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December 2013

The Implosion of Evangelical Christianity

CHRISTOPHER GAWLEY

This is not another screed against Evangelical Christianity.

Indeed, in many ways I owe my Catholic faith to American Evangelicals who witnessed to their brand of Christianity when nary a Catholic would. For me, my sojourn in Evangelical Christianity was like a way station:  a necessary step on a journey towards Christ that for a variety of reasons could never hold as a final destination in my worship of the Living God. That said, without their enthusiasm, I may have continued to meander about in a secularist hell.

Keeping up appearances

Among the problems with Evangelical Christianity, which, in any event, is more like a mosaic than a monolith, are its lack of authority and its reliance on a personal experience — a subjectivism — as the touchstone for faith. The former lends itself towards an inevitable drift away from orthodox Christian doctrine — especially where hard teachings are concerned. The latter is a defective means to authenticate one's relationship with God — it places religion as something dependent on feelings.  Our relationship with God waxes and wanes depending on mood.  Unless we are always "happy and shining" people, which, of course, we are not, our "faith journey" falls apart. For this reason, Evangelicals are almost obliged to a person to present at times a false impression to the world: they must never admit that their life is a mess, that their "faith journey" is faltering or that they are struggling. They must, or so it seems, "fake it till they make it."  Moreover, if disaster strikes in one's Evangelical life, its theology does not offer a clear explanation of why.

Traditional Catholics, especially those who have never known Evangelical Christianity, will find this very strange. After all, Catholicism properly understood provides us with the construct of "redemptive suffering" to make sense of the wickedness of the world around us. The sacrament of Penance is a divine gift from God that corresponds with our need for continual renewal. It is fair to say that almost in contradistinction to Evangelical Christianity, the more that one grows in Catholicism, the more it seems like their life is a mess, their faith journey is faltering and they struggle. For a Catholic, this should make perfect sense: the closer we move to the Divine, the more we are exposed to how radically short we fall of what we could be, of what we should be.

Iconoclasm and doctrinal drift

Any Catholic should know that the Reformation was an iconoclastic explosion against both the alleged excesses of Catholic worship, doctrine, art, music and architecture. It could be described a great white-washing — a simplification. The physical rendering of this iconoclastic movement is seen in the white-washed and bare Protestant churches, the removal of Christ from the Cross and the plainness of "worship." Today, the juxtaposition of a solemn High Mass with a Baptist prayer meeting can lead to virtually no other conclusion that these are altogether different religions. That is an overstatement but not far from the truth. 

This incipient tending towards "plainness" in all things is coupled with doctrinal drift. The lack of an authority structure — after all, the bible is not an authority, it is authoritative text in need of an authority — necessarily has manifested itself in a great shedding of orthodox teaching. These deformations come in all flavours but are most acute in the moral teachings of the Church.  Birth Control, Abortion, Divorce and Homosexuality are all areas in which many evangelicals have moved away, in whole or in part, from a Catholic understanding. The movement seemed to move in proportion to how "hard" the teaching was to live by. Divorce, which is an absolute scourge upon Evangelical Christianity, was the first to go: virtually all Evangelical Churches accept and admit members who are "divorced" and remarried. We Catholics realize how hard this teaching can be:  after all, the idea of an abandoned innocent spouse forced to live without companionship is a great suffering. Our response, as we know, cannot be that we twist God's word to ameliorate that suffering: instead, the only choice is to embrace that suffering. 

The doctrinal drift — especially in moral teachings — has now moved into what we could characterize as even definitional Christian teachings.

Rupture with Christianity

The very essence of the Christian Creed is now under assault from certain Evangelical quarters. The shift away from even any semblance of Christianity mirrors the art and architecture of the new Evangelicalism. What was before a white-washed version of Christianity that was seen in neat and orderly plain church buildings is now something different: the connection between a Catholic church and a Protestant one — an evolution and descent that one could chart is now completely broken. They are now coffee shops or conference centres or yoga centres. There is not even a discernible trace of Christianity left to be found. It is Evangelicalism without Christianity, which is exactly the admonition that the Fathers of the Counter-Reformation warned was the eventual endgame of the Reformation’s assault on Catholicism.

Convergence with secularism

The secular Left cheers this development: after all, they hate Christ; really, they hate Him. We can be sure that when the New York Times writes with wonder and praise of an Evangelical movement: we can be sure without reading any of the article it is a movement away from Christ, away from the traditional moral demands of Christianity and away from the Catholic Church. It is with this jaundiced eye that I read the following article published on June 7 by the New York Times: "Breaking the Evangelical Mold at a Church With Ethnic Roots."

Before reading any further, I assumed from the title that this article would be about the secular commandments of diversity coupled with a new disinterest in the so-called culture wars. After all, it seems like the Left, of which the New York Times is a veritable bible, cares only about furthering sexual immorality and diversity, which is now a code word for an antipathy for anything European — especially classically European. I was not disappointed. The article is a both a testament to the destructive DNA within Evangelical Christianity and the Left's promotion of this disease. Under the doctrine of Fair Use, I quote:

Last Sunday at Vox Veniae, a 200-person church in working-class East Austin, the volunteer baristas showed up an hour before worship services to make locally sourced coffee in the vaunted Chemex system, beloved of connoisseurs. To enhance the java-snob appeal, no milk or sugar was provided. “It’s a purist thing,” one barista said.

“Keep Austin Weird,” the local slogan goes. And the approach to coffee is just one unusual feature of this rule-breaking church in the notably alternative Texas capital. There’s the building, for example. The church meets in what used to be Chester’s, an after-hours B.Y.O.B. club that shut down in 2007 after a fatal shooting close by. Members of Vox, as the church is known, cleaned up the building, christened it Space 12 and made it a hub for Austin-style activity. It’s their church hall, yes, but also a Wi-Fi-equipped space that freelancers can use for a small daily donation; a yoga studio; an art gallery; and the home of the Inside Books Project, which sends books to prison inmates.

This is the new "church," which is to say this is "no" church.  Welcome to the new and exciting world of post-Christian worship space. We are, as the reader can surmise, far removed from the Roman Basilica. The emphasis on worship space is critical: that the article leads with this is not accidental. Might I suggest that we assume for a moment that Satan — under his New York Times pseudonym — wrote this article. He knows that we human beings worship God in bodies — in the material world, which is all that we know. The fact that Christianity had developed ritual postures and spaces was not by happenstance:  it was the collective wisdom of the Church fathers that as we bend our bodies — bend the knees of our hearts — in worship of the living God, we conform our spirits with His will. The Church Fathers also recognized that God gave us five material senses that are engaged in authentic worship: we enter, as it were, in total physical worship of God with the totality of our physical experience. 

Novus Ordo whitewash

As an aside, it is for this reason that Novus Ordo Catholics misunderstand the Traditionalist critique: it is not aesthetic in nature. We object because the New Mass is a diminution of that total body worship. In fact, with echoes of the Reformation's assault in mind, the New Mass is trumpeted on the basis of its ritual and sensory simplification. We see the collapse of Catholic faith since the Council has related essentially to this error of equating authentic worship as simple worship. 

The Protestant errors could be reduced to this elimination of authentic worship:  their "worship" was reduced to the intellectual processing of words and ideas as the "sermon" takes pride of place.  This stripping of physical worship lent itself to a deformation of Christian discipline. Protestant bodies, devoid of physical worshipping, eventually gave up the discipline necessary to abide by the hard moral teachings. Make no mistake, the connection between Protestant doctrinal drift is inextricably tied to its worship style. Thus, the fact that this author lauds this new anti-worship space — a re-imagined broken down night club — is no accident at all. The fact that white-washed churches would eventually give way to spaces like this was more or less foreordained.

Thou shalt be Diverse

The article continues:

But what’s really unexpected about Vox, to anyone who knows American Protestantism, is that what began as a church for Chinese-Americans quickly became multiracial. Last Sunday morning, whites were in the majority, and in addition to Asian-Americans, there were Latinos and African-Americans in the pews — or, rather, the metal folding chairs around the small stage where a six-piece band played before the pastor, the Rev. Gideon Tsang, delivered his sermon.

In a country that is growing more racially diverse, and in an evangelical movement that is becoming more politically diverse, Vox Veniae, which is Latin for “voice of forgiveness,” may be, as Jesus said, a sign of the times.

Racially diverse churches are often led by white pastors who recruit in minority communities, usually by hiring nonwhite assistant pastors. It is less common to see an ethnic church attract whites. It may be that white people avoid churches where at first they will be outnumbered. Or perhaps the ethnic churches’ worship styles feel alien (especially if prayers and sermons are in a foreign language). Whatever the reason, white churches sometimes succeed in drawing minority worshipers, but minority churches rarely attract white people.

