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Master Signifiers and the Survival of Evangelicalism: An Interview with David Fitch

In his latest book, “The End of Evangelicalism?”, pastor and professor David E. Fitch explores the possibility of evangelicalism surviving, in some form, throughout the 21st century.  Fitch utilizes the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek to deconstruct what many evangelicals hold most dear–inerrancy of Scripture, the decision for Christ, and belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation–to point toward a reconstructed evangelical church that faithfully embraces a political theology oriented to God’s mission. In this interview, Fitch discusses topics ranging from the Rob Bell imbroglio to the importance of place as Christians imagine a 21st century evangelicalism.

The Other Journal (TOJ): Your newest book, The End of Evangelicalism?, uses the thought of the iconic cultural critic Slavoj Žižek to look critically at the public presence of evangelicals. Your book was released just a couple of days before Rob Bell’s book on heaven and hell, Love Wins, a book that has generated national attention on the evangelical world and its fissures. Let’s say Žižek spent a couple hours reading the blogs on Rob Bell from his detractors—what do you think he would say about the media storm associated with Love Wins?

David E. Fitch (DF): Žižek would probably notice the extreme amount of media activity surrounding the prerelease of Love Wins and the Neo-Reformed response to Bell. He’d suggest that there is almost a perverse enjoyment in John Piper’s saying “farewell Rob Bell?” the kind of enjoyment that says more about us than the person we are targeting. Žižek would perhaps note that in finding a heretic, we found a reason to feel validated in our beliefs, and boy does that make us feel good. Of course, along the same lines, he would take notice of how the publishing world is creating this swirl of activity to ask, who is the church? Is not the church being shaped around these crazy discussions that are generated by publishing empires? Is this not a sign that evangelicalism has become a groupthink that generates no real activity for change in real life? He would note that we are, in essence, having discussions that allow us to be complicit with the ways things are, the status quo.

TOJ: Again and again, it seems you are digging beneath the thought and practice of the evangelical church in hopes of revealing their truest desires. If you had to sum up the greatest desire of evangelicals in the past fifteen years or so, what would it be?

DF: I think what I’m after in The End of Evangelicalism? is to get to the bottom of what is holding us as evangelicals together in the new advanced secular cultures of North America. It seems to me that we are not confident in who we are as a people, living in Christ and his mission. As a result, it seems that we’re trying to defend territory. Survival is what drives us, and so we enjoy being right more than we care about the lost people who are wrong (in our opinion). In the process, some unseemly outbursts reveal the duplicity and arrogance at the heart of our political existence. And we lose our witness. This kind of defensiveness and false enjoyment sums up what, for me, has taken over the evangelicalism of the last twenty years.

TOJ: You claim that the evangelical belief in the “inerrant” Bible has not really been about the truth but about “being in control of the truth.” It appears that just as evangelicalism continues to fracture into different hermeneutical camps, large church personalities have effectively replaced denominations in defending doctrine. Over this next decade, how do you see the fight of inerrancy shaping up?

DF: There’s a splintering of evangelicalism, and strangely, I would say that the majority of evangelicalism realizes that “inerrancy” is an apologetic strategy whose time is over. It is a strategy that in fact undermines Scripture by defining its authority via a reference point outside itself, by what is an “error” and who gets to define “error,” as opposed to what Scripture is in its relationship to the Incarnate Christ. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if the New-Reformed movement among evangelicals makes inerrancy once again a shibboleth to determine who is a true evangelical. Once this happens, I think we’ll all be energized to expose the defensiveness in this move and move on to a true faithfulness.

TOJ: Another hallmark of the evangelical is the “decision for Christ,” but you write that this decision has effectively been “separated from one’s embodied life.” Could you explain that further, particularly how such a deep and personal decision has found such tragic separation?

DF: I refer to it as a separation because speaking of a decision for Christ doesn’t mean anything anymore. I am sure that is an overstatement. But what I try to show in the book is that the decision for Christ has become a master signifier that creates a fantasy, as if to make a person feel good for what he or she has done. Yet it demands nothing of this person. In essence it does what any good master signifier must do—it enables us to “believe without believing,” in Žižek’s famous words. It allows us to be Christians without it meaning anything material to our embodied existence. Nonetheless, conversion is at the heart of Jesus’s call to follow him. We need to recover conversion. I go much deeper into this whole phenomenon in the book.

