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Volume 17, Issue 1: Thema

Don't Believe So

Douglas Wilson

Modern evangelicals have mastered the art of sugary compromise, and we like to call it balance, love, relevance, or something. With the establishment of a distinctive evangelical movement after the Second World War, the intent was to defend the central tenets of the Christian faith, but to do so in a way that was not pugnacious, like the fundamentalists' was. Fundamentalism without the attitude—that was the ticket.

Evangelical leaders like Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham certainly looked like they had a winning formula. The flagship magazine Christianity Today was founded along with institutions like Fuller Seminary. Wheaton College, established in the previous century, was an evangelical bastion and an important part of this new spiritual weather-system. InterVarsity provided eager students from around the nation who filled the burgeoning ranks of an imposing movement. Although D. G. Hart has (capably) argued that evangelicalism as such does not really exist, it is difficult to assert that nothing was going on.
The evangelicals had a strong hand. But there is one thing that fundamentalists do well, better than anyone: they can follow an argument, and they can tell within fifteen minutes whether someone is gearing up to give away the store. So in dealing with the irrelevance of evangelical academia, the point here is to exclude from my discussion the ornery conservatives and fundamentalists. They have their own problems, including blinkered separatism and historical isolation, and among all the brethren of Christendom, they can be most exasperating. Their ranks were originally filled by the sons of the Scots and Scots-Irish, and the gifts of sweet reasonableness, as Coleridge once put it, have not been "vouchsafed to them at present." But the one problem they do not have is the perennial evangelical problem of lust for relevance and acceptance. They don't recoil from a fight. And because staunch conservatives don't care about relevance, in the long run they find themselves, well, far more relevant.
The evangelical problem goes back to the fatal desire to be "nice" fundamentalists, and this is why evangelicals have lost their center, their balance, their faith, and now their minds. Initially, the siren call of niceness had a good deal of appeal because the Scriptures do say that we are to be "speaking the truth in love," and that our speech should be "gracious, seasoned with salt."
But there was a disastrous mistake waiting for us here. Francis Schaeffer once used the telling image of a watershed. High in the Rocky Mountains you can find the continental divide and look at a spot of snow straddling that divide. And there, six inches apart (which is not far at all), you can see snow which will eventually find itself in the Gulf of Mexico, and just a few inches away, there is snow that will wind up in the Pacific Ocean. The six-inch spread there is far more significant than a six-inch spread just a few feet away.
So the problem was not that evangelicals wanted to hold to the central truths of the Christian faith in love. The problem was that love was defined in ways that did not line up with Scripture. Schaeffer also wrote memorably that "the mark of a Christian" is love. This is a non-negotiable center. We are supposed to speak the truth in love. In fact, if anyone disputes this—if any man does not love Jesus and does not love his neighbor—then may God damn him. This last expression, of course, gives us a case of the evangelical flutters, and we say that this way of speaking is itself a violation of the truth in the first part of the sentence. So perhaps we should say it this way: if any man does not love Jesus and does not love his neighbor, then may God damn him (1 Cor. 16:22). The apostle Paul tells the Galatians not to bite and devour each other. They are to love one another. Those who would overthrow this love through self-important religiosity should go off and castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). In short, Scripture makes it most plain—love is not what saccharine and sweety-nice evangelicals want to pretend it is. They say that love is everything, but then cannot explain it, define it, or live it. They say that to be scriptural, we must love, but then they revolt against the kind of love that Scripture models for us. So their problem is not that they want love; the problem is that they don't want it at all.
The desire of evangelicals to be relevant, engaged with culture, kind and gracious, approachable, and so on, is a desire (in the abstract) that can be applauded by all right-minded Christians. But this desire, even in the early stages, was six inches too far to the west. And this is why the evangelical establishment, particularly the evangelical establishment as now represented by its flagship colleges and publications, is completely adrift. Because they care about engaging with a culture that doesn't care about engaging with them back, the pressure is on to compromise over and over, again and again. Maybe this next sellout will get the world's attention.
Jesus said that desire for honor from men is a barrier to true faith in Him (Jn. 5:44). We are told to love not the world, or the things in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16-17). Is the pride of life a temptation to academics? To ask the question is to answer it. Friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4).
