May 3, 2010

The problem with studying evangelicals

There's something the documents miss.

There's something the words -- sermons and speeches, articles, excerpts and pamphlets -- leave out. In all the apologetics and explanations, in all the arguments of evangelicalism, there's still some crucial vitality, some central reality not accounted for -- what it's actually like to be evangelical.

What's missing is the experience of it. Which is also the reason, the thing that moves people to believe the Bible should have this special place and should be read really only literally, or to believe that Jesus saves.

Faith, necessarily, is not just something one assents to, which means it's not something you can understand just by understanding the ideas, divorced, as they are, from the practice.

What's missing when, for example, an evangelical defends the evangelical understanding of the inspiration of the Bible and the absolute necessity of literal (and only literal) interpretation, is the account of how that Bible, conceived that way, touched people, moved people, and changed them. The defense is only ever post hoc -- constructed, actually, not for persuasion, and never having persuaded anyone, but for defense -- and the argument (and here's the problem) mistakes itself and is mistaken for the reason, where really the reason was, in the lives of those who agree, experiential.

We're trying to study American evangelicalism and are using the documents to do it. This seems right: it seems like an honest way to approach an understanding of a social group, a group which is, in part, not just an idea or a theory but also something that's lived, is through "their own words." The collections seem to be representative, too, and Barry Hankins' reader is well rounded and fair, but the documents themselves, the evangelicals' accounts of evangelicalism, seem all to be focused on the arguments and leave out the experience. They seem to miss or maybe mistake the central substance of what they're doing, who they are, perhaps distracted by their controversies and by the attacks on their more controversial points.

The question comes, then, how do you fairly study a group "in their own words" if they consistently misunderstand themselves, misinterpret the thing that makes them who they are?