Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelicalism at Temple

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What happens when you try to teach the history of evangelicalism in a Temple University GenEd class made up of mostly freshman with majors from all over the university? This month I found out.

As we came to the end of our unit on evangelicalism Friday, I asked the students how their view of evangelicalism differs from a month ago. Here are a few paraphrased responses:

I knew that it was around but I didn’t know it was such a big deal.

I had no idea it was so big and influential or had such a large effect on American politics.

I thought it was an old-timey religion and didn’t realize it was something still going on today.

I had never heard of it before.

I had never thought about how religion connects to history.

My favorite response came from another student who said she told her friend she was learning about evangelicalism and he said, “Oh yeah, they’re all assholes, right?” While she may not have a favorable opinion of evangelicals, her first instinct was to complicate her friend’s breezy assumption. She now knows there is a much longer, more diverse, and more complicated story than she had realized.

If I do something like this again, I will take more time and be more explicit in laying a theoretical foundation to explain to the students why we’re studying religion in a history class. The course is called “The Making of American Society.” They intuitively understood why we would study immigration under that heading. And civil rights? Of course. But evangelicalism? That needed some justification.

The telling comment came from the student who said she hadn’t thought about how religion connects to history. In other words, even at the end of the unit she was thinking of religion as something separate from history instead of something that occurs inside history.

At a place like Temple, it seems that students who may be right there with you when discussing complicated and fraught questions of race, gender, and politics are suddenly adrift when the conversation turns to religion. This dynamic alone shows how dramatically the country has changed and how many students live in a secular environment or one where religion is so privatized they have difficulty understanding basic features of the American past and present.

I did talk to them briefly during the unit about Robert Orsi’s work, but in the future I need to be much more direct and careful in laying a foundation for discussion and understanding. If students subconsciously think religion is outside history, then studying it can seem not only confusing but inappropriate or irrelevant.

This is only one variation on the constant challenge that is at the heart of what we do: provoking students into trying to understand people and worlds unlike their own. Even if everything goes pretty well, the result feels incomplete. But if the student’s world seems more complex than it did a month ago, that’s a partial victory to take home and try to build on next time.

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelical Popular Culture

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Stryper, 1980s. Evangelical popular culture? Not what you were expecting, huh?

In class today I talked about or showed video clips from:

A Thief in the Night

Larry Norman

Stryper

Amy Grant

DC Talk

Michael W. Smith

Left Behind

God’s Not Dead

Now, if the world imagined by the God’s not Dead film series is accurate, I guess this is the part where my godless, secular institution fires me for saying the name “Jesus” in the classroom.

I used these varied snippets of evangelical cultural production to illustrate several salient themes of late 20th century evangelical popular culture. I argued that it is:

Populist and frequently apocalyptic

We talked a good bit about an evangelical persecution complex (see Alan Noble’s Atlantic article), which seems tied to the apocalyptic trend. Through films like A Thief in the Night and books like Left Behind, evangelicals could imagine a not-too-distant future where Christians would be hunted down and killed.

My working hypothesis is that the apocalyptic theology of the fundamentalist movement only became prominent in cultural production after the upheavals of the 1960s. Notice that this was also the era when revived narratives of “Christian America” took off, with the publication of Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Apocalyptic popular culture appealed to people who felt that the country had suddenly gone to hell right before their eyes.

The populist dimension of this is obvious on the surface. Evangelical popular culture is anti-elitist and anti-intellectual. But it’s deeper than that. It has to do with what is considered authoritative. Evangelical theory says the Bible is authoritative. In practice, as Todd Brenneman has argued, emotion and feeling have pride of place in evangelical culture. Much evangelical cultural production is extraordinarily sentimental.

A driver of group identity/cohesion

Every community needs to define itself and tell its members who they are and where they belong. Evangelical popular culture does that, especially for kids.

An expression of enduring insider/outsider tension

This goes all the way back to the tensions George Marsden identified in early 20th-century fundamentalism. Are we insiders or outsiders? Alienated from the nation, or its truest defenders? In late 20th century popular culture, it means evangelicals want to influence the culture, but also assert their difference from it. So when someone like Amy Grant wins great mainstream success, does that mean she is faithfully “witnessing” to the culture, or does it mean she sold out and betrayed her Christian commitments?

Implicitly political

This one is probably pretty obvious. Evangelical popular culture is political if for no other reason than it provokes an us vs them mentality, the Christian vs the secular, the conservative vs the liberal, the insider vs the outsider.

