Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Evangelical Sub-Culture

I have had a lot of off-listserv email this last week dealing with the issue of Evangelicalism, what it is and how it expresses itself. As one correspondent put it, it has been a fruitful thread of discussion, but some of the more interesting things were being said personally to me and not shared with the list. This is often the way it is... All sorts of insights, reactions, and ideas have come to light in these off-list contributions and they have stimulated me to think a little further.

One of the things that I have boiled down from these contributions is something that increasingly makes me squirm, and it is that the evangelical culture, in which as an Episcopalian I find myself mercifully on the fringe, is essentially a utilitarian one. I have always believed that evangelical theology has to do with truth, but I am
increasingly of the opinion that the evangelical sub-culture has a lot more to do with what works.

In the latest issue of Leadership journal, for instance, an excellent publication, there is a piece by an Alliance pastor saying how his congregation are moving back from a do-it-because-it-is-new mindset, to trying some of the treasures to be found in the historic Christian bag. I am delighted that there was standing room only in his church last Ash Wednesday when they started doing Lent for the very first time, but not far beneath the surface of the article was his encouragement to have
a shot at some of these ancient practices BECAUSE THEY WORK.

As I have always understood it, evangelical Christianity is primarily about what is true not what will fill the church building, or whatever else your goals and objectives might be. That is not to say I am opposed to filling the church building, but I am not prepared to do it if I find myself compromising the truth and my own integrity.

The evangelical culture has fallen in love with the zeitgeist, so that the latest pontifications by some brilliantly successful CEO or other carry more weight than the biblical injunctions of the Carpenter who evangelicals claim in their bumper stickers is their boss. There is nothing wrong in learning from business practices, I have been reading business books for years; but there is something wrong when we
inadequately test what these titans of industry are saying against the words of the Christ.

Evangelical Christianity is a journey on the pathway of truth with Jesus as our Lord, the Scriptures as our guide, standing on the shoulders of the saints of old, and working with both our intelligence and on our knees before the living God. What it seems to have become is a declaration that we know the truth far better than anyone else -- and "the truth" sounds and looks extraordinarily like what passes for
appropriate in the comfortable cul-de-sacs and avenues of suburbia.

This leads me on to the core of several very thoughtful responses along the lines of "I must now confess that the trajectory of the US evangelical movement has truly shaken me," and from another correspondent about an "increased discomfort with the American evangelical sub-culture." I suspect no collusion between these two
writers, I doubt whether they even know each other.

Although, as Loren Fox points out, evangelicalism is packaged in a variety of "flavors," when it comes down to it, individuals are saying that they did not really come to anything approaching an honesty of faith until they were able to disentangle themselves from this network. The irony is, as one person put it, that evangelicals are as much in thrall to modernism (that they rail against) as the liberal Protestants and their stranglehold on the "former mainline/now sideline

And there are the same kinds of dishonesty in all camps. It is fascinating watching the Episcopal News Service attempting to spin the present crisis by an incomplete reporting of the facts, while on the evangelical side of things there is a dark under-belly that few people dare talk about or show the light of day. Both, in a way, have reduced Christianity to their own system, their own kind of faith experience, with one denying that it is not working while the other is trying every
worldly way to make it does work (after a fashion)!

As Kevin Martin said last week in the online discussion, there is in classic Evangelicalism, the flavor that I know best is the Anglican variety, and that is big hearted. Perhaps I have had the good fortune to have this modelled to me by those who have been my guides and mentors down through the years. This evangelicalism is scrupulous about being true to the truth at all costs, it is rigorously honest, intellectually curious, and is always looking out for its blindspots with a view to
correcting things.

One of my correspondents quoted a German ecologist to me, and I think this might express a little of where I am coming from as a biblical person seeking to be a faithful witness in a changing world. Rudolph Bahro wrote, "When the new forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few poeple who are not afraid to be insecure."

All of the old Christian cultures are dying in the west, although I would suggest that because it is so obvious, only we Episcopalians are in a position where we are having to face up to this reality. But the evangelical culture is in trouble, as is the Roman Catholic, and just about every other variety -- although some of them have hidden from their inadequacies very successfully for the moment. I think a new
Christian culture is being born. Yes, I do feel mighty insecure, but I hope that what I am doing is playing a part in giving my still in utero granddaughter a church environment that will feed and nuture her, as well as speak volumes to a world that is struggling to make sense of itself.

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