TOJ: I imagine that some folks will read this book and see it as a something of a rebuke to evangelicals, but as I read it, I couldn’t help but think that it’s far more a pastoral letter springing from a deep sense of gratitude for what evangelicalism has given you and from a deep concern for where evangelicalism is heading. Is this true, and if so, what gives you hope for the future of the evangelical church?

DF: Part of me writes this book out of a profound sense of crisis that the family of my origin (evangelicalism) is imploding in crisis. That may sound too strong, but depending upon where you live, the statistical facts are undeniable—just ask Ed Stetzer of LifeWay about the Southern Baptists.

Nonetheless, there’s a whole generation rising in the last fifteen years that’s asking questions and seeking faithfulness on the ground in radical yet ordinary living as communities of Jesus. They have been associated at various times with the words missional, emerging, emergent, organic, neomonasticism. Most of these peoples could care less about evangelicalism per se, yet they represent the disenchanted remnant of evangelicalism. These people give me great hope for a new faithfulness, and they must be cared for.

Unfortunately, in the midst of all this is an impending cracking within evangelicalism as a whole that became increasingly evident in the aforementioned frenzy over Bell’s latest book. This cracking has been going on for quite some time between those who have coalesced around the Neo-Reformed organizations and what were the emergent organizations. I contend that we need a third alternative beyond these polarities, a place to discuss the issues we are faced with as Christ’s people in the new cultures of secular post-Christendom in the West. The many voices out there speaking to this give me a sense that God is moving and I’m excited about this.

TOJ: You work bivocationally both as a professor at Northern Seminary and as a pastor in suburban Chicago. In both cases, you spend plenty of your time doing leadership development with pastors seeking to lead faith communities in an increasingly post-Christian Western culture. Do you think the word evangelical will continue to be adopted by the next generation of pastors?

DF: With the possible exception of the southern regions of the United States (and Alberta in Canada), I believe the answer to this question is a flat out no. The word evangelicalism and the church structures associated with it are largely becoming irrelevant to the current generation of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings. The word itself has no currency in the African American Christian communities. Even for those in their twenties or thirties who carry on with the basic core commitments of evangelicalism—like the Gospel Coalition—the word is losing its importance. The word has become so associated with a defensiveness, judgmentalism, and dispassion that many in the upcoming generation cannot stomach being identified with it. The question then is, what is to become of its aftermath? For those who carry on the legacy of evangelicalism, for those who see the worthiness of the evangelical passion of the past, who get the significance of its theological commitments and seek to renew a new faithfulness from within its massive remaining constituency, how will we move forward from the midst of this crumbling evangelicalism?

TOJ: You mentioned earlier that there is a growing desire for a third way beyond the Neo-Reformed organizations and what were the emergent organizations. I’m curious what role context and, specifically, place should have in this conversation. That is, how can we avoid having just another abstract theological battle that’s fought over blogs, conferences, and books but has no grounding in the reality of particular people, places, and cultures?

DF: I am convinced that the problem with the way the church is currently led theologically is that it lacks a sense of place, an understanding that theological issues are best worked out in real life on the ground. I cannot tell you how central I think this is! We in the United States (less so in Canada) work out our conversations over disputed theological matters in the media, via publishing empires, through grand provocations meant to elicit interest and sales of books. We hold conferences and invite superstar pastors and authors, many of whom have theological habits driven by pragmatics. As a result, our theological disputes do not bring us together. They polarize. In essence they do nothing but solidify the battle lines and inhibit our witness in the world.

In addition, there’s no sense of urgency to our theological conversations because they are not directly related to an actual situation being lived out on the ground. We therefore find ourselves going on and on, talking about the issues of pluralism or same-sex relations and never coming to a resolution. We can afford to do this because there are no hurting tragic situations awaiting direction. As a result, the conversation never resolves. It goes nowhere. This kind of theology talk is disingenuous and it’s a luxury that is only possible for people who have money and extra time without the urgency of ministry itself being the immediate pressing concern.

For both of these reasons, our theological development is stunted. Yet the issues of pluralism, salvation, hell, same-sex relations, and I could go, are absolutely essential and must be addressed within the theological orthodoxy of the church if we are ever to engage our culture for the mission of God.

