The Rise of the Neo-Evangelical: thoughts on Nancy Ammerman’s Telling the Old, Old Story

One of my interests is the psychology of religion. I was browsing through a few websites recently when a link to an essay on evangelicals (with whom I formerly identified) caught my eye. The link brought me here, to an essay by Nancy Ammerman that sought to identify what she called the “distinct evangelical ‘public narrative’” by which one could define the movement. Her thesis is that evangelicals may be going through a shift in their public identity and that this identity cannot be understood by simply looking at political persuasions, but by examining “all the explicit and implicit plots that coordinate [their] actions and expectations…”

The author maintains, based on the ideas of Margaret Somers, that all cultures and institutions develop a narrative out of their shared experiences. Ammerman writes that certain common stories emerge out of these collective experiences that animate the lives of those who are within the said subculture. These narratives are not static by any means nor are they singular in theme. On the contrary, they are “multilayered and subject to twists of plot” as are the narratives of characters in our favorite stories. These twists of plot are elaborated on and applied to evangelicalism toward the end of her essay.

Ammerman posits that in order to understand evangelicals, one must familiarize himself with the particular narrative they are developing. This process occurs through examining the actors in the script who express themselves as various symbols such as songs or sayings (which I like to call “Christianese”) which, when used by someone publicly, point out to those evangelicals watching that he or she is part of the group. These symbols also reflect deeper beliefs of the community at large and, when implemented, they allow one to immediately feel connected to the person using them in some sort of intimate way. She provides an eminent example in noting the way evangelicals assumed President George W. Bush was “one of them” in the fight against gay marriage and sundry other “evils” that threatened our nation during the most recent presidential campaign.

What themes form the narrative of modern day evangelicalism? I was able to count five, but I may have divided up a couple of hers (or simply interpreted them differently since I have intimate inside knowledge of this group). The first was what she calls the “metanarrative,” the one that summarizes and encapsulates the others and that is the idea of sin and redemption. She says of these believers,

They are unsurprised to find the world a flawed place, and they expect that lives can be transformed when people accept the Jesus story as their own. There is a fundamental fatalism and boundless hope in how they talk about life.

Evangelicals differ from more liberal Christians in that they assert a “singular path – belief in the saving blood of Jesus – away from…sin.” This is the second distinction of evangelicalism.* This premise leads into the third which is that modern evangelicals prefer a more “user-friendly” (my words) approach to sharing that faith. They share their faith by the way they live instead of preaching to people like the saints of yesteryear. This generation’s rallying cry is the fourth distinctive – the defense of “biblical truth” in a society that has gone astray from its Christian roots. This creates, in effect, what she terms an “’embattlement remnant’ story” where they believe themselves to be last bastion of light that believes in what is true or “biblical.”

The final portion of the essay returns to the idea of narratives and how they become disrupted and fractured. Having carefully appraised modern evangelicalism, the author puts forth the idea that just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson led the charge of modern evangelicalism out of the ‘60s and ‘70s (a period in which time-honored beliefs were tested and some were found wanting) to forge the aforementioned public identity, so now that which has been commonsense assumption of active members of the religious right, and went hand in hand with their religion (namely that the Republican party is God’s party), is being challenged by a younger group that is encountering the most recent perturbations against the community narrative. While she concludes that this younger cohort is only at a grass-roots level at the present time, she adeptly notes that the door is open for another charismatic leader to come forward and, within the same tradition of redemption, reshape the “strands of the story for a new generation.”

My opinion of Miss Ammerman’s essay is that she does not realize how right she is and that this younger generation may be far more advanced in its evolution than she surmises! The fact of the matter is this: younger evangelicals are more environmentally sensitive (which she did mention), conscious of social justice issues, and far more tolerant of gay people than their parents are. Many young people have been turned off to what I will label the “hyper-patriotic Christianity of the Religious Right.” The statement implies the obvious: that these young people are tired of having what is “Christian” being associated with a particular political party or the definition of a good American and vice-versa.

