Five Fundamental Questions Conservative Evangelicals Must Address

We’ve been told often in recent years that conservative evangelicals must adapt to changing social conditions or find themselves consigned to irrelevance.  On matters of both style and substance, many evangelicals have been motivated by an anxiety that they simply aren’t keeping up.

And the concern is understandable.  If we do in fact enter into a “post-Christian culture,” then traditional Christian teaching won’t even rise to the level of “wrong”; it will simply be weird.  The challenge before us is not that people will disagree with Christianity; it’s that they won’t understand it at all.  Which is why conservative Christian concerns right now about being marginalized on account of our moral teachings are totally misplaced.  As long as we are being actively marginalized, we are still being taken seriously.  It’s indifference from a surrounding culture that ought to concern Christians.

Yet whether conservative evangelicals have the internal resources or fortitude to maintain faithfulness in the face of cultural pressures is the great unknown.  The most heartening movements–the emphasis on mission, the emphasis on the Gospel, and yes, even the struggle with the relationship between economic prosperity and Christianity–have appropriately challenged many conservative Christians to rethink what faithfulness looks like.

But my concern is that conservative evangelicals have not yet grappled with the fundamental questions that determine the plausibility of our witness.  With that in mind, here’s my best attempt at five of the most pressing questions facing conservative Christians.

What is the nature of experience and its limits?  

What is experience, and what role does it play in moral reflection?  What can be gained from it, and what are its limits?  Many younger evangelicals have spent a good deal of time affirming the validity of their own “stories,” yet in doing so have raised fundamental questions about the meaning and content of their experiences and their relationship to Scripture.  Some careful work has been done on the area, but our “story” is only one form our “experience” takes.  The phenomenon of sexual desire, for instance, doesn’t quite fit the category of “story” but it too is a form of experience that needs careful sorting.

The emotive, memoir-based writing style that has taken hold of many younger evangelicals only makes the challenge more difficult.  It is difficult to evaluate the role experience should play in an ethos dominated by rhetoric formed by experience and by the particularities of people’s perspectives.  It is hard to question the value of stories or experience when our diet largely consists of prose that must find its roots there to be treated as “authentic” or “real” or what have you.

What do institutions do?

I don’t mean here the institution of the church, as conservative evangelicals have worn out the printing presses making the case that younger Christians oughta love the church along with Jesus.  Nor do I mean the obviously visible institution of the government.  Seriously, of the writing of books on evangelicals and politics there needs to be an end, or at least a very lengthy moratorium.

The problem, I think, extends beyond those:  what do other, non-governmental institutions do, like the “soft institutions” of family or marriage or the economy?  And what is the relationship between institutions and the form of particular, individual lives and experiences?

One way of distilling my concern with the “radical” movement is that its emphases don’t take shape within a robust appreciation for the culture-transmitting role that institutions play.  Andy Crouch has recently written smart thoughts about the need for institutions:  but conservative Christians need to go further, to wrestle more particularly with how institutional forms affect individual lives and vice versa.

Consider marriage, for instance:  the debate over gay marriage is a debate over how a cultural institution is shaped by the people who make it up and the acts and pursuits they engage in, and how that institution reciprocally forms them and even those who do not enter it.  There’s been lots of talk among conservatives about how to improve the traditionalist case for marriage.  Yet all the talk of narrative and persuasion will come to nothing as long as the logic of how institutions work remains ambiguous and undefined.

How can we root out our low expectations?  

Where to start?  How about the classroom.  Private Christian schools ought to be much more than simply cloistered communities where students get the same education they’d get elsewhere with a Bible gloss put on it.  Standards matter, which many  private Christian high schools apparently forget.  It’s almost as though we all believe that as long as we’re saying Bible stuff, that’s enough, regardless of how hard we are working or how rigorously we are thinking.  When I taught high school, helping my students that they were capable of far more than anyone had ever asked of them was my first priority.   (Want a refreshing contrast for high schoolers?  Try Wheatstone Academy, Biola’s Torrey Academy, or Houston Baptist’s new Academy.)

There’s a financial dimension to our low expectations for people, I’ll grant.  Many youth pastors and Christian educators have their bills paid by the number of people they can retain.  Making things difficult is a sure-fire way to not succeed, they think, and so standards drop to keep paying people around.  But the paradox is that if you hold students to a higher standard, they respond and like it.  

