Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dumb Evangelicalism, Neil Postman, and Church Splits

In his ubiquitous and often beloved book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman spends the first half of the book charting the rise and fall of the "typographical culture" which perished with the rise of new media (radio, television, etc.). In the first part of the book, Postman claims that 18th and 19th century "American public discourse, being rooted in the bias of the printed word, was serious, inclined toward rational argument and presentation, and, therefore, made up of meaningful content" (p 52). According to Postman, this was because the printed word created the context of discourse. The printed word created the environment in which people thought, conversed, and preached.

As part of Postman's effort to buttress this contention, he points to the contrast between someone like Jonathan Edwards and TV preachers like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham. Whereas Edwards delivered lengthy treatises and dissertations from the pulpit (and the people understood him!), Falwell and Graham comparatively speak/spoke in soundbites with simplistic language. Largely, Postman observes, religious, legal, and political intercourse became dominated more and more by image and personality and less by direct theological concerns.

These sorts of observations are helpful, I think, in observing evangelicalism as a whole, today. I wish to offer an anecdote. The town in which I live has a population of approximately 13,000 people. In our town there are approximately (and this is very approximate) 50 churches (none of which are Reformed, by the way - are you reading, PCA/OPC church planters?). In the last ten years, there have been at least three new churches that I can think of. All of them arose from church splits. What I want to observe is not the existence of church splits - those happen all of the time here in the midwest - but rather, the reason for those church splits. Was it doctrine? Was it theology? Was it predestination and the virulent influence of incipient, ugly, unhappy Calvinism? No. It was personalities. These are churches which split off of one another and started new fellowships (all non-denominational churches) because they felt that a leader at another church was not given their due or because this or that group felt that they connected with a certain small group leader. Churches in my community appear to be more governed by personality than by truth/doctrine. My fear is that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

This may be a merely anecdotal proof, but it is a symptom of a sickness in evangelicalism today. I am at least encouraged by doctrinally-based church splits, because it reflects a culture where God Himself is more important to worshippers than the shepherd. However, to be frank, the state of evangelicalism in my town almost causes me to deeply despair over our ever living in a day when truth and reason are again celebrated over celebrity and personality. Some time back, Doug Wilson opined that Postman and McLuhan are wrong, and that technology will not destroy the church, but rather, enrich her as a type of wealth. I cannot help but think that if I were a post-millennial I might find room agree with his friendly assessment of the situation. As it stands, however, I see nothing ahead but a further dumbing-down and a further decline in terms of the content of the things which once mattered.

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