“The New Evangelical Scandal”

I commend to you a lengthly but  interesting article in The City by fellow Biolan Matt Anderson about the current state of Protestantism and what he calls the “new Evangelical scandal”.  Matthew is a good example of certain ilk of the Biola graduate population; one who feels the responsibility to shape what it means to be Evangelical, and usher in the next (and more enduring) breed of Evangelicals, one that is centered in a strong traditional identity.  Wanting to get away from the term “Protestant” (which is essentially reactive in its meaning) and unwilling to limit themselves to those circles ambiguously called “Reformed” (also reactive in definition), these folks aspire to be the vision-casters that galvanize the next generation of Christians.  Many of my close friends share this aspiration — with varying degrees of party-lineness — and these sharp and winsome thinkers stand to offer American Protestantism a great deal of direction and wisdom.

This project has some really tricky edges to it.  For starters, it is largely in-house, and I get the sense that this is pretty much the extent their vision.  They take the old argument that the product of the Protestant Reformation produced has yet to be defined as their rallying cry of opportunity, insisting that the new evangelical ethos is marked by a desire to reform evangelicalism from within”.  The ins and outs aside, the project is more or less aims to replace “Protestantism”, and therefore it is essentially ecumenical.  Since what they are aiming to helm is the entity that stands definitionally apart from Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy the project’s ecumenical implications must be considered, something only one of my friends seems to have seriously considered.    This is why articles like this one are conspicuously absent of a mention of  what is to be done with Anglicanism.  After all the title “Protestant” has gladly been applied to some Anglicans, and refused by others — what is their role in this proposed new iteration?

It is not unimportant that the article begins with politics, in the form of a recap of the past presidential election and the trends of the Evangelical voting block.  As telling as it is, I find it uninteresting at best, and perhaps even a bit misguided.  After all, much of what Matt calls the Evangelical voting block includes Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians like yours truly. True, the article is meant for those inside Evangelicalism, but mistakes such as these reinforce the sense that the new Evangelicals consider themselves the only relevant American Christianity, which in turn reveals a drastic misunderstanding of the Other Two.

To be sure there is much more of interest in the article that just its ecumenical fallout, including a harsh illustration of the current generation of Protestant Christians as a trend-obsessed culture surfer, and several different levels of ironic behavior from well meaning Evangelicals. According to Anderson the threats seem to be twofold, a general dissolution of the “Evangelical” identity (as foreshadowed by the current Evangelical unenthusiasm for the Republican party) and outright exodus to the Other Two.  Says Matthew,

While young evangelicals are still flocking to the altar, they are taking their time to do it—and exploring their options along the way.

In addition to their political, national, and familial affiliations, young evangelicals have slowly moved away from identifying with their own theological systems and heritage (the trend of evangelical converts to Anglicanism that Robert Webber first noted has not abated—if anything, it has expanded toward Rome and Constantinople). Such conversions belie, I think, evangelicalism’s failure to articulate its own theological distinctives and advantages and its rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Few young evangelicals who convert have read—much less heard of—the writings of John Wesley, Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer or other giants of the evangelical past (one wonders whether the new evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and others have read them). And even fewer evangelicals are inclined to give the tradition in which they were raised the benefit of the doubt, to see the errors and problems and remain regardless.

All this bodes badly for the future of evangelicalism. In the face of declining partisanship, patriotism, and eroding family ties, young evangelicals have increasingly turned away from their roots in search of a sense of grounding and stability. They have the intelligence to notice the flaws, but often lack the charity and the patience to work to fix them.

Having been in Anderson’s shoes, I understand where he is coming from and how sensible this analysis might seem.  However, since I am just such a convert from Protestantism, and because I know a good deal of people in the Other Two  who have come from there, I have to say that here Matthew is entirely off the mark. I know of no convert to the Other Two that would fit his analysis of the situation.  This is not to say that I don’t know converts who haven’t read Tozer and Wesley, and I even know a few that exhibited the lack of patience and commitment for Protestantism that Anderson bemoans.  The picture that Matt paints is a conversion of rootless kind of drifting into someplace other than Protestantism; one that could be stopped if the roots were just pointed out.  To be honest, I share Matt’s analysis as it relates to Anglicanism: I know plenty of happenstantial Anglicans who started out in the more mainline Protestant milue, and whose attendence there would likely have been retained if people would follow Anderson’s advice.

