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The Conversation Continues: Responding to Hartenburg’s Criticisms of the New Evangelical Scandal

February 16th, 2009 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I am grateful to Gary Hartenburg for his detailed and thorough response to my article.  My hope in writing the article was not to offer a final verdict, but another perspective in what is already a long conversation about the nature of evangelicalism, both past and future.  In this, my aim was more modest than most commentors noticed:  I offered my reflections not as an expert, but as an insider.  I am, after all, within the young evangelical circle and many of the trends I articulated I have seen in my own life.  Hartenburg’s sensitive reading produced the sort of criticism I hoped for-careful, thoughtful, and constructive.

To the substance of my response, then:

Hartenburg articulates my main thesis this way:  “Because of a deeply rooted desire to be accepted both personally and culturally, young evangelicals increasingly reject, among other things, partisanship, patriotism, their parents’ values on romance and marriage, and old evangelical theology (esp. eschatology).”  While this is a fair reading of the text, which lacked an explicit statement of my project, it is a bit stronger of a thesis than I wanted to make.  While I certainly hit on the young evangelical’s desire to be accepted, I did not mean to suggest that every aspect of the young evangelical ethos was motivated by such a desire.

Indeed, there are two frames of reference in which we might situate the new evangelicals, both of which might be correct.  On the one hand, we might situate them with respect to the surrounding culture.  In this respect, I think that acceptance is a significant motivation.  On the other hand, we need to situate them against our parent’s generation of evangelicalism.  The cosmopolitanism of young evangelicals, for instance, seems to be primarily driven by a reaction against the patriotism of our parent’s generation.  Hence, in the closest statement to a thesis I have, I state, “This new ethos is largely a reaction to the abuses, failures, and excesses of our parents’ generation and contains significant clues as to the future of evangelicalism in America.”

As for the first of Hartenburg’s observations, I think it is exactly right, and in some ways get at the underlying premise or idea of the essay and provide me the opportunity to dispel the notion that I am an uncritical defender of the old-evangelicalism (as some of my critics seem to think).  As a proponent of discussion, I understand the need for authentic questions. Indeed, it has in the past (as Hartenburg knows) been a project of mine to promote such questions. However, my concern is that the methodology of questioning has been released from its proper epistemic moorings (foundationalism).

Additionally, while Hartenburg is right about the failures of old evangelicals to articulate a viable and robust notion of faith, and to articulate how that faith can coexist with ‘doubt’ (though I might call it something else), my concern is that in their reactions to these problems, young evangelicals will fall too far on the other side of the pendulum and praise doubt for its own sake, without situating it properly within a pedagogical (and soteriological) framework.

This gets at, I think, the undergirding idea of my essay.  In their reaction against the excesses and abuses of evangelicalism, young evangelicals have overreacted and have rejected elements of evangelicalism that are worth keeping, and have offered the world an alternative that shares many of the same problems (hence the title of the essay, which was not meant to be a repudiation of Noll’s classic, but to signal the extension of it into a new generation).

As for Hartenburg’s second observation, it is true I did not highlight the distinction between appearance and reality in politics (or life).  I have made similar observations here at Mere-O in the past, particularly in reference to Mitt Romney’s struggles to appear authentic as a candidate.

However, Hartenburg’s ruminations on the idea of ‘authenticity’ are provocative.  He writes, “The self – as distinct from the soul – is pretty much indefinitely malleable.  This means that being authentic means “being” whatever one fashions oneself to “be.”  On this scheme, choice wins out over nature, at least until soul – as something real and ineliminable – reasserts itself, as it always does, leading to crisis. ”  While Hartenburg attributes the point to me, I am not sure I’m ready to claim it.  My observations of the decisionism of young evangelicalism are not an endorsement.  And the “indefinite malleability” of the self is not something I think I agree upon.  Indeed, I think evangelicalism (which assumes the premise, I think) would be well served and still remain evangelical to reject it.  It is precisely that idea that has led so many young evangelicals to reject their relationship to evangelicalism, a step that (if the self is not indefinitely malleable) is much more difficult.  Like it or not, evangelicalism has shaped me in certain ways that I cannot undo.  While this is difficult for many young evangelicals to accept, it is also an opportunity to experience love and forgiveness.  One thinks of Chesterton at the opening of Orthodoxy:  “I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”

To Hartenburg’s criticism, then.  He writes, “My basic (and really only) criticism of Anderson’s argument is that it confuses what is prominent in young evangelical with what is unique about young evangelical.  In particular, the desire for acceptability (and respectability) is not unique to young evangelicals.  It is a deep part of human nature.  What then is unique about young evangelicals among religious groups?  It is their desire for acceptability coupled with a lack of any kind of institutional or widely-accepted theological basis for controlling the desire for acceptability.  In the absence of these two things, it is no wonder that young evangelicals come to prize self-styling as highly as they do: If they don’t decide, no one will.”

There is significant wisdom in this point, and it is frequently made as an argument against evangelicalism (though Hartenburg, thankfully, does not use it as such).  While I think Hartenburg basically correct, I do not think the lack of institutional or widely-accepted theological basis a feature of evangelicalism per se, but rather evangelicalism in current practice.  This was really lurking behind my criticism that young evangelicals have largely neglected the evangelical history and tradition.  Additionally, I wonder how particular this is to evangelicalism.  The self-styling that I argued pervades young evangelicals exists, no doubt, among mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic quarters as well (I am less familiar with the Orthodox, though I have my suspicions that it exists there too).  While institutional and theological controls might exist in Roman Catholicism (to pick them as an example, though others might do), it is not clear that they have actually shaped the young Roman Catholic laity in any meaningful sense.  Catholic (and mainline Protestant!) young people quit going to church at similar rates as young evangelicals, after all, which suggests that the problems are not necessarily tied to the lack of institutional or theological framework that might control the desire for acceptability.

If I failed to point out the uniqueness of the young evangelical situation, then, it is largely because I am not convinced it is unique.  On a simplistic level, it’s possible to read the essay and think my point is that young evangelicals are just like everyone else.

As for Hartenburg’s second criticism, I wish I had written it myself.  My aim was to point out some of the ‘pre-critical’ assumptions of young evangelicals, not necessarily to articulate their motives perfectly, but to get them to ask a different set of questions to examine some of their own assumptions.  Hartenburg’s point, I think, goes further in doing so than I was able, for which I am grateful.

All this bodes to Hartenburg’s question of whether the picture I painted of evangelicalism was bleak enough.  In one sense, it clearly was not bleak enough:  planks in our eyes abound, and until they are removed evangelicalism will always be dying.  My hope was simply to point out some of those planks (as I saw them), and trust that someone (Hartenburg!) would point out the planks in my own eye.  The situation will always be bleak until our self-deception is removed.  But in that bleak picture is our hope, for such planks are not ours to remove, but God’s, and while evangelicalism is dying, it will also be renewed.