The lecture was not as well-put together as it should have been, but I think it was still a fun one. A better crafted synthesis would bring these various features of evangelical popular culture together into a more coherent whole. But I wasn’t sure how to do that.

Two Presidents: One Godless, One Christian

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President Obama in Charleston, South Carolina, June, 2015.

Shout out to Alicia for drawing my attention this morning to the following juxtaposition. In the first video, we have President Trump speaking this week to the Values Voters Summit:

In the second video, we have President Obama delivering a eulogy after the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina:

In the first video, you see a President with no understanding of Christianity. He has no internal knowledge of faith to draw upon that might render his religious words credible. And so he speaks in the only language he knows: that of transaction and identitarian symbols. He speaks to an interest group, muttering tinny phrases remarkable only for their shimmering hollowness.

The words he uses are only those he has figured out his audience wants to hear. This base kind of cunning is perhaps his only distinguishing feature of intelligence. It’s a calculation not unlike that of a puppy which has learned how to get a treat.

Trump would find it impossible to explain why Christmas might be theologically important. But he’s damn sure going to say the word!

President Trump has not tried to hide his distaste for Christianity and what it stands for. While Christians look out on a world governed by grace and seek to be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness, Trump boasts that might is right, that power and power alone counts in life. And he promises to deploy his power on behalf of scared Christians. They love him for that.

The “Christian” Right’s affection for a Godless president is not so surprising. For among the many things and people the Christian Right has always seemed to dislike is Christianity itself. They’re too busy trying to take over the country to bother with someone as naive as Jesus.

In the second video, you see a President immersed in theological reflection, attuned to Christian idioms, inviting his audience explore the possibilities of Christian hope. President Obama’s extended meditation on grace shows a thorough understanding of orthodox Christian theology. It is moving and profound. It comes from a place of understanding. It is impossible to imagine President Trump delivering such a message.

There are reasons to be cautious about President Obama’s religious language. He often deployed it for nationalist purposes, using Scripture meant for the church and applying it to America. That’s dangerous. But if white evangelicals believed their own claims—that this is a Christian nation—they ought to have loved Obama’s rhetoric.

Why were most white evangelicals unable to appreciate the faith of President Obama? As Alicia pointed out this morning, the problem was not only that Obama often spoke in the tradition of the social gospel. The problem was that—as you see in the Charleston eulogy—his faith was black. In the white evangelical mainstream, true Christianity—that which is mature, biblically correct, normative—is implicitly white.

You might argue it’s not fair to compare speeches given in such different contexts. But that’s actually part of the point: President Trump is incapable of giving the kind of speech President Obama gave. And the reason for that is not only because President Trump is an inferior public speaker. It’s because he’s so hostile to Christianity.

White Evangelicals’ Faulty Theology of the City

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A North Philadelphia scene. The Swinging Bridge, March 10, 2000, 8.

On the side of the building next to the abandoned lot are scrawled the words, “God is good.” The white evangelical student newspaper in which this photo appeared described the scene this way: “The goodness of God attempts to infiltrate Philadelphia.”

This simple sentence is an apt characterization of how white evangelicals have often imagined the modern city. The city is the space where God isn’t. White evangelicals might bring God into the city, especially in temporary forays—“invasion” as another white evangelical student newspaper put it—but God is not indigenous to the city. And the people resident there—especially in the “inner” city—are benighted and needy.

In this theological imagination, the city is a fount of wickedness and disorder, a threat to physical safety and good morals. It must be “infiltrated” by the forces of light. And the forces of light are usually white.

Imagined in this way, the indigenous work of God and his people in the city are discounted.

It may seem that I’m making too much of a single photograph. But there is more evidence where this came from, believe me! What’s at issue here is not the good intentions of these white evangelical students, but the entrenched theological and cultural associations that hinder productive action in urban contexts.

Bad theology has political consequences. I personally know of white evangelicals who sincerely believed during the campaign that Donald Trump had productive plans to help the so-called “inner city.” They took such a dim view of the city and its people that they couldn’t see Trump’s insults for what they were. Their detachment from the work of God in the city was so complete that they believed the rhetoric of racist paternalism showed Christian concern.

I am grateful to know many evangelicals of all backgrounds who have a very different theology of the city. They give me hope.

