At Least Two Cheers for American Protestants!

At Least Two Cheers for American Protestants! November 11, 2013

I could just say: “Read this magnificent post.” but being long-winded I cannot.

American Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are not loved by “outsiders.” Nobody writes romance novels about them the way they do about the Amish. Nobody thinks they have cool hair, the way they admire Orthodox beards. No movie like the “Bells of Saint Mary’s” has ever featured a pop star like Bing Crosby as a noble Calvary Chapel pastor . . . no “Pit Band of The Gathering” will ennoble the pop-religion of those strip mall churches.

Atheist wrath is so often directed against Evangelicals that popular atheist debaters ignore the rest of Christendom and focus on the beliefs of Evangelicals. That might be flattering to Evangelicals, but cultural loathing doesn’t stop with the irreligious.

Evangelicals are not loved by people who should be allies. Go to Europe and talk to a European Evangelical and one hears a quick disclaimer that they are not “that kind of Christian.” Hipster Christians oft define themselves as “not” very American, not very Evangelical, and not very Protestant. Hipster Christians are also no very hip and too often not very Christian, in addition to being not very numerous or influential, but that is another story.

No Catholic parish in my experience is so dead or divided over Vatican II that it cannot be snobby over the local First Baptist. A Greek church may only have all the membership turn up for the food festival, but at least they don’t have TV evangelists . . . and this is comforting when almost no cradle members come on the average Sunday.

Wouldn’t it be better to suffer TBN’s existence  (that almost no American Protestant Evangelical watches) and have members who believed, read the Bible, and prayed?

You would think not to hear some triumphalists outside of American Protestant Evangelical circles.

But surely the very vigor of the American Protestant movement shows this group did something right? There is no virtue in simply being small and culturally irrelevant is there? Mass numbers lead to mass problems, but better to say mass to masses than to the angels.

I have personally met so many happy Protestant American Evangelicals that I know that they don’t fit the blanket condemnations.

As a happy member of an Orthodox Church, I might be able to escape this wrath, but I have always chosen (and still choose) to group myself with Evangelicalism: partly this is out of solidarity, partly because it is true!

Nothing says others cannot and do not learn from the Reformers!

Orthodoxy “missed” the Reformation for good and bad. There are issues raised by the Reformers and the Counter-Reformation that deserve Eastern attention. This attention is on-going in Christian dialogue between the Orthodox and Protestants and Catholics. To the extent that I understand those historic issues and follow the dialogues, I see great merit in the views of Lutherans and Anglicans, though within an Orthodox context. Evangelical Protestants are marked by a desire to share their faith, a very high view of Scripture, and a willingness to engage the modern world.

If you don’t want to see that kind of zeal in your church, I don’t get what form of Christianity you have adopted.

And yet there is danger in each virtue in our time:

– sharing the faith can turn into offensive proselytization

– a high view of Scripture can turn into “Scripture is the only book we read”

– a willingness to engage the modern world can produce piles of kitsch, syncretism, and means that contradict the message.

But better to risk errors by fighting the good fight, then to avoid embarrassment by rarely sharing the faith, ignoring Scripture, and hiding behind archaic structures.

If Cranmer could be burned at the stake as a Reformer, then everyone at my parish, which uses his liturgy with only a few modifications, owes a debt to the Reforming literary and liturgical mind. I would not cheat myself of the beauty of Milton, Rembrandt, Hooker, or Chalmers. Wesley combines a powerful mind with a zeal for God’s word: pity the church that does not read him.

When “great books” programs in non-Protestant schools ignore Calvin, Bunyan, or the great Protestant divines, they are parochial and cheat themselves. I know of no (dominantly) Protestant great books program that does not read Aquinas and Date, but Catholic programs skimp on Luther and Calvin.

A simple point is this: no Time Lord will move my parish to the seventeenth century and the battle lines of the seventeenth century have grown more fluid. On the pressing issues of the time, where the Christian faith is under assault, American Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are on the side of the angels and often almost the only foot soldiers standing with us. On the ground stands against theological confusion, Biblical illiteracy, communism, slavery, infanticide, and libertine morals have all been blessed by Evangelical thought leaders and foot soldiers.

I am on their side.

There is one annoying lie that I hope Sanders can kill.

I meet people who believe that American Evangelical Protestants  are anti-intellectual. Some are, but general American culture struggles with anti-intellectualism. I never have met a single Protestant who did not encourage reading. They may not have read enough, but they read. Reading books (especially some Evangelical books) might not make you an intellectual, but it is a good place to start.

American Evangelical Protestants, at great cost, sustain a network of (at least) decent liberal arts colleges and universities. These come in a range of academic flavors, but are not a sign of intellectual engagement. Many repair cracks in the foundations.

American Evangelical Protestants publish and buy books on the Fathers (see Baker Books) and the Church Fathers (see the ubiquitous Hendrickson set). Lay people buy these books. If they are then too little read, they are out there. I would wager that more American Evangelical Protestants lay people own some John Chrysostom sermons, actually having read a few, than cradle Greek Orthodox!

I work at a Baptist school that is more likely to read the Medieval Catholics than many Catholic colleges.

Do the Baptists get credit for this?

Sadly, seventeen year olds in America overwhelmingly spend most of their day in high schools that totally ignore or misrepresent church history. It is hard to blame American Evangelical Protestants for being unable to remedy all areas of ignorance.

Sunday School cannot count on basic Bible knowledge . . . where would they find time to go much further?

There are some very bad Sunday Schools and youth groups, but even most of those take a stab at apologetics or big ideas (at least in my experience). Most have a passing knowledge of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. When I speak in such Sunday Schools and youth groups, I find a large number very interested in philosophy and ideas.

It is rare (despite my odd theological pedigree) to meet students or parents who are “anti-intellectual.” America is starving them, but the American Evangelical Protestant church is trying to feed them.

One further personal example might help.

I am reading (slowly reading) my way through an English translation of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was first recommended to me at a Pentecostal Bible college. The second time I encountered it seriously was an Evangelical college. Finally, I purchased it from an Evangelical publisher and began reading it this year.

There must be, somewhere, smallish groups of anti-intellectual American Protestant Evangelicals that mean to be anti-intellectual and glory in it.

I hope nobody would confuse those people with folk the American Protestant Evangelical churches have saved from the American social dumps. After all, American Protestant Evangelicals have churches in rural areas where most University grads would never go. Southern Seminary sends Greek reading pastors to tiny Texas towns where they work hard to elevate the moral and cultural tone of people that the elite despise.

There is no inner city where American Protestant Evangelicals are not saving folk from human trafficking, poverty, and the consumer culture that has them trapped in debt. Black churches fight for grocery stores in food deserts where only liquor stores can be found. It is fine to sniff that not all those saved from American consumerism and exploitation turn into intellectuals, but then why would they?

America gave them rotten government education and the American Protestant Evangelical church start where folks are and also struggles not to be overwhelmed with the dysfunctions of people who become full members. If you help the poor, you will always look “bad” in some sociological statistics.

Should American Protestant Evangelicals do a better job in finding their classical Christian roots? Of course, they should. But like warnings against “pride” (which are always relevant), I wonder if they are actually doing worse than everybody else. Does the typical lay Orthodox know the Fathers (or has he just seen the picture)? Does the typical Catholic get good catechism? If not, then why blame the American Protestant Evangelicals for an evil of our age?

Or is that American Protestant Evangelicals are large, growing, and noisy and so their dysfunction is obvious?

Surely no other church group, whose cradle members are at least equally ill informed, should engage in snobbish appeals in order to cherry pick “converts” from American Protestant Evangelical groups. 




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