I spent the last hour reading a few very, very good essays and interviews. I was only intending to spend 15 minutes or so, but the more I read the more I was edified.

Steven Pinker has come under fire recently for his comments about the proposed change in Harvard’s core curriculum. In this essay, Theodore Dalrymple, a retired doctor takes on Pinker’s view of language. Not only is Pinker ridiculously inconsistent in his rejection of the notion that one language can be superior to another, but the possibility of rising out of lower social classes rests upon that very notion. In other words, accept Pinker’s position, and enslave inarticulate individuals to their current station in live. Dalrymple writes,

Pinker’s grammatical latitudinarianism, when educationists like the principal of my friend’s daughter’s school take it seriously, has the practical effect of encouraging those born in the lower reaches of society to remain there, to enclose them in the mental world of their particular milieu. Of course, this is perfectly all right if you also believe that all stations in life are equally good and desirable and that there is nothing to be said for articulate reflection upon human existence. In other words, grammatical latitudinarianism is the natural ideological ally of moral and cultural relativism.

And:

As I know from the experience of my patients, there is no reason to expect [an inarticulate girl’s] powers of expression to increase spontaneously with age. Any complex abstractions that enter her mind will remain inchoate, almost a nuisance, like a fly buzzing in a bottle that it cannot escape. Her experience is opaque even to herself, a mere jumble from which it will be difficult or impossible to learn because, for linguistic reasons, she cannot put it into any kind of perspective or coherent order.

Dalrymple’s case is not only compelling: it is downright stirring.

In a piece of news, Suzanne Lindgren highlights the new direction people are taking the internet: funerals and mourning. It was only a matter of time. It does raise the all-important issue, though, of internet propriety and whether there are boundaries to its uses.

Thirdly, I have been extremely impressed recently by the new online journal, The Other Journal. Search through the archives, and you’ll be impressed too. They’ve added a special section of young evangelicals–or Post-evangelicals, in some cases–answering the question, “Do I want to be an evangelical?” (See the introduction here). I was particularly impressed by new Torrey professor Matt Jenson’s piece in defense of staying evangelical. Jenson is very much in touch with the difficulties young evangelicals face in wrestling with their identity–difficulties at points worked out on the pages of this blog. Jenson’s critique–or rather, caution–of evangelicals who cease to claim the mantle is worth considering:

And perhaps, just perhaps, part of the vocation of North American evangelicals is to submit to Heidelberg, to actually take comfort in our non-self-sufficiency by, of all things, staying put. There is something decidedly, well, evangelical about being “post-evangelical” or defining myself in terms of the free choice I have made to not be what I used to and to be something else. That’s conversion language (“I once was blind, but now I see”), and it is too easy to adopt it even in the midst of doing profoundly “un-evangelical” things. That is, even in explicitly eschewing affiliation with Evangelicalism, we often enough do so for nothing but “evangelical” reasons. Furthermore, identifying oneself as post-anything threatens to invalidate what came before. Result? Rather than telling our story as one of ever-deeper rootedness in the faith, we tell it in such a way that it looks like we weren’t really Christians at all until we “saw the light” of post-whatever. And that is simply ingratitude.

Having been tempted at points to walk the road he maps out, Jenson’s analysis resonates. He has, I think, correctly identified one of the chief difficulties of evangelicals who go down the Canterbury, Constantinople, or Rome trails. Near the end of his piece, though, Jenson outdoes himself:

What concerns me, though, is its uncritical abandonment, what amounts too frequently to a sophisticated disguise for a rather sophomoric rebellion. Now, my friends are twenty- and thirty-something evangelicals who like theology and liturgy and don’t like altar calls or seven steps to anything. We are tempted in the direction of higher ecclesiologies (fine and good in and of themselves), which invite lame, flat-footed critiques of all that we’ve know and yet don’t yet know how to love. Familiarity continues to breed contempt. But, familiarity also happens to be the midwife of faithfulness. It is in the very contempt which we have developed for the everyday, simply because it is everyday and therefore not quite as sexy as it used to be, that we learn the faithfulness that befits covenants.

Indeed. Read the whole thing.

Finally, The Matthew House Project–another online journal about the intersection of religion and culture–has this conversation between Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal and the erudite (and deeply British) Nigel Cameron about the relationship between emerging technology and culture. I will avoid descending into hyperbolic salesmanship and simply commend the entire piece to you as necessary reading. And I’ll leave you with these choice treats:

NC: In Europe, you have much more of a sense of the philosophical issues, what is the meaning of technology, people of all face and none, will sit around talking about those questions, it doesn’t tend to happen here. You are either gung-ho for it, and you say, “This is wonderful, got to do it”, or, if you are in a very small minority, maybe you say, “We’re against technology and we want to go back to nature.” But you don’t have any context for serious technology policy discussions. I think the lack of that is really very serious for how we’re going to manage these things in the future…

KM: Why is it, do you think, that Christians by and large have not attended to these things? To what do you attribute the apathy on these?

