Cultivating American-e/Evangelical Critical Consciousness in Contemporary Culture

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Cultivating American-e/Evangelical Critical Consciousness in Contemporary Culture

What does it mean to be an American-e/Evangelical? From whence do they come and from whence dost thou come...?

David A. Sims, JD PhD

Biblical context

This is my beloved Son, listen to him! (Mk 9:7).

…everyone who loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mk 8:35).

Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill (Mt 5:17).

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Lk 4:21).

…all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled…Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations (Lk 24:44, 46-47).

You search the Scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me; and you are unwilling to come to me so that you may have life (Jn 5:39-40).

This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this which you both see and hear (Acts 2:32-33).

…the things God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he has thus fulfilled (Acts 3:18; etc).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph 1:3).

…destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5).

…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to give a coherently critical reason for the hope you have in Christ to everyone who asks, yet with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15).

…Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth….who loves us and released from our sins by his blood, and he has made us to be a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:5-6).


Small group exercise: read these texts together and then talk about what it means to have an “e/Evangelical-critical consciousness” as Americans in our contemporary, 21st century culture.

This is an exercise I conducted with a group of white American-e/Evangelical citizens of the United States a few years ago. Those of us born and bred in the U.S.A., particularly what I call the post-1950s late modern United States, constitute my intended audience here.  We’re relatively affluent, mostly white, suburban dwellers and socially, politically, culturally and theologically conservative.

“Critical” in the title means thinking characterized by careful evaluation and judgment, such as a “critical reading” or “critical dissertation” or “critical analysis of someone’s writings.” Except in our case I want us to consider what it means to think in an “evangelical-critical” manner as American-Evangelicals. I want us to proceed with an inclination to make careful distinctions and to exercise discriminating judgments about our formation and embeddedness in our cultural-social context. We need this kind of thinking if we want to be true to God and our neighbors.

My “e/Evangelical” conflation denotes two things: “evangelical” and “Evangelical”. I’m assuming that most of you have both e/Evangelical strands running through you, at least to some degree. If not, that’s quite okay. I would simply encourage you to listen in a spirit of faith-seeking-understanding.

Both “evangelical” and “Evangelical” carry a fair amount of historical, cultural, social, political and religious baggage, so it is necessary to clarify what I mean by employing those terms here.

Little “e” evangelical is intended to evoke a critical focus on Jesus and the gospel. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus puts it this way: “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35). There is a certain biblical-theological-historical marrow to the true gospel conveyed by God throughout the last twenty centuries that today we call “evangelicalism”, which is composed of evangelicals of all kinds of different stripes around the world. The biblical texts we read were selected to emphasize lower case evangelical for us.

J. I. Packer and Thomas Oden put it this way: “Evangelicalism identifies a core of necessary truth that has remained central through many shifts of the Christian scene over time.”[1] Packer and Oden collected, identified and presented extracts of post-1950 evangelical statements of faith drawn from “two related but distinguishable wings of modern evangelical history: the Calvinist,[2] Lutheran and Baptist wing of the Reformation, as distinguished in tone and accent in some ways from the Arminian, Wesleyan, Holiness, Charismatic and Pentecostal wing.”[3] Little “e” evangelical Christians are

those who read the Bible as God’s own Word, addressed personally to each of them here and now; and who live out a personal trust in, and love for, Jesus Christ as the world’s only Lord and Savior. They are people who see themselves as sinners saved by grace through faith for glory; who practice loyal obedience to God; and who are active both in grateful, hopeful communion with the triune God by prayer, and in neighbor-love, with a lively commitment to disciple-making according to the Great Commission.[4]

This is a good description of evangelical in a biblical-theological-historical sense. Throughout history, evangelical Christian historians and theologians have read, interpreted and written about God’s redemption in Christ from their particular vantage points. This has resulted in a discernable stream of evangelical Christianity over the centuries:

…Historians categorize evangelicals as people who emphasize (1) the Bible as the Word of God, (2) the cross as the place where salvation was won, (3) conversion as a universal need and (4) missionary outreach as a universal task. Theologians dissect evangelicalism as a compound of the classic trinitarianism of Nicea, the Cappadocians and Augustine; the classic Christology of Chalcedon; the classic soteriology and ecclesiology of the Reformation; the classic pneumatology of the Puritans and Edwards; and the classic missiology of Carey, Venn and Hudson Taylor.[5]

So what is the difference between “evangelical” and “Evangelical” and what does the conflation “e/Evangelical” mean?

