Timothy Beal surveys a number of different treatments of evangelicalism and finds that the closer you look, the more complex it gets:
Yet as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits. Indeed, taken together, recent studies by more-or-less outsiders show there is no such thing as evangelicalism. The term represents a broad range of significantly different theologies, practices, and religious movements within Christianity, and there are often tensions among and within them. Which is no revelation at all to most more-or-less insiders, who call themselves evangelicals, however qualified, and who argue as much with others who do the same as with those of us who don’t.
Beal is right that this is no surprise to “insiders.” Of course, it’s also not a new phenomenon. Evangelicalism has always been a diverse movement that is more complex under close scrutiny (what movement isn’t?).
But Beal offers his own hypothesis for evangelical diversity:
A hallmark of American evangelicalism, at least since the 1940s, has been its ready willingness to adapt its theological content to new media technologies and popular trends in the entertainment industry. Implicit in that openness is an evangelical counterdeclaration to Marshall McLuhan’s: The medium is not the message; the message, or the Word, transcends whatever media are used to convey it. But in the long run, is the constant evangelical adaptation of the Word unwittingly proving McLuhan right? I think so. That is partly why we find so little coherence within and among the various groups and movements and productions that pass as evangelical.
Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the likes of Osteen or Warren or Jakes without the teams of creators, editors, and marketers who publish them beyond their home churches, in books and on the radio, television, and Internet. It is not too much to say that their media producers actually create and sustain them as pop-culture icons. Their relationships with their publishers in the production of both medium and message are not unlike those of pop-music stars with their labels. Lady Gaga has Universal Music and Max Lucado has Thomas Nelson.
This seems like a particularly ahistorical approach to evangelicalism, which has always had its celebrities and its rock-star preachers. George Whitfield could draw a crowd, for instance, even if he deployed the best social media marketing of his day to do it. Evangelical celebrity pastors may be a problem, but it’s not a new one.
Additionally, the more I stare at his point about McLuhan, the less I understand it. The five celebrity preachers he mentions–T.D. Jakes, Brian McLaren, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Paula White–have all deployed relatively similar media to market themselves. I am never sure I understand McLuhan or those who use him, but if the medium is the message and everyone is using the same medium….wouldn’t we expect more unanimity?
I’m leery about the effects of the media that evangelicals use to spread the message (down with blogs!). But in this case, I think Beal gives the tools more credit than they deserve. Evangelical divisions preceded their adoption of radio, TV, and the internet, and I suspect they will (alas) endure long after as well.
Update: changed the title to reflect the content of the post better.