Alienated and Ambivalent Evangelical Scholars

Along with several of my co-bloggers, last week I was at the Conference on Faith and History. It’s one of a select number of academic conferences that brims with passion. Attendees go the panels, listen to presentations, and talk about them. All great fun.

Jay Green, the CFH’s incoming president, spoke on Friday night on “Evangelical Historiography, Evangelical Identity, and the Spiritual Vision of History.” [Jay is the author of Christian Historiography: Five Rival Visions].

I won’t recapitulate the entire talk here, because 1) it will surely be published at some point; and 2) I didn’t take notes. What I took away from Jay’s remarks, however, is this:

The Conference on Faith and History at its founding reflected an evangelical politics of identity, in which evangelicals alienated from the academy sought to gain a hearing for their scholarship.

Historians who either are or have had some relationship with evangelicalism have indeed now gained a hearing for their scholarship. Rather than being alienated from the academy or from broader American culture, they are now alienated from churches and movements considered “evangelical.” The CFH, meanwhile, has broadened considerably beyond its evangelical roots.

When I was in college, both in InterVarsity meetings and at a small local Southern Baptist church, we frequently sang “This World Is Not My Home,” proclaiming our belief that we are passing through life on earth on our way to heaven. We shouldn’t feel too “at home in this world.”  I sang it with gusto, because ability be damned I usually sing with gusto.

Twenty years later or so, I have some regrets about the lyrics, but only some. The idea that we are just “passing through this world” risks devaluing the meaning of our earthly existence. Our lives here are precious, and we have meaningful work to do as long as they last. Yet at the same time, I still agree that we shouldn’t feel too at home in whatever societies we inhabit.

Jay Green’s talk resonated deeply with me because it reflects my own ambivalence. As I reflected on the end of Books & Culture, I noted that I attended graduate school in history shortly after the appearance of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and B&C‘s launch. I took it for granted that evangelical historians could gain a hearing for scholarship, not least for scholarship on evangelicals. Certainly, as Jay Green explains in his book, some forms of “Christian historiography” are utterly beyond the pale of academic respectability. But as I came onto the scene, I saw books by Marsden, Noll, Nathan Hatch, and Joel Carpenter gaining not just a respectful hearing, but outright respect. And there have been a veritable flood of historical scholarship about and by evangelicals in the last two decades.

Thus, I never felt alienated from the academy the way that prior generations of evangelical scholars did. Certainly, I have heard a fair amount of anti-evangelicalism from academic colleagues, but this seems to have more to do with evangelicalism’s association with conservative politics than with religious matters per se. And with the waning of the Religious Right, I have not heard as much of that sort of talk recently. In other words, it is very easy to feel at home in modern academia (especially if one has tenure!). At least it is for me.

Do I feel alienated from evangelicalism? To some extent. Like many evangelicals, however, I have a complex religious identity. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that involved me in things such as Young Life. And I’ve remained Presbyterian and evangelical despite the fact that both my church and evangelicals often do things that perplex or dishearten me.

But that needs some clarification. As D.G. Hart contended in his Deconstructing Evangelicalism, “evangelical” no longer has a meaningful connection to the mid-twentieth-century “neo-evangelical” movement of disaffected fundamentalists. I’m not convinced the term “evangelical” is meaningless, but it certainly obfuscates as much as it illumines. Am I alienated from evangelicalism? Well, which evangelicalism?

I’m certainly alienated from Jerry Falwell, Jr., but then I never was connected with Falwell, Sr. I’m alienated from David Barton, but not from John Fea. Joel Osteen does not resonate with me, but Billy Graham still does.

My own career began with a study of post-1945 American evangelicalism through the lens of Campus Crusade for Christ. When I was twenty or twenty-five years old, I had been so immersed in the subculture of American evangelicalism I thought — though I never would have articulated it — that “evangelicals” alone were serious, committed Christians. When I encountered competing voices — be they Martin Luther or Augustine or Perpetua — I more or less presumed that they were proto-evangelicals or anonymous evangelicals. The more time I have spent writing and teaching about the history of Christianity, however, the less I feel invested with any particular Christian movement. The great cloud of witnesses, after all, is pretty expansive. So if anything, I feel less connected to rather than alienated from American evangelicalism. That world is also not our home.

At the same time, a sense of diminished connection is not the same thing as disavowal. As Ronald Wells once commented, if one wanted to resign from evangelicalism, how would one go about it? I suppose one could denounce it, but what exactly would one be denouncing? And whom? There are too many evangelicals, past and present, with whom I feel a connection and indebtedness. They nurtured my faith. They inspired my scholarship. They challenge me. They fellowship with me.

Ambivalently evangelical. Not much of a rallying cry.

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