Homeless Evangelicals: Figuring It Out

The last few weeks I’ve been talking to various students from my past who are at different stages of belief or unbelief. I’ve been thinking that we need to get them together and have them each write a chapter on their own journey so far– and each chapter would have to end with something cheesy like, “to be continued…” because most of these people are in the midst of figuring it out. All of them are, actually. All of us are, actually. But there are different stages that we arrive at along the way. Some are still solidly Christian, some have become more liberal, some Catholic, some Orthodox, some Agnostic. What seems similar among most of them is that in their evangelical experience they had a sense of not feeling at home– even if they decided to stay there.

A lot of people I know who are evangelical or near-evangelical or formerly-known-as-evangelical have a similar situation: feeling like they don’t fit in on the conservative side of the spectrum (with the more fundamentalist Christians) and yet not feeling at home with a very liberal strand of Christianity. This sense that one doesn’t quitie fit seems pretty common. I’ve been thinking about this in light of the little I know about the history of the evangelical movement in the US.

Fuller Seminary was a landmark attempt to establish an evangelical institution of higher education comprised of the best and brightest evangelical scholars of the day. It was a bold attempt to maintain the fundamentals of belief, while seriously engaging the culture at large and attempting to go toe-to-toe with the liberal scholars of the day. But it was a struggle—a struggle which I believe mirrors the struggle of any evangelical. George Mardsen reports in his “Reforming Fundamentalism” that a number of faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary underwent shock therapy in the 1950’s for depression. Certainly the reasons for this varied somewhat, but I often imagine that they felt the struggle many young evangelicals feel today—Stuck between the fundamentalism with whom we agree on the basic fundamental doctrines of Christian belief (deity of Christ, resurrection, humanities need for salvation, etc) but not willing to conform to the culture and way of being Christian which the fundamentalists require—and so, feeling disattached from those with whom we share a great deal. But on the other hand, attracted in some ways to the liberals—who on the whole seem kinder, gentler, more refined, and more open in a way which seems genuinely loving and Christlike—but who ultimately ignore or reject doctrines which we continue to think essential—we find no shelter with them either. We feel some kinship with both the left and the right, but find that both are not our home. That homelessness leads to a quiet despair that one may have to make it alone, but that is depressing. Whether or not the faculty felt this exactly, they certainly found themselves often being criticized from the fundamentalists for compromising the gospel for the sake of popularity by, for example, embracing Billy Graham and his evangelism crusades. On the other hand, try as they might to gain some respect among the liberals, they were usually still just considered a slightly brighter cousin of the hopelessly backwards fundamentalists.

Among the faculty fighting this struggle was the second president Ed Carnell, a remarkable thinker and Evangelical spokesman who eventually died a tragic death from a sleeping pill overdose in 1967. Carnell wrote books on Apologetics, Television, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Soren Kierkegaard, as well as many articles and a book criticizing fundamentalism as too narrow and legalistic while maintaining his own commitment to orthodoxy. As an evangelical, Carnell wanted to help Christians who held to the fundamentals of Christian belief while progressing beyond the narrow fundamentalists, who tended to circle the wagons to protect the truth through separatism and isolation from culture. Carnell interacted with liberal and ecumenical theologians and groups, in an attempt to engage culture with the Gospel. This put him in a difficult position, as the fundamentalists felt he was selling out the gospel for the sake of cultural acceptance, and the liberals considered him to be merely a modified fundamentalist in many respects. In short, he got shot at from both sides. This, I think, is the situation many evangelicals find themselves in today—unable to find a home—feeling disattached from what they were raised in, yet not being at home in the liberalism which calls them away from their theological moorings.

But now it is 2010, and we live in a postmodern world. Ed Carnel died more than 40 years ago, and a lot has changed. “As Ignazio Ramonet has calculated, during the last thirty years more information has been produced in the world than during the previous 5,000 years, while ‘a single copy of the Sunday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a cultivated person in the eighteenth century would consume during a lifetime.” (CL, 39) The rate of information we have to sift through decipher and assess is astronomical and we feel adrift with too much information, too many options, and too little direction. Things are changing so quickly that there is little time to assess what is happening.

