Thursday 24 January 2013

Adapt or batten down the hatches? Recent shifts in evangelicalism

In biology, punctuated equilibrium is the idea that a species can change little to not at all for a long time, then suddenly develop rapidly once a tipping point is reached. It's a useful concept in a number of fields (social history one of them). And I'd argue that it's a good way of understanding what's been happening in evangelicalism on both sides of the pond in the last couple of years. The relatively stable evangelical culture I was part of as a young Christian is shifting rapidly - because its mechanisms for suppressing or exiling dissent no longer work.

Go back, if you will, to the long-gone days of early 2011, when Rob Bell's alleged universalism (Bell's Love Wins had not been released yet) inspired an infamous three-word tweet from John Piper. That anathema from the man they call the Calvinist pope formed part of a by now pretty well-rehearsed script: declare someone 'controversial' for transgressing doctrinal boundaries, declare they're no longer an evangelical, and tell your flock to boycott their works. It's how the evangelical aristocracy excommunicates its discontents, and they've developed a taste for it.

But that strategy of marginalising dissent no longer works. Certainly, technological change plays a part in that, but there's another factor: increasingly, those evangelical leaders try to push out push back. They find allies. They get published. And they refuse to stop calling themselves evangelicals.

No-one illustrates this better than Rachel Held Evans. Growing up in the Bible Belt, Held Evans is no outsider to evangelicalism, and her writing is full of love for and commitment to the evangelical tradition. But she's also an egalitarian who rejects biblicism. In opening her blog to a huge variety of voices of different faith traditions, she applies a radical inclusiveness that conservative evangelicals find suspicious. And then there's the fact that she's a woman, so conservative leaders consider her unsuited to teaching and have to overcome scruples to engage with her at all.

But attempts to expel her from the evangelical fold have been unsuccessful. Christianity Today, the closest American evangelicalism has to a central publication, put her on their list of '50 Women You Should Know' (much to the chagrin of Denny Burk). Conservatives attacking her during the 2012 Imbroglio of the Two Wilsons ended up with egg on their faces - like Douglas Wilson's daughter Bekah, who described Held Evans as being in 'a fever of feminist fury', having 'transitioned into her squeaky voice, and we all know what happens when a woman gets squeaky' and 'stamping her little foot over there on her blog'. Bizarre, that, as Rachel Held Evans is gracious and level-headed in her writings.

She's representative of a much larger trend of openness and honesty. Singer Jennifer Knapp came out of the closet in a Christianity Today interview in 2010 (followed by a debate with a conservative pastor on national television). Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network - which unites LGBTQ Christians both celibate and in relationships - and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, is a prominent figure in the emergence of openly gay evangelicals. Writers like Pete Enns on evolution and Christian Smith on biblicism are challenging other evangelical shibboleths from within the tradition.

This opening up, along with wider cultural shifts on social issues, has created room for senior evangelical leaders to be honest about their own position even where it conflicts with dogma. Evangelicalism in Britain, the Christian subculture I'm a part of, may be tiny compared to its North American counterpart, but Steve Chalke's recent affirmation of LGBTQ couples in churches made waves on both sides of the pond. It's the bigger picture that fascinates me, though. Chalke's thoughtful and gracious article was published by Christianity, a far from liberal evangelical magazine, and the responses from conservatives were far more muted and respectful than one is used to.

Steve Clifford of the Evangelical Alliance disagreed with Chalke amid familiar phraseology of 'sadness and disappointment', but reminded Christians they should 'disagree without being disagreeable [and] listen honestly and carefully to one another'. Steve Holmes (battle of the Steves!) critiqued Chalke's hermeneutic, but entirely without the warnings of 'caving in to secular dogma' and the flames of hell that have tended to mark evangelicals' responses to dissent. It's an actual debate (which wouldn't have happened five or ten years ago), and I'm incredibly hopeful about it (please don't dash those hopes, guys).

In this new environment evangelical leaders, who used to judge the people - the gatekeepers, as Fred Clark aptly calls them -, are faced with a dilemma: engage change and perhaps change yourself or batten down the hatches and retreat into what Michael Clawson calls 'neo-fundamentalism'. The current paradigm shift in evangelical Christianity seems to be accelerating existing trends, leading to noticeable radicalisation.

That's certainly the case with John Piper, who is becoming more conservative as he's nearing retirement. In the above video, he argues that complementarianism - the soft patriarchy in which men and women are equal but 'gloriously suited' to different roles: that is, men should command ('biblical headship'), women should obey ('submission') - is a first-order, quasi-gospel issue. Traditionally, evangelicals treat it as a second-order issue like infant baptism, eschatology or spiritual gifts, i.e. something we can agree to disagree on - a privileged perspective, as women can't just walk away agreeing to disagree about their rights.

In recent podcasts, he seems to endorse young-earth creationism on the grounds that not accepting Adam or his descendants as historical would be to reject the Bible, and he's becoming more vocal about his anti-abortion activism. He's also begun to address criticism (which evangelical leaders tend to ignore) with an ill-advised follow-up post to a rightly criticised video on domestic violence. Culture warriors like Al Mohler are following similar trajectories.

The other possible response, of course, would be for evangelicals to reassess their position. Alas, so far it's mostly lip service of the 'I can't be racist because I have black friends' variety: quite literally, as when Rick Warren defended himself against accusations of homophobia by saying that 'I have many, many gay friends'. (Cue backlash from the Religious Right, who disapprove of being friends with gay people.) Tim Keller often appears more open than Piper or a shock jock like Mark Driscoll, yet there he sits with Piper and D.A. Carson, arguing that egalitarians pick and choose from their Bibles.

Fundamentalism is predicated on the hopeless proposition that you can fix a set of acceptable beliefs, social relations and behaviour once and for all, occasionally kicking out the discontents. But the evangelical tradition is much broader than that. It has welcomed change, realising that the man from Galilee is a living saviour, and that serving him in real, historical contexts means living in those contexts, in all the wonder, complexity and yes, uncertainty of real life. My hope is that evangelicals will test change, and hold on to what is good.

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