Second Thoughts on Evangelicalism
Bill Long 2/13/11
This essay is in response to a reader's question. I am grateful to him, Dr. Eric Bierker, a counselor in PA, for his thoughtful comments and questions and for framing the following question in a recent email to me: "Why did your evangelical orientation dissipate?" I will try to do two things in this essay: establish my evangelical bona fides and then describe the factors that made that faith erode in me.
An Evangelical Heart and Mind
An Evangelical Christian may be defined as a person who believes in the importance of an experience of saving grace, sharing that experience and the love of God with others, studying the Bible regularly, praying and seeking warm fellowship with other like-minded Christians.
I became an Evangelical Christian in the late 1960s when my generation, in large numbers, was embracing the triad of free love, free drugs and anti-war activism. Our family moved from a conservative community in New England to the San Francisco Bay Area during the "Summer of Love" (1967), and I affirmed the conservative part of my upbringing by embracing an Evangelical experience of faith throught he ministry of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. That decision was greatly affirmed in the congregation as I had leadership positions with the youth, was on staff for four summers, and was supported by the church during my seminary days at one of the Evangelical flag-ship institutions--Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I so bought into the "movement" that I was President of the Student Body and Greek Teaching Fellow at the same time. I memorized the Bible, mastered the Reformed Confessions, and could endlessly recite hymns of all sorts. This Evangelical warmth lasted for at least a decade for me, though traces of it lasted until well into the 1990s.
How It Began To Unravel
The faith I vigorously embraced in 1969 didn't come apart all at once. Or, to put it differently, it didn't "mature" into a different faith in one fell swoop. At least five factors helped change it:
1. A lack of interest in evangelism. I learned early that a hallmark of the Evangelical faith was not just a willingness but an eagerness to share the Good News of the Gospel. But even though I had this treasure in earthen vessels, so to speak, I didn't want to talk about it with people, especially people whom I didn't know. I didn't like knocking on doors, interrupting people in their lives, trying to engage them in a discussion about their eternal destiny. Eventually, I didn't even like discussing the subject of conversion or changing religion at all, though I enjoyed discussions about the meaning of texts.
2. Beginning in undergraduate days and continuing into graduate studies at Brown University, I spent considerable time with Jewish friends. I wanted to learn Hebrew as well as they knew it, and I often was awed at their command of their religious tradition. I got used to their humor, their insecurities, their ambitions. And, I understood the approach of many of them to Christianity. As one said to me: "I could even accept that Christ rose from the dead (the common Evangelical doctrine), but why interpret that resurrection as a forgiveness of sins?" I still remember my friend Marty asking me that question with a nonplussed look in his eyes. I wasn't sure that forgiveness of sin was the only "interpretation" of resurrection.
3. The more I studied the Bible, the more I wanted to understand the humanness behind it. For example, rather than just admire the Apostle Paul, I began to see him as a person driven by fears, ambitions, and his own "take" on things. I felt that a reasonable explanation for the Gentile mission was not necessarily a "call" of God but rather that Paul was miffed because he wasn't accepted by the Jerusalem authorities. I really didn't need an explanation of a "Macedonian call" to convince me of reasons for a Gentile mission.
4. Then, when I began to look more closely at Jesus' life, the thing that intrigued me were what you might call the "human" decisions and issues he faced. I wanted to understand the spirituality of Jesus--or how he cultivated and maintained his own relationship with God. As I began to ask questions about this I began to read the texts in the light of Jesus' own uncertainty of his future, rather than his awareness of and obedient acquiescence in a divine "plan."
5. A deeper awareness of history. This historical awareness helped me to see that the Evangelical explanation of the Gospel, which was historically rooted in the Protestant Reformation but really achieved its current expression through the 19th Century Evangelicals, could easily be explained as the confluence of certain streams of historical events. Thus, only when England, and later America, developed a sense of world domination or control did the modern Evangelical movement develop the notion of "evangelization of the world in this generation." Evangelical religion, then, could be mostly explained, then, as the handmaiden of political ideology.
One note--I didn't lose my Evangelical faith because of people who abused others in the name of Evangelical faith or who even defrauded others of money. I didn't blame God or the religion for the shenanigans of its proponents.
Thus, what ultimately soured my Evangelical zeal was an overwhelming sense of the ambiguities of the text, the humanness of the stories, the ways that even those most seemingly favored were caught in their own anxieties, and the way that the Evangelical movement was itself an expression o the eras out of which it grew. I saw that I, as a man, could interpret this movement, that history, those texts, look at them, criticize them, be skeptical of them, embrace some of the things said and done and discard others.
When I would share some of these thoughts with Evangelical friends, they would tell me that I needed to "submit" my thoughts to the text or "take every thought captive to Christ," as the text itself said. I told them that I could do no better at submitting to it then to take every word seriously, and question it so that I was as sure as I could be of what it said. But then, it wasn't always clear what was being asked of me by the text. If it said, "Don't kill" or "Don't steal," I not only had no problem obeying it, but I don't think I needed the text to tell me this. Most exciting to me about Bible study is when the text opened exciting new interpretive possibilities, such as in the accompanying essay. Evangelicalism seemed too "rule-based" for me. I don't need or want rules to live by; I think I have enough of them. I want the joy of discovery...