Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission by David E. Fitch

David E. Fitch is B.R. Lindner Professor of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL and a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community in suburban Chicago. In 2005 he published The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies. He has a blog called Reclaiming the Mission. According to his blog, he considers himself an Anabaptist (or, Neo-anabaptist). His most recent book is the subject of this review: The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission.

Up front, I have to be honest. I didn't have any idea who David Fitch was when my friend, Todd Littleton, asked if I would be interested in reviewing his most recent book. I said "yes" mostly because of our friendship, with little to no real expectation for the book I would be reviewing. I was even more skeptical when I saw that the title references the "end of evangelicalism"--an issue that has been talked (almost) to death in the blogosphere.

With that in mind, let me just say that this book was a very pleasant surprise. To put it simply, Fitch's work is deeply insightful, carefully articulated, and charitably expressed. It is probably the most informed consideration of US evangelicalism I've ever read. (What more could you ask for, right?) I'm grateful for the opportunity to read it and provide a review (and endorsement!). I'm going to outline the book below, providing something of an overview of the material, as well as some relevant comments and critique that arise along the way.

In the "Introduction," Fitch presents the foundational problem for US evangelicalism as he sees it. In public perception and political influence, evangelicalism is in the midst of a great decline. He illustrates this decline in a number of ways and then poses the question: "Is our way of life failing to make the gospel compelling amidst the society in which we live?" His answer to this question is a resounding "yes." And, the crux of the issue is that evangelical beliefs and practices are no longer shaping our communal life in such a way that it embodies the Gospel (xiv, xv).

Fitch chooses to approach this crisis in evangelicalism using political theology, for the "politic" of evangelicalism is what is at issue. This is not primarily speaking of our various alliances within US national politics. Instead, this is speaking of "our way of life together unified and formed into an organic whole by our beliefs and practices of those beliefs" (xvi). This is our "politic" in a broad, holistic sense--what kinds of people we are in the world.

He goes on to explain that he is going to use the political theory of Slavoj Zizek to critique the corporate existence of evangelicals in order to show how we have devolved into an "empty politic." This empty politic, Fitch argues, has "shaped us as a people inhospitable to God's mission" (xvi). Then, he will propose what he calls a "politic of fullness," which he defines as one that "participates in the life of the Incarnate Christ as a work of the Father, extended through the Spirit into the world" (xvii). Despite the critical work that will be done (and there is a lot of it!), Fitch's aim is not to dismantle evangelicalism, but to "seek to provide an opening for evangelicalism to be renewed and to flourish into the missional calling that lies before us in the new post-Christendom West" (xvii).

In Chapter 1, Fitch describes what he believes to be the decline of evangelicalism in the US. Over a ten year period, he illustrates this decline by pointing to our diminishing national political influence, the proliferation of negative portrayals of evangelicals, the rise of leaders and movements to criticize evangelicalism (including Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and others), and the very high numbers of defection from evangelicalism, especially among college students. Fitch goes on to characterize this decline as a "political ideology in crisis." By looking at evangelicalism as an ideology, Fitch intends to explore the ways our belief system, or doctrine, has shaped us into "a certain kind of people with certain ways of life" (8).

The focus of his critique will be three core theological beliefs which, he argues, now function as "ideological objects around which evangelicals rally" (11). He draws these three beliefs from the description of evangelicalism proposed by historians David Bebbington and Mark Noll, and they include: (1) a high view of the authority of the Bible; (2) a strong belief in personal conversion experience; and (3) an activist engagement with culture. It is important to note that when Fitch takes these doctrinal elements under consideration, he does not deny them or suggest that they are wrong. Instead, he approaches them as the "ideological objects" they have become.

One of the important points of this chapter is the frankly stated notion that, "Our social presence (or lack thereof) has impaired our witness for the gospel" (9). This statement resonates with me in a big way. It seems that this is the nagging hunch most of us--my evangelical friends and colleagues and I--have had at the back of our minds for some time, but none of us really wanted to put it into words. Fitch just says it. And, I think he's right. Our body politic, the emptiness that exists where our compelling Christian life should be, is harming our mission in North America.

The next chapter is probably the most dense of the book, in which Fitch outlines the political and cultural theories of Slavoj Zizek. At this point, I won't go into detail about the relevant terms and ideas. To do so would mean replicating large portions of the chapter! Suffice it to say, Fitch provides a careful and clear explanation of the earlier period of Zizek's work for those unfamiliar with his thought (just about everyone!). He will use Zizek's philosophy to critique evangelicalism as a political ideology. He compares the use of Zizek to sitting down with a good therapist. Using Zizek's understanding of the way "empty politics" work, Fitch will provides a "psychoanalysis" of evangelicalism, helping to diagnosis our pathologies and neuroses. Fitch is careful to say, though, that Zizek will only help locate the problems; ultimately, his atheistic, nihilistic philosophy cannot provide the remedy.

