Chapter 10

 

When America Met Christianity–Guess Who Won?

 
We have it in our power to begin the world over again. -Thomas Paine
  • Themes of the First Awakening
    • Intense emotional conversion experience
    • Celebrity model of leadership
    • Deep suspicion of theological learning, especially as embodied in creeds and confessions
    • Increasingly individualistic view of the church, which borrowed heavily from the political philosophy of the day
  • One factor especially distinctive of the second Awakening: a surprising lack of critical distance from the political ideology of the American Revolution. This provides a handy way to remember what distinguishes the two Awakenings: the first came before the American revolution, while the second came after it–at a time when the Revolution was becoming the template for the way people thought about virtually every area of life.
  • In the first awakening, revivalists had not attacked church structure or learning per se, but only the abuses that had turned the clergy into a privileged class. By contrast, in the second Awakening, church authority itself was denounced as “tyranny.” Creeds and liturgies were nothing but “popery” and “priestcraft.”
  • Instead of offering a distinctively biblical perspective on the current political structure, many evangelicals equated spiritual liberty with political liberty. This was the theme in a pamphlet written by Lorenzo Dow which says, “if all men are ‘BORN EQUAL’ and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR…then there can be no just reason…why he may or should not thing, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion.
  • The conversion experience
    • Non-revivalists expected this to take years of struggle before a person sensed the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, giving assurance of being forgiven and counted among the elect. Memoirs of the time show that some people suffered through years of haunting doubt and anxiety before gaining assurance of salvation.
    • Revivalists offered assurance of salvation on the spot. Instead of going through a lengthy process, the individual made a decision–and he was saved instantly. Instead of being taught and tested by the church, the convert announced to others what he experienced.
    • Revivalists discounted the need for catechism, liturgy, or sacraments if what counted for salvation was the crisis of conversion. The church was no longer an organic community into which one was received, and certainly not a spiritual authority to which one submitted. Rather, it as a collection of equal, autonomous individuals coming together by choice.
  • A  new way of thinking
    • In America, there was at last a genuine natural equality among independent individuals. Here at last humanity had the chance to start over and build civil society from the ground up. For many Americans, the meaning of the Revolution was not just that they had eliminated a king but that they had started a new world from scratch.
    • For the first time, social contract theory seemed to fit people’s actual experience instead of being merely hypothetical–and as a result, liberalism became the dominant political philosophy. In the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy had been classical and Christian republicanism, which was highly communal. But the new liberalism, social structures were not instituted by God; they came into being only when individuals created them in order to protect their interests.
    • Soon these ideas were echoing throughout every sphere of society, including churches. Instead of analyzing the new ideas from a biblical perspective, many evangelicals embraced them uncritically. If the people could form their own state, why not their own church as well?
    • There arose a conviction that Christianity had become hopelessly corrupted sometime after the apostolic age, and that the great task at hand was to leapfrog back over 1,800 years of history to restore the original purity of the primitive church. Things like creeds and ceremonies were merely human inventions that had crusted over the gospel like barnacles on a ship, which must be scraped away so that authentic New Testament worship could be restored. This attitude is sometimes called primitivism, and it stands in striking contrast to the stance of the Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans, who vie with one another even today in claiming an unbroken historical continuity back to the apostolic age, which is regarded as a mark of authenticity. Evangelicals wanted to go much further: they vigorously denounced creeds, confessions, ceremonies, and ecclesiastical structures as violations of Christian liberty that must be stripped away.
    • On one hand, this kind of primitivism could be liberating: It put the individual on notice that he could no longer passively accept whatever the church taught, but had to conduct his own independent study of the Bible. On the other hand, the cavalier rejection of the past stripped the church of the rich resources of centuries’ worth of theological reflection, Scriptural meditation, and spiritual experience. It inculcated an attitude that there was nothing to be gained from grappling with the thought of the great minds of the past–Augustine and Tertullian, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin. It was an approach doomed, almost by definition, to anti-intellectualism and theological shallowness.
  • With the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, for the first time many people were freed from the fear of want and hunger–a truly historic benchmark. What’s more, the new economic network crisscrossing the country was being created by ordinary men and women: farmers, craftsmen, traders, merchants, shopkeepers, cattle drovers. It began to seem that, contrary to the old Calvinist pessimism concerning human nature, ordinary people were quite capable of making rational choices to advance their own interests. And when they did, lo, they created wealth all around. Against this backdrop, we can better understand why Christianity became a matter of “making a decision for Christ.” The focus was on individual choice, not on fitting into an inherited tradition.
  • Pastors and their styles
    • In post-Revolutionary America, says Gary Thomas, a Calvinist minister might stand in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and preach to his congregation that they were morally corrupt by nature and slaves to sin, that they did not have the capability to choose salvation, that God had chosen some and rejected others, and that there was nothing they could do about it. A Calvinist message “would run counter to the individual’s self-determinsm in the everyday life of market and polity,” and as a result, the sermon would simply not seem plausible. It would not make sense.
