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Evangelicalism: What Is One To Make of the Phenomenon?


The Evangelical Mind

We who are in pietistic, generically evangelical, Baptist, fundamentalist, Restorationist, holiness, “Bible church,” megachurch, or Pentecostal traditions face special difficulties when putting the mind to use. Taken together, American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well, but built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking remain substantial. These barriers include an immediatism that insists on action, decision, and even perfection right now, a populism that confuses winning supporters with mastering actually existing situations, an anti-traditionalism that privileges oneʼs own current judgments on biblical, theological, and ethical issues (however hastily formed) over insight from the past (however hard won and carefully stated), and a nearly gnostic dualism that rushes to spiritualize all manner of bodily, terrestrial, physical, and material realities (despite the origin and providential maintenance of these realities in God). In addition, we evangelicals as a rule still prefer to put our money into programs offering immediate results, whether evangelistic or humanitarian, instead of into institutions promoting intellectual development over the long term.

These evangelical habits continue to hamper evangelical thinking. We remain inordinately susceptible to enervating apocalyptic speculation, and we produce and consume oceans of bathetic End Times literature while sponsoring only a trickle of serious geopolitical analysis. We are consistently drawn to so-called “American Christianities”—occasionally of the left, more often of the right—that subordinate principled reasoning rooted in the gospel to partisanship in which opponents are demonized and deficiencies in our friends are excused… Capitulation to disembodied ideals of spirituality incapacitates our struggling band of novelists and poets. And far too many of us still make the intellectually suicidal mistake of thinking that promoting “creation science” is the best way to resist naturalistic philosophies of science. When it comes to the life of the mind, in other words, we evangelicals continue to have our problems…

Evangelical higher education in North America remains a fragmented enterprise, both nourished and impeded by the sectarian character of American religion…

Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, members of Holiness movements, seeker-sensitive churches, dispensationalists, Adventists, African-American congregations, radical Wesleyans, and lowest-common-denominator evangelicals have great spiritual energy, but they flounder in putting the mind to use for Christ. On the other side, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, the Reformed, and the Eastern Orthodox enjoy incredibly rich traditions that include sterling examples of Christian thought, but they often display a comatose spirituality. This picture is, of course, a generalization…

—Mark Noll [Christian and Professor of History at Wheaton College—Billy Grahamʼs alma mater], “The Evangelical Mind Today,” First Things, No. 146, Oct. 2004

Jack Kelley, an Evangelical Christian and star reporter with USA Today, resigned in January after admitting he fabricated many of his sensational stories covering war and terrorism. His admission of guilt came after USA Todayʼs investigative team found major fabrications and plagiarisms in Kellyʼs stories. The same Jack Kelley told Christian Reader magazine recently: “God has told me to proclaim truth,” and, he teaches at the World Journalism Institute, whose mission is “presuppositional reporting” from an “unapologetic Christian point of view.”

—E.T.B., based on an article in Christianity Today

I believe part of the appeal of the evangelical religion is for offering certainty, not faith, certainty about what is doctrinally correct. I think one of the dangers of religion is to believe we have got God all buttoned down. I believe just the opposite. I believe in the freedom and mystery of God that doesnʼt allow us to be certain but allows us to be loving. To put it in street talk, I look more to how people live than what they say they believe.

Rev. Albert Pennybacker [Pastor in Lexington, Kentucky, and head of the Clergy Leadership Network, a cross-denominational group of liberal and moderate religious leaders seeking to counter the influence of the Religious Right and to mobilize voters to change leadership in Washington.]

A Minister Criticizes How Other Ministers Seek to Drive People to Despair

(The ‘Methodists’) demonstrate to secure, contented, happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate, and merely unwilling to realize that it is in severe straits it knows nothing at all about, from which only they can rescue it. Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they spy luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in. They make it their object first of all to drive men to inward despair, and then it is all theirs… The church must stop trying to act like a “spiritual pharmacist”—working to produce acute guilt, and then in effect saying, “We just happen to have the remedy for your guilt here in our pocket.”

—Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison [Bonhoeffer is a famed moderate Christian minister who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler. His books, including, The Cost of Discipleship have been praised and read by Evangelical Christians.]

