As usual I’m late to the party. Joe and I have been friends for several years now and in honor of our friendship I changed e-mail addresses and didn’t let him know. So, we’ve finally caught up and today I join this august body of bloggers, feeling way in over my head, and hoping I can offer something worthwhile.
Since I’m late to the party and haven’t gotten caught up on all of the prior posts I thought I’d mention something that has occupied my mind of late. Here’s my topic/question for discussion?
Are some of the hottest issues in evangelicalism today rooted in long standing anxieties over our loss of privilege and status as described by Ann Douglas in her book “The Feminization of American Culture (Google Books/Amazon).”
I wanted to discuss this because 1) I’m reading the book right now and am finding it terribly interesting and stimulating, and 2) I assume, or at least hope, that some of the other contributors to this blog are more familiar with Douglas than I and thus can correct/enhance our understanding of the issues she raises. If any of you are familiar with scholarly responses to Douglas, how well accepted is her thesis? She wrote back in the 70’s so I hope I’m not basing too much on either an out of date or discredited thesis. Assuming for now this is not the case I’ll proceed.
To introduce this, here are some of her words on the loss of the intellectual rigor of the Calvinistic tradition in favor of an obsession with popularity in society. In what follows her reference to “Edwardsean ministers” are those who held to this Calvinistic tradition:
For some time, roughly between 1740 and 1820 the rigor exhibited by the Edwardsean ministers seemed representative of the wider culture or at least welcomed by it. Edwardsean theology, however, outlived its popular support. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as in the twentieth, the vast majority of American Christians identified themselves as members of one of the various Protestant groups. Yet, the differences between the Protestants of, say, 1800 and their descendants of 1875 and after are greater than the similarities. The everyday Protestant of 1800 subscribed to a rather complicated and rigidly defined body of dogma; attendance at a certain church had a markedly theological function. By 1875 American Protestants were much more likely to define their faith in terms of family morals, civic responsibility, and above all, in terms of the social function of churchgoing. Their actual creed was usually a liberal, even a sentimental one for which Edwards and his contemporaries would have felt scorn and horror. In an analogous way, Protestant churches over the same period shifted their emphasis from a primary concern with the doctrinal beliefs of their members to a preoccupation with numbers. In ecclesiastical and religious circles, attendance came to count for more than genuine adherence. Nothing could show better the nineteenth-century Protestant Church’s altered identity as an eager participant in the emerging consumer society than its obsession with popularity and its increasing disregard of intellectual issues.
The “hottest issues” I referenced in my Edwardsean length intro are things like politics, mission, definition (i.e. “what is an evangelical?”), culture, church growth and maybe a few others. I deem these “hottest issues” based on the level of debate, writing, and speaking they generate. In addition to calling these the “hottest issues” I would also call these “biggest anxieties,” based on the worry and effort we collectively expend to “get it right,” on them.
All of these issues resonate with Douglas’s words. I need to fill in a blank for you at this point in Douglas’s thesis. Her larger concern is to show how an alliance between Victorian era clergy and women gave rise to the sentimentalism of today’s larger culture. The Victorian era clergy and women shared a common societal disenfranchisement, loss of place and loss of status. With this loss of power and status, “influence” became the name of the game and they gained influence by enshrining feminine, sentimental virtues.
The eclipse of Calvinism and intellectual rigor mentioned in the above quote from Douglas was commensurate with this “sentimentalization.” This leads to some comparisons. Modern debates about evangelical definition loosely center around creed vs. deed and correspond to the 19th century loss of dogma in favor of liberal/sentimental creeds. Today’s concerns with politics and culture resonate with 19th century concerns with influence in view of the loss of societal power and status. Contemporary emphases on mission and church growth correspond to 19th century concern with numbers and church attendance. 19th century concern with family morals and civic responsibility anticipate the concerns of everything from Focus on the Family to the emergent church.
Church life itself deserves a special mention here. When it comes to membership, i.e. “what church will I join?” sentimental spirituality beats doctrine hands down every time (or so it seems to me from my own experience as a pastor). Also, note Douglas’s comment that American Protestants define their faith above all in terms of the social function of churchgoing. She juxtaposes this to “theological function.” Church membership as a “theological function” suggests that people join with those of like belief. Church membership as “social function” suggests that people join for the sake of relationship without regard to doctrine. The clearest expression of this attitude came from a member of my (Presbyterian) church who said “we’re not Presbyterian, we just go to this church.” It also explains the exasperation and sometimes disdain I have received from some members when I preach on Presbyterian distinctives.
Mike Horton has pointed out that the biblical church is means driven, whereas the modern church is outcome driven. The marks of a biblical church are the right administration of the means of grace, our practice of the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. The marks of a modern church are measurable outcomes in terms of the three “b’s” - buildings, butts and budgets. The biblical church is supremely concerned with the integrity of its means, the modern church will use whatever means produce it’s desired outcomes. The biblical church is authenticated by faithfulness, the modern church is authenticated by success.
Having said all of this I acknowledge that advocates of all of these “hot issues” can root them in biblical or prudential principles. I also know that it is common to say that we can be biblically based and outcome driven. Sure, that’s possible, but I have two thoughts - 1) are those who say such things sure they aren’t guilty of the “assumed evangelicalism” that Fred Sanders speaks about, and 2) you can tell whether the bible or the outcome is more important by how upset you get when the outcome doesn’t go your way, i.e. your guy loses the election, you are denied a seat at a cultural table, or the church down the street gets bigger than yours.
I can’t help but feel that this “outcome-drivenness” looks suspiciously like the “obsession with popularity” that Douglas speaks of. Further, Os Guiness has stated that anti-intellectualism is so identified with evangelicalism that it is hard to think of one without the other. This looks like the replacement of biblical dogma with liberal and sentimental creeds that Douglas speaks of.
So I wonder, for all of our up-to-dateness, is this the 19th century all over again?
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?