Random Evangelical Thoughts on the Coronavirus

The President of a large Christian nationalist university wondered on national television if the Coronavirus was a Chinese and North Korean conspiracy, premeditated to make President Trump look bad. He echoed his political hero, who himself repeatedly pointed the finger at China for spreading the virus, referring to it as the “Chinese Virus”. By that logic, history books should be obliged to teach that the smallpox epidemic that decimated American Indian tribes be called the “White Man’s Pestilence”.

At that same large Christian nationalist university, its President reportedly remarked that students aren’t treated like family but rather “like customers”.[1] Suggesting that Coronavirus was a hoax perpetrated to undermine President Trump, he kept in-person classes open, just as students were returning from Spring break. The decision contradicted the advice of health experts on safeguarding students and staff. But the university was a business, and the students were not family – just customers. Your family is precious and you protect them, but you can always get new customers.

A well-known televangelist/telemarketer reportedly went on-air to say his silver concoction could kill pathogens like SARS, HIV, and some strains of coronavirus. The miracle elixirs disappeared from his television show after several states filed lawsuits alleging false advertising. Hawking a fake cure was only a sideline, and he fell back on his survivalist food buckets. It’s a win-win deal. He finally got the great disaster to move his Armageddon rations, and his prayer partner-customers could sit back and gloat, “the world is dying and we’re having a breakfast for kings!”[2] It pays to stick with what you know.

Despite the country teetering towards financial meltdown, the White House refused to postpone its rule change imposing strict work requirements onto SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. The White House projected that 700,000 would be kicked off the food stamp program even before thousands lost their jobs when Coronavirus measures took effect. Magnanimous display of empathy when unemployment could rise to 20%.

Wheat stockpiles are at an all-time high. The Government is sitting on a 1.39 billion-pound stockpile of cheese. Producers are sitting on 2.5 billion pounds of frozen meats. We’re running out of warehouse space to store it all. How is it then, that anybody in this country can go to bed hungry?

The average Fox News viewer is 67 years old. The average evangelical church-goer is 50. These are not normal times for the 55-to-dead demographic. It would make sense that pastors would be concerned that encouraging old folks to attend church invites them to get the virus and die. Not all of them get it. A pastor in Louisiana is not unusual in claiming the blood of Jesus would protect his church. He got the great idea of passing out “anointed handkerchiefs”. People could sneeze and cough their lungs out with no risk to the congregation.

In the midst of the pandemic, Florida tele-preacher and Presidential horse-whisperer Paula White made a pitch for $91 donations from her contributors. As she explained, she was in charge of a hospital – a spiritual one.  Meanwhile, sick people in Florida were headed into real hospitals. Many were losing their sources of income. Here’s a thought – why not dip into your millions and pay each of your congregants $91 instead. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?” James 2:15-16 (NET Bible).

Here’s another thought: If prosperity gospel is based on faith, it should work both ways. Tele-preachers call upon their audience to give in faith. The prosperity gospel should work both ways. The preacher should take a real step out in faith to accept only $1 lottery tickets. If he has the faith of a mustard seed, God’s blessings should flow over each prayed-over and mailed in ticket; same as cash! Such an anointing could rake in millions!

[1] Zachary Petrizzo, “Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.: ‘We Treat Students Like Customers’”, Mediate, February 12, 2020.

https://www.mediaite.com/tv/liberty-university-president-jerry-falwell-jr-we-treat-students-like-customers/ (accessed March 21, 2020)

[2] Kylie Mohr, “Apocalypse Chow: We Tried Televangelist Jim Bakker’s ‘Survival Food’”, National Public Radio, December 5, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/03/456677535/apocalypse-chow-we-tried-televangelist-jim-bakkers-survival-food (accessed February 2, 2019).

And they’ll know we are Christians by our stuff, by our stuff…

Rarely a day goes by when we buy nothing – and even more rare is the day when we intentionally refrain from making a purchase. We even go shopping as a pastime; entering the mall with no intent to buy, but leaving with bags of unplanned purchases. Lacking any telos; an unending quest for new ways to consume without having any ultimate consummation. On one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive fulfillment. On the other, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same unfulfillable promise. We no longer consume to live; we live to consume. It compensates for a central emptiness in which serial acquisition makes itself its own goal. We have become comfortable with the circular equation that defines our never-satisfied acquisitiveness; an addiction common among Americans. In fact, the chronic disease of overconsumption has a name – affluenza.

