Is Evangelicalism Ending? 2

Is Evangelicalism Ending? 2 December 28, 2012

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.

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