Is Evangelicalism Ending? 2

David Fitch, in his new book, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions), thinks evangelicalism’s influence is more or less over, that it needs to reexamine itself, and that it needs to rediscover what it could be in our world.
Here are the problems for evangelicalism today according to David Fitch:

1. Its presence in American politics has declined precipitously.
2. It’s cultural influence has fallen on hard times.
3. Popular perception of evangelicals has turned for the worse.
4. There is lots of internal criticism of itself.

What are evangelicals trying to do in response? Some say return to a purer form; others propose getting beyond it into post-evangelicalism; others push for a more socially just evangelicalism; others draw up manifestos; some call us back to the ancient faith.

David Fitch proposes we examine evangelicalism as an ideology: “a set of beliefs and practices that bind a people together into a functioning community” (8). We need to ask what kind of people this kind of evangelicalism is producing, and ask if the people it is producing is faithful to its beliefs.

His theory is that its major three ideas (inerrant Bible, decision for Christ, and Christian Nation) were changed into de-personalized concepts, reified, and became a matter of political alliance that no longer spoke into a changing culture.

Each of these ideas was fashioned during modernity to respond to issues in modernity. Inerrancy out of the modernist fundamentalist debate; evangelism in the missionary movement; and activist stance as a response to the social gospel.

Here’s his view: “evangelicalism, in reaction to the modernist-fundamentalist controversies, pursued a strategy for survival via a defense based in the autonomous structures of modern reason and politics. In the process, we gave up the true core of our Christian politics — the person and work of Jesus Christ – and set ourselves up for a fall in essence becoming a form of ‘religious ideology’” (17).

To Fitch’s book now, which means to Zizek. At the core of ideologies, and Fitch will examine evangelicalism as an ideology, is social conflict and the ideology is the way of coping or managing or controlling with the conflict. It establishes how “we” are framed over against “them.” Here are Zizek’s big categories: Master-signifiers: a conceptual object [idea, belief, etc] around which a group forms. For Zizek these are often fantasies that more often than not give people the sense they are committed to them but really are not. At the core of master signifiers is antagonism that enables a person to find an idea that forms an “us” vs. “them.”

Irruptions of the Real: occasional and glaring events, etc, reveal, however, that what is at stake is not so much the idea/master signifier but antagonism and group allegiance. These irruptions deconstruct the master signifier as a cloak of the antagonism. Irruptions are obvious in over-identification: when someone is so committed to the master signifier that it looks like a farce. The fanatic is the over identifier. Jouissance, a French term for enjoyment, which is as often perverse as it is good, is the feeling people get when they sense their master signifier is the true one — jouissance then can be triumphalism.

There’s the basic theory. Evangelicalism has three master signifiers: The Inerrant Bible, Decision for Christ, and the Christian Nation. Each of these was formed in an antagonistic context (modernist vs. fundamentalism and the fear of cultural collapse vs. holding true to Christian ideals/morals). At times irruptions manifest fanaticism and jouissance, revealing that what is at stake is more than the idea — what is at stake is lining up with the right people in the antagonism of culture. The master signifiers are inherently elusive in meaning and that elusiveness permits different people to import different meanings, enabling a belief in commitment to a common master signifier but which is inherently so undefined they are often not committed to the same idea.

David isn’t a cynic, and he’s not arguing that these ideas are bad, or that these ideas have to be jettisoned. From what I can tell he affirms the theological legitimacy of each but argues that how each is used today in evangelicalism as master signifiers opens the lid on an antagonism that is passing away. These master signifiers then belong to a culture war and not just to theology. I think David Fitch in this book is peeling away some skins that reveal a serious issue at work in evangelicalism.

Example: inerrancy, if you follow the discussion, applies only to the “original autographs,” which we don’t have and won’t have and it applies only to “authorial intent,” on which we often can’t agree — and have you seen the variety of groups that affirm inerrancy? …  so … what have we got? Fitch suggests we might just have an empty and elusive signifier around which we can rally over against the liberals who don’t believe in inerrancy. Irruptions occur in the lack of fidelity to clear teachings in the Bible for instance. Over identifiers — he points to Hal Lindsey and Al Mohler (on creationism) and Jack Hyles (on King James) and to Bart Ehrman’s biography of abandoning orthodoxy. And the jouissance occurs every time someone finds something in archaeology that we think upholds the inerrantist claim. (Does this really change how we live or is this antagonism’s revelation?)

I won’t examine each, but it is not hard to see how the evangelical demand for personal decision is a master signifier that reveals often enough that evangelicals have made the “decision” but have not necessarily changed because of it (do we care to admit the recidivism rates?), that they are charged up every time someone (famous) publicly says they have made a decision, and over identification is so obvious when folks are willing to say the decision is all you really need, etc.. and on the Christian Nation — think Falwell, Kennedy, Greg Boyd, Jim Wallis and what this might mean and how clear the antagonisms are –  there is a very similar set of Zizekian observations.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ebeneezer Schopenhauer

    This post makes a lot more sense with part 2 :)

    Now I understand the “decision” argument. A good example of this is the tactics of “The Good News Club” They make “The Decision” a mere statistic for keeping score.

