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“Apocalyptic Anxiety of Pop-American Christianity”

Issues Etc. is doing a series on something (not sure exactly what) titled “The Apocalyptic Anxiety of Pop-American Christianity” featuring Alfonso Espinosa. The first installment is available from the Issues Etc. archive as an mp3.

I’m always interested to see and hear Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants interpret Evangelicalism, especially regarding issues where we differ. Unfortunately most of them follow a simple pattern:

  1. A statement of their perception of what Evangelicals believe; this is usually inaccurate, by virtue of taking a single opinion to be normative, by misunderstanding terminology, by importing foreign terminology, by conflating major and minor points, or some combination of the above.
  2. A statement of what the speaker believes as normative, thereby casting what they’ve just described as being deviant.

Unfortunately Espinosa does both of these, to his detriment. Dispensationalists don’t use the term “secret rapture,” so I have no idea whether what he and host Todd Wilken describe bears any resemblance to what Dispensationalists actually believe. He sets up Tim LaHaye as his straw man in this episode, but LaHaye’s description of the Rapture is anything but secret and invisible. Espinosa also says Evangelicals wander into this particular doctrinal cul-de-sac because we lack “Christ present as Word and sacrament” so we have only an anxious, works-based righteousness and a Christ present in some apocalyptic future, and Evangelical political involvement is a byproduct of this anxiety.

(Also, I have no idea what “Pop-American Christianity” is either, but I take it Espinosa and Wilken mean something awful by it.)

As per usual when I hear Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant academics (Espinosa is apparently a recent PhD and his thesis was on this subject) talk about Evangelicals I wonder if any of them have ever met an Evangelical, or if their understanding is based entirely on academic sources and the word of converts. As I understand it, Evangelicals aren’t lacking “Word and sacrament” as “means of grace.” We understand that simply hearing the Bible read is not enough; we need to read, understand, and follow it ourselves. We understand communion and baptism to be symbols, and “means of grace” to be a legacy of Roman Catholicism and not much else.

Espinosa’s citation of a story from a former Evangelical who is now a Confessional Lutheran, where the teller recounts being frightened as a child by the story of the Rapture rings hollow; many Christians are rightly frightened by various biblical glimpses of Hell, but that doesn’t make Hell a story only fit for scaring children and unfit for adults.

I might gently suggest that because not all Evangelicals have been Dominionist (I think that’s the term Espinosa doesn’t use but probably means), so the straight causal line he draws between these two aspects of contemporary is not warranted.

Perhaps I’m being postmodern here, but I suspect we’d all be better served if Espinosa explained why the two camps (Lutherans and Evangelicals) believe what they believe; that because Luther considered Paul the lens through which the rest of the New Testament should be understood, and because Evangelicals consider all the New Testament authors more or less peers, and because Evangelicals (for better or worse) look for the most literal possible meaning for New Testament writings, the two camps draw different conclusions when reading the Revelation. And of course, because both camps have interpretations for the end of history, which is in the future and therefore unknown, there’s no definite way to decide that one or the other is correct. There’s just (and here’s the postmodern part) a conversation, so we might as well be civil.

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As a coda I might add there’s something ironic about devoting a segment to the evils of “Me-Centered Biblical Interpretation” (mp3), calling for the final authority of Scripture properly interpreted (according to either a Confessional Lutheran or Reformed Presbyterian tradition, not sure which), and then opening the show up for listener calls.

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