*This was written on May, 8th 2018.
It’s 8:32 pm, and I’ve just finished mowing the lawn. My nose tingles and is in a state of constant volatility much like Yellowstone’s “Old Faithful”. Freshly mowed grass is not my friend. The house is quiet, and I bask in a brief contemplative moment. I’m content to just be. I’m content and am not longing, fretting, or looking forward to what’s next. This may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is for me. Before I began the domestic duties of the day, I experienced a moment of decision. In this instant I was simply choosing to not react badly to something that I call a “beach sand” moment. This is the moment when you realize that sand is in your shorts, your backpack, and your car and it’s beginning to drive you insane. Today the “beach sand” was a combination of events, one of which involved our overgrown puppy chewing on our cabinets. It required taking a deep breath and recalling that “this too shall pass.” There was also a short prayer mentioning something about grace not to mistreat this adorable part of God’s creation.
So today I exhibited faith. Why is this worth mentioning? Well, it seems like for the last two years faith has felt a lot like me banging my head against a rugged brick wall. Another image that comes to mind is me getting in a fat suit and trying to fit myself into a Smart Car. Why did this particular image come to mind? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m considering breaking down this metaphor more since it seems like it would be fun. It paints this image of me putting on something that’s unnatural and attempting to “fit in” to the car the I’m supposed to drive. Why am I supposed to drive it? Well, because it’s good for the environment, it’s “Biblical,” and it’s orthodox of course. Why would I even consider wearing or driving anything else? That would be ridiculous. Also, because I’m going to feel like terrible human being if I don’t. Even if I don’t see eyes glaring at me, I’m sure I’ll get strange looks when people find me out of my fat suit and maybe not even driving a car at all. Now, if you’re getting lost in this metaphor, don’t worry. I’ll bring it full circle. Instead of easing into it, I’ll try to employ the shock factor…I’m leaving evangelicalism.
Now just to be clear, this isn’t me playing language games. I have very little patience for those who insist on not using titles or categories when it comes to explaining complex concepts or phenomenas. These have obvious limitations but without them explaining concepts and ideas are incredibly frustrating. I’ll even favor stereotypes over those trying to explain what they believe without using “buzz words”–at the very least over “small talk”. Sometimes you have to stoop to the level of a buzz word, disregarding your hipster tendencies, to go from there. So that’s what I’m doing here.
Evangelicalism, its Roots, and My Own
The word evangelicalism is a loaded term that has roots in the first and even more so the second Great Awakening. It’s associated with Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible, who place proselytization at the forefront of their faith, and who emphasis a “born again” experience regarding salvation. More recently, it’s been associated with Bible-believing Christians who vote Republican and emphasize social and moral reformation on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, prayer in schools, and other issues. For the most part, it’s become a religious-political subset of Christianity. Some would even say that the word evangelical is an attempt of fundamentalists to redefine themselves and shed the baggage they’ve left behind from the 20th century.
For myself, evangelicalism has been the water I’ve been swimming in for the majority of my life. Much like a fish in water, I never realized I was in fact “in water.” The water was my life. Much like the air I breath now, there was never a need to examine or question it. Now I’m not saying that I never questioned tenets of evangelical theology or practice. I did quite often! The majority of these tenets were secondary or tertiary though. They were always within the spectrum of evangelicalism whether I was pondering Calvin’s ruthless emphasis on the sovereignty of God or the implications of a continuationsist’s perspective on the book of 1st Corinthians (or “one Corinthians” in the vernacular of our president). Regardless of what I was wrestling with, it was all orthodox and biblical so to speak. Yes, I’ve spent periods where I abandoned pursing faith to examine the claims of other religions and philosophies, but I always returned to Christianity—at least the version of it that I thought was true Christianity–the only Christianity in my mind. You see, I never really considered that Christianity could ever be any different from that which I thought was biblical and orthodox (i.e., evangelical Christianity). Everything else was, in my mind, not true Christianity. Catholicism and more “liberal” forms of Christianity were under a “spell of the Devil”. Those who questioned the validity of the Bible were syncretists who lacked the spine to stand up to culture. All those who didn’t take the bible seriously (or not in the way that I took it seriously), had been led astray. Faith was not a series of questions to navigate and tensions to manage as you grow in your understanding of God, it was much more like that exhibit at the kid’s museum where you dig up the bones from the sand and get to take them home. Those bones were your “absolute truth” that you tucked under your arm and beat people who disagreed with you. Anytime someone questions where you got your bones from, your heart drops and you rely on your Sunday School training to defend yourself. Faith is black and white–a gradient-less painting. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. The Bible is read literally. Anyone who says otherwise is lost and has been “infiltrated” by the university or “the left”, where faithful evangelical Christians go to die. You’ll be forever lost if you think otherwise. The prospect of picking up a book written by a Buddhist or someone deemed a “quasi-evangelical” is perilous.
