A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Gordon Conwell

I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area).  Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.

A few takeaways:

  1. Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga.  Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape.  During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter.  This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
  2. I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations.  My advice:  preach the Gospel in season and out of season.   I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness.  I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
  3.  All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right.  It seems like a sea-change is coming.
  4.  During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump.  I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe.  He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.”  This is tragic.  It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour.  I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road.  His testimony was a powerful one.  While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
  5. We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community.  The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over.  George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.  Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him.  This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham.  It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
  6. It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.

The Millennial Evangelicals

millennials

While on the road speaking about evangelicals and Donald Trump, I am often asked if support for Trump among evangelicals is a generational phenomenon.

The average Donald Trump voter was 57.  I don’t know the age of the average evangelical Trump voter, but I think it is safe to say that many of them, if not most of them, learned how to merge faith and politics in the 1980s under the influence of Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and the Christian Right.  This means that abortion, marriage, and the Supreme Court are all that matters when one enters the voting booth.

Most of the younger evangelicals I know (My daughters are 20 and 17 and I teach a lot of evangelical students) do not seem to be following the Christian Right playbook.  They are pro-life on abortion, but they extend their pro-life convictions to issues such as climate change, immigration, the death penalty, care for the poor, universal health care, and other social justice issues.  Many of them are open to same-sex marriage.

Over at The New Yorker, writer Eliza Griswold has a piece on the millennial evangelicals.  Here is a taste:

For younger evangelicals, the political fights waged by previous generations no longer hold the sway they once did. Many told me that their focus in reading the Bible is on broader questions, such as, How shall I live? “Young evangelicals don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to fights over Biblical literalism,” Jonathan Merritt, the author of the recently published “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” told me. Merritt, a journalist who writes for The Atlantic and the son of James Merritt, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is accustomed to acting as a translator between the faith-based and secular worlds.

He calls for Christians to stop relying on old, culturally conservative terms, like “lost,” to define people who have different beliefs from theirs, and invites his fellow-evangelicals to reconsider the feminine aspect of God. After all, being “born again” invokes feminine imagery: only mothers can give birth to children, and yet “born again” Christians often consider God solely masculine. Merritt’s most controversial argument revolves around homosexuality—a word in traditional evangelical circles often encoded by “brokenness.” According to P.R.R.I., fifty-three per cent of evangelicals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine now support same-sex marriage, but the theological debate over homosexuality is still a fraught one. Merritt was outed in 2012 after having a homosexual encounter with a gay blogger. He doesn’t believe, however, that being called “broken” defines his complex sexual orientation or that of thousands of other Christians like him. “Being called ‘broken’ is a source of shame,” Merritt said. It implies that something needs fixing when, Merritt argues, it doesn’t.

Read the entire piece here.

A “massive religious realignment in America”

millennial;s

Over at Religion News Service, Jana Riess interviews Daniel Cox, research director at PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), on a new study on the religious beliefs of Millennials and Generation Z.  The study is titled “Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America.”

Here is what I learned from Jana’s interview:

  • Young people believe that Americans are more divided over politics than race or religion
  • Young people are not much different than older Americans on abortion, but on all other issues of human sexuality, including marriage, they are more liberal than older Americans.
  • Young people are much more tolerant of non-traditional families
  • Barack Obama is viewed favorably by young people, but less so among white young men
  • Only 25% of young people “have a favorable impression of Trump.”
  • Young people believe that Muslims in America are facing discrimination

Read the entire interview here.

Deneen: Our Students Are Idiots

College-classroom

Over at the Front Porch Republic, Patrick Deneen wonders why his students don’t know anything.  He writes:

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference.  Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people.  Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive:  a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions. Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together.  We have instead created the world’s firstres idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning “private individual.”  Our education system excels at producing solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history.  They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.  They have been taught to care passionately about their indifference, and to denounce the presence of actual diversity that threatens the security of their cocoon. They are living in a perpetual Truman Show, a world constructed yesterday that is nothing more than a set for their solipsism, without any history or trajectory. 

Read the entire piece here.

