You Will Be Assimilated?

Provoked by my current sermon series, Looking at Jesus, and reading Mark Noll and Bruce Hindmarsh’s  retrospective on the life and scholarship of W.R. Ward in Books and Culture, I’m spurred to think about the current status of evangelicalism in America.

This past Sunday my message was Jesus is Jewish. While this isn’t a surprise to anyone who has read the Bible, we’ve often been led to think of Jesus as primarily one of us, culturally thinking. Some of this comes from our tendency to remake Jesus in our own image. Sure, he’s perfect and we’re not, but his perfection is a perfection of our ideals.

Jesus had no intention of doing what we would call “starting a new religion.” neither did Paul, for that matter. Jesus understood himself to be the fulfillment of God’s promises to and action with Israel. Paul, though he used somewhat different language, interpreted Jesus this way also. In this light, being “Christian” during these first couple of generations was one way of being Jewish.

As I teach this to my congregation, I briefly compare Jesus with other ways of being Jewish in his time: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots and the Essenes. We don’t think too much about the Sadducees and the Essenes today. If we do think of them the former are the folks who used to rule the temple and the latter are mysterious enough we can load them with whatever baggage we like. Zealots we find everywhere, if we’re willing to abstract the term from its original anti-Roman context. But Pharisees? Everyone knows the Pharisees. They’re the hypocrites. They’re the holier than thou moral police. Nobody would like a Pharisee.

Can we find any Pharisees today? I’ve gotten the idea from time to time that some folks think of Evangelicals as contemporary Pharisees. Hypocrites? Check. Holier than thou? Check. Act like moral police for the community? Check. There you have it: Evangelicals are Pharisees.

In my teaching I go beyond the usual stereotype of Pharisees. I briefly summarized them yesterday as a group of Jews concerned about assimilation to the dominant Hellenistic – Roman culture. They wanted Jews to stay faithful to the God of Israel in belief and practice. From one angle they didn’t want to see Israel draw God’s judgment down upon themselves. From another angle, they truly believed that God’s ways, i.e., the ways of Israel, were truly the best ways. Good goals and values, wrongly pursued, at least according to the reckoning of Jesus.

Noll and Hindmarsh address Ward’s contribution to our understanding of the origins of Evangelicalism. The first point they mention:

[B]y situating evangelical history against the backdrop of 17th-century European political history, Ward demonstrated that distinctly evangelical beliefs and practices emerged in response to political pressure from powerful states, such as those in the Habsburg empire, or powerful state-churches, both Protestant and Catholic. What he summarized as “the almost universal history of revival as resistance to assimilation” led Ward to Central European beginnings for such essential evangelical themes as the opposition of “true Christianity” to formulaic, systematic, or imposed orthodoxies; and to small-group enclaves as the necessary nurturing medium in which “true Christianity” could flourish. By showing how the political power of nation-states and state-churches played a defining role in the earliest evangelical movements, he showed all scholars the often covert political protests found in almost all evangelical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, and probably later as well.

What we know as Evangelicalism had its roots in “resistance to assimilation.” I read that and thought, “Wow – that sounds like the revisionist account of the Pharisees!” So I put together these two thoughts, a more charitable way of understanding the Pharisees and a common perspective on the nature of Evangelicalism. What happens if we push this a little bit, and see this “resistance to assimilation” not merely in the origins of Evangelicalism but also in the continued mind-set of Evangelicalism?

If “resistance to assimilation” is part of the Evangelical ethos, one can easily connect this with the separationism of American Fundamentalism. As a theological strategy, The Fundamentals were a claim to the essentials of the Christian faith. But Fundamentalism went further than claiming a set of doctrines. Their political strategy was to avoid “fellowshiping” not only with liberals (they read J. Gresham Machen who had identified liberalism as a religion distinct from Christianity) but with Christians who associated with liberals (secondary separation). I remember reading some of their literature thirty years ago. Where our broader culture thought of Billy Graham as  the paragon of Evangelical Christianity, the folks I read considered him a traitor for associating with liberals. The big disaster happened when Jerry Falwell, the paragon of Fundamentalist Christianity for the broader culture led his Moral Majority to engage with people outside the bounds of fundamentalist churches.

One of the defining characteristics of what some have called “neo-Evangelicalism” is its rejection of this separationist strategy. For these folks Evangelism out-weighed the urge toward separation. Since they wanted to reach the world for Christ, they had to stay engaged with the world rather than retreating to their own enclaves. This was always a dangerous strategy, however. However much they may have wished otherwise, engagement is a two-way process. Influence goes both directions. Even with a rejection of the separationist strategy of Fundamentalism, there was still a fear of “going liberal.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s the Evangelical strategy of engagement paid off. The movement reached its cultural high at this time. The problem with reaching a cultural high mark was that their perceived success evoked a “resistance to assimilation” by others – individuals and groups. Apparently Evangelicals were not the only ones who didn’t care to be assimilated. So insofar as Evangelical beliefs, values and practices were perceived to be in the ascendancy, opposition coalesced.

Evangelicals sometimes made the mistake of reading this opposition as confirming their underlying conviction that they were still weak and threatened. As opposition groups developed and started vying for greater cultural influence, it was natural for Evangelicals to harden their own resistance to assimilation.

As long as Evangelicalism was strong – or relatively comfortable vis-à-vis the broader culture, there was some softening of the identity of movement. As Evangelicalism returns to “resistance to assimilation” I see a hardening taking place. In safer times, more flexibility was allowed. Now as new interpretations of fundamental doctrines are arising, pioneers of different ways of thinking are being cast out. I think of Peter Enns (inspiration and inerrancy) and Rob Bell (atonement) as two examples. How this will work out for the whole movement in the future, we will have to wait and see. But prognostication is not my goal here. Rather, I’d like to address the anti-assimilationist strategy.

