The fragmentation of the evangelical soul – Bible Type

The fragmentation of the evangelical soul

SaveSavedRemoved 0
Deal Score0
Deal Score0

N.Within the American evangelical movement, new breaks are forming, breaks that do not correspond to the usual regional, denominational, ethnic or political lines. Couples, families, friends, and churches that were once united in their commitment to Christ now share on seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they not only divide, but become incomprehensible to one another.

Recently, a group of my college friends, all raised and cared for in healthy evangelical families and communities, reconnected online in search of understanding. One person mourned the fact that they could no longer understand their parents or how their view of the world had changed so suddenly and painfully. Another described friends who were demographically identical who had once stood next to him on virtually everything but now promoted ideas he found shocking. Yet another said her church was going to disintegrate, driven apart by mutual distrust and misunderstanding.

"They were my people," said one, "but now I don't know who they are, or maybe I don't know who I am."

What do you do when you feel like you are losing the people you love to a false reality? What do you do with the humiliating truth that they are exactly the same afraid of you?

The dilemma is not unique to evangelicals. But other believers who once stood shoulder to shoulder are now finding that tectonic shifts have pushed them apart, their continents are separating, and they cannot find a bridge back to common ground. How can our views on reality diverge so dramatically – and is there anything we can do to get back together?

The plausibility curve and the information curve

One of the most persistent interests of my academic career has been how people form beliefs. Not how they should form beliefs in an idealized vision of perfected rationality, but how they actually form beliefs as embodied creatures embedded in communities and cultures. I would like to introduce a simple conceptual tool, partly influenced by the work of Peter Berger, that can help us understand what is happening.

Imagine a horizontal plane curving down into a bowl, rising back again, and returning to a horizontal plane. The curve from one end of the bowl to the other represents the range of claims a person believes are believable. Let's call it a plausibility curve. Claims that fall in the middle of the curve are felt to be the most plausible. They require little evidence or argument before a person will consent to the belief. Assertions that fall near the edges become increasingly implausible as they deviate from the center and increasingly require more persuasion. Claims that are completely off the plausibility curve are outside of the range a person could believe at any given time, and not a lot of evidence or logic will be enough.

What determines the plausibility of a particular claim is how well it matches what an individual experiences, already believes, and wants to believe. The full range of a person's beliefs is more like a photo mosaic (see example here): Thousands of experiences and perceptions of reality are connected, and from these thousands larger patterns and impressions emerge, higher-order beliefs about the nature of reality, the great narratives history, the nature of right and wrong, good and bad and so on. Attempts to change a single belief can feel unsuccessful when it is embedded in countless others. Where do you start addressing a thousand interlocking disagreements at the same time? Evidence to the contrary is almost irrelevant when an assertion "fits" an entire network of reinforcing beliefs. This is part of what gives a plausibility curve its enduring strength and resilience to change.

Desire plays a particularly complicated role in the plausibility curve. We may not want to believe a claim because it would separate us from those we love, confront painful truths, require a change in our behavior, cause social costs, or so on. We might want to believe a certain claim because it would be fashionable, confirm our prejudices, stand out from others, upset our parents, or for a myriad of other reasons. We will need more persuasion about claims we don't want to believe and less about those we make.

Like the overton window in political theory, a plausibility curve can expand, contract, and shift. Friends or family members whose plausibility curves were once identical may find that they differ over time. Claims that one person immediately finds plausible are almost inconceivable to the other person. But how does that happen? This is where the information curve comes into play.

Imagine a mirror-image bowl over the plausibility curve. This is the information curve that reflects the individual's external sources of information about the world, e.g. B. Communities, authorities and media. These sources in the middle of the information curve are considered to be the most trustworthy. Claims made from these sources are accepted almost without question. Sources of information at the far ends of the bowl are considered less trustworthy, so their claims will be scrutinized. Sources outside the curve are so unreliable, at least for this person, that their claims are immediately dismissed.

The middle of the information curve generally coincides with the middle of the plausibility curve. The relationship is mutually reinforcing. Sources are considered more trustworthy when they make claims we believe are plausible, and claims are considered more plausible when they come from sources we trust. An information source that consistently delivers claims in the middle of the plausibility curve is implicitly assumed.