Andrew Bacevich on the Millennial Generation

Andrew Bacevich

Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, has nailed it once again.  In a recent post at The Front Porch Republic he chides Progressives, Baby Boomers, and Millennials for drinking too deeply from the wells of progress.  Here is a taste:

Fast forward a half-century and members of another notably self-assured generation of young people – my fellow Baby Boomers – discovered their own world bursting with new ideas, plans, and hopes.  In 1962, a Boomer manifesto laid out its blueprint for doing away with old and crusty things.  The authors of the Port Huron Statement envisioned “a world where hunger, poverty, disease, ignorance, violence, and exploitation are replaced as central features by abundance, reason, love, and international cooperation.”  Ours was the generation that would repair a broken world.
Yet several decades later progress toward fulfilling such grandiose aspirations remains fitful.  Boomer achievements have fallen well short of their own youthful expectations.  In practice, power harnessed to advance the common good took a backseat to power wielded to remove annoying curbs on personal behavior.  To navigate the path marked “liberation,” Boomers took their cues not from philosophers and priests, but from rockers, dopers, and other flouters of convention.
No doubt the Boomer triumvirate of radical autonomy, self-actualization, and contempt for authority, a. k. a., sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, has left an indelible mark on contemporary culture.  Even so, the old and crusty things against which they passionately inveighed persist, both at home and abroad.  Love and reason have not supplanted violence and exploitation.  Viewed in retrospect, the expectations that Boomers voiced back in the Sixties appear embarrassingly naïve and more than a little silly.
Now, with the passing of yet another half-century, another youthful cohort purports to see big change in the making.  With Progressives gone and forgotten and Boomers preparing to exit the stage, here come the so-called Millennials, bursting with their own ideas, plans, and hopes.  They too believe that the world was never so young (or so plastic) and they seem intent on making their own run at banishing all that is old and crusty.
Millennials boast their own triumvirate, this one consisting of personal electronic devices in combination with the internet and social media.  In addition to refashioning politics (the Progressives’ goal) and expanding personal choice (a Boomer priority), this new triumvirate offers much more.  It promises something akin to limitless, universal empowerment.
Today’s young welcome that prospect as an unvarnished good.  “You’re more powerful than you think,” Apple assures them.  “You have the power to create, shape, and share your life.  It’s right there in your hand.  Or bag.  Or pocket.  It’s your iPhone 5s.”
Here for Millennials is what distinguishes their generation from all those that have gone before.  Here is their Great Truth.  With all the gullibility of Progressives certain that Wilson’s Fourteen Points spelled an end to war and of Boomers who fancied that dropping acid promised a short cut to enlightenment, they embrace that truth as self-evident.  The power that they hold in their hand, carry in their bag, or stuff in the pocket of their jeans is transforming human existence.
To a historian, the credulity of the Millennials manages to be both touching and pathetic.  It is touching as a testimonial to an enduring faith in human ingenuity as panacea.  It is pathetic in its disregard for the actual legacy of human ingenuity, which is at best ambiguous.
In that regard, the so-called Information Age is unlikely to prove any different than, say, the Nuclear Age or the Industrial Age.  Touted as a vehicle for creating wealth, it increases the gap between haves and have-nots.  Promising greater consumer choice, it allows profit-minded corporations to shape the choices actually made.  While facilitating mass political action, it enhances the ability of the state to monitor and control citizens.  By making weapons more precise, it eases restraints on their use, contributing not to the abolition of war but to its proliferation.

More Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations is now about thirty-four years old, but this has not stopped bloggers, commentators, and pundits from turning to this book to diagnose the culture of the so-called millennial generation.

See, for example, Daniel Saunders’s recent piece at “The Common Vision” entitled “America the Narcissist.” Much of the post is a response to Joel Stein’s recent Time Magazine cover story on the millennials. Here is a taste:

It is a shame that Stein’s Time article only casually mentions Christopher Lasch’s seminal book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which was published in 1979, just one year before Stein’s cutoff date for “Gen Y” status. Stein should have found in Lasch a more solid framework for his cultural commentary than in the pop psychology he cites; Lasch, a neo-Marxian leftist turned Freudian conservative, displays an intellectual rigor that makes his prescient criticism of America’s psychological decay just as compelling for a reader in 2013 as for a reader in 1979. Moreover, Lasch escapes the cyclical generational feud perpetuated today by pointing the finger not at “the novelties of youth” but at the stagnation of the West’s dual heritage of individualism and capitalism, the seed of which was planted way back in the late Middle Ages and which came to fruition after the Industrial Revolution.

Is narcissism an inevitable result of modern life?  I think Lasch would answer in the affirmative.  And now for a more theological question:  Does narcissism best describe the human condition at rest?

For some thoughts on the study of history as an antidote to narcissism check out this book.