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Robert Price Beyond Born Again Chap2



Beyond Born Again

Section I– The Born Again Experience: A Brave New World?

Chapter 2: The Evangelical Subculture

In the last chapter, I tried to explain and critique some important aspects of the way Evangelicals interpret and cope with their experiences. Now I want to turn to a slightly different aspect of Evangelical experience. I want to focus on what sociologists call the “social construction of reality.” [1] The idea is that every individual operates within a worldview shared by his community. A person is socialized into expecting certain things and not others, holding certain ideas as true, obeying various rules, operating on a set of assumptions and values without much question. If he didn’t, there would be no way to organize life. One’s world is no less composed of such “doctrines felt as facts” than it is of physical objects like buildings or trees. They are the “rules of the game” without which you just couldn’t play.

Any society must have a certain set of ground rules and assumptions for there to be any cultural cohesion or order. Subcultures are groups of people who dissent from the mainstream on some important issues. A subculture may hold minority political, artistic, or religious views. This fact results in something of a “ghetto-mentality,” even if the members of the subculture live dispersed throughout the larger society. In the mainstream culture or society, one’s foundational beliefs are held without too much difficulty. A person is pretty much able to take them for granted. But a member of a subculture is not so fortunate. The sheer numbers of people who do not share his way of looking at things must act as pressure on him. He must think twice about his viewpoint. His minority status itself must challenge the truth of his viewpoint. The subculturalist must try two strategies to keep his beliefs believable. He must limit contact with all those doubt-casting influences from the outside, and he must be able to explain away on his own terms the input he does encounter from outsiders. Only in this way does his viewpoint maintain any of the apparent self-evidence it needs.

If successful, what the subculturalist will have done is to use social and psychological defense mechanisms to make his views “feel like” reality. Yet he will not want to realize this. The recognition that the “real-seemingness” of his worldview is generated and maintained by such devices would undermine that “real-seemingness.” The subculturalist would have to face the fact that his viewpoint is not self-evidently true. In other words, when recognized, the mechanisms for overcoming doubt become themselves a new source of doubt.

It should come as no surprise (though to some it may) that the distinctives of Evangelical Christianity lend themselves to adequate explanation as a subculture as just described. In fact, the subcultural character of Evangelicalism can trace its roots back into the heart of the New Testament. Contemporary New Testament scholarship likes to speak in terms of an “already-not yet” tension within the New Testament. Its writers believed that the New Age of Salvation had already dawned by way of anticipation in their Christian fellowship. The rest of the world still slumbered in the darkness of sin since the full manifestation of the Kingdom had not yet come.



But believers already lived in the Kingdom of God. They participated in “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5), lived by the rules of the coming Kingdom. They had to shine forth as stars in the darkness around them (Philippians 2:15). All this theologizing reflects a subcultural situation. New Testament Christians, certainly a minority in the Roman Empire, explained this fact in this way: Their small band formed a beachhead of the New Age in the midst of paganism.

Moving to the Evangelical Christianity of our own day, let us see how it fits the pattern of a subculture. One might list a great number of values, tenets, and practices undergirding Evangelicalism. Some important ones are: the normativity of the Bible’s statements, the emphasis on personal pietism, introspective ethical rigorism, conservative views of biblical criticism, the obligation to share one’s personal faith with others, constant church attendance, avoidance of smoking, drinking, and perhaps cinema, belief in salvation by faith, expectation of the second coming of Christ in the near future, and several others. One may well ask just how a conversion to faith in Christ implies all or any of these things. Though Evangelicals have carefully constructed various legitimations of all of them, the real connection is more accidental than essential. This fact is evidenced by the existence of other groups professing faith in Christ without these particular attendant beliefs and attitudes. The new convert to Evangelicalism finds himself in a supportive community of faith into whose attitudes and assumptions he is soon socialized. He has believed their message about Christ; aren’t they to be trusted when they tell him to read the Bible, convert his friends, and, perhaps, vote Republican?

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a whole new world” (II Corinthians 5:17), wrote Paul. And the new convert to Evangelicalism will probably not think to separate Christ and the Evangelical world. This new world is constantly reinforced by verbal input such as sermons, testimonies from fellow believers, hymns, and jargon. The series of cliché phrases will function like secret passwords. They include: “Praise the Lord,” “fellowship,” “That was a blessing,” “witnessing,” and (if one is Pentecostal or Charismatic) especially glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” Such jargon isolates the believers from the outsiders, the “unsaved,” and, conversely, immediately signals the believer as to the presence of a “brother or sister in the Lord.”

We have here an example of a full-blown subcultural situation.