    In fact I think there is much to learn from “The Good News Club”. They seem to “evangelize” perfectly backwards. Its scary.

  • Scott Gay

    Isn’t it paradoxical that this book was overshadowed by “Love Wins” in the present? I doubt that will be true in the longer view. I like David Fitch not just/ but including because he understands “…left it all in disgust for awhile”. That has some serious implications to add about mission as compared to those who haven’t been there.

  • http://differentcloth.blogspot.com Jeff Stewart

    The discovery that salvation is embedded in the transformation process (Nichodemus, Woman at the well, Tax collector in the temple) requires much more patience and demands relationship. The *event* approach is much less influential. Why then, are we still using the invitation/sinner’s prayer method? Let’s “invite” people into a trust-community where day to day metamorphosis can take place and “outreach” can be realized via authentic networks. Process the process.

  • Scott Gay

    Jeff Stewart:
    I had a conversion experience while reading John Wesley at night before sleep(250 years after his Aldergace experience caused a republication of his sermons). Was not and hadn’t been in a church in 15 years. And long story short, I was influenced by two specific sermons. One, “The Almost Christian”- which some Methodists( and especially Anglicans) may disagree- was processed by me as all the positive steps one can do and still not be a Christian. Two, “The Cure of Evil Speaking”- which I followed Wesley’s steps religiously- and led me to what I would call, and processed at the time. as a negation type mystical approach. I guess I’m responding to you, because of the intricate ways an experiential entrance into the kingdom can be taylored by our God, specific to an individual. I’m not disagreeing with you about my own dislike for our current approaches. I would definitely like to see conversion out of Zizek’s master-signifier position that I for one believe it has been placed by our culture. I swear conversion is well nigh unintelligible to our culture. An actual encounter with a living God, makes our decision approach into a caricature.

  • Dan Reeve

    Scott, I’m following this whole discussion about the evolution of what is ‘Evangelical” with a major question. If Fitch is right then what name shall we now give to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School from which I hold an MDiv? I’d love some suggestions. Trinity Missional School?

  • jeff stewart

    “Still not be a Christian” – who/what determines that? That’s my question. This has become a cultural event that many think can be determined. Much of what Jesus taught implies surprise distinctions when all is said and done. No universalism, but certain some “reversalism.” What is a “Christian” (a term introduced as derogatory in the early Church)? There is no resolution through experience or event with Nichodemus, yet we keep seeing him in community with the followers of Jesus. There’s no resolution with experience or event with the Woman at the well, yet we see her new-found freedom as instrumental in leading others to Jesus. Jesus points to a practicing sinner who has an ongoing awareness of brokenness and says that he goes “home justified.”
    Our culture places dependance on the event. So Joe Brown goes forward one time as a 17 year old. Now he’s in. He lives like hell in college and then is reminded of what he is supposed to be. He goes to a “revival” goes forward to “rededicate is life” because he has “backsliden.” The lack of close-knit ongoing authentic community and the dependance on a once a week venue fosters this, IMO.

  • Triston

    Some missiologists claim that “Evangelical Christianity in the 21st century continues to be the fastest growing religion in the world.” even faster growing than Islam: http://www.unmissions.net/2012/12/26/christianity-close-to-extinction-in-the-middle-east/

  • Triston

    The problem with this article is that the author is referring to white, western evangelicalism. While evangelicalism is in decline in North America, Europe, and the Pacific, it is on fire and growing like crazy in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Christianity has gone from being white, northern hemisphere, and western, to brown, southern hemisphere, and eastern. The center of evangelicalism is now south of the equator. Take two issues: (1) largest population of evangelicals. In 1900, the top 5 nations with the largest population of evangelicals were the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, and Australia. It is projected that in 2050 the top 5 will be China, USA, India, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. (2) Countries sending missionaries. In 1900, the top 5 nations for sending missionaries were the UK, USA, Germany, India, and South Africa. In 2010, the top 5 were: the USA, India, South Korea, China, and Nigeria. Amazing things are happening in the world and we should be concerned about the decline of Christianity in America and excited about the spread of the Gospel in southern and eastern hemispheres.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    Triston says,

    “The problem with this article is that the author is referring to white, western evangelicalism.”

    Actually, the author is referring to white US evangelicalism. Much of what he seems to write (based on Scott’s descriptions here, I have not read the book) is not even true for large segments of black or hispanic US evangelicalism, nor for Canadian evangelicalism, nor for European evangelicalism.


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