Changes can begin at the plausibility curve level. Perhaps a person joins a religious group and finds it more loving and sensible than expected. She will no longer find it plausible for a source to claim that all religious groups are irrational and biased, and this will gradually shift their information curve in favor of more reliable sources. Or another person is experiencing the loss of a child and no longer wants to believe that death is the end of consciousness. He is more open to other assertions, expands his sources of information and slowly changes his beliefs.

Changes can also start at the information curve level. A person who grew up in a particular ward with well-established authorities such as their parents and pastors goes to college and is introduced to new churches and authorities. If she judges them to be trustworthy sources of information, this new information curve will likely shift its plausibility curve. If her beliefs change, she may even reach a point where the sources that once provided most of her beliefs are no longer considered trustworthy at all. Or imagine a person who has consumed far left media sources all their life. He begins listening to conservative media sources and finds their claims to be in line with his experience – only slightly at first, but increasingly. Gradually he consumes more and more conservative media, expands or shifts his information curve, which in turn expands or shifts his plausibility curve. He could reach a point where his broader perceptions of the world – the deeper forces at work in history, the optimal ways of organizing societies and economies, the forces for good and evil in the world – have been completely canceled.

Look at the 9/11 Truth Movement and the QAnon Movement. Most Americans will find the idea that the Bush administration orchestrated a massive terrorist attack to invade the Middle East and enrich their friends in the oil industry, or that the global liberal elites are launching an international child trafficking operation for the purpose of pedophilia and cannibalism would build up beyond the limits of their plausibility curve. However, others will find that one or the other conspiracy resonates with their plausibility curve, or that their information curve shifts over time in such a way that their plausibility curve goes hand in hand with it. Assertions that once seemed impossible to contemplate appeared conceivable, then plausible, then reasonable, and finally self-evident. Of course, conservatives would sacrifice thousands of innocent lives to justify a "war for oil" because conservatives are greedy, and so do conservatives. Of course, liberals would sacrifice thousands of children to promote their own health and power because liberals are perverted, and liberals do.

Finally, let's call the entire structure, the plausibility curve and the information curve an information world. An information world encompasses how an individual or a community of individuals receives and processes information. Different information worlds have different facts and sources. Our challenge today is that we occupy several information worlds with little in common and a lot of hostility between them.

What does all of this have to do with the evangelical movement? Much.

The evangelical crises

The American evangelical movement was never a single community. It is estimated that the number of American evangelicals is between 80 and 100 million, depending on the criterion. Even if we split the difference by 90 million, it would make the American evangelical population larger than any European nation except Russia. It is also diverse, spanning all regions, races, and socio-economic levels. What has historically held the movement together was not only a shared set of moral and theological commitments, but also a broadly similar view of the world and shared sources of information. Their plausibility curves and information curves largely overlapped. There were some things in which they differed, but the ground they shared in the middle served as a basis for mutual understanding and fellowship.

This sense of togetherness became increasingly tense as groups that were not previously identified as evangelical were merged and the “evangelical” category was defined less theologically than socially, culturally and politically. This broader evangelical movement is now divided into separate communities that still have some moral and theological obligations in common, but differ dramatically in their sources of information and their broader view of the world. Their information worlds hardly overlap. They can only discuss a narrow range of topics if they do not want to get caught up in painful and angry disagreements.

One group within American evangelicalism believes that our religious freedoms have never been more firmly entrenched; another that they were never at greater risk. One group believes that racism is still systemic in American society; Another reason is that "systemic racism" is a progressive program to redistribute wealth and power to angry radicals. One deals more with the Capitol Rebellion; another with the riots that followed the assassination of George Floyd. The Trump presidency is believed to have generationally damaged Christian witness; another that it was enormously beneficial. The former president is believed to have attempted a coup; another that the Democrats stole the election. It is believed that masks and vaccines are signs of Christian love; another, that the rejection of them is a sign of Christian courage.

There are, of course, innumerable groups in between, but these examples illustrate the tension: We occupy the same reality, but vastly different worlds. It is a real question whether these worlds can (or should) contract again. This is a critical moment for our movement.

Then what can be done? The model itself suggests where to start. If we shift the information curves in the direction of a common center, the plausibility curve follows. Information comes from three sources: media, government and community. One reason we disagree is that these three sources are in crisis in American evangelicalism. I will only briefly outline these points.