Spiritual rebirth, infallible Scripture, signs and wonders, explicit doctrine, and awareness of the approaching End, combine to build around the Evangelical a magic circle invisibly cutting him off from those for whom these things have no meaning. Here he lives in an alternative world. [2]

It could fairly be said that, despite the universalizing tendency implied in the Evangelical emphasis on evangelism, this world-picture could not exist without its severe “us versus them” dichotomy. It is essential to the whole Evangelical cognitive enterprise that the faithful be a misunderstood and rejected minority. Or at least it must seem so to the faithful themselves. For instance, the overwhelming impression given in apologist Francis Schaeffer’s widely



read books is that almost everyone outside of the fold has succumbed to an agnostic secularism. The Christian solder must sally forth with the gospel in a “Post-Christian Age.” Anyone else, glancing at recent surveys like the Gallup poll, [3] might think twice about such a diagnosis of modern society’s level of religious interest.

James Barr suggests that this minority self-consciousness is maintained even where Evangelicalism is not a cognitive minority, e.g., in the American South. “Part of its preaching dynamic arises from the continual suggestion that its view is something that has not been heard before….” [4] He notes that even in areas of Evangelical religious dominance there is often still no revolutionary social or spiritual change such as one might expect from the promises of Evangelical propaganda. This embarrassing hiatus is hidden by continual rhetoric to the effect that Evangelicals are still a fighting minority. This illusion seems to be becoming more difficult in the face of recent media exposure. It is becoming increasingly evident that the Evangelical allegiance of even fifty million Americans has somehow not proved incompatible with the growing crime rate and decadence decried by Evangelicals’ own rhetoric.

Ironically, while Evangelicals tell themselves that they are ignored and unknown, simultaneously they warn each other to be circumspect since the skeptical eyes of “the world” are on them all the time! Frequently one hears admonitions to be “a good witness” since the Christian life is lived in “a goldfish bowl” before unbelievers. In fact, some go so far as to attribute to outsiders the strictest fundamentalist mores! One must not have a beer or go to a movie, because what would a non-Christian think if he saw this? Surely he knows that such things are incompatible with real Christian commitment, and the beer-drinking, movie-going Evangelical will have “damaged his testimony”! Here the mores of one’s one worldview are reinforced by projecting them onto those outside. The Evangelical somehow imagines the “unsaved” to think in the same categories he himself does.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Ideally, a subcultural worldview may best be maintained if one can totally regulate the input received by members. This was, of course, ultimately the point of “Newspeak” in 1984. Language itself was to be manipulated so as to eliminate the possible infiltration of “dangerous” ideas. Few will wish to go so far in real life, but the basic motive of protection is often the same. Traditionally, Evangelicals have attempted to avoid “worldly” entertainment including theatre, movies, dancing, etc. This is still the approach of stricter fundamentalist Evangelicals. One still hears tiresome tirades against movie-going, but a newer crusade is against rock and roll. This issue will serve will to illustrate our point. Evangelical opponents of such music are quite clear in their apprehension of the “ideological protection” question. Bob Larson warns:

Lyrical content which is directly opposed to Biblical standards and accepted Christian behavior should definitely be avoided.

Few teenagers listening to the Beatles sing “Nowhere Man” or “Eleanor Rigby” would stop to realize the philosophical implications



of the lyrics of these songs. Nevertheless, the philosophical outlook conveyed will influence their thoughts….

For Larson, the alternatives are clear:

…the time per day spent listening to rock music is… compounded far beyond the weekly intake of Biblical training [and a] moral imbalance results. A mind that has been infiltrated by hours of lyrical pornography throughout the week cannot be easily remolded with only a few hours allotted for Christian instruction on Sunday.[5]

Frank Garlock of Bob Jones University agrees: “The loud beat and sensual, pleasure-oriented lyrics will drown out the voice of God and dwarf your spiritual life.” [6]

Of late, moderate Evangelicals have allowed “Christian rock” which of course has Evangelical lyrics. Such music “keeps ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree” by making the farm look more like Paree! The same is now being done with entertainment talk shows (Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson) and even soap operas!

A newer attitude among Evangelicals is that one may critically evaluate the arts (i.e., instead of rejecting them outright) on the ideological basis of Evangelical doctrine. For Instance, Francis Schaeffer comments:

As far as a Christian is concerned, the world view that is shown through a body of art must be seen ultimately in terms of the Scriptures. The artist’s world view is not to be free from the judgment of God. [7]

Reading through the ideological critiques of art in books like Francis Schaeffer’s How should We Then Live? can be a puzzling experience for a non-Evangelical. One thing becomes clear, however. The Evangelical’s belief-structure is being shielded either by closing the doors to certain of the arts and amusements, or at least by demanding the proper password.