         Where do we go from here? Like 12-steppers, we face a hard choice: whether we are Christians or consumers. We evangelicals would do well to take a moral inventory of ourselves, ask whether our life revolves around our things, and admit we are powerless before impulse and excess without Christ restoring us to sanity. A reasoned approach, as any credit counselor will advise, is to live like credit cards don’t exist, and impose a budget with planned expenses that curbs indiscriminate buying and the temptation to “buy now and pay later”. Even saving and waiting does not transform our connectedness to things. We want them all the same; having to wait until we can afford them only increases the craving. The biggest hurdle is shifting our self-stimulation by cheap, shiny trinkets that quickly lose our esteem. The psychological dependence upon things is something that we as consumers will never understand unless we confess their mediating role in our lives, and quit being managed by things which moths and vermin destroy, and thieves break in and steal.

         Perhaps the best antidote to consumer choice is anti-choice – to “unshop and unspend”. Christmas is every day in America, and very few of us really need anything. At the forefront of a growing anti-consumerism movement are faux ministers like the “Reverend” Billy Talen and his Stop Shopping Choir, and secular advocacy groups which sponsor an annual protest against Black Friday.[i] On Buy Nothing Day for example, community leaders in Rhode Island hold a Winter Coat Exchange.[ii] “How, in the richest country in the world, do people not have winter coats?”, one organizer asked.

         “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none,” John the Baptizer preached.[iii] Evangelical Christians are among the most generous givers, both in terms of money and time. Food pantries, soup kitchens, farmers’ markets, food trucks, clothes drives, and rummage sales are just few of the concrete ways they share Christ’s love. Giving from one’s surplus is what God expects of those who have more. But Jesus takes it further. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” was not just a suggestion but a command. He has something to say about owning things not for their value in terms of utility, but in what they express. And about amassing a disproportionate surplus of what is needed. Americans buy because we can, and have for having’s sake. Jesus intimates that what we consider our assets are actually liabilities. We protect our toys with alarm systems and insurance premiums. And we worry over all of it. We are hoarders, with basements and garages chock full of no longer wanted bicycles and ski equipment. Not to mention the burgeoning self-storage industry, which is like long term parking for our overflow stuff. It rarely occurs to us that maybe the stockpiled treasure we are continually amassing owns us instead.

         “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” wrote St. Paul to Timothy.[iv] Former President Jimmy Carter was asked if there is anything he wanted but didn’t have. “I can’t think of anything,” he replied.[v] Carter eschewed many of the financial perks associated with former Presidents, and in comparison, has chosen a modest lifestyle formed by his faith. Spiritual stewardship of possessions is not simply making a statement against consumerism, or even being judicious in personal spending habits. These are still decisions made by the self, and for oneself. Like dieting, exercise, or other forms of self-discipline, minimization in the form of ascetic restraint can be made into a god as well. Spiritual stewardship requires us to ask the question, how can my decisions on acquiring and retaining goods benefit not myself, but honor God and further his Kingdom?

         For Christians like Ann Patchett, it is not simply an anti-lifestyle. She described the epiphany of “living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more.”[vi] As a Lenten practice, instead of asking herself what she could buy, she began asking what could be given away to benefit others. Patchett is dead-on in her assessment. It’s not so much a matter of downsizing the house, as it is decluttering your heart; making room for the work that God can do when you focus on others’ needs instead of your own wants.

Like the woman at the well I was seeking

For things that could not satisfy;

And then I heard my Savior speaking:

“Draw from my well that never shall run dry”. [vii]

[i] Cif Green, “The Ultimate Christmas Gift? Buy Nothing”, The Guardian, November 26, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/cif-green/2009/nov/26/buy-nothing-day (accessed June 2, 2017).

[ii] Michelle R. Smith, 50,000 Free Coats: Holiday Ritual Bucks Consumerism”, Washington Times, November 24, 2016. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/nov/24/50000-free-coats-holiday-ritual-bucks-consumerism/ (accessed May 12, 2017).

[iii] Luke 3:11 (NET Bible).

