01 April 2009

Musing on evangelicalism's coming collapse -- Part One

This article by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, has been the subject of some conversation. (Here, for example.)

Some participants in the conversation have pointed out that it doesn't represent any original thinking: various evangelicals have been saying the same thing, or similar things, for years. This characterization is probably correct. I recall as a youth, attending church with my parents and listening to all the talk about how bad things were getting and how the day of the persecution of Christians was coming, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But Spencer's article is valuable at least as a summation of a case made by others, mixed with some personal observations of his own as to why the evangelical collapse is coming.

I do have to disagree with the first reason he gives for evangelicalism's impending collapse:

Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

It's easy enough for public leaders to identify evangelicals as a threat to progress. Alignment with the culture war and with political conservatism will be convenient excuses; but I doubt things would be much different if evangelicals had aligned themselves with Libertarians of the Friedman stripe, or if there were no alignment at all. The sort of leaders Spencer must surely have in mind are out-and-out Statists. And let me be clear: by Statist I mean people who, really, worship Humanity (i.e., themselves) by devotion to, and adoration of, the omnicompetent state.

In the end, evangelicals will not worship humanity by adoring the State. (Well, they shouldn't, anyway.) Rome's persecutions of Christians were motivated by concerns that were political. It was not as if Christians had launched a crusade to claim the empire for Christ. Indeed, by and large, they were dropping out and, well, "tuning in"...to Christ. In contrast, one gets the idea, listening to the spokes-persons for evangelicalism, that dropping out of the culture is the eighth deadly sin.

Getting back to Rome, though, one of the many things we fail to take note of is the fact that the word "gospel" (euangelion) was a word with political implications in the Greco-Roman world. It was frequently used with reference to the Emperor. Imagine how the use of that term, in reference to anyone else, especially a Jewish carpenter, must have struck the Roman world. Even in the best of times, it would not have required alignment with a culture war, or any extreme in the empire's political spectrum, to earn Christians more than a modicum. They simply would not worship the divine State, personified by the Emperor. They lacked pietas.And their use of such a seemingly insignificant word as "euangelion" with reference to their Christ was sufficient evidence of that.

The euangelion of Jesus Christ? That, alone, could have been seen as treason.

So evangelicals need not have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism in order to be seen as a threat to cultural progress, or for public leaders to consider us "bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society." If Spencer's location of the cause of evangelicalism's demise is correct and identification with the culture war and with political conservatism is the reason for it, then the vitriol will be leveled against us for the wrong reasons.

However, within his first point, is a claim with which I do heartily agree:

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

But I think it's worse: evangelicals haven't traded the faith for a cause; we have, a sufficient number of us, identified a cause with the faith. (In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis calls this the problem of "Christianity And".) It is almost as if evangelicals have come to believe that if the world will not repent of their sins and turn to Christ, that's all right: we'll just make them behave as if they have done. This, of course, is why they cannot articulate the Gospel with any coherence. There is no need to articulate the Gospel when the power of the State can be brought to bear in correcting our social ills. (Those of my friends who have known me the longest will attest that I've never been a fan of this maneuver.)

Articulating the Gospel is for the minster. The mission of the "layman" is to write his Congressmen and vote for right-wing (i.e., socially conservative) causes (or left-wing [i.e., fiscally liberal] causes, for evangelicals of the Sojourners ilk). I'm being facetious only for rhetorical effect. The simple fact is, I think Spencer is right. Evangelicals do seem increasingly unable to communicate the Gospel. The answer must surely be that they are spending their time learning to do, or, in fact, doing something else. Not only that, but I think the inability is rooted in an unwillingness to communicate the gospel. And I have a sick feeling, in the pit of my stomach, that the reason for the unwillingness to communicate the gospel is an unwillingness to live it. I could be wrong about that; but I'm not.

Part Two


About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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