The Evangelical Penumbra?

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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Ross Douthat, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” proposed that evangelical intellectuals and writers and their friends might be part of an “evangelical penumbra” that has overestimated the role of serious theology (and thought in general) to evangelicalism’s sociological success. He raises the question in light of the 81 percent who voted for President Trump whether this “penumbra” might leave evangelicalism, and what this would expose about the movement that is left, one predominantly white and racially segregated, and perhaps more committed to American greatness than the kingdom of God.

In case you are wondering, a “penumbra” is the outer region affected by an eclipse, that is only in a partial shadow or weakened light. In the recent eclipse that crossed North America, central Ohio, where I live was in the penumbra of the eclipse while areas to the south experienced total eclipse. As it happens, I also live in the penumbra Douthat writes about and I deeply resonate with Douthat’s concerns. I’ve lived in a world where we read the Bible cover to cover and discovered a gospel that transcends racial, economic, gender, and national boundaries and a God who loves the world he created and wants us to love and care for it as well. I’ve lived in a world where the transforming work of Christ calls me to not only personal but social holiness–a life pursuing personal integrity and justice in society. I find myself far from perfect in all of this, but unwilling to rationalize my imperfections or the ways our communities of faith fall short. I’ve lived in a world of “taking every thought captive to Christ,” where knowing Christ leads to a kind of intellectual renaissance in which every intellectual endeavor is immeasurably enriched by knowing it is shot through with the glory of God.

It stings to wake up and find that what one assumed to be authentic evangelical Christianity is in fact marginal to much of this movement. No wonder so many of my friends are disenchanted and have decided either to drop the name or leave altogether. I find myself wrestling with what to do about that myself. It seems like a futile thing to say that the evangelicalism of Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress is not really evangelicalism when it appears that a majority of white evangelicals identify with that evangelicalism. Yet what disturbs me more is that if I am living in the penumbra, to pursue Douthat’s analogy, then these folks are in the umbra, the place of darkness. I have to admit that it really looks dark to me–politically captive as opposed to being captivated by Christ, considering national greatness more important than the kingdom of God, willing to perpetuate and deepen our racial wounds rather than to heal them, and turning a blind eye to sins they would preach against in their own churches to advance a narrow political agenda.

Dean William Inge is perhaps most famous for his remark that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” I tremble when I consider what is happening right now because I see a movement that is destined to be a bereft widow–abandoned both by the young and the powerful in the years to come. I also haven’t got a clue what will awaken those I see pursuing this destructive path, apart from a Damascus road-type encounter with the Lord himself. It seems this group has no interest in listening to those in the “penumbra.”

So what does one do? Yesterday, I reviewed a book titled Faithful Presence, and I think the author is onto something. I see many local congregations (including my own) that embrace the beliefs that have been a part of my life, who are practicing this kind of faithful presence where I live. They’ve neither departed from an evangelical faith, nor embraced the truncated version of that faith about which Douthat writes. I don’t despair when I look at them. They aren’t trying to wield political clout or stack “the court.” They are too busy feeding the hungry, visiting prisons, finding ways to collaborate with our state’s leaders in addressing our opioid crisis, and forging relationships across racial and economic lines to engage in such stuff. They are too busy thinking about the nations of the world to think about making only one nation great. And they still believe that the good news of Christ’s redeeming work is far more important than the latest “tweet.”

One thing that must also be observed. The people I’m talking about are often part of neither the intellectual or media “elites” within evangelicalism nor the “court” evangelicalism about which Douthat is concerned. Many are thoughtful people who are less interested in writing or talking about their faith than simply living it in their congregations, communities, and workplaces. My hunch is that if anything will endure the winnowing (and widowing) of evangelicalism, it will be these people, who quietly have been the presence of Christ in their communities. And that’s where I think I must remain.

4 thoughts on “The Evangelical Penumbra?

  1. Thank you, Bob! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    I think an important point to remember is that the 81 percent refers to *white* evangelicals. The poll, if I understand correctly, did not have a category for evangelicals who are not white.

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