This is a somewhat homeless essay. I am writing it on a morning when someone turned the crank on the world wrong, after a night when I made two important discoveries: First, I discovered that the finest music in the world is horrible when it is woofed through one's walls from down the street at bed time. Second, I realized that, whatever my other problems with contemporary "hit" music, it makes me nostalgic for chords -- five or more notes played polyphonically. Heck, even a triad would bring a lump to my throat at this point. (I already knew that beer cannot act as a remote "mute" button for the uninvited street party down the block. (Life on the bottom rung is grand.))
What follows may be too church-y, and yet I promise to suppress most of the Bible citations. It may also be too historical. It belongs neither here nor there, but I hope, in the end, there is a valuable contribution to our collective understanding of why the contemporary "evangelical" movement is so prone to rotation, so given to cults of personality, and why it can move to dangerous conclusions from safe assumptions.
Above the below, let me start off by saying that testimony is and has been an essential part of Christianity from its earliest moments. In essence, standing up and saying, "This is what God has done for me" is a personal testimony -- an individual offering personal credibility to a story of the mysterious. Since the tale that is told is one of miracle and mystery, and since there is no way to affirm the truth of the tale except "Come and see," the personal testimony is vital. I would never deny the place that testimony has, even though I would argue that believing in testimony as a vehicle of grace distorts and corrupts religious practice.
In the bellows below, I will argue that the modern evangelical movement, which takes its cue from John Knox's solution to Calvin's theological problem of knowing the "elect" via a necessary conversion experience,
1. holds that testimony as an efficacious and sufficient means of grace,
2. dooms the practice its churches to pastoral or personal cult,
3. introduces an inescapable element of theatricality to religious creed,
and 4. is contrary to Christian practice or church function.
[Reader's guide: If you find your head starting to wobble like a Chinese-made Happy Meal toy due to authorial dullness, skip down to the all bold section after the lysurgic photo for the meat of the critique.]
[Describing the ministers and devotees of the goddess Dulness]Evangelism -- literally, giving the good message -- is a necessary part of Christianity. Evangelicals will point to the "great commission," but there is a first commissioning, told in both Matthew and Luke (see Luke 10) (I will use either KJV or RSV for both scholarly reasons and because they represent the common tradition of the Anglophone world). The great commission is peculiar to Matthew, and curiously vague (Matthew 28:19-20), but it has a crucial word not in the earlier commissioning:
"Nor absent they, no members of her state,
Who pay her homage in her sons, the Great;
Who false to Phoebus, bow the knee to Baal;
Or impious, preach his Word without a call." -- Alexander Pope, Dunciad B IV, 91-4
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen."In the first commission, Jesus sent his disciples and followers out to heal the sick and preach, and it is this sending-forth that most churches look to. He sent the followers out and told them to eat any food they were offered (i.e. not to worry about kosher laws or the sectarian squabbles about how to eat), to carry no money, and to seek welcome for the good news. Monastic orders have emulated this commission more and less literally through the ages. (A former Jesuit told me of how the Order had taken the lot of the candidates, loaded them into a truck, dropped them off fifty miles from 'home' with $20 to keep from a vagrancy charge, and told them to preach and beg their way back. (I told him that the Dekes at Tulane did something similar, but with Tequila involved.))
"Evangelicals" point to the end of Matthew because it has "baptizing them in the name of . . . the Holy Ghost." You see, by the 18th century, the Gospel had, pretty much, gotten everywhere that Europeans had gotten and many places that Europeans had not. The specific job of telling the Gospel was going along well. The only reason to claim ownership of the Great Commission is if one understands it not as telling people that there is forgiveness of sins, but if it is saving people. If it is saving people, then it applies to those who know the Gospel well. Indeed, it applies to anyone who isn't filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Puritans were Calvinists, and the early Baptists were stridently anti-Calvinist. In the 18th and 19th centuries, we can speak of Puritans becoming Presbyterians and of Independents becoming Baptists. The Scottish theologian John Knox had solved one of the major problems of Calvin's theory of the elect. Where Calvin had been unable to explain how a person knew she was elect other than simply believing it, Knox had come to the conclusion that there was a religious conversion experience necessary for each and every saved person.
