Are all evangelicals charismatics now?

1 Feb

[Here’s another post with an open-research question bent. Feel free to share your thoughts.]

Selection bias is a dangerous thing. Neck deep as I am in neo-charismatic literature about the growing overlap between “new evangelicals” (i.e., those coming out of the NAE in the 1940s) and the “third wave” of the charismatic spirit (e.g., Peter Wagner), it can easily feel as if all conservative evangelicals are charismatics now.

Just to be clear that I’m not headed entirely off the deep end: the answer to this post’s title question is clearly, No, not all evangelicals are charismatics. 

And yet the complex union of conservative religious groups of all stripes under big tent Republicanism have provoked some very complicated theological intersections. One need not go far for double-takes at the curious umbrella that attempts to cover Mormons like Mitt Romney as well as Catholics like Bobby Jindahl or Paul Ryan and seemingly non-charismatic evangelicals charismatics like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann and then also welcomes unabashedly charismatic figures like Sarah Palin. (I’m being generous here, too. Bachmann and Perry are likely using some range of spiritual gifts in their worship.)

I commented in a previous post about the way that Donald Miller has attempted to frame the emergent features of this post-baby boomer religious marketplace. Apart from my earlier criticisms, one of the major hurdles of a metanarrative of “new paradigm” churches is that it desaturates the dynamic range of Christian activities that we see in America today. There’s much more going on in the, forgive me, Culture Wars than can be captured if we look solely to evangelicals as the counterparts to mainline denominations (or to metaphysicals). This doesn’t even begin to address the challenges of fracturing evangelicalism into liberal and conservative branches (as recent posts over at The Immanent Frame have addressed).

My research on power evangelism suggests that the more fundamental concern of churches is not their political affiliation but rather their embrace or rejection of spiritual gifts. If we were to see fundamentalists as non-evangelicals (tricky business I think), then the split among conservative evangelicals today started in the 1940s between evangelicals ready to engage with the world and those more willing to retreat from the world as fundamentalists had done. (This is tricky as well.) Among those two groups of evangelicals the next major question was whether they came to embrace the charismatic renewal of the late 1950s and 1960s or, further, what appears to be another set of charismatic renewals in the 1980s.

It’s a tangled web, right? Even if you pick some feature like spiritual gifts then there are still some serious theological gaps you might have to bridge. Are these gifts the sign of Christ’s immanent return? Are they the tools Christians will use to usher in the 1,000 year kingdom? Millennialism–whichever side of the 1,000 years you place Jesus’s return–continues to play a central role in the activities of Christians today.

My dad likes to tell a story about his time at the University of Arizona during the presidential candidacy of George McGovern. Living among a group of well-educated graduate students in the sciences, his peers were convinced that George McGovern was headed for a landslide victory. In those remarkable days between 24 hour news and Twitter, it was still possible to be ignorant of cultural trends in a non-willful way. (Sorry, dad.) When Nixon won his 520-17 victory over McGovern (just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia voted for McGovern), Arizona’s McGovern supporters were stunned.

I wonder when I look at the evangelical landscape today to what degree there are biases in our views about what evangelicalism looks like in American today. Could it be that evangelicalism–that of Billy Graham, Dwight Moody, Charles Fuller, and so on–is less alive today than we think it is in Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Charles Colson, James Dobson, and so on. 

When you’re in the forest all you can see is the trees around you. What do you do in your research to get a better of the forest you’re in? How do you avoid thinking all there is is forest? What do you do when you hit the tree-line?


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