Others are seeing this too

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity.

via The coming evangelical collapse | csmonitor.com.

I have already been seeing this.  Oddly enough, just yesterday I said in an email to a friend,

I suspect that we are in the beginning of upheavals –economic, political and social– on a historic scale and the landscape might look very different in just a few short years.  We could hope that a spiritual realignment will come out of this too.    It’s been apparent to me that nobody is a moral relativist when it’s their own ox being gored, and between layoffs and 401Ks a lot of us have been gored.  I hope people will wake up and recognize relativism for the contrivance and evasion it is, and start looking around for a worldview with staying power.  And we will need it, because it seems to me that if many more people reject the values of democratic pluralism we could be into a rather ugly form of dictatorship.  I know I sound a bit unhinged, but in the past when the same factors have been in play the outcome hasn’t been good.  People don’t realize what a historical anomaly democracy really is.

For decades now the idea has been pushed by the West’s culture makers, that it’s not just OK to not be a Christian, but there’s something wrong with you if you are one.  It means you’re ignorant, bigoted, uneducated, mean-spirited, hypocritical, repressed to the point of neurosis, and an all-around impediment to the happiness and well-being of others.  Or as it was put to me by a coworker a while ago, the only reason a person wouldn’t favor gay marriage is because they are afraid of people who are different or they let others tell them what to think.  No room for disagreement here; in the name of pluralism dissent is unacceptable.  Think I’m imagining things or exaggerating?  It wasn’t long ago that shootings and violent demonstrations in churches and church vandalism were unheard of.  Now they are so common that they sometimes don’t even get mentioned in the news.

Still, I  agree with the author that evangelicalism’s woes are largely self-imposed.  While I am generalizing and there are exceptions –there are evangelical Christians who are wonderful, Christ-like people and evangelical churches that do some great things– I think that in general there are some systemic problems.

It begins with worship.  There are churches where corporate worship in song has been replaced with a “praise band” who perform the the audience in the pews. (The problem is not about particular musical styles or instruments, but the motive and focus.) Sermons are so far on the seeker-sensitive and nurturing side that there is no sin, however so egregious, that the pastor will confront from the pulpit or in person.  A lot of  sermons are instead geared to being well-adjusted and developing a personal relationship with Jesus that might or might not manifest itself in how one’s life is lived.   Serving others, godly living, self-sacrifice: these things are very much optional. Biblical literacy is low and –following the wider secular culture– people don’t know how to think and really don’t care.  In short, much of evangelicalism has become a feel-good country club in clerical drag.  Or at least in Dockers and a Hawaiian shirt.  This statement captures the essence of the problem:

[T]he billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it.

Which is to say that the emerging generation has been raised on a diet of entertainment with a Christian veneer, which more subtly confirms the message they get from secular culture as well: “It’s all about you.”

Also, as I have been complaining  for years, evangelicals have sold their spiritual birthright for a mess of political pottage.  In defining themselves in terms of what they are against and failing to show the wider society something better (is gay marriage really a bigger threat to the sanctity of marriage than all the divorce and remarriage among all nour nice, respectable, straight church people?) or showing much love for one’s neighbor, the evangelical movement has not been so much about good news as it has been about “thou shalt not’s” and condemnation.  Well, condemnation of other people’s sins anyway.

These failures within evangelicalism have resulted in self-marginalization and made it all the easier for the anti-Christians who help shape culture to caricature and demonize Christians and Christianity.  This is one of the factors that has led me to embrace Catholicism.  In contrast to this behind-the-curve, secular-culture-wagging-the-church-dog approach that bespeaks not a timeless, eternal message but a taking of cues from the secular world, the Catholic Church remains paradoxically relevant –indeed, prophetic– despite (or rather, because of) a conscious decision to not try to be trendy.  It will survive long after evangelicalism as we now know it joins the pile of history’s discarded ideas like the Protestant fundamentalism that preceded it.  Attila and his Huns swept all before them but stopped short of Rome.

