The "Rot" of Evangelicalism Doesn't Need Deconstruction. It Needs Church History.
Interacting with Karen Swallow Prior on our Christian moment.
Karen Swallow Prior is a friend, and someone I’ve been honored to know and correspond with for several years now. She also has a keen eye for seeing what other evangelicals can’t or won’t see. I’m very thankful for her and for the hard and often thankless task she takes on of being a conscience for conservative evangelicalism.
That’s what she’s doing in this recent piece for RNS. Karen is not the first person I’ve heard to try to redeem the word “deconstruct,” but she makes the case for a positive, ultimately redemptive deconstruction better than just about anyone I’ve seen. And nobody can claim that Karen is without warrant. The scandals, the failings, the hurt, and the theological impotence of seemingly so much of our theological tribe speak for themselves. Who can deny Karen is correct that the structure of evangelical life needs a massive, top-down remodel?
Yet I think there’s something missing in her piece. Karen commends a redemptive deconstruction for removing the rot that’s been exposed in many institutions and movements, but what she doesn’t say is what such redemptive deconstruction has looked like in the past. That’s what’s missing from the essay: a sense of time. The piece says many true things but implies that these things add up to something unprecedented and, thus, requiring extreme response. But is the current state of evangelicalism unprecedented?
One of my favorite terms is “temporal bandwidth,” which I first heard used by Alan Jacobs. Temporal bandwidth means the ability to live imaginatively outside the immediacy of the present. It means thinking about things and looking at life with a perspective that is informed by the past, resulting in more sympathy for those whose mistakes and blind spots seem so inexcusable, and more skepticism of “progress” and the contemporary revolutionary spirit. Temporal bandwidth is a way to engage the present without being blinded by it.
Temporal bandwidth is rare in contemporary discourse, partially because losing oneself in the controversies of the present is pretty thrilling. Everyone wants to believe they are living in a time that will be written about in the history books. In the media age, we are encouraged endlessly to stop thinking about history and only focus on how we need to protect the future, because if our enemies get elected or write laws or teach and preach, we will lose everything.
I struggled with Karen’s prescription in her essay because I didn’t sense her awareness of how the church of Jesus has repeatedly and frequently played host to apostasy and scandal. The mood I picked up from her commendation of a redemptive deconstruction was that evangelicalism has never been so corrupted, never been so compromised, and has never been this far gone before.
But we’ve been here before. The passion of the present moment, and our media-empowered hyper-awareness of every story, every leader, and every movement can make this reality almost impossible to feel, but we must feel it.
One of the things that most puts the church out of step with the modern spirit is that it has an intractable rear-facing nature. When I say the church is rear-facing, I mean that Christians are radically historical. We are constantly looking back 2,000 and 3,000 years to see how the acts of God reveal him. We are constantly confessing the person and work of someone who lived in antiquity. We are constantly reciting creeds and confessions that were written hundreds and even thousands of years ago. If there is any lesson whatsoever to learn from the history of contemporary evangelicalism, it is that the health of both an individual Christian and a church directly depends not on radical novelty but on radical continuity with the past.
The church’s rear-facing character has to inform how we think about our sins and failings. This isn’t about excusing systemic problems in Christian institutions, but it is about recognizing something that nearly all corrupted Christian institutions forget early on: what makes us like the rest of the kingdom of God is far, far more important than what makes us unique. When we pause the tyranny of the present moment and reflect on God’s work through his people throughout the ages, we are forced to see realities that will constrain us in ways that promote faithfulness and cut against our worst tendencies.
In the 17th century, the Puritan William Gurnall knew how disorienting and defeating it was for ordinary Christians to see leaders make shipwreck of their faith and ministries. Don’t stumble over the archaic spelling or style. Instead, realize that the “scandals” Gurnall is talking about are the same kind of scandals we are dealing with now:
Thirdly, the Christian must keep on his way to heaven in the midst of all the scandals that are cast upon the wayes of God, by the Apostasie and foul falls of false Professors. There were ever such in the Church, who by their sad miscarriages in judgement and practice, have laid a stone of offence in the way of Profession, at which weak Christians are ready to make a stand, (as they at the bloody body of Asahel,*) not knowing whether they may venture any further in their Profession. Seeing such (whose gifts they so much admired) lie before them, wallowing in the blood of their slaine Profession: of zealous Professors to prove, perhaps, fiery persecutors; of strict Performers of religious du∣ties, irreligious Atheists: no more like the men they were some yeares past, then the vale of Sodom, (now a bog and quagmire) is, to what it was, when for fruitfulnesse compared to the garden of the Lord. We had need have a holy resolution to bear up against such discouragements, and not to faint: as Joshuah, who lived to see the whole Camp of Israel (a very few excepted) re∣volting, and in their hearts turning back to Egypt, and yet with an undaunted Spirit maintained his integrity, yea, resolved though not a man beside would beare him company, yet he would serve the Lord.
