Evangelicalism and Culture

Yesterday, I started reading Transforming Keswick: The Keswick Convention Past, Present and Future by Charles Price and Ian Randall. I was given the book about a year ago from someone who thought I would find it interesting. I wasn’t sure what to make of this when it happened. Knowing the person involved and how I disagreed with him on some pretty fundamental issues, I rather suspected there was some ‘agenda’ behind the gift. Is that too cynical?! Nevertheless, the book has been quite interesting so far.

The Keswick Convention seems to have been spawned out of the 19th century holiness movement propogated by the Wesleyan Methodists, though Keswick’s doctrine of sanctification differed from theirs. It tapped into a desire for a deeper spiritual experience and a ‘higher life’ of consecration to Christ.

In passing, Price and Randall make the following observation on the interaction of evangelicalism with the world:

The historian David Bebbington in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain makes a case for evangelicalism being a branch of Christendom that is particularly susceptible to the influence of the culture of the day, being ‘moulded and remoulded by its environment’. Writing of the inception of the Keswick Convention he states that the holiness movement was an expression of the permeation of evangelicalism by Romantic thought. The sensibility of the age, he argues, lay behind the new spiritual language.

Romanticism was a 19th century artistic and intellectual movement which was characterised by strong emotion and individual experience. One can see the parallel with the holiness movement of evangelicals!

As you might guess, Bebbington is an incompletely read book on my bookshelf, so I cannot yet check his reasoning, but it is quite a stark statement: evangelicalism is particularly susceptible to the influence of the culture of the day!

Is this true? If so, why is it true? What stops other ‘branches of Christendom’ from being so susceptible? What about the modern day? The consumerism of modernity leading to pick’n’mix, shopping-trolley Christianity? The nihilism of postmodernism leading to a loss of confidence in knowing where truth lies?

OK. Amateur cultural comment over.

Evangelicalism and Culture

3 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and Culture

  1. Paul says:

    Is Evangelicalism any more prone to cultural fashion than say “Liberalism”? Remember the whole John Robinson “Honest to God” furore? Yet the modernist approach he took is now thought of as being very old fashioned. The whole “Sea of Faith” approach seems to have been self limiting (at least to this non-theologian). It kind of talked to itself within a sort of thelogical elite. Perhaps the evangelical concern for the the lost means we have to engage with the world in a way others do not. In it but not of it. We have to talk in terms that Jo Pagan or Josephine Heathen will recognise. Maybe from one perspective this means that the evangelical world should be influenced by culture in a certain healthy way. But there will always be foundation and keystone of Scripture. Biblicism is one of the features Bebbington picks out. If that is true, evangelicalsism wont go too far wrong, for too long, even if it is occasionally prone to the odd swing. It will come back to the fundamentals. Or is that Fundamentalism? Too many “isms” for my liking.

  2. Stephen says:

    Yes. It would be important to know what the other ‘branches of Christendom’ he had in mind. I suspect liberalism doesn’t count. Rather he had Roman Catholic of Easter Orthodox in mind, though I may be wrong. Of course, liberalism is thoroughly given over to the world. It is a different religion.

    I don’t know about the ‘Honest to God’ or ‘Sea of Faith’ issues.

    I think what you say about ‘in the world, not of it’ is fine. The way the world is will inevitably affect how we communicate. However, I suspect the concern (at least, the concern I have) is deeper than that. The culture seems to be able to affect what we think we are as evangelicals. Bebbington seems to be highlighting a deep weakness in evangelicalism that makes us malleable in the face of its incessant pounding.

    Biblicism does not seem to be sufficient. The picture of evangelicals merely deviating from a known path, but not for too long, as you say, does not seem to be accurate. The original evangelicals of the Reformation (i.e. those for whom the term was first used) were quite a different bunch from what we see today.

  3. Paul says:

    Were the originals really that different? Presumably some differences would matter (eg those pertaining to their understanding of the Word) and other wouldn’t (eg different culture, different pressing issues). How would one decide which were and which were not important differences?

    I’m not sure I’m worried about entities like “evangelicalism”. Should I be? After all Scripture seems to recognise only two of importance – the universal Church and the local Church. Can we construct any sound entity or institution between these two and not end up in Rome? I had a pal who made his way from the CoS via the CoE to Rome. He reckoned that once that journey of development had started, to stop anywhere else is just arbitary. I’m tempted to agree. Not that I’m not saying that relationships between individual churches shouldn’t happen, just that to get too worked up over formalising such relationships, either in terms of movements or institutions, is to expend too much energy on them. Happy to observe what develops though, and try and discern whether the developments are helpful or unhelpful. But such observation doesn’t answer the question.

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