"Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt"

Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 2002

As a publication arm of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Geneva Press has a penchant for books with inviting titles. Several years ago it published How to Spell Presbyterian. This book raised the important point that becoming a Presbyterian involved, literally and figuratively, a lesson in spelling, even if the book itself was replete with examples of misspelled Presbyterianism.

Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt is also cleverly titled, and it is written in a humorous vein. In a breezy style that is sometimes too glib ("who the hell knows?" is its cheeky response to the question of the afterlife), the book explains how the grammar of Presbyterianism differs from the predominant tongue of other American Christians, especially the ascendant idiom of American evangelicalism. Bible-belt rhetoric too often sets the agenda of religious dialogue in terms and categories that are unpresbyterian. As a remedy, this survival guide outlines the Christian faith in a way that is "unapologetic about the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition."

The differences highlighted in this book involve Presbyterians in "when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife" questions, like the classic evangelical icebreaker, When were you saved? The authors rightly question the fundamentalist loading of the moment of conversion, and, true to Calvin, they describe it not as a decision in one's past but as a lifelong process. Against evangelical me-'n'-Jesus individualism, they stress the corporate character of faith. Yet they offer no countervailing argument for Christian nurture. Infant Baptism, for example, is justified on the bare premise that "God saves," not on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.

The very writing of this book seems a concession that the glory days of the Protestant mainline are over. Even American Muslims outnumber Presbyterians, the authors acknowledge. In a manner reminiscent of the ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, the authors try to transform their marginalization into a virtue: Our time allows us to be more deliberately Presbyterian. But unhappily, a therapeutic undercurrent runs through the book, as if its ultimate design is to help Calvin's confused and diminishing heirs feel at ease. It's okay if you believe different things, the authors reiterate; really it is. Ultimately, the Presbyterian antidote to fundamentalist self-righteousness is self-acceptance.

Moreover, Being Presbyterian is full of Auburn-Affirmation agreeableness. Presbyterianism is a big tent: It is elastic enough for open theism or predestination (in mono or stereo), Christus Victor or penal substitution or moral influence on the atonement. Some Presbyterians see the fall as a helpful myth to explain the perennial "distance between God and humanity in every age." Predictably, the one area where the authors admit that Presbyterian "shortcomings" stand to gain from evangelicals lies in contemporary forms of worship.

Most significantly, this small book disappoints because its focus is almost entirely on Presbyterian faith with very little to say on practice (with few exceptions, such as permitting inter-faith dating). But might not Presbyterians find themselves conspicuous in the Bible Belt by the way they live as much as the way they talk? Consider how they ought to regard the sanctity of the Lord's Day or teach the catechism to their children. Absent a discussion of practice, Being Presbyterian unwittingly suggests that Presbyterianism is a dialect without consequences. If so, a future generation of communicators will surely lose this accent. For all their diagnostic skills, the authors seem at the end willing merely to substitute one form of moralism for another.

Despite its flaws, this book may be helpful for two audiences beyond its intended readership. Conservative Protestants can learn from reading it how others perceive them. Despite their boundary-drawing efforts over the past half-century, evangelicals and fundamentalists remain indistinguishable through mainline eyes. Moreover, the authors, claiming to be evangelical in an historical sense, employ the label neo-evangelical to describe contemporary Bible Belt conservatism. The resurrection of the prefix for uncomplimentary purposes is a curious reversal of Harold Ockenga's logic when he coined that term in 1947.

Finally, this book may prompt Reformed confessionalists to reflect on their differences with the language and rhetoric of evangelicalism, which is both hegemonic and threatening to the faith and practice of Presbyterian orthodoxy. Foote and Thornburg remind Presbyterians (and implicitly, Lutherans and Episcopalians) to mind not only their tongues but also their habits, so that they might witness in ways more consistent with their faith before a watching world that includes not only pagan neighbors but evangelical friends, as well.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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