When Bossy Alphas Hijack A Faith

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Stay tuned for preludes of things to come.

I’ve been writing a book, tentatively entitled The Intimidator’s Club, that wrestles with the question: “What do I do when the near-angelic choir that wooed me to Christ morphs into an attack dog platoon?” I’ll post sample chapters in the coming weeks.

To summarize: The very word, “evangelical,” has mutated. It was once an exclusively theological term liberating us from stifling fundamentalism while still lofting the Scriptures high. It honored such diverse thinkers as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonites), Philipp Jakob Spener of the German Pietists, and John Wesley. Nineteenth-century heroes included abolitionists and social reformers. In the mid-twentieth century, the prominent evangelical politicians were moderate-to-liberals such as Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa (1922-1996), Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon (1922-2011), and, of course, President Jimmy Carter. Evangelicals were brainy, urbane, and culturally engaged. Joyful Jesus Freaks emblemized the word in the popular mind during the 1970’s.

But the Jesus Freaks coarsened into rock-hard bullies and traded classical Christian confessions for politically partisan dogmas. Many self-identified white evangelicals threw their enthusiasm behind a philandering, wife-dumping, serial-lying, thrice-married real estate mogul for president in 2016, then adjusted their beliefs to fit his silhouette. Polls showed they no longer believed in the relevance of a statesman’s character – which, perhaps, should come as no surprise: Other studies revealed they abandoned orthodox doctrines.

So much for a back-to-the-Bible movement. We’re left with a question: Are the majority of today’s self-identified white evangelicals truly evangelical?

Much has been written about the partisan coup. The Intimidator’s Club discusses that, then probes the malady beneath the symptom: Domineering, take-no-prisoner alpha personalities hijacked the community and stirred an atmosphere of fear. I mull over the takeover in four parts. First, I tell my saga: I came to Christ through a loving church but, eventually, got bruised. Second, I provide examples from the bully world. A consistent theme emerges: Threats replace genuine argument, with conflict-adverse moderate evangelicals yielding all the way. Third, I trace intimidating, alpha-dominated evangelicalism’s seeds back to the mid-twentieth-century evangelical resurgence, when leaders such as Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham shelved the “fundamentalist” brand and called themselves neo-evangelicals (the “neo” was soon dropped). They were intelligent, gracious, and admirable. They encouraged cultural engagement and promoted the life of the mind. But, unfortunately, they never fully divorced themselves from fundamentalism and they embraced the 19th-century Princeton theologians, who led just one of evangelicalism’s clans. The Princetonians encouraged creedal and biblical faithfulness along with intellectual rigor, and they sought to be fair to those with whom they disagreed. We can commend them and learn from them, but we must also beware their flaws: They sifted all teaching through a peculiarly dry, cerebral Calvinistic sieve that didn’t do justice to Calvinism itself. That paved the path for a neo-fundamentalist come-back in the late ‘70’s, with dour advocates emulating the Princetonians’ teaching but jettisoning their grace. Even respected scholars blow down straw men and misrepresent those they deem opponents — who are really allies with minor disagreements. Meanwhile, many Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians – composing an evangelical subset embracing intimacy with the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship – have plunged into a strange universe in which superstar “apostles” and “prophets” potentially rule by fiat.

It’s a grim story, soaked in power’s allure.

But there’s hope, the theme of Part Four. Tim Keller and others flourish a kinder, richer brand of Calvinism for their clan and from which others can learn; Ed Brown campaigns for the environment as he leads Care of Creation, Inc., and the Lausanne Movement’s global creation care network; the Vineyard Church of Evanston, Illinois, exemplifies the Association of Vineyard Churches’ quest for multi-ethnicity and holistic Christianity. A chapter describes each ministry.

To steal a phrase from Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address: There’s nothing wrong with evangelical Christianity that cannot be cured with what is right with evangelical Christianity. Perhaps the word “evangelical” should shelved for the time being, but a remnant is preserving the compelling thought behind the traditional sense of the term.

Thus this critical book ends in buoyancy as it pinpoints a solution: Evangelicalism’s dilemma does not lie with grumbling ex-evangelicals or trendy new theologies – which are not that new – but in returning to the Scriptures its intellects once promulgated. The back-to-the-Bible people can get back to the Bible as they rediscover intimacy with God and fellowship with like-minded Christians.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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4 Comments on “When Bossy Alphas Hijack A Faith”

  1. Ryan Says:

    Looking forward to the book, Chuck. I really appreciate the premise.

    I have asked the question: “How have we gotten here?” with complete bewilderment many times over the last few years. Looking forward to hearing your perspective.

    Reply

  2. Ralph Peter Mason Says:

    Hi Chuck,

    You are eloquent and engaging!

    There are many disappointed souls who are disconnected from the evangelical church today. I look forward to you drawing a magnet through the sand to find something worth embracing.

    I feel like “looking good” has replace “being good.”

    Your “old” high school friend, Peter.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Evangelical” Once Meant Freedom | The Alternative Mainstream - September 7, 2018

    […] of partisan orthodoxy. I’m giving a sneak preview with a few sample chapters. The synopsis is here; an autobiographical sample is […]

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