Evangelicalism and Subcultures: Part V

I’ve been writing on Evangelicalism over the past few weeks partially as a theological exercise and partially to work out a my own critiques and vision for this movement. I would not consider myself a spokesperson for the movement, nor do I want to be, but I do recognize that I am in many ways a product of it and have been deeply influenced by Evangelical churches since a very young age. Finally, there is something especially unique about my reflecting on it as a theologian that aligns myself with the theology and history of the Friends Church, and has interest in that tradition’s longevity (it too has been deeply influenced by Evangelicalism).

I invite you into this conversation – to add to it, challenge and/or resonate with these views. I’ve embarked on this quest in order to offer critiques and possibilities for the larger discussion that surrounds this.

Visit my “Series on Evangelicalism” under the Featured page for the rest of the posts on this topic.


A critique on the movement as a subculture
What I like so much about Quakerism and the Emerging Church (not necessarily both together) is that they both hold values that extend beyond the restrictions of Evangelicalism and modernity. What both Quakers and Emerging Churches hold in common is a desire to transform secular space (see Ryan Bolger’s conversation on this), and see that all is God’s, all is in his realm and that his fingerprints are over everything. This is where the larger Evangelical church loses me and many in our generation. There seems to be a lack of ability to create things new and authentic. I was having a conversation the other day where my friend and I were making fun of those old G.A.P. (God Answers Prayers) christian tees. Now maybe I take that stuff too seriously but we rarely as the church generate ideas worth duplicating, instead we take the ideas of the world and slap some kind of christianese on it. This is the effect of a dualistic disease that sees everything as either Christian or non-Christian. “Gap??? is not Christian but we can make it Christian by rephrasing what it stands for. Some things are not worth saving.
A6345C-LgThe Evangelical church has become a sub-culture, a group of people out of touch with the larger world. It is this part of the church that has largely moved away from the urban centers of the world and into the Suburbs, it is largely representative of Anglo-Americans and has largely represented conservative views on politics and culture. Even if these are only generalizations and don’t fit the whole of the movement, these generalizations in my mind constitute a reason to “listen up??? and “consider thy ways.???
Many of us were told as teenagers to throw, burn, and smash anything that was not Christian. Growing up under this kind of anti-secular sentiment, Evangelicals try and think “what would a non-christian person like to do if he/she came to church??? or “what kinds of songs would they like to sing,??? or “what words can I use to change the way they think about Jesus.??? This is how we “engage??? with the culture. The reality is that there is little interaction from those “on the outside.??? A majority of church growth is transferring memberships from one Evangelical church to another (typically to “bigger??? and “better??? churches that offer more programs and services to me as a consumer).

This is the leg-up that the emerging church has on other groups, most of these people have un-learned their christianese, been baptized back into a real world where God rules over all not just the “sacred.??? The church then is always looking to redeem and transform that which is around it, not obliterate it or run from it. One main obstacle for this is that there must be a level of “un-learning??? that goes on. There are many people both at Fuller and world-wide that want to join in with radical Christianity, but its not a set of beliefs, or a certain formula you throw together in the food processor. No, radical Christianity moves beyond beliefs to practicing and living like Jesus lived (would Jesus wear GAP (or G.A.P.) clothes made in 3rd word Sweatshops?). His whole body was in this world, there were no dualisms in Christ, no “one foot in, one foot out.??? He was baptized into the “secular??? world, and he redeemed that world with the whole of his life.

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

11 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and Subcultures: Part V”

  1. Mr. Daniels,

    I too applaud your desire to dialogue about these important issues and the direction that the Evangelical movement needs to take. However, I feel that once again you have begun a discussion in a great deal of haste and have in fact based your discussion around poorly defined pre-suppositions. The majority of your discussion is consumed with using words that seem to have been derived by a Dr. Seuss dictionary and which are thrown together in such a way that one has to spend most of their time proof-reading your remarks instead of gleaning truth from them.

    The term “evangelical” is one that is certainly difficult to truly define and any attempt on our part to come to a suitable consensus about its meaning is tenuous at best. However, there are a number of stereotypes that you buy into in your dialogue that really do not survive under a more studious investigation. In actual fact, to be labeled “evangelical” in our society is about as generic of a term as being labeled “Christian”. The media has so inundated us with the term that it virtually has no meaning at all. As a movement it is currently “stranded at the stable door” because it has become merely a catch word and not a deep seated collection of beliefs.

