Tag Archives: Evangelical Church

Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

If that title doesn’t grab you, the subtitle, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, surely will.  Dr. Du Mez is a historian at Calvin University, so writing a book with this theme took a great deal of courage. Although she does not hesitate to take on the recent political scene, particularly at the very beginning and end of the book, most of the volume develops the history of evangelicalism in the United States, starting in the early twentieth century.

kristin-kobes-du-mez-4Those of us who were late to the evangelical scene may not be aware that the evangelical movement has changed over the past century. During the second world war, fundamentalists and evangelicals came together to found the National Association of Evangelicals, which now encompasses 45,000 local churches in 40 denominations. Du Mez points out that denominational distinctives, which were important in the beginning, began to blur in favor of a more united and powerful coalition. Fundamentalism grew stronger, and then the reformed churches came to the fore in the past 30 years or so. She shows how the movement has consistently moved in a more misogynistic and politically right-wing direction, often forsaking doctrine for an increase in power, until, at this point in American history, the evangelical church is inextricably tangled with the Republican party, leaving it open to manipulation by right-wing politicians who presume that evangelicals will support their candidacy and policies.

One aspect of this history that surprised me was the rise of evangelical consumerism. It didn’t surprise me because I didn’t know it existed; rather, it surprised me to find that I was in the midst of it without noticing, like a fish in water. Everywhere we look, we can find t-shirts, mugs, wall signs, bumper stickers, and truckloads of trinkets with Bible verses or cute Christian sayings on them. This is not even including the books of varying quality, vacation packages, and media that call themselves “Christian.” Winning the white, middle-class, Christian market is a coup for any business, and the hedonism of our spending is purely American.

Du Mez also tracks the rise of parachurch organizations later in the twentieth century, particularly those concerning families and men. Almost all of the family ministries demanded male headship in the home, and many of the men’s ministries were based on military activities and physical training. Du Mez questions the relationship between Jesus’s teachings and guns. She points out that evangelicals, as a group, are reliably pro-war, and during George W. Bush’s presidency, 41% of evangelicals were in favor of torture, more than any other group in America. Furthermore, two-thirds of evangelicals do not believe that the United States should accept refugees, also more than any other group in the country. Both of these statistics are shocking for people who claim to read and believe the Bible, where Jesus preached love and nonviolence. There are also countless verses about caring for refugees. As she notes on page 321, “Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology.”*

john-wayne-2Somewhere along the way, evangelicals replaced Jesus with a John Wayne-like image of the perfect Christian man: rugged, arrogant, and domineering. While this could have been a reaction to the meek and mild Jesus with silky blond hair portrayed in popular paintings, there is a lot of daylight between those two images, and neither one is true. Du Mez shows that as the patriarchy grew stronger and stronger, the churches and parachurch organizations that adopted complementarianism most heartily began to leak reports of sexual abuse. Furthermore, the leaders across the entire movement were so close that they covered up for one another. Here, as in her entire history, the author is careful to present evidence. Throughout the book, from the 1980s onward, I knew all of the players, and she is not hesitant to name them. It was a shock. For decades, no one was forced to take responsibility, and in extreme cases, the victims were made to apologize. Finally, the #MeToo movement reached the church, and pastors and “Christian” leaders were called to account.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the evangelical movement today is how it has become unmoored from Jesus’s teaching and has taken on a separate identity that blends religious rules with politics and power. As the author notes on page 325, “For conservative white evangelicals steeped in the ideology, it can be difficult to extricate their faith, and their identity, from this larger cultural movement. As one man who grew up awash in evangelical masculinity and 1990s purity culture later reflected, ‘I lived and breathed these teachings, and they still shape me in ways I don’t understand even 20 years after rejecting them intellectually.’”*

There is so much more in these pages than I can relate here, and this is just one account of the cultural movement that has so many people running away from evangelicalism. Let us hope that they are not running away from Jesus.

Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

*Since pagination is flexible in ebooks, the quotes may be found on different pages in print editions.

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The New Copernicans, by David Seel, Jr.

New CopernicansNo one seems to have a kind word to say about Millennials: they’re spoiled and entitled, they live in their parents’ basements and still expect to be treated as adults, they spend all their time waiting to be triggered by the slightest micro-aggressions, and on and on ad nauseum. I disagree, and so does David Seel. As a matter of fact, he thinks that the church needs to take a lesson from them, because Millennials are more like Jesus than the generations that came before them.