The same suspicious attitude is discernible in various Evangelical stances towards higher education. Bill Gothard, influential teacher of the popular “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” seminar, warns his listeners to stay away from the social sciences and philosophy. It has been suggested that this attitude reflects Gothard’s own experience in Northwestern University’s graduate psychology program. He found he must either endanger his (fundamentalist) faith or drop out. [8] Indeed, he views his own seminar as, in some respects, an answer to secular principles of education. But Evangelicals go farther. Many “Christian Liberal Arts Colleges,” such as Wheaton, Gordon, Westmont, Anderson, and Lee Colleges, have been founded. For those Evangelical students brave enough to venture out into the world of secular education, there are groups like Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship. Such organizations seek to form an Evangelical student colony, a refuge in the midst of campus secularism. The organization itself acts as an alternative peer group. It also provides literature arming the Evangelical student with counter-arguments and answers to questions he may not yet even be aware of. Staff personnel make available apologetical literature on such topics as behaviorist psychology, biblical criticism, existentialism, and comparative



religion. Of course, all of it is written from the student’s own religious viewpoint and tends to read out ideologically objectionable elements. The student is led to believe that he is fortunate enough to be heir to the most intellectually cogent position, whether he has seriously examined other views or not. He doesn’t need to examine them. Others have already done this for him, or at least it seems so.

The same phenomenon occurs outside of the student world in Evangelicalism as a whole. Whereas their literature once dealt with predominantly religious themes, there has come to be a flood of pop-literature on every imaginable subject, complete with a religious, proof-texting veneer. There are popular self-help books on losing weight the “biblical” way, Born Again sex manuals, Christian cookbooks, etc. Evangelicals need not resort to “the world” even for superstition, speculation, and fantasy. One may find ready at hand books dealing with the “biblical position” on flying saucers and the Bermuda Triangle, as well as an extensive literature on demonism and the occult. What next?

Returning to the safeguarding of Evangelical faith in the world of education, we can detect a principle underlying the same concerns throughout Evangelicalism. Kenneth Howkins, in a book designed to prepare Evangelical students for religious studies in secular schools, writes:

The Christian [read: “Evangelical”] will need to think in a Christian way about everything…. It is particularly difficult as such a great proportion of the information and opinions he receives is from a non-Christian standpoint. He will need to think carefully whether the view of history, or politics, or society which he is accepting is really in full accord with his Christian beliefs.

The student needs an open mind towards those things he does not know…. But he does not need to empty his mind of those matters about which he has a sure knowledge. [9]

Howkins thus assures his readers that they may practice the virtue of open-mindedness while refusing to budge from a perspective which must strictly censor all input!

Be Not Unequally Yoked

In the last section we discussed the filtering, censoring, and defensive dynamics used by Evangelicals to shield their subcultural outlook from the thought and culture around them. The same thing happens on an individual, interpersonal level. Through various means, the significant contacts with individuals outside of the subculture must be carefully regulated. This begins at conversion, when one is “born again.” Evangelicals often counsel new converts at least temporarily to withdraw from their old friends so as to avoid being pulled back into their worldly ways. An alternative strategy is for the new convert immediately to share his new faith with his old friends. This will serve, if not to convert them, then (probably more importantly) to insulate him from them. He will have put a wall between them and himself by signaling he is henceforth willing to relate to them only on his new religious terms. They will now hold him at arm’s length. Either way, the new Born Again Christian



is isolated from the personal influence of those outside. Consequently, he is thrust even more snugly into the arms of his new (and only remaining) peer group.

“Witnessing,” or “personal evangelism” functions in the same way for those who are no longer neophytes. The practice serves to keep the non-Evangelical at a distance where his influence on the Evangelical can be kept to a safe minimum. In Evangelical churches and campus groups, one is constantly told to “witness” to one’s acquaintances. In fact, it is easy to draw the inference that such “friends” are primarily to be seen as potential converts. It is often assumed and not infrequently stated that an Evangelical Christian could not have a really close non-Evangelical friend. The rationale for this judgment may be that the goals and priorities of such a pair would ultimately be divergent enough to inhibit the sharing, discussion, and sympathy there must be between friends. This is also given as a reason for the unbending Evangelical insistence that Evangelicals never marry or even date non-Evangelicals, “the unsaved.” As legitimate as this concern for compatibility may be, the overriding concern in such segregation of potential friends and spouses is that of protecting the faith of the Evangelical. The “unsaved” friend or partner would threaten and challenge one’s own outlook seriously from such close quarters.

Witnessing performs yet another related function. It not only segregates the Evangelical from non-Evangelicals, thus reducing their threat to his worldview. It also positively reinforces that worldview in other ways. First, there is the strategy of “truth by majority vote.” Theoretically, such a notion is repudiated by Evangelicals in order to discount the fact that the majority does not accept their truth. But psychologically, the winning of more and more converts numerically increases the popular base of the belief-system. The more his assumptions about reality are unchallenged or accepted, the easier one may breathe. Psychologist Leon Festinger says it well: “… dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all be correct.” [10]

Witnessing reinforces the plausibility structure in a second way. Roger Ellwood explains that when the Evangelical challenges people to convert, he is “patterning external reality in other people on the basis of [his] own secret reality, rather than being molded [himself] … by the outer world.” [11] Thus, even if the potential convert declines the decision thrust upon him, he is at least acting on the delineation of alternatives proposed by the Evangelical. The Evangelical’s reality has been afforded the dignity of recognition. But, thirdly, even hostile rejection or ridicule will reinforce the Evangelical’s belief. It will prove to him that he is indeed one of the persecuted minority, the “faithful few.” Thus every experience is interpreted in a positive way. Nothing could disconfirm the worldview.

