Post-Evangelical Buzzkill: What’s Wrong with ‘Rite and Sacrament?’

In “Young Evangelicals are Getting High” Rebecca VanDoodewaard observes the trend among children of evangelicals to gravitate, if they remain Christians at all, to “high church” forms of worship: in other words, to Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, or even Eastern Orthodox congregations.

The town I live in has several “evangelical” Protestant colleges: on Ash Wednesday you can tell who studies at them by the ash crosses on their foreheads.

Mrs. VanDoodewaard suggests that this tendency could have been prevented if the evangelical churches where these students grew up were better at teaching the faith. She unfortunately even puts scare quotes around “Christian” when describing evangelical writers sympathetic to “high church” modes of worship. To me this looks like prejudice.

It may be true to an extent that young folks are leaving evangelicalism because of churches’ failure to model mature faith for children and youth: “They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’  churches and not finding it.” Mrs. VanDoodewaard is certainly on the mark here, if my friends’ experience counts for anything. What they want, and are not getting in so many “evangelical” churches is, as she puts it:

[T]heology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. . . . a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed.

Based on my own observation I would also agree with her that churches (such as conservative reformed Presbyterian denominations) that teach the intellectual and historic distinctives of the faith lose fewer, and produce more spiritually mature young adults:

Protestant churches that recognize their own ecclesiastical and theological heritage, training their children to value and continue it in a 21st century setting, usually retain their youth. These kids have the tools they need to think biblically through the deep and difficult issues of the day and articulate their position without having a crisis of faith. They know the headlines, church history, theology and their Bibles, and so are equipped to engage culture in a winsome, accessible way.

Now I know how fun it is to harsh the post-evangelical mellow, and I may have been too free in the past with my scorn for the turtleneck-wearing self-appointed representatives of the younger generation. However, the writer’s dismissive attitude toward liturgical worship tells one more about her than about her subject:

That’s not to say that the Book of Common Prayer is unbiblical in its entirety–far from it! It is to say that children raised in spiritually substantive and faithful homes usually find things like holy water, pilgrimages, popes and ash on their faces an affront to the means for spiritual growth that God has appointed in His Word.

As a young Anglican I also know the headlines, church history, theology, and my Bible, and care little for popes and pilgrimages, although certain Roman Catholic writers such as the former Pope Benedict have helped me learn and grow. I also appreciate the ways in which my denomination is rooted in the history and tradition of the ancient Church. But what Mrs. VanDoodewaard shows here is her characteristically Presbyterian prejudice against physical means to the contemplation of truth. These things are not bad, or a sign of spiritual decay. Ashes, for instance, remind one of death and the need for repentance, and their annual imposition marks the beginning of a season of self-examination and repentance during the liturgical year. We should always be examining ourselves and repenting from sin, but church tradition is a “dutiful mother” who knows that her errant children sometimes need to be reminded of this in a tangible way. “Holy water,” similarly, reminds one of the sacrament of baptism and the cleansing power of being buried and raised with Jesus. These incidentals are not the primary content of the faith, but neither should they be scorned when seen in the right light.

Some people who observe Christian tradition from the outside see ashes and holy water and think “Superstition!” That is because they are not in on the secret. It is not actually a secret, but it keeps itself remarkably well from those who do not wish to learn it.

As for “the means for spiritual growth that God has appointed in his Word,” these would seem to be the means that have been practiced by the church since Acts chapter 1, when “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” which is a pretty neat outline of what Mrs. VanDoodewaard dismisses as “high church rite and sacrament.” Add the private disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and meditating on the Scriptures for a whole picture of mature life in Christian community.

“Rite and Sacrament” Christianity has a whole lot to offer to everyone, including evangelicals. I contend that one of the biggest problems with evangelicalism is how much it has strayed from the eternal relevance of ancient Christian tradition to become the always-irrelevant Church of What’s Happening Now.

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A word to evangelicals seeking “relevance:” Blue jeans, Getty songs, and Fair Trade Coffee have little to contribute to the work of the church, although those things are nice if you can get them without giving up more important things. Half the folks in my Anglican congregation wear jeans to church and probably listen to Getty songs in the car, but they’re content with Folgers during coffee hour, and we sure don’t have the money, ability, or desire to put a praise band up front with the organ.

And to the “Emergents:” Put on your irony-tinted hipster glasses, but I doubt you can appropriate the spiritual capital of traditional Christianity without being transformed by it.

