Evangelical Self-Critique as Cultural Practice
I suspect most people don't see just how much Evangelicals continually criticize themselves. Whether the tone is sincere or smug, the practice of speaking critically about the shortcomings of their faith community is bound to come up in any serious discussion among Evangelicals.
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For Evangelicals, this is obvious and mundane (Dude, tell me something I don't already know). But for those outside the movement, it highlights aspects of this religious orientation that are both critical and complimentary. So, here's my take on it.
Another way to characterize this is that contemporary Evangelicals continually look in the mirror and are not quite satisfied with what they see. So, they turn to each other and talk about the practice of their faith.
I consider such critique to be "insider talk" with "insider language" about "insider dynamics." It makes it as compelling as gossip for those who are inside. It can also sound like gibberish to those outside.
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Because there are so many Evangelicals in the U.S., the conversation can be sustained at a national level through Christian publishing houses, individual blogsites, and constant twitter updates. It's not just local church fellowships (although it happens there), its also readily available at national conferences. The back-and-forth discussion in these settings easily turns to bantering and can become a screeching match. For anyone who cares to pay attention, the public nature of this conversation makes it accessible for study.
Evolving Critique and the Future of American Religion
Why bother paying attention? Because the evolving critique that happens among Evangelicals tells you a whole lot not only about Evangelicalism but also the near future of religion in America.
Image by Don Orrell via FlickrTake the sharp rise of Fundamentalism in the early 20th Century (George Marsden's book is an excellent source.) In that case, severe critique of what became characterized as "modernism" and "liberalism" redefined Evangelicals into the "Bible church orientation" we are all so familiar with today -- the primacy of exegetical preaching, the focus on Bible as Word of God, the salvation focus driving bullet-point evangelism, and the requirement of church membership affirmed by checking-off a series of doctrinal affirmations.
Since the dawn of the Evangelical movement, it might be said that Evangelicalism functions as an ongoing process of critique in the practice of religion. (See a my recent posts on Charles Finney's remarkable ministry.) Indeed, Christian maturity in some circles is measured -- not by how much you pray or know the Bible but -- by how incisive you can talk about Evangelicals.
Example of Evangelical Self-Critique
As excellent example of Evangelical Self-Critique just came out this week. Read a post by Scot McKnight who recently wrote this fascinating piece on "Spiritual Eroticism."
Are we really in love with Jesus, or with the experience of loving Jesus?
by Scot McKnight
A peculiar development occurred in the medieval age regarding love. Behind closed doors and in the rush of brief encounters, there developed what has been called “courtly love” or “romantic love.” Married men found themselves emotionally carried away with either another married woman or a single woman. This courtly love, so we are told, remained at the emotional and non-physical level.
Image via WikipediaThe interpretation of many is that the Lover, because of the emotion it generated, preferred the nearly intolerable absence of the Beloved over the presence of the Beloved. The Lover preferred the titillation of fantasy over the toughness of fidelity. The essence of courtly love was to become intoxicated with love, to fall in love with love. It was to prefer the fire of love over the Beloved and delight in the experience of love over the presence of the Beloved. Think Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps even Romeo and Juliet.
Friends of mine today worry about consumerization or commoditization in the church. I offer a slightly different analysis of what might be the same thing: for many, Sunday services have become the experience of courtly love. Some folks love church, and what they mean by "loving church" is that they love the experience they get when they go to church. They prefer to attend churches that foster the titillation of courtly-love worship and courtly-love fellowship and courtly-love feelings.
They say they love worship, and by this they mean they love the courtly-love-like songs that extol the experience of loving Jesus or the experience of adoring God or the experience of a concert-like praise team that can generate the sound of worship intensely enough to vibrate the very soul of the worshiper.
Such folks might like sermons that create powerful contrasts between God’s wrath and human sinfulness or between our sinfulness and God’s gracious love; or they might like stories told so well as to usher them into the depths of human loves and hates and tragedies and comedies. What they like is the freshness of discovery or the flush of shame or the intoxicating sense of learning something new. They may create such a stir of silence in expectation of some great preacher or some great leader that the sheer presence of that person makes their soul swoon.
But this does not describe worship.
My contention is rather simple: the shaping of a Sunday service or a worship event or a concert in order to generate a profound experience might emerge from a courtly-love sense of worship. The expectation of such an experience on the part of the worshiper might also emerge from a courtly sense of worship. The opening of the Bible to read in search of an experience, or the entrance into a prayer time in order to rediscover some powerful emotion might also emerge from the intrusion of courtly love into how many today understand spirituality.
Let’s call this was it is: spiritual eroticism. And those who are good at it can be called spiritual erotics.
Cover of The Four LovesSo, what can be done? The same thing that good critics of courtly love, like C.S. Lewis, did about that distortion of love. Love, proper love—the love of God and, by extension, the love of others that both Moses and Jesus reveal—is to focus on God as the Sole Beloved worthy of our entire heart. Eros, Lewis argued in The Four Loves, wants to be a god, wants to be an idol. Eros left to itself, will not lead us to Charity. Eros needs to be tamed by Charity. When Eros is tamed by Charity, what happens?
Charity always leads us to the Beloved. Charity skips over the intoxication that comes with the experience of love and leads us straight to the face of the Beloved—Father, Son, Spirit. Those who know the Beloved and desire nothing but the glory of that Beloved may well know the experience, but they are so enthralled with the Face of the Beloved they forget where they are and dwell in the presence of God with but one thought: God deserves praise, God is worthy of praise.
There is a big difference between saying “You are worthy of our praise” and saying “I love praising God.” The second, I am suggesting, is courtly love. It is in love with loving God; but it is the first that is in love with God.
McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. His books have been well-received among Evangelicals of all types.
Characteristics of Evangelical Self-Critique
In my recent reading, I think the best Evangelical self-critique today draws on aspects of Christian history as a point of comparison or apply a sensitizing concept to draw out subtle aspects of contemporary practices.
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Scot McKnight's writing here is a good example of what can be found almost everywhere once you start looking. See books by Erwin McManus or Doug Pagitt or Tony Jones or Tony Campolo. See articles in Christianity Today or Relevance magazine. See online material like blog posts and podcasts at emergentvillage.com.
If I began some attempt to formalize it, I would begin with these characteristics of Evangelical Self-Critique:
This is only a beginning.
- Modern Christianity is off-point on several (most?) aspects of "True" Christianity.
- The word "Christians" is generalized, although it often means only other Evangelicals.
- Observation of common practices resonates with the experience of other "Christians" (see point #2).
- Some type of experience -- intrapersonal experience (what happened to me), interpersonal experience (what happened to us together) or extra-personal experience (what happened to my friend, neighbor, brother) -- is weaved into the narrative to root the observation in "reality."
- Finally, the use of Bible verses is far less important than the application of a biblical theology - that is, applying an interpretive concept of "Christian" living is what is required to drive the point home.
At the core, I think it's important to know that Evangelicals continually have discussions -- intense discussions -- on nearly every aspect of "normal" Christian life. Such discussion can lead to endless spinning of ideas, but others further stimulate the practical decisions being made by church leaders and church attenders (as well as non-profit organizations and broad organizational networks) about practices and priorities that fuels further developments.