Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

From the wacky [HT: Chrisendom]…

…to the weird, to the more sinister.

Is there any section of the Church that is more messed up than what passes under the name of Evangelicalism? Like it or not, most people who call themselves evangelicals in the US and the UK today are holding a form of religion that only bears a tenuous relationship to the historic Christian faith. Whilst we would like to quibble about the historic meaning of the term and complain that it has been hijacked by fruitcakes, there comes a time when we simply have to accept the fact that the term ‘evangelical’ now carries a radically different meaning to anything that it ever held in the past. The weird, the heretical, the fad-driven, the fruity, the fanatical, the culturally and intellectually bankrupt has become the mainstream.

People, evangelicalism is a greater threat to Western civilization than Islam is. Islam may oppose the Christian faith, but modern evangelicalism trivializes, parodies and cheapens it to the extent that it is no longer deemed worthy of opposition and cannot be taken seriously. With all of its handwaving emotionalism, kitschy culture, intellectual vacuity, collective narcissism and blinkered politics, modern evangelicalism demands all the respect of a shabby circus freak.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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31 Responses to Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

  1. Ruben says:

    Maybe the one’s ordaining homosexuals? Just a thought.

  2. Ruben,

    Moreso than in the denominations which I take to be the object of Al’s criticisms, both the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches are deeply habituated and disciplined in the historic Chrisitian tradition.

  3. Al says:

    I would also point out that the issue of homosexuality is one that is not confined to ‘liberal’ parts of the Church. There are a number of evangelical homosexual organizations around (Courage is one example of a UK-based one). I have also talked to enough young people who would identify themselves as evangelical to know that many of them see no problem whatsoever with homosexuality and want to see their churches opened up to be led by such people. Evangelicals are also frequently at the head of movements pressing for women church leaders.

  4. Brian Coffey says:

    Sad.

    One question came to mind and I know this misses the point. The rapture email guy was obviously sincere if very misguided. Why on earth would he do an interview with “The Daily Show”? Seriously, could he have possibly thought it was a good idea?

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  6. ryan says:

    no doubt that criticism is on point regarding a fair amount of evangelicalism. but still the question remains of identifying just what evangelicalism is. Also, what would its mainstream be?

  7. Al says:

    Ryan,

    Good question. ‘Evangelicalism’ is a notoriously slippery term. There is always the temptation to gerrymander evangelicalism to rule out those who do not agree with us. If we claimed that to be evangelical you had to hold to certain basic and historic beliefs to do with Scripture, the cross and other such things, one could certainly rule out many ‘aberrant’ forms (although many wacky groups retain these beliefs).

    In the post above I use the term to refer to a particular religious demographic, to evangelicalism as a cultural phenomenon, a movement that has in many respects strayed from its historical roots. The people I use the term to refer to are people who would regard themselves as evangelicals. They are also people that are generally identified as evangelicals by the wider society. They belong to movements that have generally developed out of more traditional forms of evangelicalism. The hijack is largely from within, rather than without.

    By the ‘mainstream’ I refer to the most prevalent forms of contemporary evangelicalism, understood as a broad religious demographic. The ‘mainstream’ here is defined in terms of numbers, more than anything else. However, if we were talking theologically or historically we could well argue that the small minority who retain more traditional forms of evangelical are the mainstream. Unfortunately, the gold of the evangelical tradition is often hard to find amidst the current dross.

  8. Al says:

    Brian,

    I was wondering exactly the same thing myself.

  9. Ruben says:

    C David, I wonder what your definition is of deeply habituated and also of historic Christianity.
    Well, if the question is how we define ‘evangelical’, then perhaps they are the most dramatically screwed of all groups. But in that case we are allowing people who have no connection with historic evangelicalism to take the name.

  10. wyclif says:

    I’ve been saying for years that “evangelical” is a term that has been increasingly emptied of meaning and context.

    Here in America the word seems to have devolved to a synonym for “zealous”.

  11. By far the worst piece of child exploitation in the Jesus Camp video was the mullet on that boy who was preaching. Have these people no compassion?

  12. ryan says:

    Al,

    i hit the ‘say it’ button too quick. this is an edited version that is clearer. if you can, please delete the comment above.

    im with you on how you went about identifying this demographic, and we likely have the same sort in mind in reference to your critique. But my problem, somewhat shared with Wyclif (and possibly because were are both in america) is an inability to know what that group is anymore (or what is mainstream in it).

    this was something of a ‘hot issue’ in the American media after the re-election of bush–which was thought by some to belargely due to ‘evangelical’ support. A number of editorials and the like appeared questiong–with like refrain –or attempted answer of–‘just who are these evangelicals’

    most of the ‘wider society’ that tried to identify and understand ‘the evangelicals’ proved themselves pretty clueless in doing so (or even in understanding christianity, in whatever form). I think most of them think an evangelical is Ned Flanders on the Simpsons, and he is only a ‘caricature’ of one, anyway.

    those who called themselves evangelical and tried to address this question were only somewhat more helpful: Lauren Winner, for example. While she certainly knew what she was talking about, she pointed to John Stott, etc. if one really wants to know what ‘an evangelical is’ The problem is, of course…whats does one do with Falwell, Robertson, TBN preachers, Christian Contemporary Music figures, Rick Warren,etc. Even at the ‘mainstream’ level it seems there are multiple mainstreams: how does Christianity Today fit in with figures the list just above?

