Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Three: (Post) Evangelical?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the third post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] I shall now begin to articulate, at least to some extent, what this means for me going forward. Without further ado:

(Post)Evangelical?

A UK based Anglican priest called Dave Tomlinson latched onto the phrase ‘post-evangelical’ in 1993, and subsequently published an influential book by the same name. This was of course during the murky morass of the dark ages before the widespread adoption of the internet, and I was a mere schoolboy (so it’s a somewhat dated term by now!). Dave describes the process on his website as follows:

What is a post-evangelical? I suspect the term had entered our consciousness surreptitiously a couple of years earlier, but no one had ever got around to elucidating what it meant. The next day I awoke, determined to have a go. The Post-Evangelical, was published in the UK two years later, just in time for the 1995 Greenbelt Festival.[3]

And so:

The book is, in fact, a pastoral essay directed at people who struggle with the restrictions in evangelical theology, spirituality, and church culture—yet who still want to journey with the Christian faith.[4]

He elaborates:

The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith – though it does for some. Rather it demonstrates that in order to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with its changing cultural context so that an authentic expression of that tradition can be found…[5]

The desire for authenticity in the midst of rapidly changing global contexts seems particularly relevant to my own evolving faith shift, which apparently fits with many an anecdotal account of the purported postmodern mindset that tends toward a hermeneutic of suspicion, particularly where absolute truth claims, authority figures, and institutions are concerned.[6] Whilst the book itself is only just finding it’s way onto my never-ending reading list, Dave’s short blog post provides enough insight into what a post-evangelical looks like  for me to co-opt his broad definitions. For instance, he describes some of the correspondence he has received from many Christians, in response to his book, in the following terms:

The letters told stories about the struggles people experienced trying to make sense of their faith in churches where their questions were far from welcome. Some talked about intellectual tussles with doctrines they couldn’t swallow, others of longings for a deeper spirituality. Some were frustrated at the lack of social and political engagement in their churches, others cringed at self-righteous moralizing. Most found the evangelical subculture insular, self-congratulatory, and often, embarrassing.

Many of the letters I received also voiced exasperation at the sense of certainty and hype experienced in some evangelical churches, where they found it particularly hard to express disquiet or to question prevailing attitudes. In my opinion the fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology fuels this post-evangelical impulse.[7] – (Emphasis mine)

All of the scenarios mentioned above seem very familiar to me as I consider my own sense of disquiet and longing for greater spiritual depth in my walk with God. The words ‘certainty’ and ‘hype’ also stood out to me as being far too reminiscent of my experiences in Evangelical charismatic churches. As for the ‘subculture’, well, that could take up a whole separate blog series! It is fascinating to me that Tomlinson equates the influence of a ‘fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology’ as being relevant to the droves of people who seem to be adopting the term ‘post-evangelical’. I have quite recently stumbled across a number of similar references with regard to fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, which merit some attention in the next section of this post. It seems that Tomlinson is not alone in making this connection.

It is worth remembering at this stage that my writing here is driven by a number of questions which relate to the title of this post. Firstly, in light of my previous blog post: Am I now ‘post-evangelical’? It would seem so. A concomitant question might be: “What does that really mean?” In order to answer these, a more pressing question might be: “What is an Evangelical?” To all of these questions, we shall now turn.

Evangelical Identity?

A helpful study on this very topic was compiled relatively recently by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones. The introduction to Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century provides a number of useful starting points for a brief discussion of the matter in question. For instance, Donald Dayton is cited as a voice of scepticism which casts doubt upon the notion of forming any meaningful definition of the term ‘evangelical’:

Evangelicalism, [Dayton] argues, is a diverse patchwork whose constituent elements possess so little in common that an overall definition is impractical.[8]

By way of contrast, the editors also summarise David Bebbington’s broad definition of ‘evangelicals’ as Christians who define their faith by stressing a number of crucial factors.[9] As Bebbington himself puts it: 

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.[10]

Both perspectives ring true to me. On the one hand, Evangelicalism is far from monolithic; like any complex movement it is undoubtedly nuanced, fuzzy, and inherently difficult to clarify with any degree of serious, all-encompassing precision. On the other hand, it does not utterly defy a definition of any kind. Bebbington’s ‘quadrilateral’ arguably offers a very useful rubric for understanding the key features and tropes that characterise the movement as a whole; albeit only in a vague, limited, and generalised manner within the blurry boundaries of the ‘diverse patchwork’ that Dayton describes. 