I could go on for hours about these issues but for brevity sake, I’ll jump to some loose conclusions I’ve arrived at. These are loose in the sense that: 1) they are very new to me, so I risk the chance of engaging in preferential theological novelty 2) these thoughts are very premature to me and my Christian practice 3) I do not wish my tone to be anything but ecumenical and gracious. So, please do not take my “poking and prodding” too seriously—I am but a theological minnow in a very large pond.
The Intersection of Theology and Culture
Before I get into the observations I’ve been entertaining, I must make the distinction, or at least correlation, between theology and culture. Much of evangelical theology is all good and well. In reality though, people’s practice of that theology is often very different. Because of the very nature of evangelical theology, that being its emphasis on the clear acquisition of truth through the literal (grammatical-historical method) interpretation of the Bible, you get a slew of people consumed by their interpretation of the Scriptures. So, if you stake a stroll through any Southern city on a Sunday morning, you’ll find people claiming that you need to speak in tongues to be saved, that you’ll need to be physically baptized to be redeemed, that you need to do “this that and the other” to be a true Christian. So, when I speak of Evangelical Theology, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to include the culture and practices that come with that. Why? Well, for instance, Evangelical theology alone does not account for the shame and looks of disapproval you will most likely experience if you leave the Evangelical worldview by becoming a Democrat for example (once you become a Democrat you’re definitely not Evangelical right? Also, just for clarity sake, I’m not a Democrat. You see, the fear still looms!). So, in an attempt to include the minutia of Evangelical culture, which runs deep no doubt, I shall pair theology and culture together in this discussion.
Evangelical Theology Being a Closed System
Evangelical theology is a bit of closed system. It’s like that person you know that no matter what he says, he always seems to come out on top in an argument or discussion. He uses the same logic and refuses to entertain any other perspective. He’s got the “silver bullet,” and he thinks he can’t lose as long as he brings the conversation back to his beloved weapon. This is true in two ways: 1) in their perspective of the Bible and its interpretation 2) their divisive approach to diversity among Christian faith and practice.
The Infallible-Literal Hermeneutic: A Recipe for Control
So how do evangelicals’ perspective of the Bible cause it to be a closed system? When I say that it’s a closed system, I mean that it’s used in a self-referential way. It’s built on the foundation of the Bible being either infallible (perfect for faith and practice) or inerrant (without error in any way; this includes its statements on science). Evangelicals are known for their emphasis (I use that word lightly) on the divinity of the Scriptures. The authors of Scripture were tools used by God to impeccably communicate his message. This message was a true and perfect revelation from God in all its stages and forms. Although the majority of evangelicals do not acknowledge the oral tradition and documents behind the formation of Scripture, some do acknowledge that the Bible is perfect only in the original autographs. So, there’s either a distinction between the original autographs or it’s believed that Scripture is delivered to us being completely unaffected although it passed through many human stages (recollection of historical events, oral tradition, theological depiction or record of oral tradition, creation or dictation, circulation, and translation). So, their perspective on Scripture is constricted; it must be perfect, or God has somehow failed them. The historical events that the Bible depicts, and the current reality of Christ’s existence must directly correspond with every “jot and tittle” of the Bible or the whole framework of the Evangelical worldview falls apart. If it doesn’t correspond, then (in their mind) Christianity is hopeless. They do not consider the possibility of God’s initial revelation being perfect but man’s collection and interpretation of it having the possibility of error. They do not consider that God may very well be alive and ready to reveal himself to his people with or without the existence of Scripture that may or may not have possible discrepancies. What if Scripture was not meant to limit God’s revelation? What if Scripture is simply a sacred tool for the Christian and the church, as opposed to being a divine edict for all matters related to science, faith, society, and whatever else—a “silver bullet” that should settle all arguments? For the evangelical, there can be no faith without a perfect Bible. And so, the “poking and prodding” begins.