Evangelical Christianity = Being made to feel sinful and guilty for not having felt sinful and guilty, in order that one might experience release from sin and guilt; Like donning lead boots and walking about in them until totally exhausted in order to have the exhilarating experience of taking them off again.

—Conrad Hyers, Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen [Hyers is a moderate Evangelical Christian and former Chair of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College]

Is the Heart of Man Deceitful Above All Things & Desperately Wicked?

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught, “If you see a woman and lust after her, I say that you have already committed adultery in your heart.” In other words, even if you donʼt commit adultery “in the flesh,” youʼve committed it just by lusting after someone. Now suppose you see someone in need, who could use some cash or a kind word, and you yearn in your heart to give it to them (but for whatever reason are unable to give it to them). Does that mean you have “already committed charity in your heart?” Think about it. If a lust-filled yearning (not the act of sex, but just the yearning), is evidence of how bad the human heart is, then what about the yearnings people feel to help and support one another? Might they not be an indication of goodness in peopleʼs hearts?

Gandhi, the famous Hindu peace-activist, taught that people should seek out what was best in their own religions and hearts. Even Jesus put a positive spin on “the heart” when he taught that “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45 & Mat. 12:35), and when he taught that people ought to “Love God with all their heart,” (Mat. 22:37). How is that possible if the “heart” is “wicked and deceitful above all things?”

No doubt the “wickedness” of the “heart” as depicted in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 17, verse 9 (“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”) applies to some people at some times whenever they act deceitful and wicked, especially when they are at their lowest and weakest points. But to take the book of Jeremiahʼs exaggerated ancient Near Eastern way of speaking, and bake it in an oven until it becomes as dry and hard as a brick of dogma, and make that brick a cornerstone of your theology, well, to do that takes a “heart” relatively dry of compassion and fair appraisals of othersʼ beliefs and actions.


Christianity Can Magnify Harmless Actions into Deadly Offenses

One of Christianityʼs chief offenses is not that it has enlisted the services of bad men, but that it has misdirected the energies of good ones. The kindly, the sensitive, the thoughtful, those who are striving to do their best under its influence, are troubled, and consequently often develop a more or less morbid frame of mind. The biographies of the best men in Christian history offer many melancholy examples of the extent to which they have falsely accused themselves of sins during their “unconverted” state, and the manner in which harmless actions are magnified into deadly offenses.

—Chapman Cohen, Essays in Freethinking

On “Revivals”

In the days of my youth, ministers depended on revivals to save souls and reform the world. The emotional sermons, the sad singing, the hysterical “Amens,” the hope of heaven, the fear of hell, caused many to lose what little sense they had. In this condition they flocked to the “mournerʼs bench”—asked for prayers of the faithful—had strange feelings, prayed, and wept and thought they had been “born again.” Then they would tell their experiences—how wicked they had been, how evil had been their thoughts, their desires, and how good they had suddenly become.

They used to tell the story of an old woman who, in telling her experience, said, “Before I was converted, before I gave my heart to God, I used to lie and steal, but now, thanks to the grace and blood of Jesus Christ, I have quit ʻem both, in a great measure.”

Well, while the cold winter lasted, while the snows fell, the revival went on, but when the winter was over, the boats moved in the harbor again, the wagons rolled, and business started again, most of the converts “backslid” and fell again into their old ways. But the next winter they were on hand again, read to be “born again.” They formed a kind of stock company, playing the same parts every winter and backsliding every spring.

I regard revivals as essentially barbaric. The fire that has to be blown all the time is a poor thing to get warm by. I think they do no good but much harm; they make innocent people think they are guilty, and very mean people think they are good.

—Robert Ingersoll, “Why I am An Agnostic”

I had what I consider a “spiritual epiphany” regarding “evangelicalism” in high school when a group of friends and I drove to an evangelistic rally and heard the preacher rail on and on against the evils of drinking, smoking, and other things. The evangelist was a spectacular showman and implored the audience to take heed, come forward, let go of any liquor bottles or packs of cigarettes in their possession, repent, and sin no more with Godʼs power. Each word of the evangelist blazed with the certainty that God would heal His peopleʼs sinful ways and a choir was singing with trumpets blaring and the audience grew very excited. My friends all deposited their packs of cigarettes on the growing pile in the center of the rally and prayed with the ushers and pleaded with me to do so as well for the good of my soul.

