21st Century American Evangelicalism: The Ne Plus Ultra of Christianity?

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Out of Ur posed an intriguing question a few weeks ago. I intended on writing about it, but time got away from me. Since then, that post, "Have We Become Crypto-Christians?," has taken on a life of its own in the Godblogosphere. I've encountered it at a dozen or more sites.

The setup of the post follows the rise of Christianity in 16th century Japan and its subsequent brutal extermination by warlords. To survive, the handful of Christians who remained hid their faith and practice within Japanese culture so well that when Japan re-opened to the West in the late 19th century, that tiny remnant still remained. However, the centuries of dalliance with the culture had so metamorphosed the faith of those Japanese Christians that missionaries barely recognized it for what it was. This Crypto-Christianity, as it was called, bore little resemblance to orthodox Christianity.

It's a good story. Makes for an obvious warning, too.

But there's a problem.

Any scientist worth his PhD will tell you that an experiment is only as good as its control. Without a control in place, results can't be measured accurately.

For centuries, the idea that life sprang from non-living matter (spontaneous generation) ruled science. Put a piece of bread in a container and miraculously fungi would arise from within it. Where did the fungi come from? They spontaneously generated from the bread.

Obviously, any science devoted to studying biological systems would be hampered by this erroneous notion. That it took until the middle of the 19th century to finally lay it to rest showed the intractability of disproving it. Only through a well-conceived experiment (by a young Louis Pasteur) and a proper control could valid conclusions be drawn. Heat a flask with an ingenious S-shaped trap in its neck (to let in air, but trap external airborne microbes) and compare it against a flask without the trap. The first remained sterile, while the other allowed airborne microbes to settle, giving rise to life.

The problem with the Crypto-Christianity post and its troubling question of altered Christianity is the same that bedeviled scientists searching to disprove spontaneous generation: no proper control existed.

When missionaries returned to Japan in the late 19th century, were they the control? Was their Christianity the pure unadulterated form practiced by the first century Church?

Hardly. 

While this does not mean they had no ability to say that Crypto-Christians of Japan practiced an aberrant form of Christianity, their ability to judge was severely limited by their own conceit that they alone were practicing the pure Faith.

We Americans suffer from this delusion that we are the pinnacle of any particular cultural expression seen as worthwhile. Elliot Erwitt's "Felix, Gladys, and Rover" - 1974It's the very backbone of the concept of "The Ugly American." And we show few signs of abandoning this delusion.

Because the Church in America is made up of Americans steeped in this mentality, Christians here act is if we're the control for all of Christianity worldwide. Nowhere is this conceit more grounded than in Evangelicalism. For Evangelicals go to great lengths to assert their superiority over the rest of the American Christendom, creating a king-of-the-hill bravado. Needless to say, this not only bothers other Christian sects worldwide, but even other Evangelicals outside of America.

So we consider ourselves the control portion of the experiment. Any results we gain from any experiment in the Faith must be measured against us.

Does that bother anyone else? I'm livid over it, frankly, because it's so inherently self-centered. Not only this, but the tendency is to denigrate the Christians who came before us, as if they were practicing a kind of Preschool of the Faith. They were the devolved Australopithecines and us the fully realized Homo Sapiens. As such, they have nothing to teach us.

Oversimplification? Stay with me.

Let's consider Protestantism, especially those sects within it that trace their founding to the Reformation. When we encounter doctrinal discussions within those sects, it's as if a vast amnesia occurred between the time the Apostle John drew his last breath and Martin Luther pounded his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. Sure, a few councils dealt with Pelagianism and Sebellianism and a few other -isms, but for the most part, the Roman Catholic Church ruled for a thousand years, and we all know NOTHING of any theological worth happened in that millennium.

Mark Lauterbach recently posted excellent insights into this theological blindness. He decided to break the artificial barrier of the Reformation by reading many of the earlier Church fathers. In particular, he notes that Athanasius teaches using metanarrative and avoids the individualism we inherently lay over the Gospel message. Mark ends his post with a warning from C.S. Lewis to avoid reading these great men of God through any of our contemporary lenses lest we warp their teaching to fit our own.

Which is what we do all too easily.

In the end, the battle here resembles the one between the Chihuahua and the Great Dane over who is the real Canis lupus familiaris. When seen from the outside, neither looks much like the original dog they descended from.

