Are We Really Evangelicals?

The word evangelicalism has become a bit of a buzzword in the last few years. It comes up a great deal in conversations about where the church today. It comes up in political discussions. As Gerald McDermott noted in his book Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions? it comes up a lot in the question of what is the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals.

It also comes up a lot in discussions about Christian entertainment, because much of what we call Christian entertainment – books like This Present Darkness, Movies like God’s Not Dead, music marketed as Contemporary Christian Music – is targeted to “evangelical audiences.” That is, these products are generally made by Protestants who put a strong emphasis on Scripture and theological orthodoxy but without some of the specific traits that scholars generally use to define fundamentalists. This is a more contemporary use of the term, used by scholars like Stephen Backhouse to differentiate the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century from the evangelical movement which started in the 1950s.

Christian entertainment sometimes build on trends created by non-evangelicals – for example, the current Christian Film fad has built on the success of the Catholic film Passion of the Christ. By and large though, Christian films, Contemporary Christian Music and Christian Fiction novels are made by evangelicals, showing particular concerns that other evangelicals are interested in.

One of the interesting questions this brings up is whether Christian entertainment really shows an evangelical attitude.

According to Thomas S. Kidd, the American fundamentalist movement began in the early 20th century, partly in response to how Darwinian evolution was shifting theologians’ view of Scripture. Some of this shift had begun earlier with the Enlightenment and the early quests for a historical Jesus, as Mark Strauss shows. Worried about liberal theology that emphasized reading the Bible as literature rather than history and the miraculous elements as folktales or mythology, fundamentalists argued for “the five points of fundamentalism”:

  • Scripture is inerrant
  • Christ was born of a virgin
  • Christ’s death saved people from sin via substitutionary atonement
  • Christ was physically resurrected from the dead
  • The miracles described in the Bible are factually accurate

The problem, as McDermott notes, is that fundamentalists became known for aggressively debating many other issues, including minor ones. Others have noted that the fundamentalists didn’t always use fair tactics in their debates. Colin Duriez discusses in his biography of Francis Schaeffer how prior to starting L’Abri in the 1950s, Schaefer was a fundamentalist pastor involved in theological debates going on within the Presbyterian Church. On one occasion Schaeffer was falsely accused of being a communist by another theologian who disagreed with him. Schaeffer’s own tendency to fight over minor issues apparently tempered some years later after meeting Karl Barth in Switzerland and sending a critical letter to Barth. Barth responded that he wasn’t sure what the was the point of Schaeffer sending the letter if it was clear that Schaeffer and his associates had already condemned Barth and pushed him out of their circle. Schaefer would later say that he split ties with the “separatists” wing of the Presbyterian fundamental movement after starting L’Abri, and although Schaeffer’s theology remained conservative it’s worth noting that in many respects the L’Abri approach to evangelism (people of all walks of life coming to study Christianity together, trying to meet them where they’re at) is antithetical to the fundamentalist approach.

In the 1950s, fundamentalism’s testy tendencies resulted in a new movement called evangelicalism. As McDermott describes it, evangelicals maintain many of the fundamentalist theological beliefs but are more willing to engage with other groups of Christians around common causes and more willing to engage with culture.

Generally speaking, fundamentalists did not believe culture was good, except where the Bible itself could be seen as a cultural good (a term that a good fundamentalist would probably never use). This nervousness about culture and entertainment was not a new trait – the Puritan movement had various problems with storytelling, especially the theatre.

However, the fundamentalist movement took disliking culture to new levels, which seems to have been connected to their concerns about Biblical inerrancy. Liberal 19th-century theology had talked a great deal about reading the Bible as metaphor and literature without emphasizing its historical elements. Fundamentalists reacted against that and talked about the Bible as history while getting nervous about any discussion about metaphor literary devices in the Bible. This seems to have spilled over into discussions about narrative in any form: storytelling was not valuable in itself for fundamentalists, only as much as it could be used to make religious points. Paul Schrader touches on this a little in descriptions about his fundamentalist background where movies were seen as essentially wasteful, a sinful activity. Craig Thompson gives a much more dramatic exploration of it Blankets, a graphic novel about his upbringing in a fundamentalist home. He describes his early interest in cartooning, which led to the question what he would do with it. He considered the idea of using it to write comics that advertised Christian ideas, in the same style as Chick Tracts. Ultimately, Thompson realized he couldn’t do that, and for a while he grave up cartooning. There’s a dramatic scene in the book of him burning his collection illustrations, referring to them as “fantasy, the worst of all sins.”

