In 1667 Richard Allestree, a prominent clergymen in the Church of England, wrote a lengthy work entitled The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety. As he surveyed the world around him, he was convinced that England was a country which had, for its sins, experienced the wrath of God’s providential judgment. In 1666 a massive fire had burned down a substantial part of London. Fire was and is a potent symbol; it signified the holiness of God (burning bush, Pentecost) in both its beneficent and judicial forms – God was a consuming fire in more ways than one. For Allestree the solution to the problem was evident, as the rest of his title makes clear: An Impartial Survey of the Ruines of Christian Religion, Undermin’d by unchristian Practice.
While it would be a mistake to draw a straight line between seventeenth-century English Protestantism and today’s Anglo-American evangelicalism, one Reformation trait they continue to share is an abiding concern to connect belief and practice in a way that remains true what early moderns called “Primitive Christianity.” This reforming impulse, as mutated as it has been by the intervening years, continues to animate an evangelicalism that in America is showing signs of increasing strain, perhaps even decline. David Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism?, one of the most recent forays into the territory of evangelical navel-gazing, fits squarely within this longstanding Protestant tradition. In short, Fitch asks if there is a way evangelicals can recover the “core” of their beliefs and practices, discovering a “new faithfulness” for the twenty-first century.
The answer to this question is provided through the lens of the well-known evangelical quadrilateral developed by the historian David Bebbington. This quadrilateral, which Bebbington argues defines historical evangelicalism, consists of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. The End of Evangelicalism? translates this into the evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy, in the “decision for Christ” of personal salvation by substitutionary atonement, and in America as a Christian nation. Fitch then offers a critique of the practices these beliefs have generated through the equally entertaining, enlightening, and infuriating philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Briefly put, evangelicals have been shaped by a set of beliefs Fitch claims have been “reified,” abstracted, and turned into static ideals, forming them into communities and persons who embody something other than what their beliefs imply; the decline of evangelicalism stems from un-evangelical practice.
The crux of the issue for Fitch is that evangelical politics is fundamentally “empty,” defined by the hot-button issues they are against rather than what they are for, shaping evangelicals into the arrogant, exclusivist, dispassionate and duplicitous people the rest of society sees them as. The solution is to recover the “core” of evangelical beliefs in a much more robust re-interpretation of the Bebbington quadrilateral, derived from a range of thinkers as diverse as Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder, which will reinstantiate a “politics of presence” and enable evangelicals to embrace an “authentic witness, hospitable engagement, and the daily inhabitation of God’s mission.”
In spite of a repetitive style, continually reiterating his main points and the authors from whom he derives them, readers could do a lot worse than Fitch’s book if the fate of evangelicalism is of any concern to them. It remains an open question, I think, whether or not Fitch’s proposal will be sufficiently “evangelical” enough for evangelicals themselves and, more seriously, whether or not his proposal will avoid the pitfalls of ideology he sets himself against—is there really any such ideology-free zone? Nonetheless Fitch’s infectious optimism and his generous disagreement offers a practical way forward for both evangelicals and those of us who continue to navigate the rich, treacherous, and ambivalent landscape of belief.
The End of Evangelicalism? by David Fitch. Wipf & Stock, 2011, 252pp.
[This post originally appeared at Patrolmag.com]