Friday, 1 June 2007

Encounters with tradition (2): from evangelical to post-evangelical

A guest-post by D. W. Congdon

There are certainly problems with calling “evangelicalism” a tradition. To some, it refers simply to the Protestant churches born out of the Reformation. To others, it refers to the pietistic, Anabaptist traditions. To others, more recently, it refers to the American Free Church movement, which is more a sociopolitical reality than anything else. And to others still, it refers to a kind of Christian fundamentalism. I wish to affirm all of these uses of the term, and all of them apply to my own journey as an evangelical Christian.

I grew up in your textbook American evangelical home: strong nuclear family, large extended family (presently over 50 first cousins), rooted in Scripture (devotions every night; Bible memory verses at every dinner), committed to biblical inerrancy and a male-female complementarianism (i.e., hierarchicalism), avid believers in six-day creationism, distrustful of anything related to the secular academy, loyal Republicans, Baptist heritage, descendants of Jonathan Blanchard (founder of Wheaton College), homeschooled, raised with strong moral principles, and active in our local nondenominational church at every level of ministry. And this description only scratches the surface.

In writing this post, therefore, I do not come with any experience in moving from one established Christian tradition to another. I grew up and remain an American evangelical of sorts. But within the course of my lifetime, evangelicalism became a much more fluid, malleable, and diverse entity. Within a single decade, I saw the rise of evangelical feminism, evangelical leftist politics, evangelical engagement with evolution (beyond creationism and ID), and most importantly, an evangelical engagement with ancient and contemporary theology in ways that had not been the case before. Of course, we might also mention the rise of the emerging church movement within American evangelicalism. Regardless of whether one sees this as a positive or negative development, it is at the very least indicative of how evangelicalism has expanded over recent years.

In my years as a student at Wheaton College, I went through a seismic shift in thinking. I arrived with no awareness of the diversity within the Christian church (which I honestly thought was limited only to Free Church evangelicals) and no understanding of the complex debates over the Bible, theology, politics, and other issues which I had simply taken for granted. All of that changed for me within the course of a year. As an English major, I did a lot of reading, and the three books that affected me the most during my first year were Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy – all by Roman Catholics. Finally, in the summer before my second year, I read Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and this turned the tide for good.

I experienced a rather violent “conversion” process, and it took me a full two years to work through some of the major issues. Besides physically throwing Noll’s book after finishing it the first time, I went through a polemical stage in which I set about rejecting my heritage. Numerous angry emails later, I began to emerge from my youthful ire into a more mature readiness to construct a positive position which upheld the important elements of my upbringing (e.g., fidelity to Scripture, involvement in the church, concentration on the cross of Christ) while incorporating the insights that I had gained from others, such as Karl Barth. One insight in particular came from the experience of attending an Anglican church during my last year at Wheaton. The discovery of the liturgy and the eucharist for the first time (!) radically changed me in ways that simply reading theology never will.

In the end, I still consider myself an evangelical, but I am a much different person than I used to be – hopefully for the better. I am not entirely sure “post-evangelical” is the best term to describe where I am today, because I have no intention of being anything other than steadfastly evangelical (though I define this term in a much broader way now). Even so, it seems to be the term most used to describe this new orientation within evangelicalism. If by “post-evangelical” we mean a commitment to Scripture, the Protestant solae, and the local church combined with a moderate-leftist politics, then this is indeed the “tradition” in which I locate myself today.

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