By using an upper case “E” I intend to focus our attention specifically upon five dimensions of how those within the spectrum of evangelicalism described above have been formed as Evangelicals in the United States since 1950: the historical, cultural, social, economic and political. We must engage these aspects of our “contemporary culture” with the Bible in our hands, Jesus in our hearts and the gospel in our heads if we hope to cultivate an e/Evangelical-critical consciousness.

Thus, the “American-e/Evangelical” conflation focuses our attention specifically upon what it means to be “born in the U.S.A.”[6] and nurtured as Evangelicals within its cultural, subcultural and social matrices. It is an effort to raise our “e/Evangelical consciousness”. The more you understand about your historical-cultural-social-economic-political formation, the better able you will be to test and examine yourself to see if you “are in the faith…[if] Jesus Christ is in you” – that is, if you are truly an evangelical (2 Cor 13:5) or, perhaps better, “truly evangelical”.

e/Evangelical critical consciousness

This is what I mean by “American-e/Evangelical Critical Consciousness in Contemporary Culture.” As e/Evangelical Christians born and nurtured in the United States, we must be able to think in an evangelically self-critical manner about Jesus and the gospel in light of our contemporary culture, and on that basis live in self-giving relations for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.

This point must be emphasized if we are to understand what an e/Evangelical-critical consciousness is and why it is something we need to be developing. Let me break it down for us, because it is central to understanding my primary goal: to raise your e/Evangelical-critical consciousness in our contemporary culture. Keep in mind that when we talk about this culture we are talking about a culture of mass affluence, a culture where American e/Evangelicals live and breath and have their being in abundance. In other words, our shared history, culture, sociality, economics and politics can be summed up as a culture of affluence made possible by the engine of technological consumer capitalism.

(1) We must be able to think – God has given us life in the Spirit, so that with our brains and bodies and souls (i.e., spirits-minds-hearts) we may glorify God in everything we say, think, do, eat and drink so that we will not put any stumbling blocks to faith in Jesus and the gospel before Jews, unbelievers and believers (1 Cor 10:31-33); this kind of evangelical acting requires, in the first instance, correct evangelical thinking.

(2) …in an evangelical self-critical manner about Jesus and the gospel – Jesus is the Beloved Son in whom God is well-pleased and therefore to whom we must constantly listen in faithful obedience (Mk 9:1-7, 4:3, 9, 11-12, 15-16, 18-19, 20, 23-24); and what does this Son say? “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15); “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:34-35); “the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Mt 11:5); and, among many other things, I fear he may be saying to many of us American-e/Evangelicals formed and embedded in affluence, “One thing you lack….” (Mk 10:21).

(3) …in light of our contemporary culture – here is where perhaps our lack is exposed at its most basic level: we don’t know how to think evangelically about contemporary culture. We simply lack the resources because we have no self-critical referents for understanding our particular historical-cultural-social-economic-political formation. This results, I am afraid, in unevangelical thinking and actions, including economic and political ones, in the midst of our contemporary culture.

Begging evangelical questions: a problem of lack

This breakdown begs at least two questions. First, why do so many American-e/Evangelicals lack such a consciousness? Second, why should we be concerned about developing an e/Evangelical-critical consciousness in the 21st century?

Let us consider the second question first. I think all of us are serious about knowing what God wants of us. We all know that loving our God and neighbors sums up the substance of Christian-human being in the world. As evangelicals, one of the central ways we demonstrate this love is in our desire to see others come to know and love Jesus through the gospel of his death, burial and resurrection. Hopefully, we express this love in tangible ways of self-giving sacrifice and donation of our time, talent and treasure.

