Evangelicalism’s 50 First Dates
Remember 50 First Dates with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore? It was the winsome, romantic comedy of a young woman who suffered from short-term memory loss. Lucy remembers nothing from the previous day, which means that Henry, her suitor, must reinvent himself every day and reintroduce himself to her.
In the article The Evangelical Crisis I said that Evangelicalism suffers from historical amnesia. Like the movie 50 First dates, it has a past locked somewhere in its memory, frozen in time, but every day from that point on is forgotten, as if they never existed. The problem is that important things happened during those missing days that can help us meet the challenges we face today. What if God had been visiting you a thousand times, bringing you flowers and taking you on outings and professing His love to you, and you never knew? What if there were a two-thousand years of dates between God and mankind that you never knew about? Imagine what you would have missed.
Evangelicalism is not the only Christian sub-culture in America that has this problem. Most of the mainline Protestant churches, including the “liberal” ones, share the same problem. The only difference is where the memory lapse begins and how much time was lost. Some churches have no memory of anything since the book of Acts. Others regained their memory at the Reformation, only to forget it again. It seems that American Christianity has gotten a bump to its head!
Now, I have to be fair, there are plenty of evangelical pastors and churches that are doing a great job of sourcing the ancient Christian past, but as a whole, it seems that those are the exceptions to the rule. I want to make that distinction clear. So, when I am talking about evangelical-ism, I am talking about the modern cultural expression of American Christianity. As a Christian sub-culture, it is more than the sum of its parts. It is the manifest expression of the felt beliefs, experience, unspoken rules, and meta-narrative of that particular religious society. In other words — the sum-total of Evangelical Christianity has patterns of worship, speech, and thought that are shared and are together taken as evangelical-ism. So my criticism should not be taken to be against individual people or churches, but of the cultural phenomena that attend it.
Any people that have no memory of their past live the tyranny of the present. When you have rejected the past all you have is the present and all you can do is reinvent yourself every day. Certainly, any spirituality that must succumb to this will eventually burn itself out. Not only is there not enough creativity to keep it interesting, but there’s also no way to test what works and what does not. If you have ever wondered why modern churches must have “new experiences” every week to keep people excited and engaged it is because they are slaves to the present with no grounding in the stuff that makes for stability.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it!” The phrase, attributed to George Santayana, is all too common and has lost its import. It is not that we will repeat a past calamity unawares, but that our present crisis would not be if we knew our past and heeded it. If Evangelicalism is in crisis it is because it is in poverty. It is in poverty because it cannot access the memory of a shared spiritual tradition that would aid us in the great spiritual crisis of our time. The crisis does not only belong to evangelicals. It belongs to the post-modern man. Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned us of it in his speech A World Split Apart, at Harvard in 1978. He finished with these words:
If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.
This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.
There is no ascension if we are slaves to the present. When we have no memory of the past, of how we overcame great spiritual and moral battles, we can be nothing other than slaves to the present. Modern Christians who have no connection with the spiritual traditions of other Christians at other times, or of the ancient Christian past, are left to the tyranny of the present and the despair of the future. Having no memory of the past we have no map, no guides in the valley of the shadow of death.
Evangelicalism’s crisis comes in the face of a human crisis. It is a social crisis. A spiritual crisis. It is our crisis, and it is evidenced in anxiety disorders and abandoned Faith, and despair to know the Truth. Our modern formulas are unable to answer it. Evangelicalism, with its historical amnesia, is unable to answer it and that is why it is being abandoned. But neither can progressivism. Progressive Christianity will be, as a child of Evangelicalism and heir to the same amnesia, unable to answer it. How can we meet the future when we have forgotten our most significant lessons?
Christianity is bigger than Evangelicalism. It is bigger than Protestantism. It is bigger than the Roman Catholic Church. It is richer than all of these together. Its wealth is not in gold or properties, it is in the lives of those who have gone before us. What we have forgotten is the rich spiritual tradition that spans across Christian traditions. There is nothing that prevents you, dear soul, from drawing from these wells.
The crushing forces of materialism pour continuously over the Western soul like yards of wet concrete — entombing the unwise. A constant stream of distraction inures the spirit to the still, small Voice of YWHW. The cult of Dionysus engorges the body with pleasures and gratifications, rage and lust. Systems of domination seek to enslave the will until there is no humanity left. What can stand against this army of desolation?
Simple things. Forgotten things. Quiet things. The things that belong to saints and monastics and mystics. Those things are written in The Cloud of Unknowing, by St. John of the Cross. The wisdom of Julian of Norwich, or Hildegaard of Bingen. Things that are hidden in the biography of saints like Francis of Assisi, or the spiritual practices of Edward Pusey. Our armaments exist in the teachings of Thomas Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, or Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat, or John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. These are names and books that most Evangelicals never hear. Their spirituality is not a part of evangelical memory — or modern Protestant memory.
If you will defeat the demons of despair and doubt and anxiety and fear, you need to go back, dear child, to those who have won those interior battles. Don’t imagine that your battle is against Evangelicalism, or Catholicism or Christianity. It is not. Your battle is against yourself, the world and the devil. Your battle is against the spirit at work in the sons of disobedience. Your fight is against a prevailing culture of death. Only, your tools have been abandoned. You have been misadvised.
Have you found yourself a part of this crisis of belief? Have you faulted some brand of Christianity, abandoning wholesale the entirety of it, without having searched out the rest of the house? “In my Fathers house are many mansions.”
If we are to survive in this age we must rediscover what is called the Interior Life. We have fallen to the spirit of the age because we do not know how to cultivate an interior life, nor do we know what it is. Do not imagine that there is an easy path to regain this Christian memory. It will be unintelligible to you at the beginning. We need to be rebaptized in the waters of our baptism, so to speak. In the distant and ancient waters of spiritual fathers and mothers. We need to learn again what this thing is we call Christianity. It is time for a new Reformation. Not one enslaved to the present but liberated by the spiritual ardor of the past. If we do so we will find that we are not called to be evangelicals or progressives, but mystics and saints.
Perhaps your next date should be at a monastery. Or with Kempis and The Imitation of Christ.