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The Critics Respond: Hartenburg on "The New Evangelical Scandal"

February 10th, 2009 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Gary Hartenburg, a good friend and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, penned the following response to my recent piece on the young evangelicalism.  With his permission, I'm posting it here.  I'll write a response sometime this weekend (I hope).

Commenting on Anderson's article is difficult because it is easy to slip from commentary on and criticism of Anderson's presentation of young evangelicals to criticism of young evangelical itself.  Similarly, it is not easy to disentangle the beliefs of young evangelicals from Anderson's own beliefs.  I attempt to avoid such slippage by organizing my comments under three sections.  The first is an explanation of Anderson's theses as I understand them.  The second is a loose collection of observations about young evangelicals that neither confirm or disconfirm Anderson's account of young evangelicals but are prompted by it.  The third section is a basic criticism of Anderson's account of the young evangelical problem.

Anderson's Theses:

Anderson's major thesis seems to be the following: 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).  But young evangelicals themselves do not express their desire for acceptance as such.  Instead they express it as (1) a commitment to a certain conception of authenticity (according to which simply adopting the values of their parents' generation without a justifying struggle is seen as inauthentic) that requires or assumes (2) vesting the power of choice in the individual (so self-styling is "decisionism" (Anderson's wonderful term) applied to one's own life).  Anderson alludes to the fact that young evangelicals do not themselves articulate the fact that they are committed only to one version or conception of authenticity.  Rather, as he notes in passing, they see themselves as committed to being authentic without expressing the slightest notion that being authentic is compatible with, say, submission to authority, though that last point is my suggestion, not Anderson's.

There seem to be two other minor theses embedded in the article, too.  I don't have anything to say about them other than to note them and set them off as somewhat beside the main point.  (Of course, they're related to Anderson's major thesis, but they, especially the second one, deserve much more attention than I can give here.)  The first--which, since it leads off the article, seems to have mislead some commentators as to its significance in Anderson's thought--is that some of the things young evangelicals reject, e.g., their parents' values on romance and marriage, have been on the refuse heap for a while, but others, such as partisanship and patriotism, are lately finding a similar fate.  The latecomers to evangelical interest (e.g., cosmopolitanism and nonpartisanship) will continue to be of interest and may devalue the "traditional" cultural and political concerns of evangelicals.  The second minor thesis is that the "gnosticization" of the Gospel is often used as a coping strategy by young evangelicals for holding on to what they prize when it leads to potential conflicts with their professed commitment to evangelicalism.  Gnosticization is expressed in the young evangelicals' deep conviction that their consumption of media "has no effect on their lives."  Their "flawless decision-making abilities" are, in their minds, good enough to protect them.

Anderson, in a response to various replies to his article, states that his article is not a piece of sociology but of "cultural pathology."  If I'm correct about Anderson's thesis, then the pathology at work among young evangelicals is both the refusal to admit that they are driven by the need for personal and cultural acceptance and the dominance of that drive as it works itself out in ecclesiastical, theological, personal, and interpersonal ways.


On authentic questions and faith:

I was not expecting to be surprised by Anderson's comment that young evangelicals think that "Being right is less important than asking authentic questions."  The idea is certainly not new.  But upon reflection, I realized that in some sense, the young evangelicals are absolutely right.  It is a truth of therapy and education alike that unless a person asks authentic questions, he cannot begin to understand.  But then why was I initially disposed to be uneasy with this young evangelical commitment to authentic questions?  The difficulty is not so much a tacit rejection of "being right" -- though that is an ever-present and increasing danger among young evangelicals -- as it is that asking "unorthodox" yet authentic questions stymies those evangelicals who have no experience of (much less a reasonable account of) how to be evangelical while asking genuine questions that lack readymade evangelical answers.

A fundamental source of this problem is the fact that old evangelicals have not articulated and promulgated a viable explanation of faith.  In addition to a clear statement of what faith is, the articulation of faith among young evangelicals is lacking on two fronts.  The first is the relation between faith and knowledge or reason.  In general, and despite the best efforts of numerous evangelicals, young evangelicals tend to see faith and knowledge as either opposed to or irrelevant to one another.  The second front, which is more relevant to the issue at hand, is the relation between faith and doubt.  A genuine question usually implies some doubt about a proposed doctrine, teaching, or idea.  Such doubt need not be hostile or overly skeptical, but without an explanation of how faith and doubt can coexist, young evangelicals wind up without the ability to ascertain whether being right is less important than asking authentic questions because it is not clear how genuine questions coincide with faith.

On authenticity:

There is a certain irony, to which Anderson does not draw attention, in the propensity of young evangelicals to choose a political candidate based on his or her ability to appear authentic.  The fact that a candidate appears authentic is taken as evidence that the candidate is authentic.  However, it is no keen insight to say that the distinction between appearing and being is nowhere brighter than in politics.  Politicians who appear authentic are not always authentic, and the suggestion that now we have a new kind of politician has always been the plea of those destined to be disillusioned.