It is not surprising to read in John Lofland’s Doomsday Cult that the same dynamics are at work among the Moonies when they proselytize. For instance, since they envision their efforts as part of the cosmic battle between good and evil, they can always chalk up a meager number of converts to Satan’s opposition. But God might bless them with new converts. “In general [Moonies] could not lose.



If prospects came along, God was most active. If they did not, Satan was most active…. Satan worked hardest against [Moonie evangelists] when they were really striking a blow for God. Therefore if it appeared that Satan was really attacking them — e.g., if few prospects were appearing — that must mean that in some way they were getting really close to a victory for God.” [12] Sound familiar? It all seems to work the same way regardless of which view one is trying to propagate.

Speaking of the Unification Church, it might be instructive to point out another interesting parallel between it and the Evangelical movement. That is the practice of “heavenly deception,” i.e., being less than aboveboard with outsiders so as to more effectively influence them for the Truth. When I heard of the shady tactics of the Moonies, my initial indignation was modified by empathy. I remembered only too well all the innocuous-sounding “fronts” operated by Evangelicals in order to witness to sinners, e.g., coffee houses, concerts, philosophical forums, religious surveys. None of these was ever billed for what it was. The idea was to hook the unsuspecting sinner and win an opportunity to tell him the gospel. Similar Machiavellian tactics govern various interpersonal contacts. A campus leader or foreign student may find himself the object of an Evangelical’s friendly attention, not realizing he has been singled out for “friendship evangelism” because of his potentially strategic position. A football star, once “saved,” may use his influence to convert many others. The foreign student may become a future leader in his pagan home country. What a boon to missionaries he would be if he converted!

Any non-Evangelical reading this book may remember occasions where a conversation with an Evangelical unexpectedly turned to religion. Let me assure such a reader that this was no accident. Most Evangelicals are exhorted to try to turn any conversation with a non-believer “toward spiritual things.” As the conversation proceeds and differences of opinion are aired, the “unsaved” person may begin to notice that the Evangelical gives no real consideration to his point of view. Because the stakes are eternal life or death, and everything depends on one’s belief-stance regarding Christianity, the Evangelical has no room to recognize that honest minds may differ. No, if a non-Evangelical does not accept the Evangelical’s absolute truth, it must be because Satan is blinding him, or because the unbeliever is guiltily hiding behind a smokescreen. Evangelicals often assume that an unbeliever is only using his questions as a dodge to avoid repentance from sin.

Bracketing the truth or falsity of Evangelical belief, I think that technically speaking this kind of stance is what we mean when we use the term “narrow-minded.” But Evangelicals as respectable moderns would say they frown on narrow-mindedness. They must face the question: is it narrow-mindedness per se that they deplore? Or do they just oppose people narrow-mindedly holding non-Evangelical views?

One may also notice a double standard at work. The Evangelical will try to knock down his friend’s objections to Born Again faith, thus asking the potential convert to “listen to reason” and give in. But if a really thorny question comes up, the Evangelical has been coached to admit “Say, that’s a good question. I don’t have an answer,



but I’ll try to get one. Meanwhile wouldn’t you like to convert anyway?” What this shows is that while he appeals to the unbeliever on an allegedly rational basis, he holds his own beliefs by pure willpower. Otherwise, how could his lack of an answer to a “good (i.e., genuinely troublesome) question” fail to make him think twice about the cogency of his beliefs? I will have a good bit more to say on all this in the second section of this book.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Truest of Them All?

Advertising is based on the practice of making the public think they need what you’ve got. Evangelicals use a similar ploy to legitimate, or explain on their own terms, the fact that even though “the world” does not accept Evangelical faith, this faith is still true, and not, say, a mere eccentric sect. The idea is that outsiders really want what Evangelicals have. In fact they are just crying out for it, if they only knew! Evangelicals thus project their valuation of their religion onto the absence of that faith in the outside world and the result is an imagined longing for Evangelicalism’s “answers.” Evangelicals imagine how they would feel if they were suddenly deprived of their faith and then assume that those without their faith must actually feel this way. One finds in Evangelical literature a never-ending refrain to this effect. For instance, Francis Schaeffer claims:

Christianity [read: Evangelicalism] has the opportunity… to speak clearly of the fact that its answer has the very thing that modern man has despaired of — the unity of thought. It provides a unified answer for the whole of life.