I refused.

No sooner had the emotion-filled rally ended, no sooner had we traveled a few blocks in our car, than my friends bummed cigarettes off me.

—Dr. C. Brewer, Prof of Psychology (as told to E.T.B. 7/18/06)

How Different Are Most “Converted” People?

Were it true that a converted man as such is of an entirely different kind from a natural man, there surely ought to be some distinctive radiance. But notoriously there is no such radiance. Converted men as a class are indistinguishable from normal men.

By the very intensity of his fidelity to the paltry ideals with which an inferior intellect may inspire him, a saint can be even more objectionable and damnable than a superficial “carnal” man would be in the same situation.

—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

How to Spot Christians

One Sunday afternoon my cousin and I were eating at a restaurant. He paused, and started pointing at people. “Heʼs a Christian… Heʼs a Christian… So is she, and she, and that other guy.”

I asked how he was so sure.

His reply? “I was a hard-core Evangelical Christian for a few years, remember? Itʼs not hard to see once you know what to look for. Look for someone who looks like theyʼre wearing clothes just a little bit nicer than theyʼre comfortable in, that have a smile on their face. It wonʼt look like a happy smile, itʼll look kind of contrived and forced, like theyʼre trying to convince themselves theyʼre happy and rich.”

—Justice McPherson

Many of the most cordial Christians either hum hymns or listen to contemporary Christian music, or repeat Scripture in their heads, and wonder what they can do next to make someone think that theyʼre a “good little Christian.”

I used to do the same thing, and now people wonder why I do not shower them with praise and gifts to make them think that I am a “good little Christian.” I used to go to peopleʼs houses and work and they would try to pay me, But No! I would not take a dime, because I wanted to emblazon on their brains the idea that I was a “good little Christian.” (The “people-pleasing-for-Christ” part of my life ended over 15 years ago.) Thatʼs what many Christians are, people pleasers, God pleasers, Jesus pleasers, preacher pleasers.

Jesus was a people pleaser, thatʼs why he was so willing to die, either to please God or his ignorant followers.

—Ben at [edited by E.T.B.]

Converted or Addicted?

Psychotherapists will tell you that in dealing with an addict, you have to understand that the personʼs primary relationship is with the drug. The drug has the ability to control the addictʼs thinking to a remarkable degree, and you must understand that any relationship you may feel with the addict is a distant second to the one they have with their drug. The most devout Evangelical Christians are open and unabashed about this. Their “relationship with Jesus” as they use the term, is the primary relationship in their lives. There is even a scripture that goes something like, “Not unless you hate your mother and father can you be my disciple,” and, “Who are my mother and father? But he who hears and words of God and does them.” Jesus even suggested to one disciple that he ought not return home to help bury a dead family member, instead he ought to “Let the dead bury the dead.” In other words, Evangelicals stress that oneʼs love for Jesus ought to be so strong that relatively speaking, oneʼs love for even close family members, must not compare. You may love your mother but you should love Jesus so much more that in comparison itʼs like you hate her. Doesnʼt this sound an awful lot like a drunkʼs love for the bottle?

It may be helpful when trying to have a relationship with a believer to remember that you and their relationship with you means very little to them compared to their need to continue in their thought addiction. In fact “true believers” may happily sacrifice a relationship with their own spouses or children should those family members refuse to convert, or become “unbelievers.” In such cases the “true believer” feels they are making the ultimate sacrifice in “serving God rather than man.”

Evangelical beliefs may promise you comfort, security and power just like the ads for alcohol link its consumption with sexiness, sports activities, and a rippinʼ good time, but the promises in both cases often grow sour as the addict grows more hardened and insistent.

Some people have an instant “conversion” to alcoholism. They take their first drink, or have their first good drunk and understand (in the words of a very young alcoholic client I once had) “This (drinking) is what I was put on this world to do.”

For some people their religion is an illness they are trying to recover from and the recovery process is more difficult than recovering from alcoholism.

—Saint Vilis at the Yahoo Group, ExitFundyism

You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that WE are the ones who “need help?”

—Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist

Evangelical Ego-Games

An evangelical Christian once told me, “Only Jesus Christ can save man and restore him to his lost state of peace with God, himself and others.” Yeah, sure, and only new Pepsi can make you feel really happy, and only our brand is better than the competition, and only our country is the best country. It is truly amazing to me that people can utter such arrogant nonsense with no humor, no sense of how offensive they are to others, no doubt or trepidation, and no suspicion that they sound exactly like advertisers, con-men and other swindlers. It is really hard to understand such child-like prattling. If I were especially conceited about something (a state I try to avoid, but if I fell into it…), if for instance I decided I had the best garden or the handsomest face in Ireland, I would still retain enough common sense to suspect that I would sound like a conceited fool if I went around telling everybody those opinions. I would have enough tact left, I hope, to satisfy my conceit by dreaming that other people would notice on their own that my garden and/or my face were especially lovely. People who go around innocently and blithely announcing that they belong to the Master Race or the Best Country Club or have the One True Religion seem to have never gotten beyond the kindergarten level of ego-display. Do they have no modesty, no tact, no shame, no adult common sense at all? Do they have any suspicion how silly their conceit sounds to the majority of the nonwhite non-Christian men and women of the world? To me, they seem like little children wearing daddyʼs clothes and going around shouting, “Look how grown-up I am! Look at me, me, me!”

There are more amusing things than ego-games, conceit and one-upmanship. Really, there are. I suspect that people stay on that childish level because they have never discovered how interesting and exciting the adult world is.

If one must play ego-games, I still think it would be more polite, and more adult, to play them in the privacy of oneʼs head. In fact, despite my efforts to be a kind of Buddhist, I do relapse into such ego-games on occasion; but I have enough respect for human intelligence to keep such thoughts to myself. I donʼt go around announcing that I have painted the greatest painting of our time; I hope that people will notice that by themselves. Why do the people whose ego-games consist of day-dreaming about being part of the Master Race or the One True Religion not keep that precious secret to themselves, also, and wait for the rest of the human race to notice their blinding superiority?

—Robert Anton Wilson

Many Christians who canʼt even get members of their own family to agree with them on trifling matters are currently seeking to evangelize the world and tell everyone “whatʼs what.”


Your Own Personal Jesus

Many evangelical Christians boast that they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. What makes it so “personal?” Well, they say, we have the words attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels. But there are so few of them, a couple thousand. You could fit all of Jesusʼs words into a small 16-page booklet. And they are subject to interpretation.

Well, they say, there are “answered prayers.” But again, that is a matter of interpretation, because no matter what happens, an evangelical Christian interprets it as “Jesusʼs will,” even when bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

Whenever I have a “personal relationship” with someone it does not consist of a few thousand words spoken two thousand years ago, recorded accurately (or inaccurately) by someone else, and which require interpretation from third parties for me to “truly” understand them (especially when the third parties disagree concerning the meaning and intent of those words).

Neither should a “personal relationship” depend on me having to interpret the results of every prayer uttered. And the range of interpretations covers every conceivable outcome: “strongly positively answered,” “weakly positively answered,” “strongly negatively answered,” “weakly negatively answered,” or even, “try again later when you have more faith.”


Question: Whatʼs the difference between a trained psychologist and a born again Christian?

Answer: A trained psychologist can read a person like a book, but a born again Christian reads a book like itʼs a person.


Knock! Knock!

Two evangelical Christians at the door: May we come in and share some good news with you?

Me: Donʼt you mean, “May we blatantly disregard your privacy for a few minutes in order to further our own personal goals?” Tell me, which denomination do you belong to, and when was it founded? Thatʼs Protestant, isnʼt it? I bet the Pope has rings older than your denomination. I bet your denomination numbers a couple million at most. Catholics number far more. In fact, if you added up every member of every Protestant denomination on earth, the Catholics equal or exceed that number. You say thatʼs a logical fallacy, truth is not determined by sheer numbers? Thatʼs what all small denominations say. Heck, maybe youʼre knocking on doors because youʼre bored seeing the same faces in church or you fear your heaven wonʼt have enough folks in it to form a decent choir. I have a hot tip for you, youʼll be happier if you seek out people whom you admire—and things you enjoy—on an individual basis, rather than try to pour yourself and the whole world into a “one size fits all” religious Jello mold.


Evangelist = A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devilʼs Dictionary

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