This is all well and good, but what makes their view even more sealed is their perspective on interpretation. Hermeneutics for the evangelical revolves around an extremely literal approach to Scripture. Scripture is to be read as the very words of God. It’s not literature; it’s fact. There is little to no acknowledgement that God may have communicated through literature. Now there are various levels of this present within the evangelical church—many of which are now only believed by a handful of people usually in rural areas. There are also many (most evangelical scholars today) who acknowledge that the bible is a diverse topography of literary forms, yet they still do not acknowledge that the historical events and details portrayed in this diverse collection of works may not all be completely true. There is no room for the literary creativity of the author; the Bible only recorded “fact”—a word that most ancient people would probably not understand. It’s hard to believe that, much like other ancient records of history, there is no embellishment or literary freedom. Furthermore, the Bible is not just an ancient record of history, it’s also deeply theological. It’s meant to teach us about God and his people. The problem with the evangelical hermeneutic is they refuse to fully acknowledge that the Bible is a literary work, whether you believe it was inspired by God or not. They only half-acknowledge this because if they completely acknowledge it, then (in their mind) the gates of hell would open. How would they tell what’s true and what’s not? How would “the world” take us seriously if some of the events in the Bible didn’t actually happen? This would put them in a limbo that they are obviously not comfortable with. So, instead of navigating this limbo, they stick with their infallible or inerrant literal hermeneutic. It’s safe. It’s clear. It, ironically, requires less faith to interact with. You just read the Bible at face value (as you would a textbook), don’t question anything, and you’re all set! Wash, rinse, and repeat. If you really do this, then you’re obviously going to run into some problems. This works well as long as the time-tested maxim “ignorance is bliss” proves true. On the other hand, sometimes this literal framework may cause some serious issues that could lead to unnecessary suffering and injustice by people doing “the will of God”—a phrase the makes me cringe as I reflect on church history.
“The word” or “the Word?”
For the evangelical, the Bible is not a means to acquire God’s truth (a sacred tool); it is truth itself. It is not a means to engage with God; in a sense it is God. Instead of “the Word” being Christ, “the Word” becomes a literal interpretive approach to the Bible. Instead of Christ being at the center of faith and practice, the Scriptures become the centerpiece. I know this seems quite foreign if you’re submerged in the evangelical worldview. You’re probably saying, “but…the Scriptures tell us about Christ…how do we know Christ outside of the Scriptures!?” That’s a great question. I have no idea what the answer is but let me posit a few options. We can know Christ through His body (the church). We can know Christ through prayer and reflection. We can know Christ through natural revelation (creation). We can also know Christ through the Scriptures. Yet, anyone who is a student of the Scriptures knows that Christ is at the center. Why not place him at the center of our lives? You may be thinking “but how do we know the church, nature, prayer, and the Scriptures really teach us about Christ?” Honestly, I’m not sure. In my mind, this is where faith comes in. The “righteous shall live by faith” eh? It didn’t say, “the righteous shall live by a literal interpretation of Scriptures about God.” Have you ever considered how we ended 66 books in the first place? Who do you think decided what books were placed in the cannon? Well, the church did of course. Think about that. The community that was centered around following the teachings and practices of Christ decided what books were to be included in the Bible. The people of God preceded the Bible. The people of God determined what books to be included in the holy Scriptures. “The Word” preceded “the word,” and the church proceeded “the word.” More poking and prodding here.