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  15. Al says:

    Ruben,

    I am not sure that it is fair to say that these people ‘have no connection with historic evangelicalism’. The problem is that they do. Historically evangelicalism has undergone many transformations and has reinvented itself in different ways. It is hard to argue that evangelicalism is a static deposit of particular doctrines. It has always been complicated and pluriform.

    The theological errors that I am speaking of have developed in historically evangelical contexts, in a way that they have not outside of such contexts. Evangelical ground has proved fertile for many forms of heresy. We may claim that many of the contemporary forms of evangelicalism are illegitimate, but they continue to share enough of our theological and cultural genes to demonstrate that we have shared ancestors. In many respects one could argue that some of these movements are logical developments of and reactions against flaws within the thinking of conservative evangelicals of the past. Men like Wesley and Whitefield planted many good seeds, but they also sowed their wild oats, of which we are reaping some of the harvest.

    Most contemporary evangelicals, fruity as they are, continue to hold many of the key convictions that have historically characterized evangelicals — inerrancy of Scripture, importance of personal conversion and evangelism and the centrality of the cross. Much as we might like to justify the evangelical tradition by dissociating it from such people, I do not think that this is entirely fair. Our respected evangelical forebears really did establish certain trajectories of practice and thought that have led to the current crisis.

  16. Daniel Nairn says:

    Evangelicalism has it’s wild fringes, but you do have to keep in mind that it is exactly these fringes that entertain/terrify us so much – and they get the attention. I doubt John Stott will get his own feature length film.

    This being said: After watching it a few times, I personally have little to object to in the Jesus Camp preview. I suspect most of us are intially put off by the extreme emotionalism of it, but it may be helpful to try to step outside of our Western sophistication. Like it or not, Jesus camp looks more like the global church than our orderly intellectual gatherings do. And this is true across denominational boundaries. What exactly is heretical about anything said in the film?

    Sure there could be more theological depth, and the us-vs-them approach is hardly winsome (at least not among my friends), but it is a children’s ministry and I try hard not to hold a condescending attitude toward these expressions of faith.

    Incidentally, I wonder how much these pictures do line up with the historical church. Yeah, they’re no John Calvins or Anslems, but education (and the leisure to persue intellectual depth) was always allowed to only a privlidged few. We just happen to construct our narratives of the history of the church around the theologians who have left us books.

    Evangelicalism is certainly a mess, but what section of the church isn’t?

  17. Daniel Nairn says:

    I’ve read a little more on the Jesus Camp film, and I have to step back from my last comment a bit. There are some problems here.

  18. WTM says:

    One thing that we must remember is that the Jesus Camp film uses statistics to confuse things. While it is true that 25% or so percept of USA citizens can be classified in George Barna’s terms as “evangelical” based on certain key beliefs they hold, this large group of people are on the whole nothing like what you see in the Jesus Camp film. Could you imagine Rick Warren or Joel Osteen or Bill Hybles leading that camp? What this film shows is the neo-fundamentalist underbelly of what passes for “evangelicalism.”

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  20. Ruben says:

    Al, I suppose it is quite frequent that one relatively fringe element of a movement takes over. After all, Baptists outnumber Presbyterians, at least in the US. But I think the difficulty of that method of argumentation is that we then make Calvin responsible for the Southern Baptists, and probably make Clement of Rome responsible for the Crusades.
    When we define ‘evangelical’ then we can say, at least on our paradigm, who does and doesn’t fit.

  21. Ruben says:

    P.S. The Jim Jordan article on Mr. Horne’s blog does not demonstrate its assertions or back up its historical claims.

  22. Pingback: Dead Yet Living » I think we left it in the car.

  23. pduggie says:

    The problem is the attempts to write such groups out of evanglicalism always come across as mean-spirited, especially the more fully sweeping you make the critique (“not only is Hinn (or whoever) a false prophet, those who pay him any attention have departed from valid Christianity”)

    Are the foks who say they ‘love jesus’ and go to a church with a rantin and ravin female ‘apostle’ (or male, even) part of even the visible church? Tough call to make. times like that you wish you had a doctrine of implicit faith and a magisterium with some sense.

