Featured: The End of Evangelicalism? – David Fitch [Vol. 4, #9]

April 22, 2011 — 1 Comment

 

Reviving Evangelicalism?

A review of

The End of Evangelicalism?:
Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission
.
By David Fitch

Review by Chris Smith.


The End of Evangelicalism? - David FitchThe End of Evangelicalism?:
Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission
.
David Fitch.
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

David Fitch’s first book, The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from… cemented his role as a prominent critic of contemporary evangelicalism.  Although he laid out some pointed critiques in that book, he also demonstrated a deep love for the evangelical tradition, out of which he sought to reform rather than abolish evangelicalism.  In his newest book, The End of Evangelicalism?: Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission, Fitch continues on the same trajectory, hammering home a multi-faceted critique of evangelicalism and yet arguing just as vehemently that the heart of evangelicalism should be retained.

The End of Evangelicalism is perhaps the most significant theological work to be published so far this year (of course, it is only still April), which although it is targeted primarily at evangelicals, is strikingly pertinent to all traditions of Western Christianity.  Fitch utilizes here the work of noted Slovenian philosopher and critic Slavoj Žižek to critique three essential evangelical ideals: “the inerrant Bible,” “the decision for Christ” and “the Christian nation.”  Fitch’s use of Žižek here is brilliant, but dense. Fitch, however, is a patient guide explaining relevant terminology from Žižek as he goes, and even offering a glossary of key terms and suggesting in the book’s introduction a way that readers can work through the heart of the book’s basic arguments when they cannot make it through the chapter on Žižek’s thought.  The gist of Fitch’s argument is that the three central evangelical concepts named above function as “master signifiers” in the Žižekian sense that although they draw the allegiance of a people allowing for the formation of a political entity, they become empty and devoid of reference to any sort of reality.  A good example of a master signifier is the American concept of “freedom,” which is interpreted in all sorts of ways (not having a clear reality to which it refers) and yet it has extraordinary power to unite the nation-state.  Fitch’s argument that each of these three evangelical concepts is a master signifier is compelling and undoubtedly will articulate some long-held theological frustrations about evangelicalism in a fresh way.

Fitch rightly observes that although Žižek is an extraordinary critic, his work is not particularly helpful for imagining a transformed evangelicalism that would be rooted in a “politics of fullness” instead of the hollowness of master signifiers.  Toward this end Fitch identifies three parallel historical commitments of evangelicalism “a high view of Scripture, a conversionist soteriology, and a church active in society for its salvation,” which he believes have the potential for grounding a renewed evangelicalism.  He notes:

Re-grounding these three commitments politically in the triune work of God through Christ by the Spirit will not only establish their substance in God but also shape evangelicals into a participation in his mission in the world (128).

Weaving together the work of a number of key theologians and biblical scholars, Fitch proceeds to flesh out a vision of how these re-grounding these commitments in this way in our post-Christendom age will renew evangelicalism.  His arguments are compelling, and have the potential to launch evangelicalism quite far down the road toward renewal.  However, as much as I agree with all of Fitch’s critiques and his vision for starting to move forward, I am not sure I can stomach his bent to preserve evangelicalism.  Yes, we should honor the gifts of the evangelical tradition (e.g., the historical commitments that Fitch commends for moving forward), but it seems that preserving evangelicalism as a movement in the way that Fitch describes only serves to propagate many ills of the Western culture in which evangelicalism is deeply embedded.  Can evangelicalism – even the sort of transformed evangelicalism that Fitch envisions – persist in a post-Western world?  Fitch’s work undoubtedly shapes our imagination in a way that we will be more capable to do so, but still seems to lack the sort of holistic re-ordering of the Christian social imagination that we observe, for instance, in stories of Christian faithfulness in post-Western contexts like Africa (like those recounted in Emmanuel Katongole’s new book The Sacrifice of Africa, reviewed below).  My suspicion is that there are a host of other socio-political “master signifiers” that give shape to contemporary evangelicalism and will eventually need to be addressed.  (For instance, the Western ideals of “universals” and “ahistoricism” both seemingly fit Žižek’s “master signifier” concept and have played key roles in the formation of evangelicalism.)  The pressing question is, as we rid ourselves of the mythology of empty signifiers (or have them ridded by shifts in the broader culture), will “evangelicalism” become its own sort of master signifier, evacuated of its meaning, yet still politically formative?

In short, while I wish that Fitch would have expanded the scope of his critique of evangelicalism, the points on which he bases his critique are essential and will take us a long way down the road toward a deeper faithfulness.  May we have the courage to hear his challenges and to submit our minds, our bodies and every fiber of our beings to be transformed by the Good News (“Evangel”) of Jesus, which – unlike our movements and our language – can never be conquered by death!

  • Jim

    Thanks for the review, it was helpful and, I ordered the book. This statement you made caught my eye, “However, as much as I agree with all of Fitchu2019s critiques and his vision for starting to move forward, I am not sure I can stomach his bent to preserve evangelicalism.” Agreed and that triggered the following rant:nnOver at Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight) there is a review of Fitch’s book as well. McKnight says that if we are interested in the future of modern American evangelicalism, this may be a key book. I believe that. But McKnight understands evangelicalism according to the standard definition of Bebbington and Noll, which Scot cites and I have included below. With that definition evangelicalism may not have much of a future. Why not? Well, this is the standard definition, the one that usually leads to a severely emaciated account of how the idea of “gospel” works within the biblical narrative. Bebbington and Noll make 4 main points:n1) the centrality of the Bible instead of the centrality of the biblical NARRATIVE 2) the centrality of the atoning death of Christ instead of the centrality of his atoning death in the context of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people (plural) and their preservation 3) the centrality of the need for personal conversion instead of the centrality of u00a0incorporation into community which personal conversion (salvation/justification) are the means of and 4) the centrality of an active mission to convert others and to do good works in society instead of the centrality of a concrete, incarnational, corporate witness both actually and proleptically of new creation in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world. In all of this what I am emphasizing is a move away from individualism.u00a0nnAt any rate, I would question whether such an evangelicalism, framed in this way, really has the boldness of theological vision necessary to break from the Christendom mindset, to dismantle the tedious antitheses that characterize the modern Protestant paradigm, to forge a credible evangelicalism for the age to come. We will not deal with the challenges of the post-Christendom context on the basis of Christendom assumptions