On Monday I suggested, with a little help from N.T. Wright, that every culture has a worldview, and that any group’s worldview is embodied by a metanarrative or myth. Both worldview and myth function at a pre-cognitive level, relatively out of sight. These in turn produce a set of basic beliefs, and at this level the group is actively aware of the beliefs as well as the symbols and praxis that sustain the beliefs. Therefore, examining a group’s use of symbols and praxis should tell you something about the underlying worldview to which they adhere. So, the question is whether Evangelicals, based upon an examination of their use of symbols and praxis, are American, Christian or an unhealthy combination of the two?
Before we proceed further I need to define the term Evangelical before proceeding to an analysis of that group’s use of symbols and praxis. The term Evangelical is difficult to define. Typically, at the level of popular culture, the term Evangelical is used to describe a group that is theologically and politically conservative, sociologically middle class, or identifies with the dominate culture. This popular cultural definition is being challenged, and rightly so, by a growing number of self-identifying Evangelicals. So, when I use the term Evangelical in this post I have in mind those that identify themselves as theologically and politically conservative.
Since worldview and myth operate at a pre-cognitive level, children are an excellent group to study because of their sincerity, lack of self-awareness, and the ease with which they embody the stories they are told. Therefore, I want to look at the children of Evangelicals, and in particular, I want to look at one practice of Americanism. Then I want to look at a Christian practice, particularly how it is exercised in Evangelical circles, and then ask which story (American or Jesus) is dominating our worldview.
For Americans, the symbols of our worldview are easy to spot. The flag, the images of Founding Fathers, the dollar bill, and the Capital building are powerful symbols of the American worldview and myth. The practices are just as easy to identify. The pledge of allegiance, the national anthem (preferably with the symbols of American power flying overhead), war, consumption, and Black Friday as a high holy day are just a few of the practices that maintain our identity with the American narrative. For our purposes here, I will focus exclusively on the pledge of allegiance.
For starters, say the pledge to yourself before reading any further . . . I will bet you a steak dinner at Morton’s that not a single reader failed to rip right through the pledge. Why is it so easy for us? Because every week, during the school year, we stood beside our desks, put our hand over our heart, looked at the flag and said the pledge.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the American worldview/myth through the lens of the four questions we examined in yesterday’s post. These four questions will give us a sense of how the pledge sustains the worldview and indoctrinates us into the story.
Who are we? We are the descendants of Washington and Jefferson. We are the children of 1776. We are the people that are truly free, blessed by god (which ever one you pick). Free from tyranny and oppression, we can choose in our autonomy whatever it is we will, so long as our choice does not tread upon the sacred autonomy of another.
Where are we? We are in the promised land, the home of the free and brave. We take up residence in this city upon a hill that shines as a beacon of freedom’s light to a lost and dying world that is oppressed by lack of individual autonomy.
What’s the problem? Liberty or true, autonomous freedom has yet to break out in all parts of the world. Tyrants, communists and socialists at home and abroad seek to keep us and others from being truly human, which is to be free.
What’s the solution? Through use of free market capitalism and the use of military force, when the political will exists, we must be the ambassadors of autonomy and freedom. Like Evangelical missionaries, we must move out to the darkest corners of the Earth liberating the oppressed. When all the world is truly democratized, people will be free to be truly human. The world will be at peace, or at least be more peaceful because democracies do not start wars. This is the eschatological hope.
It is important to note a few central beliefs that derive from this story. The autonomy of the individual is paramount, and individualism is a central doctrine of Americanism. Do I need to review the commercial slogans, song titles and movie themes with you to prove Americanism holds as a central conviction of its belief structure that life centers around the autonomous individual? The result is a worldview that privileges the individual (personal experience and expression) over the community. This value and belief are what unite us in this deeply pluralistic society. Needless to say, the privileging of individualism in a community sows the seed of its own destruction because no community can sustain itself when it teaches the members of the community that they are esteemed above the community.
I think it becomes clear how the act of the pledge begins to tie us to this narrative or worldview:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I think I am on safe ground in arguing that every Evangelical child without thought or controversy is submerged into the worldview of Americanism through this particular praxis. It is unavoidable.
Now let us turn our attention to one central Christian praxis: the sacraments. From the earliest Church documents, Paul’s letters which date to the 50s AD, it is clear these two practices were central to the community as identification markers, and these practices sustained the core narrative or worldview of first century Christians.
