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“Apocalyptic Anxiety of Pop-American Christianity”

August 25, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

speaking in soundbites 1

They were shrill and prudish, they loved bad music and guns and NASCAR, told corny jokes and spoke in soundbites, were unshakably loyal to exposed liars, and their children were going to bully our children into prayer — Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers

This is the quote that hooked me into Welch’s Thomas Road Baptist Church travelogue. It’s her description of her preconception of evangelical Christians generally, circa 2004. And she manages to find some of these folks during her three or four years at TRBC, particularly folks who carry guns where they don’t need them and folks who tell corny jokes. To be fair she admits to being moved by some of the music (and she even takes in a performance of the Living Christmas Tree), and by the time she leaves TRBC the Ergun Caner situation is still three years away, so I have to imagine that the exposed liar she’s referring to is former President George W. Bush. She doesn’t say.

What really hooked me in this quote is the part I’ve bolded above, because I think it explained so much about how I grew up understanding the world from a fundamentalist/evangelical perspective. We tended to view the world as being explainable in terms of phrases lifted from the King James Version of the Bible, typically short ones lifted out of their original textual context, not to mention their cultural context.

We tended to see complex problems through the lens of simple un-nuanced references, as if the Bible had all the answers, the answers were unambiguous, and we were not engaging in any kind of interpretation but just reporting objective facts. I think we did this because

  • We saw the Bible as a collection of independent segments of text, almost as if the verses had been compiled into the whole, rather than the whole being broken artificially into chapters and verses
  • Our pastors tended to “camp out” on a single phrase or a single verse for an entire sermon, reinforcing a meaning that might or might not be implicit in the text and that might or might not fit into a coherent understanding of Scripture as a whole
  • We tended to read the Bible over and over and memorize it a verse at a time, rehearsing the received meaning as we did, rather than attempting to discover any meaning in the text ourselves or attempting to match up what we read with any other view other than what we received from our preacher at our church.

We also tended to ignore the fact that the Bible, while it was written more or less by book (ignoring some of the books that have been broken into pieces and some of the composite authorship theories of higher criticism), the chapters and verses we use to index the Bible were not part of the original text, do not reflect authorial intent, etc.

Our sermons tended to be primarily topical and persuasive, rather than expository and exploratory. We weren’t looking for open-ended meanings.

We brought with us the expectations of poor people who, while not illiterate, had expectations of books generally that were more appropriate for a time when they were expensive and authoritative, rather than abundant and (for lack of a better word) helpful. Because the King James English was strange, we tended not to understand what it said, so we got in the habit of having what we heard from the pulpit be at odds with what we might understand from a plain reading of the text.

So I guess I would have to plead guilty to thinking and speaking in soundbites; it was (and to a degree still is) a part of the culture, and doing otherwise would have been almost unthinkable.

fundamentalist distinctives 2

Wikipedia has a better article and a better list of distinctives at the article Fundamentalist Christianity, and notes the intertwined history of Baptists and Presbyterians in the history of twentieth-century fundamentalism. The list of distinctives is a bit different, and notes the fracture of fundamentalism as a cultural force into various streams across different denominations. Here’s the list of distinctives as best I can make them out:

  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • Historicity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus
  • Deity of Jesus Christ
  • Doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God’s grace through human faith
  • Historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Authenticity of miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, including healing, deliverance, and second coming
  • Rejection of the documentary hypothesis (the composite authorship of e.g. the Pentateuch)
  • Separatism
  • Dispensationalism
  • Separatism on the basis of doctrinal purity
  • Rejection of ecumenical efforts (including ecumenical political efforts)

The article describes a basic fundamentalist movement across various denominations as a reaction to higher criticism that then broke up more or less along denominational lines, into the following groups:

  • Neo-evangelicalism
  • Reformed confessionalism
  • Lutheran confessionalism
  • The Heritage movement
  • Paleo-orthodoxy
  • etc.

And notes (correctly) that Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga precipitated the fundamentalist-evangelical breakup.

After that the article gets a little strange; after having noted that fundamentalists shun ecumenical cooperation on many issues including political issues, it then tries to graft the Christian Right onto this basic root of fundamentalism. I think I would argue that this is not as true as it is presented to be in the article, but that Jerry Falwell left his fundamentalist roots when he started/joined the Christian Right, and while today many fundamentalists take their voting cues from Christian Right leaders, evangelicals are distinguished from fundamentalists by their level of political engagement, fascination with cultural and political issues, etc.

This is the first article I’ve seen that draws a straight line between the sort of Baptist (and Presbyterian) fundamentalism I’m accustomed to and the Reformed/Lutheran confessional movements and suggests a common source in a reaction to higher criticism. It explains a number of things, including why so much of the rhetoric I hear from more modern Reformed/Lutheran types (Michael Horton, Todd Wilken, R. C. Sproul, etc.) sound so familiar from my time in fundamentalism; all three or four groups are still to some degree fighting the same century-old battle against Modernism.

It may also explain why they all have such low opinions of evangelicals.