Thoroughly equipped

When a Protestant is asked for a Bible passage that proves that the Bible alone is the only authoritative guide in Christian faith and practice (and there needs to be one or else the idea is falsified at the outset) the one that is typically appealed to is this one:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV) 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB95)      16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Now it seems to me that  debate about proper interpretation of this passage is an asymmetric one in one sense.  In the 1500s the Protestants made the startling claim (well, it startled many in the church) that the Bible was the sole and sufficient guide for the church; that Bible interpretations of bishops, popes and councils were not authoritative.  They sought to overthrow the accepted view of church authority with their own.  On this basis they divided the church, despite Christ praying that His followers would be one.

So it seems to me that the burden of proof on the Protestants, when it comes to these verses, is not whether they might possibly be interpretated as supporting their position, but that they lead inescapably to that conclusion.  After all, sola scriptura is a mere meaningless abstraction without the complementary doctrine of the perspicuity or clearness of scripture, i.e. that the Bible is clear in its meaning in at least the important parts.  (Who gets to decide which parts are inportant or which doctrines are basic or foundational is another question.)  On the other hand, if these verses might or might not be interpreted that way then the preexisting Catholic position is not falsified and the Reformers had only an uncertain basis upon which to judge their own teachings right and Rome’s as wrong.  (Applied more generally, if your interpretations of the infallible Book are not themselves infallible, then that still leaves you with uncertainty.)

So do the verses lead inescapably to the view that the Bible is the only authority in the church?  I don’t see that.  For one thing, we don’t see the word “only” which makes a huge difference.  They say that scripture was given so that the man of God might be competent or adequate (Gr. artios, well-equipped).  But this is not the same logical construction as saying that by scripture alone the man of God is adequate.  Consider this analogy:  A mechanic needs a variety of tools to do his work: various wrenches, sockets, meters, hammers, torches, etc. etc.  Say a mechanic had most of the necessary tools but lacked a socket set.  He would not be adequately equipped.  Suppose you then gave him a socket set so that he would be adeqately equipped.  You would not then turn around and conclude that with a socket set alone a mechanic would be equipped.  In the same way, scripture is one of the necessary components for a well-equipped man of God.  Otherwise the verses are pressed too far and “prove,” for example, that the illumination of the Holy Spirit is not necessary.  Seminary and original language training are not necessary.  Classes in hermeneutics are not necessary.  But most sola scriptura-believing Protestants would not say that.  A handful do, and they are usually the ones handling snakes in ramshackle Appalachian churches.  We can’t have it both ways.  Either these verses rule out the need for all these things, or if not then they also fail to rule out the need for sacred Tradition handed down from the apostles to aid in properly understanding scripture .

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Here’s a brief overview of the trajectory that is leading me toward the Catholic Church.  The following is excerpted from a letter to a friend…

It’s been a real process for me, obviously.  When we lived in Burley, if I had taken RCIA the class would have been taught by a coworker of mine, who although is a very nice person is also a bit flaky. Made a big stink about wanting the cafeteria to accommodate meatless Fridays, but compensated for no meat with two large pieces of chocolate cream pie. Everything she taught, I would have been wondering if that were really what the Church taught or one of those things she got confused about.  I found out later that on the day we pulled out of town to move here, she had a near-fatal stroke.  Although I wouldn’t dare suggest any connection, that always haunted me for some reason.  Here in [the place we live now]  (a college-town outpost of tree-hugging lefties in a Red State) we never did find an evangelical church we fit into.  When it comes to the evangelical world, I have seen the future, and it is… vanilla.  Christianity Today had an article a few months back making the same observation I was making: that evangelicalism’s interaction with postmodernism would lead to a split: some retreating back towards fundamentalism with its cultural isolation and avoidance of complexities, and some following in the footsteps of liberal Protestantism but a generation or two behind.  I’m already seeing it.  I can’t look at seeker-sensitivity taken to the extreme of allowing anything and keeping people entertained –oops, I mean engaged– without thinking that church has become a mere plaything and some very subtle form of practical atheism is at work.  So for probably a couple of year now I have regarded my self as a CS Lewis-style “mere Christian” and strongly rejected most of what would be considered evangelicalism.  I guess that’s fine for starting out, but that’s milk, not meat, and no outlet for doing anything useful.  Since then it’s felt like I’ve been sent to the moon.  I need a “version” of Christianity that wasn’t hatched in a focus group at Willow Creek 10 years ago.

