like a maze to find the right answer
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Susan Yin.) A labyrinth set up in Washington, DC.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I brought up what I saw as evangelicals’ Big Question: how oh how did they end up here? In yesterday’s case, it was Ed Stetzer asking how evangelicals had ever decided to support such a terrible choice for president as Donald Trump. Like most dysfunctional people asking their Big Question, he had a Big Solution in mind. And like most of these Big Solutions, it absolutely won’t work. But that’s not why he suggested it in the first place. Today, let me show you the Big Solutions that dysfunctional people in dysfunctional groups always create, and why they don’t ever work in reality.

like a maze to find the right answer
(Susan Yin.) A labyrinth set up in Washington, DC.

The Big Question.

Just to recap for anyone new to the story, recently Ed Stetzer did an interview with National Public Radio (NPR). Raw Story covered it. In this interview, Stetzer plaintively asked how evangelicals had ever signed on with Donald Trump. (Mr. Captain: “Like he wasn’t f*ckin there the whole time!”)

Yes. Ed Stetzer just didn’t understaaaaaaaand, y’all:

“Part of this reckoning is: How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?”

And so he thinks that evangelicals face some giant “reckoning” over their hypocritical political affiliations. He hopes they’ll ask themselves, in coming days, how they could support a traitor to the country as well as a giant hypocrite who’s utterly wrecked evangelicals’ credibility for many years to come:

I think there are some significant and important conversations that we need to have inside of evangelicalism asking the question: What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.

He even name-drops the famous evangelical book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. That’s how serious he is!

He reads Siriuz Liturchur, y’all!

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind… Again.

Ed Stetzer referred there to the 1995 book in which author Mark A. Noll declares,

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. [. . .] Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

Indeed, in his book Noll demonstrates that evangelicals had already become dangerously anti-intellectual, anti-rationality, and anti-education.

Of course, Noll also sternly criticizes denominations (like the one to which Ed Stetzer belongs) that hold tribal, anti-intellectual, completely fundamentalist views of the Bible that are best grown past and then discarded. Yes, Noll yearned for what he called a “postfundamentalist” evangelicalism that was intellectually robust. Oh, and he sideways dissed Billy Graham, who might be Ed Stetzer’s biggest hero, for not giving intellectual, academic evangelicalism more of an overt helping hand — even while praising him to the skies for working behind the scenes to try to resurrect some kind of intellectual rigor in the evangelical psyche.

So I kinda hope a few evangelicals actually read the book Ed Stetzer claims to like so much. They’ll find a lot in it that challenges their beliefs and worldview.

But don’t worry! Ed Stetzer came up with a total Big Solution to his Big Question! And amazingly, it’s the same one that Mark A. Noll had already come up with in 1995, as well as the same one evangelical leaders have always offered up as the Big Solution to the Big Question they all plaintively ask.

The Big Solution.

When dysfunctional people in dysfunctional groups ask the Big Question, they always have a Big Solution in mind. That Big Solution will always allow them to continue behaving as they like best. It will always hold steady their beliefs and worldview. It’ll also keep them feeling like they are superior to their tribemates who are, in their opinion, inferior and — more importantly — making the mistakes expected of inferiors.

And evangelicals are past masters of the Big Solution.

I was almost disappointed, I admit, when I first read Noll’s book. He seemed to be focusing on all kinds of necessary changes that didn’t involve Jesus-ing harder, though sure, none of them were things I expected any evangelicals to actually do, ever. I thought, Is this to be our combo breaker?

Then, in the last couple pages of his book, Noll lands in very familiar territory (p. 252):

Ultimately, however, the greatest hope for evangelical thought lies with the heart of the evangelical message concerning the cross of Christ. [. . .]

The great truth of the Incarnation is that the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us.

So Mark A. Noll saw evangelicals’ childish, irrational emphasis on salvation from Hell as overriding their hostility toward education and rationality. Thus, the real key to fixing their problems rested in their truly believing all their whackadoodle claims. They didn’t yet, but they needed to:

If evangelicals believe such realities, the life of our minds may yet awaken as well. [. . .] The scandal of the evangelical mind may be addressed by the scandal of the Cross.

And as I read, I smiled to myself. I thought:

Ah, yes, there it is, right where I always expected to find it. Jesus harder, everyone! Jesus harder and everything will be great again!

Ed Stetzer’s Variant of the Big Solution.

And as we expect as well, Ed Stetzer wants his tribe to Jesus harder in similar ways. In his interview, he says:

And I think as this presidency is ending in tatters as it is, hopefully more and more evangelicals will say, “You know, we should have seen earlier, we should have known better, we should have honored the Lord more in our actions these last four years.” [. . .]

I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into — conspiracy theories, false reports and more — and so I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call in the Christian tradition, discipleship. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” So Jesus literally identifies himself as the truth; therefore, if there ever should be a people who care about the truth, it should be people who call themselves followers of Jesus.

Ah yes, there it is, right where we always expected to find it.

Jesus harder, everyone!