But while I started at education, it’s not the only realm where we don’t expect much from people.  In our preaching, in small group discipleship, in our leadership circles, there is a widespread presumption that because people are so busy they simply want to be told what to do.  It’s pragmatism of the most pernicious sort: a pragmatism that postures as a genuine concern for people while simply placating their felt needs.  And when that pragmatic impulse is aligned with an emphasis on maintaining our numbers or an audience, it has the appearance of making a difference without the substance.  It’s an unholy concoction, but one that pervades our evangelical culture.

Or take our sexual ethics.  The call to holiness must be accompanied and encompassed by the reminder of the reality of grace, but fundamentally it is a call to perfection, the pronouncement of moral expectations that are far more rigorous than any of us could meet at any given moment.  To give you a sense of how much things have changed, the early Christians debated about whether it was better to commit suicide than commit a sin.  That discussion had its own problems, but the point is pretty clear:  They were willing to die rather than commit a moral wrong.  By way of contrast, many of our leading writers are interested in finding ways to sanction masturbation and distributing contraception to single Christians because we apparently cannot imagine calling single people to a life without sexual gratification.

And if you think young evangelicals offer any sort of hope (at the moment) on this score, remember this:  We talk a good game about being more educated than our parents and being less pragmatically driven, but our most popular writing happens in one-sentence paragraphs with lots of bold font.

What role do the affections play in education and formation?  

When Rod Dreher describes the case for traditional marriage as depending on a “cosmology,” he’s on to something.  Traditional Christian teaching has a cluster of assumptions and stances that are mutually reinforcing.  And one of the most important is that the emotional life–our affections–needs to be formed and reformed in accordance with an external, normative standard of goods. Certain ways of feeling are inappropriate responses to the world, and certain feelings fit it.  If you can see that and are convinced of it, then it reorders the questions:  our affections and emotions become interesting but not finally determinative of our lives, as they stand in need of evaluation in light of that order of goods.

It was once the case that the educative process included this sort of formation and was geared toward it.  But no longer, which means that many young people don’t share the basic framework that makes Christianity plausible.  It’s hard to make the case for a traditional sexual ethics plausible as long as our affections and emotions are removed from beneath the shadow of doubt.

What is authority?  

Conservative Christians in the 20th century invested a massive amount of time and energy defending the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, largely because it was being called into question.  Yet they have sometimes presumed that the doctrine of authority would simply flow from those other two positions.  But the nature of Scripture’s authority, it’s limits, its purpose, its relationship to the church and other authorities, its role in moral deliberation–these are difficult questions that have not received the attention that they deserve, nor does affirming Scripture’s inerrancy and infallibility provide much guidance for them.

Only the authority of Scripture isn’t the only locus of authority that needs clarifying.  What is the authority of the church?  What sort of authority does the pastor have, and what are its limits?  What can parents command or counsel, and on what grounds?  What is political authority, and what are the conditions for obedience and disobedience?  Is such authority unique?  The notions of authority at work in the various realms of life have something in common with each other, yet authority takes unique forms within the institutions (see the question above) that bears it.  But in all, there is a fundamental question about the form authority takes and its relationship to reality that deserves close consideration.

I realize the above has more questions than answers.  It’s something of a prolegomena.  Think of it as the outlines of where I would want evangelicals to devote their intellectual (and monetary!) capital for the next few years.  Because the more I think about the challenges we face, the more these five areas keep reasserting themselves.

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  • Matthew Loftus

    I’ll chime in on the expectations bit: what sort of expectations should
    we have for, say, your average Christian high schooler? (let’s only talk
    about kids whose parents can afford private Christian school for now;
    how to help kids from broken families or poor neighborhoods is a
    slightly different task.) The last few decades have seen efforts focused
    on “worldview training” that has had mixed results, and I think that
    there is something of a natural distribution in aptitude for critical
    thinking skills and academic application. So how do we sculpt our education environments to handle this?

