The Path To Genuine National Renewal

by Matthew Raley With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.

If there were a prospect that the nation's course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It's incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan's signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.

President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor -- the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush's, but not different in principle.

A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama's options. It might pass Paul Ryan's budgets as written, and they still won't become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.

So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.

Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?

Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there's no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece's all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?

We can rage against Wall Street's greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.

Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It's time to dig up the planted axiom.

None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great -- great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.

If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:

Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.

And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: "You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God." (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)

If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ's grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.

An Open Letter To the Black Robe Regiment

Dear Evangelical Black Robe Members, You captured my attention through Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, and you've attracted a devoted following. In an effort to understand what you're doing and why, I've been looking at your website, and I have a number of questions.

Here is the first sentence on your home page:

The Black Robe Regiment is a resource and networking entity where church leaders and laypeople can network and educate themselves as to our biblical responsibility to stand up for our Lord and Savior and to protect the freedoms and liberties granted to a moral people in the divinely inspired US Constitution [my italics].

The last clause raised many issues for me.

1. Upon what do you base your claim that America was ever "a moral people?" By moral, I assume you mean ethically good. How do you propose to demonstrate that morals in 1776 were good by God's standards for behavior, equity, and love? Quotations from the founders about the importance of morality will not suffice, since goodness is not in the professing but in the doing.

2. Do you believe that God gave us liberty because we were moral?

I ask because, since you are evangelicals and believe that no form of God's grace is merited by us, then you must know how suspect that teaching would be.

3. Do you actually believe that the U. S. Constitution is "divinely inspired?" You must be aware that this is Mormon doctrine, and has never been part of the Protestant tradition, founded as it is upon sola scriptura. Why are you, as evangelicals, promoting Mormon mythology?

As a corollary, if you don't believe the Constitution is divinely inspired, why did you permit the claim in the first sentence of your home page? Who wrote that sentence, and what is his/her theological tradition?

4. Elsewhere, you assert, "The Constitution (Part 1--the Declaration of Independence, and part 2), was and is a covenant between the people of America and their Heavenly Father."

Let's leave aside the enormity of asserting that the Declaration is part of the U. S. Constitution. Just answer this: on what possible basis in the Bible do you make the claim that God made a national covenant with Americans?

And again, why are you evangelicals signing on to Mormon myths?

5. In the same paragraph, you also claim,

A people who were honed by thousands of years before Christ walked the Earth by way of the Israelites who had been scattered and dispersed many times in their history.  These folks who now inhabited this New Jerusalem (this New Eden that Christopher Columbus saw), were living out what they saw as a life and a country that was fashioned entirely by their Creator.

Are you agreeing with the Mormon tale that native Americans are Israelites?

6. On the same page, you say that "Liberty and Freedom has [sic] been graciously bestowed by our Heavenly Father to each of us.  It [sic] has been freely offered, freely sacrificed for by Christ Jesus, and it is the duty of each of us to acknowledge that precious gift and to not give it away lightly."

Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to give us political liberty? As evangelicals, surely you must believe that it is liberty from sin and death that Christ purchased. If you want to say that the liberty was also political, you will have to point to some biblical text that not only uses the words liberty and freedom but teaches that these words signify political rights.

7. Why is there no doctrinal statement on your website? How do you propose to advance spiritual revival without stating clearly what the spiritual principles of that revival are, and upon what scriptures those principles are founded?

8. Why is your "networking entity" by invitation only? You say that your site "is an invitation only closed social network for church leaders to freely communicate in a safe environment.  We will vet all prospective members to ensure that they are in fact an active church leader."

It may be that this site does not represent your views of the Gospel or of the Black Robe Regiment. If so, then I invite any evangelical member of the Regiment to disavow the site. State clearly that you do not believe that our Constitution is inspired by God, that it is a covenant with God, or that Americans are a "moral" people descended from the Israelites, but that all Americans are sinners, unable to govern themselves, deserving no favor from God, and who are only freed from their sins by the blood of Christ.

Without straight talk of this kind, I have to conclude that members of the Regiment are fighting to establish a civic deity for Americans -- which is to say, an idol.

Sincerely,

Matthew Raley

The Father Who Went to Jail

Sermon audio (10-26-08): Aggression Against Christ In You Last week, I received an email with a video claiming that a Massachusetts man went to jail for protesting pro-gay material that his son was given in public kindergarten. The video was produced by the Family Research Council (FRC), and was sent up and down California by the American Family Association (AFA). It interested me because of the defiant beggar we are studying at our church these days (audio above).

Let's score it.

First, I'll make a distinction. I am discussing the way this story is told by the video's producers, the FRC. The Parkers, the couple featured in the video, will have said many things in the process of making it, only a few of which the producers kept in the presentation. So I am focused on the decisions made by the producers, and by those who distributed the video.

Start with the email that went out from the AFA. The subject line was, "A father goes to jail to protect his son." That was written to be scary. The implicit claim is that if one father is arrested then others will be too. The explicit claim is that the father was arrested was "to protect his son." If those claims are true, then the subject line is scary for a good reason. If not ...

Move to the video's music. The sad and scary sound of the introductory music sets an ominous atmosphere for the story. It's a not very subtle technique that lowers the video's tone to that of a tabloid piece or a negative political ad.

The narration of the story is calm. For the beginning, the producers seem to have made the sensible decision to let the facts of what the Parkers' son encountered speak for themselves. He was given a book making a positive portrayal of a homosexual household. The producers show the Parkers expressing shock that they were not informed about this book in advance, but their point of view comes across without melodrama.

So far, while I am bothered by the tabloid gimmick telling me what to feel, the video lays out its case in a defensible way. It asserts that if same-sex marriage is legal then teaching about it will come in public schools, regardless of parents' views. This is a reasonable assertion, and the tone and content of the video up to this point are consistent with it.

But the story abruptly lurches toward a shocker ending, as the subject line of the email and the tabloid gimmick announced it would do. Mr. Parker demanded an assurance from a school administrator that he would be notified before any more teaching about homosexuality, adding that until he received such an assurance he would not leave the school.

The producers show Mr. Parker saying that he was arrested, and they juxtapose comments from Mr. and Mrs. Parker making the clear assertion that he was arrested for demanding his parental rights. The producers show Mr. Parker describing the small filthy cell, and they show him breaking down. Then they switch to a voice-over of Mr. Parker giving a call to arms.

The video, in other words, tips from a reasonable assertion to a shocking one, an assertion that totalitarians run Massachusetts. If indeed a school administrator had Mr. Parker arrested for demanding parental rights -- for using his rights to free speech -- then we have a clear case of tyranny.

So what about that claim?

Here is the Boston Globe story on the incident. "David Parker was arrested for trespassing ... when he refused to leave the building until school officials promised to give him prior notification of their use of books that include homosexual characters." Arrested for trespassing.

Contrast the story on WorldNetDaily. "The dispute grabbed headlines when Parker, on April 27, 2005, was arrested and thrown in jail by school officials over his insistence on being notified regarding his son in kindergarten being taught about homosexual relationships by adults." Thrown in jail because of the gay agenda.

You're the administrator. The guy in your office escalates a disagreement by saying that he will not leave the facility until you give him what he demands. At this moment, what's the issue? And what's your decision? In an era of random school violence that has been the subject of planning and training at all levels for at least a decade, your decision is open-and-shut. He does not have the right to make that threat.

The score is: Boston Globe -- 1, FRC/AFA/WND -- 0. Whatever value the video might've had in warning Californians about the probable consequences of the failure of Prop 8 is undermined by the producers' fatal overreach. This was not a case of state aggression, but of civil disobedience. If you are a victim of state aggression, you get thrown in jail against your will. If you protest through civil disobedience, you have announced that going to jail is your intention.