(This is a welcome change for those of us who eschew the mixing of church and state that is done on the political and religious right in their quest to establish an American Theocracy. I’m also convinced that much of this sensitivity to issues that are more traditionally “Democratic” in political identification is rooted in the frustrating legalism with which many of these young people grew up and have now grown to resent – but that’s a post for another day).

Miss Ammerman has given an insightful and accurate critique of the evangelical tradition and has highlighted in her observation of the youth movement occurring within that community what is being termed “Neo-evangelicalism.” It is, as its name implies, a new form of evangelicalism which embraces many more traditionally liberal causes and, I would argue, may have a figurehead (at least) in Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in southern California. Mr. Warren has been a pioneer by championing numerous initiatives to fight hunger, AIDS, and to correct the social injustices of today’s society – things conservatives often give lip service to. These sorts of concerns are also a driving force behind the emergent church movement which contains many neo-evangelicals. Generation X and Generation Y are looking for something more than high hairdos and the number of conversions they can bring about to hang their collective ecclesiastical hats on.

The only weakness I was able to glean from the essay is that the author failed to draw a sharp enough distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists. This is important as I shall show. Fundamentalism is the reactionary movement that came out of the infamous Scopes trial of 1926 where the battle of “Evolution vs. Creation” gained its mythic lore (even though the battle lines had been drawn for decades). Fundamentalism, though its numbers are greatly decreased, is the hyper-literalistic hermeneutical playground that not even J.N. Darby would have let his kids play in. They are vehemently “Bible-only” in their approach to life and are against many modern scientific understandings of the world, especially if they intrude into areas which they, in their rigid interpretation of Scripture, believe that the Bible speaks definitively on (unless they have to go to the doctor, who they hope will bring healing to their bodies on the basis of microevolutionary biology – again, another post for another day). They are the right wing extreme of Christianity, many of them believing the King James Version of the Bible to be God’s inspired translation and that to use modern day translations is the height of apostasy. Of course, to be fair, these things exist on a spectrum, these examples being the most extreme. However, it is important to note these difference because though evangelicals and fundamentalists believe many of the same things theologically (such as the verbal-plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture), they differ in that evangelicals are far more open to integrating their faith with scientific understandings of the world which bring about “wicked evils” such as psychology (one of the favorite targets) that fundamentalists often decry as originating in the pits of Hell itself. It is these evangelicals that Ammerman is describing in her essay. I wanted to point out the difference because oftentimes the two are mistakenly lumped together, since it was out of fundamentalism that the other originated (via Falwell and Robertson as she noted). And, when they are identified as being the same, evangelicals unfairly get dismissed as just another varying brand of wacko fundamentalists, which is not the case.

The second reason this distinction is important is that neo-evangelicalism is growing out of the more left-leaning side of traditional evangelicalism. If you can imagine a spectrum, you would see fundamentalists on the far right, evangelicals to the right-of-center, neo-evangelicals in the center to left-of-center, and the liberal churches to the far left. What Miss Ammerman is documenting in the latter half of her essay in support of her thesis is the rise of neo-evangelicalism and it is my belief, and the belief of others, that this “new narrative,” to use her language, may not be a simple reformation (if I can use that word) of modern evangelicalism, but has been, and is now, the emergence of a new Christian position within Protestantism. It’s one that is not as dogmatic as its predecessor on theological issues, more ecumenical, more socially minded, and is more open to dialogue with liberal Christians than even traditional evangelicals are. This group accepts and, in many instances, partners with or takes up the cause altogether of, those who have been left behind by the more traditional evangelical communities. If traditional evangelicals can be termed “modern evangelicals,” then this group may appropriately be termed “post-modern evangelicals.”

I highly recommend reading Nancy Ammerman’s essay in its entirety. Some will welcome (as I do) a new addition to the spectrum of Protestantism that is more inclusive; others will decry it as a post-modern compromise of “biblical truth.” Either way, you will be indebted to the author who offers an astute assessment of the ongoing evolution of modern day evangelical protestant thought.