On a more academic note, I need to read more about the history of the city in the evangelical imagination. This is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge. Are the roots of these negative associations to be found in 19th century industrialization and mass immigration? Or even farther back? I see the pervasive negative connotations in the sources from my time frame (1960s-1990s) but the backstory is not clear to me. This is especially confusing because the early twentieth century fundamentalist movement seems to have thrived in urban centers. What’s the story here?

Don’t Disrespect the Golden Calf

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Mike Pence, self-professed evangelical Christian, worships his god. October 8, 2017

As ridiculous as this controversy is, it is exposing many evangelicals’ truest commitments.

Nation over people.

Country over God.

Patriotism over justice.

Politics over principle.

Fear over hope.

Many white evangelicals willfully refuse to engage with the intent of the kneeling players. The players insist that they are protesting racial injustice. White evangelicals insist they can unilaterally redefine the meaning of these protests. It’s about disrespecting the flag. When they make this reinterpretation, they expose themselves. The symbols of their beloved nation are more important to them than the very lives of black people.

Why is evangelicalism shrinking? Causality is always plural, but perhaps it has something to do with the in-your-face idol worship of the white evangelical mainstream. The truly sad thing is that this idolatry hurts other people and entraps its devotees. I’m praying that more white evangelicals will be willing to lay down their fears and consider the liberating possibilities of following Jesus wherever he might take them. I don’t fully know what that means in my own life, but I am certain it doesn’t take us to the dead end of Christian nationalism.

It’s Too Bad Billy Sunday Isn’t Around To Campaign for Roy Moore

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While doing lecture prep today it occurred to me that Roy Moore and Billy Sunday might have gotten along really well. Moore has cultivated an image as a fighter, as God’s man standing against the forces of liberalism and secularism. He believes America is a Christian nation. On Tuesday Moore defeated incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange in the Republican primary. The Senate is probably about to have its first contemporary full-fledged Christian nationalist. But Moore’s brand of reactionary politics and populist appeal under the banner of Christian nationalism is not at all new.

Billy Sunday, a popular fundamentalist preacher in the early twentieth century, leveraged his former career as a professional baseball player to garner crowds with the overt physicality of his preaching. His message, like Moore’s, was nationalistic and reactionary. As Frances Fitzgerald relates in her recent book, The Evangelicals, when the 100% Americanism craze swept across the country during the Great War Billy Sunday was happy to ride that wave. “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms,” he declared. During the Red Scare he supported the Palmer Raids and urged on the racist immigration restriction laws.

In his book, American Apocalypse, Mathew Avery Sutton describes Sunday concluding one of his revival meetings by leaping onto the pulpit and waving an American flag. On another occasion, Sunday declared, “No man can be true to his God without being true to his country.”

Sunday was a premillenialist who believed the world was going to hell in a handbasket. But that didn’t stop him from conflating faith and nation in the meantime. With a little poking around on Google I haven’t confirmed that Moore is a premillenialist, but I’d be a bit surprised if he isn’t.

Billy Sunday died in 1935 but he remained something of a legendary figure in some circles. His influence is suggested in this photo of a very young Billy Graham:

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There is Still Hope for Evangelicalism

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My imagined self in my study: the Christian scholar at work.

John Fea has been reporting on his experiences at last week’s “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference. The gathering took as its theme a revisiting of Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is that there is no such thing as an evangelical mind). In a post yesterday titled “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars,” Fea reports that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith really brought the heat in the final plenary session:

Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.

This really resonates with me, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. It often seems that the space has all but closed for evangelical scholars to do work that is both appealing to ordinary evangelicals and committed to intellectual integrity. We want to serve a constituency that doesn’t want to be served. We want to serve God with our minds, and many of our co-religionists find the very idea absurd.

This is also an intellectual problem for my dissertation because part of what I’m exploring is evangelical colleges. At the outset of my work, I just assumed that they mattered, that they have real influence in evangelicalism. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of claims of broad influence. It seems that most evangelical colleges are either largely impotent in their attempts to reach the evangelical mainstream and they’re actually training students for roles outside evangelicalism, or they are not actually fostering the intellectual and social environment they imagine themselves to be creating. Maybe it’s a little of both.

There is still hope for evangelicalism. The movement that has transformed into an anti-intellectual crusade of hatred and fear is—broadly speaking—the movement that contributed to America’s religious disestablishment in the 18th century and paved the way to abolition in the 19th century. And beyond its often positive social and political effects, evangelicalism has always captured something essential about the Christian life. It has scorned respectable religion and insisted that an encounter with Jesus radiates outward through the whole life, engaging the heart, the mind, and every dimension of our being.

