We’re counter-cultural, but not cool; faithful, but not at home in our tradition; evangelical, still, but not sure what the word means.
As a thirty-something evangelical, I find myself in a crisis of vocational and spiritual bearing. I wouldn’t quite call it a traditional crisis of faith or of existential being. I still believe, but can’t relate with the embattled and politicized state of the current evangelical landscape.
In a recent article, evangelical theologian Roger E. Olson writes movingly about his difficulty accommodating his faith to a changing tradition: “my heart has grieved over what has happened to the evangelical movement.” I have a similar journey, and it seems that a wandering sense of belonging is an increasing problem among those of us from several generations. I suppose we should take solace in that. It is not clear if American evangelicalism has a center anymore—or a cathedral door where we can go to nail our grievances.
Modern evangelicalism is a movement that arose out of the volunteerism of the industrial age and addressed a common set of assumptions about the world: a movement of God, I still believe. But the world has changed and so have the questions. Our statements of faith and personal experiences with Christ are no longer a means to unity. As Olson and others have expressed, we are in the midst of a full-blown structural and ecclesial crisis—a very confusing state for those of us who thought we would find a vocational and ecclesial home in the evangelical churches of our youth.
Still, I am an Evangelical. At least I think I am
I was raised in “non”-denominational churches and have been involved in every kind of ministry opportunity that such contexts present. I even hold the hallowed title of “pastor’s kid”—and not even a particularly rebellious one. I have followed my evangelical impulses through both undergraduate and advanced degrees in Theology, crises of faith, and into the intention of vocational pastoral ministry. I sought refuge in more historic expressions of the faith as the reality of the fragmented evangelical panorama dawned on me while I was in my twenties. So far, I have been employed at a Mennonite school, an Anglican parish, a liberal Catholic school, several Presbyterian and non-denominational churches, and a charismatic camp. Still, I am an evangelical. At least I think I am.
It’s funny, amidst all this confusion I have discovered historical depths of the faith that have allowed me to hold on to the story rooted in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. My faith in Christ is, in many ways, more rooted than ever. But my place in the broader evangelical community is not.
Having gone through the process of deconstruction, some of us are cynical or have lost our faith. Most of us lapsed evangelicals believe that the context of the world we navigate requires a realistic assessment of the human condition and a reevaluation of old ways of knowing. We believe that all humans possess basic commitments that we understand by faith over reason. From science to Sufism we all live with limitations on certainty and knowledge. In Kierkegaard’s terms, we have not taken the leap of faith, but believe that by virtue of our birth we were forced over the side of the cliff. Many of my elders have told me that this attitude will lead my generation to spiritual death via the poison of relativism. There is wisdom in this, and yes, some us of have gone down this route. But, dare I say, most of us find the philosophical commitments of relativism and Utopian myths of progress and manifest destiny unconvincing.
Principled pluralism makes sense to us, but absolute relativism does not.
Counter-Cultural, but not cool
Perhaps some of the problem lies in the fact that we know too much. Cultural disengagement is simply not an option for most of us, though a lot of us would really like to authentically disengage.
Ironically, it was the missionary impulse that we were taught in our youth that led us into our current state of cultural awareness. The mantra “In the world, but not of it” echoes throughout my early evangelistic training. From Jim Elliot and Hudson Taylor to Amy Carmichael, our Book of Saints consists of heroes bold enough to dare the influence of foreign cultures in the name of the Gospel. Mainstream American culture and the strong alternative communities we were raised in were equally foreign to each other. When they sent us out into the world, I am not sure our elders knew exactly how flat the world had become. Much of this is due to the rapid advancement of the information age within my formative late-teenage years. We inadvertently took a bite from the tree of knowledge and we can’t turn back.
We are now all grown up and own Mac laptops. We find Stephen Colbert mildly prophetic, read the Huffington Post, and we eagerly awaited every new episode of Lost (even though many of us cringed at the ending). In short, we are culturally savvy. At the same time, we despise attempts to make the Christian faith cool or relevant. The faith is counter-cultural, but not cool. Rome and Hollywood don’t need each other in order to survive. We are more likely to possess a subscription to Rolling Stone or First Things than Relevant magazine. Some of us define ourselves as part of the Emerging movement, while at the same time we find it suspect—many of its branches too focused on individual spirituality and experience.
Words are another source of tension. We have heard too many of them from too many people, and we find the violence of words assaulting and often void of meaning. This is a problem for those of us with a heritage in which words, particularly in preaching, are so important. Many like me find most sermons we hear at typical evangelical churches unbearable. It is not that we want to do away with preaching—we want to do away with its perverse captivity to reason and relevancy. The defensive and individualistic nature of evangelical preaching is often void of confession and story.
These orientations speak to the fact that we have been well-schooled against the idols of the Enlightenment by our elders in the evangelical intelligentsia. We often find more in common with Derrida and Zizek than Locke and Descartes. And this leads us into alternative political thinking outside the categories our current system has handed us. We are keenly aware of civil religion and the Enlightened politics that we have experienced growing up. But we dobelieve that the Christian faith is political.
Our theological influences are even more confusing. I personally have a scattered history when it comes to these. I learned sexual ethics from John Paul II, epistemology and ecclesiology from the Anglicans, apologetics from the Mennonites, and anthropology and scripture from Barth, Luther, and N.T Wright. What is ironic is that I feel confused, yet more theologically orthodox, than many of those I grew up with in the Bible church movement. These theological influences have made me more at peace with my place in the coming Kingdom—I’m just not sure of my spiritual home on Earth.
This puts us in an interesting position. Unlike many, we still retain a specific posture of belief in Jesus as God. Specific belief. Deconstructed belief with no time for many of the embattled discussions that currently divide our camp. Don’t get me wrong, how an evangelical Christian is to live in the world is of foremost importance. But something has to give before these discussions once again prove fruitful.
No Place to Go
So what is evangelicalism today? As Roger Olson points out, it’s hard to define. I too, have largely stopped using the term when talking with those outside of the movement. In seminary I learned about, and found hope in, David Bebbington’s four-fold definition based in the common elements of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. While I find some resonance with Bebbington’s definition, myself and others in my generation are aghast at what American evangelicalism has made of itself. It’s a neverending labyrinth of faith statements and confessions rooted in the the historical and cultural realities of the Reformations four hundred years ago. I mean, really, consider what we on the thinking side of evangelicalism are left to sort out. I may speak for myself, but anyone who has been on the inside of the movement for at least twenty years is confused. Really.
And as both John Ortberg and Roger Olson have pointed out in recent blog posts, we as evangelicals have no council of elders to help us navigate as a large community. We have no place to go. Many, myself included, have sought out Rome or Canterbury to try to find roots. Some have lodged in these places for extended periods of time and some have planted flags in one of these two places. The problem for most of us raised in non-denominational churches is that these traditions mostly come out of cultures we have never been a part of. The constant translation and new language-learning is too much for some of us—especially those of us who now have families of our own to whom we wish to pass down a culture, tradition, and language that we are deeply familiar with.
Confusion reigns. But there are some things that evangelicals like me are still committed to and find resonance with. We have not stopped desiring the faithfulness to Jesus that our tradition so much values. Maybe this is reason enough to celebrate. Our deconstructed sense has left us with the the historic orthodox faith. In other words, the story. That great tradition that connects with all those who have the ability to say the Apostles Creed and mean it. Maybe we start here, with this language. Homeless and confessing. Here we stand, we can do no other.