Another Evangelical Scandal

It’s now over a decade ago that Mark Noll documented what he described as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal, of course, was that there wasn’t one: “evangelicals” had devoted themselves largely to “saving souls,” not creating research universities or redeeming that arts. (For Noll’s recent retrospective, a decade after Scandal, see “The Evangelical Mind Today” in First Things

In _The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience_ (Baker, 2004) Ronald Sider now offers an account of another evangelical scandal: the problem isn’t that evangelicals don’t think, for him; rather, the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach. Or, as the subtitle puts it, “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?” The first chapter of this book is a litany of statistics which show that despite the religious veneer of the American populace, the practices of American Christians are not really different from their non-Christian counterparts: both are beholden to a market fundamentalism that baptizes invidualism and hedonism.

Overall, I found Sider’s book underwhelming. It certainly doesn’t compare to Noll’s account concerning the evangelical “mind” (admittedly, Sider’s isn’t an “academic” book). Whereas Noll very patiently tries to discern the causes of the scandal, Sider seems content to recite statistics and never really gets to thinking about the root cause for evangelicalism’s assimilation to a consumer culture. I suspect this is because in the end, even Sider’s version of Christianity still adheres to the same root cause, viz., majoritarian democracy coupled with the valorization of free-market economies. In short, I think this book confirms what I’ve always thought about Sider: at the end of the day, he isn’t really prophetic. He is a reformer, at best. While he tries admirably to get evangelicals to appreciate the structural character of sin, he stops short of recognizing that capitalism and the version of “democracy” pushed by the current administration are at the heart of the problem. Sider wants to create charitable, compassionate, property-owning agents of a chastened free market; he’s not willing to call into question that entire system. (He even makes a point of trying to say that the early church retained notions of private property. Acts 2:44 seems to clearly indicate they held “all things in common.”) But rabid capitalism is quite happy to encourage charity, tithing, and the like: none of it really challenges the dominant model for distributing goods and wealth.

Perhaps what is particularly sad is that even a model as anemic as Sider’s still needs to be articulated with what he takes to be a prophetic edge (though most of the time I find his so-called “prophetic” tone to be just downright moralistic!). The depth of the Babylonian/American captivity of the church means that Sider’s book still needs to be heard—but only as a starting point.

All that said, there are a few themes I really appreciated in Sider’s stance:

(1) I completely agree with his call for a recovery of church discipline. Only when we begin to reassert boundaries for the church and consequences for transgression will we be able to live out a sense of countercultural antithesis vis-à-vis the broader culture.

(2) However, re-asserting church discipline will also mean calling into question the ideal of “autonomy” not just for individuals, but for church’s. Here is where Sider the Baptist is at his most un-Baptist best: he rightly discerns that non-denominationalism and notions of congregational autonomy amongst Protestants really just creates a network of places for Laodicean disciples to bounce around without consequence—still naming the name of Christ but all the while baking cakes for the queen of heaven (Jer. 7). I have long thought that non-denominationalism is the height of evangelicalism’s modernism.

(3) Sider also emphasizes the role of small groups as a site for abstract notions of “community” to hit the ground. Our own experience attests to his intuitions here.

Much more could be said, and the book deserves to be read, at least to get the conversation going. In the end, though, I wonder if the book is a bit of a missed opportunity.