First, the idea of resisting assimilation is profoundly biblical. At the time of the Exodus the Israelites were repeatedly warned against taking up the ways f the surrounding nations. The Old Testament idea of being “a peculiar people” was taken up and adopted in the New Testament. Followers of Jesus, like their ancestors in the faith, were to be distinctive, different in a multitude of ways from their neighbors. So when the Pharisees – and later the Evangelicals – took up the practice of resisting assimilation, they were on solid ground.

Second, the idea of maintaining a difference is not the peculiar property either of ancient Israel, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, or modern Evangelicals. Looking at cultures through history, it seems perfectly normal for groups to seek to maintain and defend “our way of life” against threats of change. Resistance groups err when they imagine themselves to be the only ones with reason to resist assimilation.

Third, purity is a very difficult thing to achieve. Even though resistance to assimilation was a core commitment of the Pharisees, they were unable to completely isolate themselves from the non-Israelite world, and thus from all change. Their resistance to Hellenization could not be total. In the same way, Evangelical resistance to broader American culture could not be total. In fact, in the eyes of some, even while resisting some aspects of American culture, Evangelicals seemed to adopt completely other aspects of that culture (Americanism and consumerism are two examples).

Fourth, some varieties of postmodern philosophy – and the cultural ethos that accompanies it – have strengthened and generalized the resistance to assimilation. Anti-colonialist discourse and the rise of hyper-individualism are two flavors of thought leading in this direction.

I say all this as one who claims the Evangelical heritage, not merely as an heir of John and Charles Wesley, pioneers in English Evangelicalism, but also as an intentional participant in the current American version. I would like to see the Evangelical movement prosper. To do this, the movement must retain its awareness of the need to resist assimilation. At the same time, it needs to do two additional and related things.

First, Evangelicalism needs to be more self-critical in its relationship to culture. Its selective focus on some aspects of culture (“resist this!”) have blinded it to its assimilation of other areas. I am reminded of Tertullian who mockingly dismissed the tools of Greek culture, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” while using some of those very tools to accomplish his “rejection.” This is not to say that we need to become so defensive that we see devils under every bed. Such an attitude will be the death of us.

Second, and more importantly, we need to subordinate our resistance to assimilation to culture to our pursuit of assimilation to Jesus. The Pharisees were so committed to resisting assimilation that they missed Jesus and what God was doing in and through him. We want to model ourselves on Jesus, who while highly resistant of assimilation to the ways of the world (so resistant they kill him for it), yet even more intent on conformity to the ways of the Father.

If we take up assimilation (or conformity) to Jesus as our priority, what might our Jesus-inspired resistance to assimilation to the world look like? One the one hand, I think our resistance will look more like play than like work. Because we follow one who “for the joy set before him” took up the cross, our resistance will be rooted in joy, not anger. It’s not that we’re primarily afraid of the world – and their is plenty of death and destruction to fear – but that we have something so much better that completely relativizes those evils. On the other hand, our resistance will become even more dangerous. Because we will be so infatuated with Jesus and his ways, we will give less and less credence to the ways of the world – and (some of) the world won’t like it. Our witness will become more martyr like – and we won’t care, as long as we have Jesus.

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3 Responses to You Will Be Assimilated?

  1. Jim Bradshaw says:

    A royal priesthood and a holy nation would definitely stand out as resistant to the values of this present evil age. However, I wonder when Jesus said, repent, the kingdom of God is at hand, if he had any meaning of “resistance is futile” in the sense that God reigns and always will according to his eternal plan (though people may choose not to repent in the face of it and choose to face the consequences).

  2. Kim Thompson says:

    In looking back especially on the past 23 years, in which we raised two children to adulthood (ages 20 and 23), and have two others that are partially done (ages 13 and 16), I have thought a lot about whether we struck the right balance between resisting and assimilating. I think when we (Doug and I) were very young and idealistic, our purpose was to resist assimilation vehemently. I homeschooled Will one year and after that spent a lot of money putting Will and John both in private church-related school. After our adoption of Alina, though, we found that she needed services that meant she would be better served in the public schools, and bought a house with an eye to the best public choices available to us. During this last move (last summer), our priorities had shifted enough that we had a serious choice between a bigger, not-statistically-impressive school system that would provide more cultural diversity experiences (more of an ethnic and SES mix), and a smaller, more homogeneous, rural school. We ended up choosing the smaller school because that was what the kids themselves wanted — but that’s neither here nor there. I think our goals are no longer to withdraw from larger society. Maybe we have more confidence that we can be salt and light in dark places? Or maybe we no longer see rubbing elbows with society at large as a real risk.

    Hardening our positions may make us less vulnerable to “contamination” from The World … but it also hardens The Flesh. It is only in our openness to change that we can move toward a fuller, more mature Self that is in deeper fellowship with God. We don’t always see beyond the turns in the road … where God is taking us by setting up Divine Appointments that we can’t foresee.

    One of the things my journey has brought into my life is both more confidence and less certainty. There are things that I feel bewildered about, that 20 years ago I was certain about. However, 20 years ago many more of my opinions were based in fear (not just about faith and God, but about many other things as well) . I have gained the confidence to at least explore questions that 20 years ago were off the table.

  3. rheyduck says:

    I think that “confidence” vs. “certainty” is important. My reading of the history of philosophy and theology in regards to evangelicalism, is that insofar as the movement has bought into the values of modernity, we’ve overbought the desire for (and expectation of) certainty rather than settling for the more epistemically humble confidence. The prototypical question that illustrates this is “If you died tonight are you absolutely certain that you’d be in heaven?” If one was not “absolutely certain,” we knew that person was a candidate for our evangelistic efforts.

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