More Thoughts On Evangelicalism & Ben Op
From an insightful comment leader SDB, an Evangelical, posted to a Ben Op thread:
Post-WW2, a group of Christians with theological sympathies with the fundamentalists thought they needed to be open to society and be willing work with anyone who will help them save souls. Additionally, they believed that redirecting culture meant influencing culture makers. Rather than eschew rock music as being worldly (as the fundamentalists did), they wanted to save the rock star so he could make Christian rock songs and lead people to Christ (think the conversion of Bob Dylan). This meant taking on the trappings of mainstream society and baptizing them in order to evangelize. At some level it worked. It moved the Overton window as it were. If Billy Graham was meeting with presidents, then evangelicalism by definition is mainstream. The Jesus Music, the amphitheater style worship centers, the faith and culture types name dropping Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Camus (i.e., Francis Schaeffer) were taking back the stage while the mainline was declining. It was the year of the evangelical and God wasn’t dead any more.
And now after 50 yrs of progress, it all seems to be slipping away. Evangelicalism is fractured. People within aren’t so sure being relevant is…well…all that relevant. There are major internal tensions over the role of women in ministry, race relations, biblical inerrancy, the pope of evangelicalism (Billy Graham) is dead and two of its three theological architects have died (Henry and Stott). More concerning, there is no one on the horizon to replace these guys – people who command the respect of the larger evangelical world. And now one of the most important books on religion is telling us to turn inward and do a better job of discipleship. But that’s what we are doing with the podcasts, publishing houses, bible studies, retreats, Sunday Schools, small groups (lots and lots of small groups), etc… They are thinking, “to drop our outward focus is to lose the thing that makes us what we are.” It’s like telling a Catholic not to pray the rosary or an Eastern Orthodox not to fast so much. Spreading the word, telling others the good news is their third sacrament so to speak.
What the evangelical leaders miss though is that the culture has shifted. But even though evangelicalism is more outward focused than fundamentalism, in its own way it is just as insular. When you see the world through CT eyes, it is hard to really understand what orthodox believers are up against. I think they are starting to see. Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone coming up with good solutions for how to implement the BenOp for those of us who don’t have the option of moving to a planned community.
Here are some random thoughts on a Sunday afternoon, in reaction to this.
I don’t think any church has quite figured out how to evangelize a post-Christian culture. More to the point: I don’t think any church has figured out how to evangelize a culture that is post-truth.
I had a conversation with a Christian friend recently about his own religious journey. He told me that his parents are very religious in their observance, and in the passion of their faith, but that he can’t have a conversation with them about theological matters. At all. It’s not so much that they don’t know much about theology (though they don’t, on his account), but that his folks take any disagreement with them as a personal insult.
To raise a question of theology with is not to ask about theology, in their minds, but to call their my friend’s love for and loyalty to them into question. He has abandoned their religious tradition, but he has not told them so yet. They might have convinced him to stay had they been willing to talk things through with their son. They weren’t. So he’s gone.
His folks are part of a hardcore charismatic church tradition. “For them, experience is everything,” he told me. “They can’t even conceive of religion outside of their experience. This is why when I tell them that I don’t believe in something they believe in, they take it as me rejecting them personally. For them, their experience is self-validating. They don’t ever question it. How can you have a serious discussion with anybody like that?
He’s right — and it’s not just about religion. I find more and more that people can’t discuss things without it becoming personal. You hear people talking about “my truth” — a pernicious phrase. It’s fine insofar as it means “a subjective experience that has, for me, the force of truth.” But when all subjective experience is treated as the truth, that’s a big problem. When truth is nothing more than subjective experience, it’s not truth at all. I have this problem talking in person about politics with friends on both the right and the left (which is why I don’t do it often). It’s not so much that it’s hard for them to separate their personal feelings from a discussion of facts and principles (though it is). It’s that they don’t even seem to try.
And because of that, it’s all to easy to go from “you disagree with me” to “you’re insulting me” and/or “you’re rejecting me.”
It’s all so damn childish. Every parent has had the experience of an adolescent stomping his or her feet, saying, “You hate me! You hate me!” when mom or dad tells them they can’t have what they want. We now have a culture in which that juvenile move has become a core epistemological principle.
Mind you, my friend’s family are very, very conservative charismatic Protestants. They aren’t liberal in any way, shape, or form. But their way of knowing is as subjective as any la-tee-da “what is the Spirit saying to us today?” liberal churchman’s.
We know — or we ought to know — that you cannot argue people into the faith. Well, some can be argued into the faith, but if the faith is only a set of propositions one carries in one’s head, it will be precarious. Similarly, if it is nothing other than experience unmediated by an external authority (a holy book, for example, or sacred tradition), it will be evanescent.
In The Benedict Option, I do not say that nobody is doing the right thing, or the right things. My claim is that most of us — myself included! — are not doing all the things we should be doing, particularly in light of our historical situation. In the book, I highlight some lay Christian communities and individuals that are doing things that I believe are helpful, and from which we can all learn. When you say
Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone coming up with good solutions for how to implement the BenOp for those of us who don’t have the option of moving to a planned community.