The Anabaptist impulse leads us to work these things out on the ground in real life issues. The Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder wrote only occasional papers for most of his life, meaning he wrote papers in response to specific moral and cultural issues his church, and many times his local church, was confronted with. This is the way we must do theology: on the ground. The result of this work then moves into the wider church, but always from the individual location first. I cannot guarantee that this incarnational method for theological development will become part of this third way we’re talking about. But I aim to bring this Anabaptist emphasis to the effort that some of us are working on to create an alternative place (and I am calling it most often a place) for hammering out what it means to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The polarization and lack of resolution will lessen once place, actual church location, and real situations drive the way we talk and do theology.

TOJ: As the evangelical church in North America seeks to recover a missional political theology and practice, how might the public missional presence lead directly or indirectly toward unity in the church? What role do you see denominations playing in this hopeful conversation?

DF: I think it’s getting harder and harder to figure out what the term missional means, especially in the evangelical church of North America. The term seems driven in many different directions. Nonetheless, if we in the missional conversation, who come from denominations across the spectrum, can focus our churches on mission in North America and what that means, I suspect our churches will find themselves working together. The questions that are generated out of mission tend to move us beyond our own identity markers. The public conferences and conversations of the missional church therefore have the potential to become places for such a unifying of denominations.

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Authors:
David E. Fitch :
David E. Fitch (Ph.D., Northwestern University) is pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Long Grove, Illinois. He is adjunct professor of ministry, theology, and ethics at Northern Seminary and is a leading thinker and practitioner of the emerging church oriented around God’s missio. Dr. Fitch's influential blog is: www.reclaimingthemission.com
Tim Soerens :
Tim Soerens is a church planter, social entrepreneur, and co-founding director of the Parish Collective, a growing network of churches, missional communities, and faith-based groups which are rooted in neighborhoods and linked across cities.
  • http://radref.blogspot.com/ Phil Wood

    A valuable discussion. It’s almost possible to hear those theological tectonic plates sliding. There’s all kinds of spin-offs and implications from this debate. Your mention of Yoder reminded me all the major Reformation traditions – Lutheran, Zwinglian, Anabaptist, Reformed – predate Evangelicalism. For good or ill, even if this is the end of Evangelicalism it won’t be the end of conservative Christianity. As I’m an ex-evangelical I’m free to hope for something more progressive.

  • Mikey

    It does seem the “decision for christ” act does indicate a larger phenomenon going on here, namely, our dependency on the mouthpiece of master signifiers which in the end have no practical teeth; “believing without believing” (Zizek). The film Saved! really hit the ball out of the park on this point — though this line of parody owes much to Kevin Smith’s “Buddy Christ” in that oh-so provocative cult classic Dogma. The evangelical church’s image as being “wholly” depressing/boring required a real makeover (the several-hundred club wasn’t doing the trick), though in the process of doing so it in effect borrowed wholesale from the culture of individualistic optimism, thus promising/selling a limited-time offer salvation package of world and after-life (the latter being the real catch though) to the precious new convert.

    btw, nice push-back question, TOJ, regarding Fitch’s “third way” aside from the Neo-Reformed and emergent avenues regarding the recent splintering of evangelicalism — his original definition that he gave was really vague. And his responsive, though sort of roundabout, really speaks a meaningful word. We, as individuals, need to act via petition by argument, what he calls the “Anabaptist impulse,” and only then can the body of followers of Christ come together and convene within a meaningful context. In other words, Fitch is sort of advocating for a sort of quasi-Kierkegaardian religious experience which brings about community insofar that individuals are primarily able to think/act critically therein.

    Though, I would press Fitch even more on this point. Yes, individual expression necessitates real action in the wider church scene, but “church” need not be defined as “the building with a cross on its top,” for the basic component of expressing the body of Christ is one-on-one dialogue between brothers and sisters which adhere to the proclamation of the gospel. That’s it! Actually, “that’s it!” might be a bit of a misnomer expression, as such a minimal venue can actually be world’s more complex and intricate than church Sunday services and the requisite mingling afterward.

  • Mark

    What then is the “recipe” for evangelicalism according to Hart? “Combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppy music professionally performed; and bake every generation.” (pg. 183).

    Amazon review of Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham by D.G. Hart

    http://www.amazon.com/Deconstructing-Evangelicalism-Conservative-Protestantism-Graham/dp/0801027284

    • Mikey

      … So then you pretty much concede the argument made by Fitch, viz., the fall of the evangelical? Though, what does this say about the “evangelical” per say; or, what does this then mean for the evangel/heraldic dimension of the gospel which is indispensable to the biblical account?

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