catapult magazine

catapult magazine


evangelical posture on engaging the world


Jan 26 2004
12:12 pm

“Most [evangelicals] embrace both [absolutism and volumtarism], even if they are not aware of it in these precise terms. And being caught on the horns of this dilemma generally creates within them a powerfully confusing and self-restraining ambivalence about Chritian social and political activism. Too much voluntaristic thinking automatically evokes the concerns of of absolutism—God’s laws are not optional, but binding on all people and nations, for their own good. At the same time, however, mental steps toward absolutism automatically rouses the opposition of voluntarism—you should not force people to live like Christians. And in the end, neither gets very far. And, consequently, evangelicals do not get very far in figuring out how to go about transforming the world. ”

-Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism (1998)


Jan 26 2004
01:18 pm

I’m not up on my theological terminology, so I’m not exactly sure about the specific defintitions of “absolutism” and “voluntarism” in this context, but it sounds to me as though this quote is in some way addressing the fundamental religious tension (ideally a healthy, dynamic tension) between determinism and free will.

From a neo-calvinist perspective, I have to admit that the dilemma described in the quote sounds remarkably familiar, both in terms of my frustrations with my own perceived failings, as well as what I see to be the failings of my church community in general. Lately I have been wondering (from the perspective of a lay person, not a trained theologian) whether the source of a lot of this ambivalence can be traced to an over-emphasis on the more deterministic elements of Calvinist theology, predestination specifically, and in its more extreme form, what is sometimes called double-predestination (particularly frightening in that it posits, as I understand it, that God elects individuals, then “changes his mind” and casts them away again). I don’t believe this last tenet is Biblical, and it certainly isn’t popular, but apparently it does exist in some form within the neo-calvinist faith community.

I have also been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between the individual and the community, which I think can be seen as an expression of the determinism/free-will dynamic. My concern is that my tradition’s emphasis on systematic theology has inadvertently created a culture which, implicitly, constrains individual creativity with an overemphasis on dogmatic observance which can tend to result in a form of complacency/ambivalence about social and political activism (not to mention the rest of culture, especially the arts). Speaking personally, I have found a great deal of inspiration/encouragement in traditions which place a high value on personal conscience, creative thinking and the individual imagination (even if it is, often, by default), as opposed to systematic theology. Is it a coincidence that many of the most culturally influential Christians of the last century were Roman Catholic? I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Merton, Mother Theresa, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and (I may be mistaken) Madeline L’Engle (although she certainly is not a neo-calvinist), etc.

Yes, C.S. Lewis, poster boy for North American evangelicalism, was a Protestant, but he was an Anglican, a tradition in many ways closer (aesthetically speaking) to Catholicism than any of the North American evangelical traditions. Also, Lewis began his adult life as a rationalist atheist, and I would argue that his modernist apologetics are growing increasingly irrelevant the farther our culture moves away from the twentieth century and its assumptions. I would also argue that if you look at the development of his creative writing, in its gradual movement away from heavy-handed allegory to a richer mythopoetic vision, you can make the case that what he did learn about creative writing, he learned from Tolkien.

I don’t want to be perceived as slagging my tradition. It has produced much that is of value in transforming culture, and in many ways is healthier in that respect than other traditions. This website is an excellent example of that. And the concerns I have, are, as I said, concerns I have as much about my own shortcomings, as those of the broader community. But I believe the dilemma is real, and I know there is more I and we could be doing. And I believe the source of some of our shortcomings may lie close to some of our most fundamental theological assumptions, and in their (mis)interpretation and/or (mis)application.


Jan 27 2004
02:56 am

Dude, don’t be dissin’ C.S. Lewis.

It is certainly true that Tolkein’s work is richer and more mature, but you can also make the case that Lewis’s vision is clearer and more appropriate for children. Both of them were writing for children, of course, but Tokien’s work is, in the end, an adult story (and a great one at that). My four your old daughter thoroughly enjoyed the Narnia series when I read them to her, and understood their allegory. I was alos impressed with the levels and layering that I didn’t remember from when I read them as a kid.

Okay, sorry about that, but you got my dander up. Now what were you saying about evangelism? Oh yeah.

I’ve long suspected that the problem with literature is not that there aren’t excellent protestant writers out there, but that they disguise their belief for fear of being misidentified as rabid fundementalists. Roman Catholics are safe, because they have an artistic tradition behind them. Protestants originally have an anti-artistic tradition associated with their churches (Luther’s anti-graven images thing, and so on) and so they have to either write books for Chrisitan bookstores, or, if they want to be taken seriously by the world, call themselves agnostic or vaguely spiritual.


Jan 27 2004
09:15 am

I agree that this culture (i.e. most of 20th Century to now) is a bit more hostile (generally) to t he Protestants (esp. if whit e).

