Patrol Magazine has offered the latest salvo in the ongoing conversation about evangelicalism and its future. I am a little hesitant to characterize the website for those not familiar with it, as they have been a bit sensitive to some of my descriptions in the past. As best I can tell, they are a haven for post-evangelicals who are interested in asking questions that no other Christian website asks.*
There’s a lot to agree with in Patrol’s editorial. For instance, I think we can all agree that ‘evangelicalism’ is a movement that has always been hard to pin down. Conversations at this blog have made this obvious enough. And like Patrol, I have made my own arguments that evangelicals have inherited an unbaptized modernism (though I am skeptical that post-evangelicalism escapes it), and I think we can all agree that thinking too much about evangelicalism’s core is problematic.
But there are trouble spots in the essay, too. Consider Patrol’s dismissiveness of any sort of unifying core to evangelicalism. That might be true enough, except they seem to affirm Bebbington’s definition in the first paragraph. If that doesn’t point to a “unified, coherent tradition to which Protestants can return,” I don’t know what would.
More importantly, Patrol seems to be suggesting in this article (though I hope I am wrong about this) that we would do best to move forward without a doctrinal core at all. They write, “The fight to define evangelicalism in its latter days also operates on the mistaken premise that an imagined theological purity or conformance to a “lost” orthodoxy, rather than an emphasis on ethics, spiritual discipline and mystery, will revive the power of the Christian church. ” That they see fit to put an “or” where an “and” belongs suggests that they would like the one without the other. But why should evangelicals —or whomever—be forced to choose?
There are other indications of this, though, as well:
Adrift in the cultural sea, many turned to traditions and theological systems of the past, only to find those similarly unequipped to address the questions of our time. The only choice has been to begin the messy and at times overwhelming process of drafting something new.”
Surely many of the intelligent professors, students, writers and bloggers rushing to its defense have also felt the naggings of cognitive dissonance and the inkling that the world might make more sense if they abandoned some of their cultural presuppositions. But haggling over the details of theology provides a psuedo-intellectual haven from real-world questions, where evangelicals can exercise their minds without coming to any unsettling conclusions.
Why details of theology? Why not simply say that haggling over theology is “pseudo-intellectual?” All theology is details, as any student of church history knows. And while some details are more important than others—Athanasius died for the detail of an omicron, because he knew that our immortal souls were at stake—it’s not clear that one can think theologically without thinking about details. At least not for very long.
Oddly, Patrol seems to be resurrecting perhaps the most problematic aspect of evangelicalism proper—its inability to stand within and appreciate tradition. Patrol’s insistence that the “traditions and theological systems of the past” are ill-equipped to answer today’s challenges is, well, precisely wrong. It is, in fact, our ignorance of those traditions and theological systems that has created the evangelicalism that Patrol has so much disdain for. If Patrol thinks that younger evangelicals will opt for a system that we have created ex nihilo over and against Rome, Canterbury, or Eastern Orthodoxy, they are just as naive as those whom they accuse of attempting to revive a dead horse. We may as well leave for Rome now. If anything, Patrol’s emphasis on novelty simply lays the groundwork for their prediction that evangelicalism faces “near certain extinction” to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Additionally, just as the “post-modernism” that Patrol seems to want to embrace never escapes the confines of modernism (a fact that most younger evangelicals miss), Patrol’s post-evangelicalism doesn’t escape the confines of evangelicalism. Rejecting evangelicalism’s shibboleths is only courageous if you care about and want the affirmation of those you are critiquing. Outside evangelicalism’s walls, critiques of evangelicals are an easy way to win applause. But apparently, the “dead horse” of evangelicalism must have enough life left in it to kick back.
But then, Patrol’s post-evangelicalism seems to derive most of its intellectual energy from its negative posture toward traditional evangelicalism. Let me be perfectly clear: there are many valid critiques that can be made, and they need to be made. I like Patrol, and I like Michael Spencer too. They speak with an important voice and evangelicals would be, well, idiotic to not heed their cautions and carefully consider their criticisms. But contra Patrol, I don’t think anyone really “fears” the post-evangelical voices. Mark Noll has been making many of these arguments for years (though without the headline-grabbing tendency to prophecy evangelicalism’s demise), and he is widely regarded and welcomed among evangelicals. People like Mark Driscoll are enormously popular precisely because they have spoken out against the problems of traditional evangelicalism.
In fact, among younger evangelicals, it is much more popular, easier, and more natural to critique traditional evangelicalism than it is to defend it. We have turned those impeccable “worldview analysis” skills that our parents gave us on them, and on ourselves. If evangelicals were reactionary in their withdrawal from culture, most younger evangelicals are reactionary in their withdrawal from evangelical culture. I rarely meet a younger evangelical who needs to be encouraged to engage with the world, or who struggles to critique evangelicals for being politically captive or nationalistic.
But on this point, post-evangelicalism is simply an extension of evangelicalism. Evangelicals, historically, have failed to “find the good and praise it.” The post-evangelicalism of Patrol is no better, and so ends up being just as bleak. Except whereas traditional evangelicals have been pessimistic about “the world,” Patrol is pessimistic about evangelicals.
But just as evangelicals failed to transform the broader culture by critiquing it from outside, so I suspect post-evangelicals will be similarly impotent. Patrol isn’t interested, I take it, in reforming evangelicalism. It thinks its dead and gone. But until it can offer the world a viable alternative, an alternative way of life full of goods that we can see and praise, it will remain a negation of historical evangelicalism and so remain as powerless as the Christian kitsch it (rightly) critiques.
I highly doubt that most evangelicals are interested in “protecting the label” of evangelicalism. At the end of the day, if we are called something else, it doesn’t matter.
But beneath the label are real, sincere people who consume Christian culture because that’s all they know to do and who describe themselves as “evangelicals” because that’s what their leaders say they are. And they are worth talking to, worth listening to, and worth arguing with. They have an enormous amount of energy, and while we might think it is directed toward misguided ends, we miss out on the opportunity to help them if we stand outside of them and criticize. We must be evangelicalism’s harshest critics because we are her biggest fans. Only from such a position of loyalty and love will we be able to see evangelicalism as she is: always broken and dying, yet still being reborn and renewed from within.
*Two pre-emptive caveats: first, I realize this is just one editorial from Patrol. I sincerely hope that they will continue to clarify their response to evangelicalism, and their critiques.
Second, I attempted to narrow the critique to the post-evangelicalism of Patrol, not that of Michael Spencer. I have no idea whether they agree on this formulation or not, though from my casual reading of InternetMonk the last few years, I’d be inclined to say that Spencer is interested in a more historically grounded faith than Patrol seems to be.