Thursday, July 19, 2007

More Theological Thoughts (mine and others')

On the 3rd Thursday night (approximately) of each month during the school year, a small group of American and Ukrainian Evangelicals get together to talk about the burning theological issues that we are wrestling with. One of our members started a blog for our group, which you can access here, or via my list of other blogs. It's summer, so there isn't a lot going on, but once the semester starts and we get to meeting again, I trust the blog discussion will increase.

Most recently, there, I posted my assessment of a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I post on that blog even less frequently than I do on this one. Nonetheless, feel free to check it out. That post has a link to the debate, if your interested.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Determining Evangelcial Reality

I recently read two articles from different publications that, quite providentially (or quite coincidentally, depending on your point of view), discuss the same phenomenon but come to two radically divergent conclusions. They both discussed whether Evangelicalism in the mid to late 1900s fostered intellectual and cultural engagement with unbelieving society in order to effect change or whether its negative imagery and language of despair when talking about society hindered such engagement and the integration of faith and learning for Evangelicals. George M. Marsden argues the former in "The Born Again Mind" from issue 92 of Christian History & Biography (CHB), while James A. Patterson argues the latter in volume 49:4 of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) in his article, "Cultural Pessimism in Modern Evangelical Thought: Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry and Charles Colson." Had I not read the articles within mere days of each other, I would have found myself in agreement with both authors. However, since I did read them so close together, I am forced to process the seeming incompatibility. What better place to process than a blog? If my process is bad or my conclusions wrong, someone can let me know. After a few caveats and a presentation of Marsden's and Patterson's positions, I'll state my conclusion. After that, lemme have it!

Caveat 1: JETS is an academic journal, while CHB is a popular magazine. It may not seem fair to compare articles from such mismatched sources, but in this particular case, I think it’s permissible. Masden is not the kind of scholar who would play loose with the facts in order to get an article published. A large majority of his research and writing has been devoted to the history of Evangelicalism, making him qualified to write a popular article that is spot on regarding the facts and their interpretations. This is not to make less of Patterson, rather, it is to say that we can trust Marden's article regardless of CHB’s more popular focus.

Caveat 2: It took me quite a while to get my mind around the key difference(s) between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. In fact, knowing what I do, there are still times when it is difficult to distinguish between them. In my opinion, it may be better to divide between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist forms of Evangelicalism, rather than between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. (I'm going to withhold a firm commitment until I finish reading Marsden's Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.) In any case, the fact that "fundamentalism" is now primarily understood as a pejorative sociological/psychological term rather than a descriptive religious/denominational one means that a lot of defining is required before any significant progress is going to be made in this discussion. I mention it here simply because it directly relates to how I address the issue at hand. If you disagree with my understanding of this distinction, it may cause you to disagree with my conclusion.

After discussing the varied activities of key Evangelical leaders in the mid 1900s, which were attempts to initiate a revival in Evangelical scholarship and engagement with academia, Marsden has this to say:

"From these and other modest beginnings, a genuine renaissance in evangelical scholarship would grow geometrically throughout the next decades. By the 1970s and 1980s, not only were many evangelical colleges assembling excellent faculties, but increasing numbers of evangelicals were publishing in the academic mainstream and taking their places in the broader university culture. Today this growth continues and has burgeoned into a considerable force in American academia. All over the country, outstanding evangelical students are crowding into graduate programs …" (p. 38).

To Marsden's list can be added the continued growth and recognition of Evangelical colleges and universities as legitimate contributors to U.S. higher education in areas beyond the purely religious. Also, the public debate stirred up by the Intelligent Design movement — which contains no small number of Evangelicals — definitely reveals the attempt and success at engaging culture intellectually. And, as mentioned here, there are a growing number of excellent, big-budget, wide-release films being produced by Christians, some of whom are Evangelicals.

Patterson, on the other hand, paints a starker picture. He readily acknowledges that the desired goal of Evangelical leaders, namely, Schaeffer, Henry and Colson, was to positively influence academia and culture for the Kingdom of God. However, he proposes that the harshly critical expression and "us vs. them" mentality of these leaders actually hindered the accomplishment of their goal.

