An Earnest Question About Anti-science, Poor hating, Narrow-minded Republican evangelicals

Every time I hear someone pontificating about how evangelicals don’t care about science or the poor or don’t like “hard questions” or are way into being Republican, I always wonder the same thing: Who are these people they’re talking about?

I am an evangelical. I know a whole, whole lot of different sorts of evangelicals all over the world, and I’m increasingly  confused by the ever-recycled, echo chamber truisms about evangelicals.

I’m bewildered because many of the folks I know who are doing the most rigorous scientific research and working hardest to bring hope, help, and justice to the poor are evangelicals. Like these folks.
Or any number of the (literally) hundreds of evangelical students I could link to who I have personally met who are doing incredible work in science. Not to mention, this guy.

Or our dearest of friends who started this or this or this. Not to mention, these guys who were talking about social justice before it was cool (and before I was born). Or this dude. Or these guys, who just might be saving the world.

Some people like my friend Daniel so hate science and poor people that they become top of their field in medicine and then move with their families to developing nations where they give quality care to the sick.

And then folks are writing about a new sort of evangelicalism.
And stuff like this keeps happening. And this. And this.

And I hear about these stories of tremendous beauty in a dark world and talk to these kind of science loving, compassionate, justice seeking evangelical weirdos every single day.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that this litany makes the gospel evangelicals believe true or that you should be an evangelical or that we’re worthy of any kind of respect or that the evangelical church doesn’t deserve criticism or that we aren’t all completely nuts.

But here is my honest question: Am I just really lucky?

I’m asking this earnestly. Do I just happen to know the ‘right sort of’ evangelicals, a negligible, invisible sect within a sect? Granted, I work for these guys. And they’re always coming up with things like this. But is my sample that skewed? Have I just gone to above averagely awesome churches? Because none of these science-rejecting, poor ignoring, homophobes go to church with me.  So is my experience all that unique? Or is this stereotype based on partial truths or the Moral Majority of  twenty years ago? Or is this a strawman that is being trotted out and bashed again and again? And if so, why?

Christian Smith on Converting to Catholicism, part II

In part I of this post, I discussed some (there are many more) problems with Christian Smith’s How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Steps.  In this second part, I want to point out that Smith does highlight some genuinely unfortunate overarching tendencies within contemporary evangelicalism in this book. There are two charges that Smith makes that really do stick, in my estimation. The first is #16: ‘Begin noticing how allergic evangelicals are to Mary’. International evangelical subculture has been formed, as have other forms of Protestantism, more by what they are against than by what they are for, and this has led to a tragically diminished role for Mary within the economy of salvation. No one was more scathing than Desiderius Erasmus toward the crass paganism of popular Catholic adoration of Mary, yet he also realized how deeply destructive the dismissal of Mary in Protestant theology would be:

‘Although I am unarmed, you shall not cast me out unless you cast out the son I am holding in my arms together with me. For I shall not be parted from him. Either you cast him out together with me, or you let us both remain here–or do you prefer a church without Christ’? (Desiderius Erasmus, quoted in Scott Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization, p. 33)

Of course, I do not think that the recovery of the veneration of Mary as theotokos, the God-bearer, as the Council of Ephesus in 431 professes her to be, requires becoming Roman Catholic. Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten have demonstrated how possible it is from a Lutheran or Anglican context to recover a high place for Mary within the theology and piety of the church.  But Smith is right to point out that American evangelicals have been ‘innoculated’ against Mary, and that therefore she does not appear within the life of the church except where she cannot be avoided, namely at Christmas. And he is right that evangelicals become very nervous about idolatry whenever Mary’s name is brought up.

The other charge that sticks is #18: ‘Note your dissatisfaction with the heavily cognitive, often rationalist, nature of much of Protestantism’, which is closely linked to #33: ‘Consider the historic sociological connection between the Reformation and secularization’. The latter charge is quite a bit more specious historically and is probably impossible to substantiate. I have yet to read the latest attempt to do this, Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, but I sincerely doubt that Gregory will be able to succeed where Louis Dupré and others have failed. But the former claim, that evangelical Protestantism is heavily cognitive and most often lacks a sacramental imagination, seems basically sound to me. And it’s clear that without a sacramental imagination, one cannot properly value the material, such that one is almost inexorably bound to capitulate to the gnosticism of late modern American culture. But once again, I think this is more of an historic connection within evangelicalism than a necessary one. There is no reason why evangelicals cannot read the Fathers, or even read Calvin and Bonhoeffer, and develop a sacramental theology while retaining all that is fair within evangelicalism. That is what I hope to do and what I hope I have been doing. I have a great appreciation for Roman Catholicism, especially for the nouvelle theologie that has done so much to restore the place of mystery within Catholic theology, but nothing that Smith has written here has convinced me that the time has come to swim the Tiber.

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.

Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part II

I think it is virtually incontestable that evangelicals in America have for centuries invested themselves in an epistemology and consequent hermeneutic of Scripture that is indefensible.  Smith spends some time in the book outlining some of the relevant history, lighting upon, for instance, the common sense realism of the Scottish Enlightenment that funded the theology of Old Princeton. This ‘mental science’, as Mark Noll and Brooks Holifield, among others, have noted, became the adjunct to 19th century Princetonian theology that Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy was to the medieval university.  As Smith puts it, ‘implicit in Scottish commonsense realism is a ‘picture theory’ of language, which says ‘words are directly knowable by the mind, and, in addition, are direct representations of the objects ot which they refer. Logically, therefore, words and sense impressions are identical in that each refers directly to objects. Those objects, in turn, are directly and with utmost certainty known by the mind” (p. 56). Adoption of commonsense rationalism led Charles Hodge to affirm that Bible was the storehouse of revelatory facts for the theologian in the same sense that nature was the storehouse of natural facts for the scientists. One still finds these kinds of affirmations in theologians like Wayne Grudem, but they are damaging for evangelicalism because they are simply not true. They constitute a stipulative form of foundationalism that results in a false certainty about the meaning of Scripture and fissiparous and schismatic tendencies on the basis of these false certainties. The irony, as Smith points out, is that evangelicalism’s ‘practice of sola scriptura [which, as many have noted, means something different than it did in the Reformation] in America as a means to arrive at pure doctrine and practice is that the populist pursuit of Bible-only-ism started off as an ideological project not of conservatives but of heterodox liberal Protestants driven by Enlightenment ideals’ (p. 84).

I am qualifiedly in agreement with him as well that we need to acknowledge the ambiguity and multivocality of Scriptural texts and the need to distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion, especially as the freedom to admit a realm of adiaphora opens evangelicals not to relativism but to tradition, mystery and charity:

‘Evangelicals today cut themselves off from a relevant and important vocabulary–which, when properly used, often describes well Christian faith and life–when they expunge from their theological vocabulary the category of mystery.  They also in so doing perpetuate the problematic tendency in much of evangelicalism toward a dry, know-it-all rationalism in the form of a systematic cognitive covering of all intellectual bases–which ultimately has more to do with modern Enlightenment than scripture’ (p. 145).

I don’t think the answer to the false turns in evangelicalism is to convert to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. My concern, however, is not that evangelicals will convert but that they will fail to acknowledge the ways in which their tradition has maintained (albeit in a theoretically anemic and hermeneutically deficient way) a high view of the inspiration and normativity of the Scriptures and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For all their faults, evangelicals have by and large heeded the warning of Roy Harrisville: ‘Whoever you are, if you do not repent and believe the testimony laid down in this book concerning God and his Christ, it will judge you to inconsequence, render your reading of it, your interpretation of it, your preaching on it a comic  spectacle to the world to which you believed you had to adjust it, and your church will die. As well it should’ (‘The Loss of Biblical Authority and Its Recovery’, in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, eds. Jenson and Braaten, pp. 60-1). If evangelicals do not learn the lesson that the solution to the fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of modernism is something old and not something new, shiny and relevant, they will fail to be faithful. And that will be a great loss for the church and the world.

Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part I

Christian Smith, who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was received into the Roman Catholic communion in 2011. I have no plans at this point of following him, but I am extremely interested in reading the books he put out in the process of coming to his decision to do so.  Earlier in the year, I read Robert Gundry’s critical review of The Bible Made Impossible, Smith’s book arguing that the predominant hermeneutic (method of reading Scripture in the contemporary context) of evangelicalism, which he calls ‘biblicism’, is self-defeating because it results in what he calls ‘Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism’ (PIP). Biblicism in its most basic form is ‘Bible-only-ism’, or the idea that one can and should read the Bible without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation. PIP refers to the massive number of private, idiosyncratic, often self-interested readings that result from biblicism. PIP is a problem for biblicists, because they believe that every aspect of life is addressed by Scripture either directly or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, through deduction by good and necessary consequence thereof. If in fact it turns out that PIP results from biblicism, this undermines the biblicist contention that the Scripture is clear and a sure guide in every area of life.
Gundry’s review of Smith’s book struck me as defensive and evasive, engaging in mostly ad hominem and tu quoque analyses of Smith’s book. Smith’s recommendation of Karl Barth’s Christocentric reading of Scripture meets with this purely anecdotal quip: ‘For in Basel during the fall of 1960 I regularly climbed out of the basement of biblical studies to attend the theological seminars held by Barth upstairs, only to hear him repeatedly engage in subjective judgments on what in the Bible carries authority and what therein does not’. Without further ado, Gundry dismisses Barth as a ‘subjectivist’. Pretty sure you can’t dismiss the 20th century’s most important Protestant theologian without a greater sense of gravitas. And in response to Smith’s recommendation of creedal readings of Scripture and a stronger teaching office in the church, Gundry’s sole response is that PIP can be found elsewhere than in biblicist evangelicalism. Of course, Gundry virtually ignores the fact that Smith concedes this point and that his argument is not that Christocentric and Christotelic readings of Scripture resolve PIP, but that they are more faithful to the apostolic hermeneutic of Scripture and to the tradition of interpretation in the church and therefore that they are more authentically evangelical readings of the text.  Smith’s point is that the Bible is not God’s ‘handbook’ for life but rather God’s self-revelation to his people culminating in Christ, who becomes the hermeneutical key that unlocks the meaning of the rest.