Every person saved was saved by grace, and not by free will, in Knox's theology, and the grace of God must take the form of being born again in a powerful experience. As Paul had written of the Law existing for binding the kingdom and subjects of the flesh and the Law being dead when that state of being body-bound died in the reconciliation of man to God, Knox stipulated that a person "saved" would have a change in her or his very essence.
Where Jonathan Edwards's "Great Awakening" in America was designed to "waken" the spirit, the "Second Awakening" of the 1820's would take a more Knoxian form. The evangelical movement made the conversion experience its focal point. Instead of attempting to reconnect the religious, it began from a belief that the church-going Christians of America were not saved at all, as they had not had emotionally devastating conversions.
The old Puritans (and the then-new Baptists) staked all on perseverance of the saints, because they argued that the saved/elected could not lose their salvation and had their very human nature changed. Their opponents would find their insistence on permanent salvation curious or arrogant. Furthermore, the earlier Puritans had relied on village and community judges (this is why Nathaniel Hawthorne satirizes the Salem Puritans for having their faith in each other, rather than God). The new focus on conversion alone, though, and conversion as a signpost seemed to offer an empirical proof of faith and its power.
As the evangelical tendency came into the 20th century, there was an enormous gulf between visions of Christ's command. For the evangelical, the mission was "saving" the unsaved, and the unsaved included everyone not sharing the theology.
"Sour godliness is the devil's religion" -- John WesleyThe obvious model for today's conversion experience is St. Paul. After all, Paul persecuted Christians, was struck blind, and then saw Jesus, who asked him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me so?" The scales fell away from his eyes, and Paul was baptized. Given Paul's importance to the evangelical practice, it may be understandable that the epistles of Paul are very commonly the texts for evangelical sermons. What may be surprising is that Paul did not consistently tell his story in his sermons.
The "witness" sermon and altar call are destructive
Paul's epistles are generally not general. Each of the epistles addresses a congregation with a controversy, and Paul writes as a controversialist. Grievous deeds have come from clumsy readings of 1 Corinthians, but take a look at a few lines from chapter 7:
But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. (6-7)Paul is arguing, quite logically. He has a major premise, that he and his audience are living in the last generation, and he has another major premise, that the strictures and status marks of the world's societies are largely irrelevant, and he knows that true freedom is in the Kingdom of God. Therefore, he argues, and says he argues, from his personal reason. Whatever we might feel about the usefulness of sharing Paul's first major premise, we know that it was empirically false and that therefore a Shaker-like rule of celibacy might prove impractical and disadvantageous.
Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be. (25-6)
Preaching from Paul's epistles might be a grand idea, if one believes one's church is replicating the problems of Docetism, Gnosticism, schisms on circumcision, and infiltration by Mithraism that Paul faced. Otherwise, one is engaging in a rather elaborate bit of analogy. Today's Baptists are not having a Peter/Paul/James struggle. The epistles are pastoral letters, and Jesus would not be drawn on the subject of the most obviously evil of kings (Herod) or evil occupiers (Rome) or taxes, and He dined with tax collectors -- so taking Paul's pugilism as an excuse to go hog wild for politics from the pulpit is at the cost of the Gospel.
In Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes Paul's ministry as an evangelist. Wherever Paul went, he would tell his own story, but we ought to note the rhetorical import of that story. I highly recommend this web page for a discussion of Paul's sermons in Acts.
1. Paul tries to rationalize (apologetics) with pagan audiences
2. He tells his personal story of healing to Jewish audiences, not gentiles.
When Paul speaks to pagans, he does not use the story of the personal miracle. In Acts 14, for example, Paul testifies to Jesus and performs miracles before fleeing an angry mob. On the other hand, when Paul speaks to the Areopagus in Athens (the censor), he preaches in a way that is. . . strange on the face of it:
"Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, . . . as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. . . . he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them." Acts 17:22-33Paul argues logic with his philosophically minded audience. He uses reason and works deductively again. He uses idolatry arguments made by Jewish writers going back to the Psalms and then, instead of telling his own miracle story, argues that it is likely, from given premises, that God will judge them all in resurrection.
While evangelical preachers today take from Paul an example of the need for conversion, Paul tells his story to emphasize his credibility with Jewish audiences. By telling his Jewish listeners how he was a hunter after Christians (an Inquisitor, to be anachronistic), he is using the status of the Temple authority to make clear how real and true the power of Jesus must be if so sober and learned a man would convert. Paul further tells his story to emphasize how gladly he gave up his status for the divine truth.