    (I don’t think this sort of thing applies to sexual ethics or discipleship… there, the problem is that we just aren’t radical enough!) ; )

    • Hermonta Godwin

      Being ambivalent towards worldview training sounds a lot like James Smith and I think is misguided. I think the issue is that our worldview training has not been deep enough or good enough. Everyone has the ability to be critical and exacting concerning issues that they believe are important.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      I actually think taking the expectations conversation toward “worldview’ or not is the wrong direction. The problem of low expectations isn’t necessarily a question of the content, but the method. I’d love to see more rigorous and exacting writing requirements, no textbooks so that people are reading real books, and everyone treated like adults. Basically, do what the three organizations I mentioned do. : )

      • Matthew Loftus

        Well, yes. But you didn’t exactly answer my question. Throw 30 kids into a classroom like the one you describe (assuming that these 30 kids *aren’t* self-selected for natural aptitude) you’ll see a variety of results. What do we do about that? I think that schools like the ones you describe are great for people who already have a lot of potential to think carefully. But what about for people who aren’t?

        related: there’s been a big surge in classical Christian education; do you think that these graduates have the right expectations put on them and thus do better?

        • SJ theivorylighthouse.blogspot

          Are you trying to describe some sort of intellectual eugenics? There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to education and social factors that influence the success rates of kids, on top of that there’s stuff to be said about the Christian education system. I’m not sure your question correlates quite to what Anderson wrote about.

          In my opinion (I was home schooled in “classical education”) classical education can be a system kids work to their advantage without learning, just like they do now, however it does offer the skills to attain more knowledge (i.e. reading book at their source not textbooks). There will always be varied results as long as there are sentient children who think they know better.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Trust me: not all the students I worked with had equal mental giftings. Most of them were relatively normal, and some of them hadn’t cracked a book ever before in their life. I don’t give one whit for natural aptitude: give me the person who works hard within an educational environment that demands a lot and they’ll be better off in the long run.

          • Matthew Loftus

            Has the sort of environment that you proscribe been studied, or do you think it would be amenable to study?

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            I’m not sure it would be amenable to study. However, if you look at these folks they may be doing empirical research: http://rightquestion.org/make-just-one-change/

  • SJ theivorylighthouse.blogspot

    Yes. Something that should have been said a long time ago. So can we expect this to be the focus for Mere-o?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Heh. Yes, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But have you ever known me to be that systematic in my approach here? I save all my systematic writing for books, it seems. : )

      • SJ theivorylighthouse.blogspot

        A conservative who isn’t systematic? that’s practically heresy (kidding). Systematic or not I’ll never be without a blog post topic again after this post!

  • Bethany Persons

    I think we need to ask these questions of ourselves and our churches. It is so easy to absorb society’s “cosmology” when our thinking about Jesus is shallow. And in that situation, Jesus and the underlying philosophy will invariably pull apart. After that, we either abandon one, or submit one to the other (and you cannot serve two masters, after all).

    How to have these conversations at church… that would take some doing.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Yes….someone ought to write a book that would help churches learn to ask better questions and have better conversations… : )

      • Bethany Persons

        Got me there! Though I think the doing would have less to do with forming the right questions as figuring out how to approach the right people. Though maybe you address that? I suppose I’ll have to buy the book to find out. ;)

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Yes, yes you may have to! Also, you can give a copy away for free to someone if you do. I mean, how could you say “no” to that? : )

  • http://www.jasonhague.com/ Jason Hague

    Terrific insights, Matthew! And these five are inextricably linked. I wonder, for example, if the reason we battle with low expectations is because of personal failed experiences, which we then turn into our primary source of authority. “I failed there so many times, and that’s when I realized failure is not such a big deal.”

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Jason. And the idea that they are linked together hadn’t occurred to me, at least not with all of them. That’s very interesting and provocative. I’ll have to consider it more.

      • http://www.jasonhague.com/ Jason Hague

        Well, I probably overstated that point with the word “inextricably…”

  • CT

    This post is full of so many great insight. I think it adequately paints several of the areas evangelical conservatives must explore.

    I think what stood out to me the most was the area of low expectations. I have been reading a lot of Dallas Willard lately and I think he had some greaf insight into why this exists in Christian culture today.