Yet we American Evangelicals have these blinders on prevent us from considering that perhaps we are not the ne plus ultra of Christian expression. If we actually encountered a real first century Church practicing within our midst, I would say that many of us would consider it deviant. Not so? Look how easily some of us attack other Evangelicals who contend they're trying to get back to that first century ideal.

Have we become Crypto-Christians? I'd say that long slide toward some level of cryptic faith started just a few years after  Pentecost. The question of what is normative is a difficult one because culture intrudes so easily, especially in practice. Just witness the extremes of practice within orthodox Christianity today and ask why they deviate so wildly.

In the end, the question is a red herring. We American Evangelicals already are and probably have been Crypto-Christians for a very long time. Yet somehow, we continue to think of ourselves as the standard by which all Christianity is measured, both past and future.

Is that a Chihuahua I hear yapping?

{Image: Elliott Erwitt's classic Felix, Gladys, and Rover, 1974

33 thoughts on “21st Century American Evangelicalism: The Ne Plus Ultra of Christianity?

  1. “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12 KJV).

  2. This post articulates some of my thinking as well, namely the idea of cultural blinders. One question I’ve had with the idea of “getting back to the 1st century church.” Is that possible or even desirable? The first century church lived in an entirely different culture than we do. While I agree that we all have the same authority of the Bible, the same Lord (c.f. Eph 1), the same foundation, while I agree that we are the same Body with the same hope in Christ, I’m not sure that we should just try to mimic their practice of Christianity. They had their cultural blinders as well. I would argue that while we should learn from them, as we should from the universal church throughout all time and places, we should be seeking to serve God’s kingdom in our culture, whichever culture that may be.

    • Heather,

      I most definitely think that getting back to a 1st century Church is both possible and desirable. We can always undo our cultural excesses; it’s just not simple, nor quick.

      Granted, it will look different simply because we can’t undo everything that’s spooled out the last two millennia, but we can adapt here and there. Some things are so obvious and easy to do. Others require us to rethink every aspect of our lives. I talk about many of those issues here.

      • The idea of “getting back” to a 1st century church involves stripping away many of the traditions that have been draped over the body of Christ. Some of these are legalistic, quenching the Spirit, but some preserve us from reinventing the wheel–solving problems that have already been solved.
        And I shake my head when I think about all of the problems that the early church faced. They were new to this whole “church” thing. Look at the troubles in the Corinthian church: lawsuits, gross immorality, petty divisions, the rich snubbing the poor at communion, and so on. Some of what has built up over the past two millenia are the social pressures to behave righteously, and these are good. Feel free to qualify that “good,” but Paul had to spell this out for the Corinthians – they didn’t restrain the sin at all. They were tolerant, but they learned better.

        • Brian, your comment of stripping away traditions reminded me of the story of “The Emporer’s New Clothes”. The move towards cultural secularization in the US has caused the “Church” to be revealed for what it is: Clothed in a religious veneer. With that veneer stripped away we are naked, and sadly, ashamed. We should be like Adam and Eve before the fall. With sin taken care of by grace, we are left once again to tend the garden. Unfortunately, we are too involved in trying to maintain our culturalfacade of what we consider Christianity to be: Church on Sunday, and trying to appear righteous (when others are looking). The problems of life have not changed since the first century, and neither has our our need to love God with all our being. We need to stop trying to live a “Christian Life”, and just start loving God with all our being. As Paul told Peter, culture be damned.

  3. Mike

    Dan,
    Thanks for the post: as I’ve attempted to describe to my fellow norteamericanos, there are other faithful communities from other cultures and slices of history that gave witness to the Gospel. I’ve had to repent of a quasi-deism that God had not performed anything of substance between Pentecost and my “present”; in large part, reading from the early church era (like Mark Lauterbach) assisted in correcting me from the cultural blinkers that we all wear but are simply unaccustomed to paying attention to.

    Those cultural blinkers also function, from time-to-time, as ear plugs as well: most American evangelicals hear how culture and ethnicity and Christian tradition actively contour our worship and mission: for better and worse. And then-“blink-blink”-head to the next shopping mall or [insert the “Christian” brand-name here] event/concert/worship gathering in which everyone is ethnically similar…

    This muffling and obscuring of God’s reign reminds me to pray. Thanks again for posting this urgent matter that detours us from worship and mission. Now, if I could just get that chihuahua to stop barking…

  4. Great post Dan. It’s sort of funny to me how a lot of sociologists or anthropologists look at religion as something that develops and “improves” over time. That is why we generally don’t have religions today that condone child sacrifice – because religion has improved along with society and all that. On one hand I think that’s a silly way of looking at faith – MY faith (as a Christian) isn’t evolving and changing! I’m walking in the way of Jesus, a tradition with thousands of years of heritage!