Schaeffer prooftexts art, poetry, theatre, philosophy, movies, television, pornography, and music. From his viewpoint secular assumptions must lead logically to despair, and he proceeds to assume, in effect, that the secularists agree with his conclusions! “The system that surrounds us… is a monolithic one.” “These people are in total desperation.” [13]

James Sire, in a book comparing various major worldviews, says at the beginning(!): “Yes, that is just what those who do not have faith in the infinite-personal Lord of the Universe must feel — alienation, loneliness, even despair.” [14] Os Guiness in a similar work surveys the options and “false” hopes facing Western culture and comes up with this dreary result:

The West today, its self-confidence sagging, its vitality ebbing, its order eroded, knows only introspection, lethargy…. Prone from exhaustion, a prey to its own fears, it is in danger of being overwhelmed by the anxiety, apathy, and anger of a humanity strangled within it. [15]

Guiness is able to “document” this apocalyptic diagnosis only by prooftexting pessimistic doomsayers throughout. He picks quotes from only those secularists dissatisfied with each option he is considering, giving the impression tat all secularists have abandoned hope. Finally he offers Evangelicalism as the glowing alternative. He does not think to mention that most of the despairing secularists



he quotes had probably already rejected Guiness’s religious viewpoint as an option long ago! Guiness is not alone in this kind of “documentation” of modern non-Evangelical humanity’s despair.

All this is a sophisticated attempt to discount outsiders’ views, or to explain them away in terms of one’s own viewpoint. From an Evangelical viewpoint, these secular views must end in despair; why then, the Evangelical viewpoint having thus been “demonstrated” to be superior, must be true! Schaeffer, Sire, Guiness, and others are among the more sophisticated Evangelicals. Others are cruder in technique. Some simply need to know that another view is non-Evangelical to attribute it to Satan’s invention, a favorite catchall in popular Evangelicalism. Walter Martin so consigns “cults” such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, amazingly right after deploring the narrow-mindedness which leads the Jehovah’s Witnesses to do exactly the same thing! [16] James Bjornstad similarly characterizes Edgar Cayce. [17] John Weldon and others explain the UFO’s as demonic. [18] Finally, let me draw attention to the recent raft of Evangelical “rebuttals” to Raymond Moody’s Life After Life. Evangelicals cannot seem to bear the existence of supernatural-type phenomena outside their theological categories. Everything must be explained on their terms. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

When Evangelicals leave the somewhat abstract discussion of other viewpoints, they go on to deal with other concrete religious groups. A favorite device for negating the views of these groups is to construct one’s picture of them entirely from testimony of dissatisfied ex-members. It should be obvious that such a procedure can only give a distorted picture of the group. The organization is depicted as being so terrible and oppressive that it is inferred that no one could remain a member under his own free will. Instead, it is assumed that only brainwashing, deception, and fear can keep people in such groups.

This approach has provided fundamentalists with much of their ammunition against Catholicism. The most vehement anti-Catholic is the ex-Catholic. Similarly, current Evangelical literature on groups such as the Unification Church takes testimony of ex-members as normative. After all, it is reasoned, who is in a better position to tell us about a group than a former member who had to leave when he faced up to the group’s failings? But the testimony of such people is often far from objective. The convert (or “de-convert”) must legitimate his change by negating as evil or ignorance his former life. The result is that the old group must have been bad enough to merit the person’s leaving it. Testimony from dissatisfied ex-members may take the form, then, of biased legitimation. Such testimony in turn is used by Evangelicals to prove their point. Evangelicals would rather believe that members of other groups or religions are not experiencing satisfaction, since this confirms the reality of their own experience. If, however, the Evangelical is confronted with the testimony of a satisfied member of another religion, he is liable to label such experience as “counterfeit.” And since a counterfeit implies a reality to copy, why then, his own Evangelical faith is confirmed once again! He wins either way.

The assumption underlying all this is that one’s own view, simply because it is one’s own view, is seen as qualitatively different



from the confused miasma of competing alternatives. They are all alike since they are not my view, and that is enough to sink them.

Rewriting History

Any subcultural worldview comes complete with a past and a future. “It locates all collective events in a cohesive unity that includes past, present, and future” (Berger and Luckmann). [19] Evangelicalism uses history in several interesting ways.

First, the Bible and its stories form a special category of history. Roger Ellwood describes it perceptively:

…the Bible and its time stand like a lighthouse in the midst of history. Bible time is special; it stands in equal relation to all other points in time. The evangelical is always contemporaneous with it, particularly with the time of Christ. He wants to collapse into nothing all time between himself and the New Testament.[20]

That “Bibletime” so functions is evident from several facts. Evangelicals constantly compare themselves with the primitive church in The Acts of the Apostles. This picture of the past hovers as an ever-present ideal. This is a sort of “canonical” picture of the past such as Robert L. Wilken describes in The Myth of Christian Origins. Another fact confirming Ellwood’s observation is the surprising ignorance of church history among many Evangelical laypersons. Sometimes only Martin Luther is sandwiched in between the Apostle Paul and Billy Graham.

