This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series: ‘The Post-Evangelical’ (Tomlinson)
Why are many people irritated by certain aspects of ‘evangelical culture’? This is the question addressed in chapter 3 of Dave Tomlinson’s book The Post-Evangelical. A summary and a brief comment follow.
Even in New Testament times, people were arguing that Gentile believers must submit to the Jewish law in order to be real Christians. Throughout the Christian era, the missionary enterprise has been dogged by similar problems – requiring indigenous peoples to adopt not only a change of heart but also a change of culture. So it is that within evangelicalism has adopted, and seeks to impose, ‘conservative’ middle-class values on its members as if these values belonged to the essence of the Christian faith. This has an alienating effect on those who do not share those values, including ‘working-class’ people and many young people.
For example, traditional evangelicals have a particular model of the family which they regard as normative. This includes a view about the sanctity of marriage (in contrast to life-long, faithful partnerships). Evangelicals frown on co-habitating, whereas post-evangelicals find the prohibition ridiculous. Barth is quoted to the effect that a wedding ‘is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute marriage. The traditional model of the family also includes assumptions about roles and responsibilities. The husband is the head and the main breadwinner. The wife’s place is to support her husband, to be the home-maker, and to look after the children. Evangelicals accept that there have been major changes in these roles and responsibilities. But post-evangelicals go further, assuming sexual equality and indeed role reversal where that is what is desired. Again evangelicals recognise the two-parent family as the norm, and thereby end up patronizing or even alienating single parents. Once more, evangelicals adhere to the fundamental expectation that getting married and having children is the norm, and so ignore or misunderstand the needs of single people. What is needed is a recognition that it is the values that count, rather than the particular forms in which they are expressed. Tomlinson indicates his distress at evangelical attitudes towards gay people and same-sex partnerships, but does not develop this.
Evangelicals have a habit of confusing holiness with respectability. If a ‘notorious sinner’ is converted to Christ, he is viewed as a ‘prize catch’, but before long is under pressure to fit in with the prevailing culture. Many of yesterday’s evangelical taboos about smoking, drinking, theatre-going, and reading Sunday papers have been relaxed, which itself suggests that they were culturally-driven in the first place. Evangelicals have hang-ups about sex, and humour related to sex, because they cannot decide whether to regard it as ‘vulgar’ or ‘sacred’.
The post-evangelical way may be less easy to distinguish from ‘the world’. But that leaves it open to the very rebuke directed against Jesus – “there is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Luke 7:34). The real issue: in what ways are we supposed to be different from the world? And we must not saddle ourselves with the kinds of religious taboos that the apostles so resisted.
We must choose between a ready-made Christian morality and the harder task of thinking through difficult issues for ourselves. Many people are tired of being told what is right and what is wrong. They want to take responsibility for their own decisions and behaviour.
The comment that evangelicals tend to confuse the substance of their faith with its particular cultural (or subcultural) expressions is fair, although not particularly new. But other Christian writers (such as E.J. Carnell in his 1960 book The Case for Orthodox Theology) are more careful than Dave Tomlinson to define and clarify what that substance might be. It does not seem to have occurred to Tomlinson that evangelical attitudes towards the family – say, the norm of a two-parent family – might actually be grounded in some kind of coherent theology, or that the recognition of such a norm might not co-exist with a positive (that is to say, non-patronising, non-alienating) attitude towards those who do not conform to that norm. Most evangelicals know that Jesus was unmarried (none of them takes Dan’s Brown’s reconstruction of a Jesus wedded to Mary Magdalene seriously) and that at some point his father had probably died, leaving his mother a single parent.