“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.

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