Alan Jacobs on Evangelicalism

Some very sharp observations by Alan Jacobs in a Los Angeles Review of Books interview. I’ll not highlight as you should read it all (if at all) and let Jacobs himself guide you:

I felt that [Marilynne] Robinson was, in many cases, using her entry to the liberal intelligentsia — she can always be published in the NYRB or wherever else — to be very critical of her fellow Christians, and I just wished that went the other way around. I wished she would use her opening with the liberal intelligentsia to be more critical of them.

But, I’ve got to say, there’s been a bit of a change in my thinking that can be deeply identified with the 80 percent rate at which white evangelicals — or people who call themselves evangelicals — voted for Trump. When that happened, I thought, maybe Marilynne Robinson is more right about my fellow evangelicals than I was, you know? At that point, I thought maybe I should just drop my criticism of her, she may have been right after all.

That was a very distressing moment for me. I knew there would be a lot of support for Trump simply because he was the Republican candidate. I didn’t expect it to be that high. What I expected was more of a nose-holding posture — like, I don’t like this guy, I don’t approve of his personal life, I don’t approve of many things about him, but he’s the lesser of two evils. What we got instead was a great many Christians refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything evil here at all — he’s great, he’s wonderful, he speaks for us. And I will have to admit that I was taken aback, not so much by the willingness of evangelicals to vote for him, but by the enthusiasm with which they voted for him.

And then I started looking into things a little more, because I was curious about this phenomenon. And I came to realize that a lot of people who are willing to claim the name “evangelical” are actually people who don’t go to church and couldn’t sum up what evangelical belief is. They just don’t know.

And while some see that as good news, that the people who voted for Trump aren’t really evangelicals, that’s not the lesson I took from it. The lesson I took from it is: How many of us are there? We used to think there are a lot of evangelicals in America. Maybe there aren’t very many people who are sufficiently formed in the Christian faith to be able to say what it is.

So, what does “evangelical” mean?

Right now, I have no freaking idea. [Laughs.] I couldn’t begin to tell you.

What is it supposed to mean?

So, the most classic definition is one that was coined by Scottish historian David Bebbington (you can Google the term “Bebbington quadrilateral”), and it consists of these four things: evangelicals are people who believe in a conversion experience; they believe in the authority of scripture; they have a theology centered on the cross, and Jesus’s atoning work on the cross; and, as Bebbington puts it, they engage in a theologically informed activism, they get out there and preach the gospel and try to win people over. Some have suggested revisions to that, but that’s the general thing.

And what we’re looking at now is that many of the people who call themselves “evangelical” in polls are people who actually could not in any meaningful way affirm any of those four things. But that’s not encouraging to me, because what that suggests is that there are all these people who have some kind of tribal association with the word “evangelical.” And that means that evangelical churches have allowed themselves to degenerate into a kind of tribalism, rather than theologically informed, compassionate activism.

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