[iv] 1 Timothy 6:6 (KJV).

[v] Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan,  “The Un-Celebrity President”, Washington Post, August 17, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/08/17/feature/the-un-celebrity-president-jimmy-carter-shuns-riches-lives-modestly-in-his-georgia-hometown/?utm_term=.cca4150be141 (accessed August 29, 2018).

[vi] Ann Patchett, “My Year of No Shopping”, New York Times, December 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/sunday/shopping-consumerism.html (accessed June 5, 2018).

[vii] Richard Blanchard, Fill My Cup, © Copyright 1959 Word Music, LLC.

The Real War on Christmas

         “I’ve done this every year for the past six years,” one Black Friday shopper told the Boston Globe. “I love the anticipation of the doors opening and me going in and getting what I want.” And Christmas creep guarantees they begin earlier and earlier every year. We spend more money at Christmas than the gross domestic product of over 180 different nations. Americans don’t celebrate Christmas; they sacrifice to it as god.

         In itself, consuming is not bad; it is the food on our tables, the clothes we wear. And one cannot argue against the manifold material benefits that the free market system has provided America. Our high-output engine of productivity has delivered a land of plenty, with buying power never before imagined. We are no longer relegated to buying what is needed; we buy whatever fulfills our desires. Even the majority who don’t consider themselves either rich or materialistic are vested in the American zeitgeist of consumption. “The consumer is a totem pole around which a multitude of actions and ideologies now dance,” write two noted sociologists. “At its heart, consumerism is an ideology on a par with religion and politics – even overtaking them on some fronts. It looks at consumption as the source of meaning, identity and pleasure.”[i]

        “‘The main ritual in our society right now is shopping,’ explains Billy Talen. ‘It’s the national religion. It’s the thing we all do that we don’t even question anymore.’”[ii] And if there were any cultural metaphor for sacramentalizing the person-object relationship, it would be the Christmas buying season. No one splurges over Christmas better than us. When Jesus ascended on high, he “gave gifts to men”.[iii] Never mind those; gifts are the reason for the season. And we want the kind Amazon brings.

         Santa Claus is “the embodiment of our culture’s greatest religious myth: the myth of success and affluence, right engagement with the economy, and the acquisition and consumption of images and objects… In short, Santa is not secular. He is sacred.”[iv] Christ’s more agreeable successor is the ultimate mediator between life and the material world.  Santa is holy because he is beyond sin, sees everything we do and loves everybody anyway. He has no Cross, no doctrine, no church; people can believe whatever they want – the only stipulation being that they have “been good”. No matter, his annual largesse comes regardless of your sins. Contrary to popular belief, Santa doesn’t manufacture items – he manufactures desires. And he fulfills them through fleets of container ships from China weighted down with the fripperies that define the good life. So he checks his list twice to bless those offering their credit cards in his many shrines. Regardless whether it be online or the Mega-mall, the annual consumer binge is the holly-jolly obeisance to a tinseled calf.

If our shopping habits seem to take on the appearance of sacred ritual, it is because we have failed to see them for the idolatry they are. Spending is so intrinsic to our life, we rarely pause first to ask, do we really need more stuff? While God has declared everything he made to be very good, Satan’s great masquerade easily deceives man into the illusion of our desires garbed as the good. Eastern Orthodox spiritual elders reflected on this, in the notion of prelest (Прелесть). Roughly translated from Church Slavonic, it represents the sort of susceptibilities to be led astray by false beauty. The closest approximation in English might be when Eve responded to God that she had been beguiled by the serpent – while perceiving the fruit to be good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired.[v] Prelest is the corruption of human nature through the acceptance of mirages; our human desires supply the self, the individual identity to what is otherwise an empty center. That is to say, the object of our devotion has no life other than what we supply it. We bow down to a sacred nothingness of lies and fantasies enticingly disguised as truth and reality. Idols are the ultimate objectifiers of prelest. Their sole reason for being is to mediate the illusory; to transfix our gaze is their raison d’être. Idols are contemplated first within the inner eye and reflect our ultimate desires; Timothy Keller calls these the deep idols.[vi]  The intrinsic power or value of the created or superficial idol, be it money, sex, a house, car, boat, or whatever, rises and falls depending on whether its appearance continues to satisfy our heart’s subliminal gaze.