A related use of the past among Evangelicals occurs often in scholarly Evangelical polemics. Evangelicals claim that they represent direct continuity with historic Christian orthodoxy, particularly with regard to such doctrines as the inspiration of the Bible. The object of such polemics is to discredit theological Liberals as revisionists. The same charge has been made against the Evangelicals themselves, e.g., by James Barr, Ernest Sandeen, and others. At any rate, history is conceived by Evangelicals as supporting their own claims of continuity with the “canonical past.”

Pentecostal and Charismatic Evangelicals have yet another variation of the “canonical past” schema. This is often called the “Latter Rain” concept. Pentecostalism comes from a revival at the turn of the century, when people began to have emotional and ecstatic experiences which they regarded as identical with the “spiritual” or “charismatic gifts” of the New Testament church. They had to account for several centuries of church history between the early church and the Pentecostal revival when few such experiences were in evidence. Someone came up with the “Latter Rain” theory. It seemed that because of sin, lethargy, or divine providence, the charismatic gifts were withdrawn from the church after the early centuries of the Christian era. Spiritual vitality was only gradually recovered, e.g., the doctrines of justification by faith through Luther, sanctification through Wesley, lay democratization through the Plymouth Brethren, and finally the spiritual gifts through the Pentecostal revival. [21] This conceptualization is clearly geared to serve the cognitive needs of Sectarian Protestants.



Another ideological use of the past has already been touched on previously. Francis Schaeffer and others try to show a dismal downward slide in the history of culture, away from a pristine Christian purity. Schaeffer clearly longs for the days of the Medieval synthesis, when theology was queen of the sciences and regulated all inquiry and theorizing. In one of his last books, How Should We Then Live?, he explained the book as an “attempt to present the flow and development which have led to twentieth-century thinking, and by so doing… to show the essential answers.” [22]

The resulting recital took the form of sketchy overviews of art, philosophy, and other disciplines, showing how Western culture fell from grace when it departed from the Bible.

A particularly striking example of the Evangelical shaping of history is the phenomena of paperback apocalypticism. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (as well as a flood of other books with the same contents) sketches out for credulous readers a roadmap for the (short) future, culminating in Armageddon. The picture includes World War III, the decline of American influence, the unification of Western Europe, and the usual eschatological disasters. With such a picture of the future to rely on, the Evangelical who believe this sort of thing (not all do) has little to worry about. He is absolved from any real social responsibilities since the world must worsen until the End. Atomic warfare is nothing to worry about since the Bible seems not to include such a thing in its forecasts. And at any rate, history will culminate in the salvation and reward of the Evangelicals (and no one else). This picture places the Evangelical securely in a history that revolves about himself, and ultimately holds no fears for him. And when one searches the newspaper daily for the latest imagined fulfillments of Bible prophecy, as some do, one has a simple interpretive gestalt for all events. For example, he need not worry about Palestinian rights; all he needs to know is that the Bible supposedly promised Palestine to the Jews in the End Times. And so what if peace efforts fail? The sooner Armageddon explodes the better for the Evangelical who will be “raptured” out of the apocalyptic chaos, as in a cosmic Dunkirk.

To turn from eschatology to protology, we cannot ignore Scientific Creationism, a subject much too vast to pursue here in the required detail. My own reading has persuaded me that the whole thing is one vast exercise in explaining away clear but unwelcome evidence. Based on a highly dubious exegesis of Genesis chapter 1, Creationists reject the theory of evolution, or as they like to dub it “macro-evolution,” implying they accept enough evolution (“micro-evolution”) to retain a shred of scientific respectability. They cannot stomach the notion that all present life forms evolved from unicellular ancestors through millions of years. They wish to preserve the notion of a direct hands-on creation of all major species prototypes by God at crucial junctures. He is imagined to have created an original “dog-kind,” from which various breeds including the Chihuahua and the Pit Bull subsequently evolved, willy-nilly. And the whole process took a meager six days. Archbishop Ussher’s famous, or infamous, chronology is preserved intact, really an astonishment in the modern age. The resulting age of the earth is a scant six thousand years. Here, perhaps, we find the weakest and



most embarrassing apologetics of all. I and others have dealt with them in detail elsewhere. [23]

Here let me just observe the relevance of Creationism for the Evangelical apprehension of history. I think it is not accident that when one embraces both Creationism and Lindsey-style apocalyptic, one has drawn history close about oneself like a snug blanket. Neither the past nor the future is very long. Humanity thus seems to be center-stage for the whole duration of the play. Only the most radical fundamentalist sectarians still believe the sun revolves about the earth, but this curtailing of history on both ends serves the same end. The implications of Copernicus’s revolution may be safely ignored: man is the center of things after all.