Perhaps this is too harsh, and perhaps Anderson did not point out this irony because its barbs are sharp.  Of young evangelicals, then, it is more polite to say that they are in favor of giving authentic-appearing candidates the benefit of the doubt.  That may be true, but it doesn't adequately capture the level of commitment to Obama by a majority of the 26 percent of evangelicals who voted for him.  They are not just giving him the benefit of the doubt.  They are enthusiastic supporters.  Time will, of course, tell whether we actually have a new kind of politician among us.  The judgment of time, however, may be diminished by the already approaching notion that no one could maintain the expectations Obama has coming into office.

Setting aside the application of authenticity to politics: Given the flexible nature of the self, the appeal to the paramount status of authenticity in general runs the risk of ignoring the distinction between appearing and being, especially among leaders.  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.  (This point -- apart from the distinction between soul and self -- about the flexibility of the self is one that Anderson makes in different words.)

Furthermore, and perhaps striking the political note once more, given the flexible nature of the self, "being true to one's self" is a desire bred and fed by those who would manipulate others.  Again, no new insight here, but often those who most celebrate their individualism are dressed like everybody else.  And if they're not dressed like everybody else, it's likely they're taking their fashion cues (for example) from the trendsetters the rest of us cannot afford.

This is not to say that authenticity is a sham, only that (1) the desire for authenticity cannot be paramount and (2) authenticity is misunderstood and misapplied when it is put solely in terms of the self.

One point that Anderson brings out nicely is that imitation of exemplars doesn't make sense in this way of thinking; instead, identification is more powerful than imitation.  Anderson highlights this point by referring to Peter Jackson's reconstruction of Faramir in the cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings.  Though the example may seem trivial, it betrays a significant working principle of one of the brightest and hardest working people in film industry today: An invitation to audiences to imitate a moral exemplar will be rejected; identifying with the struggle of a character is the surest way to generate sympathy.  This is not to say that the principle is mistaken, only that its codification in an entire generation of movies indicates that moviemakers have recognized what connects with and moves their audience.


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.

This is related to the diffuse nature of evangelicalism.  So, of course, some evangelicals have adopted better institutional or theological curbs to the excesses of self-styling.  Others have not.  Some might criticize Anderson for casting the net for evangelicals too widely.  But in some sense he's right to do that.  For consider a parallel with current Roman Catholicism and Augustine and Aquinas.  To what extent does current Roman Catholicism align with those two giants?  In many ways, but not perfectly.  So why quibble that John Wesley isn't evangelical?  For that matter, no current practice is going to imitate perfectly what was laid down by its predecessors.  There might be greater and lesser degrees of consistency over time, but that is a matter of degree and not one of kind.  (Note that this argument is not a theological one.)

A related criticism: Anderson doesn't articulate the depth of the desire for self-styling.  In particular, he claims that in evangelicalism "the individual" is prominent, but that is not quite right.  In evangelicalism, the individual is not prominent, "I" am.  This distinction is essentially one between theory and practice.  One wants to say that theory is one thing and practice another, but the trouble is that there is no theory about individualism among rank-and-file evangelicals.  There is only the practice of maintaining the centrality of the "I."  This distinction is just one way in which the older evangelical scandal described by Mark Noll reveals itself.  By preventing intellectual reflection on individualism and its presence among evangelicals, anti-intellectualism keeps on running.  This lack of reflection about individualism indicates that the desire for self-styling is really very deeply embedded in the ethos and practice of young evangelicals.  The desire escapes notice because it is unquestionably acted on.  One reason it remains unquestioned among rank-and-file evangelicals is that those evangelicals who are thinking about and reflecting on individualism are the evangelical intellectuals whom evangelicals have by and large ignored for reasons having to do with their historical anti-intellectualism.  Thankfully, anti-intellectualism is losing its grip in some areas of evangelicalism, and one hopes that this trend continues.

It is important to note that it appears that no Christian group in North America today (in history?) is free from individualism in practice.  Even those groups -- e.g., Eastern Orthodox -- that are committed in theory to anti-individualism are often in practice individualistic.  Some of this has to do with the number of converts from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism who take their Protestant practices, which are often deeply embedded in body and mind, into their new faith.

Is Anderson's picture of the current and future evangelicalism too rosy?  Who knows?  I certainly don't.  But the current state (and so future) isn't portrayed as bleakly as it could be.  And the bleaker picture doesn't have to be of young evangelicals completely selling evangelicalism down the river.  It just needs to portray the deep-seated problems as still undetected and undefined by both the young evangelical intelligentsia and the people in the pews.

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.