Dr. Rick Davis is Pastor of Brock Baptist Church, Brock Texas. He is also my mentor and friend. He agreed to review David Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism for theooze.com Viralblogger project. Due to the length of the review, I am posting the piece here and linking to this review at theooze.com. You may comment here. But, you could contribute to a wider conversation at theooze.com where the book will be reviewed by an “esteemed” group of selected bloggers.
A Review and Critical Commentary by Rick Davis
If we accept Wallace Roark’s tenet that “to be a good thinker, one must first be a good person,” we can start a critical review of Fitch’s End of Evangeliicalism with the assertion that Fitch is a good thinker because he is a transparently good person. He remembers his childhood church with mature clarity, able to relive the oxymoronic occurrences of American Folk Religion with humorous skepticism, absent the galling cynicism evangelical Christians have come to dread.
That Fitch is able to recall and rehearse what he clearly believes to be error in his ecclesiastical upbringing without rancor is particularly interesting since his philosophical interlocutor is one who looks at American theo-political issues through a European lens. With the natural bias of an Eastern European intellectual, Slavoj Ziznek might innocently miss the American political tendency to run for office toward one’s base, either right or left, and then to govern from the center when in office. The natural tendency of any outside observer would be to assume Americans simply do not believe what we profess politically. This is a fundamental error made by European intellectuals when once they gaze on America’s messy political scene.
Of course, as Fitch would point out, astutely, Zizek did not set out his philosophical system to be particularized to American electoral politics. Mr. Fitch keenly reads Zizek and overlays the Slovik’s peculiar tao to the American system. Then, Mr. Fitch assumes the decline in American Evangelicalism can be shown to be in decline because of its waning influence in electoral politics, as seen in the election of President Obama in 2008.
Left unvisited is the animating energy behind the Obama victory. Party fatigue after eight years of President Bush, the failure of the GOP to find a suitable replacement, a failing economy: all helped doom the GOP in 2008. Nor does Mr. Fitch mention the staggering correction in the 2010 congressional mid-terms when the Republican base reenergized itself to take the House of Representatives, various state houses, various governorships and reduce the Democratic majority in the Senate. If 2008 means the Evangelical Right was impotent, some kind of enhancement occurred two short years later.
A political novice or an Eastern European might miss these considerations. Eastern Europeans are new to democratic politics in general and to voting in particular. When the Old European Order imploded some years ago, one hoped the new European governments could be like Germany or perhaps England. One would have been hard pressed to find any major geo-political figure praying for, say, Yugoslavian hegemony.
One Cold War Era error made by successive generations of American politicians (Republican and Democrat) was to look at European/Asian Socialism as an ominous, monolithic bloc. The Modern European dilemma in looking at American politics (theological or otherwise) is similar. The Europeans see Americans as if we function or falter together instead of seeing our scattered reality. Fitch dooms himself to portray American Evangelical reality as broadly immature when he takes the entertaining Zizek at his philosophical word.
Of course, it should be noted Mr. Fitch does not mean to conjoin Mr. Zizek’s philosophy solely to one recent American political impasse, hastily corrected in the electoral cycle. He does intend to show Evangelical churches are losing their grip on the American imagination, as seen in various political and media portrayals. Mr. Fitch uses some political representations interchangeably, however, as, for instance, when he refers to the Serbian Socialist government as “fascist” when he almost certainly means” totalitarian,” (p. 33).
One cannot argue with Mr. Fitch’s argument for the decline in American Evangelical social influence. Nor can anyone presume to argue with his premise Evangelicals are largely to blame for this decline.
Of course, we also recognize the mounting narcissism of younger Americans. The entitlement jouissance of the latest generations means they need not believe in Something or Someone to which they should be converted, for they see no real need of conversion. The bitter-sweet salvation of Evangelicalism does not play well among the entitled. In fact, it never did.
At that, Fitch’s work is perceptive and well stated, more surprising when one considers its brevity. This is a serious book penned by a serious writer, albeit one with a whimsical sense of irony. Mr. Fitch labors with his wording. His constant use of passive voice means he probably writes the way he thinks but, surely, not as he speaks. Mr. Fitch falls into literary love with a word from chapter to chapter, a device that makes his work seem more redundant. He loses force at times with the passive voice but never seems to lose his inner moral purpose.
Fitch arranges his adjectives in neat, repetitive squads of four, then three. Hence, Evangelicals are “arrogant, judgmental, duplicitous and dispassionate.” Zizek himself is “obscure, profound, entertaining and bizarre.” Fitch’s kitschy use of Latin fragments like missio dei is common among Emergents and other young Christians who long for some link with historical Christianity, so long as it is on the far side of Evangelicalism.
In fact, Thinking Emergents (there are other kinds) seem positively offended by Traditional Evangelicalism. The Ideal Objects of Evangelicalism in Mr. Fitch’s book are the Bumbling President, the Sexual Hypocrite and the Overweight (Southern Baptist) Preacher. If Mr. Fitch needs these Overblown Identifiers (my term) to explain the decline of Evangelicalism, one gently concludes it is because he identifies with Mr. Zizek’s system so deeply. This may happen because it gives some material system (naturally material, since Zizek is one of the last living Hegelian’s wandering free in the wild) to explain the precipitous decline of Christian influence in American culture.
