Bucket List of the Evangelical Nation

The movie The Bucket List is a moving tale about two people who meet in the hospital, both having been diagnosed shortly before with terminal cancer, and given 6 months to maybe a year to live. I happened to watch the movie at just about the same time as I read and finished Christine Wicker’s book The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (New York: HarperOne, 2008). Since her book suggests that Evangelicalism in America is also a terminal case, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the movie and the book together. Indeed, since the very notion of a “bucket list” is to consider what you’d most want to do before you “kick the bucket”, it seems that it might be appropriate for Evangelicalism to start working on its own “bucket list”.

Evangelicalism has, of course, always placed an awareness of mortality quite central to its message. Indeed, the challenge “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” is a staple of Evangelical preaching. But that is a matter of individual mortality. What should the Evangelical movement in the fundamentalist form it has taken throughout much of the twentieth century do in the face of the possible death of the movement? Is it confident that it will be viewed by God in a way that merits a “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Will it be remembered by future generations of humans as a blessing or a blight on human history? Of course, Evangelicals have become well trained at ignoring popular opinion, and that is at once a great strength (since the majority is often wrong) and a great weakness (inability to hear criticism has certainly been known to contibute to an early demise).

Wicker’s book is about the fact that Evangelical Fundamentalists or “the Religious Right” are not as numerous, and are not doing nearly as well as their publicity would have us believe. Wicker’s investigations led her to learn from the statistics and spokespeople of various denominations that their numbers were inflated. While some claimed as many as one in four Americans was an Evangelical, it turned out that double counting, counting those coming in but not taking notice of departures, “sheep shuffling” and other factors suggest that those who actually hold a bare minimum of fundamentalist religious beliefs are perhaps 7% of Americans, and a quarter of the numbers claimed by and perhaps in some way associated with Evangelical churches. And in terms of their moral behavior, there are few statistical differences between Evangelicals and others, and that seems to have been the case as long as statistics have been kept. What that means is that Evangelicals have made claims to be different, to be upright in a way that the rest of society is not, that do not correspond to reality (pp.80-82). When a major “conservative” figure is caught in hypocrisy, we should not be surprised. What is remarkable is that, when so many have been caught, the myth of difference and the facades that often hinder rather than help it continue.

Among the shocking suggestions in Wicker’s book is that moderate and progressive Evangelicals outnumber the right wing by 1% (p.54). That means that if the moderates and liberals can find their voice and the courage to use it, fundamentalists could lose their hold over most denominations! Evangelicals are often thought of as the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. In fact, they are only growing compared to mainline denominations (newer denominations normally do better than older ones), and are not keeping up with the rate of population growth. The category that is really growing is that of non-believers (p.53). But it should also be noted that those leaving conservative Evangelical churches are in many cases doing so for profoundly spiritual reasons, because they are persuaded that God is not as depicted by fundamentalists (pp.125-126).

How is it, then, that there are such loud and indeed powerful voices for fundamentalism? Part of it is that being loud and talking tough can do much to counter being outnumbered. Of course, in the schoolyard we call that bullying. Part of the story is that fundamentalists are so good at making others feel like they ought to believe and live as they do (or claim to, in the case of the live part). But part of it is the power of religious experience and of a grand narrative that claims to make sense of it all. As Wicker writes, “Hardly anything is more important to human identity than the stories we tell about life and about ourselves…Without identity humans are lost…People will starve to death without lifting a finger against those who have food but will murder over an event that happened one hundred years ago” (p.155).

What makes Wicker’s book so powerful is that she tells the stories of fundamentalist Evangelicals sympathetically even though she is an ex-Evangelical herself. On the one hand, she notes that the power of Evangelicalism seems to be available without the doctrine: the Twelve-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that surrender to a Higher Power works even if the notion of that Higher Power is vague, or is clear but different from the Christian one. If the Apostle Paul’s argument about the Gentile Christians is anything to build on, we could ask “Does God transform your lives because you accept fundamentalist beliefs, or because you surrender to a higher power?” Where might such a line of reasoning take us?