The face we fashion onto the lifeless image is the semblance of that god projecting outwards from our hearts, through which we experience the divine, and with which we seek spiritual completeness. The divinity infused into an idol is authentically sacred, because into it, we have deposited our deepest desires and our most dreaded fears. “The idol therefore delivers us the divine, wherefore it neither deceives nor disappoints. It delivers the divine to us to the point of enslaving it to us, just as much as it enslaves us to it.”[vii] What makes their removal so difficult is that, while we delude ourselves into worshipping the divine, idols speak in the voice of their maker. There are not two minds – only one and the same; the disembodied echo of oneself. The idol speaks no words of its own, performs no gestures on its own, nor grants or denies any desire of its own choosing.

         It’s an expression of what the late Jesuit priest, James Kavanaugh, prophetically called the commodity form of life, “in which the producing, purchasing, and consuming of objects provides the ultimate horizon of meaning for persons.”[viii] And yet, the Empire of Things is not redemptive, but enslaving. All those good times come with a price, and many awake to a new year staring down the real costs. January is the busiest month for the weight loss $6.3 billion industry. By then, the shopping adverts have been replaced by a barrage of weight-shame commercials, where celebrity endorsers try to snag contrite revelers before the good intentions behind their New Year’s resolutions wear off. After the annual guilt trip subsides, some 94% backslide into recidivism. Conventional weight-loss programs count on this yearly cycle of guilt for repeat customers. That’s the bitter irony of the consumer god – once you satisfy his wants, he shames you for it.

         “We are shaped by what we desire, and what we desire is shaped by the material culture that surrounds us,” writes  D. B. Hart.[ix] Christmas is not being secularized by atheists as Fox News would have us believe. It is being resacralized with the help of comfortable Christians with an acquisitive worldview. Evangelicals are just as apt as anyone to seek happiness through frenzied holiday shopping and overspending. We pray that God gives us our daily bread. Consumption, which traditionally addressed the personal need for food, shelter and clothing, is no longer emblematic of sustenance, but self-empowerment.  We no longer need to buy just for living; we buy for desire, where more often our purchases reflect a “need” where none previously existed. Christ has promised to give us everything we need for life and godliness. But maybe he seems a bit slower on delivering the goodies than Amazon does.

         Like the calf-worshipping Israelites in the wilderness, consumerism is the temptation to see God’s provision as not good enough. Our economy has brought abundance, but it is never a big enough pile of abundance. The lifeblood of capitalism is the creation of artificial necessities to satisfy our presumption of entitlement to them. Marketing determines our most intimate psychological needs and convinces us that our emotional identity lies in purchasing just the right things to satisfy them. Products make up who we are. Their uniqueness expresses our individuality and defines why we are different from the rest of the world. The wherewithal to choose and acquire them allows us control over the good life. We pour over fashion and home magazines, lovingly polish our golf clubs, even give names to our cars. We infuse our possessions with deep emotional attachment. But when something newer and better comes along, they are unceremoniously dumped in a landfill or peddled on Craigslist. Wash, rinse, repeat: buy, use, dump. After Christmas, Santa goes off to begin manufacturing next year’s desires, because the allure is already wearing off the ones he’s just delivered.

[i] Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang, The Unmanageable Consumer, Los Angeles: SAGE Publ., 2006, pp. 8-9.

[ii] Jana Kasperkevic, “The Church of Stop Shopping Doesn’t Pull Punches On Its Return To New York”, The Guardian, November 27, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/27/reverend-billy-church-of-stop-shopping-black-friday  (accessed January 14, 2016).

[iii] Ephesians 4:8 (NET Bible).

[iv] Dell de Chant,  The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002,  p. 194.

[v] Genesis 3:6, 3:16 (KJV). 

[vi] Keller, Timothy.  Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. (New York: Penguin, 2009).  p.  ___.

[vii] Marion, Jean-Luc. The Idol and Distance.  (Bronx: Fordham Univ. Press, 2001).  p.  6.

[viii] John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, April 2014, p. ___.

[ix] David Bentley Hart, “Mammon Ascendant: Why Global Capitalism Is Inimical To Christianity”, First Things, June 2016. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/06/mammon-ascendant (accessed July 14, 2017).

