One of my interests is the psychology of religion. I was browsing through a few websites recently when a link to an essay on evangelicals (with whom I formerly identified) caught my eye. The link brought me here, to an essay by Nancy Ammerman that sought to identify what she called the “distinct evangelical ‘public narrative’” by which one could define the movement. Her thesis is that evangelicals may be going through a shift in their public identity and that this identity cannot be understood by simply looking at political persuasions, but by examining “all the explicit and implicit plots that coordinate [their] actions and expectations…”
The author maintains, based on the ideas of Margaret Somers, that all cultures and institutions develop a narrative out of their shared experiences. Ammerman writes that certain common stories emerge out of these collective experiences that animate the lives of those who are within the said subculture. These narratives are not static by any means nor are they singular in theme. On the contrary, they are “multilayered and subject to twists of plot” as are the narratives of characters in our favorite stories. These twists of plot are elaborated on and applied to evangelicalism toward the end of her essay.
Ammerman posits that in order to understand evangelicals, one must familiarize himself with the particular narrative they are developing. This process occurs through examining the actors in the script who express themselves as various symbols such as songs or sayings (which I like to call “Christianese”) which, when used by someone publicly, point out to those evangelicals watching that he or she is part of the group. These symbols also reflect deeper beliefs of the community at large and, when implemented, they allow one to immediately feel connected to the person using them in some sort of intimate way. She provides an eminent example in noting the way evangelicals assumed President George W. Bush was “one of them” in the fight against gay marriage and sundry other “evils” that threatened our nation during the most recent presidential campaign.
What themes form the narrative of modern day evangelicalism? I was able to count five, but I may have divided up a couple of hers (or simply interpreted them differently since I have intimate inside knowledge of this group). The first was what she calls the “metanarrative,” the one that summarizes and encapsulates the others and that is the idea of sin and redemption. She says of these believers,
They are unsurprised to find the world a flawed place, and they expect that lives can be transformed when people accept the Jesus story as their own. There is a fundamental fatalism and boundless hope in how they talk about life.
Evangelicals differ from more liberal Christians in that they assert a “singular path – belief in the saving blood of Jesus – away from…sin.” This is the second distinction of evangelicalism.* This premise leads into the third which is that modern evangelicals prefer a more “user-friendly” (my words) approach to sharing that faith. They share their faith by the way they live instead of preaching to people like the saints of yesteryear. This generation’s rallying cry is the fourth distinctive – the defense of “biblical truth” in a society that has gone astray from its Christian roots. This creates, in effect, what she terms an “’embattlement remnant’ story” where they believe themselves to be last bastion of light that believes in what is true or “biblical.”
The final portion of the essay returns to the idea of narratives and how they become disrupted and fractured. Having carefully appraised modern evangelicalism, the author puts forth the idea that just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson led the charge of modern evangelicalism out of the ‘60s and ‘70s (a period in which time-honored beliefs were tested and some were found wanting) to forge the aforementioned public identity, so now that which has been commonsense assumption of active members of the religious right, and went hand in hand with their religion (namely that the Republican party is God’s party), is being challenged by a younger group that is encountering the most recent perturbations against the community narrative. While she concludes that this younger cohort is only at a grass-roots level at the present time, she adeptly notes that the door is open for another charismatic leader to come forward and, within the same tradition of redemption, reshape the “strands of the story for a new generation.”
My opinion of Miss Ammerman’s essay is that she does not realize how right she is and that this younger generation may be far more advanced in its evolution than she surmises! The fact of the matter is this: younger evangelicals are more environmentally sensitive (which she did mention), conscious of social justice issues, and far more tolerant of gay people than their parents are. Many young people have been turned off to what I will label the “hyper-patriotic Christianity of the Religious Right.” The statement implies the obvious: that these young people are tired of having what is “Christian” being associated with a particular political party or the definition of a good American and vice-versa.
(This is a welcome change for those of us who eschew the mixing of church and state that is done on the political and religious right in their quest to establish an American Theocracy. I’m also convinced that much of this sensitivity to issues that are more traditionally “Democratic” in political identification is rooted in the frustrating legalism with which many of these young people grew up and have now grown to resent – but that’s a post for another day).
