I commonly feel uncomfortable in Evangelical Culture, and I intend to devote a significant portion of this blog – at least initially – to articulating some of the reasons why that’s true. In fact, this is going to be my first topical series. I’m calling it “Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable,” and I’ll try to add one new reason why evangelicalism makes me uncomfortable each week. Some of my reasons will be kinda funny, some deadly serious, but each will highlight parts of Evangelical Culture that I think ought to be debatable.
Before I go on, permit me to clarify a few things. I am an evangelical, at least technically, since evangelicals are defined by what we believe. I believe in the infallibility of scripture (and maybe even inerrancy, depending on how it’s defined), I believe Jesus really did live, I believe that he was crucified and literally rose from the dead, I believe the bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that the accuracy and veracity of scripture has been preserved over the years by that same Holy Spirit, I believe that all of this matters for how humans may best live, and I believe that people – even people from other faith traditions – should be given the opportunity to ruminate on these truths as truths. As I said, this makes me an evangelical.
The problem, of course, is that while believing all of those things and being an evangelical alienates me from the rest of the world in vital ways, it doesn’t guarantee that I feel at home in Evangelical Culture. That’s awkward enough, but the problem only compounds when we note that evangelicalism doesn’t generally welcome criticism of Evangelical Culture.
In my last blog post, I mentioned a magazine article about ArtPrize that I thought was unfair to evangelicals in general. My instinctive response to that article was the usual evangelical response: to defend the evangelicals from outside attack. That’s what evangelicals do. We close ranks and defend our fellow insiders, never acknowledging that not all criticisms of evangelicalism are spurious. Which isn’t to say that evangelicals react to every criticism the same way; regardless of whether or not a criticism is spiteful, the circle-the-wagons approach is our default response to outsiders. For criticism from inside evangelicalism, we’re much more likely to deflect in a very specific way.
Experience has taught me that if I criticize any evangelical undertaking – a church program, a Christian school policy, a whiny new blog – the first response will be to ask me how to improve on it, because Evangelical Culture always defends effort. Even if that effort is misdirected and damaging, Evangelical Culture only wants to hear about it from people who have better ideas, and will close ranks to defend against criticisms from all others, even if the critic is an evangelical insider. Eventually, if that insider persists in lobbing criticisms without offering an alternative path forward, the exclusion of that evangelical becomes permanent, and the critic is cut off from Evangelical Culture in the same way that critics from outside are always held at arms length. Essentially, the evangelical world often seems to view criticism as apostasy and betrayal.
Simply put, this is asinine.
I could press the argument, but I imagine you’ve either experienced this firsthand or you think I’m a whinging malcontent. Either way, permit me to close by giving you four thoughts to consider about criticism and evangelicalism:
1) Since I am an evangelical, I do claim a right to comment on Evangelical Culture, even if I do not claim that culture as my own. My understanding of God and His interactions with humanity force me into this box, and my displeasure with the furniture herein in no way diminishes my privilege – as an insider, for that is what I am – to comment upon this same culture.
2) Since I am a part of this culture, my criticisms count, even if I don’t yet know preferable courses of action. Sometimes, simple desistance is the first – if not the only – step to take, and the fact that I don’t have all the answers doesn’t obligate me to stay quiet.
3) Christianity – whether of the evangelical variety or otherwise – historically values the wisdom of the community. Early church policy was set by councils, not individuals. Even the papacy – the most authoritarian and individualistic office of Christianity – is assigned to a candidate only after the college of cardinals pray for communal guidance and then vote (repeatedly). The idea that the person who notices a problem is responsible to fix it flies in the face of our history; the Church is supposed to solve problems together, regardless of who notices them first.
4) Criticism can begin a process of communal evaluation. For example, on November 7th of this year – although the Washington Post appears to have jumped the gun – someone in the media will point out what the Republicans or Democrats did wrong and how it cost them the election, others will offer a counterargument, and a conversation will emerge by which the losing party will draw lessons from their loss. It happens after every election in politics, and there’s no reason that evangelical Christianity can’t be at least as mature and introspective as a political party. We can all agree that’s a shamefully low standard, right? RIGHT??
So my first criticism of Evangelical Culture is that Evangelical Culture doesn’t like to be criticized. In this case however, I DO have some advice for the next step: the next time you see an evangelical dutifully shouting down another evangelical who had the moxie to challenge the status quo without specifying a new plan, intervene. Tell the shouter to hush, listen to the dissident, and then respond. Maybe it’s her job to see the problem, and maybe you are the one to come up with a better idea.