    Yet at the same time I can find myself viewing the contributions of older Christians as those who subscribed to a more primitive form of Christianity, where they hadn’t yet realized all the great things we’ve realized today that have helped us to reach this form of advanced Christianity. I say that with sarcasm directed at myself, of course. It’s so easy for me to almost subconsciously do exactly what you’re talking about in this post and almost symbolically pat our ancient brothers and sisters on the head, considering them quaint in their expressions of faith.

    I hope I’m overstating my arrogance here but I’m not sure how much I am. It’s something we all need to pay attention to and I really appreciate your post.

  5. I guess my question is more of why? Why try to do things in another culture rather than seeing how Christ wants to incarnate in our culture (which, of course, requires us to be counter-cultural). I guess my question comes more from a missiological standpoint. When studying other cultures, we didn’t want to try to make African Christianity anything else, not North American or Asian, but African Christian, reflecting an aspect of God that I could not reflect and Africans having to be countercultural in a way that I would never think of because that particular issue may not be an issue here. I feel it’s the same with the idea of being a 1st century Christian. I read the church fathers, and I learn from them, but they lived in a specific culture just like I do.

    • Heather,

      Here’s an example that bridges all cultures:

      There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
      –Acts 4:34-35 ESV

      Those folks did not love things, they loved people. Yet I know Christians who went bankrupt while their churches stood idly by.

      It doesn’t matter what culture you live in, that passage out of Acts transcends time, place, and culture. But are we living it in our churches today? Do you know many churches who live out that passage fully?

  6. Excellent reflections, Dan. Paul telling listeners that “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” has startling relevance in a Christian World increasingly indistinguishable from the outside World. We seek to “fit in” and often tailor our message to do so, forgetting that we are merely adding fig leaves to what should be glorious nakedness. Are we ashamed of the gospel? Are we, like Adam and the Kakure Kirishitan, hiding in the bushes? And by sheltering ourselves from the attentions of the World, are we also retreating from God?

  7. Lenny

    I’m fairly new to your blog, and I enjoy it because of posts like this. I’m Canadian by birth but I’ve spent 20+ years in Asia. The pride of (North) American Christians astounds me, and particularly so when I consider the state of the church there. With relativism on one side and the Prosperity Gospel on the other, I worry about the future of the church. (Fortunately, God has His ways!)

    I was joking with an American friend the other day that, pretty soon, Asia will need to start sending missionaries to preach the gospel to North Americans. He wasn’t offended… because he didn’t get the joke.

    • Francisco

      Lenny,
      I know a couple of friends from Japan who are missionaries here in the states (although they reach out japanese students). Also, a pastor from Costa Rica (although he and his family outreach latino people). And a couple of PK’s (although they came in their late teen yrs here) who minister to college students where I live. This is what I know so far. But maybe someone else among Dan’s readers knows better if this is happening (foreigners sent as missionaries to americans)

      • Lenny

        Interesting! Well, I go to an Anglican church in Hong Kong, and in the Anglican communion it is the Asian and African bishops who are upholding the traditions of the church, which the Western bishops seem intent on tearing down as quickly as possible in the name of inclusivity. How ironic that these former colonies are now the main “defenders of the faith”.

    • Oengus,

      We’re not bottom of the barrel. We just think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We shouldn’t be crowing because Time and Newsweek run all these articles about what a “force” we are right now. Any reading of Barna’s polls should snap us out of that delusion.

      We’re not the control sample. I wish we stopped believing we are.

      • Dan: “…Time and Newsweek run all these articles about what a ‘force’ we are right now.”

        I alway laugh when I read stuff like that. The ruling classes who actually run this country couldn’t care less about what we think, other than occasionally inveigling us for our votes with smooth-talk.

        As for being the bottom of the barrel, well, maybe not, but it does seem all the really great stuff I hear about only happens overseas, in far-away countries.

