Sunday, May 21, 2017

With Bible in Hand: Thoughts on the Pathetic Glory of Evangelicalism

Over the past years, I've been incredibly critical of Evangelicalism. And I still stand by that, there are many corruptions, but perhaps the bitterest of all is because there is still a gem that sparkles. Evangelicals, collectively, care about their Bibles.

I was recently visiting a local Evangelical church. My spirit groaned through most of it. The rock band concert eviscerates the point of congregational singing. The Lord's Supper is treated as a trifle. The sermon was graceless and was on a TV screen. While there was no flag, there was, like many Evangelical churches, a clear Christo-Americanism at work, with all the tropes one would expect. However, the teacher beat his flock over the head, to the point of guilt-tripping, with the fact that they needed to have their Scripture open. He berated his congregation with the need to always read the Bible, to check everything he said against Scripture, to take nothing for granted and to be watchful.

This is the sad glory of Evangelicalism, sad because it should be the obvious truth. I've visited many congregational settings, and one can palpably feel the attitudes among the people. And the fact is that, at the very least, Evangelicals read their Scripture. Not everyone mind you, but there is a collective attitude that this is the right disposition. The idea that the Bible contains the very living voice of God is a commonly accepted concept that drives the life of the congregation.

Again, this is truly sad. In many ways, a lot of Evangelical congregations are like Jews of the first century. They have the Scriptures open before the congregation, individually and collectively, but because a veil lies over them, they can't understand Holy Writ. There are all sorts of blasphemous, perverse, and idiosyncratic doctrines and practices that are tolerated. But, again and again, at least the problem is that they don't understand rather than to lack the very words of God.

I very much appreciate the eastern jewels of Orthodoxy, especially Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas, who remain mostly forgotten in the West. And I very much, aesthetically, enjoy the Divine Liturgy, recognizing that it contains a lot of biblical features of proper worship. However, a spirit of lead permeates even livelier congregations. The Scripture generally remains closed and left to the professionals, clergy and theologians. This isn't even a question of truth, it's a question of method. The same spirit that led Dositheos of Jerusalem, against Cyril Loukaris, to strongly warn against widespread reading of Scripture remains. Cyril wanted to translate the Bible in the vernacular, the Synod of Jerusalem in the 17th century looked darkly upon this.

Evangelical congregations tend to unleash the Scripture, even if it is not handled properly. Again, St. Paul warns against much of Evangelicalism, but they at least are in a position to be warned! Warnings against mishandling Scripture only apply for a people who handle Scripture. A veil over the hearts of a people only apply to those who are trying to look, even if they can't see. These admonitions don't apply to those who keep the Scripture closed. At least with the Evangelical you can reason from the Scripture. Not that it will convince anyone, but you can give someone a bad conscience with references to chapter and verse. There are many who wear the name Christian who are immune to even care.

Yes, Evangelical worship is by and large abysmal. The Roman Missal for the Mass is adorned with lectionary readings, psalm singing, congregational call and response from Scripture. By being present in that, one is fully soaked in a Biblical world. Thus, you are more likely to be exposed to the Bible sitting through a Roman Mass than going to most Evangelical congregations. But, again, if the Bible remains closed, than all of this is for naught. If the Scripture is treated as pious activity, rather than the very means to commune with the Word of God, then all of the liturgy is worthless.

There are quite a few Evangelicals who, after years of malnutrition and starvation, leave their congregations and convert to elsewhere. In new surroundings, they can appreciate the soaked liturgy, but can many times be totally oblivious to the spirit around them. They might cloister themselves with a select few, the devout or other ex-Evangelicals, and revel in what they see, while the majority of the congregation is mundane and impervious. Cate Blanchett's character, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, confesses that she, an elite and rich American who despises her money, only feels comfortable with other elite and rich Americans who despise their money. Even as she, a rebellious American youth, runs away to Italy, she does not become Italian, but forms a clique around the illusion of difference. The same is for most ex-Evangelical converts. They remain wealthy Americans in Rome, and the distance of wealth keeps the bubble sustained. Let those with ears...

Given its plastic nature and increasing flexibility (last I heard, Rachel Held Evans is still an Evangelical), Evangelicalism is becoming a worthless signifier. But it still maintains this 'sense' of the Scripture, that it's normal to own your own Bible and carry it with you to worship. This should shame all other Christians, but sadly, many have stopped up their ears. May God have mercy on such a sad state of affairs. And yet, as the Prophets and Apostles remind us again and again, God will save a remnant. May it ever be so. 

3 comments:

  1. I may be rusty on this but last I heard RHE became Episcopalian.

    But even RHE had moments where, in her public disagreements with Driscoll, went to the biblical texts he was claiming to explain and made a case that "this can't possibly be what that means." Some of her better criticisms of Driscoll came up when, rather than following blue state voter talking points where she disagreed with Driscoll, she made a point of presenting alternative readings of biblical texts to some of Driscoll's more dubious assertions (like his contentious reading of Esther's character).

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    1. I'm pretty sure after she joined, she still touted her Evangelical credentials. But yeah, that's a great example of what I'm talking about.

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    2. I was curious, so I did a quick google search, and RHE has distanced herself from the Evangelical label. It was on one of those fear mongering post-election posts about weeping women and death camps. But, there's plenty of #NeverTrump grandstanding by Evangelical shills like Russell Moore and Ben Sasse. It's all so pathetically stupid, it's hard to believe it's real.

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