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Blurred Lines- Evangelicalism and Popular Culture

Written by: on January 19, 2017

I have never taken to topic of history with fervor or excitement. Although, it is a subject matter that I deem very important, I am not stirred by diving deeper into it. I do however, have an appreciation and even an admiration for those who do like Dr. David Bebbington, who is a renowned historian. In his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s, he takes us on a historical journey from the origins of Evangelism in Britain to its modern existence in the 20th century. While there is no way I could summarize all of this history in this post, I think one thing that is really important and distinctive in this book is how he identifies Evangelicalism as a movement. Evangelicalism as described by Bebbington has common features or qualities that are identifiable throughout the movement. “There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.” [1]He carefully describes the evolution of the Evangelical movement with these four qualities as witnessed during key cultural eras that occurred between the early 18th century through the 2oth century.

It is apparent in reading this book and other work by Bebbington that throughout each era the Evangelical movement was impacted by and also influenced the popular culture of its time.  With the emergence of the Enlightenment era, there seemed to be a cultural shift away from traditional religious “blind faith” to a desire for reason and individual thinking. However, the Romanticism era ushered in a culture awakened through sensibility and expression. An openness to imagination and emotions through art,  poetry and literature. During this era there was a shift within the Evangelical community. Prior to this era, God was seen as in more traditional terms.  In his article entitled “Evangelicalism and the British Culture”, he wrote about how during this era it was the younger people that  shifted their  conservative view of God  as “Governor of the Universe”[2] to a more emotional and  familiar view much like a father. “The effect of this doctrine of the fatherhood of God was therefore to blur the line between the converted and the unconverted. “[3] This era indeed was more liberal in its ideals and that had a great influence of the liberal theology that many Evangelicals adopted during that time. He noted “the succeeding cultural wave of Romanticism immersed many Evangelicals. Its consequences were manifold, fostering liberal developments in theology and more elaborate liturgical practice…”[4]

In pondering the effects of the Romanticism era on the movement, I can see some similarities that exist in our culture today. The influences of culture on the church and the church on culture are evident within 21st Century America. There has been a similar shift in our culture one that has “blurred the lines” between the converted and the unconverted. One that causes modern day believers to not want to be distinctly identified as separate from the world. Not in an intentional sinful way but in a way that blurs the lines and welcomes inclusion over exclusion. By believer I am referring to those who believe in God. I will also note that these people may not also identify as Christians and definitely not as modern day Evangelical Christians. However, they see God as a being who is inclusive and welcoming.  This notion of God has produced an adoption of a nuanced “doctrine of the love of God”.  Even many millennials in this generation have rejected the traditional ideals of God and have clung to this universal belief.  Although, this does not unite them in faith with others through the four qualities identified by Bebbington, I think it is important to understand how changes in popular culture continue to influence the thinking and behavior of the Church as it is witnessed today.

Although it is a unified belief that God is love, in saying that , I also am very aware that there is a great divide within the church community in how new wide spread liberal theological ideals are embraced. There are those who are very conservative and devout Evangelicals and there those who are more liberal. Even some who choose not  to identify withthat title and association into their beliefs and faith practices. I am by no means alluding to the fact that one is more sacred and the other is more secular. I am simply making an observation of the wide spread shift in thinking and outward expression of faith in this country.

The era of Romanticisim did not only bring liberal theological ideals as Bebbington affirmed but it also gave “rise to distinctly conservative doctrinal trends, especially through the faith principle, premillennial teaching and the Keswick Convention.”[5]  Even today as a result of the influence of our popular culture in America, there are many who are converting and adopting a more conservative doctrinal belief and practice. Overall, while I am not madly in love with studying history, it does carry value and meaning in our present day. It shapes and molds the way in which we understand the world and continues to serve as a reminder of where we have been, where we can go and warn us of where we can return.

 

[1] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain: a history from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1993), 2.

[2] David W. Bebbington, “Evangelicalism and British Culture,” Perichoresis The Theological Journal of Emanual Univerisity of Oredea 6, no. 2 (2008): 141, accessed January 18, 2017, http://www.emanuel.ro/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/P-6.2-2008-David-W.-Bebbington-Evangelicalism-and-British-Culture.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David W. Bebbington, “Evangelicalism and British Culture,” Perichoresis The Theological Journal of Emanual Univerisity of Oredea 6, no. 2 (2008): 153, accessed January 18, 2017, http://www.emanuel.ro/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/P-6.2-2008-David-W.-Bebbington-Evangelicalism-and-British-Culture.pdf.

[5] Ibid.

 

About the Author

Christal Jenkins Tanks

10 responses to “Blurred Lines- Evangelicalism and Popular Culture”

  1. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Christal, you brought up a lot of thoughts that I have had on my mind lately. First of all, I feel that there is a lot of confusion on our society over the terms “Conservative” and “Liberal.” This is mainly due to the use of these terms in politics. While it is perfectly reasonable that someone could hold to a conservative theology and a liberal politic, or visa-versa, it can be confusing.

