The Parallel Universe of Evangelical Christianity

Hello, Everyone! This post comes from one our favorite contributors, David Clark. He gets around the bloggernacle and apparently he gets around the larger theological universe, as well. I think you’ll enjoy this post. I know I did when I first read it.


The impetus for this post comes from a blog entry at Parchment and Pen: a theology blog. I encourage everyone to go and read the full blog entry. The blog is written by an evangelical Christian for evangelical Christians. However, in this blog entry if you just mentally replace all references to “Christian” with “Mormon” you get an insightful commentary on the state of our church with respect to intellectual crisis. I found this blog insightful for two reasons: 1) Evangelicals face many of the same problems we do; it’s alway nice to see that you are not alone and 2) his solution to the problem is in my opinion the right one as it goes beyond “innoculation” which has been discussed online recently (see the blog formerly known as a podcast called Mormon Matters).

In a nutshell what is the intellectual crisis facing evangelical churches?:

The majority of churches simply do not stimulate serious discussion concerning matters of theology. Most people do not find the church as a safe place to ask serious questions. In fact, most people are trained to fear any doubt, reserve questions, or to put away any sinful antagonistic feeling concerning any challenge that comes to the table.

Sounds very similar to complaints from some Mormons.

Another complaint sometimes heard is that church members and leaders either intentionally or unintentionally obscure doctrine and history.

The church, unfortunately, more often than not, is in the obscuring business. No, not intentionally, but it is true. We protect ourselves and those we love from any “false doctrine” that leads away from Christ by hiding the issue or give a quick sound-bite apologetic which obscures and belittles the arguments of any opposition.

Again, similar to complaints on our side of the fence. I do think his response, essentially yes it happens but with the best of intentions, is refreshingly honest and something we could all reflect on. He continues on giving a standard Mormon intellectual deconversion story (not his), but told from the standpoint of an evangelical Christian. Again, it’s sometimes nice to know that others are facing the same problems as we are.

His proposed solution is one that I think is the correct one for Mormons as well, at least in my opinion:

We need to welcome doubt and questions even at the deepest level. The church should be a safe place that people feel welcome when they are going through intellectual trials, not a place they run from.

In the long run I think this kind of attitude and structure will be more successful than attempting “innoculation.” Innoculation tries to be too smart by 1) trying to prevent problems before they start and 2) giving the smallest dose possible to prevent future problems. It would take solomonic wisdom along with the ability to see into the future for innoculation to work. I think it’s just better to admit that people are going to get sick and get the hospital ready for them. Treating the disease/sickness is dealing with a real person having a real problem, while innoculation deals with a theoretical problem that a person might have.

Of course I am all for prevention, but I think the proper metaphor here is proper diet and exercise, not innoculation. Proper diet and exercise is something strenuous and ongoing. Again quoting from the blog:

This includes critical engagement of what we already believe. The church should be facilitating this. This is simply discipleship 101. But the problem is, most of us don’t know how to critically engage issues ourselves. We have been trained to be scared.

I realize that expecting critical engagement of Mormon doctrine and history out of Sunday School puts me squarely in Fantasyland. But, this guy claims he is setting up these kinds of programs in evangelical churches. If the evangelicals can do this, can’t we?

The part of the entry which hit home the hardest was when he quotes a lady on another blog who has this to say:

It is easy (incredibly easy in fact) to find an advocate to lead one to reject the church and join the freedom of the secular world; it is hard, often well nigh impossible, to find an advocate to help one explore the hard questions of the faith.

If it’s hard for evangelicals, who outnumber Mormons probably 5 or 10 to 1 in the U.S., to find this kind of support then it’s harder still for Mormons.

I realize that this is probably just whining in vacuum but I wanted to put some questions to the readers. Do you find the situation he describes in evangelical Christianity similar to what you see in Mormonism? Is his suggestion of cutting the fluff and implementing instruction based on openness, hard questions, and critical inquiry possible or feasible? Finally, I want to put the same question to you that is at Parchment and Pen:

In the end, wouldn’t it be better to have someone reject the faith under your informed and intellectually honest education process, than to accept an obscured version of the faith that is predisposed to collapse?

35 Replies to “The Parallel Universe of Evangelical Christianity”

  1. It seems you are pitting openness to doubt and questions against inoculation, but I am having a hard time seeing how they are at odds with one another. Certainly a strategy of inoculation would not preclude or take the place of being open to questions and doubt. On the flip side, it might still be a good idea to attempt a strategy of inoculation even if we were perfectly open to questions and doubt.