Mr. Parker may make this clear when he speaks without producers editing his statements. (He comes close to doing so at one point in the video itself.) What dismays me about this video is the willingness of the producers and the activists to exploit such an incident for no other purpose than fear-mongering.

When did Christian leaders decide that propaganda was okay?

Being Christians in the Age of Obama

Sermon audio (10-19-08): Opposition to Christ in You Yeah, I know: it ain't over til the fat lady sings. Obama isn't elected yet. McCain could still pull an upset.

But nothing changes the fact that our country is headed for an acrimonious reckoning. The name Obama itself reflects the depth of the nation's divisions. About half the country is convinced he'll redeem America, and about half thinks he'll turn us into France. Americans are in the habit of getting pretty worked up over presidential candidates, but this year is special.

Consider a few flash-points.

Many Republicans are angry over the media's investigations of Joe the plumber. At National Review Online on Monday, Byron York reported from a McCain rally where the spectators were holding up signs like "Phil the Bricklayer" and "Rose the Teacher." The encounters between such people and reporters quickly escalated. One man said to reporters, "I support McCain, but I’ve come to face you guys because I’m disgusted with you guys." Many see themselves as persecuted.

On his Monday radio show, Sean Hannity interviewed a girl who was called a racist for wearing a McCain T-shirt to school. Her parents complained that the teachers and administrators had done nothing. More persecution.

Sarah Palin continues to divide not only the country in general but conservatives in particular. George Will, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan have earned the ire of the grassroots right for their rejection of her populism. The ire is expressed along class lines, that these are fake conservatives because they are intellectuals, members of the media elite who look down their noses at common folk. Persecution from turncoats.

In California, the portents of an Obama victory combined with a victory for gay marriage against Proposition 8 are giving many evangelicals nightmares about totalitarian judges taking away their religious freedom. Persecution from government bureaucrats.

This election is defined less along the lines of economics, philosophy, or even race than those of class and culture. From the grassroots conservative point of view, it's Walmart against Wall Street, blue collar against white, Western Pennsylvania against San Francisco. It's Obama against Palin.

Evangelicals have spent decades confusing political causes with the cause of Christ. I have written at length about their populism and resentment, characteristics that mix a particular American identity -- predominantly rural and suburban, middle class, and conservative -- with godliness and truth. This year, many evangelicals fervently hope that populist anger will carry McCain to victory.

I think evangelicals are at a watershed.

If they invest their passion into being Sam's Club Republicans, into retaining the consumer culture that "made America great," and if they continue to link their faith in Christ and their political views, then they will be deluded about this year's reckoning.

They will interpret a McCain victory as some divine approval of their way of life, and will ignore the role their own immorality has played in the nation's decline. Conversely, they will interpret an Obama victory as the beginning of the persecution of the common American, stoking the fires of their resentment even hotter.

Neither response will advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, but merely intensify the acrimony.

But if evangelicals invest their passion into being Jesus' followers, into showing his grace and truth in their relationships, then they will see this year's election for what it is -- an opportunity. This is our chance to demonstrate that we care more about displaying Christ's glory than about displaying America's.

Many of the evangelicals I know are determined to make Christ the issue in their lives. They are taking steps to glorify him in their marriages, in the nurturing of their children, in their personal devotion to the scriptures and prayer, and in simple integrity. These believers understand how the sins of God's people are more significant causes of America's spiritual death than the sins of non-Christians. They also understand that their process of repentance will be full of suffering.

But they voice their sense of peace that Christ will turn them into unique expressions of his love, and that their individuality in him will become a clear, strong message of the gospel. They know that any opposition they get for displaying Christ is not opposition to their social status, or their political views, or their economic aspirations, but is the same opposition that Christ himself got when he was on earth. And they know that Christ can overcome that opposition.

To advance Christ's Kingdom, evangelicals must take one course or the other, the political or the spiritual. And the political course has demonstrably failed.

I am convinced that devotion to Jesus will help us avoid putting hope in a McCain administration, and that such devotion is the only way to face our more likely future, the age of Obama, without acrimony.

Tough Questions 2008: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately?

Sermon audio: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately? This question from the community invites me to do what some believe I do best: criticize my own subculture. Of course, I will answer, "Evangelicals often do not portray Jesus accurately." And, of course, I will try to specify which evangelical qualities are misleading. By merely asking this question, someone has presumed a negative answer.

There is a larger issue. What attitude should we have toward the deepening problems of evangelical churches?

The criticisms from emergents that American evangelicals are Christianized consumers, that they lack authentic community, that their worship is stilted, and that they are not on the side of the poor all have merit. The doctrinal criticisms from the reformed movement (MacArthur, Piper, et al.) rightly indict the lack of biblical integrity among many evangelicals. Even the criticisms that the church growth movement has made over the past thirty years -- that churches are not reaching non-Christians -- are accurate. (The criticisms just happen to be accurate of the church growth movement itself, as well.)

Put all of these criticisms together, and the picture is dire. A movement that is not growing, not intellectually coherent, and not engaged with other cultures is a movement near death.

James Stockdale, one of the most famous American POWs in North Vietnam, has been used as an example of how to survive dire situations by business author Jim Collins. (The book is Good To Great.) What kind of man did not survive the POW experience? Stockdale said the optimist, the man who was sure he'd be home by Christmas, but whose steadily retreating target dates for release were never kept. The positive thinkers died.

The survivors, said Stockdale, had two things. They had faith that they would survive, and discipline to confront the brutal facts of their environment. Collins tagged this the "Stockdale paradox," the irony that unstinting honesty about dire situations can actually bolster the faith one needs to survive.

I want to see evangelicals eschew optimism about their predicament.

Let's take, as an example, their recent explosion of support for Gov. Sarah Palin. Personally, I like her. She gives a great speech. I admire her decision not to abort her baby boy, and I respect the way she and her husband have handled the appalling media abuse of their 17-year-old daughter. I think the clash of the classes her nomination has provoked is good old-fashioned political fun.

But the adulation of her by evangelicals is in one important respect delusional. She will not change Washington from the vice president's mansion -- populists to the contrary. She will not change American culture. She will not even change the culture of evangelical churches -- though she reflects and represents them well. Her presence on the national stage simply does not address the spiritual issues we face.

We won't be freed from the dire evangelical crisis by Christmas.

A brutal honesty about our future says:

  1. Our compromise with America's consumer society has been a disaster. Consumerism will have to be rooted out of our churches soul by soul.
  2. Our transformation of churches into entertainment platforms has been a disaster. Devout worship of the living God will have to be rediscovered soul by soul.
  3. Our financial selfishness will have to be corrected by the good hand of God soul by soul, until we are once again the people who stand with the poor.
  4. Our doctrinal ignorance and folly has turned our brains to mud. Knowledge of the truth will have to be taught soul by soul.
  5. Our fear of the cultures around us, and our refusal to interact meaningfully with them -- that is, interact beyond marketing ploys -- has left us unable to articulate the gospel in our own time. Soul by soul, we will have to rebuild a vigorous way of life and witness in hostile territory.

I believe that, once we are honest about these things, we will have ground for a strong faith that Christianity will survive and prosper in the future. The moment we look at these five realities, harsh though they are, we realize that the tool for teaching soul by soul is everywhere in this country: the local church. The body of Christ in its many meetings has been doing this job for centuries. We just need to start doing the job again.

Our ultimate ground for faith is our Lord and his plan. As we follow him afresh, Jesus is well able to portray himself accurately in his churches.

