The very definition of reckoning without one's hosts
A gentle criticism of a recent New York Times op-ed about dissenters who seek to rescue evangelicalism 'from itself.'
Lately, everyone and their dogs are trying to save Christianity. Sure, it took a few years for Christians to move from absolute denial of their religion’s decline to blaming various groups for it to panicking about it. And sure, they still haven’t come even close to working out why it’s really happening in the first place. Eventually, one after another, various Christians have become completely positive that they know exactly how to save their religion from utter irrelevance. A recent New York Times op-ed post represents only the most recent of the tribe’s guesses about how to do it with evangelicalism. Today, let me show you some of the previous guesses. Then, let’s check out this most recent one. And then, let’s explore why it won’t work either—and why it can’t.
The sure guesses: X will totally save Christianity
First, let’s check out some of the previous guesses about how to save Christianity. You’ll likely notice a teensy-weensy micro-sliverette of self-interest in these guesses.
- “How to Save Christianity,” Thred.org, March 2021. In this one, the writer suggests treating Millennials like cooperative members and resources instead of as sales targets. (I wonder if he knows that Millennials are currently pushing 30-40? Christian leaders are well on to panicking about Zoomers nowadays.)
- “Saving Christianity,” Brethren.org, June 2017. Writer recommends Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. By coincidence, it’s strikingly similar to his opinion. (I wonder if he knows it doesn’t work?)
- “Asian Christians can save Christianity from Christendom,” parts 1 and 2, by missionary-to-Asia William Grimm. The upshot: Christian power structures bad. Send more Western missionaries to Asia. Asian Christians literally only convert out of “a desire for a heart’s ease in God.” (I wonder if he knows about “rice Christians?”)
- “Post-Christianity: How Christianity Failed and Continues to Fail,” by the Director of the Center for Sophiological Studies. Its real title should be how only Sophiology–err, I mean, TRUE CHRISTIANITY™–can save Christianity. He writes, “Christianity [. . .] failed to save culture, because it failed to be Christian.” (I wonder if he knows that gatekeeping actually backfires?)
- “We Must Save Christianity, Conservative Values and Freedom in 2022,” ominously published on January 6, 2022. Here, a deeply-politicized right-wing Christian expresses disappointment with his religion’s decline in cultural power.
- Last but not least, BioLogos asserted in 2010 that teaching Christians about biological science is “saving” Christianity. I discovered them here in a sharply critical retort.
Every Christian seeking to save Christianity has but a single hammer. So to each one, the solution always looks like it requires that one tool–and no other.
And now, the questions: Can X Save Christianity???
You might not know its name, but you probably know Betteridge’s law of headlines. It goes like this: Any headline that asks a question can usually be answered with the word no. In this subsection, you’ll see a lot of questions in headlines. Interestingly, Betteridge’s law handles their answers quite nicely.
- As mentioned above, “Can BioLogos Save Christianity?” by Reformation21. In it, a hardline, deeply-politicized, culture-warrior Calvinist bellows all the usual literalist blahblah. Mostly, he spends his time here sneering at BioLogos, a science-embracing Christian group, for not being TRUE CHRISTIAN™ enough for King Him. Indeed, he seems considerably more offended by BioLogos’ assertion that their work can save Christianity than he does by literally anything they’re actually doing. His own answer to his headline is clearly: No, because only my group can do that.
- “Can Politics Save Christianity?,” by Ross Douthat of New York Times, December 2021. His answer: No, because only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can do that. Hilariously, he seems to think that’s how Christianity spread and gained power originally, centuries ago. (It isn’t.)
- “Can Tom Wright save Christianity?” from Baptist News Global, February 2017. Here, Alan Bean discusses N.T. Wright’s emphasis on TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. He wonders if it’ll make any difference. (Alas for both him and N.T. Wright, no, it didn’t. Also, N.T. Wright is a truly awful apologist. In 2014, Steve Shives examined one of his books. Here’s the first video in that series. It’s a good watch.)
- And now, possibly my very favorite entry to this section: “Can Jesus save Christianity?” It’s by Rethinking Jesus, a churchless believer who bills himself “a refreshing new perspective on Jesus.” (This ain’t new, baby.) In this short YouTube video, he insists that Jesus-ing harder will totally rescue Christianity from its decline. (Also not new.)
