2017-07-12
You've probably seen the new ads for the Nissan Xterra. The SUV tear-asses down a wilderness road, accompanied by a scratchy Fender Stratocaster with lots of wah-wah pedal, and a familiar voice singing, "I'm standing next to a mountain. Gonna cut it down with the side of my hand."

For this baby boomer, it's jarring, and a little unsettling, to see Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child, Part II" being used to sell a truck. Wasn't rock and roll--at least the good stuff--supposed to be about maintaining a critical distance from corruptive influences such as the marketplace?

Then again, rock music is hardly the only cultural institution that has achieved a rapprochement with--or, more bluntly, been co-opted by--institutions and forces it should have kept at arm's length. American evangelicalism (specifically, the white suburban variety) is even more captive in this regard than is the music of Hendrix. In fact, after reading Rodney Clapp's new book, "Border Crossings," it's hard to escape the conclusion that the principal problem with American evangelicalism is that it's so, well, American.

In many respects, the book is a follow-up to Clapp's 1996 book, "A Peculiar People," in which Clapp made the case that Christians--specifically, American evangelicals--ought to see themselves as a culture that functions independently of the mainstream. Instead of trying to serve as a "sponsoring chaplain" to American culture in the hope that people will love them, or to regain power and influence through politics, Christians should work at being an alternative to the "technologically-oriented" and "consumer-based" mainstream culture.

"Border Crossings" describes what's necessary for American evangelicals to be the kind of people Clapp described in his earlier work. Pulling this off requires that evangelicals first disavow what Clapp labels "foundationalism." According to Clapp, evangelicals believe that Christian truths are "available to rationally able, well-intended individuals quite apart from any particular tradition or social context." It may be hard to believe in our post-"Inherit the Wind" world, but evangelical faith is indeed dominated by a kind of rationalism, which says that the content of evangelical faith is expressed in propositions supposedly accessible to any "well-intended individual." The Bible is a sort of instruction manual, albeit one sometimes more difficult to interpret than what comes with Ikea furniture.

Instead of rationality, Clapp insists on the importance of context, of showing Christianity, not telling it. This places Clapp on a collision course with the closest thing evangelicals have to what Catholics call a "doctor of the church." Clapp takes issue with C.S. Lewis' insistence that both sides in a moral debate proceed as if they "had in mind some kind of rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality." In Lewis' England of the 1940s and '50s, this might have made sense, Clapp retorts. "But today our society is sufficiently pluralistic and candid that it is exactly different standards that seem to be at work."

As the musical group Tag Team put it, "Whoop! There it is." Clapp is saying that almost everything American evangelicals know about relating to their non-evangelical contemporaries is wrong, or at least outdated. Other Americans share neither their spiritual aspirations nor their moral reasoning. Sticking to the "foundationalist" script is not only unproductive, it's counterproductive. Why? Because in addition to assuming something about your interlocutor that isn't true, it "inclines us towards believing that those who disagree are necessarily benighted or ill-intentioned."

If these assumptions should be discarded, what should take their place? How should Christians commend "the faith once delivered to the saints" to their contemporaries? Clapp argues that American churches should become real communities "that [teach] people the language and culture that enables them to know Jesus as Lord...it is the church in the fullness of its life--not primarily its arguments--that draws others to consider the Christian faith. Instead of trying to persuade people, Christians should work at creating a viable alternative to the mainstream.

To achieve this alternative, Christians should shed the individualism that characterizes both modernity and American evangelicalism. In it's place would be a corporate identity, a community whose life would be shaped by the rehearsing of "The Great Story" of God's gracious saving of His people, as Lewis once put it. Creating this alternative requires a greater appreciation for the liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist in which Christians remember Christ's death, resurrection, and coming again in glory.

Anyone who has spent any time around American evangelicalism can guess how foreign this vision is to most evangelicals. Evangelical faith places huge emphasis on the individual and the idea of a personal relationship with God. And the less said about liturgy, the better. The countercultural Christianity Clapp is advocating would require nothing less than a reinvention of the species Evangelicus Americanus.

The reinvention would also reshape American evangelicalism's approach to politics. As Clapp points out in the essay entitled "Calling the Religious Right to Its Better Self," the Christian right can be fairly understood as "the latest manifestation of the evangelical refusal to accept the passing of American Constantinianism--which basically mean's evangelicalism's own hegemony over the culture." With no real sense of what it means to be the church--what Christians call an ecclesiology--evangelicals depend on being American--and Americans being Christian--as their sole source of a corporate identity. Little wonder so much of the "religious right's" rhetoric is characterized by fear and sense of crisis. There's no plan "B."

Recovering the sense of being the church and seeing ourselves as a peculiar people would change this tone. While Christians would continue to speak on issues such as abortion, sexual ethics, and hopefully add others such as poverty at home and debt relief in the world, the goal wouldn't be to "roll back the culture" or otherwise reclaim some lost hegemony. Instead, Christians would bear witness to what it means to worship the "author of life." Would people respond differently? Probably not. But that wouldn't be the goal.

While Clapp's views put him in a minority among American evangelicals, he's hardly alone. Within the past year, books such as "Blinded by Might" by Ed Dobson (no, not that Dobson!) and columnist Cal Thomas have expressed similar misgivings about the form and goals of evangelicalism's engagement with the culture. For their trouble, they've been caricatured as "defeatists" and "quietists"--content to pray in church while the culture goes up in flames.

The stridency of the criticism suggests that the critics may be afraid there's an audience receptive to the idea that the current strategy not only isn't working but seems to be backfiring. If there is an alternative, one that stands a chance of being read by non-academics, Rodney Clapp is probably going to be one of its principal expositors. He understands the challenge, and what's more he has described the alternative evangelicals need to embrace. If they don't, it won't be because no one told them. They'll only have their own cultural captivity to blame.


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