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.

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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.

3 Comments

  1. The problem with “the medium is the message” is that few people seem to understand what McLuhan meant by it, including Beal. That is probably part of the reason you don’t understand him or them. They seem to think that McLuhan meant that the channel that information is sent through is more important than the information itself. And when they deny it, or reverse it, they say that the information breaks through the medium unscathed, unaffected by the medium.

    Unfortunately, though, McLuhan didn’t mean that when he wrote the phrase. For McLuhan, “message” doesn’t mean “content” or “information.” He quite clearly defined “message” as “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that occurs when new technologies are introduced. The message of a book is not the story contained inside nor the history it tells nor the philosophy it explains but rather that it teaches us to think linearly and all the other changes that take place when we transition from an oral to a literary culture.

    “Medium” means “extensions of man” and therefore doesn’t just refer to “channels of information” but also hammers and automobiles and clothing. Books extend our mind and our memory.

    Essentially what McLuhan was saying is that new technologies bring with them social changes that are unaffected by the content. Just as you said above about the 5 celeb preachers, McLuhan points out that the content of all media is diverse and “it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”

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  2. Eric,

    Super, super helpful summary. Thanks much. I wonder if Beal might salvage his point by suggesting that a greater amount of intellectual or cultural diversity is one of the social changes brought about by the media that celeb pastors use. The only problem with that is that it seems manifestly false.

    matt

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