Friday, 4 January 2008
Sooo Not Dead
I have to confess that some of the comments irked me. Let me respond first of all to Graham and Tim’s observations.
Graham expressed surprise that anyone still used the labels in question and Tim was of the opinion that the terms were “so twentieth century” and tells us that he is in the habit of “ignoring people who use such labels.”
I am tempted to ask if Graham and Tim are living so much on the cutting edge of the brave new postmodern world that they have lost touch with the world as it actually is. They may well want to get beyond the era of evangelicals and liberals but I have to tell them we certainly ain’t there yet.
Taking evangelicals as an example (the movement I know most about), if Tim is to continue ignoring people who wear that particular label he’s probably going to end up shutting his eyes to the church of the future. As Philip Jenkins points out in his top notch The Next Christendom it looks exceedingly likely that the future of world Christianity will be southern (hemisphere), conservative/evangelical and pentecostal. Already in this country, if it wasn’t for those churches which choose to identify themselves as evangelical, the church attendance stats would be even more depressing. (See for example Peter Brierley’s observations on the 2005 English Church Census in his
Pulling Out of the Nosedive.)
We may feel that evangelicalism and liberalism are such thoroughgoing modernist expressions of the faith that they are ultimately doomed. Maybe. But don’t underestimate just how long modernity will be with us. Don’t underestimate the number of people in the church who for good or ill find the certainties of modernity (whether rationalistic certainties or fideistic certainties) a very attractive refuge from the shifting sands of the post. And don’t overestimate the proportion of Christians who have embraced the move away from the old and admittedly creaking categories. (I suspect the fifty fifty split in this weeks poll result is a long way from being representative of the church at large. You are a weird bunch.) We mustn’t project our desires for how we would like it to be onto the way it actually is.
As for describing the labels as “so twentieth century” that’s just sooooo pretentious.
Jodie’s observation got under my skin for different reasons. It is worryingly sweeping and dismissive. Let me quote his comment in full:
“Yes conservative/evangelical Christians are great at getting people to leave their brains at the door, recite a formulaic prayer and provide little evidence of extending God's amazing grace to the least. Well done!”
Now, to a certain extent, this is a fair description and a justifiable criticism of evangelical attempts at disciple-making … but only if we are talking about evangelicalism at its worst. At its best, and even at a fair bit less than its best, evangelicalism has had a far more positive impact for the kingdom than Jodie suggests.
The revivals of the 18C did make a significant and welcome if relatively short-lived difference. Some of the social/political reforms and hands on social action of the 19C evangelicals (such as Wilberforce and Booth) ought not to be set on one side so easily. More recently the likes of Rene Padilla and other Latin American evangelicals who were influenced by liberation theology have played a key part in helping western evangelicalism to shift back towards a more holistic understanding and expression of the gospel.
I admit that in many ways contemporary evangelicalism is ripe for criticism. (Indeed I’ve spent a fair bit of time in recent years having a go myself – and will no doubt continue to do so in the future.) But this is precisely why we need to be careful. It would be so easy to turn this vigorous, varied and influential (if deeply flawed) movement into an all too easy whipping boy. ASBO Jesus is good for a laugh but it is only a cartoon. We are experts in the church at overreacting to our recent failings by running so hard in the opposite direction that we fail to carry the strengths of our recent past with us.
There’s no doubt that evangelicalism as a movement is undergoing huge changes. There’s no doubt that the meaning of the term is shifting in all sorts of ways. It is certainly filling out. At least in the evangelical academy it is adding a more substantial theology of creation to its traditional crucicentrism; adding an appreciation of more contemplative spiritualities to its traditional activism; embracing notions of journey in ways that substantially modify its traditional conversionism and becoming more diverse in the way it expresses its traditional Biblicism. Will these trends filter down into evangelicalism on the ground? I hope so. Will the term become so extensively modified and stretched as to cease to be of use? Possibly. Will it find a recognisable home beyond the predicted demise of modernity? Let’s see. But whatever is happening, whatever will happen, whatever I would like to see happen, whatever Tim, Graham and Jodie think is happening I’m pretty sure it’s far too soon just yet to be writing obituaries.