    As far Quakerism and its belief in the many other forms of authority, such as church tradition, I think is perhaps a little disingenuous. How can a movement be described as placing a great deal of authority on church tradition when they routinely ignore the “sacraments” that Christ instituted and which the early church participated in on a daily basis. Perhaps you should say that Quaker’s follow only their “own” church tradition and not that which has been handed down since the ascension of Christ. That would probably be a more accurate assessment of their “core” beliefs. But then again, Quaker theology is as diverse as the poorly defined “evangelical” theology.

    It would take a great deal more time to go into these questions than that which this “blog” provides, but I think you need to admit a certain degree of “tunnel vision” in your discussions and open yourself up to the possibility that it might be more beneficial to us to admit the great mystery than to vigilantly pursue simple classifications.

  2. Marcus thanks for reading my blog, I see that you and I have very different ideas and so I appreciate and welcome your comments. I’ve from the beginning paid careful attention to be fair in my assestments of Evangelicalism (Have you read my other posts in this series). These ideas that I am using are not new to me, unfortunately I cannot (nor did I ever try) claim them as my own. My ideas have come from top notch scholars who are themselves Evangelicals (see part 1 and 2).

    I certainly don’t mind if you take issue with what I’ve said, but how about you validate some of your claims by making a few points of your own. What I mean is you disagree with me, but you didn’t tell me what your own point of view is, I’d like to hear it.

    I’d have to disagree with you when you say that Evangelicalism as a word has been stripped of meaning, if this is so then what do we call Christians that are not Evangelical? Further, why don’t the Evangelicals themselves seem to think that this word is meaningless? There are all kinds of churches and para-church organizations that have this word in their title in order to set them apart from some other group, why if it simply means “christian” is the word still in use?

    When I spoke of Quakers adhering to “church tradition” I do in fact mean, Quaker tradition first and then the larger Christian church tradition. You misunderstand Quaker theology if you think they “ignore the sacraments” – in practice some may (many Evangelical Quakers actually take the Eucharist in their meetings) but theologically this is not what has been passed down from Fox. And in fact its ironic that you would use that argument against me, as I am one who is trying to rethink Quaker’s use of Sacraments. If you are interested in my discussions on this matter here and here. I look forward to this continued conversation.

  3. Wess,

    It is unfortunate that you failed to understand the very specific and basic points that I was trying to make in my response to your comments on “evangelicalism.” First and foremost I was not saying that the word “evangelical” is synonymous with the label “christian”, I was stating that it has been so overused like the label “christian” as to lose all of its uniqueness and distinctiveness. Here, read my comments again:

    In actual fact, to be labeled “evangelical??? in our society is about as generic of a term as being labeled “Christian???. The media has so inundated us with the term that it virtually has no meaning at all.

    The meaning I was intended with this comparison was obviously missed by your casual reading of my comments. In regards to Fox and his view on the sacraments, I think you have “added” a great deal to them in order to believe that he made them a consistent part of Quaker worship. Even a peripheral reading of Fox would find that he placed little or no importance on them in the corporate worship setting. It has only been recently that Quaker churches have attempted to reincorporate their importance in the context of worship. Besides, Quaker theology is not the starting point for understanding the expectations of the christian life or the church. A larger investigation of church history would provide you with some enlightening discoveries. As far as using this arguments against you, it was merely to point out the places where Quaker theology diverges from obvious biblical mandates. But perhaps that point is moot when you had trouble understanding my preceding comments.

    Anyways, it’s good to dialogue. I just ask that you would take as much time to read my “blogs” as I took reading yours.

  4. It seems odd that you seem to be approaching a dialogue with such animosity towards me and it certainly does not elicit better discussion on the topics at hand.

    Whether the term Evangelical (notice the big ‘E’) has lost all, or most, of its meaning, or become synonymous with the term Christian, a word you suggest is also “generic,??? my argument still remains in tact. And I do understand that your point is not to say that the two are equal but to call both words generic, and to have little meaning at all does not move us further than my own writing on the matter. If left up to you, there would be no position to take on the matter, and one might as well just not talk about it at all for fear of only finding “tenuous.???