Coronavirus and Corporate Greed

Whatever cannot go on forever must end, including profit-taking. The 2017 corporate tax cuts dropped a cash windfall into the hands of American companies. It was ostensibly for repatriating cash to stimulate investment in long term growth.  Instead, many companies opted to plug billions into share buybacks and executive pay packages instead of re-investment. The concern, writes Emily Stewart, is that companies “are rewarding stockholders instead of investing in their workers, research and development, new facilities, or other more productive arenas.”[i] Wall Street likes it because it inflates the price of shares. It worked in the historic profit-taking stretch which saw little volatility with optimistic investors, banks and consumers loading up on risk. It all looked so rosy. Boeing is a case study on how this can all go south in a hurry. A triple whammy of the 737 fiasco, trade war, and now the ripple effects of Seattle as virus epicenter. Who could have expected the company to husband its cash for a rainy day no one ever expected to come? We finance our First World lifestyle largely through debt. If one thing, Coronavirus is exposing how vulnerable our borrowed decadence is…

[i] Emily Stewart, “Stock Buybacks, Explained”, Vox, August 5, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/2/17639762/stock-buybacks-tax-cuts-trump-republicans  (accessed March 12, 2019).

The “I” in Evangelicalism, Part 3.

Our churches,” writes Craig Gay, “seem to have forgotten the centrality of embodied human existence within the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[i]This hyper-spiritualized bent dovetails with a premillennialist apocalypticism, with Scofield’s footnote to 1 Timothy 4 reading, “The predicted future of the visible Church is apostasy”.[ii] We live in the final “dispensation,” where the institutional church has become Laodicean – prosperous, full of happy smiles, and increasingly apostate.[iii] The end-times church “represents the final form of the professing church, which is rejected by the Lord and vomited out of His mouth.”[iv] Many Dispies believe this Tribulation is preceded by the Rapture, where true believers will meet the heavenly Bridegroom mid-air in the clouds. They possess this secret Bible code, the gnosis, deciphered by John Nelson Darby. Salvation means not only escaping Hell in the next life, but also “this world as a wrecked vessel”, as Moody called it, including the institutionalized “Whore church”.[v] This otherworldly emphasis creates confusion in how the mystical body of Christ now dwelling on earth relates to the nature of the local church gathered in Jesus’ name, making the visible church an afterthought to most evangelicals.

[i] Craig M. Gay, Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018, p. 134.

[ii] Marcus P Johnson, “The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist”, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion, edited by Myk Habets, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publ., 2017, p. 1276.

[iii] Revelation 3:14-22

[iv] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010, p. 212.

[v] Dwight Lyman Moody, The New Sermons of Dwight Lyman Moody, New York: Goodspeed, 1880, p. 535.

The “I” in Evangelicalism, Part 2.

A 2019 Lifeway Research study found that “a majority of Protestant churchgoers believe they can walk with God without other believers”.[i] The church is where Christians put into practice the habits to live Christianly, and encourage each other in godliness and purity. Worship is incarnational – a faith with skin on – where we confess our sins and pray for each other so that we may be healed. Worship is connection, with God and each other. “In reality, we need each other,” the late Jean Vanier wrote. “We need to touch our wounds and keep the vision. I am wounded. I need help from my community. I need help from Jesus, because I cannot do it on my own.”[ii]

The regenerated life is a work of grace within which we bear the tension of the already, but not yet. And it takes time for newborns to mature out of spiritual diapers – and caregivers to change them along the way. Jesus did not say go and make Christians, but disciples who were to be baptized and taught.[iii] A crusade does a great job answering what I need to be saved from; who I am being saved to – not so much. The mission of the church is not simply to troll for transactions, but to produce fruit that abides. Individual decisionism is only half a truth – half a Gospel – when it emphasizes a momentary Just as I am to the exclusion of Just as we are becoming, with a new identity lived out in community. Evangelists may plant the seed, but Word and Table are where God meets those who have died to grow and thrive in the nurturing soil of the body of Christ. What we call “sanctification”, the Orthodox refer to as Mystagogy, which Fr. Stephen Freeman identifies as “the primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit.”[iv]

[i] Leah MarieAnn Klett, “Study: Most Churchgoers Say They Can Walk With God Alone”, Christian Post, August 7, 2019. https://www.christianpost.com/news/study-most-churchgoers-say-they-can-walk-with-god-alone.html  (accessed August 8, 2019).