But I see some quasi-influence of Protestantism (or one may say Christian activism for justice, and regard for the victim) in the novels of John Grisham, and Agatha Christie, for instance.

(I don’t claim them as great writers, but they are currently quite popular, notably Christie with her maybe half a billion in sales???)

this culture is moving so far away from Christian/Jewish influenced values, that the gap & hunger created by this void is sometimes partly filled by reading such novels where, in a reasonably artistic and somewhat plausible way,
..good & evil,
…justice & injustice interact.
And jsutice triumphs, or at least the battle between justice & injustice is at least fought out,
tho sometimes (notably in the Grisham novels) at a great cost..(His lawyer heroes usually are a bit dirty themselves…a pretty realistic picture of the tainted sin nature we all have…yet they in many books, still strive to help the underdog…or to bring the villain to justice.).

You have the Christie hero/heroine Hercule Poirot, who with his quaint mannerisms,slightly comic appearance belies his intense striving for justice. When he says “I do not approve of murder.” it sounds almost silly and Edwardian (i.e. around 1910 or so, ). Traditionally, he is sort of looked on as a quaint joke, till…he turns on those little grey cells (uses logic & research) to uncover the murderer.

The other main Christie here (heroine, actually) is Miss Marple, also a slight joke to some who first see this little, fussy, fluffy chatty old lady. But she too is Nemesis to those who do evil.Again, these novels are mostly written well, and are a bid draw for those who “hunger for justice” but who maybe don’t realize that “justice” even exists ???

To the postmodern reader (or to the mom/dad of the postmodern, maybe a 60’s or 70’s “situation ethics”person) …..

, this notion of justice might be …new &….oddly comforting, in a world, where they were taught “there are no moral absolutes”.


Jan 27 2004
09:23 am

There are lots of great Christian activists (or activists heavily influenced by Christian concepts).

A few 19th century names Mary Slessor, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Elisabeth Barret Browning, to name a few.

Some 20th century Christian activists for JUSTICE, Dr ML King, Mother Theresa (a very gentle activist for life), to name a few.

I am trying to absorb into my life & being the Biblical concepts about speaking out for those who are helpless to speak for themselves. (This is a verse i think in Proverbs D. Bonhoeffer used in speaking out about the Jews.) Right now, I have a modest measure of power. I am an adult female with adequate food & shelter, and some time & knowledge.

This is the essence of activism. We are to speak out for those helpless to speak out for themselves.

If one reads this thread & lacks causes, here’s just one possible cause:

The millions of foster kids in this country…Many created as biological “byproducts” of prostitution, casual sex, drugs, destructive relationships…(the parents being caught up, VERY typically in one or more of the preceding destructive life choices).

We can debate why evangelicals may or may not be standing for justice. But one can also do some research, pick one of SO MANY groups of persons WITHOUT A VOICE OF THEIR OWN and speak for them.


Jan 27 2004
08:07 pm

Well, the posts responding to this quote have been interesting to say the least, but have departed significanlty from the thrust of the quote. Maybe I didn’t include enough context. The jist of Smith’s point which I thought might make for intereting discussion was that evangelicals maintain a basically untenable posture in the face of the pluralism of contemporary culture. On one hand, evangelicals are very wary of “relativism.” They believe in God-given norms—norms which are applicable to all of society. There are certain ways to live which are better than others. This Smith labels absolutism. On the other hand, evangelicalism has always had strong voluntaristic overtones. The prevailing sentiment among evangelicals is that true change can only come about through the transformation of the hearts of individuals. True morality is not a matter of coercion to be dictated by law, but a matter of individual choice which flows out of a regenerate heart.

Smith argues that evangelicals attempt to affirm both absolutism and voluntarism simultaneously. But especially when it comes to their political activity and social engagement, this effort breaks down. They don’t want to create a theocracy (because behavior must be chosen rather than coerced to be genuine). But on the other hand, they are uncomfortable with what they believe to be the moral/spiritual degeneration wrought by pluralism.

In this situation, Smith says, there is basically no vocabulary or framework to deal with systematized evil or injustice. Furthermore, evangelicals are at a loss to develop a consistent and effective approach to the world around them. They want to be more than a voice in the pluralistic fray that makes no value judgments and no demands. On the other hand, they want to be relevant, they realize that a theocratic vision has a bad track record, and they enshrine choice just as much as the next guy.

What do you think of Smith’s thesis? Is there a way for evangelicals (or those who bear resemblance to evangelcials but are loath to use the term—eg. me) to navigate through this tension?


Jan 27 2004
10:12 pm

I think what I was responding to was a visceral recognition of the way the symptom – that particular form of paralysis – is evident in ALL areas in which the evangelical tradition attempts to engage culture. I was pretty specific about the arts because that is where I have the most experience, but I think the dilemma described by the quote manifests itself in a variety of ways. The absolutism/voluntarism duality is definitely real, but I think it is one of many expressions of the somewhat schizophrenic relationship that many thoughtful evangelical Christians have with their theology.

