Extra! Extra! Social Scientists Discover Evangelicalism!

It seems that Sociology has finally started taking an interest in that amorphous moniker: “Evangelicalism.” I once had a sociologist friend describe sociology as the “Study of all things obvious.” Evangelicals have been around for a long time, but as Timothy Beal writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

. . . [A]cademic studies of American evangelicalism and related movements have been fairly few and far between compared with those of other religious subjects—such as early American religious history and religion and politics—and their authors have written primarily for audiences of their disciplinary peers. More recently, however, there appears to be a growing intellectual interest in the subject among nonevangelical readers and outside academe.

Noteworthy are first hand accounts of outsiders venturing like anthropologists into the tribal community such as Jeff Sharlet’s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, 2008) or Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest Seminary. The seminary in question would be Liberty University.

Beal goes on to recognize that there is a real sense in which Evangelicalism is coming under scrutiny in a way it hasn’t before. There is a scholarly recognition that at the very least there is more here than meets the eye:

It appears that American evangelicalism is finally coming into its own as a subject of social research and academic attention well beyond the scope of those who identify with it as insiders. It seems we now realize there is more to know than what we learned from the Simpsons’ neighbor Ned Flanders.

Well thank goodness! It is curious that secular Americans would have to be woken up to the inadequacies of getting their take on an ENTIRE culture from caricatures of professional comedians but hey this is the same generation that gets its news from Comedy Central. Be that as it may, Evangelical Christianity is coming being examined and true to form examined in the paradigm in which secular culture examines anything as either literature (the aforementioned first-hand diaries) and as a subject of scientific inquiry. Ewww. Now I’m feeling a bit queasy and with good reason:

Yet as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits. Indeed, taken together, recent studies by more-or-less outsiders show there is no such thing as evangelicalism. The term represents a broad range of significantly different theologies, practices, and religious movements within Christianity, and there are often tensions among and within them. Which is no revelation at all to most more-or-less insiders, who call themselves evangelicals, however qualified, and who argue as much with others who do the same as with those of us who don’t.

Oh boy. He’s right though. keeping Biblical orthodoxy foremost in the evangelical mind is a full time job and it often means being a gadfly (you know those annoying flies that bite and make you itch) to spur good thinking about doctrine (or just reminding everyone that their worldview and their philosophy impact their theology and their Christian practice). It is often a thankless and penniless job. Enough griping. As evidence of the problem, I point you to the diverse list of people that Beal calls “Evangelical.” In the same sentence he mentions Brian McLaren, T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and Paula White. Shiver. Why couldn’t there have been a J.P. Moreland or a D.A. Carson or a Marc Driscoll in that list? To be fair, the list is based on the most visible “celebrity” Evangelicals and that brings us to another reason I’m a bit queasy about Evangelicalism going under the microscope:

It’s impossible to imagine the likes of Osteen or Warren or Jakes without the teams of creators, editors, and marketers who publish them beyond their home churches, in books and on the radio, television, and Internet. It is not too much to say that their media producers actually create and sustain them as pop-culture icons. Their relationships with their publishers in the production of both medium and message are not unlike those of pop-music stars with their labels.

Yep folks, the seculars are paying attention and what they see is not much different than Lady Gaga with a few more clothes. What has also not escaped Beal’s attention is the struggle over what is an acceptable handling of the Word itself. One anthropologist studied 324 small group Bible studies from 19 different denominations:

Bielo found that successful group facilitators were able to inculcate certain “textual practices” with the Bible and “textual ideologies” about the Bible that played down those differences and fenced the table, so to speak, from participants who could not conform. The strongest textual ideology was the idea of the Bible as the only absolute, infallible authority for faith and life. While studying Proverbs 11-12, for example, a participant in one group questioned the text’s proclamations that the righteous always prosper while the wicked suffer: “I see faithful people take it on the neck. How do you square that?” Without dismissing or directly challenging the question, the facilitator steered the discussion back to the group’s agreed presupposition of biblical authority: “I don’t have all the answers. All I’m saying is that this is a book of promises from beginning to end. … We have life, and a better life, by claiming all the promises in this book as ours.” Although the man’s experience may appear to contradict scriptural authority in that moment, the leader suggests, continuing to claim that authority as such will in the long term be a blessing—not only to the individual but to the group. That man, Bielo later notes, quietly quit attending the group.

So you tell me, what was the right way to handle this question? It was a sincere question from someone who was/is seeking to understand the Bible. And because his question was not really handled, he left the group. Would it have been better to delve deeper into Theodicy and the problem of Evil? Would it have been wrong to stray from the felt-needs to challenge the man’s thinking? I won’t answer this. I’ll look forward to your take.

One thing’s for sure, the scientific culture is starting to pay attention. My prayer is that God will be glorified even in the midst of our fracturing and that the secular culture will come to understand just why we debate about doctrine–because ideas have consequences and the truth is not negotiable.


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