  2. Jacob,

    Sorry if it was confusing. I am not trying to pit inoculation against openness, I just think that inoculation isn’t enough to prevent future crisis and by it’s very nature doesn’t address crisis that have already happened. I am simply applying the metaphor as I understand it. If I am radically misunderstanding what inoculation is, then perhaps a better metaphor is needed.

  3. Interesting stuff. I had the same question as Jacob and I think your #2 clarifies.

    I am also unclear about what you are proposing exactly. Is it simply that we as a culture should have less fear of questions and doubt? Or are you proposing that this “diet and exercise” be part of the weekly curriculum (as you seem to indicate here: “Is his suggestion of cutting the fluff and implementing instruction based on openness, hard questions, and critical inquiry”)?

    I couldn’t agree more on the former, but I more hesitant about the latter.

    Addressing crises that are currently underway seems too individual a task for a Sunday School curriculum; the remedy needs to be highly tailored to the person and the question. Also, it just seems to me that level of emotional intensity involved in hashing out difficult issues would become tiresome week after week. To use the hospital analogy, we all agree that we’re very grateful to have them when acute problems arise, but they aren’t very pleasant places to just pass time in.

    So while I very much connect with many of your points, to me the question of venue of the hospital is critical. I’m not sure weekly church meetings are the right venue. I think the church hopes that home/visiting teachers, a trusted leader, etc, are venues that can serve the hospital function. I think more and more the blogs will serve that function. That’s perfectly fine with me.

    In the mean time, Sunday School should probably stay slightly breezy, though with a little more inoculation and a lot less recoil if ever somebody does raise a concern. IMHO.

  4. sister blah 2,

    My proposal is to implement something like what the linked post suggests. I don’t know all of the details of what he is doing, just the broad overview. I do think that working through problems and thinking critically in a group based instruction format is crucial. The strong can help the weak, the experienced the inexperienced. I also think it needs to be long term because many intellectual crisis are not acute, they are chronic. Expecting the bishop to provide long term support one on one is simply not fair to our lay ministry and their families. However, as a group everyone can shoulder the burden making it lighter for everyone else. Finally, I think it needs to be group based so that those experiencing intellectual crisis don’t feel like pariahs.

    As to the level of emotional intensity needed to hash out difficult issues, my guess is that if it is done regularly and normally the emotional intensity would go way down and it would be easier to deal with issues.

  5. David, could you give me an example that would help me understand the distinction that you are making between inoculation and “proper diet and exercise” and having the hospital ready?

  6. If it’s hard for evangelicals who outnumber Mormons probably 5 or 10 to 1 in the U.S., to find this kind of support then it’s harder still for Mormons.

    I thought that is why God invented the bloggernacle…

    Seriously though, isn’t the ‘nacle filling some of that vacuum you describe? (Especially awesomely awesome sites like New Cool Thang, FPR, and other theology-leaning blogs.)

  7. Julie,

    To me the inoculation metaphor suggests something that is both short term and preventative. As an example take the multiple accounts of the first vision. To me inoculation suggests spending a short amount of time (as little as possible really) giving an overview of what they contain along some conclusions one can draw about them. Enough to keep people from feeling betrayed, at least one hopes. Short term pain, long term gain is the idea. If this works then it’s obviously the way to go. My feeling is that it is not.

    Proper diet and exercise would be to approach multiple first vision accounts as just a matter of course, like eating vegetables. This might involve reading them, talking about how historians deal with multiple accounts of historical phenomena, critically analyzing narrative strategies and themes etc. Approaching them like one would the synoptic gospels in a New Testament class might be a good model.

    The hospital model be much the same, but after the fact. The hospital situation would involve a real person with real issues, so making the approach centered on the specific issues the person is having would be a differentiating factor. I think this is a good opportunity to mentor and show fellowship. Instead of keeping it theoretical share how others have dealt with the problem and solutions that worked for them in an open forum.

  8. Geoff J,

    To some degree the bloggernacle does fill the vacuum. However in my experience there is no substitute for human interaction. The internet is a wonderful way to fund business loans, trade stocks, and buy books, but it is not ideal for dealing with real people with real issues.

  9. “Another complaint sometimes heard is that church members and leaders either intentionally or unintentionally obscure doctrine and history.”

    This really isn’t a problem for Mormonism like it is for Evangelicals.

    The only reason it’s a problem for Mormons is when we forget who we are and try to pretend we’re Evangelicals. Keep in mind it’s they who care about orthodoxy. Mormons really don’t. Normally, we are just fine with our doctrine being very open-ended and focusing instead on the Divine narrative of scripture, and a system of ethics.

