My Name Is Warren, and I’m a Recovering Evangelical
I am a man who is very reluctantly and grudgingly, step by step, destroying myself so that this nation and the faith by which it lives may continue to exist. It is not a role I would have chosen for myself. I am merely doing the job as I see it. Someone, some way, had to come along and lift off the lid. Someone had to say, “This is what’s inside.” The man who lifts the lid has to testify just as much against himself as against anyone else. —Whittaker Chambers in Witness
For most of my Christian life, I have considered myself an evangelical. From the time I made a public profession of faith in Christ at age fourteen and for most of my adult life until now, “evangelical” was a label I gladly wore. The word evangelical was one I liked because it seemed to transcend secular politics and religious denominations. I could claim kin with other evangelicals in denominations different from my own. I could disagree with someone about welfare reform or tax laws, but we could agree on the power of “Christ and him crucified” to save a lost and dying world, a world that includes you and me.
And being something of an amateur linguist, as most writers congenitally are, I appreciated its etymology. The word evangelical came into common usage only recently (in the twentieth century) and suggests the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. The word angel, which means “messenger,” is at the very heart of the word, and at the very heart of my own vision for my life, as both a writer and a Christian. I wanted to be a messenger of good news.
So I thoroughly immersed myself in the evangelical movement. From street evangelism to small-group Bible studies to Promise Keepers, I did it all. In college at the University of Georgia in the 1970s, I had a Sunday morning program on the campus radio station where I played Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, and Phil Keaggy. I may have been the first disc jockey in North America—certainly among the first—to play an Amy Grant song on the broadcast airwaves. I began to see Christian media, radio and television in particular, as a way to infiltrate and ultimately subjugate the secularist mindset that I believed had overtaken the country. And I wanted to be a part of that process.
But all the while I was also reading and seeing things that caused me disquiet. Harry Blamire’s book The Christian Mind introduced me to the idea of a Christian worldview (though the book never used the phrase itself ). I drove from Athens to Atlanta one Friday afternoon in the late 1970s to hear evangelical icons Francis and Edith Schaeffer when they released their film series How Should We Then Live?, and I began to realize that the kind of culture they were wanting to see Christians be a part of and even champion was based on the highest and best traditions of Judeo-Christian civilization. But the evangelical movement was increasingly embracing low-brow, pop culture. When Frank Schaeffer, Francis and Edith’s son and their collaborator on that film series, renounced evangelicalism in favor of the Greek Orthodox faith, he declared that if his father were alive, he would not be an evangelical. At the time, I thought the declaration brazen. Today, I can’t help but think it might be true.
I still believed in the great hope of evangelicalism, which is summarized in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20: “Go and make disciples.” But in the 1960s and ’70s, many evangelical leaders succumbed to a sense of dread in the air. The cold war was at its height. Israel had become a nation in 1948, and many believed this was the last great prophetic fulfillment. Vietnam and Watergate created national anxiety. Books such as Hal Lindsey’s apocalypse-predicting The Late Great Planet Earth were on the bestseller lists and were helping to define the theology of many evangelicals. When the Jesus Movement exploded on the scene, culminating—many say—with Explo ’72, a giant evangelical gathering in Dallas, it felt to many as if the Holy Spirit was doing a great work. But it didn’t take many more years to realize how ephemeral the fruits of those years were. The Jesus Movement had been, in part, a response to the dead orthodoxy of the mainline church, a church that had lost the power to transform lives. But what
the Jesus Movement evolved into was a lively heterodoxy that its often well-intentioned founders—many of whom were new converts and theologically illiterate themselves—could not control. Cults were founded or found a foothold. Heretical teachings infiltrated the mainstream church. Over time, as I suggested above, I began to grow skeptical over the conversion claims of some of the groups at the forefront of the movement. (It was becoming increasingly clear to me—based on mathematics alone—that filling out a decision card at a youth rally or stadium-style event is not necessarily a conversion.) Not only that, for every convert the evangelical movement created, it seemed to me, it left casualties—people who had grown skeptical or cynical about what they were seeing.
