David E. Fitch’s new book, The End of Evangelicalism?, brings together about the two most unlikely conversation partners I could imagine–Slavoj Žižek and American Evangelicalism. And it does so with surprisingly good results. I have to admit, since I don’t really consider myself an evangelical and don’t generally accept the major tenets of evangelical theology (Biblical inerrancy or substitutionary atonement), I approached Fitch’s book with high intrigue and moderate expectations. But I can honestly say that every expectation was greatly exceeded.
The End of Evangelicalism? begins with the premise that evangelicalism in North America has experienced a crisis. Fitch agrees that we may well be living in what can more appropriately be called a post-evangelical age. In order to diagnose this crisis (and death?) of evangelicalism, Fitch employs the critical theory of Slavoj Žižek, the left-wing Hegelian, Lacanian, atheist who has in recent years become the rock star of postmodern philosophy. Fitch examines three dearly held convictions among evangelicals–belief in the inerrant Bible, the decision for Christ, and belief in the Christian nation–using Žižekian analysis to demonstrate through each how evangelicalism has devolved into a set of beliefs that are empty at the core. In his analysis Fitch is clear to say that, unlike Žižek, he does not believe that Christianity itself is empty at the core. He does not think that Christian beliefs “are somehow necessarily false or illusory,” but he argues that the way in which evangelicals voice and practiced them leads toward a reified set of beliefs which then become ideology. For both Žižek and Fitch, it is this ideology that is truly empty at its core.
If you have read only a bit of Žižek or are completely intimidated by Žižek, fear not. Fitch takes some difficult concepts and makes them easily accessible to those uninitiated in contemporary critical theory. The first chapter of the book provides some background into Žižek’s social critique and draws out the concepts that Fitch employs in the next three chapters, which deal with the three beliefs he sees as signaling the devolution of evangelicalism into ideology. The most important Žižekian concept for Fitch is that of the master signifier–”a conceptual object around which people give their allegiance thereby enabling a political group to form.” Yet master signifiers don’t actually stand for anything concrete, and hence they are “empty signifiers.”
Fitch argues that Biblical inerrancy, the decision for Christ, and the Christian nation are all master signifiers, since they shape an ideology around which evangelicals organize themselves and their witness in the world. Biblical inerrancy becomes nothing more than an identifier or a “badge” to prove one’s evangelical standing, since it doesn’t actually say anything about what a given church or organization believes regarding Biblical interpretation. In fact, what the master signifier of Biblical inerrancy does (and what each of these master signifiers do) is allow us “to believe without believing.” Each of these master signifiers organizes people’s allegiance and belief around an idea that remains empty at the core.
What Fitch suggests instead is that these empty signifiers be replaced with beliefs and practices informed by the fullness of Christ. Out of this will come a politic of mission that adopts “a posture that embodies socially the incarnate presence of God in Christ that participates in his mission in the world.” The important word here is “participation.” It is only when evangelicals (or Christians of any stripe) embody the gospel, embody what it means to be a follower of Christ, and live out a Christ-centered politic in the world that empty-at-the-core ideology will be replaced with the fullness of an incarnational theology. The last chapter of the book articulates exactly how this might happen, taking again each of the three beliefs in turn.
In the epilogue, Fitch looks briefly at four evangelicals who are practicing the sort of politic of mission described here: Peter Rollins, Brian McClaren , and Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. While Fitch has points of contention with each of these authors, he sees in them promise for the future of the post-evangelical world.
Whether you are an evangelical, a progressive, or a progressive evangelical, I highly recommend reading Fitch’s book and grappling with his critiques. The fun thing about master signifiers is that we all eventually fall into their trap.