McLaren the Intellectual Defines Orthodoxy

Intellectuals thrive on complexity. They regard certainty and simplicity as signs of immaturity, and they have some good reasons. Take Brian McLaren's critique of mainstream evangelicalism. McLaren has identified an attitude that is a hindrance to everything from effective persuasion to loving fellowship. The attitude is the us v. them, chip-on-the-shoulder, we're-right-they're-wrong impatience with which evangelicals tend to deal with the wide surrounding world. From his writings, one gathers that McLaren has had enough.

The problem with evangelical pomposity is that it has preempted learning. If we're right and they're wrong, then all we have to do is stay right. Tell the unbelievers one more time why their views on abortion, education, government, and values are heinous. Our fidelity to the truth can reduce to repeated talking points -- say it again, this time with feeling! -- a tactic that shuts out feedback and degrades relationships to mere exchanges of rhetorical bullets.

McLaren wants to change this attitude, and he is right. I have devoted many posts to the cultural backwater that is evangelical populism, where applications of truth are stagnant.

But McLaren's desire for greater openness seems to have led him to oversimplifications of his own, and ultimately to a redefinition of truth itself. The book is, of course, A Generous Orthodoxy.

His now-famous modification of orthodoxy with generous suggests that orthodoxy by itself is petty. When he comes to defining what orthodoxy is, McLaren starts this way (p 28): "For most people, orthodoxy means right thinking or right opinions, or in other words, ‘what we think,' as opposed to ‘what they think.'" For McLaren, orthodoxy tends to be petty because most people view it in adversarial terms.

The sentence is an early bit of slippage. I know many self-satisfied Christians who like few things better than to hear the us v. them story again and call it Christianity. But their pettiness does not determine what orthodoxy is. McLaren is building up to his redefinition by implying a simple choice between orthodoxy alone (petty) and orthodoxy plus generosity (loving).

His alternative definition comes in the next sentence. "In contrast, orthodoxy in this book may mean something like ‘what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.'" The truth is beyond our reach, in God's mind, and the various factions of human spirituality each have pieces of it. To follow orthodoxy, according to this definition, is to be generous to the other factions and to learn from them.

Orthodoxy may mean that. It may mean something like that. In this book.

The care with which McLaren poses as tentative and playful is necessary to disguise the enormity of what he puts over in that definition. Orthodoxy is inaccessible. It's "what God knows." This is a romanticist punt, even transcendentalist. Emerson could've written it, irony and all. Intellectuals may feed on such continually evolving knowledge, but the gruel is too thin for simple believers.

Actual Christian orthodoxy teaches that God himself is incomprehensible, but that he has given us a revelation of his nature and will by which he is knowable. Orthodoxy is not in God's mind. It's in his Word, both written and incarnate. It's accessible. The distinction between the living God and the doctrines about him --the distinction that ought to keep us humble -- already thrives where theology is a scholarly discipline rather than a grass-roots rallying point.

But I just ran smack into another sentence closing McLaren's paragraph on orthodoxy. McLaren says, "Most people are too serious, knowledgeable, and busy for such an unorthodox definition of orthodoxy." So he makes an intriguing definition tentatively and then bluffs his way out of being examined, an escape-hatch from accountability that he seems to open pretty often.

The definition I've analyzed comes in a chapter titled, "For Mature Audiences Only." How would McLaren define mature? I'll venture a definition for him: "For most people, maturity means being accountable for what you say. In contrast, maturity in this book may mean something like being comfortable with irony."

I hope we can learn and grow as human beings without intellectual games.

A 1989 Bull Session and Intellectualism

One night during my first year of college, I was riding with some fellow believers, all from the same InterVarsity group at Willamette University, and we were talking about the megachurch we attended. Willamette is a secular liberal arts school (its historical connection to Methodism is now purely notional). It's the oldest on the left coast, and has the ivy of the Ivy League without the pedigree. It is not the preserve of the wealthy, necessarily, but let's just say I was only there because of a scholarship. And, at that time, Willamette had little interaction with the surrounding community of Salem, Oregon.

The megachurch we all attended had a dynamic preacher and up-tempo music. It was known as a relatively wealthy church, the cars in the parking lots being a major indicator. Because of its youth group and extensive children's ministry, it was also the place in town for families, especially white ones.

My friends and I went there for the preacher, who was smart, likable, and passionate. But the wealth of the congregation, or maybe the display of it, was somewhat embarrassing. And the music was irritating. In all, my friends in the car were conflicted about the church, frustrated with it.

At last, one guy said, "It's just so middle class!" The rest laughed bitterly.

I was taken aback by the hostility in his voice, and by the others' identification with it. Even though I felt the same frustrations with that church as the others, I couldn't understand the contempt they were expressing for being bourgeois. It hadn't occurred to me to think of myself as having risen beyond my origins. My thought was, "All of you are middle class."

In that year of 1989, there wasn't a name for young evangelicals who went to liberal arts schools, took books, cinema, and ideas seriously, and explored such exotica as liberation theology. There wasn't a name for graduates who followed their passion for the poor into work with Habitat For Humanity. There wasn't enough momentum for politically liberal evangelicals at the start of Reagan's third term to gain a label. Nor was the suburban megachurch the object of scorn that it is now.

But today my friends would be called emergents.

I have spent time on this blog exploring the barren flats of evangelical populism. Now it is time to take a look at the swamp of evangelical intellectualism.

I should be clear about my use of the term. I'm not using intellectual as a synonym for scholar. A scholar is removed from ordinary life and work to pursue an academic discipline. An intellectual is not so much removed from ordinary life as disaffected from it. He is embittered by the lives other people lead, contemptuous of their lack of sophistication, and resentful of their lack of attention to his accomplishments. The intellectual class sees itself as society's critic, wrote Robert Bork in 1996 (Slouching Toward Gomorrah, p 83):

Its members are generally critical of, if not actively hostile to, bourgeois society and culture. They are, moreover, susceptible to utopian fantasies.

Not all farmers are populists. So, too, not all scholars are intellectuals in the sense I am describing. And, truth be told, very few intellectuals are scholars. Most are merely glib with general knowledge.

Think Al Gore. Tortured, complicated, afflicted by a sensitive conscience -- and proud of all three. He is not trained deeply in any academic field. He studies science not for knowledge but for advocacy. His career trajectory is typical of an intellectual: liberal arts training, journalism, politics. His intellectualism, at least in many people's eyes, redeems him from grubbiness. He's more than an advocate, more than a politician, because he's about ideas.

Some of intellectualism's cultural characteristics:

1. Urban, not rural.

2. Scornful of business and money. Money is corrupt, and the businesspeople who pursue it are all animated by greed -- all of them.

3. Contemptuous of patrimony. Wherever an intellectual came from, whatever class or location or religion, that is the seat of hypocrisy and sick living.

4. Patronizing toward the middle class. All those poor, narrow people who just work, work, work in their office cubicles and then go to Applebees, all those parents with massive strollers and screaming children, who've never even met a poor person, who've never gone to Guatemala, who only care about money and their 401Ks and the prohibitive cost of filling their SUVs ...

5. Able to evoke positive emotions only with abstractions. Obama.

I see all of these characteristics among emergents. Now, the emergent phenomenon is about many things -- theology, history, abuse by authority figures. Emergents target many legitimate evils: consumerism, a mistaken identification of Christ with the Republican party, the neglect of the arts. Many stories are coming together to make the emergent stream. But it's intellectualism that I am finding over and over again. Many emergents are about class.

Here's a funny thing. Both evangelical populism and intellectualism, even though they have the opposite cultural characteristics, lead us to the same place: grievance. I doubt that resentment is going to advance the Kingdom of Christ, whether it comes from self-satisfied middle class Americans or self-hating middle class Americans. So why do so many evangelicals seem to seethe with it?