Mr. Tsang sports arm tattoos and the modish, buzzed-on-the-sides, long-on-top haircut that many young men who request it call “the Hitler Youth.” He was raised in Toronto, the son of a Chinese-Canadian pastor of an ethnic church. In 2006, he started Vox Veniae as an independent planting of the Austin Chinese Church, a larger church that wanted a mission to young people, especially University of Texas students. In 2007, the church opened Space 12, and in 2009, it moved its worship services there. Along the way, it began to draw older people. And whiter people.

If we could personalize the New York Times and the zeitgeist it represents and ask "him" what are the most important commandments, like the way our Lord was quizzed two thousand years ago, the answer that the New York Times incarnate would give would like be this: Thou shalt be Diverse. If we read the article's approbation and recitation of racial minutiae in this way, we see that this "church" is living the mission. 

At first blush, we Catholics might fall prey to the idea that this piece of data — this very idea — is a benign one. After all, the forced segregation of Protestant churches was a legacy of racism such that its diminishing is a sign of progress. In that sense, we can agree but I submit that there is much more to the Grey Lady's approbation here. We should be very suspicious.

Initially consider the worldwide diversity of the Catholic Church — that its members span every racial and ethnic makeup is never lauded. We have to ask why is Catholic diversity not as satisfying to the The Times as the Vox church? Let me suggest a reason: The Catholic Church is diverse but ideally it is unitive — even obliterative. When we consider that man today lives ethnically in the ruins of the Tower of Babel, we see the Church as a unitive force to place him — black, white, brown or yellow — in an authentic relationship with God.  His colour, language and geography are not essential — he or she is a human being made in likeness of God, endowed with dignity for that reason alone. The Church is diverse but only inasmuch as man is diverse:  she strives to unify man before God such that this accidental distinctions race and culture disappear in authentic worship.

But for the Times, diversity is essential — differences are to remain and be celebrated. Indeed, if we see that the Devil's foremost goal is to divide us from God, and from one another, that he would want to see diversity as an end celebrated should not surprise us. Where the Church seeks to repair the consequences of the confusion that still emanates from Babel — the Devil wants to perpetuate and celebrate it. 

Again, as an aside, the traditional emphasis on the Church's worship in Latin served this worldwide unitive purpose:  it was a great equalizer. It is a sorry lament that we have lost that and in many cities, multi-ethnic worship must take place in two or even three different languages. 

"Post-political" = post-moral

The article continues:

When Leena Pacak, now 33, was growing up, her parents were nonobservant Hindus. Ms. Pacak was baptized when she was 24, and met her husband, also now a Vox member, at a church in Chicago. She said that before becoming a Christian, she had to overcome negative impressions about evangelicals, who always seemed to be intertwined with the religious right.

“My impression from the community is there is a real mix, including a lot of liberal-thinking people here,” said Ms. Pacak, a midwifery student.

Her husband, Cole, said Vox felt freer than other churches on issues like abortion and gay marriage, poverty and Middle Eastern politics. “Vox is a church where no one political viewpoint is pushed, which is great,” Mr. Pacak said.

Following the exaltation of diversity and obliteration of worship in any recognizable sense, the Times now commends the post-political nature of the Vox church. "Post-political" is code for the lack of any moral bearings. Christian ethics are reduced to a political (and unpopular at that) viewpoint — the Vox church is refreshing because it is open on these issues, according to the Times. When we read that Vox is a church "where no one political viewpoint is pushed," what we should be reading is that Vox is a church in which no moral demands are made on the "believer," if you could even call a Vox member a believer.

Whitewashing Christ

So we are now reduced to no worship or moral demands and no beliefs except the essential goodness of diversity: we are reduced to Evangelicalism without even the vestiges of Catholicism. 

What is significant is that the Vox church — and the article about it — does not mention Christ in any meaningful way. In a virtual exposé on the Vox church in the New York Times, Jesus Christ is invisible — not worthy of a mention. His being omitted is to be expected: the pretence of Christ being related to this type of endeavour is no longer even needed. 

I admit I am conflicted about this Evangelical conflagration: I hate to see the elimination of our Lord's name even among heretics but the heresy, as we know, had to eventually metastasize and result in the death of the patient. That death is upon us.

Deo Gratias.

 

 

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