As I hope to show, I empathize with the damage that evangelical institutions have wrought on the lives of many of my peers, and I do not gainsay decisions these friends have made to exorcise themselves and their resumes of their evangelical past. There are a number of reasons, though, that I was not hurt by my time at an evangelical institution:
In part, because I am white, male, and heterosexual. These realities exempted me from the deep struggles of many peers to find a place within evangelical communities and theologies (By the way, the previous sentence should indicate a profound sickness in these communities and theologies). I was only dimly aware of the hurt, frustration, and anger of the black students at my undergraduate; equally tone-deaf to the special difficulties that women students faced; and wholly oblivious to the agonies of gay students. Of course this is partly my own fault, but partly, too, the upshot of my undergraduate’s place within evangelicalism – considered, not theologically, but sociologically, as the American Volkskirche: the amalgamated religio-culture of the white petty bourgeoisie. The remainder of this post will sound more appreciative than this – but if I have one main beef with my undergraduate (and all its analogues across the evangelical sub-culture), it is their ideologically-reinforced innocence when it comes to issues of race, class, and sexuality. Some of the theological defensiveness they inherited from their fundamentalist forebears is understandable and even productive, but when this theological cautiousness mutates into a corresponding skepticism towards any and all disturbances to the (white, middle class) sociopolitical status quo…something has gone dreadfully awry. In any case, I was insulated from these hurts because I fit the privileged template in these respects.
In part, because of what my undergraduate shared with other schools across the evangelical world: the turn to Christian history common to many evangelical institutions of our time meant that whereas the “Great Tradition” would have been seen as suspect or infertile by previous generations of evangelicals, for us it became a deep resource. We latched onto Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. In fact, like many evangelical schools, my undergraduate had almost entirely lost track of what made it particularly Protestant in the first place: though it maintained the body of basic Christian beliefs, trivial theological shibboleths had supplanted Reformation distinctives. This encouraged many of my peers to continue on in a Catholicizing direction. So also, because of the glasnost between evangelicals and postliberals that was then occurring across the evangelical world, institutions like Princeton, Yale, and Duke were once more within hailing distance of us intellectually: their scholarship was to be respected and engaged rather than disdained or feared. This meant that I was also somewhat primed to engage “modern theology” and/or historical criticism. In these ways, I was not alienated by my evangelical undergraduate from the wider world of scholarship, but prepared to work creatively and carefully within it.
In part, because of what was unique to my undergraduate within the evangelical world: I might sum up its peculiarity (somewhat artificially) by pointing to one of its heroes, Count Zinzendorf, a German Pietist from the 18th century who was lifted high in a number of our classes. His ethos corresponds to that of my undergraduate in two primary ways: first, it was extremely focused on missionary responsibility (construed as the dominical call to make disciples from all nations), and second, it was fervently pietistic (that is, fixed on the person of Jesus and dedicated to prayer, personal and communal). There are a couple consequences of this unique ethos. For one, unlike some counterparts within the realm of evangelical education, the missional emphasis of my undergraduate meant that it avoided nationalism and the rightward pull of the Reagan era on the evangelical movement. We were too interested in God's work across the globe to care much about what happened in the US (Politics in general was distrusted and ignored, but at least our sins were those of omission?). Second, as with the Pietism of early modern Germany, (in my view) the school's emphases on mission and prayer actually resulted in a less rigid attitude towards some discoveries of modernity. I bypassed some of the grotesque disputes that can embroil the evangelical world: I owe this somewhat to my mainline upbringing (I came up United Methodist), but also to the relatively relaxed perspective of my undergraduate towards these issues because of their pietism. For example: I never saw what the ballyhoo was about evolution, I never was complementarian, I never worried too much about inerrancy (as a demand that scholars adhere to certain specific positions on authorship or historicity, it’s eminently silly; as a theological claim that the Bible unfailingly mediates God’s character or acts or whatever, it’s probably worth keeping around in some form). Even while in undergraduate, I thought Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks were alarmingly boring; I saw with my own two scholarly eyes that certain portions of the New Testament were pseudonymous, or that there were literary seams and snarls within and between biblical narratives. And these were (at least to some faculty mentors) acceptable recognitions. So evangelicalism never sucked my energy into these black holes. Third, this pietistic ethos entailed a more open attitude towards other members of the Christian world: we were less beholden to specific doctrinal formulations, and more willing to discover allies and teachers wherever people were excited about Jesus. This approach, enshrined even in one of the school’s core values, nourished my open and inquisitive attitude towards the scholarship of the rest of the Christian world. In these ways, too, I was not hurt by evangelicalism. In fact, evangelical authors (whom I first read in undergrad!) are my biggest theological heroes to this day: Karl Barth, Lesslie Newbigin, Richard Wurmbrand.
If I had to offer specific comment on my school’s “core values” (scriptural authority, victorious Christian living, world evangelization, prayer and faith, evangelical unity), I would still find much to uphold, much in fact that continues to drive my life. I have invested my education in scriptural authority, that is, the prerogative of the Bible to norm our speech about and life with God. In some ways, my time at Princeton Seminary has only radicalized this commitment: I see historical methods as valuable tools for disciplining ourselves to hear biblical texts afresh and to allow them to reformulate our Christian beliefs. Victorious Christian living I was never sure how to navigate. I have grown charier about world evangelization: not because I have backed away from the radical totality of God’s saving purpose, but because my vision for this has expanded. God has put the whole old world to death in Christ’s crucifixion, and inaugurated the new world in his resurrection from the dead: in him we see the promise that all the earth will be healed. Even if our present, flawed human works, agrarian and humanitarian and evangelistic, do not themselves accomplish this healing, they can at least serve as local, ad hoc signs of God’s comprehensive will to save. I do not doubt God calls white westerners to be cross-cultural missionaries: I have known some of these saints. I also do not buy into the popular liberal narrative of the missionary movement’s total complicity in western colonialism. But I do think that we could have thought a lot harder about the relationship between the two, and the meaning of this history for our own practice: and similarly, a lot harder about the meaning of a white person from the most surfeited culture in human history going to help non-white others living in vicious inequality. No question it can be done, but far less naively than what I remember hearing. Despite these caveats, I remain someone for whom discerning and enacting God's mission in the world is a major preoccupation. Prayer and faith are also indispensable I understand the reluctance of my theologian colleagues to making prayer an object of dogmatic attention, but I am irritated by those who relegate prayer to an awkward sidecar, a sport of half-baked enthusiasts. Prayer is a political act, declaring that we Christians have a different sovereign, and prayer is the life-blood of Christian existence. I have already spoken above to the salutary effect of my school’s emphasis on evangelical unity for my trajectory.