Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

The Fear of Evangelicalism


Yesterday, I finished reading Mark Noll's landmark The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which begins with the indictment, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Almost twenty years later, this indictment is, for the most part, still valid. And the evangelical Noll, who described himself in the book as "a wounded lover," said as much ten years after the book published, but then went on to describe himself as more hopeful. As this excellent 2009 interview attests, people are still asking his insight. That may be the case in certain intellectual quarters, but the situation is still quite dire, as the recent Chick-Fil-A kerfuffle exemplifies.

In full disclosure, I write as one who lived among the Evangelicals for about four years, my last year being when Scandal published. Growing up in north Texas, it is impossible not to be immersed in evanglical culture. Texans take Jesus very seriously, but thinking critically about Jesus (and all things related) often risks accusations of heresy and backsliding. When I lived among the evangelicals, I never felt comfortable about Evangelicalism, sharing all of Noll's concerns and more. But one can only act straight for so long, and I came out of the closet like a banshee, changing my major to classical civilization and reading Nietzsche sullenly in the corner. It wasn't that I had swung suddenly the other way. I had tried to live an inauthentic life and had failed. And, among other things, I just couldn't stand the praise music and emotional joy anymore. It drove me nuts.

Noll reminds me of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, a landmark book now in its third edition (it's only addition is a new prologue), which offers a similar lamentation about the state of our understanding of virtue. Like Noll, he observes the paucity of thought, traces its historical roots, assesses the current situation, and offers a recommendation as to how we can move forward. Spoiler: MacIntyre says we must decide between rethinking Aristotle or taking up Nietzsche's charge to create new virtues. He picks Aristotle, but I'm not so quick to join him. Aristotle's metaphysics and physics carry a lot of baggage and I'm not so sure that such a virtue ethic can extricate itself from its foundations.

Similarly regarding Noll, I don't know if Evangelicalism is redeemable. Noll does a tremendous job of establishing its roots and mapping its foundations of Baconian science, of activist and populist politics, of pietistic holiness theology, and of naïve biblicism. And he urges not only self-reflection, but also a more measured response and way of acting. With the Evangelical urgency for conversion, desire for immediate revival, and alarm towards worldly (and often demonic) threat woven deeply within their individual and corporate senses of self, I don't see this is possible among the majority of the movement's adherents.

Knee-jerk narratives of Evangelical revisionist nationalisms, naïve virtuous appeals to "trickle-down" economic theories and individualistic "boot-strap" work ethics, and biblically prooftexted apologetics for social, political, and scientific prejudices run rampant in the marketplace of ideas. It almost seems that to engage in metacritical analysis of one's theological and cultural foundations is to entertain worldliness and unbelief in the salvific act of Jesus, that to express self-reflection in one's microcosm of the believer in America is to invite a collapse of the macrocosm of America.

I will take Noll's thesis further that the paucity of the evangelical mind is somewhat based on the fear of the changing of the evangelical mind, which will, in turn, change the evangelical heart, which grounds the evangelical faith. Popular Evangelicalism is actively anti-intellectual and overwhelmingly devotional. To employ academic, self-critical tools is to risk worldiness. I agree with Noll that Evangelicalism has propped itself up and sustains itself with Manichean "light/dark" ideals. Evangelicalism proclaims itself to be looking at the Light of God, but it is terrified of any kind of shadow – especially the shadow cast by its own presence before Evangelicalism's God.

Creationist Evangelicals ultimately fear evolution because it puts the historical Adam at risk and if the historical Jesus is the Second Adam, without a first Adam, the historical resurrection is put into question. Biblicist Evangelicals ultimately fear higher criticism of the Bible because they have already created an airtight idol of Scripture and if the bolts and screws of the idol are untightened, the foundational idol falls apart. Holiness Evangelicals ultimately fear social and political equality because it poisons their perceived sanctified separateness and lessens their status before God and humanity. Activist Evangelicals ultimately fear self-reflection because it requires a latency that appears as a lack of devotion and commitment to Christ's Kingdom.

Evangelicalism relies ultimately upon faith and fear. And it is a fearful faith for which intense experiential worship, devotion, and action serves as a distraction. It creates its own dogmatic, ironclad universe thinking that it is resisting a sinful World, but it is, in fact, the adherents of Evangelicalism who resist who they could become: more thoughtful, more reflective, more self-critical, and more substantial. Evangelicalism proclaims itself to be God-fearing. This is very true. It fears that God isn't who and what it has already constructed God to be.

Would the majority of Evangelicals consider Mark Noll to be one of their own? I doubt it. To keep the faith, they have already cast out so many into their darkness.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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