It was beginning to dawn on me that the Great Commission was a command to make disciples and teach them to obey the commands of Christ, not just tally up decisions like so many notches on a gun belt.
I also read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The solutions that Sider has gone on to advocate in his career as a spokesman for the religious left I find problematic, but his fundamental diagnosis derived directly from Scripture that true religion is to look after widows and orphans in their time of need (James 1:27) was deeply convicting to me—and something I did not see much of in the evangelical church. The evangelical church had spawned the megachurch. It had become about power building, not power sharing. And it certainly was not about power sacrificing. I began to wonder if the true religion that James said is pleasing to God was something other than the religion that I and my evangelical brothers and sisters were practicing.
I pursued a graduate degree in literature and then a career in writing and publishing, so I was forced to read widely outside of the Christian ghetto. Many of these books could not be found in a Christian bookstore but were deeply Christian in their worldview or at least had much to offer someone striving to develop a Christian worldview. For example, in 1977 Paul C. Vitz published The Psychology of Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. Vitz described how selfism—or defining the world in terms of one’s self rather than in terms of an objective or at least an external reference point—has infiltrated our culture and Christianity itself. Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, helped me understand that one of the basic premises of modern evangelicalism—that you can use any method to communicate the gospel so long as you don’t change the message—is ultimately a false and dangerous idea, because it is not possible. The medium really is the message. The words “Fear not. Jesus is Lord” spoken by a televangelist in order to get you to throw discernment and prudence to the wind and send him a “seed gift” is a very different message from the words “Fear not. Jesus is Lord” spoken softly by a pastor who holds your hand as you lie helplessly in the intensive care unit.
Both Vitz, who is a Christian, and Postman, who was not (he died in 2003), wrote much that was painful to read, about how this evangelical Christianity that I had embraced had gone
astray. Painful to read, but it also had the ring of truth.
What was even more painful to me was the disintegration of the lives of too many of my evangelical friends. Many of my friends from college, young men and women from backgrounds like mine, who in their idealistic youth thought they could “take back this generation for Christ,” were beginning to fall by the wayside. When Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), admitted in late 2006 he had fallen into drug abuse and a homosexual relationship, he became emblematic of a disturbing number of people who I knew had been nurtured on the mother’s milk of the evangelical subculture—who had, like me, plunged snout and forelegs into the trough of Christian music, rallies, and all the accouterment found in a modern Christian bookstore—were falling away from faith, not growing in faith.
Spiritually speaking, we fed on this pablum to the point of bloat, but we remained malnourished. Many of the friends I thought would grow up to be leaders in the church were falling into depression. Their marriages were breaking up. Some succumbed to homosexuality or other forms of sexual promiscuity, often with devastating effects on their emotional and family lives. Several men I knew in the Christian music industry saw their lives and careers disintegrate as a result of drug use.
To be sure, some—many—continued to serve Christ. My college roommate, Craig Kent, left the University of Georgia a year ahead of me for medical school. He is a surgeon who spent many years as a missionary in Africa, serving with the wife of his youth and four growing children. There are a host of others I could name who have gone on to serve God honorably—some of whom make appearances in the book that follows, providing an example of our way forward.
Even so, I could not dismiss a troubling pattern I was beginning to see in the lives of men and women who I thought would be stout warriors for the faith. Of course, I knew that Paul taught about a time when Christians must stop drinking milk and move on to the meat. And it occurred to me that this was what I was seeing. Was it merely that the church was offering milk and no meat? If that were so, it would be a cause for concern, but not so complicated a problem. Just start serving meat. That may be easier said than done, but at least you would know what you had to do. Again, if that was indeed the problem.
But I began to fear that the situation was worse than that. It was almost as if there was something toxic in the soil of the evangelical garden. It may be true that most churches serve milk, not meat. But it began to look to me as though even the milk was tainted. It looked rich and nourishing, and for a while, for many young Christians, it was. But it was almost as if, like milk that contains mercury or lead, the poison was building up over time.
