Put a Fork in It

Bill Evans head shot

Well, let’s put a fork in it . . . it’s done! Evangelicalism, that is. The social pressures of the current situation have revealed a truth many have suspected for quite a while. The simple truth, with apologies in advance for using Gertrude Stein’s overworked phrase, is that “there is no there there.” At least not anymore.

Two weeks ago on Facebook I commented, “One of the results of the recent waves of violence is that the gap between progressive/woke white people who view absolutely everything through the lens of (perfectly abstract) critical race theory and other white people (who recognize the cultural complexity and ambiguity of social relationships) is now unbridgeable. The implications of this split for the evangelical church are not good at all.” Unfortunately, I was right.

I’ve watched the representatives of “Big Eva” (i.e., the evangelical institutional establishment) falling over themselves to endorse the now conventional systemic-racism/white-privilege/white-guilt/white-fragility narrative. Christianity Today has called for white churches to pay reparation to blacks (and let’s not forget the former editor of that magazine, Mark Galli, excoriating evangelical Trump voters as something less than Christian). I’ve read posts by evangelical scholars calling for reparation and endorsing the erasing of history on university campuses by renaming buildings named for nineteenth-century southern white figures.  Apparently, much of the evangelical elite is now embracing Kulturprotestantismus with great enthusiasm.

Parenthetically, I find all this both amusing and sad. It’s been said that wokeness is the single best indicator of white privilege, and close examination suggests that the recent flurries of virtue signaling probably have more to do with not-so-subtle class warfare against “deplorable” WPWDPLs (“white people we don’t particularly like”) and efforts to join with the secular elites than a genuine desire to help black people (for an insightful and rhetorically powerful treatment of the class issues in play right now, see this piece by Victor Davis Hanson).

Then there’s the awkward biblicism in service to whatever the current cultural fad is.  As David Bebbington famously observed, evangelicals are “biblicists”–they love the Bible.  But evangelical use of the Bible is often pretty wooden.  I’ve studied this stuff for years and for the life of me I can’t find a biblical case for what passes for “antiracism” in the current, trendy, cultural-Marxist sense of the term. The biblical writers were certainly aware of racial differences (on balance, “ethnic differences” is probably a more precise term here; see Rodney Sadler, Can a Cushite Change His Skin?: An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible [2009]). For the OT writers, not only could the Cushite not change his dark skin, but no “Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:3). And the fact that Ruth the Moabite made it in the back door doesn’t change the text of Deuteronomy!  By cultural-Marxist standards the Bible doesn’t come off too well.

And with regard to slavery, I’ve finally (and reluctantly) come to the conclusion that Harvard Professor Jon Levenson was correct when he wrote that “neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament is opposed to slavery” (Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil [1994], 142). Furthermore, to the extent that the current structural-racism/white-guilt/white-privilege narrative depends on conceptions of corporate, multi-generational moral responsibility and complicity, it probably runs afoul of Ezekiel’s individualism. Recall that the exilic Jews realized that earlier notions of corporate guilt were no longer particularly helpful and so Ezekiel repudiates them with a vigor that caused some rabbis to think he was overturning the teaching of the Pentateuch (see Ezekiel 18:1-20; see also Jeremiah 31:29-30; cf. Exodus 20:5).

In short, the biblical ethical/legal materials, particularly in the OT, are highly contextual and dynamic, and a coherent proof-text argument for wokeness in my judgment can’t be made. Of course, that’s not to say that there is not a Christian case to be made against racism, slavery, and the profoundly invidious hierarchies that are sometimes manifested in human societies. But such arguments must, in my judgment, be made Christologically rather than on the basis of wooden proof texts. The outlines of such an argument were, in fact, suggested by the great Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America: “All the great writers of antiquity were a part of the aristocracy of masters, or at least they saw that aristocracy as established without dispute before their eyes; their minds, after expanding in several directions, were therefore found limited in that one, and it was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America [Mansfield trans.], 413).

But things are not much better on the other side of the argument. While sensing that things are going off the rails and fast, many more conservative evangelicals have difficulty articulating a coherent case to the contrary. Some try to counter the racialism (really a form of “soft racism”) of the Left only to fall off the other side of the horse into racism themselves. It’s also telling that those who want to make substantive arguments against the progressive liberal race narrative must almost of necessity draw on the work of seminal African-American scholars such as Tom Sowell, Shelby Steele, and John McWorter, or on secular white thinkers such as Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson.

The sad fact is that evangelicalism, with its historic and reflexively individualistic focus on saving souls, simply doesn’t have much of anything distinctive to offer in response to the pressing social questions of the day, and to the race question in particular.  And seventy or so years of evangelical preoccupation with “Christian worldview” apparently hasn’t gotten us very far either.

For decades now evangelicalism has been suffering from a howling identity crisis, and my sense is that soon the anathemas will start to fly and the movement will further disintegrate. What will happen is that both sides will increasingly view their position on the race issue as a matter of status confessionis (a technical theological term meaning “state of confession,” in which a truth not directly addressed by formal confessions is effectively elevated to confessional status because of its saliency in a particular historical context). On the evangelical left, in the patois of pietism (to which evangelicals seemingly are addicted) the wokeness/identity-politics package is now being increasingly touted as a “gospel issue.” On the evangelical right, there is an increasing suspicion that the structural-racism/white-privilege/white-guilt narrative is not only unhelpful but also corrosive of a genuinely Christian ecclesiology and Christology, and that what is really going on is a redefinition of the church along lines suggested by liberation-theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez—the church as the oppressed and those in solidarity with them. In other words, a head-on collision is coming.

So, let’s put a fork in it.  It’s done. I frankly don’t see how a religious movement with such scant theological resources and depth can survive.