Friday, December 14, 2012

    1. Pushing hot buttons.
    2. The wax nose of 20th-century Protestantism.


Alan Jacobs notes a few examples of the concerns of traditionalist conservatives and radical progressives converging. “There are, it turns out, people deeply committed to conservatism who don’t believe they are thereby required to disagree with everything that could conceivably be published in Mother Jones.”

To bring it closer to home, I continue to be surprised at the suspicious glances and turned-up noses when I re-tell something I heard on NPR, saw on PBS or read in the New York Times (rarer these days, since the Times – intent on that conservative value of surviving as a business – now charges for content). I find it a little disturbing that anybody I hang out with much should find Fox News informative rather than stultifying, or that it should become the ne plus ultra of “conservatism.” (French phrases, by the way, indelibly mark one as a liberal.)

Oh, heck! I might as well go for broke by commending three poems at the Huffington Post. We all know about the Huffington Post, don’t we (snark! snark!)?

Saith the Thought Police, “Nothing to see here. Move along now.”


Of course, the subtlest form of media bias, both liberal and conservative (and all other orientations, on and off the spectrum)  is the tacit bias of identifying what is newsworthy. That’s one reason why conservatives (real and faux) and liberals alike should get out of their echo chambers and eavesdrop on the other side regularly: to hear what they’re talking about, even if one doesn’t like what they’re saying. You might be surprised to find them identifying important topics. (I’m thinking especially of liberals getting out of their echo chamber; conservatives can hardly avoid liberal ideas.)

I ran across an interesting analogy to that recently, as a thoughtful (if verbose, as even he acknowledges) blogger, Alastair Roberts, mused over the course of four blogs and a couple of weeks, on what “Evangelicalism” is, or perhaps “what is an Evangelical?”

The question seems pertinent to me because there is a sense of Evangelical solidarity the basis of which – doctrinal, ecclesial, sociological, political, or whatever – is so difficult to identify that one careful observer, Darryl Hart, has suggested a radical response:

The one response that few have considered is perhaps the most radical and the point of this book: Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether. The reason is not that evangelicalism is wrong in its theology, ineffective in reaching the lost, or undiscerning in its reflections on society and culture. It may be, but these matters are beside the point. Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Behind this proboscis, which has been nipped and tucked by savvy religious leaders, academics, and pollsters, is a face void of any discernible features. The nonexistence of an evangelical identity may prove to be, to borrow a phrase from Noll, the real scandal of modern evangelicalism, for despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction. This book is a work of deconstruction.

First, though, Roberts’ note about his own verbosity, which he offered to exonerate himself from the charge by providing the context:

A number of readers have kindly observed that my writing is rather … well … long-winded. I would be the last to dispute this claim. It really is. I write my posts fairly rapidly and they seldom undergo much editing or sometimes even basic spell-checking before posting. I write primarily as a way of thinking through subjects out loud. Einstein once famously remarked that his pencil was smarter than he was. I feel the same way about my blog. My blog’s primary purpose is that of a thinking tool. Its secondary purpose is to communicate those thoughts to others. Were I writing in a more public forum, I can assure you that at least half of the dense mass of verbiage in my posts would be removed. What you read on this blog is my thought in its unexpurgated, raw form.

Writing at such brain-numbing length has certain advantages. It has been suggested that Nigerian 419 scammers include so much poor grammar and spelling and so many comical details in their e-mails precisely because they want to narrow their self-selecting pool of respondents. If they can write in such a manner that only the most gullible of persons would respond, they will have a far better rate of success for their scamming. Likewise, by writing at such tedious length, I ensure that only the most charitable and patient of readers will bother to engage. This suits me fine.

In light of that, I won’t merely commend his series, though I do commend it (to the religiously curious, charitable and patient; if you think Evangelical is a political party, you’ll find no support here), but will excerpt what especially struck me.

Roberts starts off interacting with various definitions of “evangelical,” finding them deficient, first, because they make no claim that could not be affirmed by many or most Christians, including ones who are not evangelical.

The first definition (sorta – it was “what ‘evangelical’ means to me”), which included the affirmation “that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not,” suggested a form of Christianity that is primarily prophetic and oppositional – which probably is not true of evangelicalism, and at least not uniquely true of evangelicalism – but which Roberts thought it interesting that a self-styled evangelical should emphasize.

In other words, there’s a tacit message in what one seeks to emphasize – “what’s newsworthy about being evangelical?,” essentially.

He then surveys a lot of people responding to Ms. What-Evangelical-Means-to-Me (whose thoughts were notable because she wrote a really weird little lightning-rod of a book, and whose Evangelical bona fides have been questioned). Then he gets to a better-thought-out statement of faith of Universities and College Christian Fellowship (UCCF) as an example of an evangelical attempt at theological self-definition:

  1. There is one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  2. God is sovereign in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgement.
  3. The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
  4. Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
  5. The Lord Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son, is fully God; he was born of a virgin; his humanity is real and sinless; he died on the cross, was raised bodily from death and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
  6. Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.
  7. Those who believe in Christ are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God’s sight only because of the righteousness of Christ credited to them; this justification is God’s act of undeserved mercy, received solely by trust in him and not by their own efforts.
  8. The Holy Spirit alone makes the work of Christ effective to individual sinners, enabling them to turn to God from their sin and to trust in Jesus Christ.
  9. The Holy Spirit lives in all those he has regenerated. He makes them increasingly Christlike in character and behaviour and gives them power for their witness in the world.
  10. The one holy universal church is the Body of Christ, to which all true believers belong.
  11. The Lord Jesus Christ will return in person, to judge everyone, to execute God’s just condemnation on those who have not repented and to receive the redeemed to eternal glory.

Again, such a statement is one to which many (but not all) who would be regarded as non-evangelicals could subscribe. But

in UCCF’s statement … many of the most important distinctives lie less in the content of its affirmations than in its choice of things to affirm, the central points to which it gives attention, and the way in which those things are affirmed. The place given to the Bible is significant, as is the omission of references to the institutional Church, ordained ministry, the regular assembly of the saints, or the sacraments. The centrality of the individual Christian in its account is also important.

If you don’t have an hour or two to read the whole thing, you may want to jump to part three, where Roberts identifies what he sees as the characteristics of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is less a doctrinal commitment than a constellation of attitudes (my characterization). It is “a degenerative movement within Protestantism. In the ways that evangelicalism qualifies Protestant identity it generally represents a downgrade development from non-evangelical conservative Protestantism.” (Italics added)

Evangelical “degenerative” characteristics include:

  • Resistance to Mediation. All sacramental, institutional, hierarchical, hermeneutical, historical, cultural, and sociological forms of mediation are treated with a degree of suspicion. In place of such things, evangelicalism tends to celebrate the individual’s immediate encounter with divine truth.
  • The Autonomous Religious Subject. Individual religious interiority is granted priority over all else.
  • Democracy and Egalitarianism. Marked by a profound anti-elitist and anti-hierarchical impulse. The authority of the individual religious subject as an interpreter of Scripture and the divine will is pressed against all agencies that might challenge its claims.
  • Populist Anti-culture.
    • Hierarchy
    • Differentiation
    • Institution
    • Elites
    • Tradition
    • Pedagogy

There probably is selection bias in the facets of Evangelicalism that Roberts so critiques (and my version of Roberts itself is highly condensed and therefore selective, too).

But would you like to try your hand at defining Evangelicalism? If you’re trying to say what’s distinctive about it, I think you’ll find that deucedly difficult, as has everyone else who undertook the task.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.