And even the poison was hard to recognize. It was an unanswered doubt that slowly eroded faith. It was a quick condemnation of homosexuality or alcohol or gambling, but an indulgence of greed and envy in the form of careerism. It was the hypocrisy of religious-right political leaders quick (and right) to condemn big government and its corrupting power, but who thought that the big ministries and megachurches they were creating would somehow be immune to the same corrupting power. It was all this and a lot more. The data my life experience was gathering pointed to a troubling conclusion: the men and women I knew who were still growing in faith twenty years after they were first planted in this garden had, almost to a person, transplanted themselves outside of the evangelical milieu in some significant way.
Indeed, one of the more interesting of many religious movements taking place in this country today is the quiet movement of many evangelical leaders—Frank Schaeffer is by no means the only one—away from evangelical churches to more historical and liturgical expressions of faith. Billy Graham was a founder of Christianity Today magazine, but today many of its editors and contributors are Anglican or Orthodox. Many of those on the staff of Chuck Colson’s organization are Roman Catholic.
My question, quite simply, is, Why? What is it about evangelical theology or evangelical practice that is both so appealing and so troubling? I could not deny that I had seen much good come out of parachurch ministries and evangelical churches, so I was not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But it was clear that I was less and less comfortable calling myself an evangelical if what I was seeing was what that word meant. I began, you might say, to develop a lover’s quarrel with the evangelical church and evangelical theology and practice. My quest to resolve that conflict took me, among other places, to the little mountain town of Weaverville, North Carolina.
Getting at the Root Causes
One of the largest parachurch ministries in the world, Young Life, has a large and beautiful facility called Windy Gap in the mountains of western North Carolina, near Weaverville, which is just north of Asheville.
Over the years, tens of thousands of teenagers have come by car, van, and bus to Windy Gap. They often must drive through or—now that the interstate is finished—around Weaverville on their way to Windy Gap. The kids themselves are mostly from affluent suburban schools surrounding Charlotte, Atlanta, Knoxville, Greenville, Nashville, and other New South, Bible Belt cities—cities whose growth and influence in media, finance, and manufacturing have quietly usurped Rust Belt cities in both demographic (and therefore political) as well as culture-shaping power.
So it’s not surprising that these children of the New South who come to Windy Gap sometimes make fun of Weaverville, a town that still recalls the inferiority complex felt by the denizens of the Old South. Indeed, Weaverville is usually featured prominently in the skits performed by the Young Life staff members at nightly club meetings at Windy Gap. Club sounds more inclusive and less threatening than Bible study to the kids who come to Windy Gap. It is a time of song singing, joke telling, and skits that are crafted—as longtime Young Life staffers often said—to “earn the attention” of the kids, so the gospel can be presented to them. Most Windy Gap camp weekends culminate on Saturday night or Sunday morning with an opportunity for the kids to pray to receive Christ. Many thousands have done so.
But it was not at Windy Gap where I found the answers I was seeking. Indeed, the hundreds of thousands of kids and Young Life staff who have been to Windy Gap over the years would probably be surprised to learn that this town they often joke about was the birthplace of one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, a man who had a powerful impact on the conservative movement that began in the 1950s and continues even today.
Richard Weaver, after whose family the town of Weaverville was named, published his landmark book, Ideas Have Consequences, in 1948, just a few years after the 1941 founding of Young Life by Jim Rayburn and about the time dozens of evangelical parachurch organizations began all across America.1
In some ways, of course, it is a bit ironic that Weaverville and Young Life should have histories that are so intertwined. Young Life is an organization that embraces kids with methods and techniques, music and video pulled directly from American culture. Richard Weaver’s little book, by contrast, is a brilliant diagnosis of what has gone wrong with our culture. Though it was never a bestseller, neither has it ever been out of print even a single day since it was published over a half century ago; and during that half century, it has had an impact on successive generations of conservative and religious thinkers. It is a little book about big ideas, which it gives away with its now famous opening line: “This is another book about the dissolution of the West.”2
Though Weaver was not a Christian believer, I recognized that his concern for the decline of Western civilization made us fellow travelers. Indeed, this dissolution of the West, which
Weaver attempted to diagnose, was exactly the precipitating cause of American evangelicalism. Most evangelicals (including myself then) believe that the world is in decline, that from the perfection of the garden of Eden we have descended and will continue to do so until we arrive at a depth so low that only the return of Jesus can possibly make things right. Things are only getting worse.
