In recent years American media and cultural observers have been struggling to understand evangelical Christianity. This is indeed important work, as approximately 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as "evangelical." Any movement this large, in this country, is bound to be diverse and fluid. But too often, journalism about Evangelicalism resorts to generalizations and caricature based on a few high-profile figures and events. Articles about megachurches, or homeschooling, or evangelical students at Ivy League colleges often carry a palpable undertone of menace. So I was intrigued a few months ago when I received my weekly issue of Sightings — a thoughtful e-mail newsletter distributed by Martin Marty — featuring a smart, funny article about this phenomenon, written by a young evangelical scholar, Jamie Smith. The title of Smith's essay was "It Only Hurts When I Laugh." "The May issue of Harper's magazine is, as usual, a feast," Smith wrote. "There is a distinct theme running through this issue, which comprises an almost apocalyptic collection of editorials and essays chronicling the dangers of evangelical Christianity … The writing is crisp and witty, the research is thorough, and the tone sometimes even charitable. … But I can't stop thinking about French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss … Just as western anthropologists of generations past trudged through island jungles in search of the exotic 'other' in 'primitive' societies, so today journalists depart from the safety and civilization of Manhattan to the exotic environs of … Kansas! — or Oklahoma, or Florida, or Colorado Springs. … Their articles read a bit like dispatches from strange lands. 'I've been to red America,' they seem to say, 'and it's stranger and scarier than you could have imagined.'" Jamie Smith himself, as you'll hear in this program, defies every stereotype at play in our culture now — especially in "blue America" — about who evangelical Christians are, what motivates them, and how they might change America. He is a young philosopher at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the largest Christian colleges in this country, a place of intellectual rigor. Smith finds his passion "in the borderlands between philosophy, theology, ethics, aesthetics and politics." He writes two blogs, where he reflects on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics in what he calls our "post-secular" world. He has published several books about an emerging idea called "radical orthodoxy." Radical orthodoxy is more a sensibility than a movement, he says, that would urge Christians to rethink every sphere of life, including politics and economics, in light of core Christian values. But it does not advocate the kind of partisan political strategies at which some evangelical Christians have recently been so successful. Jamie Smith believes that churches should exert their innate political influence by modeling community and virtues — such as communal approaches to unwanted pregnancies, or just distribution of wealth — rather than agitating for legal mandates for all. He can't imagine, for example, how our pluralistic public sphere could fail to allow full civil rights for gay couples. At the same time, he insists that churches could and should have their own processes of discernment on such matters, and those would often present a contrast or a "third way" over against cultural norms. From another direction, Nancey Murphy defies a growing assumption in this country that evangelical faith is necessarily "anti-science." She is an historian of science and also a philosopher. She teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, a leading global and national center of evangelical learning, and she is a frequent participant in an expanding international dialogue between scientists and religious thinkers. She has written a book with a cosmologist, George Ellis of South Africa. She advises the Vatican Observatory on its conferences on science and theology. In this country, collaborative work between science and religion is currently overshadowed by the furor over Intelligent Design. Nancey Murphy makes the striking case that most Christian adults in this country today grew up learning simultaneously about evolution and creation, and sensing intuitively that it is possible for both of these ideas to be bearers of truth. We have to be taught, Murphy says, to experience science and religion to be irreconcilably at odds. These two intelligent, refreshing individuals impress me with their humility and humor — qualities too often lacking in religious people of every stripe, especially those who make headlines. Jamie Smith still reads Harper's with great admiration, and he finds as much to fault in the evangelical movement itself as in secular media when he sees the faith he loves misunderstood, maligned, and feared. Both Smith and Murphy feel a responsibility to help inform and reframe our cultural understanding of evangelical Christianity. For our part at Speaking of Faith, we'll continue to explore and illuminate the nuanced and evolving character of this immensely important sector of American religious life.
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Smith is an associate professor and Director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship Program at Calvin College.