I agree completely that many “evangelicals maintain a basically untenable posture in the face of the pluralism of contemporary culture” and that this cripples their ability to go about transforming that culture. I wouldn’t say that the effort breaks down “especially” in the area of political and social engagement, although there is plenty of evidence on this website that it breaks down there too.

I think there is a lot of brokenness in all areas where evangelical Christians attempt to engage the plurality of contemporary culture. And so we don’t. We create a substitute for culture. This is where we start using the word “Christian” as an adjective. We slip it in front of cultural activities we would like to see transformed and we talk about Christian literature, Christian theatre, Christian politics and so on. But this does not transform culture, it builds ghettoes where we can live comfortably with the illusion of culture. The word Christian is a noun, and it describes people who believe in Christ. Period. I agree with you that the term evangelical has become so culturally loaded that I no longer claim it for myself.

There is a tremendously rich vein of imaginative and important contributions to the life of culture that members of the body of Christ from all traditions – Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Christian Reformed – have made over the course of the past two thousand years and all of that is available for us to draw on. There are many Christians who are making real contributions to the transformation of all of culture in hundreds of big and little ways, and we can learn from their examples.

I really do feel that the reason the evangelical traditions struggle in particular, is that they have cut themselves off from the transformative power of the imagination. Faith is fundamentally an imaginative act. It asks us to believe in what we have not seen. And yet it happens so often in discussions about the arts that evangelical Christians shy away from the transformative power of the imagination. They seek over and over to put the imagination in the service of theology, the story in the service of doctrine. Whenever the Pharisees sought to trap Christ with one of their theological paradoxes, he always told them a story, because a story can not be trapped. There’s a rabbinical saying that the only thing truer than the truth is a story.

I’m sorry, Janel, if I’ve taken your discussion off on a tangent again, but your quote really did strike quite close to a number of issues that I have been struggling with for some time. Pluralism is a fact, and wishful thinking won’t make it go away, so for me, there is no room for the absolutist position, which is what I think I was getting at with my comment about the growing irrelevance of C.S. Lewis’ apologetics. He’s preaching to the choir. He is very popular among evangelical Christians because they relate well to the strong allegorical nature of his stories – this symbol means this, that symbol means that – and, yes, the Narnia stories are good stories for adults and children, and are enjoyed by audiences outside of the church community.

My point about Tolkien is that he is so completely steeped in the power of story, and his imaginative vision is so rich, and deeply Christian without being explicitly so, that it, in my opinion, his work has engaged and transformed our complex and complicated culture on a variety of levels and will continue to do so for a long time. Tolkien succeeds where logical analysis fails. His stories DO provide us with a vocabulary to deal with systematized evil and injustice, because as Tolkien himself would put it, every good story is ultimately a reflection of the divine narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, whether its author would see it in those terms or not.

I hope this makes sense/is helpful to you in terms of your own attempts to navigate these tensions, as you put it. Ultimately, we have the gift of scripture to help us do that. But I think we undervalue the role imagination can play in our reading of scripture. We have equated the “logos” of the Word too closely with the logical bias of Western culture, and tend to forget that there is a healthy dose of “mythos” in there as well. And before anyone freaks out on me, “myth” does NOT mean something that is “untrue”, or that “never happened”.

And this is Henry, by the way, not Blisster. I’m too much of a technological illiterate to figure out what I’m doing wrong with the logging in/out.


Jan 28 2004
03:46 am

There is a christian ghetto, tho I suspect we lack knowledge about many of those who have tunnelled under the walls & are influencing culture at large. Not all will be as obvious as Tolkein, but I totally agree,,,mmany more “infiltrators” are desperately needed.

On the western culture question,,,I am not yet up on all t he ways “western culture” is up for question in the colleges. I will guess that some criticisms will stand up as sound & true…why, because these criticisms are true. Certain sins, pet assumptions of western civ are bad.

Other accusations against Western Civ.will be mere fad…perhaps victims of name calling substituting as scholarship? (I say this because I hear some speak of Western Civ generically—-almost as harshly as they speak of some totalitarian regieme. Blanket condemnation, unrelieved by any kind of examples or scholarly analysis.
Pluralism? If we mean there are lots of persons from different backgrounds, beliefs, yes. That’s an observable fact. If we mean that all cultural concepts, values, ideas, etc. should be tested …If we mean that we can learn things of value from other non-western cultures, yes. However…If we mean there are no truths at all anywhere,. this statement needs to be backed up…not merely asserted.

And Western culture was formed by humans so of course there are sins & biases…
Truth? The use of Unfashionable Logicto prove things?