That Jesus himself did not see it this way is an important point. Jesus prayed and told us to pray, “Your kingdom come,. . . on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus seemed to teach that things were getting—or at least could get—better. But Weaver was not concerned with unpacking evangelical theology. He was a historian, a philosopher, and a political scientist. He thought in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations, and his goal was to identify the cause of the decline that he was seeing in his own time.
Again, Weaver was no Christian, but he did acknowledge the existence of evil. And he had no trouble identifying specific evils. Weaver’s critique of the state of the world blamed the tendency of people today to view the world as they would like it to be, not as it really is. Weaver called this romantic view of the world “sentimentality” and said it was the enemy of reality and truth. Weaver said that modern psychology had turned many of us into spoiled children who refused to humble ourselves to our betters but expected happiness and help to be either the result of a simple step-by-step formula or (better yet) just given to us as if a birthright. He reserved special condemnation for what he called “the Great Stereopticon,” the modern media that for the first time in history combined words, pictures, and sound in a
single experience that had the effect of “decomposing eternity,” robbing its users of connections with each other, history, and posterity.
Reading Paul Vitz and Richard Weaver gave me a diagnosis of what had gone wrong with the world. The diagnosis is complex, but some of the manifestations are these: a sentimental and unrealistic view of the universe, how-to self-help books and programs, and television.
Indeed, when I read Richard Weaver’s sixty-year-old critique of the modern world and translated it into my own experience, a light bulb went on in my mind. Weaver was not describing a world from which evangelicalism offered deliverance. He was describing what modern evangelicalism had become!
In the Midst of a Dark Wood
If all or most or even some of what I have said so far is true, American evangelicalism, for all the good it has done, is in need of a modern reformation.
That is what this book is about. I call it a lover’s quarrel with the evangelical church because I believe it is important to speak the truth with love, as Scripture commands, but also to speak it as two lovers would. In a marriage, two become one. When a husband cuts his wife, he injures himself. So it is with the church. We are all members of the body of Christ. When one hurts, we all hurt. There is a unity and oneness to the body. Therefore, it is not the goal of this book to destroy, but to encourage, sharpen, and build.
So I write this book as one who is not on the outside looking in, but as one who has intentionally been on the inside for forty years. Though this book names the names of many evangelical leaders, it is important that you realize that I have not just reported, but actively participated in, many of the activities I describe here.
But like the protagonist in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, I came to myself in the midst of a dark wood. That dark wood is the American evangelical church. And like Dante’s hero, we will go a-journeying out and up, not with Beatrice as a guide, but with many guides, Richard Weaver among them. And along the way, we will describe what we see.
All of this because there is no unity without truth. That is why the strategy of this book will be to pursue the truth about the evangelical church in as unblinking a manner as possible. To look into its very nature and name what we see.
We have a model for this pursuit of the truth, this quest for insight into the very nature of things, at the very beginning of Scripture. All we have to do is follow God’s very first instructions to Adam in Genesis 2. After God had created Adam, he told him to work the land. God then brought all the animals to him and told him to name the animals. It was indeed a remarkable moment. Adam, in intimate communion with God, had each of God’s creatures before him; and Adam—with perfect insight—looked into the very nature of each animal; and based on that insight, he named each animal. God validated Adam’s work by saying, “Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”
Looking deeply into the very nature of things, and then rightly naming those things, is at the very heart of what it means to be human. It should be at the very center of any quest for the truth.