There is an article trending on the need to abandon Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, this article goes, has lost its way – has lost touch with the heart of the gospel – and become all sorts of other things only tangentially related to Christianity, if at all. We need to get back to the real message of Jesus, the article suggests, and return Christianity to its proper focus on love of people. Evangelicalism is an old wineskin – too cracked and petrified to bear the spirit of a new Christian generation – and we now need a new wineskin. Sound familiar? It should. Because Evangelicalism is no more Evangelical than when it calls for the abandonment of its roots. Ironically, this radical new call to abandon Evangelicalism is so very Evangelical it is almost a cliché.
What do I mean by this? What I mean is that Evangelicalism, far from being about people and relationships, is in fact about a certain kind of rebellion and rejection of the gift of history. The modus operandi of Evangelicalism is to parasitically poach theology from an old tradition for its own undefined ends (masked beneath a language of persons and relationships, and often actually defined by the free market) even while pretending to reject the tradition it depends on for its theology. Evangelical theology – because it is based on socially mobilizing a particular predetermined kind of theology – lets other Christians do the heavy, messy, and historically contingent work that its own representatives are too “pure” to do, and then poaches this theology, pretending it was formed in a vacuum and condemning those so stupid as to involve themselves with development of theology in history.
This of course means that it is at the end of the day an oxymoron to speak of Evangelical history, precisely because Evangelicals, if they are being consistent, must disavow their history. This trending article is a perfect example of this – we have reached a point in time where there is too much history behind Evangelicalism, and so, in the same way it needed to break off from all the corrupt institutional mainline and Catholic denominations – all that history – Evangelicals need to make their own history the corrupt past against which to measure their own allegedly radical and loving present existence. This indeed is why history – as demonstrated in the work of Mark Noll – is exactly the where the scandal of the Evangelical mind is going to be revealed. If you scratch history as an Evangelical, you will begin to have problems.
So what am I suggesting? Among other things, I am suggesting that it is about time to call out the rhetorics of revival, radical rediscovery of faith, and a salvific iconoclasm that has no use for old forms. I have taken this fairly far – to the point of insisting on nothing less than a 2000 year old church – but I think a good start would be inviting Evangelicals to abandon Evangelicalism not by finding “new wineskins,” but paradoxically by embracing their history. I do not say that they must always agree with those representatives of this history. But the people and histories we are so ready and willing to drop are flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood, and spirit of our spirit, and to simply drop these people and histories in the interest of an equation of love and “progress” is an act of calling our brothers “Raca,” and therefore puts us in danger of the fires of hell.
How do we do this? My own humble suggestion is to read more Flannery O’Connor. What is beautiful about O’Connor is that she models very well what love for our Christian brothers and sisters looks like even when these brothers and sisters can appear much crazier than we are comfortable with. The beauty of O’Connor is that there is as much place in her heaven for the freaks – the circus sideshow hermaphrodites – as there is for proud Catholics, charismatic fanatics, and patronizing old women who are embarrassing in their lack of political correctness. What is beautiful about O’Connor is that she finds a way to love these people even while keeping in reserve the fullness of Christianity, such that, while these people may not be exemplars of faith (from Flannery’s perspective very few are), they are certainly caught up in God’s grace and love, and therefore are the neighbors we are called to love. I can’t help feeling that a desire to abandon Evangelicalism – to throw out the old wineskins – channels the worst hatred implicit in a culture of disposable goods, and will only end up once more reenacting exactly the worst elements of the Evangelicalism it pretends to escape.