Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Charting Evangelicalism’s Past, Forecasting Evangelicalism’s Future

I’ve been reflecting the last two or three days on the topics covered at the After Evangelicalism conference. The aim of the conference was to think collectively about evangelicalism’s future, and to reflect on the movement’s trajectories. While I was not present at every panel to hear every paper, I did have the good fortune to read several of the essays as I encouraged friends and colleagues to participate in this conference’s conversations. I hope to read other conference essays in the future. Please send them along if you happen to chance upon this blog.

Any observer of American public life in the last thirty years or so knows how visible (and in some ways invisible) evangelicalism is in the United States. From the year of the evangelical (1976 – actually the year prior to my birth), to the rise of the Religious Right, to Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments crusade, and to the public religious musings of the current President – expressions of evangelicalism, among many, many others, (cast in particularly white terms) – U.S. culture is seemingly saturated with varieties of religion, and to use James’s terms, “varieties of religious experience.” Thus evangelicalism’s recent history, and much of the historical reflection about evangelicalism, explores its political, economic, and social textures.

Yet, one may ask, what of evangelicalism’s future? What will evangelicalism look like in 50-100 years, and beyond? How will scholars write about evangelicalism? On what evangelical topics will scholars reflect? Why, at all, does it matter?

If the After Evangelicalism conference is any indication, then there will be some important and serious reflection on the nature of evangelicalism, and the contest over evangelicalism’s past will continue.

First, the topic of the conference itself: To propose a conference about “after” evangelicalism suggests that its current state and its (contested) past are open for discussion. Any brief survey of the books coming off evangelical (and secular) presses the last ten years or so indicates this is an important question. Just think about how many books about evangelicalism’s history have appeared even in the last decade. This interrogation of past and present is welcome and refreshing. As the conference itself suggests, evangelicalism is not the possession of the political right as some believe, nor is it inconsistent to be evangelical and on the Left. Nor, it seems, is evangelicalism a particularly "American" style of religion, though evangelicalism's global public image might lead one to believe otherwise - not to mention the social liabilities that come with evangelicalism's identity.

Second, the plenary addresses: The first plenary address suggested evangelicalism’s future would be shaped in large part by early Christianity and perhaps by the spiritual practices of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Another plenary addressed the question of evangelicalism and race within the nexus of history, while yet another (not delivered) suggested that, despite its “deconstruction,” confessional Protestantism has something to offer evangelicals inclined toward Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. A final plenary explored the importance of Christo-anthro-socio-logical thinking about how individuals embody Christianity. In sum, these plenary addresses suggest that the evangelicalism of the future will engage more thoughtfully with ecumenism, honestly grapple issues of race and ethnicity, and embrace more interdisciplinary thinking about its local and global presences. I am hopeful yet.

Third, the panels: One panel discussed evangelicals and higher education, another evangelicalism and blogging, yet another about evangelicalism and world Christianity, and a final panel discussed evangelicalism, worship, and art. The panel on evangelicals and higher education underscored the tension that some still hold between rigorous academic life and a pastoral/professorial posture in the classroom and beyond. About evangelicals and world Christianity, the panelists highlighted the diversity of expression in global evangelicalism and suggested that clearer global thinking is in order given the rise of Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, The panel on evangelicals, art, and worship pointed to the flexibility that evangelical worship could have – a more conscious aesthetic expression in things like art and even diverse utterances of the Spirit. I did not attend the panel on evangelicals and blogging, so I would invite responses by anyone in attendance and recommend the fascinating work of Bryan Murley on the topic. Collectively these panels suggest that, like its past history, evangelicalism has deftly employed today’s new media, must concern itself with global issues (here I do not mean “missionary” work), and may be flexible and pliable enough to inject more of an aesthetic into worship spaces.

Fourth, the individual papers: Several sessions dealt with the Emergent/Emerging church, and offered a variety of ways – in interdisciplinary terms – to understand this important strain of evangelicalism (or post-evangelicalism). Importantly, these papers were not “how-to” suggestions written by insiders, nor did these papers slice the work of practitioners with a theological knife. Rather, essayists on the Emergent church attempted (and succeeded, I think, though others can judge the validity of my paper) to socially, culturally, and historically locate Emergent expressions of Christianity. Other papers offered gendered reflection on evangelicalism’s future; some explored the intricacies of evangelicals and political/social engagement; and another session (I wish I could have gone to) thoughtfully addressed the critical issue of evangelicals and race. Strung together, the individual papers suggest that the future of evangelicalism is richly complex, not easily summarized or generalized, yet genuinely open to the possibilities the future may bring.

In sum I thought the conference was a “success” insofar as these topics were honestly discussed and rigorously engaged. Also notable were the large number of undergraduates present. I propose a hearty round of applause for the conference organizers and all those who helped. (Finished clapping), next year’s conference theme is “After 9/11” and is bound to result in some critical reflection.

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