For the past 300 years, the church has been steered by an Enlightenment understanding of the world: left-brained and rational. Seel believes that the current young generation operates on a more right-brained basis, and that there is a huge frame shift coming. He prefers the terms “frame shift” and “social imaginary” to “worldview.” He considers the coming frame shift to be on a scale not seen since Copernicus posited that the sun is the center of the universe, rather than the earth. For many reasons, not the least of which is the ubiquity of the internet, today’s young adults are exposed to hyperpluralism on a daily basis and are more apt to deal with life experientially, rather than drawing up rational arguments. Seel reminds us that the Bible was written well before the Enlightenment, and that Jesus related to his disciples by walking on the road with them and telling stories.

Seel divides up our social imaginaries into four categories. On the left side are the two closed frames of thought, those who are “dwellers,” and are unable or unwilling to be flexible. On the right side are the two open frames of thought, those who are “explorers,” and are open to new considerations or ideas. On both the open and closed sides, one finds transcendent and immanent people. Those who are immanent believe only in what they see, hear, touch, and so on. Those who are transcendent believe that there is more than we can see in this world. Evangelical Christians are closed transcendents. They believe in more than what is on this earth, but they are rigid about what that means. They may differ from one denomination to another about those beliefs, but each group is fixed. The church’s missionary efforts are directed at two types of people: those who grew up in the evangelical community and are now living a sinful life, whom the church is trying to woo back, and the classical, university-type atheist, who is a closed immanent. Old-style atheists are just as fixed in their beliefs as the church, and the two groups lob Aristotelian and Scholastic logical arguments back and forth with little movement on either side. Seel states that both of these groups are disappearing rapidly.

All New Copernicans live on the “open” side of the divide, rendering the church’s efforts useless. Most of them are open immanents, for whom God is not terribly important. They live as practical atheists, not really seeing a need for God, but because they are open to other ideas, they are “haunted,” as Seel says. They are willing to believe in supernatural or spiritual experiences, and Christians have a great opportunity to walk on pilgrimage with them in order to lead them toward open transcendence, which is where Seel believes the entire church needs to be. We should be willing to talk about our doubts and struggles, willing to evangelize through relationships without ulterior motives, and willing to be more like poets than politicians. As Seel so beautifully says on page 68:

“What if a relationship with Jesus is more like falling in love than answering the questions on a philosophy or history exam?”

For several years now, those closest to me have had to endure hearing my anguish over the state of the church. As an institution, it cannot continue as it is today. Just a glance at some statistics about Millennials should be enough to make this case. For example, consider the exponential growth of the group called the “nones.” These are people who check the box “none” on forms asking for religious affiliation. Within the Millennial generation, which makes up almost a quarter of the American population, 40% consider themselves nones. This is a 400% increase since their parents’ generation at the same age, and it is growing daily. According to Pew research, 78% of religious nones were raised in religious households. In case that hasn’t hit you yet, think of how many older believers you know who have grown children who have left the church. Seel contends that they are not coming back, so we should stop thinking that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps, get married, have kids, and go back to church. They have a completely changed frame of reference, and closed transcendence will not be a part of it.

It is not only Millennials who have moved from closed to open transcendence, however. Seel mentions many historical and current church leaders who are on pilgrimage, as well, including many who have been seriously wounded by the institutional church. As he says, “There is usually blood in the water.” (p. 105) Seel believes that Millennials, because of their age and common experiences, are the most likely to be carriers of this monumental frame shift, but because others are moving with them, it is more accurate to use the term “the New Copernicans.” He believes that it is essential for church leaders to listen to younger pastors and other church leaders and to begin to hand over the reins to them as soon as possible.

This book is written with an eye to church leaders and pastors in order to bring about awareness and positive change, as, indeed, the subtitle is Millennials and the Survival of the Church. I heard Dr. Seel speak on a podcast, and he said that when he wrote the book, he considered that the church had ten good years left, but since then, events have happened so rapidly that he believes the timeline is down to five years. Readers, particularly those in traditional churches, will not agree with everything that Seel is recommending—I certainly did not– but it is not necessary to agree on particulars, as long as we can widen our view. However, many of his ideas are intriguing, motivational, and kind. With all of our denominational infighting, we are losing the forest for the trees. Or, in Seel’s frequent metaphor, the church is still playing Spades, but the game has changed to Hearts. How can we win, if we aren’t even playing the same game?

Important, but controversial, reading.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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