Eisenhower Christianity

One of the things I think gets overlooked when describing American fundamentalist Christianity between 1925 and 1976 is the rise of a kind of conservative nationalist Christianity that tends toward civil religion; the best term I’ve heard for this is “Eisenhower Christianity,” because it places it in the right period of time and puts a pretty accurate face on it.

This was the period of time when “In God We Trust” became a second national motto and got stamped on currency, when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, when the Cold War became a war against godless Communism, and when American prosperity became the birthright of the righteous.

I don’t know if this was a time when the pre-existing American civil religion began to take on more explicitly Protestant elements, when rising standards of living brought more devout fundamentalist-leaning Protestants into the national discourse on national identity, or what exactly. I suppose it’s possible that increased mobility and homogeneity in mass media in the postwar era made it possible for fundamentalism to leave its various enclaves and participate in the national conversation, too.

Regardless, I have yet to find a good description of Eisenhower Christianity in the press or even in books about American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but it always seems to be lurking in the background by the time Jimmy Carter arrives on the national scene; after all, it’s really the Eisenhower era the conservatives want to get back to, despite their lip service to the Founding Fathers.

fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism 1

June 26, 2010 2 comments

In trying to figure out what has changed at Liberty over the years I’m tempted to put it this way: at some point Jerry Falwell left Fundamentalism for Evangelicalism. That’s simple enough, but it doesn’t really explain anything.

I’m tempted to take Mark Taylor Dalhouse’s definition of fundamentalism as a starting point: in his book An Island in the Lake of Fire he describes Bob-Jones-style fundamentalism as having four main features:

  • Separatism
  • Revivalism
  • Dispensationalism
  • Holiness

The problem of course is that only two of these terms have solid definitions: separatism is primarily a matter of declaring a set of distinctives and officially cutting ties anyone who doesn’t share them; dispensationalism is a way of interpreting the Bible after John Nelson Darby as embodied in the 1917 edition of the Scofield Reference Bible.

Revivalism is a slippery enough term that Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for it. I may try to come back and unpack what this means from different perspectives. Practically it meant that while churches had preachers they often had guest preachers who would come and speak from the pulpit, often for several nights running. This has a lot of implications, both positive and negative. What it meant for us at Liberty was that we didn’t have the same church or chapel speaker all the time, but in a sense anyone who appeared in the pulpit had some sort of implied endorsement from the leadership.

Holiness is even more slippery; it means in practice that a Christian should continue to actively pursue some sort of holy life, seek to avoid sin, etc. It doesn’t, as is sometimes suggested, that a person needed to continue to pursue some sort of sinless life with its associated cultural markers to be saved, but there were always ample effect-suggests-cause pressures to measure up to external standards of behavior.

Unfortunately evangelicalism is even harder to define; for a while I’ve defined it by what I’ve seen in my own life: we became evangelicals by becoming less separatist, so I’ve thought of evangelicalism as fundamentalism without separatism. It’s more complicated than that; fundamentalists, for example, accuse evangelicals of wanting the approval of the outside world and compromising certain essentials, taking e.g. experience as foundational for a worldview, rather than orthodox interpretations of Scripture. The problem with these definitions, of course, is that they describe the relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism with fundamentalism as normative and evangelicalism as deviant.

Looking back the other way, evangelicals who are former fundamentalists tend to say fundamentalists are Christians without grace. It’s complicated.

The catchy but not entirely helpful description of an evangelical is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” If I had to suggest a corresponding definition for fundamentalism, it would be something like “anyone who agrees with John R. Rice,” the late editor of  The Sword of the Lord.

the late LBC days

One of the things that struck me when I spoke to students who had attended Liberty a cycle or two earlier than me (so, say 1980 or 1984 graduates) was how different the school had been just a few years earlier. Jerry had just been easing into his Moral Majority persona, and he had started by traveling with Doug Oldham and a polyester-clad singing group that I think were called the I Love America singers or the I Love America Chorale or something like that. They sounded like the New Christy Minstrels, more or less, but without the drug references.

At this point Jerry was already starting to leave his fundamentalist roots, partly because Fundamentalists are by definition separatist and incapable of making common cause on political issues, and partly because Fundamentalist churches were typically pretty hardcore “no slacks, tracks, or blacks” places, meaning that the music had to be piano and organ (no taped backing tracks, especially with drums or guitars), women had to wear dresses or at least skirts, and of course the churches tended to be all-white, give or take the occasional Asian war bride.

Liberty took most of its cues from the schools that had produced much of its faculty and leadership: Bob Jones University, Tennessee Temple University, and Cedarville College (now Cedarville University): places with pretty lean authority structures and definite cultural markers. I have heard stories, for example, that as late as the early Eighties the guard shack at the main point of entry to the Liberty campus wasn’t just manned, but guards would actually stop the occasional car and check it for denim. Not drugs or alcohol or copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, but jeans and jean jackets.

By the time I arrived in the fall of 1985 the guard shack was still manned, but the guards mostly checked for freshmen out after freshmen curfew.