    There’s more than one way to do religion, and I’m not at all convinced orthodoxy is the correct method.

  10. #7, Let’s say that any time the first vision is the primary topic of the lesson, it includes mention of multiple accounts. Is that vegetables or inoculation? The thing is, it only comes up what, every other year or so? (once every 4 in SS and maybe one in-between in RS/P) That’s where I have a hard time seeing how the vegetable approach is more constant than the inoculation approach, unless we reorient the curriculum to put controversial topics into much heavier rotation. But then we get into my hesitancy about nobody wants to live in a hospital.

  11. Mormon doctrine is obscure because the source is modern revelation.

    Revelation obscures because it is from God. God’s ways are not our ways and no amount of critical thinking is likely to accurately uncover God’s ways.

    If you have encountered personal revelation you know that it is incomplete and one is rarely given the opportunity to ask and have answered the level of detail that would satisfy critical inquiry.

    Multiple accounts of the first vision are not a credibility problem. Based on my experience with personal revelation it suggests to me that is truly was a vision from God because revelation unfolds over time in the receiver’s mind like the unwrapping an onion. But, multiple accounts can make it difficult to be critically precise.

    I believe revelation is obscure because vagueness protects agency by providing plausible deniability or multiple possible answers. This requires one to engage the Spirit in order to know the truth.

    Modern revelation differs from ancient revelation because modern scribe techniques allow rapid documentation of the revelation and the circumstances surrounding it. This should result in more accurate scripture but more accurate scripture is less interrupted by man during the recording process and therefore less intellectually smoothed to man’s way of thinking.

    In spite of these serious limitations I value critical inquiry and I also find it frustrating that the church is not a safe place to ask questions. But, I agree with Geoff that this is the niche of the ‘nacle.

    I am not a scholar; these are simply my thoughts and beliefs. Please feel free to correct me.

  12. I like this post. Interesting thoughts/questions indeed. I see some validity for sure. But perhaps to make the right progress, we’ll also need to keep in mind “moderation in all things.”

  13. Mormon doctrine is obscure because the source is modern revelation.

    I don’t think Mormon doctrine itself is obscure, nor was the linked post claiming that evangelical doctrine is obscure. Rather, the claim is that well intentioned people obscure aspects of doctrine, theology, and history.

  14. Limiting the scope to moving controversial subjects from the shadows into the light will still require you to deal with the limitations in 11.

  15. David,
    Mormons face a bewildering array of poorly defined or misrepresented doctrine mixed with faith promoting rumors.

    For example, today many struggle with the SSM question. They are confused regarding their obligation given the First Presidency’s letter.

    I think this project may turn out to be much larger than you envisioned.

  16. he is setting up these kinds of programs in evangelical churches. If the evangelicals can do this, can’t we?

    There are some differences between how evangelicals use their “church time” and how we do it. I find it less likely that SS would be a good venue for this, at least immediately.

    My question to the group is this: Why SS? Why in churches? There is a place in Western society that is supposed to be dedicated to teaching critical thinking and preparing students to deal with hard issues that arise when religion meets modernity, so to speak…

  17. Mogget,

    Those are good questions and they made me do something I should have done before I wrote the article, I researched the actual program. It is not a Sunday School program. The classes are conducted weeknights and cover theology, hermeneutics, and 4 more specialized topics (soteriology, ecclesiology etc). The main idea seems to give people who did not attend a seminary (the kind where you get a masters degree, not the kind where you babysit high school students) a chance to get some of the seminary experience.

    We already have something similar to that in format, institute. Perhaps the best and most realistic solution for Mormons is simply to step up institute so that it is more than an extra Sunday School class. Maybe use standard university level textbooks for OT and NT and things like Bushman’s book for Church History etc. Once enough people had gone through courses like that Sunday School might become more open to hard questions and critical thinking.

  18. David the institute I attended was very much like that, though without specific reading assignments a la Bushman. But every single class was cut-the-fluff, we already know the story, now let’s talk about the hardest questions someone might have about this. It worked because we were a tiny group, the director was skilled, and he knew everyone in the group could handle it and on some level craved/needed it.

    After a few years our enrollment took off and things became much more like Sunday School or HS Seminary. A shame, but it also seemed somewhat necessary given the mix of people we had at that point. The director did try to have one class in the schedule that he informally recommended to the students he though were most suited to the old style.

  19. We already have something similar to that in format, institute

    Hehe. This is generous of you. I attended a lot of institute classes back in the day and they were invariably comparable to your average HS seminary class or Sunday school lesson. As I remember it, hard questions were tolerated but not sought (and rarely adequately answered).