My own journey has consisted of a staggeringly disorientating sense of uncertainty as regards ‘evangelical’ identity. Why do so many ‘evangelicals’ (especially close friends and acquaintances) hold radically different views on how to interpret Scripture, and where do I stand on any given issue that is being disputed? Whose ‘evangelical’ am I? Why do I seem to sit in the ‘progressive’ camp on some matters, and yet remain entrenched in the ‘conservative’ one on others? Studying for an MA in Theology has been enormously helpful in answering some of these questions, and at the same time has also added innumerable layers of complexity to my understanding (or lack thereof) of the Christian faith, and Evangelicalism in particular. 

To clarify, ambiguity is surely inevitable since the postmodern turn, insofar as one may conceive of the contextually bounded limitations of all human knowledge and endeavour; Uncertainty is arguably inescapable (though this is, of course, far from certain!). Thus, defining the meaning of ‘evangelical’ Christianity in any kind of detail is not a straightforward task; nevertheless, at least in terms of historic Western Evangelicalism, it has a vaguely discernible shape. 

Thus, despite such prevalent uncertainty I have in fact observed the distinct fourfold pattern that Bebbington describes. In my experience ‘evangelicals’ do indeed emphasise conversion (my own being a case in point!), activism (I have been on the receiving end of and engaged in evangelism, outreach, etc), biblicism (The Bible is held to be ‘authoritative’), and crucicentrism (Jesus Christ crucified and the implications of this event constitute the ‘main thing’). Even now, in the broad sense that Bebbington describes at least, I remain steadfastly ‘evangelical’, although the devil remains hidden within the details of how one actually defines each of these factors and, as ever, translates theory into practice. One may ask, for instance, to what extent is one person’s ‘Evangelicalism’ functionally synonymous with another person’s ‘fundamentalism’? Answering such a question may prove to be source of considerable discomfort and tension for many hapless, oblivious ‘evangelicals’ (I would include myself in such a category until very recently!).

For me, becoming ‘post-evangelical’ is, as Tomlinson noticed, driven by a desire to eschew what I consider to be numerous negative attributes which (my understanding/experience of) ‘Evangelicalism’ has imbibed from ‘fundamentalism’. Yet even drawing this comparison is problematic, as we shall see.

Evangelicals & Fundamentalism?

As the authors of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have also noted, ‘Fundamentalism is more complex to analyse’ than Evangelicalism, the latter of which they claim ‘is more or less understood’.[11] At present, insofar as the study in question is concerned, the authors assert that ‘Fundamentalism [has] emerged as a trans-confessional phenomenon’.[12] In other words, it is not confined to North American Protestantism, or indeed any single world religion or sociopolitical movement (or expression thereof). Thus, much like Dayton’s critique of attempts to clearly define Western Evangelicalism: 

Fundamentalism is not best seen as a single worldwide impulse channelling generic religious energies in a particular direction. Rather, as it has been argued, fundamentalisms must be regarded as plural.[13]

In Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Malise Ruthven illustrates the extraordinary challenge of attempting to capture and summarise the plurality of potential meanings, connotations, and associations that a term like ‘fundamentalism’ conjures; all of which effortlessly and indiscriminately criss-cross within and beyond the somewhat arbitrary geographical borders and historical epochs of human culture(s). Some of his particularly relevant insights include:

Fundamentalism, according to its critics, is just a dirty 14 letter word. It is a term of abuse levelled by liberals and Enlightenment rationalists against any group, religious or otherwise, that dares to challenge the absolutism of the post-Enlightenment outlook.[14]

And:

The F-word has long since escaped from the Protestant closet in which it began its semantic career around the turn of the 20th Century…Put at its broadest, it may be described as a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularization.[15]

Ruthven applies Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblances’ to construct his discussion of ‘similarities and relationships’ between varying ‘fundamentalisms’, which, by virtue of their inherent diversity, defy scholarly attempts to produce ‘a single, defining feature’.[16] That said, Ruthven does aver that:

Fundamentalists everywhere tend towards a literalist interpretation of the texts they revere…At it’s starkest, literalism means that the letter or exact wording of a text carries the whole weight of its meaning, excluding any unmentioned or extraneous data. [17] – Emphasis mine.

