure this statement actually means anything. An error, by definition, must be measured against a standard. To say that the Bible contains no scientific error is a bald-faced lie. Science determines what constitutes a “scientific error”. Oh, and don’t get me started on history and historical method. Furthermore, any common reader can distinguish between, say, the gospels, geneologies, and instructions for building the tabernacle. So, what does a statement like the above even mean?

    I absolutely believe the Bible is true and trustworthy, but the rhetoric surrounding that core idea is very poor.

  11. I’m looking forward to the post on the Christian disillusionment worldview experience….

  12. Pattie,

    You say that any faith expression that is at odds with verifiable science makes a fool of its God and its believers. So that’s it? So an infinite God is automatically defined by whatever passes for science these days? Maybe I’m not following you. Can you give me an example that would fit your point? Contrary to what you may think, I’m not a backwoods fundamentalist. It’s probably not going to do any good for you and I to get into a this for that debate, but I will simply say this. I find it amusing how many “facts” science has proven, only for science to come back a generation later and completely debunk their own previous “fact.”