I sometimes think that many Evangelicals would rather live in a prescientific age, though those engaged in organizations like the American Scientific Affiliation have striven manfully to make the best of it where they are. But the more an Evangelical pursues science for its own sake, and not to refute it or exploit it for apologetic ends, the less easily one is able to hold onto the kind of schema I have described here. One’s copy of Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood winds up in the attic or the garbage can. It is replaced by Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture. One leaves behind the hard religious line and embraces the soft religious line, if I may borrow my own terminology. One begins to toy with accommodations like “theistic evolution,” and “progressive creationism,” etc. The world gets older, and one’s fundamentalist colleagues being to look askance and to doubt one’s commitment to inerrancy.

You can see what is really afoot in this foreshortening of the past and the future if you look at the worldview of cultures who still do live in a prescientific age. Anthropologist Jan Vansina says,

We can use one kingdom as an illustration for the telescoping of the past into a very shallow time depth because one could not express greater depths of time. The Tio of Congo recognize only two generations backwards from an adult Ego…. Beyond that one goes straight to origins, to mythical founders. Anything earlier than the structural time depth… is ignored… or telescoped to remain within the frame. Them and space become congruent with society. [24]

I am suggesting that Evangelicals are editing history to fit their own Procrustean time-frame. They are cruising along in a cozy history without much previous mileage on it and with little road ahead to threaten the vehicle with either accident or obsolescence.

A Glimpse Outside

In the previous chapter, I explored the mechanisms of Evangelical consciousness that enable a believer to cope with experience. In the present chapter I have explored some of these subtle mechanisms whereby that subcultural system of consciousness as a whole is maintained. These mechanisms are necessarily subtle, since as we have observed, the very recognition of them would undermine their effectiveness. The subcultural way of seeing things must seem self-evident to the believer. Only so can all the outside alternatives seem ipso facto in error.



Anyone who knows an Evangelical Christian knows that Evangelicals assume their religion to be qualitatively different and superior to others, uniquely true and effectual. To be more specific, there are a number of features of Evangelicalism which are seen by believers as marks of its unique truth. A few of the most important components of the Evangelical stance would include: (1) the idea of biblical authority and possibly inerrancy; (2) historic Protestant dogma; (3) the conversion experience; (4) the promise of power for victorious living; (5) a personal relationship with Christ; and (6) radical discipleship and social activism. (Granted, the last one is not common to all Evangelicals.) Together, do not these six features compose a viable, even vibrant religious expression? Anyone can see why Evangelicals are secure in, and proud of, their religion. But Evangelicalism is in fact only one of several viable religious options in which the very same religious components appear. Sometimes they appear in completely different doctrinal contexts, or are combined in different ways.

For example, it is well known that (1) biblical authority and inerrancy are affirmed by several “heretical” sects including Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is amusing to note, incidentally, that Watchtower publications even approvingly cite the work of Evangelical F. F. Bruce on the reliability of the gospels. Similarly, (2) historic Protestant theology is the common property of many non-Evangelical, confessional Protestants.

Moving on to the experiential features outlined above, (3) the conversion experience (to which, of course, the term Born Again refers) is common to nearly all modern “cults,” such as the Unification Church, and many mass therapies including est. (On this point see the fascinating book by Conway and Siegelman, Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change.) These conversions are no less “life-changing” than those experienced under Evangelical auspices.

Evangelical devotional literature is filled with promises of and techniques for attaining (4) “power for victorious living.” It may be rather surprising to observe how prominent the very same theme is in the mass of pop-Liberal “inspirational literature” by Norman Vincent Peale, Henry C. Link, and others, which peaked in popularity in the 50s. These writers recommended different psychological-religious techniques than the Evangelical devotionalists do. For instance, Bill Gothard teaches “scriptural meditation”; Bill Bright advocates “spiritual breathing”; Inter Varsity writers inculcate the habit of a “daily quiet time.” Liberal writers prescribe techniques like “positive thinking,” “scientific prayer,” etc. The theological context and jargon are different, but the promised blessings are pretty much the same: “power for living,” divine guidance in decision making, emotional security, sometimes even material prosperity. And judging by the immense popularity of these works, it must be assumed that quite a number of people did indeed find “power for victorious living” in this very non-Evangelical alternative. An interesting and important analysis of the appeal and the theological character of this “inspirational literature” may be found in Schneider and Dornbusch, Popular Religion: Inspirational Books in America, 1958.

A similarly striking non-Evangelical parallel to Evangelical rhetoric



occurs in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. There we find (5) the experience of a “personal relationship with Christ.” For instance, Catholic Charismatic leader Ralph Martin speaks of the need for people “personally commit[ting] their lives to Jesus, accepting him as… Savior and Lord.” [25] Many Evangelicals understandably rejoice at hearing such words from Catholics, but it is imperative not to overlook the difference in theological context here. Unlike Evangelicals, Charismatic Catholics often do not equate conversion/salvation with a personal relationship with Christ. Rather, all Catholics are understood to be “saved” by virtue of their (infant) baptism. The personal relationship with Christ is sort of “icing on the cake.” Though Evangelicals somehow often overlook this, from the standpoint of Evangelical theology, this difference really cannot be overstressed. Besides this, many if not most Charismatic Catholics continue to embrace traditional Catholic theology, ecclesiology, Mariology, etc.

