50 years ago today, my father and I loaded a few suitcases full of my clothes and personal effects and headed for West Chicago, Illinois in the family’s 1959 Buick. We made it as far West Lafayette when we noticed the tank was half empty already. A fuel pump problem had us spewing gas under the hood and onto the road.
We filled up, went back home, and transferred to the Volkswagen dad got for my college-age older brother.
This time we made it as far as roughly Maywood, Illinois when the car suddenly died on the Eisenhower expressway. It being Labor Day, traffic was relatively light, and dad made it across three or four lanes of traffic to the right shoulder. Shanks mare eventually got us to a gas station that wasn’t closed for the holiday (back then they were called “service stations” for a reason), and somehow discovered that something like a cotter pin had slipped out, allowing the two halves of, yes, the fuel pump, to shift and lock it up. Simple repair (new pin) and we were back on our way.
Thus, inauspiciously, did begin four life-changing years in the dormitory of Wheaton Academy,(1) a co-ed Evangelical High School with about 100 kids in dorms, 150 commuting daily from the area. I was 14 years old. From the Class of ’67, only two of us lasted all four years in either dorm, boys or girls (you know who you are, “Ox”).
I went very willingly, by the way. It actually was a test of my sincere desire to go that, at age 14, I show the moxie to get myself admitted. Any “private reform school” aspect (and there was such an aspect) was self-imposed, as I was simultaneously sincere and susceptible to peer pressure.
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I no longer inhabit the Evangelical world, which then as now fancies itself “the Christian world” (see this, for instance). But rather like Tom Howard, my attitude is “Evangelical is not Enough,” not “Evangelical is horrible.”
That I don’t consider Evangelicalism horrible may come as a surprise to readers who see me mock it so often, even having for a while used the term “Krustian” (which I now reserve for crap so far out there that its Christian bona fides are unclear – Joel Osteen, for instance).
That mockery comes, I think, from a conviction that many Evangelicals are sincere, that some of them are hungry for something they can’t quite name, that Orthodoxy is that ineffable desiderata, and that (in an expression they themselves taught me about evangelism) “I’m just one beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.” It took epiphanies for me to break free, bit by bit, from Evangelicalism, and mockery strikes me as a plausible way to induce epiphany (since I’m not licensed to do electroconvulsive therapy).
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Evangelicals by and large don’t know their own history. They think they’ve brought New Testament simplicity and purity back to the Church by a sort of Jurassic Park revivification of New Testament DNA, the original, as the story goes, having become extinct centuries ago, overwhelmed by the Papal Ice Ages.
If you want to run with that story line, remember that it doesn’t end well.
It’s much closer to the truth to say they’ve turned the Second Great Awakening into a loosely-affiliated and shifting way of feeling (“orthopathos” rather than orthodoxy). They have carried forward the flaky, sectarian fervors, and sometimes outright fabrications, of the Burnt-over District. Historically and attitudinally, Evangelicalism’s Restorationist tendendies place it far closer to Joseph Smith and the Mormons than to the twelve apostles. (Is any reader feeling an electroshock?)
The sins of Evangelicalism are sins of “zeal without knowledge.” But there’s a Orthodox-from-Evangelical convert joke: when Evangelicals actually start reading early Church history and the Church Fathers, they’re on their way out of Evangelicalism.
You can take that as a dare, gentle reader. Just see how much “hocus pocus” was present from the very first records after the New Testament era – stuff you maybe thought Emperor Constantine dreamed up.
And then there’s the Dispensationalism, ever fresh, ever cocksure, continually falsified, yet like the Sirens’ Song, or place-kicker Charlie Brown with Lucy VanPelt, or a dog returning to its own vomit, somehow irresistible:
- fevered efforts to correlate the morning news to Daniel Chapter 7, or Revelation 21, or something;
- a secret return of Christ to “Rapture” the True Believers so they’re conveniently spared 7 literal years of Great Tribulation;
- Christ’s second Second Coming, inaugurating a (mere) 1000 year reign from earthly Jerusalem (so much for “His kingdom shall have no end”);
- numerological wankery to make the number “666” fit the supposed numerical equivalent of the villain du jour‘s name;
- date-setting for Christ’s second coming – if not precise, at least evocative (“Like, dude, if Bin Laden’s The Anti-Christ, the end’s gotta be soon, right?”)
- all the bogus “Prophecy Conferences” so that guys who can’t preach all that well can stir up some fervor anyway.
The only author I read who had a really interesting variant on that stuff was the one who postulated that the United States of America was the “Babylon” that “sitteth on many waters” and “seduced many nations with the wine of her idolatry” (covetousness). That was kind of a fun spin, as usually the bad guy was, conveniently, Commie Russia.
Even as an Evangelical (i.e., a decade or so before I embraced Calvinism, my waystation on the way to historic Christianity), I was skeptical about Dispensationalism because (a) it seemed to stretch and twist scripture, turning it into some kind of occult code, and (b) someone eventually commented that it was invented (or discovered, if you insist) in the early 1800s.
But you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Evangelicalism that hasn’t been deformed by Dispensationalist eschatology. I’ve been a member of at least one Church in my adult life where belief in a pretribulation, pre-millennial return of Christ was supposedly part of its official doctrine (though they let me teach an adult Sunday School class even after I told them I no longer believed it). One of my Wheaton Academy teachers pretty much had us convinced that we, born in 1948 or so, along with the modern state of Israel, would not live to see age 40 (“one Biblical generation”). The Rapture would be before then. We had God’s word for it.