So what was the watershed issue? Love (which is most necessary) is to be defined by God, and not by unbelieving bedwetters and handwringers. When we decide whether or not we are being nice by whether or not the unbelieving establishment says we are being nice, the end result is that we will eventually find ourselves cheek by jowl with the unbelievers in their unbelief. For the sake of winning them, we allow ourselves to be won by them. Just like a simpleton teenage girl, we hope vainly to lure some horny boy into chastity, and the way we think it can be done is by lying down with him in the back seat of a car. What could go wrong?
That is the process, and so this is where the process has brought us. Evangelical colleges routinely accommodate themselves to theistic evolution, the ordination of women, pathetic views of Scripture, and postmodern hoohah, the last of which could be refuted by three toddlers with kazoos. These institutions do all this because they care what the world thinks of them; they do not trust in Christ the Lord because they care about all the wrong things. They give a rip, and the result is thundering irrelevance.
We in the American church have cycled downward into incoherent unbelief two times in the twentieth century. The first time was when the spirit of modernism captured the mainstream denominations, who allowed it in for the sake of relevance. And so, of course, those denominations promptly became irrelevant. Son of a gun. The second time is when the spirit of postmodernism captured the evangelical establishment, which happened some time ago, but like that simpleton girl we are now starting to show. This also was done for the sake of relevance. The times they are a changing, but of course, they didn't really change, and it turns out the devil still lies.
Biblical absolutism is therefore absolutely necessary, and without it, every evangelical college, university, and seminary is doomed to run through the same dreary downward spiral again. The problem with fundamentalism was not that it was absolutist, but rather that it was a form of truncated absolutism. What is necessary, at bottom, is a recovery of cosmic faith—faith in God, faith in Christ, faith in the Holy Spirit, faith in the Scriptures, faith in the Church, faith in the gospel, faith in history, faith in story, faith in the sacraments, faith in the inexorable and triumphant progress of the gospel throughout the world, with all of it rightly ordered in accordance with the Word. Any college without a robust and scrappy tenacity for such a statement of faith as lived out in everything is a college that is lost. By this measurement, many evangelical colleges today are adrift, but they are not really in a position to let their donors know about it.
Along with this necessary faith is a concomitant set of what we might call unbeliefs. What do we hold as inconsistent with what we affirm? What must an evangelical college defy? In what direction must true Christian higher education deliver the old raspberry? Leotard defined postmodernism as "incredulity toward all metanarratives." Of course, this is a metanarrative itself, smirking away as though we wouldn't notice, and so all we need to do is summon the toddlers and their kazoos. But we can borrow one good thing from Leotard (beyond his name): the belief that a central part of our recovery of sanity will be a recovery of incredulity. But incredulity toward what?
Christian higher education will not recover its soul or its sanity until it learns to greet any idea that originates in unbelief with a gut chuckle. And this means that we have to name names—and deal with those self-confessed evangelicals who specialize in decking out unbelief in sanctimonious terminology. A young man in our congregation recently told his father that sin was like a turd with powdered sugar on it, which exhibited wisdom far beyond the capacity of many evangelical academicians. In Christian higher education, toward what must we show our sanctified incredulity? We are evangelical educators, and so we do not believe in evolution, which is the view that Prince Charles used to be a frog. We do not believe that thinking the Bible in its entirety is infallible truth from God makes us indebted to the Enlightenment, for Pete's sake. We do not believe in bureaucracy, which is the barren soul of technocratic modernity. We do not believe in trendy evangelical feminism, which is just regular feminism with a case of the cutes. We do not believe in postmodernism in any form, which is to say, we do not think the next great reformation of church history is going to be ushered in by a few Frenchmen with a bad case of brain snakes.
But of course, this "not believing" of ours must be incarnational. "Will you consider Cilvan College's prospective student week?" "Well, no. I actually wouldn't let my dog catch frisbees on the lawns of that campus." "Will you think about enrolling your daughter at Bleaton College?" "No, her mother and I are both in a twelve-step program for recovering evangelicals. We are at the third step, which involves toddlers and rudimentary musical instruments. I don't think you are ready for that yet." "Oh. What about a little donation then?" "Um, no." "Will you reconsider?" "No, I don't believe so."

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