Reading Paul’s writings and early Church fathers show that the early Church saw that in baptism the individual dies, and then he or she rises with a new, communal identity. They are now a member of a larger body, the body of Christ. Their identity is no longer found in their autonomous self, but their identity is in Jesus Christ and his body. Baptism ties us to the story of Jesus‘ death and resurrection, a story of the triumph over sin and death. In this act we literally submerge ourselves in the story of Jesus, laying claim to his promise regarding the resurrection of his body.
In the Eucharist, we as a community partake of a supper that was taken that first night as part of the Passover, a remembrance of the Exodus and YHWH’s deliverance. It was also a remembrance of YHWH’s promise to his covenant people that he would visit them in their Exile to deliver them again, and he did so through the Son of God (Israel), Jesus the Messiah. It is a remembrance that the Son was sacrificed as a Jewish martyr, but just as the Jewish martyr expected, God vindicated him through resurrection. We the body, this community, have the promise of Jesus’ return in the supper, and the promise of his return brings the hope of resurrection and triumph over death. As we partake of the Eucharist we as a local community are joining a much larger community which is both historical and global. This praxis ties us to the story of Israel we discussed in yesterday’s post and to the story of Jesus as the climax of that story.
But what answer comes out when you ask a child of an Evangelical when they are being baptized, “Why are you being baptized today?” You are likely to hear something like this: “I am being baptized because I want to be obedient to Jesus. I just want to tell the whole world that I love Jesus and he is mine.” Frankly, when you ask the adults you get a very similar answer.
Listen to the Evangelical liturgy often heard in communion. “You should take this time to remember how Jesus suffered on the cross for you and your sins. You should reflect on the great gift he has given you in his sacrifice, the promise of heaven for you if you believe in him. You should also examine yourself, making sure that you are not taking communion in an ‘unworthy manner.’ Take the elements, bow your head and you should take some time to be with him.”
To give a concrete example of this phenomenon, just a few weeks ago in my church our pastor preached a message from 1 John and touched on the passage’s theme, namely the fellowship that we have with the Father and, as a result, with one another. Communion took place immediately after the message, and the person leading the communion made the connection between the fellowship discussed in 1 John and the communion we were about to partake. So, I was eager to watch what would happen with the congregation. Upon receiving the cracker for the body of Christ, every single head – except for mine – went down, and every eye was closed. Now, I do not have powers of clairvoyance, but I am willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that all thoughts were upon Jesus and the self. I saw no fellowship taking place, at all. Needless to say, the American cultural narrative of individualism ran over the propositions of fellowship we just heard from I John and the praxis of communion intended by Christ to be – well – communion.
Can you hear how our language of autonomy has subverted the communal practices of the Jesus story? Can you see how even the symbols and practices that are communal have been radically altered by our cultural narratives? I suggest to you that while Evangelicals maintain the core Christian practice of the sacraments they have infused them with the American narrative and worldview. The historic Church, reflecting the biblical narrative, saw baptism as the death of the individual and not the moment for the individual to be elevated as a spokes person for the gospel. The early Church saw baptism as the narrative of Jesus and the community absorbing the individual, and not as the climactic moment in a personal narrative of existentialist transformation. The historic Church, reflecting the biblical narrative, saw the Eucharist as a time for the community to reflect upon who they were in light of the death and resurrection narrative that preceded them, and it was a time to re-establish their communal identity as the body (community) of Christ. It was a time to remember his promise to come and bring them vindication, resurrection and victory over death. It was not only a time for personal, private piety. So, how did this individualism enter into this Christian praxis?
We all live at the intersection of multiple worldviews. I am an American, and even with diligence and study, I will never see the world as anything other than through my American lenses. I am a Christian, and even with diligence and study, I will never see the world as an atheist. I can study, listen and think critically to look at the world through someone else’s lens, but unless I have a conversion experience wherein my worldview radically shifts, I am stuck. What happens, however, when I am living in two stories (as all Christians are), the story of 1776 and the story of 30 AD? Which narrative will control my thought? How can I tell which narrative is truly running the show (controlling at a pre-cognitive level)? Take a look at praxis.
Evangelical praxis is rooted in the American narrative of the autonomous self. The individual during the praxis of the sacraments is privileged over that of the community. The individual’s narrative at baptism trumps that of the story of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s story. The American worldview is shaping in rather significant fashion the Christian praxis among evangelicals. Evangelicals are more American than they are Christian.