But what if our lack of e/Evangelical-critical consciousness actually impedes this evangelical passion and the kind of love that makes it tangible, real and truly reflective of the God in Jesus Christ who preached the gospel to those who are materially and spiritually poor? What if our economic and political choices actually contradict our professed faith in Christ and expose latent hypocrisy when we claim to be denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Jesus in a path of losing our lives for his sake and the gospel’s (Mk 8:34-35)?

Some professing Christians in the United States reconcile this by claiming that affluence is God’s will for every Christian and therefore pursuing health and wealth somehow squares with the call of Jesus to follow him to Golgotha. Others, including theologians like John Schneider,[7] know that the prosperity gospel is unevangelical but insist nevertheless that God wants every Christian to cultivate the “twin habits of…acquisition and enjoyment” within the matrices of 21st century consumer capitalism.[8] Strangely, words Jesus used to describe what following him in this world looks like, such as self-denial, cross-bearing, losing life for him and the gospel, hating life in the world, etc. (e.g., Mk 8:34-25, Jn 12:25) never appear in this kind of American-Evangelical narrative of contemporary culture. Instead, Schneider’s The Good of Affluence offers the thesis that “modern economic habits…as they flourish under capitalism” are both pleasing to God and good for e/Evangelicals (and presumably for their children).[9]

I think both prosperity theology and affluence-affirming Reformed theology like Schneider’s are dangerous because both cultivate formation of a spiritual and moral lack of the sort identified in the tradition of the rich (young) man (ruler) found in the Synoptic Gospels. That is, both lead to impoverished relationships with God (the spiritual dimension) and neighbor (the moral dimension). I have argued this point extensively in critical-evangelical interaction with Schneider’s thesis in The Good of Affluence, but neither space nor time will allow me to develop that argument here.[10] It must suffice to say that Schneider’s argument, though critical, is insufficiently evangelical. It lacks e/Evangelical-critical consciousness at the depth described for us in the words, life, death and resurrection of Jesus as recorded for us in the Gospels. The rest of the Bible corroborates this testimony from Jesus.

I want to close by answering the first question posed above: why do so many American-Evangelicals (and even American-Evangelical theologians) lack a critical-evangelical consciousness of contemporary culture? The simple answer is that they do not engage contemporary culture evangelically. Put another way, they fail to take every thought about their historical-cultural-societal-economic-political formation “captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

The lack exists not for want of a love for Jesus, the gospel, the Bible, sacraments or the church. And it’s not because there’s a dearth of spiritual activity, programs, buildings, resources, preaching, teaching and other e/Evangelical activities available. The reason is that we rarely read broadly and deeply outside these comfortable confines of American-e/Evangelical consumption. We are incapable of stepping out of our skin and seeing ourselves as we have been formed, as both God and others unlike us see us.

We rarely venture into how our shared history as American-Evangelicals over the last two centuries correlates to who we are today. We take our culture and society of affluence for granted, critically unaware that we of the post-1950 generations have been nurtured in mass affluence and, hence, what might be lacking as a result (Mk 10:21; Mt 19:20; Lk 18:22). We fail to recognize how determinative economics is of our lives and politics as American-Evangelicals and how it impacts the way we live out the evangel (gospel).

These dimensions of our formation and existence in the United States are not in our consciousness, or at least are not lodged there with evangelical-critical tethers. The neurological pathways simply are not formed because we have failed to read and wrestle with these aspects of our formation. It’s sort of how we treat our hands. We take them for granted. But our hands tell a lot about us. We each have unique fingerprints that set us apart from every other human on the planet. But we don’t study our hands very often, do we? Even though we say we know someone or something “like the back of my hand”, the reality is that we don’t know much if all we know is that side of our hands. The front side is much more revealing. The same is true of our consciousness of contemporary culture. We know it like the back of our hands rather than the front. And even if we think we know the front we find that as we study it—that is, study who we are and how we became who we are—we discern as if through an opaque window just how little we know about ourselves and how we have been formed by and through and within the world’s historical-cultural-social-economic-political matrices and our churches, families and marriages.

