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Why Evangelicalism is Not Going Anywhere

I am evangelical because evangelicalism is apt for the modern age.

While the evangelical movement began just about two hundred years ago, its long roots in the Protestant Reformation mean that, as much as—or even more than—anything else, evangelicalism has helped to define the modern age. Indeed, evangelicalism is, for good and ill, the quintessential expression of Christianity for modernity.

Despite some declarations of the death of modernity and, with it, evangelicalism, the fact is that no age or its ethos ever vanishes. Whatever the earthly future holds for the church and human culture, evangelicalism and modernity will be carried into it. Whatever postmodernity and post-evangelicalism are, they are because of modernity. And despite shifts in style, the substance of both evangelicalism and modernity are very much with us still.

What exactly is modernity? It’s most succinctly defined as a turn to the subject—or, in other words, a turn from an objective, universal authority (such as a pope or a monarch). It’s encapsulated in Rene Descartes’s decree, “I think, therefore I am.” With this and other important developments beginning around the sixteenth century, the locus of truth, being, and knowledge shifted, becoming primarily internal rather than external. This modern subjectivity led to the rise of the individual and to a new sense of selfhood, something we moderns take for granted (and can’t even imagine existing without) because we are, well, modern.

Modernity is inseparable from the Protestant Reformation and the evangelicalism the Reformation birthed. The solas of the Reformation find a natural culmination in evangelicalism’s emphasis on the individual, which manifests in numerous ways.

In evangelicalism, Christian belief is affirmed by personal experience, whether personal reading of Scripture or personal conversion and subsequent leading of the Holy Spirit (a feature of evangelicalism that historian Thomas Kidd has suggested to be a notable omission from Bebbington’s Quadrilateral). The ultimate authority of the Bible is manifested in the life of the individual believer through the reading of the Word, not through the mediation of a pope or priest. Conversion occurs by individual will (even if predestined) and is not counted merely by circumstances of birth. The Holy Spirit teaches, comforts, and counsels on an individual as well as a communal basis.

Part of what it means to live and worship as a Christian within the church but without an external human authority such as a pope results, necessarily, in some groping and faltering as we figure out what faithfulness looks like in different times and different ages. This is a tension as fraught with risk as it is with opportunity for growth. But this challenging nature of the faith is the very thing that makes it exciting and worthwhile. Robust Christianity is not for the faint of heart—or the faint of mind. Yet, paradoxically, we must become like children in order to come into this faith. The challenge of this paradox is most vibrant within evangelicalism, where trials foster both the responsibilities of the individual and the call of the community.

Community is manifested within evangelicalism not only within the congregation of each church but also through evangelicalism’s connection to the birth of the modern social conscience. The very idea that people could—and should—change social conditions for the better is the fruit of the evangelical movement. The Age of Progress, as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to be known, resulted from the spirit of reform birthed and matured by early evangelicalism.

This spirit of reform and, along with it, the spirit of the modern individual found their expression in a new literary genre in the eighteenth century: the novel. Both evangelicalism and the rise of the individual contributed immeasurably to the development of this literary genre most characteristic of modernity. The novel and the eighteenth-century period that birthed it are the areas of my own academic specialty. And despite being raised in evangelical churches, it was not until I was immersed in my doctoral studies in the English novel that I learned this important and compelling chapter on evangelicalism and its role in the modern world. Now I can’t separate my study of and love for the period from myself.

Both evangelicalism and the novel are expressions of the rise of the individual as a concept and as a lived experience characteristic of modernity. From the antifiction of John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress to the journalistic-style fiction of Daniel Defoe to the Methodism of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (which many scholars consider the first novel in English) to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the evangelical movement has its fingerprints all over the earliest English novels.

Furthermore, the spirit of activism (one-fourth of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral) inspired the social critique that defines nearly all the great Victorian novels, particularly those of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. The social consciousness that characterizes the world of Dickens’s novels—sensitivity to the plights of the orphan, the poverty-stricken, and the dehumanized victims of the Industrial Revolution—was the fruit of the evangelical spirit of reform and revival.

Modernity surely has its faults and limits, and the more modernity passes into history, the more clearly those problems can be seen. Still, the modern age has brought many gifts to humankind: the Reformation, the printing press, the scientific method, the rise of the individual, and even the very notion of progress and improvement of the human lot. Evangelicalism has been both the product and the perpetuation of many of the things that make modernity all that it is.