January 30, 2012 / Praxis
Flannery O’Connor insists that good fiction must be grounded in place; in this essay, Andrew W. E. Carlson discovers that the same can be said for church.
November 10, 2006
Try as we might to obscure the fact in increasingly subtle and beautiful theologies and liturgies, Evangelicalism is a movement of pietists who, like Wesley, take their bearings from a day when, metaphorically or literally, our hearts were “strangely warmed.” We can map that day spatio-temporally. We can remember a day in church and an altar call, or a conversation with a Christian friend at a shopping mall. And we can remember a decision. “What made you decide to become a Christian?” we ask. We are “decisionists.”
So, as Chris Keller points out, the question of whether we ought to remain evangelicals is a fitting one. Whether it is the right one is another question altogether, and not an easy one. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Lausanne. I love evangelicals and am one, but I also have to resist the temptation to put qualifiers and scare quotes around that self-identification. And now, I’ve started teaching at an evangelical college. So here I am, part of the institution, officially representing “the man.” But when there is talk (as there was at Lausanne) of “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world” and I reflect on how little of the church is represented, I’m frustrated. I want big tent evangelicalism. I want to rejoice in the gift of this movement, but never forget that it’s just a little movement in a big Church. I ache for my evangelical friends to know something of the depths of that big Church. And so I feel split at these kind of evangelical gatherings. It’s my home, and I want to love it well. But there’s so much more. And that’s the point where disassociation becomes tempting for me, and for a lot of my friends.
And here’s where I find myself. I think the very reason to remain an evangelical is because I need to continue to be saved from and in my evangelical self.
First, the “from.” There is a curious, though not inappropriate, marriage in Evangelicalism of grace and decision. At our best, we speak of the unfathomably unconditional character of the Father’s welcome, of the way in which he invites us into his house as family, doing so simply because, well, that is the sort of thing he does. And then we speak of the earnest call of the gospel, a call that commands sincere, full-blooded response. At our worst, we throw all our weight into this response, fashioning ourselves as world-making Prometheuses who ourselves make all things new by making a decision. Not that we officially believe any of that. But we functionally confess it every time we make the subtle shift from thinking of faith as response to the call of the Triune God to faith as a call that manipulates a begrudging response from God. All of a sudden, life and death are a function of our deciding. And we begin to think that our decisions are all-important in other areas as well, even thinking that what it’s really all about in life is our freedom to make our own decisions. When this happens, we evangelicals need to be saved from our evangelical selves.
The Heidelberg Catechism is brilliant here. Its opening question? “What is your only comfort in life and death?” A delightfully evangelical question, beginning with and making its home in our felt needs. People who have important choices to make need to hear the benefits that accompany a particular decision, and comfort is a choice benefit. Heidelberg offers an odd answer, though. What is my only comfort? “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Umm… Are they serious?! How does my displacement, my dispossession function as a comfort? Perhaps it is by giving the lie to certain aspects of an overly robust or wrongly articulated “decisionism.” Perhaps it is by convincing me that I am not the story of my life, but that my story is circumscribed by a much bigger and stronger one, one that shaped me before it even occurred to me that I might shape myself.
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.
It may just be that Christian discipleship requires me to remain in the evangelical camp in order that the Father might save me from the less pretty aspects of my evangelical identity precisely in that identity. Furthermore, it may just be that some of the more profound witnesses to Christ are those who, while being saved from certain of the gospel distortions that do lurk in evangelical settings and conversations, nevertheless stay put. These are witnesses to the power of a God who can take a historically populist, 98-pound theological weakling of a movement and transform individuals, families, churches and societies through it. These are witnesses to a God who provides for his people by taking ownership of them. That sounds horrible, I know (after all, who wants to be owned?); but remember Heidelberg. Remember the comfort of knowing that we are not our own. I live in Orange County, California, where we are convinced above all else that we are our own. It may be that OC evangelicals can witness to Christ by simply staying in one evangelical place for a long, long time, thereby confessing that they are not their own. They belong to someone, the Lord Jesus Christ; and because they belong to that one who is Lord of all, they in turn belong to others. What does the love of God in Christ look like in Orange County? Maybe like an evangelical staying in one house, one neighborhood, and one church for a long, long time. Maybe like someone who sees church shopping as an evasion of discipleship.
Time for a disclaimer. Evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination. And as such, it allows for far more fluidity of definition and affiliation. In one sense, abandoning the term “evangelical” is a mere semantic move over which none need (or even should) fret. Does it matter whether I continue to claim the name? Not a bit. Is it a term worth retaining? I think so, but certainly not as a placeholder for real theological reflection or deep ecclesial commitment. Instead, it should serve as useful shorthand for the results of that reflection and the location and embodiment of that commitment. 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.
So let’s stay, but not as mere parrots or robots. And let’s not stay in such a way that we refuse to budge, as if to stay were equivalent to staying the same. No, let’s stay in the faith and hope that the God who saved us here can continue the work of transforming through conforming us to his Son, and that he can do it here.
1. We need to be careful here, though. Here’s what else the love of God in Christ might look like in Orange County: like a family choosing to find new neighbors, neighbors who are different from them (maybe poor? maybe of different ethnicities), and stay in thatneighborhood and a church therefor a long, long time.
Matt Jenson is Assistant Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is the author of The Gravity of Sin (T&T Clark) and most recently, with David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark). Jenson is, tragically, a Cleveland Browns fan.