My friend's outburst that night in 1989 showed me early signs of the splintering of evangelicalism, and nearly twenty years later I'm still trying to figure out what it means.

Dobson vs. Obama At the Pear Tree Inn

I sit in a suburban St. Louis hotel room trying to understand my own reaction to the dust-up between James Dobson and Barack Obama. Admittedly, I'm in the haze that results from a day of conference meetings. I'm also irritable because travel destroys the daily rituals on which I depend for well-being, and because travel to a denominational conference is particularly charmless. More importantly, I am worried about my dad, who had stoke-like symptoms on Tuesday. I freely admit, I may not be thinking clearly.

Nevertheless, in my hotel room -- which has that twenty-year menthol smell, yet has been declared "non-smoking" -- I slog through several articles about the controversy.

It appears that, in order blunt Obama's outreach to evangelicals, Dobson attacked him for misusing the Bible. The AP, which received an advance copy of Dobson's broadcast remarks, reported, "Dobson took aim at examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy — chapters like Leviticus, which Obama said suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination, or Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, 'a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.'"

Dobson said, "I think [Obama is] deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology."

While I listen to the guy shouting into his cell while he gets ice in the hallway, I wonder if the AP might alert its writers that Leviticus is a book.

Next, I gather that Obama attacked Dobson for attacking him. The speech Dobson had cited, Obama argued, was saying that people of faith should ''try to translate some of our concerns in a universal language so that we can have an open and vigorous debate rather than having religion divide us.''

Obama said, ''I think you'll see that [Dobson] was just making stuff up, maybe for his own purposes.''

Then lots of religious spokespeople started attacking Dobson and Obama.

After I find all this on the Internet, I realize that I could've just listened to the TV in the next hotel room, which has been bellowing about the fight with perfect clarity.

What is my reaction to Dobson vs. Obama? I regard it as an imposition, a bother, another of the 24-hour news cycle's pestilential contretemps that I would ignore if it weren't for the politicians' blundering into the pastoral zone.

So, while vainly striving to ignore various aspects of my fellow guests' lives -- their children, their dogs, their gastro-intestinal dramas -- I try to understand my lack of partisan fervor. Don't I care when the Bible is abused by public figures? Don't I have an opinion about whether Obama's Christianity is legitimate? Shouldn't I offer some guidance for my flock as to which man is right? Or am I just resigned to the ultimate equivalence of all political and doctrinal positions?

Partly, I am reacting to Dobson's salvo as a pressure tactic, as a way of forcing every evangelical pastor to line up with him against Obama. We have created a culture of complaining, in which the loudest and most abrasive player drives others from the field. I feel this culture is degrading, no matter what message is being pushed, and I am not going to participate in the game.

Further, I am less than inspired by the wording of Dobson's attack. He says that Obama is "distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible." I'm not sure what Dobson means. The traditional understanding? Does he mean that Obama is using a straw man instead of dealing with real evangelical positions? Or does he mean that Obama is distorting the Bible itself? He doesn't quite say either. And what does he mean by saying that Obama makes these distortions to fit "his own confused theology"? And that Obama is doing it all deliberately?

I fear that Dobson has fallen into the populist habit of stringing words together for their connotations rather than crafting them for meaning. The tactic makes insinuation sound direct. In this case, it certainly communicates Dobson's feelings to evangelical insiders, but it draws no blood. Obama's theological problems are other than Dobson insinuates.

Even further, I am dismayed by the strategic imbecility of making Leviticus an issue in a political campaign. The people at Focus just didn't think this one through. Are we really going to win a public argument with Obama about hermeneutics, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, and which portions of the Bible "apply today?"

Obama's rhetorical questions about which Bible passages should determine public policy were sophomoric, just what we have come to expect from politicians trying to sound highbrow. But no matter how you choose to answer such things, it's not safe to take the tone lower. A little irony goes a long way.

Finally, I'm not convinced that Barack Obama's theology is, as Dobson charged, "confused." Obama's theology is banal, the sort of spiritual generalizing one hears on NPR, as if "translating our concerns in a universal language" is a self-explanatory aspiration, as if having "an open and vigorous debate" is not by definition living with ideas that "divide us."

I will continue to fight such clichés disguised as profundities from my pulpit. I'll do so because doctrines are not ultimately equivalent: Obama's Christian zen is just a repackaged modernist liberalism. I'll try to fight with better weapons than Dobson wants to hand me.

But for now, I put in my earplugs and go to sleep.

A.W. Tozer, the Anti-Populist

Three weeks ago, my dad gave me a book, which the old man almost never does. From the early seventies, when he devoured The Lord of the Rings, to the mid-nineties, when he discovered that Calvin and Luther agreed with him about predestination, Dad was not a reader. Even now that he has books going much of the time, he doesn't talk about them much. So, for him to haul off and give me The Root of the Righteous by A.W. Tozer -- not just recommend it, but hand me a copy -- was urgent enough that I started it immediately. That night, I sat in the orchestra pit during the dialog of the Sondheim show I was playing, and devoured page after page -- only putting the book down when the conductor insinuated that a downbeat was headed my way.

I have been writing in a meandering, bloggish sort of way about evangelical populism. I have described it as a mindset of suspicion and resentment, of "us versus them," that has shut down cultural interaction between evangelicals and other Americans. I have also noted populism's emotional shallowness, as well as its conformism and corruption.

To close this theme (and the blog's readers sighed with relief), I sum up my problem with evangelical populism: it has fostered a damning self-complacency.

When we present Christianity as a social program, as one side in a protracted culture war, we commit several crimes simultaneously. We mistake the cultural legacy of biblical faith, Judeo-Christian civilization, for the gospel itself. It is a well-worn heresy, though wrapped now in the old red, white, and blue. We also take a rhetorical posture that is alien to the New Testament, that of the debater who scores points off the gaffs and weaknesses of his opponent. This vandalizes the office of preacher.

But most alarmingly, we teach ourselves by rote, election after election, that we stand for the truth, that we defend God's holiness, that we are the Lord's people doing the Lord's work. That is to say, we teach ourselves a lie. A mere glance into the family lives of church-going people these days confirms their utter lack of spiritual power.

To foster such self-complacency is to freeze souls against the grace of God.

Which brings me back to Tozer's book. The Root of the Righteous is a collection of editorials he wrote for his denominational magazine during the 1950s, and their dated quality as artifacts gives them, for me, a kind of prophetic unction, as if the Spirit makes the dust of the decades say amen.

Take the very first sentence of the book:

One marked difference between the faith of our fathers as conceived by the fathers and the same faith as understood and lived by their children is that the fathers were concerned with the root of the matter, while their present-day descendants seem concerned only with the fruit. (p 3)

That alone is a lot to ponder. Tozer meant that, in the 1950s, believers regarded a "serious-minded approach to sacred things" as something to smile at. He said, "Much that passes for Christianity today is the brief, bright effort of the severed branch to bring forth its fruit in its season." (p 4)

Take this blunt assessment: "Probably the most widespread and persistent problem to be found among Christians is the problem of retarded spiritual progress." (p 7) Or this observation about "the inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment" in the 1950s:

The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no spring within his own breast, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him. (p 31)

Churches in the 1950s surrendered to the consumer mindset. Tozer says (p 33) that they "have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate 'producers' peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency."

Tozer also makes the striking observation that religious life in the 1950s showed "a lack of integration in the religious personality. There seems to be no vital connection between the emotional and volitional departments of the life. The mind can approve and the emotions enjoy while the will drags its feet and refuses to go along." (p 56)

Tozer fed people with an exalted view of Christ that nurtured reverent fear, not prim judgmentalism. He wrote and spoke with authority about the God who had won his submission.