So, the evangelical presuppositions when it comes to their approach to Scripture are quite binding. Their insistence that the Bible is either infallible or inerrant both ignore the human aspect of the formulation of Scripture and ironically the teaching of Scripture itself—that Christ is “the Word.” Their insistence that the Bible must be read literally, ignores the literary nature and historical context of literature at the time. Once again this leaves them with an archaic perspective of faith in Christ that is unnecessarily tethered to the ancient worldview. Much like a straight-jacket, it abandons them to a perspective on Scripture that is rigid and forces them to reconcile potential discrepancies surrounding historical events and even the character of God. This leads us to the second reason why evangelical theology is a closed system.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist Debate: A Perfect Polarization Storm
As this article has developed and evolved, I’ve realized that this second reason is more heavily a cultural issue as opposed to a theological one. Nevertheless, we shall precede since I believe it’s worth mentioning. So, how is evangelical theology and culture a bit of a closed system? A lot of this has to do with polarization. The polarization that I am referring to has its most recent roots in Fundamentalist-Modernist Debate that took place in 19th and 20thcentury. This debate came about as Enlightenment thinking was becoming more prevalent among church-goers and ministers. With this movement came a new methodology for interpreting the Scripture—the historical-critical approach (in contrast to the historical-grammatical approach). While this approach was not really a new approach per se, an aspect of it was novel. The novel aspect was the critical analysis of the Scriptures and the historical events that they record. They held the Bible up to a new scientific subjectivity and scrutiny that few had ever done before. Now, we need to stop here to really appreciate and understand the significance of this development. Up to this point, no one had really looked at the Scriptures in a scientific way. There was no need to because everyone’s worldview was somewhat spiritually charged. The whole idea of a scientific approach to something people believed to be sacred and inspired by God would completely foreign. Now, this does not mean that everyone who lived in the pre-Enlightenment era approached the Bible within the literal-innerrant or infallible evangelical framework. This approach didn’t come about until after the Enlightenment as a response to the Enlightenment’s critical treatment of the Bible. To say this crudely, the literal-innerrant approach was basically a Christian “pissing contest” response to Enlightenment thinking. It’s like, “oh, so you are looking at the Scriptures and questioning whether Jesus actually did this? Well, we believe that the Bible is true in all matters, including what it says about science. We have true Christian faith and have not sold out to the whims of culture.” And so, begins the polarization. What is interesting is that the majority of Christian theologians and practitioners in the pre-Enlightenment era probably would not have even agreed with this. Firstly, they would not really be that interested in proving whether every “jot and tittle” of the historical events recorded in the Bible were true. The Bible was a sacred and inspired tool that taught them about Christ. Second, most of them approached the Bible in a much more spiritual manner. So, back to our polarization.
Since the inception of this holy pissing contest, things have only gotten worse. This debate deeply fractured protestant Christianity. It created a “us and them” culture amongst evangelicals and other forms of Protestantism very similar to the effects of the Reformation between protestants and Catholics. This created a strong polarization and in congruence with the literal-innerrant framework of Evangelicals, it also created a very divisive approach to theological diversity among evangelicals. For Evangelicals, mainline protestants were no longer true Christians because they didn’t take the Bible as serious as evangelicals—well, at least in the way evangelicals did. The faith of Christians who didn’t take up the literal-innerrant approach was questioned. “Are they really a Christ-follower?”
As culture became more liberalized and in contrast with the ancient worldview of evangelicals, things only got worse. Non-evangelicals were seen as sycretists who gave into the new streams of culture thus adding fuel to the fire for the “us and them” culture. On the other end, mainliners began to see evangelicals as being increasingly intolerant, which in their mind, did not line up with how they viewed Christ. Thus, more fuel to the fire. So, what we’re left with is a great divide between evangelicals and those of the mainline tradition. For evangelicals, if you cross over the literal-inerrant framework, you risk losing your soul to “the world” who as, in their mind, infiltrated the mainline church. It’s the classic slippery-slope argument. If you question the framework of evangelicalism, it’s seen as a lack of faith. You’re not allowed to question it; instead, you have to pray more and find a way to reconcile the discrepancies you find in the Scriptures. In essence, you simply lack faith. The “righteous shall live by faith” eh? But what if our lack of faith is simply a lack of faith in a closed framework that the Bible was not meant to be constrained to? Could my lack of faith then become a virtue? Virtuous, because I’m on the brink of liberating myself from an ancient worldview that was tethered to the lives of the authors of Scripture that was not mean for us today? Oh, how the tables have turned! At this point, I’m just postulating or maybe even pontificating, and I appreciate you sticking with me through this theological serpentine. Lots of poking and prodding.
My Reluctant Conclusion
Now that we’ve touched on the two main reasons why I am becoming convinced that evangelical theology and culture is a closed self-referential system in which there is no escaping unless you commit a cardinal sin, I guess it’s time to wrap this up. I have to say that there is so much I haven’t been able to fit into this discussion. One of which being the two perspectives on how the church approached interpreting the Bible in its first 500 years. You would be surprised because it’s anything but literal. The deciding factors were either the community of faith (i.e., the church) or a philosophical approach that sought to find four to five different meanings for any particular passage in Scripture (e.g., an ethical meaning, an allegorical meaning, etc.). Food for thought I guess. Regardless, please consider that my goal in writing this was twofold: 1) to help myself and others seriously reflect on the foundations of evangelical theology—in essence to “pull no punches” 2) to help myself verbalize and articulate my processes of thought as I continue to learn and grow. Without the assistance of the community of faith, there is a chance I might end up in at Burning Man sporting a long beard and peeing into Gatorade bottles. So, please consider what I have written and provide some honest feedback and thoughts. Both I and the world will probably be a better place if you do.
P.S. “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it.” ~ Aristotle