Thursday, May 3, 2012

R&P: Why American evangelicals love the Brits

The newly launched Religion & Politics journal leads off with an interesting essay on the affinity American evangelicals have for British theologians and writers. Here's an excerpt:
AMERICAN EVANGELICALS’ FONDNESS for Stott is part of a larger pattern, a special affection for Christian gurus of British extraction. Droves of American evangelicals stock their shelves with books by British Christian scholars such as N.T. Wright, a professor of New Testament and the former bishop of Durham, and J.I. Packer, a British-born theologian at Regent College in Vancouver. Despite ancient hostility toward Roman Catholicism, American evangelicals lionize the British Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and raise their children on Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since the mid-1960s—when the release of Tolkien’s books in U.S. paperback edition infected America with Frodo fever—evangelicals have enthusiastically joined in Middle Earth-inspired role-playing festivals and Tolkien appreciation societies, publishing books with titles like Finding God in the Lord of the Rings and Walking With Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through Lord of the Rings. I once attended an evangelical conference panel devoted to parsing Tolkien’s veiled Christian allegories. One speaker expounded at length on the Christology of Tom Bombadil—uncovering hidden religious symbols that might have surprised Tolkien himself.

And then there is the one British guru to rule them all: C.S. Lewis. Converted by fellow medievalist Tolkien on a famous midnight walk in Oxford in 1929, Lewis could not have been more different from the average American evangelical: a pipe-smoking, claret-drinking Anglican don with a taste for pagan myth and no patience for Biblical literalism. Yet, like so many evangelicals, Lewis found himself at “cross-purposes with the modern world.” He devoted much of his career to defending traditional doctrine against its cultured despisers. Between his conversion and his death in 1963, Lewis published more than a dozen works of Christian apologetics and 14 volumes of fiction, including The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the best-loved fantasy series in the English language—enjoyed by Christian and non-Christian readers alike, despite its heavy-handed religious allegory. Mere Christianity, based on radio talks that Lewis delivered during World War II and published in 1952, provided a simple defense for the divinity of Christ that evangelicals repeat to this day.

If John Stott was American evangelicals’ “pope”—as one evangelical observer told New York Times columnist David Brooks—then C.S. Lewis is their patron saint. His estate, The Kilns, and the Eagle & Child, the Oxford pub where he and Tolkien gathered with their fellow “Inklings,” are popular evangelical pilgrimage destinations. In the United States, rival Lewis shrines vie for devotees. The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago, houses the largest trove of Lewis’ papers outside the Bodleian Library at Oxford (along with collections representing the other Inklings and British Christian mystery writer Dorothy Sayers). It also boasts a small museum displaying Lewis’ pipe, teapot, desk, ale tankard, and other holy artifacts. In 1973 Wheaton purchased a wardrobe from Lewis’ estate that his brother Warren said inspired the magical entryway into Narnia featured in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe—for Lewis fans, the equivalent of the True Cross. Shortly thereafter, Westmont College, an evangelical school in southern California, acquired a different wardrobe from the current owners of the Lewis home and proclaimed theirs the authentic model. The controversy of rival relics continued for years. With the help of a local businessman who made a hobby out of collecting British pub paraphernalia, Taylor University in Upland, Indiana has constructed a replica of the Eagle & Child in the basement of the university library. The beer pulls at the bar, of course, are just for show: Taylor is a dry campus.

THE AFFINITY FOR BRITAIN among American evangelicals has a long history. This attachment is difficult to disentangle from the colonial roots of many evangelical denominations in English and Scottish churches, as well as the transatlantic careers of the greatest American and British revivalists throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But in the decades after the Civil War, American evangelicals began to diverge from their brethren across the pond. Thanks to social and theological dynamics peculiar to the United States, evangelicals here rebelled more sharply against modern intellectual trends, particularly the theory of evolution and the audacious decision of scholars to study the Bible as they would any other historical document. By the time of World War I, conservative American Protestantism was riven by fundamentalism—a movement of Christians who militantly opposed liberal trends in culture and thought, whom H.L. Mencken mocked as uncultured bumpkins who spent their time “denouncing the reading of books.”

Ever since then, evangelicals have been struggling to overcome an intellectual inferiority complex, to convince the wider world that confidence in the Bible’s authority is compatible with scholarly achievement. For decades evangelical colleges and seminaries have sent many of their most promising students to the United Kingdom to pursue advanced degrees—to work with particular scholars known for evangelical sympathies, or simply to receive that imprimatur of intellectual gravitas, the PhD from Cambridge or DPhil from Oxford. (New St. Andrews College, an upstart evangelical school in Idaho, has attempted to import that Oxbridge aura to America by requiring Latin and Greek and dressing students in black academic gowns for each week’s disputatio.) A degree from a British university impresses Americans—and evangelicals long ago figured out that escaping to foreign universities allowed them to avoid many of the prejudices and difficult questions they sometimes encounter at American schools, where faculty tend to associate evangelicalism with wacky Young Earth science and a right-wing political agenda.

Even America’s most ardent fundamentalists have always been keen to dispel the popular stereotype of fundamentalists as yokels with “greasy noses, dirty fingernails, baggy pants and who never shined their shoes,” as Bob Jones once put it. (While Bob Jones University remained a bastion of creationist science and dismissed faculty at the slightest sign of freethinking, “Dr. Bob” enlisted his Alabama socialite mother-in-law to tutor students in etiquette and opera. His son, Bob Jones, Jr., toured Europe each summer with an allowance from the Board of Trustees to purchase fine works by Renaissance and Baroque masters for the university’s growing collection.) In recent decades, evangelicals have transformed some of their most conservative colleges into serious academic institutions and racked up accolades in mainstream academia. Yet the most accomplished evangelical scholars still think that the movement has a long way to go: in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

American evangelicals find intellectual and cultural validation in Oxbridge Christians like Tolkien, Lewis and Stott. If these Oxford and Cambridge-trained gentlemen with plummy accents believed that God spoke from a burning bush and Jesus truly rose from the grave, that is proof that one can be an intellectual, a sophisticate, and a Bible-believer too, no matter what the snide mainstream media says. Britain represents high culture and class—but which Britain? Many evangelicals seem to idealize a long lost arcadia where professor-clergymen praise theology as queen of the sciences and manly Livingstonian missionaries conquer Africa in the name of Christendom—rather than Britannia as she truly is, secularist, multi-cultural warts and all.