Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Reformation, Rejection and Revolution

In his article The New Evangelical Scandal, Matthew Anderson makes some valid points worth reflecting on. His essay is too lengthy to receive a full review here, but I'll comment of some of the issues that seem to have applied specifically to my experience.

For example, Anderson's criticism of criticism deserves a thoughtful reply from "new evangelicals." He contends that it is not courageous to criticize common elements of the evangelicalism of the Boomer generation just to appear cool within a neo-beatnik context. Certainly his analysis is correct if indeed he is accurately describing the motivates of the "new evangelicals" (NEs). However, he inadequately addresses the possibility that the growing body of NE distaste for the legalisms of the last two hundred years is valid and genuine. Instead he is dismissive of the NE ethos, categorizing it as a form of peer-pressure. While the social dynamics he invokes are possible, such pronouncements smack of an under-engagement with the gripes of the present generation. Such condescending antidisestablishmentarianism can, in and of itself, be a form of "fitting in" among young Republican Baptists too.

However, in raising the issue, he performs a service by reminding us to pay attention to our motives. I, myself, have been in circles wherein the bashing of Thomas Kinkade, Jerry Falwell, Sandi Patti and Tim LaHaye was popular and "cool." While I have plenty of criticism for those trends (embodied by that representative list of people) within evangelicalism, I also must admit to feeling that acceptance-pull from time to time that resulted in criticism-for-effect. The "amen" was more quickly garnered from the immediate peers by making fun of "church as my parents knew it." Such instincts are, admittedly, not courageous, but conforming to a new group. Had I sought to take the "courageous" stand with my faith, I might have at the time admitted to liking a couple of Thomas Kinkade's paintings, believing them reflections on idealism that is part of the Christian eschatological hope. Sure such an admission might have resulted in some eye-rolling among my new peers, but at least I would have been "authentic."

In addition, Anderson soft-sells the degree to which evangelicalism deserves the NEs' criticism for developing an over-individualised Christianity in America. Certainly the NE trend to customize their own Christian spirituality through artistic expression, tattooing and church reinvention may reveal a continuing intuitive individualism, but from whom did they receive this instinct? This is the parent lecturing the teen on the dangers of smoking, all the while with a cigarette in their hand. In truth, Anderson had better take care not to decry the NE perpetuation of individualism too much; for it is precisely this legacy of evangelicalism that is keeping it alive. Those who have found they can no longer stomach evangelicalism's development of individualism as a virtue are converting to pre-evangelical forms of Christianity. Anderson's reference to the mass exodus to Canterbury, Rome and Constantinople is explained by this.

What articles such as Anderson's are helpful for is in developing discussion regarding the difference between rejection and reformation. Just because one is passionate about reforming their tradition within Christianity, it does not follow that they will inevitably reject that tradition. Anglo and Roman Catholics alike are quick to remind me that Martin Luther's intent in 1517 was not to break with Roman church, but to reform it. However, since a break did in fact occur, it is assumed that the instinct to reform must inevitably result in a break. I disagree.

I disagree that reformation must lead to rejection because I believe that one of the worst legacies of evangelicalism can successfully be discarded: revolution. The great tumor of evangelicalism that has had the most debilitating effect on the church is the spirit of revolution. Anderson seeks to invalidate the redefined "patriotism" of NE libertarians, but fails to acknowledge that the greatest of the evangelical disasters in the last two centuries to the Church is how evangelicalism imbibed the revolutionary spirit for governing itself. The instinct to break away from England may have served the new colonies well in the late 18th century and early 19th century, but the "break away" mentality has left the Church in a decrepit hodgepodge of fractured elements. The great triumph of evangelicalism is the break up of the Body of Christ. No wonder many NE churches have a Bonhoeffer-like unease with displaying the American flag in the front. This is not to suggest a fundamental flaw in America. It is to suggest that church and state (at least in terms of governing philosophies) should have remained separate all along. The history of evangelicalism is one devoid of submission, weakening and rendering near empty any notion evangelical ecclesiology.

Many of Anderson's critiques of NE trends have validity, but we all must remember the degree to which "new evangelicals" inherited their instincts from "old evangelicals." Anderson doubts that many NEs have read from great evangelical heroes of the past. Why would they do so if they see those "heroes" as having produced what they reject? For many of my friends though, they took Anderson's critiques to heart and left evangelicalism altogether. Instead of reading evangelicalism's heroes, they developed heroes that pre-date evangelicalism, that pre-date America, and in many cases pre-date the Reformation. I cannot join them because I do not believe reformation must lead to rejection. However, I empathize with Anderson's distaste for NE revolution too.

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