Monday, October 7, 2013

A Proposal for Evangelicalism's Disaffected Deviationists

I try not to obnoxiously post giant block quotes here at Bring the Books very often. However, one of my recent pet projects has been addressing disillusioned former evangelicals who think they see something ugly in the religion they used to love. I try to be winsome and friendly. Granted, my message has largely been to tell these critics, "Physician, heal thyself!"which doesn't do much for mending fences, I'll freely admit.

But I read someone like Rachel Held Evans (whom I see as fairly representative of disaffected neo-evangelical types), and I see so much frustration with the shallow, the simplistic, the thoughtless, the "get your ticket punched" form of Christianity that has come to define what might be called the conservative wing of evangelicalism. In my frustration, I remain irresistibly convinced that the Reformed tradition presents a fantastic (I am not claiming perfect) alternative to the ugliness of modern evangelicalism, but I know those aren't pleasant options for someone who doesn't have a high view of Scripture or a traditional appreciation of gender roles in the Church. Regardless, as I was reading in one of J.I. Packer's books, I found an interesting discussion of the very audience I've been thinking of. Here is what he has to say:
I turn finally to those whom I call disaffected deviationists, the casualties and dropouts of the modern evangelical movement, many of whom have now turned against it to denounce it as a neurotic perversion of Christianity. Here, too, is a breed that we know all too well. It is distressing to think of these folk, both because their experience to date discredits our evangelicalism so deeply and also because there are so many of them.
Who are they? They are people who once saw themselves as evangelicals, either from being evangelically nurtured or from coming to profess conversion within the evangelical sphere of influence, but who have become disillusioned about the evangelical point of view and have turned their back on it, feeling that it let them down.
Some leave it for intellectual reasons, judging that what was taught them was so simplistic as to stifle their minds and so unrealistic and out of touch with facts as to be really if unintentionally dishonest. Other leave because they were led to expect that as Christians they would enjoy health, wealth, trouble-free circumstances, immunity from relational hurts, betrayals, and failures, and from making mistakes and bad decisions; in short, a flowery bed of ease on which they would be carried happily to heaven - and these great expectations were in due course refuted by events. Hurt and angry, feeling themselves victims of a confidence trick, they now accuse the evangelicalism they know of having failed and fooled them, and resentfully give it up; it is a mercy if they do not therewith similarly accuse and abandon God himself. Modern evangelicalism has much to answer for in the number of casualties of this sort that it has caused in recent years by its naivety of mind and unrealism of expectation.
 What readers might find most interesting is that this was not written last year, it was not written five years, or even 15 years ago. This book is A Quest for Godliness (p. 32-33), and it was published 23 years ago. 23! I recall seeing Rachel Held Evans say in her CNN editorial that young people are leaving the church in droves now because "we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters" and to that I say, "Every generation thinks that it has a working B.S. meter. There is still nothing special about the young people who are burning out and leaving evangelicalism for a 'new kind of Christianity'." That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't legitimacy to any of the complaints. I'm not saying that at all. Personally, I like the olive branch that Packer offers.
Here again the soberer, profounder, wiser evangelicalism of the Puritan giants can fulfill a corrective and therapeutic function in our midst...What have the Puritans to say to us that might serve to heal the disaffected casualties of modern evangelical goofiness? Anyone who reads the writings of Puritan authors will find in them much that helps in this way. Puritan authors regularly tell us, first, of the mystery of God: that our God is too small, that the real God cannot be put without remainder into a man-made conceptual box so as to be fully understood; and that he was, is, and always will be bewilderingly inscrutable in his dealing with those who trust and love him, so that 'losses and crosses', that is, bafflement and disappointment in relation to particular hopes one has entertained, must be accepted as a recurring element in one's life of fellowship with him.
Packer goes on to argue that the maturity and spiritual care that one finds in the Puritans (whom he likens to Redwoods in the forest of theology) provide a badly needed counterpoint to what he has accurately called "modern evangelical goofiness." (And if it was goofy 23 years ago, what would he call it today, I wonder?) What can be done to convince the "disaffected deviationists" that the Reformed tradition contains the antidote to the nightmarish, saccharine, shallow, self-centered religion that is being presented as "evangelicalism" today? Well, they could start by reading the Puritans for themselves and breathing the old, stiff, strong air that blows down from the branches of these giant Redwoods in the theological forest of history.

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