Imagine strong words like his in a denominational magazine today. It's impossible: such publications have become mere public relations pieces. They would never warn Christians against dead spirituality, or its specific symptoms. That would be way too preachy.

This is a measure of how much leaders flatter us, and how deeply we need their flattery.

It's also a measure of my old man's good taste. Calvin, Luther, Tolkien, Tozer.

Do You Know This Man?

Every pastor is sure he knows how to talk to this guy:

It's easy. With Biff, here, you talk tractors, nail guns, and torque. You slip into saying "dese, dem, and dose." You use football analogies. Better yet, you tell your own football stories, if you have them. You try to pull off the coach routine. You go easy on the Bible because he doesn't care. You don't try to teach him. You keep it real concrete, because Biff's a hands-on guy, and if you try to talk theologically you'll lose him.

I don't think most pastors know this guy at all. I think most try to reach Biff with populist clichés only from laziness -- or because they're too intimidated to sit down and talk with him. I think that if pastors realized who Biff actually is, and if they began to connect with him, their churches would be revolutionized.

Here are a few things I've learned about him.

1. Biff's a genius.

Forget about losing Biff with your sermon. He's way ahead of you. That's why he stops listening. I know a contractor who hardly says a word, and who looks like he wouldn't try to follow a theological inference past the second "if." But he has a deep, sharp intellect. He figured out how to install a Czechoslovakian engine in an airplane he built -- without a manual. He reads the social patterns in a room faster than anyone else, and he can articulate what the patterns are. He has keen, biblically informed doctrinal priorities.

Pastors need to know that Biff has no trouble dealing with complexity. But he can tell when you're using complexity to disguise ignorance. And he won't sit for it.

2. Biff knows how to interact with all kinds of people.

Yeah, he looks narrow. But there's a good chance that Biff went to college. In all probability he has lived in many different places, perhaps even worked internationally -- and not just in the military. If Biff is over forty-five, you may find that he has some history with the counterculture in the sixties or seventies. In his business, he either learns how to deal with many different subcultures, or he fails.

I know a lumberman who lives to cut down trees. He just loves being alone in the woods with a saw and some timber. To look at him, you'd say he was the original good old boy. And if you only talked with him for five minutes, you wouldn't learn anything to shake that impression. You'd never know he once worked in computers. Near San Francisco.

3. Biff learned early to conform.

There are guys who are no deeper than tractors, nail guns, and torque. But Biff is not one of them. In my experience, he got the message as a young kid that he wasn't supposed to be a dreamer, that dreamers were worthless sissies. So he constructed a persona that enabled him to get along with the other guys. He talks about tractors, nail guns, and torque because that's what they talk about. But the dreamer never completely died. In fact, the persistence of that dreamer, maybe in despair, is a key to his emotional life.

In the back corner of a closet, Biff may have a world-class collection of jazz LPs, which he will only show you if he thinks you're safe. It will astound you what Biff reads, what he ponders, what he responds to. I've had guys that look exactly like Biff, lots and lots of them, become fans of my classical violin playing. That's one way I accidentally got underneath Biff's conformity.

Interesting things start to happen when Biff decides that God wants him to exercise his creativity.

4. Biff respects masculine analysis.

He likes his categories hard and neat. They can be complicated. They can be paradoxical. But they cannot be soft. Which is too bad for evangelical sentimentality, because Biff has no respect for Ned Flanders.

With all these points, I'm not saying Biff yearns to hear lectures on Schleiermacher, or that he secretly watches Masterpiece Theater, or even that he is fully conscious of himself. I'm just saying that he's smarter than we think, broader, more open, more curious than we think. I'm saying that the potential in any church for significant interaction with other subcultures is far greater than most pastors imagine.

We can nurture that potential if we ditch our cramped view of people -- perverted by demographics, marketing tactics, and Meiers-Briggs tests -- and see them for who they really are.

Sondheim As a Preacher

I've spent many hours this week in an orchestra pit rehearsing for Chico State's production of A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. Between keeping track of key changes, being anxious for the physical safety of our percussionist as scenery collapses above him, and enjoying the great voices of the cast, I have been evaluating Sondheim's success as a preacher. A preacher has to do more than convey information about "how one ought to live." In my view, he has to show listeners how their lives are inextricably bound to God, and how that bond impacts their decisions. That mission calls him to engage listeners with drama, emotion, narrative, and especially characters. His preaching has to display individuals who struggle with God, both rightly and wrongly.

To fulfill this mission, the preacher has several tools: the Bible (source for the dramatic material), doctrine (derived from the Bible, and delivered as principles), life experience (his own, his listeners'), etc. In a sermon, he uses these tools to redirect the motivations of his audience Godward.

I've written about the inability of the evangelical populist to go deeper than sentimentality. So much of the spiritual deadness of evangelicalism, the dearth of transforming love, goes back to the shallow emotional range of its preachers. Most, it seems, can't convey anything higher than healthful living habits.

Sondheim, though he presents what I find to be a spirituality of hopelessness, is skilled at preaching the worldly word. He has his source of dramatic material, a combination of what I'll loosely call European tradition and American showmanship. His symbols, dramatic and musical, all derive from such sources, of which he has intuitive knowledge. Sondheim also shows keen insight into life experience. He flirts with audience expectations by using stock characters whom he later rounds out with humane understanding.

Which leaves doctrine.

There is a principle that animates the story of Night Music. The characters are all troubled, some driven to morose contemplation, others to flippancy, still others to cynicism. They struggle to find what a main character calls "a coherent existence," and the field of their struggle is sex. Their escapades are often funny, usually humiliating, and occasionally moving. But each learns the doctrine by the end, learns it in his or her own way.

Night Music's doctrine? You recover a coherent existence when you find the object of your true desire. And to recognize that object, you must know yourself. The god this musical preaches so effectively is inside the human personality.

A few qualifications. Audiences don't go to musicals for spiritual training. Tony awards like those lavished on this show are not given to productions that "make a point," and this show is not "preachy" in that way. Sondheim's goal was to give people something to enjoy, not to teach them. He may or may not believe the principle this story shows.

But Sondheim is a skillful preacher.

He shows how people's lives are inextricably bound to the god of their desires, and how that bond impacts their decisions. His characters speak to people's struggles.

My wayward imagination wonders how an evangelical, with his grab-bag of practical tips, would preach the Night Music doctrine. "Five Steps to Open Communication With Your Mistress." "What Would Ibsen Do?" "Your Best Adultery Now!" If evangelicals preached sin the way they preach Christ, sin might go into as deep a decline as Christianity.

A preacher's job is not to entertain, as Sondheim's is. But evangelical preachers would teach and exhort with more potency if their Bible, their doctrine, and their life experience spoke to people's struggles. The God of the Bible is not the God of easy answers. Jesus Christ struggles with us just as we struggle with him, if the Gospel of John is any guide. He is no stranger to relational agony. And he does not use gimmicks.

I notice that when I preach this God, using the Bible's drama as powerfully and truthfully as I can, listeners take heart. They renew their struggles with greater insight, and they see God's blessings. Their certitudes gained in struggle are earned, not purchased in bulk.

So I learn something about preaching from Sondheim. But I leave the orchestra pit relieved that the living God is larger than the gods of Broadway.

Integrity or Control? Choose.

