Over the weekend I was invited to contribute a piece to the Christ & Pop Culture site. I wrote a short article interacting with a recent Rod Dreher post, which you can read here. Within it I argue that there are some ironic affinities between the LGBT movement and many evangelicals, most particularly when it comes to their approaches to the formation of subjectivity.
Here is one quotation from the piece:
The governing story at the heart of evangelicalism is the conversion narrative. This may be a controversial claim to make about a movement that purports to be driven by the story of the gospel, but careful observation of evangelicalism’s dynamics provides much evidence for its truth. For evangelicalism, the ‘gospel’ is typically framed, not as Scripture frames it—as the historical story of God’s salvation accomplished in his Son through the public events of Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and his return in glory—but as the ‘story’ of how the sinful individual can be saved in the present. It is a story of how Christ can become an active part of my personal biography, rather than an historical account that stands apart from my biography, which I must enter as I die to myself and my old biography and become a part of Christ’s life. The difference may appear subtle, but it is immensely significant.
Read the whole thing here.
I’m tempted to say you’ve put something into words that I’ve been struggling to express, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you’ve thought through some issues of which I have remained only vaguely aware. For example, the role of “Coming Out” stories in LGBT culture has always vaguely reminded me of the role of conversion narratives in evangelicalism. And the role of political activism among LGBTers seems to me similar to the role of proselytism among evangelicals, though just how that is, I haven’t bothered to examine. Thanks to you for holding such questions up to sustained scrutiny! Perhaps I will follow your example.
Slightly off topic, but I found this documentary on the Stonewall Riots extremely interesting:
Not sure that I can view that without using a proxy. But thanks for passing it on.
The governing story of [the gospels] is the conversion experience. Read your bible. I would push the question further and ask if this catholicizing of American evangelicalism is really the answer considering the catholic response to LGBT has been just as terrible
As a point of fact, I think that Catholics have done better when it comes to articulating a principled and consistent response to LGBT issues. This doesn’t mean that their response on the ground has often been much better. The concept of the self that is at issue here is one widely held in the modern world. However, evangelicals have more extensively accommodated themselves to this concept than many others.
Having read my Bible a few dozen times, I strongly differ with your claim here. The conversion of the individual is obviously important, but the biblical accent lies elsewhere. The fact that, reading through the ‘gospels’ themselves, one doesn’t really encounter much of an emphasis upon articulating the conversion experience, but rather a lot upon the story of Christ’s action in history, is telling in itself.
I challenged the original Dreher article quite strongly. One of the more pernicious trends in almost all Christian circles, Catholic and Protestant, is the idea that the solution to shallow emotionalism is to double down on teaching proper doctrine. Yes, theological and Biblical ignorance is a problem, but more head knowledge is not the answer.
I really share that concern. The following is a section of my post that was removed because it distracted from the larger flow of the argument:
My only criticism is that perhaps the piece could have benefited from some concrete examples of coming out narratives, even just as links. Good piece.
Definitely a fair criticism. I was hitting the top end of the word limit, so there were a number of points and claims that I didn’t get to substantiate or develop to the degree that I had wished. I would have liked to have had the space to explore the way that both evangelicals and the LGBT community, while eschewing fixed external forms, actually structure the subjectivities of persons in fairly consistent and powerful ways by means of the genre of their respective personal narratives (and basic mimesis).
This subjectivity of the low church Christian experience and the LGBT experience aren’t similar, they are the same thing, or exactly the second comes from the first. All progressive social thought comes from reformist Christianity, going all the way back to Luther. From Luther that any institution, even a divine one, might be overthrown along with its rules, and that rules are subjective to the individual; from the Puritans that the true elite that should rule are the most moral; from the Quakers that each person has their own inner divine light; from the Methodists that social and moral rules must be used with some flexibility, to allow social outsiders in. Even the most conservative evangelical churches have this mindset.
It seems to me Jesus did enter into the subjective experience of many of the people he encountered, but with the result of bringing people out if it and into a new relationship with others.
I think that Luther is unfairly judged on many of these matters. You might find this piece interesting, as an example of an argument for how far Luther is removed from many who would claim his support (Cary mischaracterizes Calvin, but we are used to that…).
Hi Alastair! Your main article was a thoughtful and challenging piece, but I wonder whether it was comprehensive.
While I see (or try to see) where you are coming from, I think that perhaps there is more hope for evangelicals than you seem to imply. For example, in the case of evangelicals’ response to LGBT issues and their relationship to “institutions”, I think it’s worth pointing out that it was their high regard for the institution of marriage that led many evangelicals to support campaigns opposing the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex marriage. That would hardly be the mark of a church that appreciates only emotion and not institutions.
Of course, the term “evangelical” has acquired a much wider meaning than it might have had, say, thirty years ago, and the LGBT debate is revealing this more and more plainly as time goes on.