Lots of verses in the Bible about discernment. Heard a philo prof. recently sneer at logic. Perhaps a portion of the emphasis on logic in western civ. originated from the Biblical admonitions to hold to sound doctrine, to test t he spirits, to even hold the highest leaders, the Apostles, to sound doctri8ne like the Bereans did. (If you still don’t like logic, I have a great investment plan….just kidding.)
***But the great truth of stories, of myths, indeed of personal experiences are a great resource we have neglected. In History Channel (and in a growing number of other historical channels, and in live reenactment dramas) and in some recent war movies, we see the reality of war lived out thru personal stories…true, or based on the general experiences of the times.
And mythic stories like the RINGS or Narnia (for kids more) are so successful that they are available at basically every secular bookstore in the nation.
It is possible for Christians to invade the culture.
Tolkein, unarguably to most a Renaissance man i nthe breadth of his Western Civ learning, has taken & reshaped much from OLD western civ…into his wonderful stories. But the much of western civ he takes into his story…concerns ideals, etc. heavily influenced by that faith from the Mideast…Christianity.

There are truths which are transcultural, tho, and that’s another reasons the RINGS are so astonishingly successful. Sorry, I’m not politically correct…Yes, Virginia there are absolutes…

Also, if one’s best artistic work brings along (even unconsciously) the transcultural truths packaged into a well done product (i.e. well written, well drawn, well acted, etc.) one can ***enchant*** the postmodern or pluralistic drifters with ideals (Return of the King, for instance!!!)and hint at a God which they mignt sneer at & discard if you tried to argue it out with them only thru discussion.

I’m a bit far off from the problem of evangelicals here, but maybe not totally…I’m looking, as did others above, at a great cultural invasion success…And as many of us had pagan ancestors, we know the “invaders” succeeded in the past…at least in reaching our ancestors.


Jan 28 2004
07:33 pm

henry, i agree that the dilemma exists in many areas, but i think it is “especially” apparent in social/political situations, because those involve making norms and laws that people have to follow (absolutism). so to navigate between forcing someone to obey a law and allowing them freedom to decide not to, for example, is much more treacherous than creating something for the culture at large, or for a ghetto-ized “christian” culture. the difference is, no one is sticking an $8 ticket in your hand and forcing you to watch the latest lord of the rings release, while they are saying (through laws) you can do this….you can’t do that. the nature of cultural creation is voluntaristic—people choose to do and participate in culture. the nature of politics and societal structure is less so, and the interplay of voluntarism and absolutism is more pronounced.


Jan 28 2004
09:47 pm

I’m not sure I agree, Laryn. While it is true that no one is forcing anyone to view or participate in any one particular product of culture, I think I remember hearing somewhere that “culture is not optional”. Culture is the sum total of everything people are doing, everywhere, at any given time, and it includes politics and social justice issues. I agree that the dilemma is more pronounced in the area of law, but I don’t think it is “much more treacherous”. We all participate in culture, unless we are making a deliberate attempt to live in a box, or a cork-lined room as Proust did. But then again, Proust wrote a tremendous book while he was living in that room which has had a tremendous impact on culture, perhaps in spite of his attempt to cut himself off from it, and it impacts us whether or not we have read it. Every single one of us who speaks the English language is impacted by Shakespeare every single day whether or not we have ever seen or read one of his plays. This ties in to my comment about free will. Each one of us has to behave as though our choices will impact culture as a whole, because they can.

And yes, vanlee, there is an absolute truth, but interpretations are plural – one body of Christ, but a multitude of expressions. We have part of the truth, but no one person or denomination can lay claim to possession of absolute truth. We see through a glass, darkly. This is a reality that the Roman Catholic tradition describes as “mystery”, something closely related to the imagination, and also generally undervalued, if not entirely ignored by the evangelical tradition. Evangelical Christianity has placed so much emphasis on having THE ANSWER to EVERYTHING, that it feels threatened by the notion of having questions.

And no, I don’t hate or disparage logic (or western civ). It is a useful tool. What I object to is an over-emphasis on logic at the expense of the imagination, something I personally blame on Descartes, another person who spent a lot of time trying to live in a box.

And, yes, this is still Henry, not Blisster.


Jan 29 2004
04:18 am

Sorry for my loose use of “culture.” I hope you understood my meaning. I’m not denying that books and movies don’t affect culture as a whole, but that the effect laws and social structures have is “especially” strong, or more pronounced. So, perhaps we have an agreement there after all.

Yes, “culture is not optional,” but that is an understanding we have—and not everyone shares that view, right? These people that try to “live in a box” are free to try to do so, and are successful to varying degrees, none fully. What they are not free to do is break the law and expect to get away with it.

Thanks for your comments, I found them helpful.