In the chapters that follow, Fitch turns his attention to the three central "Master-Signifiers" of evangelicalism: "the Inerrant Bible," "the Decision for Christ," and "the Christian Nation." Again, it is important to realize that Fitch is NOT denying these ideas, theologically or otherwise. Instead, he is critiquing the way these ideas have come to function within evangelicalism--as empty ideological symbols that serve as litmus tests for identity, rather than formative doctrines that make evangelicals into committed, fruit-producing disciples of Jesus. He reveals the emptiness of these ideological objects by examining events in recent evangelical history ("irruptions") that reveal in sometimes bizarre and embarrassing ways, the failure of the evangelical politic in the US context.

Although all three chapters make compelling arguments, I found that the chapter on "the Inerrant Bible" resonated the most from personal experience. Based upon many years within evangelical churches and institutions, I think Fitch's conclusions regarding the way the ideological object of "inerrancy" functions in evangelical life is spot-on. "Damning" is the word that comes to mind. Here's an excerpt of Fitch's argument:

"The assertion of 'inerrancy'...acts as an identifier used to assert the organization's, church's, or one's own personal evangelical orthodoxy. It serves to generate a certain ideological identification that we are conservative Bible-believing Christians who can be trusted. It serves to identify a group as 'not liberal.' The actual belief, however, in 'the Inerrant Bible' means little in terms of what each evangelical organization or church actually believes about biblical interpretation, the manuscripts, and/or internal contradictions as exposed by higher biblical critics. It instead functions purely as a symbol, an 'empty signifier,' that binds evangelicals together for certain political purposes" (56).

After Fitch applies Zizek to evangelicalism, critiquing and exposing the three "Master-Signifiers" that have emptied our politic of fullness, in Chapter 6 he turns his attention to "Recovering the Core of Our Politics for Mission." Here, he outlines what he considers to be the possibility for a redeemed politic ("politic of fullness") that will be "a participation of people together in the gift of God the Father that enters into the world in the incarnate Christ as the Sent One and is extended into the world via the Holy Spirit...Here, at the Incarnation, the gift is full, and we are invited as a people into participating in the fullness of God's love flowing forth within the endless plenitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (126). In pursuit of this goal, Fitch suggests that what is needed is not a rejection of the three evangelical distinctives, previously critiqued, but an overcoming of their detachment from Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, who is the center of our political existence.

Then, Fitch considers each of the three evangelical doctrinal commitments in conversation with important contemporary Christian theologians, imagining a revised version of these commitments firmly rooted in the Incarnate Christ. Again, space and time limitations mean that I can't address the details of these arguments. Fitch engages with a dizzying plethora of theologians and to consider each of the engagements in turn would take a long series of blog posts. Some of the important thinkers Fitch employs for his project include Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, John Milbank, Dallas Willard, Henri de Lubac, William Cavanaugh, and John Howard Yoder.

When Fitch concludes Chapter 6, he has set forth a new direction for an evangelical theology and practice that will shape a people for God's mission. Though much more remains to be done (something he readily admits!), I think Fitch has gone a long way toward charting course of theological reflection for evangelicalism. Ultimately, he rightly calls on the work of Stanley Hauerwas to shore up his project, urging us "that if the character of our political existence does not emulate the gospel we preach, we should examine our belief and practice for the ways it has made such a social condition possible." Fitch's book is a call to do just that and a big contribution toward making this enterprise possible.

Finally, in the book's "Epilogue," Fitch considers three movements within evangelicalism over the past ten to fifteen years and critically considers them as "possibilities for new faithfulness." Charitable and careful in his criticism, Fitch suggests places of weakness and strength within the work of representative thinkers Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost (together). He concludes that "the emerging church movements, the missional church movements, as well as the neo-monastic and house church movements all show enormous promise for nurturing a new faithfulness" (200). Still, in his studied opinion, the outcome of their work for evangelicalism will depend upon their ability to avoid the "ideological traps" that Fitch points out.

Before addressing a few critical comments about Fitch's book, I should begin again by saying that I heartily recommend this volume. Fitch is a careful, deep thinker with an obvious love for Christ and the people of God. With The End of Evangelicalism?, he has made a very important contribution to evangelical theology and the endeavor of re-visioning the evangelical witness in North America.

With that in mind, I have three points of criticism and/or engagement with Fitch's work. The first has to do with his assertion that doctrines form people. This is the operative assumption when he says, "Evangelicals need to understand both how these doctrines have formed us as a people and to question whether indeed the resultant character of that community is congruent with the gospel we evangelicals have been called to proclaim to the nations" (12). I do not debate his overall point here. In fact, I completely agree. But, I think its important to point out that the formation of a people is a much more complicated process. We can't simply point to doctrines, for they are ideas--abstract notions that cannot actually "do" anything. What forms people is liturgy, ritual, behavior, and story (among other things). These things contain, communicate, and enact doctrine, but they aren't simply doctrine. For example, in reference to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, we could point to the AWANA children's program or expository preaching as things that form people based upon a particular doctrine. The doctrine itself didn't necessarily do the forming, but the practices did. I don't think Fitch would contest me on this point, but I think it is one that should be made.