So as a final exercise together, I want you to take a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and then trace your hand. Not the regular, easy way most of us do it with the palm and fingers facing away, but with them facing up. It’s a bit awkward and more difficult to trace your hand that way, isn’t it? The same is true in trying to develop an e/Evangelical-critical consciousness in contemporary culture. Going through life as an American-Evangelical embedded in affluence without such a consciousness is like knowing only the back of your hand. You never really get to know yourself unless you study yourself with critical reflection on the front of your hand, the part of your body that gives you the ability to reach out and touch someone in love, to be God’s hands in the world.

Now, write on your thumb the word “history”, and on your index or pointer finger “culture”; on your middle finger write “society”; on your ring finger write “economics”; and on your little or pinky finger write “politics”. In the middle of the palm, write “God, Jesus and the gospel”, and below that write “marriage/family/ekklesia (church)”. I guess you could say that this is an evangelical-critical form of palm reading.

Take a few minutes to reflect on each of these dimensions of your formation over the decades of your life. Look at your hand and note how your thumb easily touches the other fingers and covers most of your palm. Close your thumb and fingers together and see how the lines in your palm enfold the flesh together. Imagine yourself embedded in your palm, and as your thumb and fingers come together see yourself over the span of years constituting your life thus far being compressed within the historical-cultural-societal-economic-political matrix of the United States. At the heart of it all, we see that our familial, marital and perhaps ecclesial (i.e., church) experiences have left the deepest impressions on us. And at the deepest levels, both outside us and within us, we find the God who has ordained glory for himself in “the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:20-21). This is all mixed up with our embedded condition in what the Bible calls being in the “flesh” in the “world”. In other words, God knows and has ordained that we live in the world. He knows we are compositions of spirit-matter flesh formed in the historical-cultural-societal-economic-political matrix of the United States. He knows how this affects our ability to see the kingdom of God and to follow Jesus for the sake of the gospel.

This is one way we can begin cultivating an American-e/Evangelical critical consciousness in our contemporary culture, by working hard to see things and ourselves as God sees them. We must reflect deeply on our personal and mutual histories as American-Evangelicals, seeing how that history connects with our cultural and social formation. And we must realize that on our ring fingers we all wear economic wedding bands, hitched as it were to the social scientific high priesthood of economics in the United States. Political rulers seek counsel, advice and blessing from this priesthood, knowing that their fortunes are inextricably tied to the winds of economic weal and woe.

So now when you study the unique side of your hand, reflect deeply on your history, culture, society, economics and politics as an American-e/Evangelical. Ask yourself these questions:

1. How have I been formed as an American-Evangelical?

2. Am I thinking evangelically-critically in my contemporary culture?

3. In what ways am I thinking, speaking and acting in ways that may contradict my professed faith in Jesus and love for the gospel and for the God who gave us that good news and freed us to serve one another in love and love our neighbors as ourselves?

Then set off to read deeply and broadly in each of the dimensions of contemporary U.S. culture with focused, self-critical reflection that keeps Jesus and the gospel in view at all times.  Perhaps this may be one of God’s means in the twenty-first century to continue that transformation (literally, metamorphosis) of us “into the same image from one degree of glory to another….from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

[1] J. I. Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 15.

[2] The authors include the Anglican/Episcopalian traditions here.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 19-20.

[6] Echoes of Bruce Springsteen’s popular song with this title may reverberate in some of your heads. First released in 1984, the song’s lyrics provide a window into being an American in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

[7] J. R. Schneider, Godly Materialism: Rethinking Money and Possessions (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994); –, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); –, ‘In Defense of Delight’, Faith & Economics 40 (2002), 21-25.

[8] Schneider, The Good of Affluence, 35.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] D. A. Sims, “The Child in American Evangelicalism and the Problem of Affluence: A Theological Anthropology of the Affluent American-Evangelical Child (AAEC) in Late Modernity” (Ph.D. diss., University of Durham, 2005), 161-266.

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