*While this is true in some cases, it would be a bit unfair to label all liberals as believing this. Many liberals simply have a different idea of what exclusivity means (and differing ideas as to how it relates to sharing that message with other people).


13 thoughts on “The Rise of the Neo-Evangelical: thoughts on Nancy Ammerman’s Telling the Old, Old Story

  1. 1TIMOTHY 1 : 6 Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.

    7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

    19 holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.

    4:1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.

    2PETER 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves.

    17 These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them.

    18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error.

    19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity–for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.

    Peace Be With You
    Michael Patrick David.

  2. Mr. David, I am a bit confused as to the purpose of piecemealing random passages of Scripture as a response to the essay, but I will assume that they are meant to be a rebuttal. Like I said in my original post, Bible thumping is not allowed on this website. If you wish to quote the Bible and make informed exegetical remarks pertaining to the verses you are citing, please feel free. However, do not just post Bible verses and then leave as if there was no need for interpretation, application, or correlation. I do thank you for reading the blog.

  3. The Phlegmatic Thinker said…Mr. David, I am a bit confused…Bible Verses That Help You With ConfusionI will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.Psalm 32:8I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.Isaiah 42:16When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”John 8:12…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid…”John 14:27The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgement: “For who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct him?”1 Corinthians 2:15-16If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.James 1:5Peace Be With YouMichael Patrick David

  4. Is Bible thumping not allowed because of the truths it holds?
    This post sounds like an insipid ranting from some so-called “evolved” college professor.
    I feel we have left our first love.

  5. Right/Left Concervative/Liberal
    An Excerpt from “Nearing Midnight” :

    Loving God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds means choosing what He considers righteous, not what we consider comfortable, expedient, or pleasurable. So, using this template for electing God’s way rather than the humanistic (Satan’s) way, when going into the voting booth, we must look at the issues, candidates, and the political parties with God’s righteous instructions in mind.

    With all of that brought into the picture for the presidential election in which you and I are about to cast our ballots, I remind you that we must look past the humanistic issues. We must go directly to the most important questions involved in this election milieu–God’s priority issues involving His righteousness. No two issues are more prominent in that regard than those that news provocateurs want left out of the mix this election year. These are issues surrounded by God’s righteousness. And, neither Rapture Ready, Todd, nor I, are going to be deterred. Abortion and homosexuality are those two primary issues. God’s Word says that the shedding of the blood of innocents is something He hates. Murdering 50 million babies in the wombs of their mothers is shedding the blood of innocents of the most heinous sort.

    God calls homosexuality an abomination. He hates that lifestyle (not the individuals involved in that lifestyle) so much that He included in His Law for the Jewish people the command that all who participate in that lifestyle be put to death. I didn’t say that those who engage in that lifestyle be put to death; the God of heaven, in His Word, the Bible, said it.

    To the Christian–the person reading this who has been born again into the family of God through the shed blood of Christ (and that’s the only way anyone can come into God’s family), I can tell you upon scriptural authority that you must never support a candidate, nor a political party, that is in favor of abortion in any form, or who supports in any fashion making homosexuality an acceptable human activity in America or anywhere else on the planet.

    Elect God’s way, rather than fallen mankind’s way, when you step into the booth this election season.

    Excerpt from TERRY

    David Michael
    (Beloved Warrior)