NC: I suppose the key thing is pietism, a sort of withdrawal from the culture. This is characterized by much of Evangelicalism and some Catholicism. Christians have tended to view this in terms of one or two key issues. Currently they are abortion and the question of gay marriage. Beyond these, we will attend to spiritual activities, we will evangelize and so on. Much of the blame lies with pastors and with our seminaries. There has been no real preparation for engageing the 21st century agenda.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Matt Jensen’s article is quite powerful. Pimlico, Chesterton states, will only become beautiful because someone will love Pimlico for Pimlico’s sake (certainly not because it is beautiful now). For many, evangelicalism is our Pimlico. Let’s love it and make it beautiful.

    I saw Chesterton’s Orthodoxy everywhere in Jensen’s article. It seems like THI made a great move in hiring the man.

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  2. My impression from Jenson is something like this: look, there may be better things out there, but evangelicalism reared us, and we owe it to her to remain faithful. I have problems with this because 1) I don’t know what evangelicalism is (Jenson says that maybe the vocation of evangelicals is to submit to Heidelberg–if only I had heard of Heidelberg in my evo church!) 2) I don’t know why “higher ecclesiologies” invite “lame, flat-footed critiques [of evangelicalism]”, and 3) I don’t know why higher ecclesiologies are incompatible with being evangelical.

    Let me slightly alter the subject. There seem to be two very broad ways to understand evangelicalism: as a movement in Christian protestant churches, and as a cultural-political (quasi-religious) movement.

    The cultural movement can be described in terms of adherence to a fairly well-defined set of “public sphere” objectives: anti-abortion,stem cell research, and euthanasia, pro-traditional marriage, pro-Israel, and (on the fringes) pro-constitutional amendment banning burning of the flag and pro-ten commandments in the courthouses. If you’re not on board with the “life” and “sex” issues, you’re not in the movement. On the other hand, you can still be “in” even if you don’t really care about ten commandments plaques.

    Let me describe the churches movement first in negative terms. It is NOT tied to a specific denomination, and it is NOT limited to any particular set of denominations. Broadly speaking, most people tend to think of evangelicals as belonging to “newline” denominations like the many varieties of the baptists, the evfreers, the free methodists, the pentecostals, and the many “non-denominational” denominations (vineyard, calvary chapel, community churches, and churches with funny names like “the Oasis”). But this isn’t anything like a limiting class of “in” denominations, because most people would be happy to admit members of “oldline” denominations into the movement (provided they have certain views about scripture). The line gets even more blurry when you get to the scary liturgical churches. There are many self-identified evangelical anglicans (leaving out the entirely different British situations), and I’ve even met some self-described evangelical Catholics.

    A strategy for describing what church-evangelicalism is might be this: there seems to be a set of denominations whose members, simply by virtue of belonging to these denominations, are automatically classified as evangelical. Those who aren’t in this set of denominations have to earn their entry ticket. Those well beyond the pale denominationally might not be admitted at all (despite how they view themselves). The strategy would be to favor the initial “automatic entry” set of denominations, expect there to be large overlap on issues of doctrine and practice, and define evangelicalism as the overlap we in fact find. Other folks can be evangelical if they personally have the right views, DESPITE the fact that their denomination doesn’t have “qualifying” overlap with the right denominations. But perhaps part of the overlap of the qualifying set of denominations is the exclusion of certain denominations altogether (so maybe a Catholic can’t be an evangelical, no matter what he says).

    Now this is all a little tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t believe this is how the matter should go. The kernel of truth in my words, though, is this: DE FACTO, I think people partition the evangelical world in terms of favored denominations, and then include other so long as they have the right views and their denomination isn’t TOO alien. Guilty-by-association may be a handy way of identifying who is in, but it doesn’t give a robust account of what “in” is.

    The best I’ve heard about the “in”-ness of evangelicalism is a certain view of the authority and infallibility of scripture. Whatever this view is, it is supposed to exclude certain understandings of the RELATIONSHIP of scripture to church tradition and living church authority. This is why Catholics aren’t granted entry, even though they sometimes take scripture more seriously than evangelicals do (for instance, on divorce, or John 6, or the liturgy of the Old Testament and Revelation). Now, this isn’t just a view about scripture; naturally, it’s a view about scripture AND ecclesiology, an ecclesiology which may or mayn’t be based on scripture. There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, we need the expanded picture of evangelicalism to figure out why certain Christians are excluded, be they ever so enthusiastic or obedient or, well, evangelistic.