This postmodern world is a situation which Zygumunt Bauman has described as ‘liquid modern’. In a liquid modern world change is the norm, and little is solid and lasting. We find ourselves groping in the dark more than ever as paradigms and norms change so fast we cannot keep up. Politically the old centers and alignments of power are shifting, culturally our unity and values have come apart, socio-economically the poor and rich have wildly divergent worldviews and goals, while everyone seems to be more concerned with making it, holding on, trying to keep one’s head above water. Our financial world has collapsed and is remaking itself, our educational system is in tatters, those companies which were once foundational to the economy have either been outsourced overseas, radically transformed beyond recognition, or are gone. Being ignorant of the past or being able to quickly forget it are assets in this liquid modern world where we must perpetually adapt.

A key component to liquid modernity is a general de-centering. Bauman describes the liquid modern world as one where “The centrality of the center has been decomposed, and links between intimately connected spheres of authority have been broken, perhaps irreparably.”(EC, 11) We will never have another band with widespread appeal like the Beatles—not in a culture where independent labels proliferate, anyone with a computer and relatively inexpensive equipment can produce an album, and anyone can put their own music and video up on youtube for free. Anyone can publish their own thoughts continuously on the internet through a blog, or through their phone via twitter. No one controls this dissemination of information, and the traditional clearing houses of information and power have been bypassed.

The liquid modern situation eludes our boundaries and definitions, because it is so fluid: “As we try desperately to grasp the dynamics of planetary affairs today, old and hard-dying habit of organizing the balance of power with the help of such conceptual tools as center and periphery, hierarchy , and superiority and inferiority serves more as a handicap than, as before, an asset; more as blinders than as searchlights. (EC, 12)

Neither Ed Carnell nor Fuller were the beginning of evangelicalism, but they were at the forefront of a powerful movement by which evangelicals gained ground culturally, academically, politically, and even in the market. A brief sketch would start with the establishment of Fuller and the parallel rise to prominence of various colleges and seminaries which evolved from fundamentalism to evangelicalism including Wheaton, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Gordon Conwell, Biola, Westmont, Taylor, Bethel, and the many others evangelicals know today. Billy Graham popularized evangelicalism with mass appeal, and Christianity today helped give it a voice. On secular campuses groups like Navigators, Intervarsity, and Campus Crusade worked to help thousands of searching students to find and live out their faith. World vision and other such organizations gave it some powerful means of reaching worldwide with social justice mission. Soujourners and other more left-leaning evangelicals also appeared. Television ministers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others gave evangelicals a strong presence into households everywhere through the television, and they built up institutions and colleges of their own. 1976 was the year of the evangelical, with all 3 presidential candidates—Ford, Reagan and Carter—all claiming to be ‘born again’. That on the heels of Chuck Colson’s remarkable and very public conversion after his jailtime for his part in Watergate set some of the groundwork for the evangelical popular appear which gave rise to the Moral Majority project under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, the goal of which was to influence political decision making and reestablish the United States as a more Christian nation. Reagan was elected with help of evangelicals, as was the senior Bush and the younger Bush, who many evangelicals lauded for claiming that his favorite philosopher was Jesus. In the 1980s Christian publishing houses flourished, and evangelicals began to appear in many institutions of higher education as professors—particularly in philosophy departments– and so evangelicals seemed to have accomplished much in their broad goal to engage culture and bring Christianity into the world in relevant and concrete ways—politically, academically, popularly and with many social justice missions programs. Evangelicalism seemed to be at a peak towards the end of the 20th century.

Like I said before, it is now 2010. In his most recent book David Wells, noted Evangelical theologian of the last 40 years, suggests that it may well be time to abandon the term evangelical altogether: “Despite its honorable pedigree, despite its many outstanding leaders both past and some in the present, and despite the many genuine and upright believers who still think of themselves as evangelical, it may now have to be abandoned.” (Wells, “Courage to Be Protestant” p.19) Well has his reasons why he wants to discard the term—particularly because he doesn’t want to be associated with emergent churches or market-church groups (willowcreek, saddleback et al)

But there is a sense among many of us that there is a real crisis of identity for evangelicalism as we go into this new century. It is of course ironic that after all the success of the last 60 years evangelicalism as a coherent movement may be breaking apart into a diaspora of somewhat akin somewhat disparate units, dissolving in some sense—not to anhilation, but to a dis-integration which will maybe bring about a variety of new transformations and inaugural projects and beginnings. The end of Evangelicalism with a capital E may lead to various multifarious offshoots. But this isn’t something that will happen. This is something that is happening. Evangelicalism is no longer what it was. It is something different—somethings different–its children are varied.