With the benefit of the foolish wisdom of hindsight, it is this particular quality of religious fundamentalism(s) that most frequently springs to mind when I consider my past experience of, and participation in, Western Evangelicalism. I have, to my shame, both uncritically embraced and espoused far too many examples of fundamentalist literalism throughout my short time as an adult Christian convert. After all, if “the Bible says it”, and “I believe it, that settles it”.. right?[18]

Biblicism defined in this (admittedly very narrow) way, is one of the less helpful reoccurring features of my numerous encounters with diverse expressions of Western Evangelicalism that I am keen to shed. Familiar rhetoric springs to mind immediately, such as “the Bible clearly teaches…(read: it doesn’t, but I’m right and you’re wrong)”, “God’s word is clear, sharp, and precise…”(read: and I shall now proceed to stab you with it), ‘X’ preacher is “bringing the word of God” (read: their unqualified, biased, and oftentimes exegetically disastrous interpretation of various proof texts) to any given congregation or gathering; so one must suspend all intellectual faculties, eschew critical scrutiny, informed dissent, or open minded enquiry, and “submit”to the teaching in question (no questions asked). 

Perhaps most disturbingly, I recall numerous instances wherein a given charismatic preacher says something along the lines of “God/The Lord has told me/is saying.. [insert contentious assertion here]…So if you want to respond [obediently] come forward”. At this point either they, or one of their ‘ministry team’, can slap their palms upon your forehead after a time of “worship” (read: enthusiastic singing), and the Holy Spirit (read: or perhaps the power of suggestion and/or a firm shove through your center of balance) might just force you to the floor.[19] Apparently this is how one recovers authentic New Testament Christianity in certain pentecostal-charismatic circles.[20]

In short, this virulent variant of ‘evangelical’ biblicism is all too often nothing less than a sinister weapon which is used to manipulate and assert control over unwitting (albeit, oftentimes willing) participants. Fundamentalist literalism of this kind can be a dark, blunt instrument in the hands of both well meaning and malicious zealots. Either way it has the propensity to bludgeon the mind, body, and soul into submission to various ‘evangelical’ agendas such as ‘complementarianism’ (read: the functional subjugation of women), syncretism with nationalism, white supremacist ideologies, just war theories, anti-intellectualism, social conservatism, and so forth. Granted, some ‘evangelical’ agendas may in fact be consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching, although the examples cited are clearly (arguably) not.

I am increasingly ‘past’ the kind(s) of Evangelicalism(s) that adopt fundamentalist literalism in such a way that transforms so called ‘evangelical’ theology and practice into toxic, pernicious ideologies that bear all the hallmarks of ravenous wolves and false prophets.[21] In contrast to any such Evangelicalism(s), I am unashamedly ‘post-evangelical’. This clearly needs to be fleshed out, and my negative assertions must be balanced out by positive and constructive suggestions (particularly as regards my embrace of the Anglican Tradition). However this post is already out of hand and far too long! Until then:

Teaser: Next Post 

In my next post, I shall attempt to engage with Martyn Percy’s penetrating study of John Wimber, which is entitled Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism.  In so doing, I intend to offer a sketch of what my developing spirituality and mixed denominational affiliation is starting to look like: That of a ‘post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite’!

Comments are welcome!

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to my previous post.

3. http://www.davetomlinson.co.uk/post-evangelical/.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Whether such a hypothetical ‘postmodern’ mindset actually exists in the concrete lived realities of the human condition is itself, of course, a proposal to be highly suspicious of. Quite how one defines ‘postmodernism’, beyond a vague reference to Jean François Lyotard’s infamous ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, is another story entirely (well, almost).

7. See [3].

8. Bebbington, David W., and Ceri Jones, David (eds), Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 1-2. See also: Dayton, D. W., ‘Some Doubts about the Usefulness of the Category “Evangelical”’, in D. W. Dayton and R. K. Johnston (eds),  The  Variety  of  American Evangelicalism (Knoxville, Tenn.,  1991),  245–51.

9. Ibid.

10. Bebbington, D.W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Routledge, 1989, 2-3.

11. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, 2-3.

12. Ibid, 3.

13. Ibid. See also: C. H. Partridge, ‘Introduction’, in C. H. Partridge (ed.), Fundamentalisms (Carlisle, 2001), pp. xv–xvi.

14. Ruthven, Malise, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 5.

15. Ibid, 5-6.

16. Ibid, 6, 53, 122, etc.

17. Ibid, 40-41.

18. Wrong. Drastically so.

19. As dreadful and provocative as this caricature may be, it is a fairly accurate (albeit it mildly sarcastic/playfully mischievous) representation of many experiences I have had in distinctly Pentecostal-charismatic settings. I have mentioned it previously, however it seemed worth reiterating once again in this context.

20. It’s not of course, but it’s very often framed in this way; we have the real deal, other so called ‘Christians’ are lesser, unbiblical impostors who need to be “set free”.

21. It may be a hangover from my uncritical embrace of fundamentalist literalism, but I see too many kernels of truth in Jesus’ recorded statements warning his people about false prophets and teachers. By their fruits, one can recognise them (e.g. Matt 7:15-20).