Wicker also appreciates the role of Evangelical beliefs and practices in her own life (pp.202-203). Prayer and seeing God’s hand in things enabled her to find “blessings” where she might not have looked hard enough to see them had she not had an Evangelical worldview. So perhaps the question Evangelicalism needs to ask itself is, if we can have the power of counting our blessings without the dogma that repels and divides, just what reason is there to cling to the dogma? Thankfully, significant numbers of Evangelicals as well as other strands of Christianity seem to be asking just such questions.

This brings me back to The Bucket List. Carter (one of the two main characters) is clearly a Christian, as is his family. He is faithful to his wife, not because he feels obligated by a watching eye from heaven but because he is loyal. He talks about God as creator and about afterlife, but includes Egyptian beliefs in the discussion of the latter, and doesn’t claim to know “where the river goes” as it flows beyond this life. He doesn’t call for his new friend Edward, who is bitter and alone to say a sinner’s prayer in order to be sure he’ll get to heaven. He challenges him to find the joy in his life.

This is the message and an expression of the faith of most Christians, if Wicker’s book is anything to judge by. In a sense, this movie is “evangelistic”, but for that non-dogmatic perspective that emphasizes not dogma but love, family, relationship, compassion, loyalty, and other things that are not the sole property of Christians, and which fundamentalist dogma is sometimes even a hindrance to.

The movie’s challenge is that we all, at some point in our life, might make a “bucket list”, a list of things we’d like to do before we die, that focuses on things or places, on achievements or accomplishments. But when actually confronted with death as an actual, imminent and inevitable reality, for most of us it all comes down to people. The happiest people are those who realize this before they have six months to live and know it. But for many people, what they pursue are things to distract from their lack of true joy.

That’s the message of Christianity, when you take away the things that we cannot really be certain about and the things that people disagree about. And it would make sense to put proclaiming that message high on Evangelicalism’s bucket list. If we do, then the various movements and offshoots that are arising out of and in reaction to fundamentalist forms of Evangelicalism may look back on its legacy and remember it fondly, even though they would not resurrect it even if they could. It is too late to salvage Evangelicalism’s reputation to that extent (Wicker notes on p.143 that Evangelicals rank just above prostitutes in how outsiders esteem them). But as The Bucket List suggests at one point, perhaps the measure of a life, and of a movement, is to be found in those who measure themselves by us.

There are plenty of people out there who, to echo the words of Jesus, Evangelicalism has made into “every bit as much a son of perdition as ourselves”. But as Edward Cole found, it is not too late to discover what really matters, even at the end. So what should Evangelicalism (and the Protestant mainline, for that matter) put on its “bucket list”? What would you put on yours?

"That makes perfect sense to me! ^_^ Anyone else agree?"

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  • Don’t give her too much credit. She made some serious miscalculations.First, her 7-8% qualificaiton of evangelicals looks at those doctrinally educated, but she does finally conclude that it really is closer to 15%. Quite misleading. Evangelical numbers are not shrinking but actually, as all of us know (and are disturbed by the fact) that our numbers have been stagnant for three decades. She also spends excessive time on the SBC and megachurches. There is a lot more to evangelicalism than these two groups. In fact, the megachurch movement is not considered part of evangelicalism by many of us because of the various doctrinal issues.I find her strongest point to be that evangelicals don’t evangelize. It’s a point every pastor should read and understand.Enjoy,Collin

  • James I enjoyed your colliding of the disparate – a sociological study and a tale of meaning. I tried something similar in a post (Punishment) on “Capote”, “As it is in heaven”, and Costly Universalism. So on reading your thoughts I got hold of the movie which I really enjoyed. I’m also intruiged by the evangelical heritage, my offering on this is called The ambivangelical.If evangelicalism had to discover joy the way Carter and Cole did, (as well as Gabriella in “heaven”) this would transform it into something else, and in a way that joy would be its death.