Struggling With Evangelicalism: Why I Want to Leave and What It Takes to Stay
Reviewed date: 2021 Nov 19
Dan Stringer writes clearly and impactfully. But I realized about halfway through that while I have a lot of complaints about evangelicalism, I don't struggle with evangelicalism. It's a good book, but the book isn't really for me.
For people who do struggle with evangelicalism--and there are a lot--this is a great book. For one thing, Dan Stringer does a good job of encouraging people to be aware that evangelicalism is not the entirety of Christianity, and in fact most Christians in the world and in history are not evangelicals. It's a fact that evangelicals (American ones anyway) sometimes don't realize. And I very much appreciate how he first takes the time to acknowledge the strengths of evangelicalism before he gets into the part about recognizing and repenting of the problems.
The Following Is My Reaction
This review is largely my personal reaction to Dan Stringer's book. I have my own experience and my own point of view, which may not always intersect with the author's or with yours. The parts of the book I find interesting and the parts I choose to respond to may not even be the author's main points (I spend a lot of time nitpicking on the interpretation of one Scripture passage, for example, and I am intensely interested in Fundamentalism, a topic he didn't even address.) So take this for what it is, my response to a book that wasn't even written for me.
A Brand and a Space
One of the key concepts Stringer discusses is the difference between evangelicalism as a brand and evangelicalism as a space. If it's a brand, it's just a label we can discard as soon as it picks up some bad press. But because it's a space, discarding the label doesn't get us very far. Even if we change the name or if we say we're no longer evangelical, the "space" still exists. That is, the shared culture of the millions of people who are doing church in this particular way--we won't disappear overnight if we decide to stop calling ourselves evangelicals.
And because evangelicalism is a space, Stringer says that those of us who continue to inhabit it have a responsibility for what happens in this space. Rejecting the label doesn't absolve us of that responsibility.
Part 1: Awareness
First Stringer defines the evangelical space and the evangelical brand. For the evangelical space, he looks to the work of Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who identifies evangelicalism as four things at once: "a theological category, a cultural movement, a white religious brand, and a diverse global movement." Within the theological category, he looks at the Bebbington Quadrilateral which characterizes the four emphases of evangelicalism as conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism. Or, alternatively, he mentions Thomas Kidd whose definition of an evangelical includes three components: conversion (aka, born again), a high view of the Bible, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Next, Stringer talks about evangelicalism as a brand. Evangelicalism as a brand differs from evangelicalism as a space in four main ways: it is political rather than religious, it's white American rather than multiracial and global, it's consumed rather than inhabited, and it's individual vs. collective.
So, to sum up:
- Evangelicalism as four overlapping things (Du Mez)
- Theological category (Bebbington Quadrilateral)
- Cultural movement
- White religious brand
- Diverse global movement
- Theological category (Bebbington Quadrilateral)
- Evangelicalism as a Brand (Du Mez's "white religious brand")
- Political, not religious
- White American, not multiracial and global
- Consumed, not inhabited
- Individual, not collective
- Evangelicalism as four overlapping things (Du Mez)
Next, after we know what evangelicalism is, Stringer puts it into the larger context of Christianity. There are other forms of Christianity, other "faith streams" as Stringer calls it, and it's helpful to compare and contrast evangelicalism with other kinds of Christianity. We need to know where we are within the larger thing that is Christianity.
This allows us to begin the process of seeing the strengths of evangelicalism, its weaknesses, and how it has shaped our worldview and understanding. That leads into the next big section of the book: Appreciation.
Part 2: Appreciation
It's important to understand the strengths of evangelicalism, to appreciate them, and to recognize the value they've given you. This is true even if you have problems with evangelicalism, although Stringer is careful to say that the "book’s purpose isn’t to foster a kind of Stockholm syndrome whereby you’re taught to sympathize with an abuser. I don’t want to drum up positive regard for an entity that hasn’t made any positive impact in your life."
Part 3: Repentance
Next, Stringer works us through recognizing and repenting of the failings of evangelicalism. And this is where I wish he had been more specific. I understand that he is trying to walk us through the process, and he is trying not to tie the book too specifically to the problems he has with evangelicalism. But for a book that is so personal and so much about his own story, it is odd to get coy when it comes to his own complaints about evangelicalism.
Is it the complementarianism, Dan? Is it the rejection of gay marriage? The refusal to accept transgenderism? Is it the televangelists? Purity culture? Or the sexual abuse scandals? Is it Ravi Zacharias and Mark Driscoll? Is it the politics? OK, yes, he does say it's the politics. He does tell us that much.
An aside: on the political point I agree with him: I reject the evangelicalism that is tied up in American politics, the Republican party, Donald Trump, and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Stringer throws out some examples of how the church has committed evil under the guise of righteousness. Martin Luther fanned the flames of antisemitism that eventually led to the Holocaust. Apartheid in South Africa. The Doctrine of Discovery and the colonization of the Americas. Those are fine examples of the sins of Christianity, but not of evangelicalism. Let's get specific about the sins of evangelicalism.
The bulk of this section, though, is spent in teaching us how and why to repent communally. Evangelicalism (or at least white American evangelicalism) is so individualistic that we are unsure whether it's even permitted to repent communally. So Stringer takes us through some biblical examples, and also introduces us to some native Hawaiian culture to help us understand why and how to repent as a community.
Now here's where I'm going to go off the rails, take something Stringer said, and get on my own little soapbox about it. This is my little rant (good-natured, I hope; it's not in anger, it's just something that caught my attention and sent me off on a few hours of personal study.) It has to do with the way he handles a particular passage of Scripture.