The Pauline sermon is not witnessing, and Jesus did not call for autobiography
In the synoptic Gospels, we have a couple of sermons from Jesus, and it's important that the Gospel writers preserve Jesus preaching on both hortatory and admonitory subjects. Thus, we have Jesus's "complete" sermon in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus lays out a positive set of acts of spirit that will explain and unlock the law of Moses and bring the Kingdom of God. There are many more admonitory fragments than hortatory ones. Jesus speaks of particular abuses and distortions of religious practice and explains why such hypocrisy is unholy (e.g. Matthew 23:27), never making a sin or sinner the subject of a sermon.
Jesus is always normative. At no point does Jesus preach solely against a thing or person without explaining what the moral thing is. The sermons are entirely about how to live, rather than how to attain a status or achieve a changed state. Jesus does speak of being born again, of course, but birth is only the first act of life.
Jesus did not ask for "witnessing"
This is slightly unfair of me to point out, but it's true that Jesus did not ask for those He cured to go out and become missionaries giving their stories. When Jesus healed the sick, the Gospels follow with "healed many" and they heard (q.v. Mark 3) sometimes. The Gospels also follow with Jesus forbidding the healed from telling people about it sometimes (viz. Mark 1:34). (This is due to the "messianic secret.") There definitely are occasions when Jesus tells the healed to go and testify, but I can find none where He tells the healed to go and, if you will, advertise. In many cases, the healed had to get certificates of a cure to live in society again (lepers), and the other instances are each particular.
In general, though, Jesus treats the miraculous healings as a byproduct of faith rather than a proof of it. In fact, it is Satan in the wilderness who sees miraculous intervention as proof of divine power (see Matthew 4:7). The most detailed accounts of healing and miracles have Jesus attesting only that the miracles demonstrate authority of the messiah and that the faith in the word makes the believer whole. Worse, Jesus warns his disciples to pay no attention to things like this, because false prophets will give signs. Simon Magus in Acts demonstrates the fact that believing because of wonders is foolish.
Jesus's own sermons were never autobiography or boasts of His own christology. The Gospel writers mention only scoffers talking about biography -- of the disciples, of the people Jesus healed, etc. Further, while Jesus healed multitudes and performed miracles, none of them were a focus or the climax of a show, and Jesus explicitly warned His followers to avoid putting an emphasis on things like that.
I realize that most DailyKos readers won't particularly care about Bible-authorized sermons, but an emphasis on conversion's empirical sign created problems that have only intensified. The English do not seem to suffer from a "religious right" the way that Americans do, and there are historical as well as geographic reasons for this. While Europe underwent the wars of religion, England and Scotland battled themselves. The dissenters (Puritans and Independents) who followed the model of grace and need for conversion familiar to today's evangelical movement were notable for their reliance on "enthusiasm." For traditional churchmen (the "established" church), the reliance on emotion as evidence of grace was dangerous, not unseemly. In turn, though, the dissenting religious accused the established church of snobbery and of having become servants to wealth and superstition.
In the U.K., the tension between an anti-intellectual dissenting group and an anti-democratic establishment group played out in public. However, the Established Church had two advantages. First, until George II, it had the royal power behind it. Second, it had the example of what a kingdom of saints would be. The Army in the second English Civil War had been Independent and had begun patrolling the countryside with religious police. The public had had its own experience with a Taliban-like rule, and so few doubted that zeal made zealots, and zealots were self-confirming. (Instead of saying that the "Puritans were like the Taliban," we would be better saying that the Taliban are like the Puritans. The Independents of the army might not have had Buddhas to destroy, but they managed countless examples of priceless religious art in the form of stained glass windows, jewels on altars, and crucifixes lost forever.)
Despite multiple meteoric careers, American protestant churches operate as if the conversion zeal will not only never corrupt the parish, but that it is both efficacious and sufficient as a means of grace. (The arguments about grace are too arachnid for any mortal. Let's just say that the protestant churches that rely on a mandatory conversion experience also demand that grace be entirely responsible for a compelling salvation. Grace compels the sinner to redemption. (Listen to the lyrics of "Amazing Grace": the song is polemical.))
