Farewell to old wineskins

Farewell to old wineskins May 22, 2019

“Building a New Paradigm is hard,” John W. Hawthorne writes. True, that. But I think he is correct that this is what we now see happening — slowly, in fits and starts, within American white evangelical Christianity.

Yes, this is going to be another one of those posts — yet another abstract discussion of the abstract concepts bounding and/or centering the abstraction of evangelical identity. Even worse, it’s going to involve words like “paradigm.” Ugh.

But perhaps I can persuade you to read on anyway by quoting from the beginning of his post:

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Evangelical World. We lost Rachel Held Evans, Pence gave commencement addresses at Liberty and Taylor about coming evangelical persecution, Beth Moore took on Complementarianism, restrictive state abortion laws were met with some evangelical critique, and, to top it off, James MacDonald was accused of trying to arrange a murder to be carried out on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum.

Did you catch that last bit? This is a thing that really happened. Hawthorne is paraphrasing this gloriously strange sentence from a Christian Post report: “Bucur alleges that MacDonald asked him to kill Groves while they were on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.”

Everything about that sentence is amazing. “MacDonald” is the Rev. James MacDonald, former mega-church pastor and popular white evangelical author. “Bucur” is Manny Bucur — a deacon at MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel and apparently also the pastor’s bodyguard. Several other deacons and elders from the suburban Chicago mega-church were on this motorcycle trip. A motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum. A young-Earth creationist “museum” located less than 20 miles from Big Bone Lick State Park, the birthplace of American paleontology. And on this trip the pastor asked the deacon to murder his former son-in-law.

“We were somewhere around Boone County, on the edge of Kentucky, when the drugs began to take hold …”

If some recovering ex-evangelical wrote a Hiassen-esque satirical novel including a scene like this one it would be dismissed as a nasty, hyperbolic hatchet job. But this is simply one more news item, duly reported, on the state of American white evangelicalism unmasked in the time of Trump.

It may not even be the weirdest or wildest or most disturbing such item, even in recent weeks, given the whole Jerry Falwell Jr./Michael Cohen “terrible” sex photo business and whatever story is still lurking beneath it. Or the exposure of a vast network of online astroturfing, blackface fraud, hate speech and slime orchestrated by an alleged evangelical intellectual. Or the weird medical fantasies and Holocaust-diminishment enthusiastically proclaimed by various white evangelical Republican lawmakers.

As Hawthorne says, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks. So:

Somehow, all of this disruption got me thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

And this is where his post, I think, does an excellent job of describing and identifying the convulsive changes now occurring in the nebulous strain of American Protestantism formerly known as “evangelical” Christianity. He goes on to explain Kuhn’s theory — including a helpful diagram that, delightfully, itself includes recursive loops.

Here’s the basic gist:

Key to understanding Kuhn is the notion of Normal Science. This is what is accepted among scientists as the way a topic is understood. It is characterized by broad consensus and the establishment of institutional power centers (educational institutions, journals) that teach and research around the key questions and dominant understandings. Empirical evidence that doesn’t fit the dominant view (Anomalies) are ignored or explained away. Over time, however, the magnitude of the anomalies reaches a point where they can no longer be fit into the previous paradigm. New attempts to conceptualize the problem develop which better align with the existing empirical evidence. As those prove more effective explanations, the New Paradigm begins to take shape. Eventually, it becomes the dominant understanding of the younger generation and is institutionalized. In relatively short order, it is established as the new Normal Science in which research and teaching are centered.

Hawthorne argues that the notion of “Normal” evangelicalism that has been presumed to hold sway for the past 40 years is faltering because it is unable to account for or to respond to “the magnitude of the anomalies” it is now facing. The “institutional power centers” that have long sustained and enforced this fading normality are aging into irrelevance and their fierce backlash against this loss of control is doomed because nothing they do can mask the fact that they lack convincing answers to the questions they are increasingly unable to ignore.

The harder they close their fists to maintain white-knuckled control over their old wineskins, the more those old wineskins crack and crumble from the strain.

I think Hawthorne’s analysis of the current moment is right. And, as he hints, I think this is immensely hopeful.

 

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