First, the media crisis is acute. Even if the media have become more powerful and pervasive today, they have also become more fragmented and polarizing. The dynamism of modern media rewards content that is immediate, angry, and hyperbolic, turning the media into a marketplace for despicable sellers and hate dealers. Evangelicals are torn between social media platforms and legacy media sources openly advocating progressive causes and overturning conservative voices and far-right sources that spread paranoia and misinformation. In short, the digital media landscape has evolved to benefit more from our vices than from our virtues, and it has become incredibly effective at dividing audiences into hermetic media areas that provide only the information and commentary that the fears and Confirm the public's antipathies.

This is an extraordinary challenge for Christian discipleship. Media consumption has been rising for years and is rising amid the pandemic. Members of our churches may spend a few hours a week in the Word of God (which should always be the Christian's primary source of information and authority), but at least 40 hours to emphasize the hostilities of the day. As soon as the information curve drifts to the left or right, the algorithms of digital media and the manipulations of politicians and profiteers accelerate the dynamic. Soon Christian communities that once shared a broader view of the world find that they only agree on the essence of the faith. It will be difficult to address other parts of the information curve until we have some semblance of sanity in our media consumption. The longer we live in separate media worlds, the deeper and wider our departments become. The longer we devote ourselves to the gluttony of the media and skimp on the deeper nourishment that Christ cultivates in us, the less we will have in common.

The media crisis extends across society, however The evangelical movement is also facing its own crisis of authority. A generation of evangelical leaders who have shown immense respect, at least among the broad masses of American evangelicalism, has passed away. The current generation of evangelical institutional leaders, while much more diverse than their ancestors, struggle to rise above the rampant ideological otherness of our time. In addition, the movement has seen countless leaders fall from grace in spectacularly destructive ways. At the same time we saw the rise of the prominent pastor. Once upon a time, long obedience in the same direction, a life of humble study and service, brought a person a minimum of spiritual authority and a humble life. Today, a dashing profile and a talent for self-promotion can attain wealth and prestige in the Christian celebrity market.

The result is disillusionment and division. As younger generations walk to the exits, those who remain in our churches continue to anchor themselves in their own ideological camps. If it is ever to come true again that recognized authorities are an important part of our shared information curve, it is because we are moving from a culture of celebrity to a culture of sanctification where leadership is less about platform building rather than carrying the cross of Christ for it. Because we remember the words of Jesus, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26). It will also be because we learn again how to listen to men and women with wisdom, leaders and neighbors without crucifying them for political differences.

The third way to move the information curve is to address our community crisis. Community is essential to the Christian life. It deepens our knowledge of the Word, forges our common identity in Christ, cultivates the Christian character and disciples of our young. Yet the pressures, temptations, and fiery distractions of contemporary life have strained the bonds that bind us, replacing the warmth and depth of the incarnated community with a cold digital imitation. The pandemic has only deepened our isolation, causing many to look outside of their churches for political tribes or conspiratorial communities for purpose and belonging. In addition, the hyper-politicization of the American evangelical movement has resulted in a political sorting. Congregants who do not like the attitudes of their pastors move to other churches whose policies are the same as theirs. But communities made up of individuals whose information worlds are nearly identical tend to be rigid and increasingly radical – what Cass Sunstein calls the law of group polarization.

Instead of withdrawing into communities of shared hatred, the church should offer a community of shared love, a refuge from the fragmentation and polarization, from the loneliness and isolation of the present moment. The church should model what it means to care for one another despite our differences in social and political affairs, and reaffirm the incomparably deeper roots of our identities in Christ.

Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he had studied religious congregations for 30 years but had never "seen" such extraordinary levels of conflict. "What's different now?" he asked. "The conflict extends across worldviews – politics, race, how we should be in the world and even what religion and belief are for." What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we came to such success and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project that lies ahead.

We are not without hope. Lies sound hollow at the end of the day. Hate is a poor imitation of purpose, fame is a poor substitute for wisdom, and political tribes poorly compared to the authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be Savior and Reconciler.

Maybe we can start building bridges across our information worlds. Perhaps we can nurture a healthy media ecosystem that offers a balanced view of the world and generous conversation about it. Perhaps we can restore a leadership culture defined by humility over fame and integrity over influence. Perhaps we can invite those who have found fake fellowship in their political tribes to rediscover a richer and more robust fellowship in Christ. All of these things will be essential to restore a common understanding of the world created by God and the importance of following Christ in it.

Timothy Dalrymple is President and CEO of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @TimDalrymple_.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply