Any proceeding notes, thoughts, and/or brief commentary concern chapter one of a must-read book titled Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class in a Consumer Church, by Paul Louis Metzger.
Chapter one is a quick history lesson in Western evangelicalism and evangelical-fundamentalism, ala George Marsden (Marsden’s work is cited regularly). It a very good read. It is a great starting point for those who are interested in the historical development of this thing we loosely call Evangelicalism. I’m still amazed at the ignorance many claim regarding this period of Christian and Church development and history in America. Everyone, it seems, knows what contemporary Evangelicalism is, by name, but few really understand how it has developed and evolved over time. Metzger outlines and articulates this history in an effort to highlight the origin and source of our [Christians] contemporary penchant for an upwardly-mobile, middle-class, gospel and the homogeneous idea of church created by our embrace of it.
A quick and very rough annotated time-line of the development of Evangelicalism in America would look something like this:
1. Early 19th Century “Evangelicalism” shaped by prominent American theologian Jonathan Edwards.
2. Mid 19th - Early 20th Century the movement lost much of its influence on American cultural life. This loss of prominence was due to the effects of Modernism, Science, Scopes Monkey Trial, and the rise of the Social Gospel. A once prominent expression of faith, begins to become less and less relevant in the cultural-life of America.
3. The Mid 19th - Early 20th Century loss of cultural influence of the Evangelical movement resulted in the birth of evangelical-fundamentalism. When religious movements begin to slow or die, the first thing that normally happens is a desperate and zealous return by members to the movement’s earliest and most identifiable expressions. This results in fundamentalism and a fundamentalist expression of the Gospel (i.e., anti-intellectualism, antipathy toward social activism, a growing emphasis placed upon a cataclysmic eschatological event, disproportionate priority upon belief over praxis, etc). This self-preserving shift by evangelicals also resulted in hypermoralism. Hypermoralism can be best articulated by the “religious” acts the term points towards; not using public transportation on Sunday, not visiting the theater, not drinking, using tobacco, etc., are all hypermoralistic acts.
4. Metzger quickly introduces readers to the 1970’s and an expressed and growing need for fundamentalist-evangelicals to participate in social activism of some sort. The social activism perpetuated by fundamentalist-evangelicals in the 1970’s was completely shaped by the fundamentalist reaction to the failing prominence of evangelicalism in the middle 19th and early 20th Centuries. The original goal of Evangelicalism was to change the world; by the 1970’s this message was changed to “resist the world.” The 1970’s, as a result the failing prominence and cultural-relevancy of the movement, resulted in fundamentalist-driven goals to transform society through moralistic-bound conversion and legal legislation. This emphasis gave birth to the “The Religious Right,” “The Moral Majority,” and “The Christian Coalition.”
This brings us up to date; fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective. When the word “Evangelical” is sounded, the first images the majority of people envision have to do with some aspect of “The Religious Right, Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Falwell, Robertson and/or Dobson.” For some that’s a good thing; for others, it’s a nightmare of monumental proportions. There is a new shift happening, as I write. I pray it becomes so much more than the little shift that it is at the moment. Big waves claim origins in the little shifts. So, pray.
To properly reform Evangelicalism, those who would reform it will have to look deeply at the consequences of the trajectory Evangelicalism has tracked during the course of it’s development and history. Metzger’s first chapter overview of this development and history is purposeful; it points us towards the source our popular and contemporary penchant for a consumeristic faith and ramifications as concerns reconciliation and race. A critical look at the foundation of popular ecclesiology reveals more than a few deep, theological questions: Is what we are celebrating Gospel, or is it some hybrid-thing born from the evangelical-fundamentalist reaction to failing Evangelical prominence in the 19th and 20th Centuries? Is it Gospel, or is it something left-over from the 70’s quest to achieve political and social power through politics and legal legislation? Is it Gospel, or is it hypermoralism? Is it Gospel, or is it only reflections of motivating dreams and desires produced by specific geographical locations where a culmination of such things (i.e., desire for prominence + quest for political and legal power + hypermoralism + upwardly mobile middle class) can actually be experienced … and perhaps even work in reality? These are all questions we should be asking.
This is only chapter one of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class in a Consumer Church. There is so much more to think about and ponder over. This is a great book to pray through, with more than a little sense of deep humility.
The following are the most poignant quotes/excerpts from chapter one:
“Both Left and Right have missed out on identifying the church as a distinctive polis or theo-political community that engages culture in view of the cross. For both of them, hope lies in legislation” (13-14).
“The fight against abortion and gay marriage and the struggle for lower taxes dominate the moral platform of the Religious Right, while it gives scant attention to issues such as universal health care, concern for the environment, and the rights of minorities. Finally, the soul-saving emphasis, when coupled with the rapture and retreat mindset, has quiet easily fed into the individualism and a consumer-oriented, homogeneous-unit-principled, safe-haven church where a family-friendly faith protects Christ’s followers from those who think, look, and even sound different than they do.” (27).
Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.