1. If a minister's job is to spread the good news solely by relating a personal tale of salvation, then that minister's holiness can be known.
After all, grace is abounding, and hearing testimony by itself is sufficient, so the number of persons brought to conversion is not just a scorecard for the preacher -- it is, in a real sense, a way to know which preacher is holiest. Since "holiness" is reliant on an emotional effect in the audience, preachers must, consciously or not, shape their presentations to achieving that effect. The minister shapes his or her presentation for an emotional effect rather than any rational, moral, ethical, or social message. The evangelical minister is always theatrical.
2. Another consequence of this theology is that some conversions are better than others because of their "delta."
If you were a confused college student who had a religious awakening, then that might be fine. However, the story does not demonstrate in oratory the power of God to save, and so it would be better if you were a drug taking college drop-out who had a religious awakening and then graduated summa cum laudae. Even that, though, wouldn't show the real power of God's grace, so even better would be if you were an Opium Dealing Cannibal Prostitute Dissuaded from Jihad by a kindly preacher and then Called to the ministry. Whether you lie to make your factual conversion fit the emotional or rhetorical truth of your sermon or not, the practical belief in conversion as a sign of election puts a new temptation into the church.
3. The converted and saved evangelist cannot avoid a cultus.
Since the autobiography is the basis of the persuasion, the self rises in importance to the level of religious truth. The now-religious college graduate might be loved by God, but the straightened out drop-out is holy, and the ODCPJ is practically a saint. In fact, the people in the pews will really, really admire and respect the ODCPJ, because "God must have a great work laid out for him" (or her) to do. Because the evangelical minister presents his salvation from the lowest imaginable place to the highest as the basis of his own authority to preach and a mark of the "call," the person of the evangelist is sanctified as a judge and prophet.
4. A star system is inescapable, because of the "soul count" of those saved
Given the fact that the sermon shaped around "Convert today" and "Have you met Jesus" and offered every week (this is not hyperbole) depends upon a stage craft, it's no surprise to see a star system at work in the evangelical churches. I'm sure that those who follow Right Wing Watch know of at least one "star" who claimed, indeed, to be a jihadist for Jesus. However, the serious "star system" works inside the speaking circuit, where preachers go by first names only and attract large crowds and claim that they have brought the dead back to life.
For those evangelical churches that are sited and serve a consistent congregation, the starring minister with the compelling autobiography rises in matters of interpersonal ruling. Remember, God "called" the ODCPJ, and it is a very, very great call, denoting very great holiness and importance, and therefore it is natural that "Jonathan" or "Scott" would be the last word on your marriage, or your vote.
5. The evangelical movement has no space for Christian life
Because the evangelical approach is doomed to crafting an entertaining, horrifying, and emotional narrative, it lacks maintenance. The hortatory sermon, where the religious are urged to be one body or to sacrifice for others or to recognize one Kingdom (and thus to know who one's neighbors are (Luke 10:36-7)), is missing when the entirety of the church is "convert." Where are the Beatitudes when the preacher is aiming for a big altar call? Where is the condemnation of spiritual pride, when the church's architecture, like the sermon's, serve a narrator? When each Sunday is one variety or another of, "I've been saved, and I feel better than you do," where are the complexities of marriage, children, and the obligations to others?
What, indeed, is church, if every service is a hunting expedition?
The fruits of the tree
Contemporary evangelical churches are congealing into megachurches, where stagecraft is professional. At the same time, the itinerant and rural evangelical churches are carrying out a simple theological mandate. If each Sunday is a reiteration of the conversion, then there is, in the believer's mind, no need for further reflection. The purpose of church was to "get saved." Having gotten "saved," there is nothing more to say. One owes no duty, has no memory to uphold, and is ensnared in no moral obligation of love except of the usual sort. Coupled with a radical position on perseverance of the saints, salvation cannot be lost, and therefore church is a time to listen to the preacher, and the preacher is the one called.
There is no wonder, then, that this movement, which had the potential to ignite spiritual love, turned out so many ministers happy to say unChristian things and so many congregations unaware of the Gospels which their ministers have silently replaced with their own selves.
Thank you for getting to the end of this. In penance, I promise to write, before the week is out, "Why Naturalism Made Sense: Debunking Capitalism's Favorite Lie."