In his usual fashion, Anderson uses irony as a means of critique.

All this, ironically, signals the triumph of western individualism on the evangelical (and post-evangelical) mind. The renewed focus on community and on institutional structures is still grounded in the decisionism that has always marked evangelicalism. The fact that we are born as Americans—or as evangelicals—is unimportant. What is important is that we choose to be patriotic, that we choose to be Republican, that we choose to be evangelicals (or emergent, or Catholic, or Presbyterian)—and that we make that choice independent from and irrespective of any tradition that may have shaped us.

The young evangelical fashions himself into his own preferred identity, and then finds others who have done likewise. More often than not, this results in a rejection of the traditions—political or otherwise—in which younger evangelicals were raised.

In other words, as the traditional identity shaping institutions have eroded or become passé, young evangelicals have turned to carving out their own identities.

If the problem is that the usual American institutions that held the Evangelical identity in place are now weak, uncool, or gone, than the obvious solution is to rebuild this institutions to be strong, hip, and present.  This looks like a restructuring of the Republican Party, schools and Universities.  Somehow the voluntary choosing of a corporate Evangelical identity by creating the traditions that shape it does not strike me as being less ironic that the Evangelical hipster who strolls out of the Republicanized pew of the Southern Baptists and into an Emergent church or one of the Other Two.

Anderson’s argument reads like a strange reiteration of the famous Chesterton quote: “Evangelicalism has not been tried and found wanting , it has been found uncool and not tried.” Yet I, like so many others, not only “tried” it, but immersed ourselves in it.  Still we left; not primarily because Evangelicalism was lacking, but because the Church was beckoning.

When Anderson extols the virtues of the Evangelical tradition I tend to agree with him. I appreciate the heritage, history, and writings of many of the same Protestant authors.  I too am frustrated with those who off-handedly dismiss what is good and commendable about America, Republicanism, and main line Protestant churches.  Yet the headstones and tomes huddled inside Matthew’s camp is not a tradition that can compare to the Other Two.  When people encounter Holy Tradition and the need for it, Evangelicalism just will not do.  Evangelicalism is not something that a generation of healthy Ravi Zacharias trends and a strong Republican Party can make stand shoulder to shoulder against Roman Catholicism, traditional Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy.  This is not about numbers and influence. No amount of attendance and/ or money will make Anderson’s religious party into the Tradition that many of his friends have found.  This is why there is so little  of the regret among converts to the Other Two that Protestants expect: it’s not like changing from one cell-phone carrier to another, it’s saying yes when someone asks you if you want to be plugged into the Living Tradition that produced Holy Scripture.

Several times Anderson speaks of the distinctives that Evangelicalism has to offer, and suggests that these distinctives are what give contour to the Evangelical tradition.  Yet, one of the commonly held distinctions of the tradition he promotes is a mitigation of the what tradition is, and how it relates to what is Holy (Scripture and people’s justification).  Anderson wants to have his cake and eat it to.  He argues that his party should be considered a valuable alternative to other traditions based on distinctives that remove it from being a tradition in any meaningful way outside of his own Evangelical circle.  Moreover, it is the American/ Protestant virtue of taking personal responsibility that offers ex- Protestants the license to leave, and this is part of the tradition Anderson wants to see extolled. This, of course, I find ironic.

All of this points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the Other Two.  When Anderson says that the Evangelical’s “great hope and promise—both in the past and now—is its vibrant energy, missionary impulse, and its deep commitment to the authority of Scripture” he fails in showing us anything truly distinctive.  This failure is even more of a let down because of the beguiling statement that “one could reasonably argue that the distinctives of evangelicalism are such that it is exactly where intellectuals ought to be, and that they have an obligation to remain evangelical.”

