“. . . even the religion we are commited to and in which we found God and purpose and meaning and truth, can become . . . the religious public relations department for an inadequate and destructive ideology.” – Brian McLaren[i]
I think Roger Olson would find a friend in David Fitch (I had the distinct privilege of learning under Dr. Olson when I was at Truett – great podcast by the way!). Fitch’s new book The End of Evangelicalism? is something worth talking about. Who is David Fitch? Well, to use Olson’s terminology, and a quote from Olson’s blog, Fitch is another post-conservative evangelical[ii] trying to
“facilitate a number of ‘beyond’ moves, theologically: beyond the agenda of the modernist/fundamentalist dichotomy toward what they see as a more holistic theology; beyond classical foundationalist epistemology toward alternative concepts of knowledge; beyond concentration on rationalism toward incorporating additional ways of knowing; beyond inerrancy debates and concerns toward an instrumental use of scripture; beyond academy-centered theologizing toward ecclesial and community-oriented thinking; beyond gatekeeping on boundary-setting doctrinalism toward a generous orthodoxy with pietistic emphasis; and finally, beyond what they view as a fixation on the concerns of modernity often motivated by a fear of liberalism, toward a more positive view and selective appropriation of postmodern insights.”[iii]
At the same time, Fitch is doing even more than this. Most innovatively, he attempts to employ political theology and the cultural-continental theory of Slavoj Zizek for the purpose of diagnosing the crisis in evangelicalism and envisioning a viable way forward – all without abandoning the best of what evangelicalism has to offer.
Let’s just put it this way: I didn’t see this one coming, especially since I recently made a post that gave Peter Rollins a hard time for using Zizek to do theology . . .
I have said on my own blog that Zizek is useful for political projects, but for describing and psycho-analyzing the evangelical situation in North America? That is true ingenuity, and I think Fitch completely pulls it off.
There’s so much to be said about this book – one of the best of I’ve read in a long time, especially on this topic – but here’s a preliminary picture: citing Stephen Fowl and Darrell Guder, the underlying suspicion for Fitch is that evangelicals have failed “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called” (Eph 4:1), and to order their “common life” together toward a pattern of life that yields “the disposition” of Christ in the world (Phil 1:27).
In this sense, borrowing from Zizek’s illustration of the diet coke phenomenon – the most consumed drink in the world that neither quenches thirst nor tastes very good – Fitch argues that evangelicalism has become an “empty” politic – “driven by antagonisms and contradictions as opposed to something real to which we aspire.”[iv]
Fitch proposes that the three main beliefs have characterized evangelicals over time: 1) “the Inerrant Bible” and how it “shapes us for arrogance,” 2) “the Decision for Christ” (a conversionist understanding of salvation centered around substitutionary atonement) and “how it shapes us for duplicity” 3) and “the Christian Nation” and “how it shapes us for dispassion” (the subtitles really tell the whole story). The words that are capitalized function ideologically – again referencing Zizek – as “master-signifiers.” In other words, these ideas are “objects to which people pledge their allegiance,”[v] and Fitch argues that each one eventually produces an “irruption of the Real” for the people who adhere to them, revealing “the contradictions at the core of our [evangelical] politics.”[vi]
In the next two posts, I’ll summarize what Fitch suggests can be the alternatives to these three ideological tendencies and their negative effects. It really is an excellent analysis. If you have thoughts on this subject or have interacted with the book yourself, please do comment!
[i] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson, 2009), 29.
[ii] Roger E. Olson, How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative (Zondervan, 2008).
[iii] Steven B. Sherman, Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Evangelical Approaches to the Knowledge of God (Pickwick Publications, 2008), 9-10.
[iv] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Cascade Books, 2011), xxii.
[v] Ibid., xxv.
[vi] Ibid., 31.