It’s fascinating how Gurnall, staring down the wreckage of false professions in his own time, drew parallels and encouragement from the Bible itself. Gurnall saw in Scripture a permanent record of how God’s people fail, often spectacularly, and how faithful people have persevered in believing God even when those around them would not. Gurnall interpreted his present (false confessions) by the past. He knew the church was always a rear-facing people.
A redemptive reconstruction is not in itself a bad thing. But we can subtly convince ourselves that what we see in the church today has never been seen before. To the extent that we silo ourselves in the tyranny of the moment, not only will we fail to build up consciences to remain faithful in the chaos, we will almost certainly lend our hand to novel devices and strategies that mean well but will land us right back where we started.
In the late 1990s, a small movement of evangelical pastors and church planters grew concerned about mainstream evangelicalism’s adoption of consumer spirituality. The megachurch, they argued, was too much like the strip mall, a hall of advertising that substituted gimmicks for authentic spiritual formation. What was needed, they said, was not so much a return to a more historic faith, but a theology and ecclesiology that met the demands of the moment: postmodernism, revitalization of urban centers, discontent with major models of doing church, and a theological openness that despised culture war and craved compassion.
One of the constant themes of the “Emerging Church” conversation was that evangelicalism’s existing structure and dynamics had been corrupted through tribalism and consumerism. In this, the Emerging Church architects were almost certainly right. The desire they detected among Gen-X and Millennials for a more authentic and less performative spiritual experience was also correct. What became of the Emerging Church—heterodoxy, institutional marginalization, and ultimately absorption into the same yuppy culture they intended to decry—is pretty well-known. What is less well-known is that one of the original Emerging Church thinkers was Mark Driscoll, who took the group’s concerns about an authentic, postmodern expression of Christianity and combined them with a conservative theological streak at Mars Hill Church.
Driscoll, of course, is back in the news due to Christianity Today’s podcast that dramatically captures how he, as Karen would probably say, is part of the “rot.” My point is this: Driscoll’s ministry began as an attempt to radically meet the needs of the moment. Emerging Church philosophy was very evident at Mars Hill, not in postmodern theology but in the “raw” and “real” ethos that’s captured to shocking effect in the podcast. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a lack of temporal bandwidth—a disconnect from the wider church and a myopic preoccupation with the demands of the moment—empowered many of the dysfunctions at Mars Hill.
In a 2006 paper, Driscoll offered what turned out to be an eerily prophetic summary of the landscape of emerging evangelicalism (I’ve added bold italics to a particularly telling portion):
In the end, I believe the conversation will result in multiple communities arriving at different conclusions and breaking off to have their own conversations, with their own Bible translations, leaders, books, magazines, websites, blogs, conferences, and model churches. That is already happening as new networks are forming and new church planting networks are establishing new churches with varying answers to the missiological questions. Over time, this may result in new denominations because inevitably systems must be put in place to serve a movement and somehow an umpire must be put in place to make decisions about what is and what is not acceptable doctrine and practice.
My point is this: The Emerging Church was itself an attempt to “reconstruct” a decrepit evangelicalism. Yet it ultimately became part of the problem. Why? I believe one answer is that the entire movement was based on a story it told itself about the unique demands of the times. Instead of being rear-facing, it was front-facing, trying to solve problems by finding novel solutions and asserting a unique rather than shared character. And now, in 2021, we are all captive audiences to a dramatic podcast about how the Emerging Church’s most famous and successful pioneer became himself what we are calling part of the “unprecedented” problem.
There’s a better way. Evangelicals who are broken by the sinful betrayals around them should not look to deconstruct, but to connect: to see their story in the story of the church historic. We should not commend people's blowing up of their faith; we should commend a clear-eyed embrace of the faith that has been assailed from within since ancient times. And we should insist on understanding our story in 2021 as part of the wider story of the church. We should be rear-facing, not insisting on the uniqueness of the times or the unprecedented nature of our challenges, but on the commonality of these experiences and the repeated, proven faithfulness of God through millennia of them.