        But if we’re not the bottom of the barrel, I’d hate to see what the real bottom looks like.

  8. Francisco

    Ok, but you need to add a little balance here. Do you think foreigners always associate Christianity = America? How do you think foreigners learn of America MAINLY? Read more (I’m talking mainly about the peruvians’ perspective).
    1. High school textbooks? Nope. Well, a little. Maybe a day or two in World History classes and that’s it.
    2. Benny Hinn’s and the like books? Nope. Many don’t have many to buy food for the week! So maybe those who can buy books. But these are few.
    3. T.V.? Nope. Unless you have cable and watch Stanley’s In touch with subtitles! Indeed, people are more ready to listen to someone who is native in the language…but again, you need cable.
    3. Movies like American pie? Closer, very close. Put the word “American” to the name of a movie and then people will extrapolate: “so, are these the americans?”. A friend of mine -a godly young man and an american- got upset about this. Little did he know the reputation Americans earn across the world.
    4. News featuring people in power in America? Eureka! Why? T.V. unites people no matter the social strata they are in. You may not have a loaf of bread but you must have at least a T.V. at home. Sad but true.

    p.s. btw, peruvians -like americans, in fact all the human race- are also sinners.

    • Francisco,

      When we lived in Silicon Valley, our neighbors below us in the apartment complex would never answer the door when we knocked. In fact, these Hong Kong natives did everything possible to avoid us.

      Only later when I encountered another person from Hong Kong did he tell me they were afraid. Why? Because it got drilled into them back in Hong Kong that all Americans carry guns. So our neighbors were afraid we might shoot them with our guns.

      When that neighbor and I eventually did bump into each other quite accidentally, he verified the other man’s story.

      Unbelievable!

    • I lived in Thailand for 5 years. I can say with a fairly large dose of confidence that popular culture is (or was in the 90’s) affected by American TV, music, and movies. There are very few American tourists who go to Thailand, but if a girl was seen topless on a beach, 90% of Thais would think she was American. If a man was seen with a prostitute, the same stamp was applied. How we are seen by the world is mostly due, not to our politicians, though that has been a growing issue with Iraq, but by our pop culture. An interesting side note: That pop culture influence is fading as American influence in regional politics fades. It is being replaced by Chinese and Japanese pop culture in the form of movies, comics and TV shows. We are beginning to see the same thing here, as illustrated novels, ghost and martial arts flicks (think Matrix) and video games (Wii) are more influenced by Hong Kong and Japan than by SIlicon Valley and Hollywood. The shame is that American Christians have been changed by our pop culture, and not the other way around.

  9. I absolutely agree with you that the church fails horribly at what we should be doing. And I really enjoyed the post. I guess I’m seeing arrogance in myself about finding the “true” church, which is the first century church, while everyone else flounders around, or something like that. Sorry to cause a stink on your blog. I just found it and think it’s great! I plan on reading many more posts.

  10. Francisco

    I am not sure if all American Christianity is rotten to the core. That seems to me too much of a generalization. Yet, you can tell me that because I have not visit with emergent and seeker churches I have no full grasp of that. The two churches I’ve been so far have been great. No perfect, but gospel churches.
    Recently, a friend of mine moved out to NC. There, she is visiting with churches. So, I told her to visit with a SGM church. She went and told me that she met a couple who after finding out she was new to NC area took her out to dinner and…gave her names of other churches in the area for her to keep visiting. That I don’t know you, but that was very encouraging to me! Please don’t dispair in generalizations, there are great exceptions and that should be highlighted too. There is hope in Christ, folks!
    Last but not least, I encourage you to check out this article:
    http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TasteAndSee/ByDate/2007/1947_Stereotypes_Generalizations_and_Racism/
    and please seek your heart to see if you are not overgeneralizing (is that a word?) on the name of statistics…

    • Francisco,

      American Christianity is NOT rotten to the core. I never claim that it is.

      All I am saying here is that we Americans (particularly Evangelicals) cannot put ourselves on the pinnacle and then attempt to compare the rest of the world to us–especially in anything cultural or religious. We are not the control.

      Yet when I look around, I see us doing that very thing. Evangelicals do it all too easily. We don’t have a lot of respect for anything or anyone who isn’t us. In fact, we don’t have a lot of respect for other Evangelicals who are not our mirror image.