"While Schaeffer, Henry and Colson all made notable, albeit sometimes, indirect, contributions to the Christian higher educational enterprise, their cultural stridency may actually have been counterproductive for the challenge of integrating faith and scholarship. … The confrontational, attack-mode style that often accompanies ‘dark age’ rhetoric undercuts the mission of evangelical Christian higher education. First, it seems likely that some of those exposed to such language, especially students and their parents, will be more apt to dismiss the culture than to engage it seriously. … Second, hostile, combative, and even exaggerated descriptions of contemporary culture threaten efforts to integrate faith and scholarship by undercutting concepts of general revelation and common grace." (pp. 808, 819, 820)

So, who’s right? Did the Evangelicalism of the past half-century promote and inspire the intellectual and cultural engagement that we now see? Or does our current situation — which, while positive and encouraging, forever demands of us prayerful, prudent and persistent action — exist in spite of the well-intentioned but "counterproductive" and "undercutting" efforts of Evangelicals past?

I side with Marsden for four reasons:

1. Biblically: The New Testament is filled with language about "the Kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness," "the Church and the world," "the people of God and the people of Satan," that Evangelicals use in their writings and speeches about secular culture. And yet, Christianity worldwide — which, knowingly or unknowingly, has as its authority New Testament teaching — is continuing to grow and flourish in spite of the fact that the Bible uses such rhetoric. Patterson's argument is weakened by saying that Evangelicals hurt the Church by doing something that the authoritative teachings of the Church do themselves.

2. Logically: If Evangelicals, using whatever language, constantly and consistently encouraged cultural and intellectual engagement and, decades later, Evangelicals are more engaged culturally and intellectually, it seems logical that their tactics were effective in accomplishing their goal. For Patterson to say that some people would hear or read Evangelicals and respond with a Fundamentalist attitude toward culture and academia — Fundamentalists encourage separation from culture and approach a separatist form of academics — doesn't seem to logically follow.

3. Common Sensically: Social and religious developments and movements almost always are associated with lots of intentional and passionate activity on the part of those effecting change. Newton's First Law of Motion, "objects at rest tend to stay at rest," seems to apply here. How can we explain the current state of Evangelical engagement if, on Patterson's appraisal, the Evangelical attempts to encourage such engagement were discouraging, even damaging, to what they were trying to accomplish? It makes much more sense to interpret the situation as Marsden does. After World War II, Evangelicals began to advance cultural and intellectual engagement, they were successful at this, and now Evangelicals are more culturally and intellectually engaged. It seems that their harsh descriptions of culture and the bleak future they envisioned without an Evangelical renewal inspired the change that they sought.

4. Personally: Having graduated from an Evangelical institution — one that, oddly enough, has Fundamentalist roots but which, years ago, took an aggressive and exciting Evangelical turn — and now working with an Evangelical mission, I can say that all of the doomsday language about culture and academia do, in fact, inspire rather than discourage engagement with culture. I am surrounded by Evangelicals who have been, directly or indirectly, affected by Schaeffer, Henry and Colson, and we all want to see our culture and society won for Christ. In fact, I can't say that I personally know anyone who holds a strict Fundamentalist attitude toward culture.

For these reasons, I consider the work of Evangelicals since the mid 1900s to have been unbelievably positive in spurring the Church on to engage the culture. One can find Evangelical influence in almost every sphere of life. This couldn't have happened by accident. I also consider it a privilege to be part of Evangelicalism and the work that is going on worldwide. The Evangelical Church in Eurasia is in the midst of the Fundamentalist controversy but, as happened in the west in decades ago, the Church is moving toward a more aggressive and active program of cultural engagement. This is a lot of fun to watch, even if it at times it feels like a one step forward, two steps back situation. And, above all, I consider all of this to be part of God's sovereign plan to expand His Kingdom, save the perishing and glorify Himself. To watch the Church take the light of Christ to the world and to see the world transformed as a result is exactly what the Holy Spirit wants, and it makes Satan cringe and cower. May the spirit of Evangelicalism continue to carry out the task God has entrusted to it, even if that includes being a prophetic voice in a culture that is still a far cry from what it could and should be.