For a long time, let’s just say for more than a century, some church historians told a story: Jerusalem to Antioch to Ephesus to Rome, and then from Rome to Wittenberg and Geneva and then to London and then to colonies and the Awakenings and revivals, and then on to Princeton and, for the more evangelical types, onto Grand Rapids and Wheaton and Nashville and Colorado Springs. It was the story of Great Men and Big Events that mattered, let’s be honest, to those who were writing the story. Who were not independent agents so much as agents of a location in history that had power, nearly all of it white power. This doesn’t make it all wrong. No, it makes it unbearably narrow and biased.
I’m jumping lanes outside of my discipline so I may need to be corrected about some of this. But this is what I think. I welcome your comments. There are huge gaps in my reading. Forgive them. This sketch concerns the recent inability of some to welcome constructive criticisms of how church and evangelical history is told.
This “standard” history of church history for many in my world were telling, not the history of the church and not the history of the global church, but the history of USA evangelicalism – red, white and blue. In this newsletter I will keep my eye mostly on the American church, but I do so with a constant smirk that there is a much much much bigger church history story that is not about the USA. Gary Dorrien has done so much good work on the history of American liberal Christianity.
When Al Mohler recently claimed that American evangelicalism is the heir of the Reformation – wow, what a claim – he’s telling a very narrow story. One that at best is a smidgeon of the truth. What about Germany’s and Scandinavia’s Lutherans or the Netherland or South African Reformed and the Irish Presbyterians and the South Koreans Presbyterians and South and Central America’s charismatics and Pentecostals? Are these not heirs? Some are, some are not. It’s beyond narrow to think America’s, especially conservative, evangelicals are the heir. Canada is part of that history, too. I’ll drop the need to widen the story for a moment, but more will be added below.
The history of this story has been written by authors like Mark Noll and David Bebbington. Their books are both numerous and very influential.
This history, which is only a part of church history, has classically avoided the Arminian and holiness wings of the church, the Restoration movement, and the Anabaptist/Neo-Anabaptist wing. Scholars like Donald Dayton have told the holiness/charismatic story well but have often been intentionally ignored. John Stackhouse added a new element (non-denominational) to the mix, and some have ignored his accurate reminder. Many today pull us to consider the Orthodox church in all its varieties.
But more than other theological wings to the church have been ignored, and here I point only to the American experience. The story of the church for most all but ignores the African American church (the Black church) and the Latin American church (the Brown church), and one can read about this in Raphael Warnock and Robert Chao Romero. To include the excluded others in church history many today turn to Justo Gonzalez’s wonderful books about church history and the history of theology. And what about the Asian American church? One can read Sharon Kim’s study.
Now add that women were ignored, and recent studies in church history have put women right where they belong: in the middle of the mix. They were not deemed the “Great Men” of the past and often did not have the power to create the Big Events, but they were there. One scholarly study after another has pointed to women in the church, and I think of Lynn Cohick and Amy Hughes to name but one study (more below). The literature from feminists and womanists about American church history, and the wider church history, is immense. Much of it presents seering criticisms and deserves a careful hearing.
And slaves, too. They were a vibrant part of (mostly ignored) American church history but one study after another has opened the door on the vicious treatments of “New” world slaves as well as on their powerful spiritual visions. Read Lisa Bowens and Emerson Powery.
The studies of women in the last two years have upset the apple cart in a new way. It’s because they are women but because what they have written about is, frankly, not entirely new. Yes, very fresh and engaging prose and very well documented stories, mostly of stuff many of the irritated grew up with. So Kristin Kobes Du Mez showed the inextricable connection evangelicalism has with masculinism and militarism, and Beth Allison Barr broke down a few doors and tossed a few bricks through some windows on what’s really going on with complementarianism. What they did was to show that those ideological strains of evangelicalism were just what George Marsden showed: tied to culture and not just Bible and theology. The very precious doctrines of complementarians and evidently fragile egos of some of their most vocal proponents have had enough and now say these authors don’t love the church.
A big hooey on that! If I knew how to make a poop emoji right there I would.
Was it because they were women?
