Anna Rosenkranz, Ph. D Candidate at the College of William and Mary shares an essay about identity in American Evangelicalism:
They will always, somehow, be your people”: The Changing Contours of Contemporary Protestant Evangelicalism
“You were born into a world within a world. Evangelicalism.”(1)
The quote above opens the first chapter of author, blogger, and 30-something Addie Zierman’s spiritual memoir. These few words are rich ones. They echo similar stories and sentiments recorded in a growing library of writings by Gen Xers and Millennials, coming-of-age tales that narrate the authors’ evolving relationships with the faith that shaped their youth. “You were born,” Zierman begins, addressing her infant self. We guess from this use of second person and past tense that the Addie narrating is not the same Addie who was born. And because this is a story, we expect a crisis, and we anticipate that that crisis will have something to do with “Evangelicalism.” Will she be leaving this world, we wonder, or will she find a way to stay?
What is this “world within a world. Evangelicalism”? Not a religious organization or denomination, it is instead a term that describes a wide variety of threads of Protestant Christianity united by devotion to the Protestant Bible and its story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. These threads are marked not just by reverence for this book but by the way in which that book’s stories are used to compel concern for the eternal fate of people’s souls, concern that has long motivated the activity – “evangelism” – that shares the root of these threads’ collective name. These, anyway, are historical evangelicalism’s theological markers.(2) The story of American evangelicalism over the past several decades, however, is about much more than theology. It is Addie Zierman’s story, and the story of others like her. It’s the story of the evolution and impact of a distinctively American evangelical project to create a better world, a project that has molded over time its own unique “world within a world.”
Since the late 1970s, American evangelicals – mostly those with conservative leanings (not all self-identified evangelicals have also labeled themselves “conservative”) – have poured their energy into protecting and sustaining what they have termed the “traditional family,” which both represents and is the means to perpetuating what they have understood to be “biblical values.” Evangelical parents have thus worked hard to instill in their children the values they believe will ensure their family’s spiritual health and success. This project has fueled the growth of a particularly evangelical American subculture, that “world within a world” of which Zierman speaks, and into which writings like hers give us a glimpse. It’s a world not just with its own public school and afterschool programs, but its own primary schools, secondary schools, home schools, colleges, universities and their accompanying curricula. A world with its own romance novels, children’s literature, pop stars, radio stations, music festivals, comedians, news magazines, television channels. A world with its own movies, clothing, jewelry, and home décor. Its own amusement parks and museums, international tours and pleasure cruises. Its own constellation of psychological, medical, financial, intellectual, and political experts. It’s a world whose degree of self-sufficiency increased in the 1980s and 1990s, and parents and evangelical leaders hoped it would guarantee the secure transmission of their deepest convictions to the next generation.
The results from this project are, of course, still coming in, and what those results mean is a question with a near infinitude of possible answers. Some have described the whole project as anathema to sound reason, compassionate humanity, true faith, or to all three, and have abandoned it entirely. Some have worried that, while the project was and is good, the “world” outside of their world has, despite their best efforts, claimed their children and peers for its own. Many more, like Addie Zierman, paint a more complex picture. Like her, they trace the roots of their personal crises (for Zierman, depression and alcoholism) to many of the impulses that drove the creation of that “world within a world.” Yet, like her, they have found relief and healing from within that same world. For these people, renouncing evangelicalism is not only unnecessary in order to recover from what they experienced and perceived as the project’s negative effects; rejecting evangelicalism in total, they suggest, wasn’t really possible for them. Too much of these people’s selves had been shaped by that world to abandon it entirely. Yet retaining the label “evangelical” after “coming of age” has, for those like Zierman, meant shifting their position in the community, changing the trajectory of “the project,” abandoning elements of its subculture, and making an effort to redefine the label “evangelical” itself.
The Addie at the end of the story is not the same as the Addie at the beginning. And yet, in many ways, she is. Will she be leaving this world, we wonder, or will she find a way to stay? Perhaps those are the wrong questions. Perhaps instead we should ask ourselves, as Zierman does, to what extent those who have populated the worlds, religious or otherwise, in which we were raised “will always, somehow, be your people.”(3)
1. Addie Zierman, Addie Zierman, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over (New York: Convergent Books, 2013), 11.
2. I borrow here from historian David Bebbington classic description of the four emphases that have consistently set evangelicalism apart from other Christian traditions: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and… crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 3.
3. Zierman, 221