      That’s highly arrogant of us; we need to stop that kind of thinking. We are not the perfect image of what God wants us to be. We are highly compromised in our love of material things–that’s just one strike against us. That love alters so much of how we live out the Faith. Yet to consider that normal and then use it to judge other Christians? Really arrogant and shortsighted.

      I once attended a church that insisted they were doing it right and other churches were doing it wrong. And guess what? That church I attended was not only wrong, but they learned a very hard lesson about being so arrogant.

      I would contend that this church is not unique in that superiority complex. I see the same thing all over the American Church. We need to cut out that cancer, because it is a disease, and it will kill us if we don’t get over ourselves.

      American Christianity is NOT rotten to the core. But it does have rottenness in some places. Thinking ourselves the measure of Christianity is one of those rotten places.

  11. bob

    There is one thing in our favor of American Christianity is our propensity to send missionaries. In so many remote and far outreaches from what nation are the missionaries likely to be from? Finland, Kenya, China?

    Is it not the U.S.? I can go along with your summary of our ethno-centrism but a lot of us got the real message.
    Persecution brings out the better in Christians and we americans aren’t really persecuted. I feel awe and gratitude for early church martyrs just as I do for the American Revolution soldiers and their sacrifices, both of which I enjoy their fruits today. No doubt a good many of us should be taking fewers breaks while working for our “denarius”. (Mat. 20)

  12. Bob:

    I don’t want to put you down, I understand your gratitude is real.
    I’m speaking in this thread as the Canadian evangelical that I am.

    We cringe when we see the SBC, FotF and US evangelical parachurch and church ministries coming north of the 49th. And our pop culture is probably the closest to yours. The insistence we use your framework is mind numbing to us, and it’s easier to turn away than engage.

    We are used to seeing third world believers here, in our immigrant population, in our missionaries and our teachers.

    I don’t want American evangelicalism in Canada any more than Australians, New Zealanders or Brits want it. It’s market driven. We can’t afford that kind of ‘faith.’ We don’t want the American dream, frontierism, patriotism, militarism or prosperity teaching. We don’t want the kind of Calvinism that weds to market driven ideas that blames victims for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. I don’t want to be in a bubble; think, left/right/liberal/conservative; forsake justice or mercy and soothe my conscience by putting a few dollars in a mega church offering plate. I don’t want the church to entertain me, real life has too many challenges.

    The assumption that the US evangelical has the answers, has it ‘right’ precludes even dialogue in many cases – because in discussion I have to filter everything through your lenses.
    If I don’t, the conversation is over pretty quickly.

    Am I anti-American?
    No.:^)
    But I wouldn’t even blink if you told me you’ve been taught I am, I’d be quite pleasantly surprised if you knew anything at all about your northern or southern neighbours and our faith practices.
    Am I tired of trying to dialogue?
    Sometimes. Sometimes it is really really difficult precisely for the reasons Dan lays out.

    I don’t believe Americans evangelicals are intentionally clumsy and arrogant, I honestly don’t.
    I do believe many do not know any better because you haven’t had to know anything else. I think that is changing as communication and populations change.

    I could not say what Dan said, you wouldn’t hear me.
    I would come across as foreign, arrogant, condescending and I would be dismissed.

    I almost want to beg you not to send us your missionaries.;^)

    Having punctuated the negative in my comment, permit me to end with encouragement. I believe God calls clearly from within your evangelical sub-culture through some of His people who have not been arrogant and clumsy.
    Go under the mercy.

    • BD,

      I’m hearing you. I know exactly what you mean. I don’t think people here intend any malice, but it’s so hard to see the system we’ve wrapped Christianity in, it’s very much akin–sorry for the pop culture reference–to The Matrix. Taking the red pill is a big step. And it’s tough for us to connect the dots without taking it. Piercing that veil takes a complete thought rearrangement.

  13. Taking the red pill, connect the dots, pierce the veil, have a thought rearrangement. ar arrr arrrr!
    Merry matrix of metaphors.
    Bob is the one that I’m challenging to (metaphor alert!) get on the clue train in this thread.

    Throughout history, believers in’ Finland, Kenya, China’ have had a place at His table, impact for Christ you and I can’t fathom. They still do, and they will because you cannot dictate where the wind will blow.

    And if He choses to send His people to you from Finland, Kenya or China because He can, would you know them?

    I agree, there is no malice. Gullibleness yes, malice, no.

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