Mr. Fitch might have used a system that arranges Nihilism and Fanaticism on opposite ends of a spectral line, with the feared Liberalism displayed to the right of Nihilism and the fearful Fundamentalism to the Left of Fanaticism. In this operation, he might forego the usual mishaps resident in any discussion wherein the protagonist is actually a theoretical social theory laid over against the antagonist, a spiritual system.
Mr. Fitch is right when he concludes it is difficult to live spiritually in a material world with competing social systems. He is right when he offers his opinion that Evangelical Christians are not very good at their professed faith. One’s spiritual inabilities keep the fat preachers fully employed.
Mr. Fitch is also on point when he concludes Mr. Zizek can comment on how other people are wrong but can never actually tell anyone how to be right. Mr. Zizek is a Nihilist only. Mr. Zizek’s world is an after Kantian refuge wherein truth is just information filtered through one’s own needs and cognitive abilities. History instructs us here, when we recall dialectical materialism eventuated as an acceptable alternative to Metternich’s realpolitik.
One can read Michael Sandel’s influential Justice in much the same way. The gregarious Ivy League legal academic does from the Near Left what Mr. Fitch identifies as the predominant error perpetrated from the Evangelical Near Right. That is, he asks us to do right for the sake of doing right, even if we cannot actually identify what is right, and then to take the hard parts by faith.
Mr. Fitch might have concluded the Evangelical overemphasis on an Inerrant Bible (in the Autographs) is akin to the Jewish practice of sensing God in Torah, set over against the New Testament Christian principle of sensing God in the Person of the Christ mediated by the Person of the Holy Spirit. If he identified this error, I did not find it in any particular statement.
Mr. Fitch might have concluded the Evangelical overemphasis on personal salvation is akin to the Roman Christian stress on sacramental salvation. Sacraments are by nature repetitive. Evangelicals abhor creeds, as we know from reading their many creeds. They equally abhor sacraments and so must create their own Stations of the Cross, repeated to meaninglessness, ala the “Decision.”
Mr. Fitch might have concluded the Evangelical overemphasis on the Christian Nation, elsewhere called “American Exceptionalism,” is tantamount to American Folk Religion, which the current parody of historical Christian faith has almost certainly become.
One can trust Mr. Fitch to develop these themes in his later works because he is off to a good hearted start. In his next work, Mr. Fitch would do well to practice greater forthrightness in a theological discussion of justification.
A good source would be Dale Moody’s Word of Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1981) pp. 323-327. Therein, the late Dr. Moody calls into question the translation of the word most often dubbed “ justification” in the New Testament translations where it appears at all.
Moody vigorously asserted that the Greek word dikaisos, based on the Hebrew root sedeq, cannot be used to form the concept of a one-time, forensic forgiveness of sin. In fact, Dr. Moody is more pointed. He writes:
A return to Biblical exegesis requires a translation that denotes relationship rather than a legalistic declaration… Righteousness is a better translation, but there is no verb current, such as rightwise, that is available (Moody, Word of Truth, p. 326).
Agree or disagree with Moody’s assessment, it is the way Emergent thinkers are taking their emphasis on the whole subject of justification. In fact, more than their ecclesiology, their polity or their ecclesiology, the Emergent Thinkers shift the tectonic plates of the Church along the fault line of justification than at any other point.
Moody based his stance on acceptable means of Biblical scholarship. If his opinion is not refuted from the same valid scholarship the Emergent opinion of justification as a part of progressive, perfect sanctification suddenly becomes more viable.
Be warned. Moody’s forthright statement on the mistranslation of dikaisos comes in the same portion of his commentary wherein he flatly avows apostasy, what some would call “falling from grace.” His is not a lightly chewed or easily digested discussion.
Fitch’s insistence on the meta-narrative as the major declarative work of the Church on earth should not be rejected out of hand. He takes a high view of Holy Writ, which he identifies as the meta-narrative of the Holy Church. He does not seem to be arguing for a series of silly stories about irrelevant life occurrences in place of presentations of deep Christian truth.
Still, he does not go quite so far as Dallas Willard in his latest book on Christian epistemology, Knowing Christ Today (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2009), wherein Dr. Willard clearly states that the modern American church depends too much on telling stories in place of Christian teaching and preaching. Dr. Willard is closer to right and better stated in this incidence.
Mr. Fitch’s contorted linguistic gymnastics on the place and use of Scripture seems to be the answer of a man savaged by various forces, most of them readily identifiable. Someone might say, at some point, that Jesus used Scripture, when He did, for two purposes: to establish His identity and correct the Devil.
In some ways, the Fundamentalist-Modernist imbroglio over Scripture may explain why Jesus came into the world when Scripture was mostly unwritten and why He often told His closest followers, “Guys, stay away from the goyim. Oy.”
Mr. Fitch misses a large audience also neglected by the Authoritarian Inerrantists. These are the Unattached Intellectuals who are identifiable mostly by their disdain for the offerings of Emergent and Inerrantists. If Evangelicals rise like the Phoenix from the ashes of their own fire-making or the Emergents make a place for their good thinking in the world, it will almost certainly not be because they convert one another.
Mr. Fitch, along with the other fellows he admires, could do a great service to American Christendom if he decided to spend some time in his next work speaking to and about the great mass of Unattached Intellectuals. He could start something new.