Here’s why I say so: if you have read books about evangelicalism over the last forty years, and I have read more than my share as a NT prof (and not a church historian), you will know that scholars who love the church and even have much affection for evangelicalism have been calling it to repent of its corruptions and theological goofinesses and its entanglement with American culture, power and politics. Here are the names, and if you don’t know them, look some of their books up:
That was the first wave of critical histories, most of whom loved the church and wanted a better version of evangelicalism. They wrote well and they told truths that needed to be heard.
We are seeing now a second wave of critics, and they are just as gifted as scholars and writers and critics, some of it I would call prophetic. Here are some of the names, and forgive me if I do not mention your book!
Randall Balmer, whose Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory was a necessary exposé.
James Davison Hunter called it a culture war and showed evangelicalism as not all that much morally different than anyone else in America.
Molly Worthen, who said there’s more than the narrow reformed branch to this evangelical movement.
Robert Wuthnow, who had the capacity to connect sociology and American history to American church and evangelical history.
Christian Smith tied American evangelical history to sociological stats in one study after another, showing – this can’t be ignored if you want to tell the truth – the social realities of evangelicalism.
Timothy Gloege connected American evangelicalism to the market and consumerism.
David Swartz showed that there was a moral minority whose moral convictions were the heart of biblical moral visions for society.
Brent Gasaway wrote about progressive evangelicalism as well.
Aaron Griffith connected Billy Graham, American republicanism and prison ministries in ways that, well, don’t always look good.
Now add Du Mez and Beth Barr and the penny drops for some of those who think they are the gatekeepers for evangelicalism. The question is Whose evangelicalism? But there were predecessors, like R. Marie Griffith’s God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission, the now 3d edition of Discovering Biblical Equality, Catherine A. Brekus, and Priscilla Pope Levison. Why such vitriol for Du Mez and Barr? Have they finally struck the nerve the others were aiming at? It was a sensitive nerve called male identity expressed in masculinism and complementarianism.
Now add Jemar Tisby and a nickel drops, and what do we hear from the gatekeepers? Some have the chutzpah to dismiss everything under the Critical Race Theory banner but that trick has been tried before. Tisby and many others, like Angela Parker and Anthea Butler, have pulled back the curtain to reveal the Great White Oz behind the curtain, and he is wearing white undies, white socks, white pants, a white shirt, a white coat, a white hat and he’s walking on black shoes.
Now add Robert Chao Romero, who writes an eloquent, sad, tragic history of the relationship of the church to Mexican Americans in the West. The theologies of liberation were at work among them in the 16th Century, social justice was always their concern. But they were powerless and their story is mostly unknown. Behind the curtain it’s all the same but now the man is walking on brown shoes.
Now add Asian Americans and I have been paying attention of late to Raymond Chang at Wheaton who will not let the story die that Asian American evangelicals are too often ignored, and their voice has been suppressed, and their churches are thriving and growing and … the white man is walking on them too.
Now add First Nation and indigenous persons in the USA, who have been erased not only from American history but also especially from the church. I think of Richard Twiss, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Mark Charles with Soong Chan Rah, and the new First Nations Version of the New Testament.
I close now with an invitation.
Add the megachurch and Southern Baptist and nondenominational pastor failures and we’ve got a lesson. In most of those cases the churches and pastors huddled together, spun a story, protected the church, blockaded themselves behind power, and pounced on their critics. For what? For not loving the church, for criticizing their previous evangelicalism and church, for laying their hands on the anointed, and for, well, exposing the rot and saying the emperor has no clothes.
Instead of these evangelical church historians admitting the truth about the sins – little and large – of evangelicalism, they have resorted to spin. They want to suppress the voices above. They make false allegations about these authors. I know many of them. Nothing to worry here about their faith or their love for the church. Whistleblowers, you know, get stiffed.
The irony is obvious but I’ll say it: Those who are calling people to confess their sins and trust in God’s gracious forgiveness, the essence of the evangelical gospel, are the very ones who are afraid to confess the sins of their precious historiography and movement.
Any claim that evangelicalism is without sin mocks what sin is.
Evangelicalism needs to get saved.
Come. Just as you are. The Lamb of God is waiting for you to come to him. Please come.