Jesus harder and evangelicals will totally stop being such conspiracy-addled dimwits who keep following awful leaders and believing fake news! Evangelicals who Jesus at the proper levels, in the most correct ways, don’t do that!

Jesus-ing Harder.

When I talk about Jesus-ing harder, I’m referring to both fervor and correctness. Evangelicals cannot put a concrete quantity or quality to any of their demands, because their god does not exist. Instead of asking for objectively-assessed goals to be hit, they instead rely on their own purely subjective opinions of how much belief and worship are the right amounts, and what form these ought to take.

As we’ve discussed recently, evangelicals face a dealbreaking problem: the Doctrinal Yardstick. No Christians can actually credibly, objectively demonstrate that their quirky li’l take on Christianity is better than any other Christian’s similarly-quirky li’l take on it. Anything they try to use to win those arguments can be successfully argued down because none of it tethers to reality.

(Even my own best-case take on Christianity remains nothing more than my own subjective view of how the religion could objectively do less harm to members and outsiders alike. As a whole, Christians don’t care what I think because objective harm stopped being a concern for most of them many years ago.)

When someone offers up Jesus-ing harder as a non-solution to the Big Question, what they really want is for all Christians everywhere to perform devotions about like the judge does, to believe basically what the judge does, and to have the same basic level of fervor. That’s it.

Jesus-ing Harder, as the Big Solution.

The Christian judges in these cases would not, themselves, do X. However, they mistakenly assume that Jesus-ing like they do functions as an immunization against X. They take it on faith, as the night follows the day, that Jesus-ing hard enough fixes all character flaws in a person. I mean really, how can someone possibly misbehave when they’re Jesus-ing correctly?

It would absolutely never occur to these judges that they themselves aren’t Jesus-ing correctly at all, but simply happen to have a few character traits independent of their religious faith that allow them to recognize X as a bad idea. Even if it did occur to them or someone said it to them, they would reject the notion out of hand.

You will not often — if ever — hear an evangelical leader at any level make suggestions that actually would fix their problem. They need to present the Big Solution that will keep things operating the same way. It needs to support their own agenda and allow them to operate in the way they like best. Most of all, it needs to paint them as superior to those who are misbehaving.

And that’s exactly what happened in Ed Stetzer’s interview.

A Big Solution: In the Wild.

In this interview (relink), NPR asks Ed Stetzer about the teaching of critical-thinking skills from evangelical pulpits. And in response, Stetzer acts like he thinks that’d be totes awesome:

Absolutely, absolutely. [. . .]

I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into — conspiracy theories, false reports and more — and so I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call in the Christian tradition, discipleship. [. . .]

But we have failed, and I think pulpits and colleges and universities and parachurch ministries and more need to ask the question: How are we going to disciple our people so that they engage the world around them in robust and Christ-like ways? — and I think part of the evangelical reckoning is we haven’t done that well.

So no. Ed Stetzer does not, in any way, support the teaching of real critical-thinking skills from the pulpit. He just wants it to seem like he does, perhaps because he knows how much the enemies of his tribe value that kind of thing.

While evangelicals remain steadfastly anti-intellectual, Ed Stetzer seeks to sell them a very defanged pseudo-intellectual alternative that’ll make them feel like they’re very intellectual indeed. (That’s what it does for him, after all!)

And he presents his version of Jesus-ing as the Big Solution to evangelicals’ Big Problem. His quirky li’l take on Christianity happens to look a lot like a totalitarian dictatorship, but who’s surprised?

Speaking to the Choir.

What Ed Stetzer supports instead of real critical-thinking skills is greater power for pastors — enough for them to command even the thoughts of their congregations. Discipling is the Christianese buzzword to know here. It means steep, intense indoctrination to a very authoritarian power structure. Stetzer’s denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has been pushing very hard on discipling as a way to reverse their decades-long decline.

Non-Christians listening to that interview or reading about it are very unlikely to know the Christianese he’s using. That’s intentional. But Christians will hear what he’s saying loud and clear:

Discipling — which means for evangelical pew-warmers to give way more power to pastors than they currently do — will fix all our problems with gullibility and awful mascots and political disasters like Trumpism. Once we install discipling as a common practice, evangelicals will finally start recovering from their decline. Only absolute power will guarantee evangelicals’ recovery.

And when more sensible people tell him that this is the exact opposite of critical-thinking skills, that his approach will, guaranteed, result only in more conspiracy theories to affect those flocks and cause worse behavior, that Jesus-ing is not the entire solution for every problem humans ever face, he will reject all of it.

In fact, he must.

Authoritarians understand no other language but power. It’s their curse, their bane, and their only truth. When presented with any problem, the solution will always involve giving them more power. That’s why their Big Solutions never amount to anything else.

And that’s why nothing in evangelicalism can ever change for the better.

NEXT UP: The evangelical obsession with #Winning — and how evangelical leaders are now wringing their widdle handsies over an obsession they themselves installed in the flocks. Whoopsie!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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