Finally, what about (6), radical discipleship, made popular among younger Evangelicals in recent years through the circulation of publications like The Other Side, Radix, and Sojourners? Just how little this part of the picture depends on an Evangelical context is clear from a glance at almost any issue of Sojourners. Karl Barth, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Merton, and Walter Wink appear side by side with Clark Pinnock and Mark Hatfield. In fact, one receives the impression that while this magazine is the pride and joy of many “progressive” Evangelicals, its main sources of inspiration are hardly Evangelical at all!

The upshot of this survey is that these features, though they appear with integrity in Evangelicalism, are not necessarily interdependent in any one religious system much less the Evangelical one. This in turn suggests, at least to outsiders, that Evangelicalism is not “the truth,” but rather only one of several viable and vital religious options in America, many of which really offer the same spiritual, cognitive, and experiential benefits in different packagings and combinations. Though this realization comes as no news to outsiders, most Evangelical Christians do not see it this way at all. Instead, they tend to see themselves as the “real Christians” while others are only “nominal Christians.” Otherwise, how can one explain the constant use of the adjective “Christian” with obvious reference to Evangelicals only? Or the oft-posed question of strategy in personal evangelism, “How do I get through to my Catholic friend who says he already believes Christ is God’s Son, etc.?” Yet this situation might change if Evangelicals recognized the things I have pointed out in this chapter. The exclusive truth of their viewpoint would no longer be so self-evident.

On the level of academic theology, significant changes may be in the offing. It is becoming apparent that many Evangelical thinkers are themselves beginning to shed this essentially sectarian outlook. This can be observed by tracing the change in Evangelical attitudes toward “dialogue.” Early fundamentalists stigmatized Liberalism as a completely different (non-Christian) religion, Catholicism as the Whore of Babylon, and confessional Protestantism as “dead formalism.” There was no dialogue, only polemics. Later “Neo-Evangelicals” like Carl F. H. Henry, Harold J Ockenga, E. J. Carnell, and Bernard Ramm came to advocate “dialogue,” but intended this



primarily as apologetics for essentially fundamentalist doctrine. Recently, however, “Young Evangelicals” have advocated and have actually engaged in genuine give-and-take dialogue with other religious traditions. For instance, Lewis Smedes and Richard Mouw were signers of the ecumenical “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation” (cf.Mouw’s essay “New Alignments: Hartford and the Future of Evangelicalism” in Berger and Neuhaus, Against the World, For the World). Marvin Wilson led Evangelicals into the dialogue recorded in Evangelicals and Jews in Conversation. Robert Webber (Common Roots), Donald Bloesch, and some of their fellow contributors to “The Chicago Call” and The Orthodox Evangelicals have explicitly called for an end of Evangelicalism’s ghetto mentality. According to them, Evangelicals must now humbly take their place in a spectrum of legitimate Christian traditions wide enough to include Liberal Hans Küng and theosophical mystic Meister Eckhart. One last example would be the Evangelical sponsorship and participation in the 1978 “Conference of the Laity” which welcomed Roman Catholics and Ecumenical Liberals as legitimate “brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

But perhaps even more astonishing is the admission by Clark Pinnock, David F. Wright, and other Evangelical theological scholars that Liberals are genuine Christians after all! Wright says, “Unnecessary offense has clearly been given by statements like ‘He is not a Christian,’ when what is meant is ‘He is not an evangelical (Christian)’… God alone knows who are his.” [26] Liberals who demythologize and desupernaturalize Christianity can still be admitted theoretically to having adequate (“saving”) faith! In this case theology has obviously been radically undermined. Whether or not one demythologizes the Bible is reduced to the same kind of internecine difference as how many dispensations one should divide the Bible into.

And this potentially constitutes a major shift, even a revolution in Evangelical self-consciousness. To realize the implications of this, imagine how it would translate into the practice and perception of Evangelical laity and students. If Pinnock, Webber, et al. are to be taken seriously, it is no longer so clear that the Born Again Christian office worker should witness to his cigar-smoking Catholic co-worker, or that the IVCF member should pray for the conversion of his Liberal Presbyterian roommate or campus minister. Maybe they are really Christians already, after all. The “us-versus-them,” saved/unsaved dichotomy that has been crucial to the shape of Evangelical religious life would be seriously blurred, whether rightly or wrongly. My suggestion is that this would be no small change in the shape and style of Evangelical religion. I will return to this matter in the final section of the book.

[Footnotes For This Chapter] [Table Of Contents]

“Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity” is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.

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