Post-Evangelical Blogging for Dummies: Harnessing the Zeitgeist for Fun and Prophet

A previous version of this article was published at Juicy Ecumenism and The Aquila Report.

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A lot of people come up to me at conferences, to which, as a very successful hipster-progressive post-evangelical blogger, I have been invited to speak, asking me how they, too, can make a name for themselves as a voice for the disaffected semi-faithful.

Normally a successful writer conceals the hidden mainspring of his success with golden platitudes like “insight” and “perseverance.” I used to be reluctant to divulge the true secret of my success, until I realized that, like Washington politics, progressive opinion is not a zero-sum game. To paraphrase the great Thomas Friedman, the world is flat, hot, and bothered. So now I give the following advice (and invite them back to my suite for more in-depth conversation if they’re cute).

Post-evangelical blogging is not for everyone. If you are going to be successful you need to have a few important things settled from the outset:

A. Your personal background. It is imperative that as a post-evangelical blogger, you grew up in circumstances that the average 18-29 year old evangelical reader would recognize, such as a non-denominational Bible church. This experience serves as your fundamental reference point for any assumptions or general statements you make about Christian fellowships, beliefs, or behavior.

B. Your departure. It is equally important that you now look back upon your formative circumstances from a point of critical detachment. Your Christian perspective should express itself primarily in contradistinction to this background, which you share with the majority of your readers. (If you are uneasy with calling yourself a “Christian” you may refer to yourself as a “Jesus-follower” or a person of “deep yet questioning faith.”)

C. Your crisis. If at all possible you should narrate your grievances with the ways Christians you used to know treated people, either yourself or others. Use the fact that they acted badly as evidence that their deeply-held beliefs are false.

D. Your re-evaluation of Christian moral teaching. Observe ways in which the beliefs of Christians you used to know differ from those generally accepted by the surrounding culture, and how those same Christians were themselves incapable of living up to their own standards. This shows that they were wrong to maintain those standards, and also that current cultural practices are more natural and authentically human.

With these preliminaries in place, the main thing about post-evangelical blogging is to be relevant. Relevance may seem difficult to understand, but it is actually achieved through an easy and–dare I say–mechanical process.

The Secret to Achieving Post-Evangelical Relevance

As a prospective progressive blogger, you are no doubt familiar with the organs of contemporary thought: Jezebel, The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Krugman–the list goes on. The trick of post-evangelical blogging is to take the progressive issue du jour, be it gay marriage, birth control, gun control, abortion, or assisted suicide, and re-interpret it as a fundamental and authentic challenge to the assumptions of the suburban evangelicalism which, for you, represents the sum total of Christian belief and experience.

Explain the personal conflict you experience between your evangelical roots and what you now truly believe is a devastating challenge to those formerly-held beliefs. Suggest that instead of being so quick to oppose the issue, Christians should extend “grace” (don’t define) and a “generous response.” Above all, they should “re-evaluate” their views in light of this challenge. Remember: “Questioning” is a one-way street.

Write at great length about authenticity and humanity–or rather, assign those terms to whatever culturally-acceptable practice you are promoting.

If you are a man, express a deep and sensitive regard for feminists and those with alternative sexual lifestyles, and be quick to reevaluate your male, presumably heteronormative perspective in light of new information about what is culturally ascendent.

As a general rule you don’t actually need to do the difficult intellectual work of re-evaluating anything, as long as you talk about doing it. Your audience doesn’t know the difference.

To strengthen your message, write in extremely short paragraphs containing not more than a sentence or two, sometimes just a single phrase. Avoid capital letters and you will be as raw and authentic as my unfiltered cigarettes.

Finally, avoid unhelpful discussions of the concept of “sin.” Serious Christian intellectuals are working hard to wrest the language of “sin” from the patriarchal power structures which have used it to repress people since the rise of Judaism. Undoing four thousand years of oppression isn’t done in an afternoon. After all, even Jesus, though he claimed to have overthrown the authority of Caesar, Satan, and the Sanhedrin, refrained from challenging the all-male priesthood, which has perpetuated this idea of “sin.” This is not amateur hour, and you can save yourself a lot of trouble by avoiding “sin” altogether.

I hope this advice helps. Here’s my card. What do you say to drinks at my place after this?

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The opinions expressed in this article are not my own, nor are they those of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, where this article first appeared.