    Jenson’s point about the ingratitude of many post-evangelicals is well taken. But it gets nowhere near to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue has two chambers: the essence of evangelicalism (WHAT IS IT?); and my generation’s increasing discontent with it (MAYBE THE DISCONTENT HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ESSENCE OF EVANGELICALISM).

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  3. I should add that Jenson’s decisionism doesn’t seem quite right as a fundamental characteristic of evangelicalism. There are plenty of evangelicals who simply grew up that way, and have been Christians as long as they remember. Moreover, would Jenson admit that ANY heart-felt conversion to Christianity is evangelical? Then Chesterton’s conversion to RCism, Lewis’s conversion to Anglicanism, were evangelical conversions. So on the one hand we have people who are included in ev-ism who don’t have conversion experiences; and on the other, we have people in denominations which are excluded from ev-ism but do have conversion experiences.

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  4. Peregrine,

    Good thoughts. I’ll start at the bottom.
    I think that your last comment rests upon an identification of “conversion” with “decision,” something that Jenson (nor I) would do. What Jenson is highlighting is, I think, a specifically evangelical tendency to emphasize the decisional aspect of the conversion experience. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” That isn’t, I think, a song that Chesterton or Lewis would have sung. Regardless, Jenson is trying to identify and articulate a tendency, which means that there will certainly be exceptions and counter-examples.

    One more point: you say that some people grew up evangelicals. I was one of them, and I still remember praying to receive Jesus in my heart when I was in kindergarten. I have heard numerous parents talk about how they prayed with their children for salvation. Growing up in an evangelical home often just means that the decision happens earlier–not that it doesn’t happen at some point.

    Moving to your first comment, I think there is a lot of good stuff to think about in it. I really appreciate your thoughts about the essence of evangelicalism—it’s an ongoing conversation that really needs to be had. Regarding the first three items you mention, Jenson briefly addresses (1) later in his post (it is, after all, more blog post than paper). Regarding (2), I think there’s nothing inherent about higher ecclesiologies that invite “lame, flat-footed critiques of evangelicalism” (after all, he says they are good in themselves). My hunch is that Jenson wanted to make a sociological point here—many people who move to higher ecclesiologies do so with lame critiques of evangelicalism.

    As for your third point, if evangelicalism a “movement in Christian protestant churches” (excluding the other possible definition for the moment) that is denominationally or ecclesiastically located, then it seems quite plausible that it would exclude higher ecclesiologies.

    Regarding the substance of your comment, I get far more interested near the bottom of your reflections when you mention the views of scripture and ecclesiology. Why? I think it is important to ground “evangelicalism” theologically and ecclesiastically, rather than sociologically. Evangelicals, broadly speaking, have specific doctrinal emphases in certain doctrines (see, for instance, the emphasis on decision with respect to soteriology). I am not sure why identifying these emphases (such as a low-church ecclesiology, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc) is insufficient for identifying the “in-ness” of evangelicalism. I think you’re moving toward this near the end of your post, but I thought I would attempt to clarify. We might reframe Jenson’s point then—or maybe clarify it—to state that the theological identify of evangelicalism is sufficient, and that people should redeem the practices of evangelicalism according to its actual identity, not its current practices.

    The second “chamber” that you identify, though, points toward this. You write (quite emphatically), “MAYBE THE DISCONTENT HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ESSENCE OF EVANGELICALISM,” to which I can only say ‘yup.’ It might have to do with a historically unaware, theologically impoverished evangelicalism that we in need of being saved both from while still staying in. While I obviously stole Jenson’s language, I think that is his point. I am not sure that you agree with Jenson when you say this (you don’t propose another reason for the discontent), but this interpretation of the discontent seems plausible.

