Friday, August 21, 2009

Deconstructing Deconstructing Evangelicalism

In a book on Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden suggest that there were in fact two revolutions in the eighteenth century British colonies, the first being a spiritual one:
If we forget about this spiritual revolution growing out of the Great Awakening and concentrate only on the nation's political origins, we have no way to explain one of the most striking features of contemporary America... it is remarkably religious. Jonathan Edwards is a towering figure among the founding fathers of the first American revolution, the spiritual revolution of the awakening. He was the Thomas Jefferson of that revolution, no only its leading philosopher but also a sometimes controversial practical leader. George Whitefield was the George Washington of the awakening, the widely admired general in the field. Though such analogies are not exact, Edwards was certainly one of the major founders of the evangelical movement that became and remains the largest homegrown religious tradition in American. "Evangelicalism" is simply the collective term for all sorts of Christians who still emphasize the authority of the Bible, the importance of heartfelt conversion, and the urgency of evangelism and missions.
This Edwards-Evangelicalism connection, however, may be myth. So, at least, argues D.G. Hart in his hard-hitting book Deconstructing Evangelicalism, wherein he asserts that "evangelicalism does not exist... it is in fact a construction of 1940's fundamentalists that late-twentieth century academics found especially useful for interpreting American religion." Hart writes from the Reformed fortress, blaming scholars such Marsden and Mark Noll for crediting evangelicalism with a history that was not theirs to take. Although he qualifies his criticism with respect, Hart does hesitate to imply that the religious history guild, in tandem with neo-evangelical political interests and a very 90's academic concern with group identity, has intentionally oversimplified American Protestantism. Hart is like a Park Ranger who tells the campers there is in fact no such thing as the "forest," offering to point out the clusters of Oak, Maple and Elm trees [i.e. specific denominations] instead.

The approach leads to insights both unsettling and keen, among which are the following:
At precisely the time [1970s] that the people who comment on and interpret contemporary affairs - journalists, columnists, and academics - were recognizing evangelicalism, the construction effort begun back in the 1940's was beginning to unravel... Scholars and pundits have done more to keep evangelicalism alive than have church members, for although evangelicalism may have been useful for scholars in search of new perspectives, it has proven remarkably barren in sustaining the faith of believers who need spiritual sustenance more than trendy analysis.

Over the last six decades of the twentieth century, evangelicalism proved its resourcefulness primarily as a category that signified numerical mass and therefore influence... For scholars, evangelicalism functioned in a similar manner. Why write about one slice of the American population, say, the Baptist piece of the pie, when evangelicalism could lead to larger claims about a broader cross section of the United States citizens? The question that haunts most academic is "So what?" ... By studying evangelicalism, a designation that was much larger than any of the denominational categories, with the exception perhaps of Roman Catholicism, historians, sociologists, and pollsters could write books and articles that made much bigger claims about the doings of American religion than if they interpreted religious life along narrowly denominational or congregational lines.

[T]he very notion of an evangelical tradition is a construction of mid-twentieth-century born-again Protestants who objected to the fundamentalist label but were still at odds with mainline denominations. Although the faith they created borrowed fragments from historic Protestantism, its design was to affirm a lowest common denominator set of convictions and practices. By doing so, the neo-evangelical leaders hoped to assemble a movement that would function as the real, or at least a rival, American Protestantism. As it turned out, the faith that emerged from these designs thrived in a strange combination of settings - the popular music business, parachurch organizations, and university religious study seminars. This was hardly the stuff from which to make a tradition. Perhaps more important, this form of Christianity was not the kind that tradition could shape. Like creation after Genesis 1:1, it was formless and void.

How can something like evangelicalism, which looks so real and has so many apparent outlets, be so difficult to leave? how does one, even if qualified as a card-carrying member, receive the membership card? And if an evangelical decides... to become something other than an evangelical, to what address does he or she return the card?
Hart squeezes his evangelical reader into the contours of his argument, and then seals off the exits. Those who think adding a measure of tradition can solve evangelical problems find no encouragement:
Is it actually possible to combine the best of both Christian expressions, one modern and zippy, the other traditional and mysteriously ancient, and salvage a Christian faith that is coherent and disciplined? ...Retrieving tradition... consists of more than simply adding the Thirty-nine Articles to the Bible. It also involves the worship and the workings of the church.

Evangelicalism is not a tradition. As much as academics and religious leaders have invested the term with some significance, it cannot carry the weight of a human endeavor that qualifies as a tradition.... as a shaper of a tradition, evangelicalism has been an utter failure. Its breadth has come with the price of shallowness, while its mass appeal has generated slogans more than careful reflection. Evangelicalism has a reassuring ring to it, sort of like affirming mom, hot dogs, and apple pie. At its best , it is a sentiment.... [but] to add the weight of tradition to evangelicalism,.. is to add a burden that would inevitably crush born-again Protestantism.