Just recently Willow Creek made a momentous announcement that they were wrong about their seeker-sensitive model of church, that it wasn’t producing mature disciples.  So now the same evangelical world that was slavishly following Willow Creek’s wisdom is waiting with bated breath for their next theory about how to do church.  Come on, people!!! Is it really that hard to tell that we are just making it up?

You know how a song gets stuck in your head all day and you can’t make it stop?  Well as I have been watching this with growing amazement, something Bob said once started coming back to me over and over: After 2000 years of church history, evangelicalism is still trying to reinvent the wheel.  And Michele once remarked to me that evangelicalism’s least-common-denominator theology is just relativism.  At the time I disagreed with that, because evangelicals don’t deny the knowability of objective, propositional truth.  But OTOH if the things we can be sure about can all fit on a page of a church bulletin then there is a sort of relativism practically speaking even if it’s denied in theory.  And relativistic thinking has definitely taken hold in evangelical churches.

You recall the dilemma I had:  if the Protestant solution to its various competing doctrines all based on “the Bible alone” was to appeal to accepted rules of hermeneutics, but those rules aren’t clearly taught in scripture then there’s a contradiction. Never mind that the apostles when quoting the OT seem unaware of these rules  >.<   I posed this to three pastors, one of them a good friend of mine, and none had anything even approaching an answer.  Two of them, who fancy themselves as intellectuals, tried to bluff and dance around it, but my friend Brian being the honest guy he is didn’t even attempt that.  He did say however that this shouldn’t lead me to become Mormon or Catholic or anything like that.

So all the time that I’m looking at the train wreck that is Protestantism, here is the Catholic Church: coherent epistemology, holding to the truths of historic orthodoxy, paradoxically relevant despite not seeking to be trendy, theology so deep that you won’t mine it all in a lifetime, and for some odd reason it is the focal point of the secularists’ war on Christianity.  Rather odd if the Catholic Church is full of worldly idolatries.

You also recall that I saw the question of authority in the church as the determinative one.  The problem with hermeneutical assumptions, if they are properly taken into account, is that Sunday sermons are not “Thus saith the Lord” so much as “Pastor’s interesting thoughts on topic X,” which it’s understood you may agree or disagree with.  Pretty thin gruel.  It was last week as this was weighing on me that I saw this verse in a new light:

[Paul to Titus]  Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.   Titus 2:15 (ESV)

All authority.  But Titus wasn’t an apostle; he was a bishop.  So there it is:  a bishop holds authority from the apostles.  And so the missing puzzle piece falls into place.

Our Lord was not done confirming this decision.  Shortly before we felt the pull to leave Burley and move to Moscow, Lynda felt that God was giving us this passage as a personal message:

Isaiah 43:16-21 (ESV)  Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.

We believed that God was leading us [here] and telling us we would be blessed so much we’d be tempted to forget Him.  So for 4 1/2 years since we’ve been here we’ve been wondering what the “new thing” was.  Every time we began to think we were mistaken and imagined the whole thing, we would immediately see a verse or hear a comment to the effect that we shouldn’t give up, that God would do what He promised.  The night of Feb. 21, after our umpteenth conversation about lack of a church home, we agreed to start attending the Catholic church where Josh already attends (!) with his Catholic girlfriend.  The very next day after we made that decision, Lynda looked up the daily reading for Mass.  Guess what. It was the same passage!  Not only confirmation, but God showing us that Liturgy set up years in advance can speak to us on the exact day we need it, like hitting a bullet with a bullet.  Only God could have done that.  We were blown away.