It’s hard to imagine an evangelical Christian today saying outright that movies are evil, or that any kind of storytelling that doesn’t explicitly make a religious point is wasteful. However, that attitude often seems to be implied in Christian entertainment. If storytelling is a God-given skill that reflects God anytime it is used well, then artists are free to include religious references or not in their work. They do however, as Dorothy Sayers points out, have a responsibility to use their gifts well. This means if they choose to include religious ideas, they must look for way to fit them harmoniously into the product. Not doing so would imply that either the artist doesn’t are about their craft they are working in, or that they are just using the craft as an excuse to throw religious ideas at the audience.

Unfortunately, Christian entertainment products often feel like stories which have religious ideas jammed in without much thought. For example, Christian Fiction thrillers will often set up a plot that fits well into the thriller genre (a criminal must be caught, something has been stolen). Several pages in, one character will off-handedly make some comment to themselves about abortion, how to believe in God in an unjust world or some other stock religious comment. A few more comments will follow every fifty pages or so, and there will be a big moment two-thirds of the way through the book where one character will give a really generic Christian response that sums up the problem the other character has been dealing with the entire time (“God loves us enough to give us free will,” “you may not have been planned, but God still had a plan for your life,” and so forth). The other character will then respond, and the plot will continue as normal. After the plot is resolved (the villain is caught, the crime solves, whatever), readers will get a paragraph or two at the end about how the character has changed their mind.

There are expectations to this formula – some writers focus on telling a good story well that also has an understated yet compelling redemption element. But by and large, if you get a Christian Fiction thriller, it will have a thriller plot and religious themes, not a cohesive whole. There’s no attempt to explain the religious ideas through their characters’ viewpoint (which is what you’d get in, say Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair). The religious elements could almost have been added in afterward by taking a book of stock Christian phrases and pasting the proper one in. This suggests that either the writer isn’t really interested in making the religious ideas compelling – or the religious elements are just in as an afterthought to justify the narrative.

Similar points can be made about Christian films – the religious messages aren’t carefully worked into the stories with layers of meaning to unpack. The messages are blatant, and rarely explained well. The storytellers don’t seem to have any love of their craft. This implies that even though the filmmakers may talk about the value of film as a ministry opportunity, they don’t love film. They see film as just a convenient structure to stick messages on to.

To sum up, we might say that one of the great problems with Christian entertainment for evangelicals is quite simple: it’s not very evangelical. It tends to take a watered-down fundamentalist view of art, going from “storytelling is a vice” to “storytelling is acceptable – but only under X conditions.” The same basic fear (or at least distrust) of storytelling is there, just minus the righteous indignation that tended to define fundamentalists.

It’s also worth noting at this juncture that while there have been many books by evangelicals on cultural engagement, there’s often an odd pattern. Generally, the best books on spiritual insights in movies, music and so forth have been written by people who don’t quite fit the classic American evangelical mold. Steve Turner (a British music journalist) has contributed some great books over the years, and so has Makoto Fujimura (a Japanese-American artist raised in both countries with a background in classical Japanese painting). There have also been some great books by academics like Roy Anker and Leland Ryken, whose academic training gives them a perspective outside the evangelical vs fundamentalist debates. Various people who studied under Francis Schaeffer or at one of the L’Abri sites, which tend to be ecumenical and multicultural, have also written seminal articles or books on art and faith. This makes the point even clearer: evangelicalism may be okay with cultural engagement, but it doesn’t often produce people who will unapologetically dive deep into the subject.

Moving forward, as Christians try to decide what they think about evangelicalism, they will have to ask a big question: are they willing to finally be evangelical about art?

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