    For one thing, too many well-meaning evangelicals have largely ( and unintentionally) reduced being a Christian to simply punching a ticket to Heaven and avoiding Hell. This is an important portion of Christianity no doubt, but it does not encompass all there is to being a Christ-follower. Being a Christ-follower involves becoming a disciple of Jesus. This naturally entails living a life that is radically different from the world’s ethics and morals.

    It is a journey to become more like Christ and everyone is at different stages. However, everyone who claims to be a follower must be moving towards that ideal and not away from it (or worse still trying to create some middle approach).

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Willard is fantastic. Spirit of the Disciplines is one of the best books on the body. His work had a profound influence on my first book.

      Matt

  • Keith Miller

    Great piece, Matt.

    Here’s one question though: Why do you presume that Christians have had low expectations for their educational institutions? Sure that may be the stereotype, but that’s what they say about lame Christian colleges like Biola too.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Keith,

      I don’t think it’s a presumption so much as an inference from lots of experience with Christian high schools (and confirmation from those who have had even more). As to why….that question deserves more than a combox answer, I think. : )

      Matt

  • Daniel

    Ditto on the Dallas Willard recommendation, I’m reading, very slowly-letting it soak in, his “Renovation of the Heart.” Letting the gospel soak requires devotion, devotion requires discipline, discipline requires a reward, a reward requires a giver, a giver has a gift, and that gift must be priceless if I am to devote myself fully to it’s pursuit. Anything else is idolatry. That is, and always has been the problem, idolatry- worshiping ones own desires. In that respect, our culture is no different than any other that has rolled through the tides of time. But truly, the only effective Christian social media is the immediate one a living epistle, of trusting that the truth is attractive, and becoming a living embodiment of that truth for my neighbor …my utmost for my highest….

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Daniel, I concur on Willard’s *Renovation.* His stuff on the body in that book is particularly clear and helpful, I thought. It’s some of his best work.

      Matt

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  • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

    These are pretty good, but difficult questions. I’d agree with another commenter that I see some overlap and connections regarding some (if not all) of these questions. With the conflation of personal experience as the primary authority for some people I think it also ramps up the reliance on affections more than it should. My experience has been x and made me feel y so x is either right or wrong based on y.

    This can then erode our sources of authority, because what is a better authority than our feelings and our experiences? Granted I’d say this mentality makes it difficult to have anything but low expectations for education. I mean we want kids to have good experiences and good feelings right? We don’t want them to feel like failures and be hurt do we?

    I think this can also affect how we view institutions. If authority has eroded, institutions are more up to personal interpretation. Or at least the majority interpretation on nationwide issues like marriage equality.

    Now I’m not saying that all of them are always connected for each person, but I do think that they have potential overlap and maybe even more so than I’ve thought about here, considering I’ve come up with this in all of ten minutes or so.

  • Jackson Watts

    Excellent observations.

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  • Christopher Benson

    Good post, Matt. I like the questions that you’re asking. Two replies:

    1) I agree that “of the writing of books on evangelicals and politics there needs to be an end, or at least a very lengthy moratorium.” But don’t you think that’s also true of books on “the ‘soft institutions’ of family or marriage”? Evangelicals are always writing on those subjects. Perhaps you’re just not satisfied with the treatments, however.

    2) As an educator, I’m fascinated by this question of yours: “What role do the affections play in education and formation?” Don’t you think Jamie Smith has done good work in this area with his “Cultural Liturgies” series? On affections, there’s no one better than Robert C. Roberts, professor of philosophy at Baylor. See his “Spiritual Emotions.”

    Hope to hear your thoughts.

  • hans peter

    Scripture says “homosexuals’. Everyone today, including Christians who claim to be biblical, says “gay”. My sense is
    we’ve all played into the hand of Satan. Is the next manipulation of terminology to refer to murderers as unfriendly or less than sociable folks? It may satisfy the murderers but it will only increase the incidence of murder. But maybe that’s okay, too. The implication seems to be if you’re ‘really’ tempted to act in certain ways it’s okay to do it. I’ve never been able to bring myself to call perversion ‘gaiety’. But somehow I seem to be alone- which strikes me as very strange indeed. Is there some kind of complicity I’m missing?
    I’ve made this observation before but who’s listening?
    My point is, change the words, or meanings, and you change the culture.

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