We are witnessing the splintering and shrinking of evangelicalism, but what is being lost is dead weight, worse than useless for the Kingdom of God. And as any good evangelical should know, nothing is reborn until it dies.

A Tale of Two Wikipedia Entries

While doing some lecture prep tonight, I stumbled across some information about the nineteenth century white supremacist southern evangelist Sam Jones. I did a google search naively expecting to get more details, and instead I turned up half a dozen hagiographical stories about this awful man. Here’s the introduction to the wikipedia entry before I edited it:

jones 1

And here it is after my edit:

jones 2

Seems like an important detail to mention, no? I’ve never really edited Wikipedia before. Hopefully this new information sticks.

By the way, can we talk about what it means that contemporary white evangelicals apparently think it’s ok to honor the memory of this man?

Song of the Day

In his new album out this week, Christian rapper Lecrae says a definitive goodbye to all the colorblind Christians who wanted him to be their puppet:

There is so much to be said about this song, but for now, I think I may have found a header lyric for my entire book:

Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me
I said, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me.

What do you think that means?

And I have some colleagues who will appreciate this:

You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits.

The Racist History of My Alma Mater

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Jet Magazine, March 19, 1970, 30.

Founders Week has always been the most important date on Moody Bible Institute’s calendar. It’s a celebration of the institution and its history and a time for alumni reunions. Normal classes are canceled and big-name guest speakers from the fundamentalist-evangelical world speak to large crowds at Moody Church. If you wanted to protest something, doing it during Founders Week would have maximum symbolic value.

During Founders Week 1970, black graduates Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins staged a protest on the doorstep of the campus. Jenkins held a sign reading, “Woe unto you, hypocrites — Luke 11:44.” As any good MBI student knew, this was a reference to Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees.

With a small crowd gathered on LaSalle street, the graduates tore up their Moody diplomas and tossed them in the trashcan. Warren said the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute.

Warren had specific allegations. He claimed that MBI segregated its dorms, prohibited interracial dating, and refused to let the neighborhood kids use the school’s gym facilities. National media picked up the story and added to the charges. Years earlier black members of Moody’s traveling choral groups had not been allowed to come when the group toured the South.

The administration responded with what it thought was exculpatory information. The local black kids couldn’t use the gym because of insurance issues, they explained. And yes, MBI used to code students’ profiles by race to make sure that students of different races weren’t assigned to the same dorm room, but they had stopped doing that over two years ago. And yes, MBI used to prohibit interracial dating but had dropped the ban four years ago (that apparently wasn’t true; the actual change seemed to have occurred in 1968). And it was true that black choral members had once been “asked” to stay behind because of the tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.

In other words, all the charges Melvin Warren made against the Institute were accurate. He described policies in place while he was a student there (he had graduate in 1969). Rather than indicating repentance for past wrongs or even rhetorical commitment to reform, the administration was defensive and self-righteous. The President released a statement acting as though Moody had always been a welcoming place for students of color.

The institute didn’t seem to realize that it had played footsie with heretical churches and had worked very hard to accommodate the greatest social evil of the age. The abject refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was particularly striking from an institution professing to be based on the Word of God. Apparently repentance wasn’t so important to the biblical story after all.

The student body response was equally clueless. In an editorial calling for self-examination “to lay the foundation for a positive relationship of Christian fellowship and love,” the student newspaper reflected the ignorance of white students:

MBI has been accused of racism, and some here probably feel that those accusing the school are guilty of the same. By implication, the protestors condemned the whites at MBI for not loving their black Christian brothers and not treating them as equals. The natural rebuttal would be that those who demonstrated were not exhibiting love or feelings of equality either.

The people protesting racism are the real racists.

When I was a student at Moody this sordid past was not openly acknowledged. It was whispered in the dorm rooms. The story of the diploma-ripping seemed to me to rest in a space between truth and fiction; I wasn’t sure what was myth and reality, or what it meant. To be honest, I was too ignorant and racist to care. I guess I fit right in.

There’s nothing unusual about institutional self-protection. My current institution, Temple University, definitely doesn’t want you to know about the racism of its founder. But it’s far worse for a Christian institution to hide its past because doing so represents an institutional denial of the gospel. Christians do not glory in our perfect record; we boast in the power of Jesus to rescue and renew and remake the undeserving.

Past doesn’t have to be prologue. But if you don’t reckon with it, the past will haunt your present.