Lots of us have had to endure the control-freak pastor, the paranoid maniac who has to know WHO said his sermon went too long, and WHY that individual didn't OBEY MATTHEW 18 and come to him directly, and WHO ELSE that individual contaminated with his SLANDER. HOW LARGE is the FACTION of CRITICAL SPIRITS this week? And lots of us have had to endure the Meeting during which our motivations are impugned, our divisiveness is rebuked, and we are disinvited from leadership/attendance/Christianity.

So when I wrote last week that the first step away from populism is for evangelical leaders to rediscover the foundation of their authority, many readers probably said, "O callow youth, we think not. We've had enough of pastoral authority for one lifetime."

Hang in there with me.

Authority, to my way of thinking, is not control over people. (The leader gives orders and uses levers of power to make sure he is obeyed.) Rather, authority is an indirect result -- even a byproduct -- of something no one ever sees: the workings of the leader's own conscience.

My job as a pastor is not to compel others to do good, or even to entice them into doing good, but rather to subject my own will to the Bible's commands. As others interact with me, they are confronted with spiritual choices in the natural course of relationship.

For instance, when I preach, the ultimate issue on my conscience is whether my words serve the text of the Bible -- serve it both in expounding and in applying it to the people before me. If my conscience affirms that I enlightened my own ignorance, ducked no hard issue, and used excellent craft to teach a passage, then I have done my job as a pastor. The personal decisions people make come not so much from what I said, as from the time they spent interacting with my submission to scripture.

When I counsel, to take another example, I have to give biblical and Spirit-directed applications without shortcuts, gimmicks, or generalities. I also have to draw straight confession of sin out of people who would rather avoid it. Above all, I have to affirm what an individual has right, and withhold affirmation from what he has wrong. These are all issues on my own conscience, not anyone else's, and the only way I can act rightly is by obeying biblical principles. The counselee's decision to do good -- which I cannot control -- comes not so much from my direction, as from the time he spends interacting with my submission to scripture.

My conscience is the issue in every matter of daily life: prioritizing my weekly schedule, reacting to criticism, coaching others to resolve conflict, discipling my boys, loving my wife. My job as a pastor is to exhibit a submissive conscience. As people interact with me, they find themselves dealing with a way of life founded on different assumptions from theirs. The differences are what confront their souls with spiritual choices.

I am convinced that a leader earns a right to be heeded by orienting his or her conscience toward God's word. If he or she is submissive to the Bible, he or she will acquire authority, and the authority will not be hierarchical, but relational.

I have found that when I try to use the levers of power to control people's behavior, I splinter the integration of my conscience with the Bible. I have also found that the status-oriented fixations of populism involve leaders in catastrophic compromises of conscience, because populism boils down to what the Bible calls the fear of man.

I want to be able to say with Paul (2 Corinthians 1.12) that "our boast is this: the testimony of our conscience that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you."

To Revitalize Evangelical Culture

If populism has left evangelicals resentful and suspicious of "elites," and complacent in a sentimentalized Christianity, how can evangelical leaders restore their movement's cultural vitality? Begin with a basic shift. Evangelical leaders need to rediscover the foundation of their authority.

I've noticed that a person with authority has a right to be heeded, to receive deference. For example, let's say we have a bull session about how evangelism really ought to be done, and we each proclaim our opinions, together with all the reasons why we're right. But when Billy Graham ambles over to the sofa and puts up his boots on the coffee table, we sincerely defer. We don't repent of our opinions when he starts to talk. We don't surrender unconditionally to whatever he says. But we do adjust our points of view to incorporate his.

I'm saying that a person with authority has a right to this deference. If someone in our bull session blows off Billy Graham, we disapprove because we feel that respect is something Graham is owed. The right to be heeded is powerful. If deference is not his right, then what he's got isn't authority.

I figure there are lots of possible foundations for authority. There's authority founded on skill: Billy Graham has a right to our deference on matters of evangelism because he's unusually competent. There's also authority founded on charisma: Graham has a unique relational wisdom that has won over vast audiences for decades.

Some foundations for authority crumble, and cannot be rebuilt for an age. In the days when Graham first preached, he had authority simply because he was a pastor. Almost everybody deferred to a pastor for the sake of respectability. It didn't matter whether the pastor's congregation was fifty or five hundred: they adjusted their points of view to incorporate his. But this social authority deteriorated, and by the 1970s any pastor who depended on it was feeling vulnerable.

Other foundations for authority are perverse, like popularity. A celebrity will get deference for a while just because masses of people hang on his words. But adoring crowds can turn into mobs. Graham has had the authority of popularity, and has also felt the sting of disapprobation, as when he visited the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Since he did not build his ministry on his popularity, his stature eventually outgrew the setbacks.

Evangelical leaders, for the most part, have been running scared because of the loss of their social authority. They have watched American culture scoff at the stock character of the pastor, mocking his impotence in the face of cultural changes. And they have been retreating from any hint of that old authority in their leadership, trying instead to teach, evangelize, and organize on the basis of popularity or skill or charisma.

Populism, with its easy emotionalism, has become the most common way evangelical leaders gain a right to be heeded. They hoist an apparently strong banner that rallies the troops -- and it works for a while. But this cynicism has nauseated so many believers that the search is on for community without authority -- an egalitarian delusion now tempting emergents.

I believe evangelicalism will not regain vitality until its leaders rediscover their authority's foundation. There has to be a reason for believers to listen to them, to defer to them. And subcultures outside of evangelicalism must see that reason, or they will not pay the gospel any heed.

In this connection, it's worth noting that Billy Graham (no populist by my definition) had many kinds of authority, but only depended on one kind: the coherence of his character with the Bible. That is, the force of biblical authority exerted itself through Graham's personal submission. More than anything else, this biblical integrity is what gained him the right to be heeded.

Next week, the technical specifications for gaining that authority.

How Populism Corrupts Evangelical Leaders

This post may become a rant. We'll just see. A big part of my beef with populism is that it corrupts evangelical leaders, and I choose the verb corrupt for its precision. Populism rots a leader's soul.

1. Populism substitutes the lowest common denominator for unity.

I've said that evangelical populists whip up people's negative emotions, like resentment and suspicion, using carefully chosen enemies. The problems with "our society" are the fault of "the Hollywood elites" or some other class. I've also said that the populist can only evoke people's positive emotions through sentimentality, using symbols that have nostalgic, tear-jerking potential.

This simplistic emotionalism enables large groups of people to feel united by cheering or booing. It's easy to feel bonded while we cheer the armed forces or boo the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A leader just has to speak to his audience's gut, and common cause has been achieved.

But evangelicals in America both need and desire a deep identification with Jesus Christ. They need the unity of the Holy Spirit, which is only attained through doctrinal purity and relational grace, through truth and love -- the very highest things anyone can imagine. What sort of leadership tries to achieve any other kind of oneness?

2. Populism substitutes clichés for truth.

The much-touted evangelical passion for the Bible is now largely spent, not because average evangelicals don't care what the Bible says but because their leaders won't teach it to them. The vast majority of sermons preached in American churches quote biblical snatches, as if Scripture were a sacred Bartlett's. Structurally, however, these quotations are not the focus of teaching, but are called upon to support the preacher's points. They are little better than slogans.

This preaching strategy is unavoidable for a populist, who conceives of his audience as virtuously stupid. He can't presume to teach The People, who already know everything they need through their vast common sense, and who are sick and tired of the university elites telling them what to think. The only thing he can do is remind them. After all, they don't need to know the conjugation of Greek verbs, and their attention span is . . .

The average evangelical in America both needs and desires God's word. In fourteen years of preaching, I have yet to encounter a single stupid person. I have heard a lot of stupid preachers, who use their audience's education level as an excuse never to master the arts of communication. What sort of leadership ducks the responsibility to teach?