Miss Ammerman has given an insightful and accurate critique of the evangelical tradition and has highlighted in her observation of the youth movement occurring within that community what is being termed “Neo-evangelicalism.” It is, as its name implies, a new form of evangelicalism which embraces many more traditionally liberal causes and, I would argue, may have a figurehead (at least) in Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in southern California. Mr. Warren has been a pioneer by championing numerous initiatives to fight hunger, AIDS, and to correct the social injustices of today’s society – things conservatives often give lip service to. These sorts of concerns are also a driving force behind the emergent church movement which contains many neo-evangelicals. Generation X and Generation Y are looking for something more than high hairdos and the number of conversions they can bring about to hang their collective ecclesiastical hats on.
The only weakness I was able to glean from the essay is that the author failed to draw a sharp enough distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists. This is important as I shall show. Fundamentalism is the reactionary movement that came out of the infamous Scopes trial of 1926 where the battle of “Evolution vs. Creation” gained its mythic lore (even though the battle lines had been drawn for decades). Fundamentalism, though its numbers are greatly decreased, is the hyper-literalistic hermeneutical playground that not even J.N. Darby would have let his kids play in. They are vehemently “Bible-only” in their approach to life and are against many modern scientific understandings of the world, especially if they intrude into areas which they, in their rigid interpretation of Scripture, believe that the Bible speaks definitively on (unless they have to go to the doctor, who they hope will bring healing to their bodies on the basis of microevolutionary biology – again, another post for another day). They are the right wing extreme of Christianity, many of them believing the King James Version of the Bible to be God’s inspired translation and that to use modern day translations is the height of apostasy. Of course, to be fair, these things exist on a spectrum, these examples being the most extreme. However, it is important to note these difference because though evangelicals and fundamentalists believe many of the same things theologically (such as the verbal-plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture), they differ in that evangelicals are far more open to integrating their faith with scientific understandings of the world which bring about “wicked evils” such as psychology (one of the favorite targets) that fundamentalists often decry as originating in the pits of Hell itself. It is these evangelicals that Ammerman is describing in her essay. I wanted to point out the difference because oftentimes the two are mistakenly lumped together, since it was out of fundamentalism that the other originated (via Falwell and Robertson as she noted). And, when they are identified as being the same, evangelicals unfairly get dismissed as just another varying brand of wacko fundamentalists, which is not the case.
The second reason this distinction is important is that neo-evangelicalism is growing out of the more left-leaning side of traditional evangelicalism. If you can imagine a spectrum, you would see fundamentalists on the far right, evangelicals to the right-of-center, neo-evangelicals in the center to left-of-center, and the liberal churches to the far left. What Miss Ammerman is documenting in the latter half of her essay in support of her thesis is the rise of neo-evangelicalism and it is my belief, and the belief of others, that this “new narrative,” to use her language, may not be a simple reformation (if I can use that word) of modern evangelicalism, but has been, and is now, the emergence of a new Christian position within Protestantism. It’s one that is not as dogmatic as its predecessor on theological issues, more ecumenical, more socially minded, and is more open to dialogue with liberal Christians than even traditional evangelicals are. This group accepts and, in many instances, partners with or takes up the cause altogether of, those who have been left behind by the more traditional evangelical communities. If traditional evangelicals can be termed “modern evangelicals,” then this group may appropriately be termed “post-modern evangelicals.”
I highly recommend reading Nancy Ammerman’s essay in its entirety. Some will welcome (as I do) a new addition to the spectrum of Protestantism that is more inclusive; others will decry it as a post-modern compromise of “biblical truth.” Either way, you will be indebted to the author who offers an astute assessment of the ongoing evolution of modern day evangelical protestant thought.
*While this is true in some cases, it would be a bit unfair to label all liberals as believing this. Many liberals simply have a different idea of what exclusivity means (and differing ideas as to how it relates to sharing that message with other people).