Folks who have been along for the ride will know that sometimes I find Rachel Held Evans insightful, sometimes wrong but interesting, and sometimes just wrong. And then sometimes I think she just misses the point. (I say this as the chief of point-missers, of course.) On 27 July CNN’s Belief Blog featured a post of hers that fits this last category. I found it interesting enough to respond to, though, mainly because of the rhetorical moves that the article makes on its way to missing the point.
Before getting to her main claim, Evans recites her credentials for discussing the exodus of “Millennials” (I’m always suspicious of labels that would encompass that big a hunk of the population) from Protestant churches:
Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.
So far, so good. Evans has established her authority to speak on the subject. Aristotle would approve. Then she gets into the content of her talks, and this is where the text goes sideways in my eyes:
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.
I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.
Did you catch that? Taken at face value, the concerns of “the Millennials” seem to contain some difficulties, if not blatant contradictions:
- Evangelicals, according to these surveys, are “too political” and also “unconcerned with social justice.” Is the problem too much politics or not enough?
- The hostile binary opposition between “science and Christianity,” hardly a given in a historical survey, remains unquestioned in these surveys, yet “tough questions” seems not to include whether that opposition is true.
- Evangelicals force people to abandon “intellectual integrity,” yet evangelicals’ (usually moderate, and please don’t insult my intelligence by citing Fred Phelps) “wrestling with doubt” concerning current orthodoxies about “sexual identity” are perceived as “hostile.”
Obviously Evans is not responsible for the content of the surveys, but one might expect, even if in a short disclaimer, some recognition that some of the categories that the surveys assume are themselves a bit facile intellectually. However, rather than addressing those contradictions and calling for some more rigorous investigations of “Millennials'” departures, Evans makes a bizarre claim about the tendencies of “Millennials” to seek out more ancient traditions:
In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.
I retained her hyperlink because, rather than the sort of statistical/social-scientific sources that she cites with regards to the Millennial flight, all she can muster for that claim is an autobiographical opinion piece. But rather than developing that claim, she moves on to a manifesto of sorts, using “We” as a refrain to make her voice that of the “Millennials”:
What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.
Again, the contradictions, if one reads them at face value, are more than a bit confusing: “We” are for “questions that don’t have predetermined answers,” but to question whether the “culture wars” should continue is out of bounds. “We” want to “stand for” something, yet any “standing for” a “single political party” (more on that later) is out. And once again, although the (brief) text does not say so directly, the assumption seems to be that current evangelical approaches to LGBTQIAW questions, which in my experience are analogous to the call to repentance issued to anyone else perceived as enslaved by sin, do not make them feel “truly welcome.” (I realize that this is the most contentious point here, but as I argued in an earlier post, I’m still not convinced that either “side” of the LGBTQIAW conflict is paying enough attention to the analogies that drive the protests.) In many of these items, Evans, speaking for “The Millennials,” seems to want things that don’t make sense together.
My suggestion for understanding this confusing bit of text is to think of it in terms of social codes. I’ve retained enough of my Critical-Theory background to remember that certain words, in certain language games, in certain historical moments, mask realities that, named differently, would make code-speakers far more uncomfortable than they would be worth. In this case, the phenomena that Evans is naming, if one were to name them differently, might be thus: the folks who tend to be friends with Rachel Held Evans, and who tend to read her books and blog (both quality productions), and who tend to attend events at which she speaks, tend to hold political views closer to the modern DNC than the modern GOP. (Please note that I’m not saying that they’re DNC voters; as other surveys indicate, old people still vote more than do the young.) Thus what turns them off, especially in the South, are those things which align evangelical Christianity with the modern GOP.
I realize that this might seem reductionist, but look again at the two litanies, first of what’s wrong with evangelicals and then at what Millennials want. Would an anthropologist from the future, looking at those two lists, see a correlation between Obama 2008 rhetoric and the blog at hand? My hunch is that she would.
Now please understand me: as an educated Christian living in the South, in other words as a member of the Rachel-Held-Evans-reader demographic, I resonate with much of this. I can tell that she’s frustrated with the Southern GOP, and I also don’t have much patience for the Southern GOP. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that evangelicals shouldn’t be so ready to be the GOP-at-prayer. What troubles me is the code phrases like “too political” and “a single political party” when it’s the Southern GOP, not “politics” in the abstract, that’s on the table. If Evans’s main claim is that Southern Christians tend not to go to church when they’re tired of the Southern GOP, then that’s something that seems to be true.
Of course, to go that course would make some folks uncomfortable: if in fact it’s one party, and not “politics” in general, that bothers folks, then that’s going to call for some self-examination that might reveal a “political” streak just as prominent as the Baby Boomers’. That’s alright, if “politics” is not a dirty word, but it will mean realizing that “we” are playing on the same field as “them,” and that might do some damage to one’s self-image as above the fray.
And if likewise one pays attention to the graying, not the youthful rejuvenation, of the high-liturgical traditions, then it might just be the case that folks leaving evangelical churches are far more likely to become part of the nebulous “nones” than they are to go Episcopalian. (Yes, I’ve got friends who have become Catholic and Episcopalian, but again, I’m part of the RHE-reader demographic, and we’re not by any means typical.) In other words, saying “Jesus” loudly might not be the easy solution that this essay suggests. When I see Episcopalian and liberal Presbyterian churches full of recent college graduates some day, I’ll be glad to say I was wrong, but for now, the reports I see point to an aging and declining Mainline.
I’m well aware that the standard complaints that Evans is writing for a popular audience, that she isn’t going for scholarly nuance, and other such excuses are on the way. Bring ’em on. For what my input is worth, though, I’m going to echo Alasdair MacIntyre: what lies ahead for the Church in North America is not a new Rob Bell but a new, and undoubtedly very different, St. Benedict.