[ii] Jean Vanier, We Need Each Other, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018,.

[iii] Matthew 28:19-20

[iv] Stephen Freeman, “The Struggle Against The Normal Life”, July 18, 2019, Glory to God for All Things. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2019/07/18/the-struggle-against-the-normal-life/ (accessed July 19, 2019).

The “I” in Evangelicalism, Part 1.

Evangelicalism is religion of the first person singular. I remember years ago being trained to witness using The Four Spiritual Laws. It came with the adviso that the tract must be read verbatim. Like an incantation, any deviation might render the prospect’s salvation ineffectual. I have decided to follow Jesus, so goes a chorus popularized by Billy Graham. Aptly, his eponymous Association’s magazine is entitled Decision. “Accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior” is evangelical shorthand for either responding to, or deciding on (depending on which side of the Calvinist/Arminian fence one swings) God in faith. This experience often occurs in an extra-ecclesial setting: one can experience the epiphany of deliverance alone in a hotel room with a Gideon’s Bible, or at home, kneeling as a TV preacher makes his pitch. The problem with an emphasis on this immediate experience of grace lies in its attempt to meet the minimum requirements to be a Christian. Here is a deal too good to turn down, “eternal security at nothing down, no future payments, just simple verbal assent. The deal specified nothing about life change.”[i]

To many an evangelical mind, the purpose of evangelicalism is to convert people to evangelicalism. That is, they mean to say the identity of the Church is determined by its mission. Evangelists use their abilities to get other people to respond to evangelistically-correct questions, like “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Many thousands came to a saving faith through Billy Graham’s ministries, including those like Jerry Falwell, Charles Colson, Steve McQueen, or Louis Zamperini, who heard the Gospel through someone else who had. Graham’s legacy in making converts is unassailable, but his contribution was lessened by the very nature of his parachurch organization, essentially a private corporation functioning separately from the institutional church. Recidivism statistics are hard to come by, but one recent study concluded that only a slight percentage of those who opened the doors of their heart to Jesus ever step through the open doors of a congregation.[ii]

 “Many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” an SBC official commented.[iii]Given that salvation is a personal matter of the heart, the inward nature of this soteriology diverts one away from the beloved community and into the private self and its attendant experience for reassurance. The transactional nature of revivalism allows for a return to the conversion event for another installment. When someone backslides, there are magic words at the altar to re-ask Jesus into one’s heart again, and hope that this time it will take. For example, Donald Trump, President and baby Christian, has “been saved so many times,” according to Jim Bakker.[iv] Conceivably, this rinse and repeat cycle can take place outside of a nurturing church family. The visible church “ultimately becomes soteriologically irrelevant”.[v]

[i] Ron Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?,  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005,  p. 56.

[ii] Stoyan Zaimov, “Being Born Again, Giving Heart to Jesus Doesn’t Greatly Increase Church Attendance: Research”, Christian Post, March 22, 2018. https://www.christianpost.com/news/being-born-again-giving-heart-to-jesus-doesnt-greatly-increase-church-attendance-research-221913/ (accessed March 27, 2018).

[iii] Ted Olsen, “Southern Baptists Debate the Sinner’s Prayer,” Christianity Today, June 20, 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/baptists-sinners-prayer.html  (accessed December 7, 2012).

[iv] Kyle Mantyla, “Jim Bakker Says Trump Has Been Spiritually ‘Saved So Many Times’ Since Becoming President”, Right Wing Watch, February 22, 2019. http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/jim-bakker-says-trump-has-been-spiritually-saved-so-many-times-since-becoming-president/ (accessed February 26, 2019).

[v] Stanley Grenz, Renewing The Center: Evangelical Theology In A Post-Theological Era, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006, p. 307.

Evangelicalism: ethos, movement, or both?