    One final, unrelated and perhaps more inflammatory comment. Along the way to your closing remarks you slipped in this aside: “This is why Catholics aren’t granted entry, even though they sometimes take scripture more seriously than evangelicals do (for instance, on divorce, or John 6, or the liturgy of the Old Testament and Revelation).” I would simply point out that this seems both false and, well, derogatory to evangelicals (such as myself). It implies that those that differ with Catholics on issues theological or ecclesiastical do not take scripture as seriously, and while “serious” is ambiguous, it is clearly pejorative. But there is little, if any, good reason to think that evangelicals are not “serious” about those aspects of Scripture. If Bradford Wilcox, who has emerged as the most responsible sociologist of religion, is to be trusted, evangelicals who attend church regularly take divorce seriously enough that they avoid it at higher rates than the surrounding culture. I’m quite certain evangelical commentaries don’t jump from John 5 to John 7. I may not be the best case study, but while I disagree with sacramental readings of John 6 I think I am still taking it seriously in my theologizing.   And not reading those books liturgically—which may be the wrong way to read them—does not imply not taking them seriously. The problem, I think, lies in the fact that rather than identifying when Catholics are more serious than evangelicals temporally or geographically, you locate those “times” Scripturally, which universalizes your claim with respect to those passages.

    To end on a happy note, the Chesterton quote that I am so fond of and that is so usable in lots of situations keeps ringing in my ears: “It is not that evangelicalism has been tried and failed: it is that it has never been tried at all.” I think it, like in most situations, appropriate.

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  5. Matt,

    Sorry about the misunderstanding re: the Catholics and scripture comment. It was not meant pejoratively; rather, I was using it as a way of showing how evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on taking scripture seriously. Where evangelicals might wiggle about the “plain sense” of certain passages, Catholics embrace it (and vice versa). This I think limits the extent to which we can isolate evangelicals’ view of scripture as peculiar to the movement.

    I was confused by your response to my third point. You say, “If evangelicalism is a “movement in Christian protestant churches” (excluding the other possible definition for the moment) that is denominationally or ecclesiastically located, then it seems quite plausible that it would exclude higher ecclesiologies.” You seem to be stating a tautology: Exclusion of higher ecclesiologies would only be plausible provided that evangelicalism is denominationsally or ecclesiastically located in such a way that excludes higher ecclesiologies. My third point expressed confusion as to why evangelicalism would rule out higher ecclesiologies, so I don’t see the gist of your response. We need to characterize evangelicalism in such a way that we can tell whether higher ecclesiologies are in or out.

    My emphatic point about the possibly misplaced discontent with evangelicalism was an oblique way of saying that, once we get the whatness of evangelicalism, we may find that whatever Smith disliked about the Oasis that moved him toward Orthodoxy, that wasn’t evangelicalism. Jenson, you, and I all agree that being a 98lb theological weakling, being aesthetically impoverished, being overly sentimental, and (insert favorite evo-bashing here), are non-essential to evangelicalism. So, if someone opts to stay within ev-ism, it shouldn’t be for these reasons (though Jenson comes close to implying this); and if someone decides to leave for THESE reasons, we shouldn’t blame him or her.

    One final thing. As is clear from my comment and your response to my comment, we both agree that it’s better to define ev-ism theologically/ecclesiologically rather than sociologically. I take us to mean that we shouldn’t just look at the churches that get clumped together and say, members of those churches (and some exceptions) are the evangelicals. It does seem, however, that picking out some conspicuous examples might be helpful (in the “doctrine and practice overlap” method I sketched out above.) This method of definition would then be theologico-ecclesiologico-sociological. And I think the result of this kind of procedure would rule out, let’s say, members of churches that claim apostolic succession (such that the authority entrusted by our Lord to the Apostles has been passed on to their descendants by the laying on of hands). Let me grant that for the moment. We would have to admit that there are members of these excluded denominations who would emphasise decisionism (in your clarified way), who would describe their Christianity primarily in terms of a personal relationship with God, who would uphold the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture, etc. In other words, they would be evangelical in every way except ecclesiologically, but they would not be evangelical. And this exclusion, I think, is detrimental to the evangelistic mission of the Church. I think the exclusion promulgates Christian sectarianism and ices theological dialogue. Better, I think, to embrace the trans-denominational character of evangelicalism and let its definitional fuzziness include competing ecclesiologies within the fold. Otherwise, I’m not an evangelical (though I consider myself to be one). Within the fuzzy boundaries, we can charitably discuss our differences, emphasizing unity over schism.

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  6. […] Matthew L. Anderson linked to an article by Dr. Matt Jensen of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola a few days ago, which sparked some fruitful discussion in the comments section. I emailed Dr. Jensen to see what he had to say on the interpretation of his article and he gave me permission to post the following: […]

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  7. […] As discussions about the nature of evangelicalism have been prevalent around Mere Orthodoxy in the last few years (see here, here, and here), I turned to The Community of the Word with more than an academic interest.  As I am continuing to wrestle theologically, culturally, and personally with what it means to be an evangelical, I was excited to hear several theologians address and correct some of the imbalances in the prevailing “thin” evangelical ecclesiology. […]

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