What interests me in this article is not simply the Orthodox/ Evangelical ax I perpetually grind, but a fascination on the movements of Protestantism in general.  It’s intriguing that values that endure, and those that don’t.  From the four letter words and phrases that seem to have be banned from the time of Moses to the acceptance of theater and movie-going, from the anathematizing of tattoos to their youth-pastor trendiness, from the desire for acceptance among the broader culture to the establishment of the CCM sub-culture, what Protestantism is up to is just plain interesting.  It has many good things to offer, but the only way for it to be the Church is for the Church to be something else entirely; something not real and Holy and authoritative.

On Not Being Yourself

So I’m sitting at work when a coworker reminds us all that the problem with most people is that they’re not always themselves; that they change who they are depending on their whereabouts and social setting.  It just so happens that I agree with my coworker, inasmuch as a statement like this can be agreed upon.  That is to say that – technically – I do not agree with the statement as it appears on your computer screen, but that I agree with it considering its particular whereabouts and setting.

Ironic, huh?

And this is precisely my point: that the statement simply as is useless, and it is useless because people are incapable of “being themselves” regardless of their whereabouts and social setting.  Sure, we all know what she was trying to say: duplicity and fractured living is a sad and sick thing to behold in people.  In this case, a woman from my coworker’s church, who happens to lead a charitable ministry, has some less then savory dealings with the retail store where I am currently employed.  Yes, the situation is all too sad and typical.

Why does it behoove us to be critical of my coworkers statement?  I suggest that the sloppiness of the statement leads to a lack of understanding of the problem, and more importantly, an inability to grasp the solution.

The human being is not a closed social unit.  Just like we are a moderately open environmental unit — we breathe in and out, we allow substances like food and water inside of us — we are a moderately open social unit.  To think of “being who you are” regardless of social setting is as faulty and fictional as thinking of us living as we are on Mars.  It just ain’t gonna happen.  We must accept this fact and move on; which, in this case, is moving back.

If setting is a factor, how are we to be “ourselves” regardless of setting?  If I am going to change my ways depending on where I am, what I’m doing, and who is around, how do I avoid being an evil duplicitous person? Where do we find that solidarity of character that is noble, honored and rare?

Adding to the milieu is the issue of disposition, or what Aristotle might call habituation.  I am a person pointed in direction.  Where I am going, and whence, is an essential part of “being who I am”.  One thinks of how the early Christian Creeds explain the person of Christ in terms of these questions, or the importance of the surname in almost every culture other than ours.  Consider “attitude” in the aeronautical sense, which is the disposition of the aircraft to the horizon, landscape, and the direction of travel. The term also used to have a sense of physical carriage and posture which, of course, bespeaks of the persons inner composure and mindset.  Sadly, these days the term simply refers to taking the temperature of one’s feelings at a given moment. (“Are you feeling good or bad about it?”  “Are you fur it, or agin it?”)  Rather than focusing on some esoteric and ever-vanishing core of “yourself” that we are supposed to firmly hold in place, we can consider our disposition and concentrate on holding the course.

The term “habituation” reminds us that character is not as much found as it is made.  There are watershed moments in our lives to be sure, but these are put in place by plain ol’ boring repetition. Solidarity of disposition is no small thing, and part of reaching it is attending to the environment.  It cannot be gained by “reaching within yourself”, “following your heart”, or continuing to see yourself as opposed to the “world”.

Likewise another companion to solidarity is the environment itself.  The more that one can get away with anything, the more likely one is to feel the need to recreate and reestablish his or her identity on a daily basis. And as we have all seen before, when someone is allowed to get away with anything, they often do.  The decay of community (which in this case means. “a consistent environment– social and geographic”) has naturally led to an increase in hypocrisy.  Considering this, it is not surprising for us to see the women from our church’s acting out of sync with their typical Sunday behavior.

If we wish to move towards solidarity of behavior and disposition, we must embrace and foster our community.  To be sure this is a bit ironic– that we may choose our environment– but this bit of irony does not preclude us from moving towards solidarity. Committing to your community, fostering your environment, attending to your disposition, practicing the proper habits, are key ingredients to personal solidarity.  If you want to be who you are, you must be who you are becoming.

Culture Revisited, Again

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without being derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect a culture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.