An Episcopal pastor provides some thoughtful analysis about the attraction and apparent success of American Evangelicalism, especially compared to liberal Protestantism (no, I'm not being sarcastic; it really is thoughtful):
What do Evangelicals have that we (Progressive, Mainliners) don't have—other than larger churches, larger seminaries, bigger attendance on Sunday, more serious engagement with Scripture, and enough passion for their faith to keep David Platt's Radical on the best seller list for 55 weeks running?
We can sniff and comfort ourselves with pride, if we want to do that. But I am sure that was pretty much where the crew of the Titanic lived just before the ice water began to roll in over their feet.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a size thing. But we can only console ourselves for so long by arguing, "small is beautiful" or "we are too sophisticated to be popular." "Large" may not mean "good," but "small" is not necessarily a synonym for "virtuous" either. Sometimes, small just means "not all that interesting."
The question is also prompted by the tenor and level of engagement that Evangelicalism inspires. To get just a taste of it, read the obituary in last week's New York Times describing the life of John R. W. Stott who died on July 27.
There's another problem with dismissing Evangelicals out of hand: Many of the excuses we tell ourselves are based on a caricature that simply isn't fair or particularly accurate. Evangelicalism has its problems, but the ones it does have rarely receive attention and a lot of the criticisms laid at its doorstep are simply not true. Evangelicals are often bright, well educated, and comfortably middle class. They are not necessarily literalists or inerrantists. And contrary to the old stereotype, they do not hold the monolithic positions on social issues that some suppose.
So, it's time to ask, "What do they have?" Here's what I think explains the popularity of Evangelicalism:
Evangelicals believe something. To name a few things: They believe in God, the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture. These things define reality in a particular way for Evangelicals.
Read the entire essay, "What do Evangelicals have that we don't?", on the SMU site. The author, Rev. Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, is an Episcopal priest and is director of Spiritual Formation and associate professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.
The final paragraph from the excerpt above brings to mind a delightfully caustic passage from an essay, "The Dogma Is the Drama", written by the wonderful Anglican author, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957):
Any stigma,” said a witty tongue, “will do to beat a dogma”; and the flails of ridicule have been brandished with such energy of late on the threshing-floor of controversy that the seed of the Word has become well-nigh lost amid the whirling of the chaff. Christ, in His Divine innocence, said to the Woman of Samaria, “Ye worship what ye know not” — apparently being under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping. He thus showed Himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma — let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular. ...
We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine — ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man — and the dogma is the drama. . . . This is the dogma we find so dull — this terrifying drama which God is the victim and the hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore — on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certifying Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. (from The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays [New York, 1978]).
Compare Schmidt's essay, which is refreshingly reflective and honest, with a recent rant in The Guardian (see my August 8th post about it), also written by an Episcopalian, that was unthinking, bitter, and thoroughly condescending.