… I want to point out that I say in the book that we all have to work on this together, creatively. My book has examples! For example, the ecumenical goings-on around Eighth Day Books and the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas. Or the Tipi Loschi in San Benedetto del Tronto. Or classical Christian schoolers across denominations. Leah Libresco Sargeant’s efforts to build small communities in cities — be sure to pre-order her forthcoming book, Building The Benedict Option!
And so forth. The Benedict Option book is primarily intended to start conversations that lead to action. Who among us can move to a planned community? I can’t. Like I said, nobody is going to come save us. We have to do this for ourselves. I’m stretched way thin, but I’ve been talking to a patron who might be willing to host a website for creative social networking among those interested in the Benedict Option. I envision a site for people to find each other locally, and come together to figure out what they can do, where they are, within their own theological tradition.
Anyway, on this point:
And now one of the most important books on religion is telling us to turn inward and do a better job of discipleship. But that’s what we are doing with the podcasts, publishing houses, bible studies, retreats, Sunday Schools, small groups (lots and lots of small groups), etc… They are thinking, “to drop our outward focus is to lose the thing that makes us what we are.” It’s like telling a Catholic not to pray the rosary or an Eastern Orthodox not to fast so much. Spreading the word, telling others the good news is their third sacrament so to speak.
The idea is that if you are going to be faithful in turning outward, you are going to have to do turn inward in different and better ways. You may be in a good situation, SDB, but I keep hearing from Evangelical pastors and lay leaders that what goes under the rubric of “discipleship” is heavily relational (e.g., group activities), but not catechetical or formative of a deep spirituality. This is what I keep hearing.
What I genuinely struggle to understand is why so many Evangelicals have an “either/or” concept with the Benedict Option. It’s both/and! All Christians — not just Evangelicals — have a duty to spread the Gospel. But spreading the Gospel is not simply a matter of speaking words. It is possible to speak the words, and agree to the words, but not be changed inside — that is to say, converted. Maybe this is a difference between how Catholics and Orthodox see things, and Evangelicals. For us, “conversion” is a lifelong experience, a process that begins with baptism, and never ends. I don’t believe that Evangelicals actually believe that all you have to do is say the sinner’s prayer, and you can do whatever you want after that. Still, I wonder if the emphasis on getting people to the point of praying the sinner’s prayer is such that discipleship — real discipleship — has been too de-emphasized.
I say “I wonder” because I don’t know. I’m inviting you Evangelicals to talk about your experiences. Please don’t be the kind of people who take criticism, or critical (but friendly) questions, as rejection.
I hasten to say that based on studies, Evangelicals are doing a better job at this overall than Catholics are. I can’t honestly say regarding Orthodox one way or the other, because there are so few of us, and my experience has been primarily at heavily convert parishes, which are not normative. My guess is that the American Orthodox experience is probably a lot closer to the Catholic one than the Evangelical one, but that’s only an intuition.
I’d love to know, SDB, what you mean by this:
When you see the world through CT eyes, it is hard to really understand what orthodox believers are up against. I think they are starting to see.
For readers who don’t know, he’s talking about Christianity Today, the flagship publication of Evangelicalism. What does it mean to “see the world through CT eyes”?
It is my impression that most of us older American Christians of the small-o orthodox persuasion are still busy reacting to the world that we grew up in, as opposed to the world as it is today. As such, if we fling wide-open the windows and doors to society, we’re going to be flattened by the gale-force winds. Are being flattened by them. I suspect the core of the crisis we’re all facing today is epistemological more than it is moral or theological.
(Hey, Evangelical and former Evangelical readers, please chime in. If you’re only interested in taking potshots at Evangelicalism, I won’t post your comment. No trolling allowed.)
UPDATE: This comment from a longtime reader (who is a pastor) jolted me:
“I don’t think any church has figured out how to evangelize a culture that is post-truth.”
I remember reading in Walker Percy how he said that all the religious words, the language of faith, had been “worn out” like a coin that had become worthless by being handled so much. His brilliant, original writing, as Flannery O’Connor’s, was an attempt to find a way to present the faith in a way that was not “worn out” by the method they called “indirection.”
So many evangelicals go around using the old words in the old ways, and it’s just nonsense to most people in the world today, certainly to educated people. They make fun of it, but worse, they don’t even begin to understand what we are talking about. We might as well be trying to talk about differential calculus to non-mathematicians.
I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think anyone does now. But our Southern Baptist leadership constantly banging on “we need to do what we’ve always done before, just more of it, more evangelism! more witnessing! more getting folks saved!” is just nuts. They have been saying that for 30 years and for 30 years Baptisms and professions of faith have declined, the seminaries have declined, churches have declined, generations have left.
I think orthodox Christianity of all kinds will be much, much smaller and weaker for a long, long time, at least in the West. This is why the Benedict Option is correct and at least is an attempt to come to terms with that in creative ways. The false optimism and remnant of triumphalism that one sees in the official leadership and publications of the Southern Baptist Convention is just dishonest, and frankly, disgusting. It is actually driving away the more thoughtful, serious people that will be needed to help the church survive in a world hostile to Christianity.