    I agree with you that the word is difficult to define, and isn’t very well understood. But from a theological and historical perspective this is not the case. The word, labels an entire movement of people that reach back to Jonathan Edwards (Read George Marsden’s word on him), follows through the Civil War and includes people like D.L. Moody, Phoebe Palmer, William Booth, Billy Graham, and now Pat Robertson, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw and others. Not only does the word label a group of people within a movement (who have often used that very word to describe themselves) but it also describes a core set of beliefs that set these Christians a part from others. I am looking at the works of Mark Noll, David Bebbington, George Marsden and Nancey Murphy, so this may or may not be convincing to you whether you can accept what these scholars have put forth.

    Finally the word Evangelicalism can be looked at sociologically and studied from the perspective of class, education, politics and race. I have only on a small scale begun to explore these issues and make them available from my perspective, which is unique inasmuch as I am a Quaker (and Anabaptist minded) Christian and trying to think in postmodern terms. I may have failed in doing well at this, but I have not stated that my understanding is definitive, exhaustive or even completely fair. Of course this is why I’ve written in dialogue on my website, so that in those areas where I’ve missed something or misspoke I could have others from various perspectives add to the conversation. I welcome you to add to this conversation, instead of trying to distract from it.

    So far, the word Evangelical is still being used to describe what I’ve named above by people both inside and outside the movement, if you think its lost all meaning what is it you propose they do? It still carries enough weight that I would be careful who you call this “generic??? term, for I think many people who do not consider themselves this take offense at being called this

    Finally, your point about Quaker sacraments is an interesting one; I would prefer you quote from something of Fox, Barclay, Penn, Pennington or Nayler in order to substantiate what you’ve said. Walter Williams, a Quaker historian has noted that Fox did not do away with the sacraments but revolutionized thinking about them. Instead of limiting sacraments to the seven that the Catholics practice or the 2 (or 3) that the Protestants practice; Fox opened up a much broader perspective of the way we can view the sacraments. There are many things that can be sacramental, not just the ones we typically participate in. This is where Elton Trueblood and Richard Foster (to name a couple) get their ideas on “sacramental living,??? a very rich understanding of how the people of God can interact with the Holy Spirit. For Fox what was instituted at the Lord’s supper was not the ritual that is actually practiced in church today, but the meeting together in the name and Spirit of Jesus. What is most important is fellowship with one another and the Spirit, how it happens is secondary. As if Jesus said “When you meet together do it in memory of me, remember how I was broken and bled for you.??? Now this last part is my understanding as I have gleened it from my reading of the Friends History and theology. You may not like it, I am not claiming a final word on the matter, but one, I hope that may move us forward in our understanding of it.

    I have gone further to say that I agree with Fox and taking my cues from Trueblood, Foster and especially John Howard Yoder to move Quaker theology along and help to contextualize it in this world. Again you may not agree with the way in which I am trying to think about these things, but this is what I am trying to do for better or ill.

  5. Marcus — The term “Evangelical” is no more inadequate than “Protestant” or “Libertarian,” yet we seem to be able to talk about those groups without difficulty. The “media” (speaking of poorly defined terms …) may use the word imprecisely, but Wess isn’t, so I don’t see your point.

    In your first post you say the Wess needs to “open [himself] up to the possibility that it might be more beneficial to us to admit the great mystery than to vigilantly pursue simple classifications.” I hope for your sake that there’s a typo somewhere in there, because every time I read that it just looks like gibberish.

  6. Wow, it looks like quite a heated discussion. I think perhaps that both of you (and Chase) are speaking at each other and not to each other. There definitely seems to be a communication breakdown. Aside from all of the exclamatory language, a few interesting points have been brought up, namely, is there even such a thing as a true “evangelical” anymore? I for one have always used the term in describing some of my theological presuppositions when I approach biblical texts, but perhaps it has lost its meaning (or worse carries connotations that I would refuse to align with).

    As far as the above discussion (if you could call it that) of church tradition, I find this to be one of the most important (and neglected) aspects of authority for the believer. Certainly we have to clearly profess which church tradition we are attempting to follow, but I think a too rigid adherance to any one church tradition can run the risk of blinding you to “wider” path of grace.

    Anyways, I just wanted to offer a voice of calm amidst the growing storm.

  7. Chase,

    Your comments certainly surprised me, I was just trying to be a voice of “calm” in this discussion. I am just a friend of Wess from college. In what ways do you consider me of like mind with Marcus? I am just struggling with how to approach Evangelicalism like the rest of you (Or perhaps I am the only one). Let me know what you think.

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