That said, I think that evangelicals’ preoccupation (real or inferred) with conversion is not necessarily either the heart or the symptom of the problem. To my mind, the shortcoming of our conversion narrative is not that we have too much of it in our services, but that we do not have a deep enough revelation of it in our hearts.
The departure by many otherwise-evangelicals from clear Scripture on the issue of homosexuality is a case in point. I do not think that the pro-gay outlook espoused by evangelical leaders such as Steve Chalke is so much the product of fairness and love as the result of a lack of appreciation of what Christ came to do for us. We lack, if I may say so, a “revelation of transformation”: the New Birth entails that we die with Christ and are reborn to live holy and righteous lives, free from sin (Romans 6:6-14). We are supposed to put off the old nature, “which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of [our] minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) That is what we mean by conversion – or at least it is what the Bible talks about and we should mean.
It has long been evident to me from the fact that many born-again evangelicals continue to refer to themselves predominantly as “sinners” that our revelation of the efficacy of the New Birth in making us holy and christlike is sorely lacking. This reveals itself in the fact that we are often stumped when it comes to people who are living lives that are deeply engrained with sin: because we haven’t fully grasped the meaning of “born again”, we fall for the lie that anybody who is “born gay” has to continue to live that way because (they claim) “God has created them that way”. We have lost sight of the fact that the very basis of salvation is the death of the old man and his replacement by the new man: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
My diagnosis is that we need not a greater affirmation of tradition (for tradition can be manmade and counterproductive, as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees (Mark 7:13)), but rather that we need a greater view of the immutability of God’s truth, and a greater revelation of the power of God to deliver people from their sins.
I do not know for certain, but it would not surprise me one bit if Steve Chalke is non-charismatic – that is to say, that he does not believe in a filling or baptism with the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion, and that he does not seek or practise gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is not denominational dogma; I grew up in non-/anti-charismatic church and then discovered the power of the baptism of the Holy Spirit for myself elsewhere. The point I am trying to make is this: that by denying the power of the Holy Spirit, many Christians and churches have also denied the power that would enable LGBT people to be set free from their sins, whether by the operation of spiritual gifts such as words of wisdom, knowledge and discernment on the part of the Christians doing the ministering, or by the power of the Spirit at work in setting free and sanctifying on an ongoing basis those who are coming into discipleship.
It is this lack of power that prompts a change of morality: because we believe that there is no way out for LGBT people, and no hope except rigid, painful adherence to legalistic principle, we conclude that it is wrong to hold them to a standard of morality to which they are not capable of keeping, and therefore we rewrite our moral principles.
My conclusion on evangelicals’ attitudes and responses to LGBT is therefore not that we need to do away with conversion, but rather that our love for conversion needs to be supported by a greater revelation of the unalterable truths of God’s Word, and empowered by a closer – and more manifestly powerful – walk with God’s Spirit. In that way we will reach – and convert – people outside of the basically stable, morally and socially just-like-us demographic amongst which we do most of our soulwinning at the moment, and instead start reaching the otherwise unreachable.
Ultimately it is not lack of tradition or institution, but a lack of truth and a lack of power that prevents us from setting people free. And so we need to get back to scriptural basics – studying and internalising the Bible, instead of books about books about books about the Bible – and seek God for more of the Spirit’s power. Then we will see transformation.
Thanks for the comment and for the detailed engagement!
I definitely don’t want to suggest that evangelicals are beyond hope. However, I want us to be more aware of the manner in which our own faults and failings compromise our response to issues that arise in no small measure from those same failings in others. Evangelicals rightly perceive something of the danger of the redefinition of marriage. In my experience at least, they are less adept at articulating this danger.
‘Conversion’ isn’t the problem and it is certainly not my desire for a moment that we do away with it. The necessary of the divinely effected transformation of each person’s life is a central and indispensable truth of the Christian message. The real problem here, rather, is the understanding of the person implicit in many evangelical treatments of this.
There is a common emphasis among evangelicals among the need for ‘revival’, which seems to be a theme within your points too. This is not something that I want to oppose. However, what I am arguing for is the importance and necessary of ‘reformation’, for a transformation that isn’t just in our hearts, but which is institutional and structural, and which touches every aspect of our lives.
Your arguments seem to explain why so many marriages end in divorce. Couples put personal well being first. The Church’s uplifting of individualism lead to the abandonment of the sacredness of marriage. This explains why there was such a weak response to the liberalization of marriage laws in Western society. This also explains why the Church weakly responds when Christians divorce. Do you have further thoughts? It would be very helpful.
The problem is that evangelicals share the wider cultural malaise of individualism, so are ill-equipped robustly to address the extreme symptoms the culture manifests. I don’t believe that the Church is the cause of this individualism, but it is very afflicted by it.