And lastly, the defiant: Does Christianity even need saving at all?
Now, we come to the defiant Christians. A while ago, I talked about why Christians need to believe they’re on the #WINNING team. And here, we get an eyeful of this mentality.
- “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’,” by Rachel Held Evans, 2015. Ends with a pull quote that’s become beloved of Christian quotes pages: “Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age. After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.” 
- “Does Christianity Need to Be Saved?” Outreach Magazine, March 2020. Here, we get an excerpt from a book called Saving Christianity? Of course, the answer is a resounding no–cuz #WINNING, natch.
- Also in March 2020, “Does Christianity Need ‘Saving‘?” Here, the writer of the aforementioned book, Michael Youssef, shows up at LifeWay’s blog (they’re the faux-research and publishing arm of the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)). There, he drills down on Jesus-ing harder the SBC way and expands upon the points made in the excerpt.
- “Christianity doesn’t need saving; people do,” Baptist News Global, December 2019. Here, Eric Minton urges his fellow Christians to “let your faith do what it has wanted to do for years now, which is to die so that something brand new can enter your world.” I’m guessing he doesn’t mean deconversion, of course. Like doubt, dying faith can only unfold in certain approved directions.
The latest foray: saving evangelicalism ‘from itself’
A few days ago, New York Times ran an opinion piece from David Brooks. It’s called “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself.” This bit of utter whimsy discusses various “dissenters” within evangelicalism who seek to reform–and ultimately save–their end of Christianity from total cultural irrelevance.
In his post, Brooks mentions a number of very earnest people. In turn, these people offer utterly true and wracking criticisms of evangelicalism. (I was delighted to see Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who wrote Jesus and John Wayne, here.) Of course, Brooks also discusses famous dissenter Russell Moore, who flat-out quit his cushy SBC job and left the whole denomination over culture-war fights.
It’s interesting that he doesn’t write about how to save Christianity itself. Instead, he focuses on simply saving evangelicalism. Really, most of the posts I’ve listed above came from evangelical sites–and their writers focused on evangelicalism. Indeed, I see the exact same suggestions in Christian posts that specifically say they’re about saving evangelicalism (like this one). But Brooks comes right out and says he’s only focused there. Considering his entire religion is in a cultural shambles, it’s quite an interesting distinction, at least from a postmodernist point of view.
Saving evangelicalism—or not
Interestingly, David Brooks happens upon the correct explanation for evangelicalism’s deep and abiding “core problem.” It is power given to the wrong people in the wrong amounts.
However, he gives these “dissenters” way more hope—and credit—than the situation warrants. He writes, “Hints of Christian renewal are becoming visible.” Uh, do I really need to trot out  again?
In fact, he ends by quoting one of his dissenters, Karen Swallow Prior, who said “Modernity has peaked.” Brooks agrees with her. He thinks that as Americans get more and more dissatisfied with the vapidity and consumerism and “bitterness” of modern life, they’ll start yearning more for TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ in the form of evangelicalism to give their lives community and “transcendent meaning.”
Somehow, I seriously doubt that non-evangelicals who feel weary of modern life will gravitate to TRUE CHRISTIAN™ evangelicals to show them the way home. We’ll revisit in a few years and see how it that bold strategy actually played out. My prediction is that since this is just another attempt at “Jesus aura” evangelism, =it will fail just like all the rest always have.
Sidebar: How a well-meaning attempt goes spectacularly astray
Worst of all, David Brooks relies heavily upon a “detailed agenda” by Tim Keller that is meant to outline a plan for a resurgence in evangelicalism’s numbers and relevance. At the best of times, Keller is just awful. Here, his proposed agenda is 100% gauzy, formless wishful thinking that expects way more of the flocks than they have ever been willing to give.
Amazingly, Brooks calls it “concrete and ambitious.” It is neither. In truth, it’s simply what Christian rescuers have been saying for many years. And like all of those other plans, it suffers from a serious case of yes yes, but what does it look like?
Brooks’ friendship with Keller might have clouded his perceptions here. However, I can sure see the problems with this “detailed agenda.” Allow me to show you the very first item on it, which he calls “The Christian Mind Project” and describes thusly:
Expand by a factor of 10 the number of evangelicals in graduate schools and the professoriate in order to make the community more intellectually robust.Tim Keller in New York Times, 2022
And now, my questions:
- Where shall these evangelicals come from? Does Keller actually know how few young adults count as properly evangelical? I don’t think he’d get “a factor of 10” if he got every single young adult in evangelicalism into grad schools and professorships.