In an exclusive interview, [Tim] LaHaye tells Newsmax: “What we see going on in the world is just like Jesus said — in the last days, perilous times will come. Well, they are perilous, not only in the political field. And socialism is sweeping the world. Even Newsweek magazine recently announced on its cover that ‘We Are All Socialists Now.’
If it weren’t for Dispensationalism, Evangelicalism would be a fairly benign social and political novelty. With it, we get things like Christian Zionism, with its utter indifference toward Arab Christians who get in Israel’s way.
Damn the Dispensationalism. Damn it to hell. That sickness of Evangelicalism is horrible. I hate it with a deep, settled, and much-older-than-my-Orthodox-profession hatred.
And I won’t even ask forgiveness if that offends someone. I’m right, you’re wrong, Pffffttt!
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But I called those four years in the Wheaton Academy dormitory “life-changing,” and I wasn’t sugar-coating or euphemizing what I should have called “devastating.” All in all, and with some notable exceptions I’ll not dig into further, the experience was positive. I adjusted fairly quickly and formed some good habits. I attended and eventually was baptized in the Wheaton Bible Church that had, for the Evangelicalism of the day, remarkably good music (led by a 3-manual pipe organ) and good preaching. I thought about God (or at least about the Evangelical box in which we tried to confine Him) constantly, my Senior year in particular.
As I continued for while in “Christian” (i.e., Evangelical) colleges, an epiphany came (Jesus Christ’s real resurrection) by apprehending which I don’t think I ever could apostatize from the Christian faith. I’ve been through some big changes, but in one sense “never missed a beat,” having been in nearly 3300 “Sunday morning worship” services or Liturgies now in my life.(2)
I was almost 50 years old before I stumbled into the realization that “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” doesn’t mean “the mystical bond of everyone who really loves Jesus no matter how much their doctrine varies.”(3) It’s very humbling to experience that sort of thing unless one’s a total sociopath.
So I could be wrong yet again. I really could. But I can’t imagine how it could ever be right to go back to Evangelicalism, or even Calvinism. I’ve been disenthralled, and since that runs deeper than disinterest, re-enthrallment is rare.
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When I discuss such things, I try always to remember to exonerate my parents. I was not raised in a Dispensationalist home. So far as I can recall, the Church in which I was raised to age 14, as well as my home life, was pretty sober and balanced, apart from my parents’ adherence to the five Evangelicals taboos (smoking, drinking, dancing, playing cards and secret societies), none of which harmed me except that I can’t dance worth a hoot and I really wish I could sometimes. But my parents, in turn, got their initial Christian formation in a frankly Fundamentalist Baptist Church in Bloomington, so they did well to raise us as sanely as they did.(4)
If I fault my parents, it’s only because they insufficiently immunized me against the bogus prophetic speculations I was to encounter. They didn’t know that Wheaton Academy’s faculty was dominated, vocally if not numerically, by Dispensationalists. And, frankly, I don’t think we’d have done differently, or could have done better under the circumstances, if we had known.
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I’m grateful for Wheaton Academy. I go back to my Reunions every 5 year now, and next time will be the 50th Reunion. I’m grateful to my parents for paying my way. Having since then had my own 14-year-old son, I’m in awe of how well they hid the terror of sending a snot-nosed smartass 14 year-old off to be raised for 9 months per year by perfect strangers. (Well, strangers anyway. I’ve noted one of the big imperfections.)
All in all, it worked out well. Oh, except for the mysterious callouses on my parents’ knees.
That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
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I link to the Wheaton Academy website, feeling a bit like the guy who, invited to his alma mater for a commencement speech, began thus: “By a remarkable coincidence, I myself am a graduate, some 50 years ago, of an entirely different institution which bore the very same name and occupied the very same ground as the one from which you today are graduating.”
My Wheaton Academy was 40% resident, 60% commuter students, totaled about 250 lily white students (it wasn’t segregated, but it took at most two hands to count the people of color), and observed the Evangelical taboos (that seemed indistinguishable from eternal verities) of the 50s and 60s. We had lots of missionary kids who didn’t bring so much as a second suitcase. I too little appreciated the culture shock they went through; not only away from home, but away from what felt to them like homeland.
Today’s Wheaton Academy, on the very same ground, is more than 1000 (I believe) mostly (but far from entirely – they have a lot of generous donors who help poorer kids attend) very prosperous kids from one of the wealthiest of the Chicago suburbs. As for the eternal verities, suffice that we’d have never had a dance department.
The preceding paragraph serves the rhetorical function of assuring incredulous Evangelicals that leaving Evangelicalism does not mean I’ve left the Christian faith. They’re better about that than they used to be, but they regularly relapse. The paragraph also happens to be totally true.
Even “3300”?! Do the math. I’ve told you how old I was 50 years ago. Multiply my current age by 52. It ain’t rocket science.
The Wheaton Bible Church website says: “The true Church is composed of all who are born again; that the Holy Spirit baptizes all believers into one body, endowing the Church with the gifts needed for its work ….” Sounds swell, but that is not what the creed meant and it’s not what I now believe.
I’m surprised they weren’t Dispensationalists because most “fundamental” Baptist Churches are Dispensationalist these days. Perhaps they key is that I was born after they came to Lafayette, where they joined the Evangelical Covenant Church (not strongly doctrinal in any particular way), and that I was born the year modern Israel was formed – that formation being the source of the epidemic Evangelical Hallucinatory Dispensational Encephalitis. Or maybe it was my Uncle John, who despite his education at The World’s Most
Unusual Notorious Fundamentalist University, escaped most of the taint. Maybe I’ll look into that some day, just for curiosity. Time’s running out on asking Mother or Uncle John, though.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)