  24. garver says:

    According to DG Hart, “evangelicalism” in the recent sense of the term is the epiphenomenon of pollsters, politicos, and pundits and, as a result, is a pretty vacuous concept. Even ETS’s criterion of “inerrancy” isn’t without problems as a defining feature. The stuff Al points to would seem to confirm this judgment.

    I guess one could push the term back more than a century or so, but in that case, “evangelical” just means “Protestant” as opposed to Roman Catholic, including everyone from Presbyterians to Methodists, from millennial sects to holiness movements, from revivalists to Social Gospel mainliners. That, at least, was how the term was used in the 19th century.

    If you push the term back much further than that, then suddenly you’re faced with the problem that New England Congregationalists, English Independents, and their Baptist spawn would be considered by their contemporaries as only on the fringes of “evangelicalism,” at best.

    So one might say that originally “evangelical” meant something like “one of the Protestant traditions stemming directly from the magisterial Reformation,” but then the term is simply co-extensive with the orthodox expression of the Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran communions.

    It seems to me a term that’s shifted meaning so many times and has proved so flexible may not be worth saving.

  25. Al says:

    Ruben,

    I do not believe that every development that has taken place within evangelicalism can be traced back. However, I do believe that certain developments can. For example, the downplaying of the significance of ritual by some of the Reformers was radicalized by many of their followers. The Reformers would be appalled at how far this has been taken by many. Nevertheless, they did start an unhelpful movement of thought that was hard to put the brakes on. For this they bear a measure of responsibility.

    The same can be said about men like Whitefield and Wesley. As for James Jordan’s article, I think that the historical claims have a lot of merit to them (although I wouldn’t go as far as Jordan’s conclusions myself). There is a lot of demythologizing of evangelical history that needs to take place. We need to ask, among other things, to what extent some of the great revivals of evangelical history have been exaggerated in various ways.

    It is hard to deny that evangelicalism transformed decisively through the period of Wesley and Whitefield and became increasingly focused on the charismatic preacher, rather than on the more established ministry of the Church. Just observe the way that the history of evangelicalism is recounted.

    I think that Joel makes some good points about the difficulty of defining evangelicalism (see this post as well). The problem with evangelicalism is that it is divorced from an ecclesiastical tradition and, as such, quickly becomes quite insubstantial in meaning. Its definition can be pulled in just about any direction.

    Defining the borders of evangelicalism is about as easy as defining the borders of a perfume once it has been released into the air. As Joel observes, there was a time when the boundaries of evangelicalism were far easier to define as it took an ecclesial form (like bottled perfume, to expand on my analogy).

    It might be nice to define evangelicalism so as to exclude some of the people who now claim the title of evangelical for themselves. The problem is that evangelicalism was never primarily a set of doctrinal beliefs. It was and is first and foremost a social movement, only loosely bound together. Its unity is not that of adherence to an unchanging body of doctrine. Evangelicalism is far too freeform a movement for that. It cannot be easily nailed down and has undergone many mutations in its history.

    Our problem is that evangelicals generally lack an ecclesiastically rooted self-understanding. They are less like leaves connected to a tree that has grown for many years and more like leaves that have fallen from the tree and are being blown this way and that by various winds. There is a form of unity between the leaves, given the fact that they originally came from the same tree and exist in a similar state, all being fallen leaves. Some would like to argue that one ceases to have unity with the leaves when they have been blown to a particular distance from the original tree. However, such definitions are rather arbitrary (seeing as most of those who make the definitions are in a questionable position themselves). They also fail to do justice to the various forms of unity that do exist between the fallen leaves

    The term ‘evangelical’, the more that it has become divorced from an ecclesiastical tradition, has lent itself to being taken over by people like those mentioned in my post. I believe that much the same thing is happening to the term ‘Reformed’ in the current Church climate. It is being detached from its ecclesiastical roots and being treated as a different kind of definition to that which it was historically. The meaning of the word ‘Reformed’ becomes increasingly nebulous and diluted when it is used as a self-designation by people from a Baptist background, for example. Many who call themselves ‘Reformed’ hold something quite far removed from the historic faith of the Reformed churches. TULIP may provide a very poor basis for shared Reformed identity; the prospect of any meaningful basis for shared evangelical identity is even less probable.

  26. Ruben says:

    OK, Al. But in that case, is it meaningful to say that something as tenuous as “evangelicalism” is screwed up?
    Demythologize away; but be aware of your own agenda and presuppositions in doing so.

  27. I’m with Garver. I would highly recommend D.G. Hart’s book, Deconstructing Evangelicaslism. He sheds a lot of valuable insight on the subject.

  28. pduggie says:

    Is the ranting lady a christian?

  29. Al says:

    The ranting lady is Benny Hinn’s wife.

  30. This camp may have its problems, but I wish that the folks in our church would express such a passion for loving Jesus. I’d love for the children to be more excited about Jesus than the treats they get in a bland Sunday school. Perhaps we have a few things to learn from these folks.

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