OK, Folks, It’s Time To Be POST-Post-Evangelical

America's Smallest Church

I have never really been an evangelical. I grew up in a half-Catholic, half-Hindu(ish) home and had a conversion experience in college that ultimately landed me in an evangelical church. But unlike many of the popular critics of evangelicalism—the Rachel Held Evanses and the Rob Bells—I never really occupied that space as home. I came into the evangelical church already steeped in postmodern philosophy, already aware that there were many brands of Christianity with incompatible doctrines. Day One of my voyage into evangelicalism, I was already critical of the idea that the bible “clearly teaches” anything, already OK with evolution, already not OK with CCM music.

So, when the “emergent” and “post-evangelical” movements came along, I was excited, but I was technically not one of them. Because I wasn’t post- anything. I hadn’t gone to college a credulous Christian and had my worldview rocked by some proselytizing Philosophy professor. I hadn’t, like Shane Claiborne, been a raging political conservative who then met real gay people and real women who had had abortions who humanized the issues and changed my mind. But even though I had come via a different route than the post-evangelicals, I had landed in basically the same place. And I was glad there was now a voice for the critiques of evangelicalism they had to offer. 

One of the most important and enduring of these critiques was/is the call to extricate the church from politics. Or at least from conservative politics. Different demographers and historians tell the story somewhat differently, but the basic narrative runs like this: The Boomer generation had gotten tangled up in this thing called the Religious Right, sold their collective soul to the Republican party, and they had expended all their energy fighting culture wars. They lost sight of things like caring for the poor, defending the oppressed, and just being the church in their local contexts. In the process, they had ruined the Christian brand. Young people now saw the Church as homophobic, anti-woman, and xenophobic. Not-so-thoughtful, mean-spirited white men, like Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush, had become the face of evangelicalism.

Their children were embarrassed by this. And had some legitimate biblical/theological grounds for seeing much of this as unChristian. And those Gen Xers and Millenials who didn’t leave the church decided a course correction was in order. And they made three basic moves to get the hell away from the Religious Right trajectory:

#1 was the “soft power” route. This move says we still recognize the mandate to shape the culture, but we learned from our parents that trying to “legislate morality” is counterproductive, so we’re going to get out of politics and into culture making. We’re going to influence the culture as members of the creative class, make movies and music and websites and art. This route was taken by bands like Over the Rhine and publishers like Cameron Strang, who created Relevant, a magazine about “God, life, and progressive culture.” (A far cry from his father, Stephen’s Charisma magazine).

cold war

#2 was to simply switch teams. Younger evangelicals reexamined the issues of the death penalty, war, gay marriage, Israel/Palestine, abortion, welfare and immigration reform, and found biblical bases for taking the opposite sides their parents were taking. The bookish ones exposed themselves to Christian feminism or queer theory or Marxism. So they kept the evangelical bent toward political activism, but invested their energy on the other side of the aisle. They joined the Religious Left. (A more moderate version of move #2 is the sort of apolitical, Bono-style activism that avoids ideologically-charged issues altogether and focusses completely on noncontroversial things like human trafficking and clean water).

Jesus Bleeding Heart Liberal

And #3 was what we might call the Anabaptist or anti-Constantinian move, the retreat from the idea of directly influencing the world at all. Taking cues from thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, these folks decided that the church’s job is to “be the church,” to worship, to pray, to love one another, to care for hurting neighbors. And trust that these acts are revolutionary in God’s politics and will ultimately be used for the kingdom, whether we ever see the results or not.

Of course, these three moves are not mutually exclusive, and most younger Christians have adopted some hybrid of the three. (And of course, few of them actually self-identify as post-evangelical because, well, its got the word “evangelical” in it). But so as I was saying, when this critique of evangelicalism came along and these three alternatives began to be proffered, I was thrilled. Totally on board. Each of these moves has some merit, and—when adopted with some nuance and balance—represents a much better theology of mission than the Christian=Republican model.

But so, here’s my point, (which is why I began by going out of my way to say that I am not a post-evangelical because I was never really an evangelical), as a non-post-evangelical who was initially really glad to see each of these three post-evangelical “moves” gain some traction, I have to now say that I think they are being over-applied by a whole generation. These three post-evangelical moves can be just as unbiblical or foolish or counterproductive to the kingdom mandate as the Religious Right tack taken by our parents. A reaction to a reaction is still reactionary.

Most of the Christians I interact with, and most of the people I minister to, could be said to be in this post-evangelical camp. And I would say that I can see the shadow of their parents’ politics lurking in almost every conversation. Like Rachel Held Evans or Brian McLaren or Rob Bell, they seem to be almost compelled by their negative experiences of a repressive or ignorant evangelicalism to land anywhere but where traditional evangelicalism would have them land.

And don’t even get me started about the public performance of these post-evangelical identities. My Facebook feed is a continuous stream of people going out of their way to let the world know they are not that kind of Christian. Challenging, mocking, or critiquing every traditional Christian position or doctrine. Quickly berating conservative Christian responses to current events and legislation. If I see one more “Christian” post about what a**holes the Hobby Lobby owners are or what the bible “really says” about gay marriage, I’m going to have to de-activate my account.

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Now, of course, every identity is formed in the crucible of its social context, and everybody’s thoughts and positions are subject to his/her personal history and negative experiences, but I think it’s time for post-evangelicals to get a little more reflective about how they are reacting against their parents or the Religious Right or a personal history they are ashamed of—and how they can start reacting to the love of God extended to us in Jesus Christ.

For example—and I’m just going to go straight for the jugular here—abortion. A good percentage of the younger Christians I know have ended up being either actively or passively pro-choice by making one of these three post-evangelical moves. Conversations about it almost always revolve not around the question of the morality of abortion itself, but rather the errors in the Church’s response in the past generation. Post-evangelicals are just cringingly embarrassed by angry abortion clinic picketers and “fetus worship” and the idea that their secular counterparts might see them as the indoctrinated kids in Jesus Camp. Some of them (the #2’s) have bought the secular feminist line that “reproductive rights” are the linchpin of justice for women. But even those who haven’t (the #1s and 3s) are desperate to find some kind of “third way” solution and not be viewed as in any way traditionally pro-life. (A common move: “What if instead of focussing on criminalizing abortion, Christians were willing to adopt all those unwanted babies?” Uh, last I checked, they were.) 

This is not a post about abortion. My point is that abortion is not a new issue for Christians. The idea that abortion is objectively evil is not something conservative evangelicals cooked up in the 80’s. It’s something Christians have always believed (E.g., check out the 1st c. Didache).  It is not an issue in need of re-thinking.

My point is that, while all three of these post-evangelical moves have their place, we seem to be reaching a critical baby-with-the-bathwater type of point. As someone who never really was an evangelical, I can say “objectively” that evangelicalism didn’t get everything wrong. Much of what evangelicals believe stands within the broad tradition of historic orthodox Christianity and is, to use it’s own language, biblical. So, whether you identify as progressive or post-modern or emergent or radical or post-evangelical, at the risk of getting all cutely meta, I think it’s time to start re-thinking your re-thinking of the Christian faith, time to question your questioning of mom and dad’s politics. It’s time to become post-post-evangelical.

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