At its core, evangelicalism has always been a system of spiritual/theological beliefs. The Bebbington Quadrilateral has been considered the go-to guide to the evangelical ethos. The quartet can be abstracted as: conversionism – the need for sinful man to experience spiritual rebirth; biblicism – to have a high (e.g., inerrant) view of Biblical authority, and to know and follow Scripture; crucicentrism – the centrality of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for sin; and activism – to proclaim salvation and produce its fruits by compassion, mercy and justice.[i] The précis was devised some decades ago by a theologian living in Britain, and grows ever-more remote as American evangelicals continually find themselves redefined. Although Bebbington’s is often called a typology, it is less a taxonomy of evangelicalism than a profile of the lowest doctrinal common-denominators that all evangelicals would be expected to share. The Bebbington baseline reflects a spiritual/theological ethos, but evangelicalism is better expressed in practice than on paper. The definition of evangelical encompasses much more than the gown and mortarboard set give on. To be an evangelical is a way of life connected to, and sometimes confusedly at odds with its faith precepts.

There is a doctrinal base, but also a lived experience loaded with subcultural periphenalia, perhaps best distilled by Kristin Du Mez, who coined the term “Hobby Lobby Evangelicalism”.[ii] She describes  the retailer sells more than just decorative baubles; it aligns them to the hopes, longings, and imaginings of the American Christian consumer, implanting subliminal seeds of homespun sentimentality and churchy wholesomeness. As Du Mez puts it, marketing “products offering the illusion of the country, all the charm with none of the manure.” Evangelicals express themselves not just through what they buy, but in how they converse. A random shopper at Hobby Lobby may likely encounter the tribal idiom, evangelicalese. Evangelical-speak is a religious vernacular infused with biblical allusion, replete with its own esoteric vocabulary.

Evangelicalism is at the same a theological statement and a cultural project. Protestant groups were drawn into its network as a tactical alliance for biblically-based, culturally-relevant evangelistic and social outreach. The blessing and bane of “common ground criss-crossed by many fences” meant throwing a bit of one’s religious identity into a neutral territory.[iii] Despite mis-givings, many traditions had to become tolerant enough to accommodate some measure of cross-denominational inconsistency. For example, Presbyterian ministers had to suffer “asking Jesus to come into your heart”, along with “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” strummed in youth group singalongs. At non-denominational Christian schools, summer camps and youth rallies, Calvinists had a Hobson’s choice to study, play and worship alongside revivalists with their house-on-fire brand of transactional evangelism. And in a Billy Graham Crusade, Southern churches had to tolerate interracial seating.[iv] As a movement, evangelicalism is more than just the aggregate of its constituents. One doesn’t speak of pan-evangelicalism; by nature it is a receptive ecumenism based on a bare-bones theology, formed among those sharing a family resemblance because the gene pool is intermingled with second cousins and shirt-tail relatives. Defining evangelicalism based solely on theology is next to impossible, because most evangelicals can’t define their own theology. It’s like a religious Golden Corral, as Pat Robertson is quoted:

As far as the majesty of worship, I'm an Episcopalian; as far as a belief
in the sovereignty of God, I'm Presbyterian; in terms of holiness, I'm a
Methodist . . . in terms of the priesthood of believers and baptism, I'm a
Baptist; in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I'm a Pentecostal.[v]

[i] Keith C. Sewell, The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publ., 2016, P. 5.

[ii] Kristin Du Mez, “Hobby Lobby Evangelicalism”, Patheos, September 6, 2018. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/09/hobby-lobby-evangelicalism/ (accessed January 10, 2019).

[iii] Carl F. H. Henry, “Somehow, Let’s Get Together”, Christianity Today, June 9, 1957, P. 24.

[iv] Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham And The Rise Of The Republican South, Philadelphia: Univ. Of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, P. 31.

[v] David Edwin Harrell, Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, And Political Portrait, New York: Harper & Row, 1987, P. 102.

Who is evangelicalism?