3. Populism substitutes manipulation for leadership.

Manipulation is control. Manipulation is arousing people's emotions without paying deference to their intelligence. Manipulation is blame-shifting, making other classes responsible for cultural evils. Manipulation is flattering people's self-regard. Manipulation is the attempt to modify people's behavior without edifying their souls.

American evangelicals need spiritual leadership -- and I am convinced that they'll respond to the genuine article. What sort of leadership uses the tools of control?

The reason populism corrupts evangelical leaders is this: Populism is a lie. It tells The People that they are virtuous simply because they are The People. It tells them they are one when they are merely conformist. It tells them they have knowledge when they've only inherited a collection of Bible verses misapplied. And the worst populist lie of all is that The People are a herd instead of a body.

Can any leader believe such things without his soul rotting in cynicism?

Sentimentality And Emotional Death

Populism, the ethos among evangelicals, works most powerfully with negative emotions like resentment and suspicion. The populist appeal is for The People to rally because The Elites are out to get them. It's an appeal to wounded pride. But, to evoke positive emotions, populism leaves evangelicals with only one tool. Feelings such as gratitude, joy, and love aren't compatible with wounded pride, but can only grow in the soil of humility. Which is why the populist tool for evoking positive emotions is sentimentality.

Novelist John Gardner defined sentimentality as "the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause." Arousing sentiment is essential, he said of fiction. But when an emotion is "achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration" -- sentimentality -- it "rings false." (The Art of Fiction, New York: Vintage Books, 1991, p 115.)

I'll put the point bluntly. Evangelicals can't seem to arouse good feelings among themselves without artistic cheating.

We have, for instance, this:

Your daughter has gone beddy-bye, and she's snuggled head-to-head with Raggedy Ann. Hovering over her, almost patting her silken hair, is Jesus, looking like a kindly woodsman who happens to blow-dry his hair. And what is Jesus saying to your daughter? "I know the plans I have for you, etc., etc."

You, the viewer, are Daddy or Mommy peeking in to check on your precious baby girl, only to realize that Jesus is already there.

This picture is all "message," like any other piece of commercialized art. The emotion it seeks to arouse is good -- relief and joy at God's providential care for your children. But the picture does not provide "due cause" to achieve this emotion. It cheats. It goes for "Oh, how cute!" bypassing the more volatile "Oh, how defenseless!" Because the girl is safely upper-middle-class, nothing truly horrible hangs over her. And Jesus is reassuringly within the Anglo-Saxon gene pool.

There's no desperation in that picture.

As opposed to this:

The Miraculous Draught of Fishesby Jacopo Bassano (1545) arouses many emotions, but they need sorting. (The National Gallery displays the work here.) One fisherman kneels in a posture that mixes helplessness, gratitude, and loyalty. Another, his features contorted in amazement, has just hopped onto Jesus' boat. He has abandoned the three remaining fishermen, who have to struggle with the catch and their boat by themselves.

My feelings about Bassano's Jesus are complicated. He does not appear to my eye first because his robe is a cool blue, and he is not at the center of the action. Even when I notice him, I don't feel that he is open to me. His back is turned, and I only see his face in a severe profile. Emotionally, he is remote from the frenzy of activity among the fishermen, with his posture erect, his face serene, and his hand raised in blessing.

This painting doesn't tell me what to feel. But it provokes many sentiments, and the more I reflect on them, the more force they have. I find myself responding to a King.

This is not a populist painting: Jesus is not "one of The People." But he is in the ordinary. The painting's complexities give it power.

The populist cannot trade in complexity. He controls his audience's emotions with a false simplicity -- us against them. He can arouse the uglier sentiments easily with slogans. But how can he arouse redeeming sentiments like gratitude when he has driven out the humility that gratitude requires?

It's no wonder evangelical church life is so emotionally unsatisfying. With harangues against the godless, we sing our own virtues, and then with sentimentality we invite each other to rest in coffins of self-regard.

The Uses of Suspicion

Populists are the virtuosi of ugly emotions. They always hit the right notes. So, in examining the evangelical version of the populist aesthetic, I started with resentment, the pedal tone that rumbles underneath us-and-them rhetoric. Now we examine the populist use of a related chord, suspicion.

The formula is well-known: the elite few have not only amassed money and power for themselves (which we resent), they're conspiring (we suspect) to use their unfair advantages to destroy our way of life.

Consider two quite different incidents of evangelical suspicion in response to films.

In 1989, evangelicals got wind of a Martin Scorsese film not yet finished, The Last Temptation of Christ. Lines from the screenplay and descriptions of scenes had leaked, and the way Christ was portrayed was shocking. So the grass-roots operations that had helped elect Ronald Reagan twice, and the elder George Bush once, swung into motion to protest the film.

The line I remember was, "Those people in Hollywood have gone too far this time!" The film confirmed long-standing suspicions that the Hollywood elites were out to discredit the faith. The massive protests marked a new phase of push-back in the culture wars. We were mad as heck, and we weren't going to take it anymore.

But it was the evangelicals who went too far. Their protests ensured blanket free-media publicity for the film's opening -- and accomplished little else.

Moral: Negative emotions get the masses moving, but not always in the right direction. In the case of Last Temptation, using people's suspicions to rally them for battle plugged the film, rather than sink it.

In 2004, Mel Gibson used evangelical church networks in an under-the-radar marketing campaign for his film, The Passion of the Christ. He gained the endorsements of prominent evangelical pastors, and held rough-cut screenings in large churches to invitation-only audiences. The campaign was a huge success.

I recall that the push to get on board with The Passion unleashed many evangelical sentiments. Some of the feelings were understandable -- a sense that the film was a significant evangelistic opportunity, for instance. But others led to profound misjudgments. Just to take one example, there was a sense that this was "our film," when it was really more from Roman Catholic traditions. Such distinctions seemed not to matter.

There was also a sense that Gibson had put himself at risk to produce "our film," both in terms of his finances and his career. I remember people talking about what "Hollywood" could "do to Mel" because he had made this film. "So we'd better get out there and support him, make the film a success." I heard this kind of thing from lay people as well as pastors. The Passion became a way "we" could hit back at "them."

Evangelicals heavily invested their credibility in Gibson. They defended him, in particular, against charges that the film was anti-Semitic. So when Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks during his DUI arrest on July 28, 2006, there was nowhere for evangelicals to run. How were we going to defend "our guy?"

Moral: Suspicion drives groups to choose their friends based on their enemies. Gibson's testimony of life-change sounded a lot better when he was overturning the chessboard in Hollywood than it did when he was railing against the Jews.

I'm not saying that Last Temptation was really a good film, while The Passion was really a bad one. I'm not saying that Scorsese was really sincere and well-motivated, while Gibson was really just a slick manipulator. I've never seen either film, nor have I looked into the hearts of the two men, who have both been held to account for their public words and deeds.

I am saying that evangelicals got very public black eyes in both cases because of their addiction to us-and-them populism. They picked both fights and friends on the basis of point-scoring opportunism.

I am also saying that evangelicals learned populism from politics, not from the Bible. The uses of suspicion for organizing the grass-roots, for fund-raising, and for Sunday morning fulminations, are many. If the goal is to keep people's view of their own team inflated, then populism works.

But if the goal is to soften souls -- which the Bible says our goal ought to be -- then the uses of suspicion are few.

Evangelicals, Populism, and Resentment

Evangelicals are hard to understand without reference to populism (as we've discussed here). So let's delve into the populist aesthetic and see how it works. Consider the usefulness of ugly emotions. The quintessential populist speech was delivered by William Jennings Bryan in 1896, at the Democratic convention that nominated him for president. The issue that year was the gold standard, which Bryan opposed because he said a limited money supply harmed farmers and laborers. His speech bristles with at least two kinds of resentment.