    • On the other hand, a traveling Methodist revivalist might ride into town and address the same people that night in an open-air revival meeting. He might preach that they had the power to choose God, that their salvation hung upon their own decision, and that salvation was open to any who chose to call upon the Lord. Given their everyday experience, this message would make sense. An Armenian message and a free-church ecclesiology fit with their experience as independent, autonomous actors in a democratic polity and an expanding capitalist economy. This explains why historians often characterize evangelicalism as a quintessentially modern religion.
    • In the evangelical movement, the older model of leaders as holy men was cast aside, and instead gave rise to leaders who were entrepreneurs–pragmatic marketers who were willing to use whatever worked to get conversions.
    • Revivalism altered the seminaries as well: “The Puritan ideal of the minister as an intellectual and educational leader was steadily weakened in the face of the evangelical ideal of the minister as a popular crusader and exhorter,” Hofstadter writes. Theological education began to focus more on practical techniques and less on intellectual training.
    • The way of preaching was transformed: Expository preaching on biblical texts gave way to topical sermons on the felt needs of the congregation.
    • The traditional sermon was essentially a formal argument–moving point by point through a logical progression in order to show that a particular doctrine was grounded in Scripture, then concluding with an application. But now congregations no longer expected to be taught theology; they wanted a minister who would move them emotionally and give them practical guidance for daily living.
    • The local rootedness of the traditional clergy had provided at least some measure of genuine accountability: Their character was known and tested in ongoing, long-term contact with a regular congregation. By contrast, the evangelist addressed mass audiences made up of strangers, who could not possibly judge his character by personal knowledge. He could dazzle them with sheer image-making and marketing hype. Many evangelical leaders became “successful, polished politicians,” says Hofstadter, “well versed in the secular arts of manipulation.”
    • A compelling theme in popular preaching throughout this era was the Jeffersonian notion that people should shake off all servile prejudice and learn to prove things for themselves. The revivalists’ deep concern for the poor and the downtrodden continues to inspire respect in all who know of their work.
  • As America moved beyond being a nation of settlers and farmers and small towns, a “religion of the heart” was not enough to respond to the intellectual challenges emerging in the nineteenth century, especially Darwinism and higher criticism. Later evangelists like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday tried to counter the new ideas with sheer revivalist fervor. The fervor, however, began to take on a brittle, defensive edge. And the more Christians sought to prop up their faith with mere emotional intensity, the more it appeared to be an irrational belief that belonged in the upper story of private experience.
  • Unable to answer the great intellectual questions of the day, many conservative Christians turned their back on mainstream culture and developed a fortress mentality. This led to the fundamentalist era of the early twentieth century, when separatism was adopted as a positive strategy, and Christianity was reduced to the jargon of a distinct subculture. Fundamentalist leaders were caught unprepared to respond to the critiques of scientific naturalism, whether applied to natural history [Darwinism] or the study of the Bible [higher criticism].
  • Although fundamentalism tended to be marked by an attitude of defiant defensiveness against mainstream culture, it needs noting that fundamentalist movement’s enormous vitality and worthy accomplishments in its zeal to protect the basic teachings of historic Christian orthodoxy, it founded large numbers of schools, seminaries, radio programs, youth organizations, Bible study groups, missions, and so on.
  • Today evangelicalism is still emerging from the fundamentalist era–still working to regain a more holistic understanding of the Lordship of Christ over all of life and culture. In recent decades, evangelicals have moved up the social and economic ladder. We are more likely to be educated and have high incomes. Yet I would suggest that in our churches and parachurch ministries, we still encounter many of the basic patterns from an earlier age:
    • The tendency to define religion primarily in emotional terms; the anti-creedal, anti-historical attitude that ignores the theological riches of the past
    • The assertion of individual choice as the final determinant of belief
    • The atomistic view of the church as merely a collection of individuals who happen to believe the same things
    • The preference for social activism over intellectual reflection. 
    • A model of leadership that exhibits leaders who:
      • Are entrepreneurial and pragmatic, who deliberately manipulate their listeners’ emotions
      • Who subtly enhance their own image through self-serving personal anecdotes
      • Have a leadership style within their own congregation or parachurch ministry that tends to be imperious and domineering
      • Calculate success in terms of results
      • Are willing to employ the latest secular techniques to boost numbers
  • An evangelical pattern is becoming dominant in all religions in America–a pattern described as “more personalized and individualistic, less doctrinal and devotional.” This style may not be so much distinctively Christian as it is distinctly American, in the sense that its individualism and experientalism align closely with the modern American ethos.
  • A poll taken in the mid-1990s by Wade Clark Roof found that 54 percent of evangelical Christians said “to be alone and meditate” was more important than “to worship with others.” Roof concluded that “the real story of American religious life in this half-century is the rise of a new sovereign self that defines and sets limits on the very meaning of the divine.In other words, instead of challenging modern liberalism’s notion of the autonomous self, evangelicalism tends to reflect the same theme in religious language. As Wolfe puts it, “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture–and American culture has triumphed.
  • If we hope to retain what is best in the evangelical heritage, we must also soberly assess its weaknesses, praying for wisdom and strength to bring about reformation. And one of the best places to seek help is from other resources within evangelicalism itself–from its more scholarly branch.
 
This post contains quoted and paraphrased passages of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey.

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