There are still plenty of evangelicals of the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson type attending Bob Jones and Liberty University, among others. A lot of them are found in the south. There is an exploding group of adamant Calvinists who whether they follow the more asture John Piper or John McCarther, or the formerly-cussing-pastor of the hipper younger beer drinking Calvinists, Mark Driscoll, they have a cause, a mission, and a lot of blogs. There are divergent evangelicals whose orthodoxy is questioned, such as Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd and other open theists, and then the emergent church crowd which often won’t use the term evangelical such as Brian McClaren, Rob Bell, and others. There are of course the TV evangelists who have their own culture altogether. Then there are the Anglican evangelicals, such as JI Packer and John Stott, who have their own idiosyncrasies. We can’t forget the black evangelicals, and the latino evangelicals, and then there are the Korean evangelicals—each of which have their own subcultures and particulars. As a whole evangelicals are a motley crew of variety, many of whom wouldn’t want to be in the same building much less the same room with one of the others. To see this as a unified movement is difficult.

This lack of identity of the movement makes it more challenging to identify oneself as a member of the group. What is the group? This is a question not easy or even possible to answer perhaps…

The sky is not falling. There are more interesting and motivated thoughtful young Christians honestly struggling to figure things out and to make an impact on the world than ever. Things are not as easy or as clear as they may have seemed in the past, but that provides opportunity (and danger) to revisit one’s beliefs and think things through. Often when we reevaluate our position and thoughtfully examine it we end up better off than mindlessly doing what we were doing up to that point. I am not always excited about where my friends and former students end up in their thinking, but I am most of all happy that they are thinking and I trust that honest thinking will bring them towards truth.

May God have mercy on us all. Andy Gustafson

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8 responses to “Homeless Evangelicals: Figuring It Out

  1. Great post. I’ve had the same struggle throughout all of my adult life.

  2. I read this in the midst of teaching my 9th graders the stock market crash. The “crash” of the 20th century Evangelical movement might seem detrimental for the older generation (my parents’ and grandparents’ aged Evangelicals who lived through the height of the movement). However, I find it all to be a great opportunity for young believers to set their own beliefs and meet the Lord where they are at, not where their parents’ Church wants them to be. I love my E-Free background and family heritage that goes with it, but I lack a true connection with that today. Not identifying with a specific group is fine with me right now.

  3. I appreciate the post Andy. You have put to words many thoughts I have had over the past years.
    One of the classes I am most excited about taking in the spring is “American Christianity”. Which, as the title of the class suggests, is a look at the history of Christianity in the U.S. and one of the required texts is are a book by George Marsden called, “Fundamentalism and American Culture”. I will let you know how it goes.

  4. simplefreechurch

    Tom, thats a great book by Marsden! I was referring to his book Reforming Fundamentalism which is about Fuller, but really gives insight into the greater evangelical movement as well. I hope your class goes great! Scotty– I hear you!

  5. I hope that this truly inspired essay is the outline of your forthcoming book, “From shock therapy to liquid modernity: a short history of evangelicalism in the 20th century.”

  6. simplefreechurch

    we’ll see, celeste 🙂

  7. Great post Andy. Homelessness is right. And the dawning realization that Christianity is not a monolith. Homelessness leads to the search for an ‘essence’. But what we have is not an essence, but a series of family resemblances.

  8. Wandering over here via WordPress tags and “possibly related” notes at the end of one of my own blogs on this topic …

    I’d ready to give up the term “evangelical” as soon as something else comes along that can replace it. Except I don’t think that’s going to happen. What “evangelical” named 50 years ago simply isn’t around any longer, and in those places where it might be found, “evangelical” would not be a suitable name for it today. Hence, one needs constantly to add qualifiers to the word “evangelical” in order to communicate what one is trying to name.

    As for yourself, you candidly confess unease with the “conservative” end of the Protestant religioius spectrum, and equal dis-ease with various opposites to it, whether it is standard main-line Protestant liberalism or post-modern-emergent-foofiness. I sympathize. Sorta.

    There’s another path different from the one you and your confreres are taking, a path that begins the same place yours does (dis-affection for the current state of evangelical religion), but heads straight back into history. I’m referring to my formerly evangelical friends who are now Roman Catholic. Or Orthodox. Or (like moi) classical Anglican. See? I had to qualify that last term, because it too now festoons some pretty funky communities, who like to do thier morally funky stuff in Anglican drag.

    But, my point is this: re-inventing the wheel isn’t necessarily a productive or helpful path, is it? How is your path different from that chap you mentioned in a blog on October 21, 2009, the fellow who said, ““I do not understand why we have to read all these european theologians views– why don’t we just read what the Bible says?”

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