Sometime last year, I resolved to pull back from conversations about “the state of evangelicalism,” often intertwined with accounts of the history of the movement. For the most part, I’ve done so, though I’m occasionally drawn into the fray by some particularly egregious claims. Recently, David Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times, “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism from Itself,” which received a fair amount of attention. And shortly before that, I’d read Aaron M. Renn’s essay “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” featured on the cover of the February issue of First Things. This conjunction has prompted me to take up the subject again, even if only briefly.
I want to emphasize that I respect both Brooks and Renn, not to mention most of the various “dissenters” singled out for admiration by Brooks. And yet my own experience is radically disconnected from what they report (not at all tentatively, but with a strong sense that they are simply “telling it like it is”). Brooks starts with this scenario:
Think of your 12 closest friends...Now imagine if six of those people suddenly took a political or public position you found utterly vile. Now imagine learning that those six people think your position is utterly vile. You would suddenly realize that the people you thought you knew best and cared about most had actually been total strangers all along.
Amazing. And yet, Brooks tells us that “This is what has happened over the past six years to millions of American Christians, especially evangelicals.” What to say? Nothing remotely like this has happened to Wendy and me and the people we know best, not even if we extend the circle much wider than Brooks has suggested. Does this mean that no one has experienced the radical rupture he describes? Of course not. But I am baffled by the seeming certainty with which he presents this sweeping report on the State of Things.
There is much more in Brooks’s column that makes my head hurt. Near the end, he writes, “Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: ‘Modernity has peaked.’ The age of the autonomous individual...has left us with bitterness and division...Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.” I have read the equivalent of those sentences (with their invocation of “modernity”) thousands of times, and yet I can’t understand how people (let alone people I myself have learned so much from) find them persuasive. This claim always seems to me to be radically ahistorical, for there has been bitterness and division among humans since the fall—it is hardly an invention of modernity.
Let us turn now to Aaron Renn’s essay. Early on, he presents an outline of “three distinct stages” in the “story of American secularization.” The first he characterizes thus: “Positive World (pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity.” Now Renn concedes that the dating of these transitions is, of necessity, impressionistic. (Stage 2, “Neutral World,” he dates from 1994–2014; Stage 3, “Negative World,” from 2014 to the present).
Recently I wrote about how when I started college (in the fall of 1966), God used my professors’ utter contempt for “organized religion,” their certainty that no educated person could continue to hold such primitive convictions, to help draw me back to the faith in which I had been raised. In the 1980s, I worked for a reference publisher. One day over lunch, one of my fellow editors asked me (making clear he intended no offense) how someone like me (he meant, in part, someone who read a lot) could be very much a small-o orthodox Christian of the evangelical variety. His question was genuine. We had a good conversation. I could go and on, but suffice it to say that I am baffled by Renn’s framing.
Wendy and I have four grown children. Two of them (the older ones) are not Christians; two of them are. Many of the writers I read with great attention and profit (in some ways, they are as close to me as people I know very well “in person,” in other ways not) are not Christians of any variety, yet alone evangelicals. I could cite many examples, but I will give just one: the British science-fiction novelist, professor of 19th-century British literature, and mischievous polymath Adam Roberts.
At a moment when a wide range of commentators are telling us we are on the verge of a “post-religious future” (whatever that might look like), we continue to worship each Sunday at Faith Covenant Church in Wheaton. We share the astonishing convictions and hopes that have sustained the faithful for 2,000 years, extravagant as they sometimes seem, all too often distorted by misguided believers, and yet as compelling today as they were to the first Christians.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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