Evangelicals Tiring with Critique
Evangelical Thomas Kidd, a well-known biographer and American church historian, made a comment recently that could have provoked a genuine conversation about how best to write the history of evangelicalism. He was commenting on the First Things essay by Carl Trueman about wokeism and Trumpism as well as the via media that he found in Mark Noll and George Marsden’s historical work.
I definitely think that Trueman is on to something, and I do find that Noll and Marsden’s arguments sound increasingly like something out of a past generation. [I’m not sure why Noll’s scathing critique of evangelicalism is acceptable Kidd while some of the more recent studies are not] I would add that their histories of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, which to me are still the gold standard for incisiveness and historical method, also (tragically) seem a bit outdated now. Their works were critical but empathetic toward evangelicals. The most popular histories of evangelicalism in the past decade have instead been written in an activist, anti-evangelical mode. Loathing has often replaced empathy in the study of American evangelicals, even among some Christian historians. [my emphasis]
Whether a Christian evangelical historian can today win the level of award that Marsden won is outside my ken, but I don’t know of any work of any evangelical American church historian today that approaches the work of either. Perhaps, perhaps not. Claiming one can’t win such an award is a hollow claim. His complaint is that there is a bias against evangelicals, at least in some regard. Of course, he’s got some hope because there’s evidence that evangelicals do get published by university presses. Here are Kidd’s words:
A full-blown Christian intellectual witness ideally includes maintaining a role for such Christian scholars, so long as maintaining that place does not require theological and cultural compromise. We might pray that in the post-Christian West, our culture’s ostensible commitment to the principles of classical liberalism and tolerance might keep the door open for a Christian intellectual witness in scattered nooks and crannies of dominant academic culture.
God hardly needs our academic contributions to build the Kingdom. But from Paul’s witness at Mars Hill through today, there have always been Christian voices defending gospel truths in the groves of academe. To whatever extent we can, let’s carry on that witness in our generation.”
But when I read his post and response it generated it pushed me to consider why the bias against evangelical, even conservative, academic approaches and conclusions and why the many studies exposing the underbelly of evangelicalism. I’m not so sure Kidd wants to open his eyes to see that underbelly.
What Kidd says above in italics is what concerns me for the rest of this post. I don’t think what we are seeing is loathing so much as honest historiography.
First, there’s been more than a little braggadocio by evangelicals about being the true successors to Christian orthodox faith. In fact, for some it’s the sixth sola. Add to this claim these claims:
Massive conferences showing their numbers and power
Missions work across the globe
Publishers and books and magazines in abundance.
These, and there could be others, have not always been worn lightly. And these stories – stories of triumph and success and potentials – have been told over and over in evangelical pulpits and books and apologetics. At times it has reeked of colonialism and triumphalism and exclusivism. More than “at times.”
What disturbed Kidd was recent histories of evangelicalism that unabashedly point out, not the above, but their flipside. That is, the problems in evangelicalism. I have on my shelves about twelve feet of books about (mostly) American evangelicalism, including Kidd’s moderately interesting small book. I’ve read most of those books. Don’t ask me why. Many of them are positive but it is not just the last decade that has been telling a different story. For me it began with James Barr’s double-barreled blast against fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Both written about forty years ago but we could at least return to Randy Balmer’s work or Douglas Frank’s. I remember when the latter’s book came out and how it irritated some evangelical church historians who thought we should be telling stories of success. There have been some academically rigorous studies of evangelicalism in the last decade or so that have exposed some sad realities. Kidd’s right about that. But they are nothing new when it comes to setting a fox loose in the chicken coop.
Here's what also went through my mind when I read what Kidd wrote. The historian’s task is to comb through sources, discover stuff, and to publish what has been found, and to write it all up in a narrative compelling enough to grab some readers.
The task of the historian is to tell the truth. Good histories are narratives anchored in truth-telling realities. If C.I. Scofield was a bit of a nut, tell us that. If Charles Hodge supported slavery, say so. Too many think evangelicalism is its high points and saintly characters. Evangelical hagiography is a cottage industry worth burning to the ground.
The truth of evangelicalism is not one success story after another but both beauty and ugliness. So, what went through my mind was that stories like those of John Woodbridge’s More Than Conquerors need to be stood next to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. Why? So the full story can be told.
So truth can be known.
I thought not only of the above claims of evangelicalism’s goodness and success but also of some rank exclusivism, of institutionalized racism in the USA, of inflexible sexism and masculinism, of some hankering after classism, of the sexual abuse of Southern Baptist pastors and megachurch pastors and clerics in the USA and England and South Africa, of the hideous power mongering and spiritual abuse dished out by pastors who won’t listen to Jesus saying power is “for” others not for self-aggrandizement, of Christian nationalism that no longer discerns the difference between the flag and the Bible, and of the collapse of the American evangelical prophetic voice into partisanship alignment with the Republican party.
Beauty pock-marked by some ugly. Like other major Christian bodies.
The reason for these more recent stories then is not easily assigned to some ulterior motive, though motives are never absent, but at least some of it is to be assigned to the activism of an old-fashioned sturdy term, namely, truth. The prophets of Israel were not activist anti-Israelites and neither was Jesus an activist anti-Israelite when he blew up some of the Pharisee leaders.
Telling the truth can make us all uncomfortable.
The proper response to these studies is lament, repent, and recommitment.
Warts and all, Tommy, warts and all.