- What graduate schools shall they be compelled to attend?
- Who is going to be paying for all of this schooling?
- Which professor positions shall they assume and where?
- By what concrete processes will this item’s fulfillment bring about “more intellectual robustness?”
- What happens when all this education just leads to staggering arrogance and greater cruelty and control-lust? (See: that Reformation 21 guy.)
Reminder: this is part of a list that Brooks calls “detailed” and “concrete and ambitious.”
Worst of all, Keller sounds 100% signed on to evangelicals’ super-politicized culture war. He either avoids the worst elements of it or implicitly approves of it. So he won’t be fooling very many Gen Z people.
Why it won’t matter: nobody can save Christianity—and most especially not evangelicalism
What a journey we’ve made today! Now, as we wade around all this flotsam and jetsam, let us marvel together at how absolutely pointless all of it is. For all of the earnestness of these rescuers-of-evangelicalism, none of them will ever be able to do it.
And David Brooks would know that if he’d simply looked at his accurate diagnosis of the problem evangelical dissenters face. Remember? It was power. And that is a dealbreaker. It is insurmountable. Not even his imaginary friend Jesus could do it. Yep, this is an iron chariot if ever there was one.
By now, whether by design or by evolution, evangelicalism is a broken system. By that term, I mean that nobody in the system can actually fulfill any of their groups’ own stated goals. They can’t even protect their flocks from their own leaders. Instead, people jockey for power in each group in the system, then use that power against others in the group. The groups exist only as a means of gaining and using power for a limited number of people in leadership positions.
A broken system cannot be changed, especially not by dissenters. And there ain’t a system much more broken than modern evangelicalism.
The principles of power in broken systems
Whether we’re talking about a sorta-Buddhist cult based in Japan, a science-denying popular movement claiming to be science-based, or a huge Christian denomination full of culture warriors, they’re far more alike than they are different if they adhere to these principles of power:
- Power is given to certain people based on their demographics, family connections, and ability to play-act the group’s ideals, rather than on anyone’s actual suitability for the role. Once in power, leaders stay there unless there’s just overwhelming outside pressure to eject them.
- Once these leaders achieve power, their fellow leaders expect them to play ball. In other words, all leaders must protect their fellow leaders from anything that threatens their power. In turn, their fellow leaders will protect them–until they stop being useful. Power protects its own.
- Over time, leaders strip more and more power from members. The group’s architecture prevents any re-shifting of power back to the powerless.
- While all this is happening, every member of the group gets trained to care way more about the group’s welfare and reputation than about any victims of the leaders’ abuses.
Overall, the one goal of a broken system is to concentrate more and more power in the hands of its leaders. For the hoi polloi, their goal becomes gaining as much power as they can within that framework.
And of course, the whole point of gaining power is always, always to use it against the helpless who are lower in rank.
So no, dissenters will not ‘save evangelicalism’
Dissenters simply lack the power to truly reform evangelicalism. At most, I expect them to bleed off a few equally-upset pew-warmers. Then, I expect these dissenters to form or join new groups. But if the new groups recreate the same structures as their former ones, they’ll simply face the same problems all over again.
Most of all, reform inevitably involves foregoing all the apparent perks that evangelicalism gives evangelicals:
- culture-war high horses, especially regarding abortion access and LGBTQ equality
- male-only leadership at any level
- Orwellian authoritarianism as a deeply-desired goal
- science denial and literalism as marker beliefs
- demonizing and attacking critics and doubters
- their #WINNING obsession
- a built-in permission slip to abuse and try to control others
Everything described above flows from the dynamics of a broken system–and from the wackadoodle way that these systems’ groups assign, protect, and grow their own power.
And I just don’t see any way that even a dissenter can escape these well-loved, long-accustomed apparent-perks of evangelicalism. If they think any of this is a requirement for Jesus-ing, then we’ll see dissenters to the dissenters before too awful long.
So come meet your new bosses, disgruntled evangelical dissenters. You might notice they’re the same as the old bosses. But they’ll likely seem different and better–for a while.