On the surface, Bryan expresses resentment of wealth. He turns to the pro-gold delegates in the convention hall and says, "When you come before us and tell us that we are about to disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your course." Populism is often reduced to this formulation, that the rich are too rich. But Bryan is talking about something deeper.

He targets the issue of status, asserting a new definition of a "business man." Notice the socially explosive contrasts:

The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the crossroads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain . . . .

That's powerful stuff, not because it's about money, but because it's about status -- the relative worth of rural and urban people. The paragraph expresses people's resentment when their culture fades under the dominance of something alien. Here's another explosive moment from Bryan's speech:

You come and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

This rhetoric aims at the gut. It pits one way of life against another.

The populist aesthetic of resentment has not changed after 112 years of campaigning. Here is Governor Mike Huckabee, the evangelical former-candidate, in a speech at an Elks Lodge in Cedar Rapids, Iowa before the caucuses last January:

If you go to caucus Thursday night and give me an opportunity to come out of here winning this caucus, I am going to tell you, it will stun the political chattering class — all those folks out there in the Wall Street to Washington axis of power who love to predict what you are going to do, who have it all figured out, because after all, money is what makes politics. It is all about the money.

It's only "about the money" for Huckabee to the extent that money is a symbol of status. Notice his word choices, aimed at the guts of the Elks Lodge members. There is an "axis of power" -- power over you -- that runs from "Wall Street to Washington" -- not the locations but the class markers. The rich people in the axis "love to predict what you are going to do."

More from the same speech: "Well, I know I have been outspent in this state 20 to 1. I understand what that means. Just like some of you understand that your whole life you feel like you have been outspent 20 to 1 in about everything you have ever tried to do." See the heads nod vigorously. "That's right. Everything I have ever tried to do."

On Super Tuesday, after winning several southern states, Huckabee linked his constituency's anger at the party establishment to the obvious biblical images. As reported in the New York Times he said, “Tonight, we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor.” He took a specific shot at Mitt Romney: “And we’ve also seen that the widow’s mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world.” Gold again.

On some other blog, they can argue about the economics of the middle class. I'm not saying that everything's financially rosy in the average household.

I am saying that evangelicals now use a political rhetoric that flatters "true believers" and creates whole classes of enemies they can blame for their woes. Wall Street wants to buy the Iowa caucuses. Washington bureaucrats are conspiring to destroy the family. Hollywood elites are imposing their values on The People.

I have two questions:

1. Does populism leave the evangelical soul softer or harder?

2. Does an agnostic bond trader on Wall Street know that there's a difference between crucifying Jesus on the cross of Calvary and crucifying farmers on a cross of gold? Will the farmers be able to help him distinguish the two?

By the way, in 1896 William McKinley won the presidency and Bryan lost.

Evangelicals and Populist Suicide

Decades ago, evangelicals and their hard-bitten brethren, the fundamentalists, rode off the cultural cliff, and the flag that snapped in the wind all the way down bore the stripes of populism. We've discussed here and here how believers are afraid of interacting with American culture. Fundamentalists shun the larger culture because they fear the contamination of worldliness. The position of evangelicals is softer. They adopt the forms of the consumer culture, using TV and pop idioms freely, but only in a parallel media universe that mimics the secular originals.

Believers have many historical models for participating in contemporary culture while living out pure doctrine, ethics, and spirituality -- models like the Princeton theologians we sketched last week. But both evangelicals and fundamentalists have rejected these models. We no longer produce leaders with the cultural depth of a J. Gresham Machen. The exceptions, like Francis Schaeffer, are glaring.

I believe we have rejected our historical models because we now see them as elitist. To hold the attitudes that education and the life of the mind should be important values in the local church, that the arts should be a vibrant part of church life, or that genuine scholarship in the pulpit is the least a congregation should expect, is to incur many evangelicals' wrath.

Regular people don't see the point of such fancy talk. And if regular people don't see the point, then there is no point. (I'm not slamming "regular people" here. I'm articulating what I think has become an ethos. I happen to think "regular people" will provide ways forward for evangelicalism.)

This expectation that spiritual leaders will set everything according to the standards of "regular people" is new, and distinctly American. It results from the evangelical embrace of populism.

I use the term populism in a specific sense. I refer to the political and cultural aesthetic that traces at least as far back as Andrew Jackson. This aesthetic transcends parties and factions, and has expressed itself across the ideological spectrum. It has these basic characteristics:

1. Populism is agrarian, southern, and western.

Jackson was from Tennessee, and was far removed from the aristocracy of Virginia and Massachusetts. He cast the aristocratic John Quincy Adams out of the presidency, and the shindig after Jackson's first inauguration left the walls of the White House smeared with cheese. Other populist figures in American history have been William Jennings Bryan (born in Illinois, moved to Nebraska), and Huey Long (governor of, and later U.S. senator from, Louisiana.)

The fact that evangelicalism is strongest in rural, southern, and western regions is not coincidental. Evangelicals have deeply anti-urban attitudes.

2. Populism feeds on suspicion of corporate, academic, financial, and cultural "elites."

Jackson was bent on destroying the Bank of the United States. Bryan made his career opposing the gold standard. Among this year's presidential contenders, the most virulent populists were John Edwards, pitting the "two Americas" against each other, and Mike Huckabee, pitting evangelicals against Republican insiders. Populists hate power "in the hands of a few."

Evangelical fear of "cultural elites" needs no elaboration. Used as a money-raising appeal, its effect is primal.

3. Populism is animated by resentment.

One of the things that makes populists so compelling is that they feel the resentments of a particular class personally. Jackson seemed to draw life from anger. Bryan identified closely with the plight of agrarian people in an increasingly industrial society. George Wallace was not compelling because he was a racist, as people outside the south imagine, but because his hostility to northern liberals was completely sincere. (Gay Talese is enlightening on this point about Wallace in his memoir, A Writer's Life.)

I may be flirting with controversy here, but . . . evangelicals thrive on their own cultural resentments. The Hollywood elite. The scientific establishment. The Ivy League elites. Evangelicals both cherish and resent their status as outsiders.

4. Populism can evoke positive emotions only through sentimentality.

As rhetoricians, populists gain quick and questionable access to wells of loyalty through cheap symbolism. The flag. "And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free." Jimmy Carter (not James E.) in his cardigan sweater, carrying his own luggage. Bill Clinton's suddenly thickening accent.

Evangelical sentimentality is egregious. The juxtaposition of the stars and stripes with the cross. The happy-clappy music. The weepy testimonies. The southern pronunciation of CHEE-zus. Our dependence on these tricks is an embarrassment.

Line up Machen against these characteristics and he fails on every count. He was from the northeast. He was an Ivy League elite. The notes he hit in his rhetoric were not resentment and sentimentality. He made his case with scholarship, and based his appeals on principled reasoning.

This is probably why the Princeton leaders lost influence among fundamentalists, as the voices against modernism became less theologically informed and more populist. Like William Jennings Bryan, who turned the Scopes trial into a media frenzy and lost the cultural contest to Clarence Darrow -- lost it big time.

Over the next several weeks, I'll examine such issues as how the populist aesthetic works, how specific evangelical leaders like Mike Huckabee use it, what populism does to local churches, and why populism will always fail. I will not argue for a return to elitism. Still less will I argue that we need "another Machen," or "another Princeton."

But I will argue that evangelicals are deluded about the flag they carried off the cultural cliff. Their flag did not proclaim, "Jesus Saves!" Their flag said, "Small Towns Forever!"