Reading Janik and Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna a few years ago, I was struck at how oblivious the last generation of the Austro-Hungarian empire were to the imminent collapse of their world. One might say they kept waltzing up to the very moment that they suddenly found they could waltz no more. Yet all around them their world was slowly but surely coming to an end. From the surrounding European politics to the nihilism of the satirist, Karl Kraus and the early philosophical stirrings of the great Wittgenstein, the signs of the end of the age were all around.
American conservative evangelicalism, like Vienna in 1914, seems to its leadership relatively healthy but it is quite possibly enjoying the last waltz as forces round about conspire to undo it. Last week, three very different events reminded me of the problems. A recently disgraced former minister reappeared, ready for the conference circuit. An influential ministry brand published a new creed, seeing the liturgy of the church as a yet untapped area for product placement. And remember when I averred that parts of Protestant evangelicalism seemed to be run by the Mob? Well, soon it could be official as Mark Driscoll, fallen megachurch pastor, found himself named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit, which includes civil claims under the RICO statute.
All three events, different as they are, point to a significant aspect of conservative evangelical culture. It is deeply influenced by carefully marketed influential brands, often identified in the Christian public’s mind with particular individuals. Now, brands can do good work but sometimes they can come to see self-perpetuation as their primary purpose. And they can give an almost mystical authority to those identified with the brand. This is why adulterous pastors with brand recognition have the fast-track back to national influence while anonymous others, guilty of the same sins, are rightly finished as pastors and must seek humble, unheralded avenues of service in the church. It is why the Nicene Creed needs supplementing because, as we all know, a creed really needs that extra bit of brand recognition to carry weight in the present. It is why hot-shots end up as laws unto themselves but are kept on board by the evangelical powers-that-be long after the moral problems have become obvious to any disinterested observer. As Marxist historians and fictional American gumshoes know, you just have to follow the money to make sense of it all.
Shortly before the events of last week, I had been reading Novak and Adams’ Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. A thoughtful book, deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching, it did not convince me—a convinced Protestant—on every point. But it is immensely impressive. At the same time I was following a couple of twitter battles in the evangelical world over contemporary political and social issues. The juxtaposition was embarrassing. As Novak wrestles with the complexity involved even in defining social justice, evangelical leaders think they can handle the big issues of the day in a way that helps the church in trite servings of 140 characters or less. Superficial seems too polite a word. Novak offers his readers a theologically and historically sophisticated framework for parsing the issues and responding. The Twittocracy offer smart one-liners of no use whatsoever.
American evangelicalism certainly appears comparatively robust. It has numbers. It has enthusiasm. It has brand recognition. But, despite the scholarship it has at its disposal, its public leadership too often lacks depth and seems to have pitched for populism. The biggest organizations have controlled the conversation by buying up the talent or, where that fails, simply isolating and ignoring dissenting voices, and its foot soldiers seem happy to play along. Every outlet of influence has to be ‘on message.' Patriarchal misogynists are given a platform while egalitarians have, by definition, nothing to contribute. It is why some of us who used to think ourselves at least sympathetic to aspects of the movement can barely be bothered with it today.
Brands have a place—but not at the center of the Christian life. If conservative evangelicalism cannot wean itself off using brands as a primary focus of identity—brands that are tied to particular personalities, that cost a lot of money to maintain, and which often exude a breathtaking sense of importance (all for the sake of Jesus, of course) then the kind of corruption noted above will continue. Moreover, the future is simply unsustainable in anything like its present form. Economically, patterns of parachurch funding are set to change dramatically in the next ten years, even without any change in tax exempt status rules. The future may be hard to predict with precision but it will be different. And now is the time to prepare for that.
Perhaps the image of a last waltz is too classy for a movement led by soundbiters, ad-men, and racketeers. Imperial Vienna had style, after all, even as it stood on the brink of collapse. In the 1980s, college parties typically ended not with something from Strauss but with Jeff Beck’s classic but corny 1967 hit ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining.’ The lyrics seem particularly apposite:
You're everywhere and nowhere baby, that's where you're atYou nailed it, Jeff. Nearly fifty years ago.
Going down a bumpy hillside, in your hippy hat
Flying across the country, and getting fat
Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat.
Update: In an earlier post, I wrongly stated that Mark Driscoll was subject to a RICO indictment. This was not correct. A friend contacted me to indicate that “Mr. Driscoll has been named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit, which includes civil claims under the RICO statute. Such suits are usually dismissed, as the elements of the claim are very hard to prove, and judges tend to be very skeptical of them. Even if successful, the defendant will at most be liable to pay money damages; it is not a criminal matter.” I am happy to make the correction and apologize for any offense caused by my careless handling of the legal issues involved.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.