An interest in historic Christianity could and, of course, has lead to Rome. It has also lead to Canterbury, Geneva, Edinburgh, Wittenberg, and Dort. Therefore, a pressing question is whether it is possible to pour tradition into a vessel such as modern American evangelicalism, which is designed to hold only liquids that are traditionless. To borrow an image from Hughes Oliphant Old's book on Presbyterian worship, asking evangelicals to recover tradition is like coaxing a thirteen-year-old who steadily drinks Mountain Dew to taste wine.
Indeed, far from being compatible with earlier Christian traditions, Hart asserts that evangelicalism erases them:
Before evangelicalism, Christians had churches to hear the Word preached, to receive the sacraments, and to hear sound counsel and correction. Without evangeliclaism, Protestant Christianity may not be as unified (when has it ever been?), but it will go on. And without the burden of forming a nationally influential coalition, American Protestants in all their Heinz 57 varieties, from Presbyterian to Calvary Chapel, may even be healthier.
The book's oddest feature is how it both suggests that evangelicalism is "a fantasy," but also credits it with eroding American ecclesial culture and depriving millions of lasting spiritual nourishment. (A rather concrete fantasy.) No doubt chasing after evangelicalism is like chasing after the wind, but there are times, it seems not unreasonable to suggest, when that fleeting wind is the Holy Spirit. If evidence of intellectual output and coherent tradition is paramount, are we to suppose that the explosion of Global South Pentecostalism isn't actually happening?

Hart's attempts to sever the connection between neo-evangelicalism and the American Awakenings will be very appealing to ex-evangelicals, but the move is less than convincing. Hart claims that "historians have shown" this connection to be false, for the Revival "tradition ran out of gas in the mid to late nineteenth century." With that assertion, a wimpy footnote points to only one such historian (Conforti). The majority report, which in addition to Noll and Marsden would now include Thomas Kidd, have shown the long view of North American evangelicalism. Hart himself, in an unguarded moment in an interview, claims the experience based evangelical worship of today can indeed be traced to American revivalism (which he dislikes). Hart, therefore, can connect the unpleasant part of the Great Awakening to contemporary evangelicalism, but reserves the best parts - the intellectual ones - for his own Reformed tradition.

What's more, Hart's book itself is an indirect testimony to the continuity he attempts to dissolve. Many of the accusations that he hurls against contemporary evangelicalism are reminiscent of what "Old School" Presbyterians leveled against "New School" Revivalists in the First Great Awakening. Likewise, the problems that Hart shows evangelicalism to be afflicted with today are indeed the very problems that the generation after the Great Awakenings encountered: What to do after the Revival. No doubt Hart is right that the best evangelicalism can do may be to safely deposit awakened souls into the sturdier frameworks of more tested Christian traditions. But without such admittedly amorphous religious happenings known as evangelicalism, where would the sturdier traditions be?

Hart's is a clever and substantial book. But ultimately what it lacks is something that is present in the Marsden passage with which I began: A love for evangelicalism. This is a weakness because only a love-infused epistemology can fully understand. Lest someone flash a postmodern foul card on me, allow me to beef up that assertion by quoting Aquinas:
For just as when a thing is understood by anyone there results in the one who understands a conception of the object understood, which conception we call word, so when anyone loves an object, a certain impression results, so to speak, of the thing loved in the affection of the lover, by reason of which the object loved is said to be in the lover, as also the thing understood is in the one who understands (Summa I.37.1).
When it comes to his object of study, Hart seems to lacks the latter "impression." Instead of love for the movement, one senses in Hart a distinct displeasure, even a degree of bitterness. If for Gregory the Great, amor ipse notitia est (love itself is a knowledge), then it's one Hart seems - in this case - to lack.  This is not speculation, as Hart tells us as much. Whereas evangelical scholars like Mark Noll and David Wells refer to themselves as "wounded lovers" of evangelicalism, Hart distinguishes himself from them by saying he is a "victim in recovery." Unfortunately, there are too many victimized evangelicals out there, most of them not nearly as intelligent or reserved as Hart. As they make of the movement what they can, a rule to remember: Love may blind, but lovelessness does as well.

A love for evangelicalism, which the right circumstances can awaken, does indeed result in the realization that it is more than the sum of its denominational parts, more than a fleeting post-war coalition.  There is much to criticize, but at its best, evangelicalism, in the words of Edwards, remains the "surprising work of God."  And one that, furthermore, might not be yet complete.  "Evangelical Protestantism is like petroleum deep in the cultural soil," wrote James Hitchcock, "often declared to be used up, then erupting in unexpected places and with surprising strength."