    One of my life long issues has been that I hate being labeled–it’s a Gen X thing. While my theology is evangelical and my view of scripture is very conservative, I see myself as being non-traditional and an innovator. I am never content to accept the status quo. This gets me into trouble both politically and in church life. I don’t fit easily into “camps.”

    I also want to react to your statement…

    “There has been a similar shift in our culture one that has ‘blurred the lines’ between the converted and the unconverted.”

    I am concerned that we live in an era that wants a feel-good religion without the repentence of personal sin. Some of today’s preachers sound more like the Dali Lama than George Whitefield. At what point do those who want a customized version of Christianity simply end up as universalists?

    • I reacted strongly to this piece of Christal’s post too. The ‘blurred lines’ are definitely a real thing, but interestingly (at least in my experience) much more so in places where Christianity is still fairly culturally dominant.
      Living in North Carolina, the question when you met someone wasn’t, ‘do you go to church?’ but rather ‘where do you go to church?’ This kind of cultural expectation precipitates these blurred lines. For many, it would be socially or even economically detrimental to not be a regular church attender.
      In Boston, of course, it is much different. Outside of my Roman Catholic friends – who have a lot of social and family intermingling with religion – no one is in church on a Sunday morning unless they genuinely want to be. The culture of the area is such that it puts many barriers up to church attendance, so there aren’t as many blurred lines in that sense.
      Similarly, those that are even interested in claiming the title Evangelical are in a distinct minority.
      Interesting indeed.

  2. Mary Walker says:

    Christal, great analysis of a subject that you’re not fervent or excited about!
    Several thoughts: I agree with Stu’s concern that the blurring of the lines can lead to the danger of universalism. I think we will be further challenged in our next readings on Contextual Theology. Can’t wait.
    I thought Bebbington did a great job explaining that Evangelicalism has been influenced by the culture, as you pointed out. In my circles some people are always trying to hide from the culture. It would be good for them to study this history. I liked the way that Bebbington showed how there is a “back and forth” between the culture and evangelicalism. I guess the trick is to get what is good and worthwhile (in the world) but not falling into unscriptural practices (of the world).

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Christal, you make a good point:

    “I think it is important to understand how changes in popular culture continue to influence the thinking and behavior of the Church as it is witnessed today.”

    For me, this is most evident in the churches at which I speak. Before I arrive at a church I always ask two questions: Must I wear a tie? and, May I use my iPad for my Bible? I know these are small things, but they are indicative of the influence of both culture and technology on the way we do church today I sometimes wonder if we are living McLaren’s “Church on the Otherside.” Thanks Christal.

  4. Being a former History teacher, I love history…. when it is of interest to me. I am not always interested in the history of every culture of every era, but as you mentioned, we can always learn from it, regardless of where it is from and learn from it. Well-said!

    In reference to the lines being blurred to the converted and unconverted, I am rather enjoying this decreased distinction in some of our churches. Since we can never know the heart of an individual, I often rely on how they are loving others and their concept of God. Growing up in the church, I have come to see many “converted” individuals as being arrogant, discriminatory, and unloving, whereas the “unconverted” have often been people who would give their life for me. They have showed more love, kindness, and acceptance of me than many of the converted. So when the lines are blurred, I become more attuned to who they are as people and their beliefs in God versus the label they identify with. It also challenges me to live in love instead of just slapping a title on me like “Christian” and expect everyone to know what it is. When we remove the labels and call people to a way of living or a new culture, our energies become refocused from identifying between “us and them” mentality. We get to live with more unity in an inclusive way of living and learn to love with more intentionality. And we get to do it together regardless of who is what. This has been a big shift if many of the evangelical churches in my area. Have you seen this as well?

  5. Our culture has switched, but that is nothing new. When we look at biblical history, the Pharisees thought they knew everything about God and were the only ones worthy. They were the local law and moral radar (sound familiar). They had already determined the entrance of the Messiah.
    The sadness I agree with you is the division among the Christian community. I am going to leave it at that.

  6. Geoff Lee says:

    I like the churches that say they want the pattern to be “belonging – believing – behaving” rather than the other way around “behaving. – belonging – believing”. This is where the blurred lines belong – a soft and inclusive exterior, which makes it easier for people to engage with faith and Christianity. However, there must be a core of truth, otherwise we end up with a pile of mush.

  7. mm Katy Lines says:

    “Blurred Lines”– are you suggesting I need to look sharper?? 😉

    “…during this era it was the younger people that shifted their…view…” I think you (and BeBBington) are on to something here. That it is younger people who must reinterpret their understanding of the good news for their context in time. The culture of their day looks different from the world of twenty years ago when their parents were their age. As the culture changes, youth are the ones who must retranslate the gospel to be understood in the contemporary context.

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