Among the many attempts to describe the evangelical Christian life, my favorite was coined by theologian Scot McKnight as being a “fellowship of differents”.[i] Evangelicalism is not a church; there is no such thing as “The Evangelicalism”. It is less a singular religious movement than an hodge-podge of dissimilar church traditions; a nucleus of religious beliefs supporting a mass of theological contradictions. It’s like saying a square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares. One blogger hit close to the mark when she described evangelicalism as an imagined religious community. “There are, in fact, many evangelicalisms,” Kristin Du Mez noted, “and each is imagined with a different center and different boundaries.”[ii] In many respects, evangelicalism is a shape-shifting blob with both explicit and implicit imperatives, continually moving in cultural flux, and having no one to speak with absolute authority for all. If anyone did, it was that apotheosis of evangelicalism, Billy Graham. “Billy Graham,” wrote one observer in 1957, “is something more than the name of a man. It is the label of a phenomenon.”[iii]

Graham’s revivalism produced alliances between diverse congregations, denominations and schools that had never been brought together, even though underlying differences were largely sponged over without being absorbed. While it has been compared to a big tent, today’s evangelicalism is more like a big business park with lots of busy office cubicles occupied by faith franchises, loads of middle men selling religious goods and services, and more than a few suites leased to freewheeling entrepreneurs aiming to enrich themselves. There is no facility manager on-site to organize the whole thing. And it sometimes feels like there is an absentee landlord.

American evangelicalism has been generous enough to those who hold its common set of core beliefs to allow for a wide range of views on disputable matters, and I draw from a number of evangelical traditions. None of us have all the correct answers. Because evangelicalism has no “officials,” each of us may speak legitimately as its voice, while at the same time it may not entirely be what others deem it to mean. Regardless of the inherent inexactitude of our common adjective and identity – or perhaps more accurately because of it – evangelical Christians all share a certain responsibility to contest each other’s actions or beliefs that diverge from the gospel. For example, when the late R.C. Sproul, Sr. was asked whether Arminians – his evangelical brethren – could be considered Christians, he grudgingly answered, “Yes, barely”.[iv] Evangelicals are scrapping, sparring, and loving siblings. Sometimes unity, other times cafeteria food fights. But like the Bereans, we are taught to receive the sacred text with all readiness of mind, and search the scriptures daily, whether those things are so.[v]

[i] Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

[ii] Kristin Du Mez, “Evangelicalism is an Imagined Religious Community”, The Anxious Bench, August 9, 2018. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/08/evangelicalism-is-an-imagined-religious-community/ (accessed August 24, 2018).

[iii] Gustave Weigel, S.J., “What to Think of Billy Graham”, America: A Catholic Review of the Week, (1957), Volume 97:161

[iv] R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002, p. 25.

[v] Acts 17:11

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 6

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This song, so familiar to generations of Sunday school children, distills the true heart of evangelical Christianity. The truths expressed – a personal relationship with God and confidence in God’s word are so central to evangelicalism, that all of us kids sang it in the church basement, even as the pastor of our Presbyterian church was preaching upstairs on double predestination. I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves even me is another familiar refrain that captures the evangelical ethos – that wonderful assurance of a loving Savior. I could go on, but limit myself to a cherished hymn sung as our own kids were baptized:

Children of the heavenly Father safely in his bosom gather; 
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e'er was given.[i]

An indelible strain of pietism – in its best sense – resides in the evangelical DNA; this sparrow-like trust, being cupped in the loving hands of Christ. The synoptic Gospels are univocal in recording the words of Jesus that one must enter the Kingdom of God as a little child, as if to emphasize its importance. Evangelicalism is not just about knowing God, it is knowing God as one’s closest friend and constant companion – and passing that love outwards. This is the beauty of the evangelicalism that surrounded me as I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. But if infant is to infancy, is adult as to adultery? In many respects, as evangelicalism has matured over the decades, it has become so. As the movement has corporatized itself, a child-like faith has often come to be seen merely as childish. We are no longer the Children of God; rather we act like grown-up adolescents.

There is much to be admired within evangelicalism; much vibrant faith carried forward from its Reformation roots. There is much dross and lost direction. In that sense, this blog is a jeremiad; a lament which echoes Francis Schaeffer from his earlier years. “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if significant numbers of those under the name of evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical,” he asked.[ii] His voice was one of many who saw that the term had become so nebulous, that many who profess to be evangelical contradict not only themselves, but the faith itself.

[i] Carolina Sandell, “Tryggare kan ingen vara” (“Children of the Heavenly Father”), trans. Ernst W Olson, Covenant Hymnal , Chicago: Covenant Publications, 1996,  #87.

[ii] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian View Of The Bible As Truth, Wheaton: Crossway, 1994,  p. 147.