Christian Smith on Converting to Catholicism, part I

I’ve now read through Christian Smith’s other book explaining his journey to Roman Catholicism, which is actually presented as a ‘how to’ manual – How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. He doesn’t say it, but I suppose the ninety-five steps nicely mirror Luther’s ’95 Theses’, which as Smith points out at one point, is actually a deeply Catholic document and not a ‘protest’ text in any meaningful sense of that word. Smith invokes Thomas Kuhn’s famous ‘paradigm shift’ model of scientific change to describe how an evangelical might end up as a Roman Catholic. Kuhn’s argument, in essence, is that scientific theories are ‘world pictures’ that do not change gradually, simply on the basis of accumulating evidence. Scientists work within an established paradigm of what he calls ‘normal science’, and over time anomalies inexplicable within the current theoretical framework begin to accumulate. Efforts are made to accommodate the paradigm to these anomalies, but if there are a sufficient number of such anomalies and another paradigm is suggested that is able to explain and integrate these anomalies, a theoretical revolution is likely to take place in which new paradigm of normal science takes the place of the old. Something like a paradigm shift rather than a gradual accumulation of evidence is necessary, according to Smith, for someone to go from being a ‘good evangelical’ to a ‘committed Catholic’.

Smith’s book is pretty snarky towards the evangelicalism from which he has emerged, and the ‘descriptive’ passages of the work make very little effort to hide it. I definitely don’t mind a little sarcasm here and there, so this feature of Smith’s writing doesn’t bother me. For instance, I’m a fan of this barb:

People around you and maybe you yourself pray with a lot of particular, but by now so-familiar-that-they-usually-go-unnoticed, phrases, such as, “Father God”, “we would lift up”, “I just have a heart for”, “as unto the Lord”, “nit our hearts together”, “we are convicted”, “if be your will”, “pray a ‘hedge’ around”, and “in Jesus’ name”. About 10-20 percent of the words used in the informal prayers of more than a few of the people around you consist of the one word “just”–as in, “Lord, we just ask that you just give us the eyes just to see you, Lord”. Your community believes in praying authentic, spontaneous, personal prayers–not rote, ritualistic, formal, dusty, traditional prayers. It once occurred to you, however, that most people’s spontaneous, personal prayers sound an awful lot alike. They actually seem to follow standard formats. (pp. 21-2).

But what does bother me is that the snark is in service of painting an inexcusably broad-brush portrait of American evangelicalism. I’m sure the logic and practice of the communities that Smith is describing as the ‘normal science’ of evangelicalism exist somewhere, but it is not descriptive of the communities of which I have been part. What’s really inexcusable is his tendency to lump together confessional and non-confessional evangelical traditions together. Non-denominational Bible churches and Reformed churches such as the CRC or the PCA, which are creedally oriented, have very little in common together. The latter have a de facto teaching office in a way that the former do not, which provides both the framework for and the limits within the Bible is to be read. Even if these communities as a whole tend to use the rhetoric of biblicism in defense of their confessions, i.e. that the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Confession are a mere distillation and systematic presentation of ‘gospel’, the theologically astute within these denominations explicitly see themselves as operating within a tradition governed by creedal commitments.