  20. Why SS? Why in churches?

    Good question. My Bishop once explained that there is a very broad range of attitudes and spirituality in the typical Sacrament and SS audience. For this reason he preferred that the deeper questions be limited to the HP quorum where the “big boys” are. I guess explains why the correlated gospel is taught in SS.

  21. To be clear:

    I am not really talking about apologetics, nor am I talking about a class that specifically addresses the “hard issues.” I am talking about learning how to think about scripture, theology, sacred history, etc., rather than simply what to think.

    I’m also interested in a second opinion on something in the original post, that is, the original author’s judgment that around the time we turn ten or so, we ought to begin to shift in the direction of critical, or at least more serious, approaches.

    Beyond that, David’s post really resonated yesterday. I had just come back from an Intro to the Bible class for freshman. In the informal survey I’d given on the first day of class two of my students had posed very serious questions about historicity:

    “What really happened in OT times?”
    “Is the NT real or is it just a fable to teach us something?”

    Now this is a university class, and a very serious university at that. I had intended to report an aggregation of what they had said to my students, then go on to tell them what I was interested in seeing them learn. (Yeah, critical thinking skills. Surprised? There is always a disconnect because students tend to think that what they want is facts and teachers tend to think that higher order cognitive skills are in order.)

    So I had just finished with opening those issues and defusing the tensions they always engender, so we could work on them over the course of the semester, when I came back to find David’s work.

    We really, really, really, do not want to descend into fundamentalist approaches. And Howard, no nice, chaste Mogget kisses for your bishop.


  22. Learning critical thinking skills, no apologetics and no fundamentalist approaches. Crisp! Intellectually honest!

    Sounds good Mogs, I’ll let my Bishop know you’re coming.

  23. So who would be qualified to be be the “doctors” in the church hospital when the “patients” are “sick”? How would church members know who to go to in order to get adequate answers to their questions, and perhaps without fear of being judged?

  24. Dang, Clean Cut, that’s a very good question. I’ve been fortunate to have a faithful friend who is very well versed in both Church history and Egyptology. Not everyone is so lucky. I don’t think my bishop could have helped nearly as much.

    Part of the problem is that there are no authoritative experts in the Church except for the apostles, and their field of study is determining how to interpret and apply doctrine for the modern Church. They have no time for the sticky issues, and even if they did, I doubt it would help them much with their jobs. This extends all the way down to the local level: the local authorities are very busy helping heal folks who are sick, but morally, not intellectually.

    I wonder if that’s why people who struggle with intellectual things often feel they can’t bring them up. Leadership is best prepared to deal with moral sickness, not intellectual. Either they’ll always approach it that way, or those who struggle are afraid they will. But I’m not sure it would be wise to change that very much, as it seems there are many more moral issues than intellectual ones in the Church.

    Maybe the Internet is changing that, though.

  25. David: Thanks for this post. I think that what you propose has exciting prospects, but as you seem to recognize may be tilting at windmills. I also agree with Moggett: it seems to me that how we approach age appropriate education has a lot to do with how we teach in Sunday School.

    I have suggested for some time that philosophy ought to be taught in High School. There are lots of really good educational and cognitive developmental reasons for doing so. What is being proposed, if I have properly understood, is that we ought to teach critical thinking in priesthood meetings and sunday school classes. Perhaps critical history with various theological issues thrown in as well.

    Who will teach the classes? Getting some teachers to prepare for more than 5 minutes is a challenge. Who is qualified? Will the member/students ever come to class?

    I’m skeptical that such a program could be implemented at the Sunday School priesthood/relief society level for a lot of reasons. However, we must certainly begin such an exercise by the senior year in seminary. Perhaps we ought to have a module on history and doctrine. In Institute we must certainly have such classes. But who is prepared to teach them?

    I just participated in a summer symposium at BYU that was chaired by Richard Bushman. The topic was precisely how to approach the toughest issues and to teach and honestly and openly expose students to the issues and the best take we have on answers or, more appropriately, paradigms of critical and faithful assessment, of our toughest issues both historical and theological. The first order of business is to educate Institute teachers and seminary teachers as to what the issues are. Just exposing some to issues is a crisis of faith for them. They never get to the answers or critical paradigms and critical thinking skill set which take a great deal of commitment and research and thinking to develop.