Another question I have about this book relates to the basic categories of "fallen politic" versus "Christian politic" or "politic of fullness." I am very sympathetic with Fitch's conclusion that evangelicalism has, by and large, become a "fallen politic." The reified "ideological objects" he critiques have left us with an unredeeming cultural presence in the US. But, I have to wonder if the dualism of "fallen politic" versus "politic of fullness" ever really pans out. That is to say, isn't the church always-already-everywhere dealing with both? From early on, it seems the church, as a situated body of people struggling with the way Gospel interacts with culture, has always navigated the blurry edges between enculturation and syncretism--faithfulnss and "fallenness," if you will. Furthermore, because the church is the people of God, bearing the marks of Christ, can the church ever be completely fallen? And, because the church is full of sinful, broken human beings, can the church ever be completely "full"?

As careful as Fitch's analysis is, I wonder if it isn't even more complicated than he asserts. Christian compromise and cooperation with evil is nothing new, nor is it something we can completely avoid--especially in light of globalization and the proliferation of new technologies. There are always more and more people available to us to sin against! I am not a Niebuhrian realist, but I am incapable of an all-in dichotomy in the church-world relationship, either. Perfection is not possible for the body of Christ until the Lord's reign is inaugurated in full. In the mean time, I have to think that evangelicals will always deal with a mixture of "fallen" and "full" elements within our body politic. So, the question is, what do we do with that? What do we do with a body politic that is always-already-everywhere fallen and full?

Finally, in light of Fitch's criticism of evangelicalism's three major "ideological obejcts," I have to wonder about the way complementarian gender dualism functions in evangelicalism, too. Although not traditionally a part of the "fundamentals" from which twentieth century evangelicalism was birthed, a rigid sense of gender roles has become another hallmark of US evangelicalism today. (This, despite the work of such egalitarian evangelical organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality.) Ever since the 1920s, strong notions of masculinity and femininity, framed in patriarchal terms, has been a hallmark of fundamentalist evangelicalism from early on. Thanks to the likes of Al Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Paige Patterson, et al, a hierarchical view of gender relations has become yet another litmus test for orthodoxy in recent decades. And, in my estimation, it could be argued that it too has become a "Master-Signifier"--an empty ideological object that contributes nothing of real practical (read: missional) effect in the lives of evangelical Christians. To put it in Fitch's terms, it could be argued that the complementarian model of gender dualism is not shaping our communal life in such a way that it embodies the Gospel.

I see this when so-called "traditional" wives and mothers speak in exalted language about the importance of submission to their "spiritual heads" (their husbands) and then turn around and giggle in private about the wife being the "neck" that turns the "head" where she pleases. I see this when evangelicals erupted in debate over the 2008 vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin--an accomplished politician and mother of five. Despite very clearly established norms of gender relations for "regular" women, evangelical leaders found themselves contorting themselves in theological gymnastics seeking a way to affirm the legitimacy of Palin's very public role, despite her calling as wife and mother. And, I see this in the absurdity of bans on women preachers being interpreted to prohibit women speaking from the pulpit, praying in public, and voicing opinions in church meetings. (These are examples of what Fitch calls examples of "overidentification," which display the emptiness and absurdity of the ideology at its core.) All of these things (and more) suggest to me that, perhaps, the hierarchical gender relations constantly spouted by the evangelical faithful are another "ideological object" worthy of deconstruction within evangelicalism today.

Before concluding this review, I should address a few practical points for potential readers of The End of Evangelicalism?. First, it is important to keep in mind that Fitch's work in this volume is not an easy read, even for educated laypersons. It is in an academic book series and engages with the work of a little known political and cultural theorist. The reader will need to be able to engage with a description of Zizek's political and cultural theory, as well as a number of important 20th Century theological figures. Personally, I think the mental workout one will receive is worth the effort, but this is something potential readers will want to keep in mind before dolling out the required cash.

Speaking of cash, if you look it up on Amazon, you'll see the book priced at a hefty $28, for a paperback (!). But, let me just say that if you are an evangelical seeking to think critically about your context, especially a minister, lay leader, professor, or other vocation within the evangelical milieu, this book is worth the price. And that's coming from a mother of two children with a youth minister husband, living on a graduate student stipend!

After reading David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism, I have put his previous volume, The Great Giveaway on my Amazon Wish List. I will continue to think deeply about the issues he has raised while I pursue my own vocation as theological teacher in evangelicalism today. And, I look forward to reading more from him in the future.


Fred Smith said...

1) I need to read this book! I've been thinking about these kinds of issues for years, but he has apparently put his finger on some matters I've only explored lightly. (BTW, you, and he, are explicit about his debt to Slavoj Zizek, but I wonder if he is as aware of Aristotle lurking in the deep background of his thought.)

2) You need to contact him and dicuss your point about how doctrine actually functions in the formation of evangelicalism. You are right when you say "The doctrine itself didn't necessarily do the forming, but the practices did. I don't think Fitch would contest me on this point, but I think it is one that should be made." Yes, and you should make it to Fitch and get his reaction to it--it may influence a possible second edition in the years ahead.

Scott said...

Why dole out the cash? Use your public library! My public library allows me to borrow from academic libraries nearby that almost always have the books I want to look at. If I decide they are worth reading, I usually have six weeks to read the book for having to return the book.