“Jesus didn’t seek baptism because he thought he was guilty of individual sin. Jesus understood himself as more than an individual person. He was a member of his community, a people who needed to repent. In that sense, Jesus did not view the sins of his people as anything other than his own. If Jesus participated in corporate repentance for Israel’s sins, how much more should modern-day evangelicals?”
- Dan Stringer, Struggling with Evangelicalism p.132
I'm not sure the text of the Bible supports the claim that Jesus "participated in corporate repentance for Israel's sins" when he received John's baptism. The practice of corporate repentance is found throughout the Bible, so we don't need this particular event to be an act of corporate repentance in order to advocate for today's evangelical Christians to practice corporate repentance.
Dan Stringer has more theological training than I do, but I did a quick check of some commentaries and didn't see any historical evidence for Jesus' baptism being interpreted as an act of corporate repentance. I'm not going to accuse Stringer of a completely novel interpretation of Matthew 3:15--there are some commentaries that offer this view, or something close to it--but it's certainly not the majority view or even a common view based on my brief survey. (How does one make an individual act of corporate repentance, anyway? Never mind, never mind.)
Stringer's point is solid enough without this piece of evidence. I'm leery of this potential misuse of Scripture, because I think he's reading his own preconceptions into the text rather than letting the text guide his thinking. But as I said already, there's plenty of evidence for corporate repentance in the Bible, so the through-line of Stringer's reasoning is valid even if this example is not.
Part 4: Renewal
Next, Stringer talks us through a typical scenario of someone who grows up in an evangelical faith stream and becomes disillusioned and leaves the faith. He identifies four flaws in evangelicalism that make it easy for people to fall away.
- Celebrity dependence
- Thin ecclesiology
- Propensity for schism
- Complicity with idolatry and injustice
Stringer points out that sometimes renewing or fixing something is not the best choice; some things are broken to the point where it's better to start afresh. But for those who stay in evangelical spaces, we should work at renewing and making evangelicalism better. He points out some specific things we can do.
- Name particularity - Be particular when talking about evangelicalism, calling it evangelicalism. Don't be sloppy and refer to Christianity when you mean evangelicalism.
- Adopt realism
- Lament corporately
- Talk less about the brand, more about the space
- Listen to ex-evangelicals' stories of how and why they left - Obviously, you want to know what's wrong you have to listen to the people who were hurt.
- Look to the margins - I.e., pay attention to the marginalized people
- Speak up
- Keep the onus off those being harmed
- Notice the demographics
- Use your platform
Stringer does talk specifically about elevating women's voices, which I guess is important if you're an egalitarian. Which I am. I am cautiously egalitarian. But I recognize that complementarianism is strong within evangelical spaces and I recognize it as legitimate theology that is within the bounds of orthodoxy. But it is important that those who have only known complementarianism be shown that there are other views. Within evangelicalism there is room for women in ministry. We can have these discussions with civility and mutual respect.
I kind of went off the rails at the end there and may not have accurately summarized Stringer's main points. I apologize. This review is becoming over-long and I tire.
Fundamentalism Is Missing
I am unsure what to make of a book about the problems of evangelicalism that mentions Fundamentalism only once, in passing.
From my perspective, no study of Evangelicalism can be complete without grappling with the influence of Fundamentalism. I am adamant--adamant, I say--that Fundamentalism is distinct from Evangelicalism. There is some overlap at the edges, and we are similar, but we are not the same. However, many Christians and non-believers get us confused or are unaware there is a difference.
I hesitate to presume what Stringer would say, but my observation is that while Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are doctrinally and theologically distinct, we share the same space. (I'm speaking mainly of America here, because it's all I know.) The wider culture certainly has a hard time distinguishing us, possibly because a lot of Fundamentalists like to claim they are just conservative Evangelicals. (They aren't.) If we look at the different overlapping categories (theological, cultural, white religious brand, and global movement) then Fundamentalists certainly inhabit the same cultural space as Evangelicals.
How do you tell the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical? Ask them if they like Billy Graham. Evangelicals love Billy Graham; fundamentalists believe he compromised.
How do you tell the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical? Ask them what is the eternal destiny of Catholics. For the Fundamentalist, all Catholics are going to hell. Evangelicals are not so certain.
- C Michael Patton, The Difference Between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist in a Nutshell, Credo House.
Let me add my own, the VeggieTales test. I asked my wife whether her Fundamentalist friend ever let her kids watch VeggieTales. She laughed. "No, VeggieTales is too wishy-washy."
So Evangelicals love VeggieTales, Fundamentalists think it's wishy-washy and compromised. But here's the crucial bit: the Fundamentalists know about VeggieTales. They're part of the same space. Oh, not completely. But generally, we inhabit the same space.
Still, for me, an important distinctive of Evangelicalism is that we are not Fundamentalists. I would sooner convert to Orthodoxy than to Fundamentalism.
Now, as to why Stringer doesn't talk about Fundamentalism in a book about struggling with Evangelicalism, it's probably because nobody struggles with Evangelicalism and ends up Fundamentalist. It's always the other way, leaving Evangelicalism for more liberal forms of Christianity.
The few that go the other way, from Evangelicalism to Fundamentalism, would never use the terminology of "struggling" with anything. It would be framed in terms of principles, adherence to biblical truth, and a righteous refusal to compromise.
To Capitalize or Not
I haven't decided whether I prefer Evangelicalism or evangelicalism. The capitalization seems too self-important, but lowercasing the term seems insufficient. Perhaps I should compromise on lowercase evangelical as an adjective and capitalized Evangelicalism as a noun.