    Further, are you under the illusion that even all of the 12, or all of the quorums of 70s could even engage these issues? Do you even believe that they are all aware of these issues? Some are — most are not. Even if they are aware, are you under the illusion that they have the ability to engage and address these issues? There has been a struggle of prophetic authority and academic preparedness. There are many who are already complaining that the apologists and critical thinkers are establishing doctrine and history rather than prophets and apostles.

    I suggest a graded educational approach. I don’t want an open free for all in the teachers quorum with the teacher throwing out his or her best take on Adam God and who the Father of god may be (the lower case “g” is intentional here). But by all means I want an Institute teacher who is aware of and has worked through and is knowledgeable about such issues. But how do we do that short of double PhDs in history and theology and organizational behavior? Further, aren’t we right back to being trained for the ministry by getting an advanced degree?

  26. Clean Cut & Blake,

    You both bring up a tough issue, namely who is going to teach this? And if no one is going to teach this how does one start something like this?

    Having professional biblical critics, historians, philosophers, and theologians seems like a non-starter for the church organization as it is currently conceived. However, I think you could call people to do this (it would be their regular and only calling) as long as this type of calling were handled slightly differently. First, it would have to be a long term calling (10+ years), no yanking people out to teach the Beehives after 6 months. Second, give them a modest budget to attend lectures, classes, and purchase books to get the necessary knowledge. It wouldn’t have to be a huge amount of money because since they are in the calling for a long time you can amortize the expenses over many years. Finally, give them support, trust, and leeway to help and teach people in the best way they see fit. Something like this is not too radical and fits into the organizational hierarchy relatively smoothly.

    Again, something like this still may be fantasy land, but I hope it’s not so radical as to be shot down summarily.

  27. Blake,

    I am under no illusions about the General Authorities. Though in the end I am completely ignorant about what they do know (I didn’t ask and they didn’t say), if I had to guess I would say that a small minority is aware of these kinds of issues and an even smaller minority would be able to address them.

    You bring up an interesting point I had not thought about, the lack of philosophy and other critical thinking skills taught at the high school level may be part of the problem. This is reminds me of observations that John Hobbins makes about European seminary students. Basically, they just make better seminary students, even though they arrive straight out of high school. They have read philosophy and arrive ready for critical thinking. Also, they have taken Greek and Latin and arrive ready for exegesis. That American students only get this in college, if at all, may be part of the problem.

    I think the graded approach is correct. The teaching would have to be graded according to age, education level, and desire. This may also be a stumbling block. We Mormons love egalitarianism, which for the most part is unequivocally positive. But to think that the instructional needs of wards in Cambridge MA, Dallas TX, and Chichigalpa Nicaragua can be catered to with a one size fits all solution (which is what we currently have) seems unworkable.

  28. David Clark: Sign me up for your proposal. I think that the Church is not merely ready, but is beginning to see the absolute institutional necessity of such a program and such an approach. I suggest that we start a program for seminary and institute teachers that approaches the issues from a theological/philosophical background with classes in higher criticism as well as exposure to a vast panoply of languages. Anyone willing to spend 9 years in college for $30,000 a year in salary?

  29. I should start by saying that I’ve only skimmed through the comments, and read through the post when it was initially posted, so my apologies if this repeats what has already been said, or is a little of base.

    IMO what’s needed are more critical thinking skills in the general body of the church. Of course another term for “critical thinking skills” should be used in the larger discussion with most LDSs because being “critical”, as pointed out in a recent post, often has a negative connotations associated with it. The issue is identifying these skills and then talking about proper distribution. Working with the already existent structure is most realistic given that any kind of structural change takes time and is likely to be fought, as is the nature of large organizations. In this light, Institute seems to be the best route. I wonder, for instance, if the Bushman seminar this past year wasn’t helpful in this respect.

  30. I think what’s needed are better critical thinking skills everywhere. Especially in America (although I’m not at all convinced Europeans overall are much better).

  31. SmallAxe and Clark,

    I too am in favor of increased skills in critical thinking. However, is this something that the church needs to promote as a matter of defending the faith and protecting the faithful? Or is this something that the church cannot or should not do, leaving it up to public schools?

  32. However, is this something that the church needs to promote as a matter of defending the faith and protecting the faithful? Or is this something that the church cannot or should not do, leaving it up to public schools?

    The only way it will be accepted as something the church needs is if in fact it proves to “protect the faithful” (see my earlier post ). Whether the lack of critical thinking skills is a larger societal problem is certainly related, but perhaps a discussion left for another time. IMO much of the necessary structure is already in place, what’s needed is a shift in emphasis: “Education” in the “Church Educational System” needs to be taken in a slightly new light, for instance (and perhaps Sunday School, could be a bit more like “school”).

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