Evangelicals Dominate? God Help Us!

Sometimes the convergence of disturbing information is too much and I feel the only reasonable course of action is to withdraw to Lopez Island to think and write, and of course, to get away from the insanity of it all, a path which I have spent a lifetime rejecting, arguing instead for cultural engagement.

First was the US News and World Reports article about the New Evangelicals who, according to sociologist Alan Wolfe, dominate American culture.

[We are back to a situation in which evangelicalism dominates our culture. But that doesn’t mean `fundamentalist.’ It means revivalist, personalist, therapeutic, entrepreneurial–the megachurch.]

Fundamentalism has been described earlier in the article as follows:

[Starting in the late 19th century, however, waves of new immigrants and an assortment of intellectual challenges from Darwinism to “modernist” theology began edging evangelicals from their place at the center of American life. In reaction, a core of the faithful adopted a hypermoralistic, biblically literalist, and anti-intellectual stance that came to be known as fundamentalism. In the 1940s, more open-minded carriers of the torch, including Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry (founding editor of Christianity Today), broke with the bunker mentality and attempted to reconnect with the larger culture. Abandoning the apocalyptic scenarios of the fundamentalists and much of their anti-intellectual baggage, they broadened their appeal, often reaching out to Christians in mainline Protestant churches and even to Catholics. Fundamentalism didn’t just disappear; many highly visible leaders and televangelists remain of that tendency. But it is now only one current within a larger movement.]

The article lays out the successes and excesses of evangelicalism, among them an anti-intellectualism lamented by Wheaton College’s Mark Noll.

[During the last century in particular Christian reasoning as a whole, through use of he Bible, theology, and doctrine, simply hasn’t measured up. The scandal of the evangelical thinking is that there is not enough of it, and that which exists is not up to the standards that (Jonathan) Edwards established.]

This article appeared the day after the Seattle Time’s reported on Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church which is described as stylistically post-modern, but theologically fundamentalist. The following excerpt describes Driscoll’s analysis of differing versions of the Bible.

[He draws a chart: On the left he lists Bibles he says are translated word-for-word (good). On the right, those that use more metaphorical or creative language (not so good). He also ranks the Bibles vertically, putting on top those he thinks highly of (New International Version, the one he uses; New American Standard; New King James). Far to the right, and way down on the bottom “toward hell,” he says comes the New Revised Standard Version. The widely used New Revised, which distinguishes between references to all humans and references to men and women separately, is “the politically correct Bible,” he says. “It’s like the Bible got neutered.”]

If evangelicalism (with its subset of fundamentalism) has prevailed, it is reasonable to ask why our country is so messed up?
Could it be that the privatized, experiential, non-institutional version of Christianity is incapable of actually engaging the world systems, which are, in fact, institutionalized and intellectualized?

Evangelicals will celebrate the decision of Abercrombie and Fitch to discontinue in-store sales of their catalogue, a sample below:

[This year’s issue, the slipcover says, offers “280 Pages of Moose, Ice Hockey, Chivalry, Group Sex & More ¢â‚¬¦ .”One article says “a pleasant and supersafe alternative to [group sex] is group masturbation ¢€œ sometimes called a circle jerk or Jack-and-Jill-Off.”…Mark Millar, a comic book writer shares this thought: “My idea is you have the Old Testament, the New Testament, and this is the Final Testament. This is a thing about Jesus coming back as a 12-year-old kid ¢â‚¬¦ pontificating whether or not he should masturbate ¢â‚¬¦ .” In another interview, Sari Locker, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sex,” says: “College is the time when you have the greatest opportunity to have sex [and] the highest number of potential sexual partners ¢â‚¬¦ .”his year’s issue also includes a “sexpertise” column that says kids going to college “shouldn’t be looking for someone to marry.” Rather they should be “focused on getting experience.”]

Unfortunately the ideas conveyed in these A&F articles achieved their status during the very era evangelicals were achieving their “dominance.” I hate to say the emperor has no clothes, but is it possible that what evangelicals have really achieved is an antiseptic, privatized sub-culture? Yesterday I got an e-mail that read as follows.

[The Video Game Industry is a Stronghold Bent on Destroying our Kids by Teaching them to: Break Rules & Disregard Authority, Blur the lines between Good & Evil, Embrace Violence & Promiscuity, Waste time, intellect & our money. As a father of 3, I’m angry! I’ve founded a Christian game company

He argues that Christians ought to buy his game because it teaches bible verses and is not evil like those games produced by the “Video Game Industry.” I went to his site and found the graphics did not even approach the aesthetic of clip art. Does he know that the best selling CD-Rom game of all time is non-violent, artistically stunning and was developed at a company called CYAN, managed by intellectually alive and aesthetically driven Christians? (Sequels Riven and this Xmas URU follow in the same line.)]

At 55 years of age, I confess, I am distressed at the often culturally irrelevant brand of evangelicalism we are producing. And I feel less able to contribute to the necessary correctives.

Last night I interviewed writer Tobias Wolfe. In his new book Old School he describes the poetry of the central character, a student at a prestigious New England prep school. The poems are but fragments.

[I’d written fragment beneath most of the poems in the notebooks, and this description was in every case accurate. Each of them had been composed in some fever of ardor or philosophy that deserted me before I could bring it to the point of significance. The few poems that I had finished seemed, in the hard circle of light thrown by the gooseneck lamp, even more disappointing. The beauty of the fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness¢â‚¬¦I thought of stitching several of them together into a sequence, a la the “Waste Land,” but that they would thereby become meaningful seemed too much to hope for.]

My life feels like fragments now. My life seems well described as bits and pieces of thoughts and ideas and well-intended occasional contributions to the dialogue of the evangelical and broader cultural landscape. But there are days when I realize those bits and pieces will not take on greater meaning, even if they are stitched together like T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. I feel my only choices are: to go to Lopez, to pray even so come quickly Lord Jesus, or to continue creating my daily fragments in hope that somehow these little loaves and fishes will be multiplied and will play their small part in the task of reformation of people of faith, and through them the culture.

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