  6. Hi Debbie, thanks for reading and being involved in the discussion. Please note that it is not the Bible that is disallowed, but Bible-thumping. Bible-thumping is assertion without evidence. An example would be a person claiming “You must speak in tongues in order to be saved!” followed by a response from someone else who says, “Well, what’s your proof?” to which the first replies, “I don’t need any proof, the Bible says it and that’s all you need.” There are two problems with this Bible-thumping approach. The first is that it assumes that one’s personal intepretation is what the Bible actually teaches(which may or may not be the case) where acceptance of the assertion is demanded simply because the asserter says it should (Argumentum ad verecundium). The second problem, in keeping with the first, is that one simply thinks he can refer to the Bible or quote a verse without discussing it in its proper context, arrogantly assuming that everyone else should be as “clear” as to the “obvious” meaning as he is. Finally, it offers no evidence to support one’s assertion which prohibits dialogue and discussion of the topic (the post by the gentleman above is exhibit A). It is reduced to a “My assertion” vs. “Your assertion” situation which is like two little kids arguing, “I’m right”, “No, I’m right”, “No, I’M right!” and on and on they go. One of the purposes of this site is to know the Bible better so that we can all experience the Jesus that we know and love. It’s not the Bible I have a problem with, but it is the WAY that some people use it, often in an arrogant and condescending manner that does not promote healthy discussion and contemplation. Bible-thumping does not permit critical thinking and often leads to reductive judgments as to another person’s spirituality. I hope this clears up any confusion. Look forward to hearing more from you in the future!

  7. HI Dave – Thanks for posting on the Christian Independent. I appreciate your call for Biblical voting as I believe that a person should vote that way if that is the conviction of his or her conscience. I guess the way I would approach the issue is, “Who’s interpretation should we vote for?” There are some Christians like myself that think abortion is a sin, but another Christian may make an argument that the Scriptures never speak to it directly (debatable, but I will link you to their perspective if you’re interested). I just feel strongly that the founding fathers did not want personal religious convictions of one denomination or religion to be made law over everyone else. Here is a link written by one Christian man that talks about the issue a bit more in depth. Let me know what you think about it and maybe we could make it the subject of another post in the future. Thanks for reading and happy to have you blogging on CI!

  8. I agree with Debi’s comment
    “evolved” college professor,(deceived).

    Beyond any shadow of a doubt, it is the duty and responsibility of every Christian to vote and to vote for leaders who promote Christian principles. God is most certainly in control, but that does not mean we should do nothing to further His will. We are commanded to pray for our leaders in 1 Timothy 2:1-4. In terms of politics and leadership, there is evidence in Scripture that God has been displeased with our choices of leadership at times (Hosea 8:4). The evidence of sin’s grip on this world is everywhere. So much of the suffering on earth is because of godless leadership (Proverbs 28:12). Scripture gives Christians instructions to obey legitimate authority unless it contradicts the Lord’s commands (Acts 5:27-29, Romans 13:1-7). As born again believers, we ought to strive to choose leaders who will be themselves led by our Creator (1 Samuel 12:13-25). Candidates or proposals that violate the Bible’s commands for life, family, marriage, or faith should never be supported (Proverbs 14:34). Christians should vote as led through prayer and study of both God’s Word and the realities of the choices on the ballot.

    Any President that supports abortion, same sex marriage. Should not get the Christian vote. Truly the great falling away is upon us and if vote the wrong one we get what we deserve… Welcome The Reign of Nebuchadrezzar…..

  9. Just a thought to ponder…

    I understand the whole interpretation thing but…lets say I build a car. With that car I give you an owners manual. One chapter of the owners manual is about taking car of the oil, transmission, and all the times or mile markers that you have to bring the car in for tune ups. If you say that I created that chapter to be taken non-literally like some think the book of revelation should be taken….what happens to the car? The engine seizes because someone doesnt take it seriously that you need to change the oil. It could be said that chainging the oil was mis interpreted and shouldnt be taken seriously. Why would the creator of the car make an owners manual that you have no idea how to interpret? If people are not carefull, the car would end up in destruction. The main moral of this is that I think we as Christians need to be carefull about not interpreting the bible for exactly what it says. I dont think an all powerfull God would make following his word this difficult. If so, a lot of people….excpecially babes in Christ are going to be really pissed( excuse the language) excpecially if they dont take “You must be born again” the right way and end up in hell. I think we all need to get face down and pray before we read the bible that the Lord will help all of us in our readings of his truth. Because if you take the truth one way…..someone else takes it the other way….just what exactly is the truth then? What will happen then is knowone will know the truth according to some and we will be confused and robbed of our faith. I am very concerned about this! This was written in my own words and hope this makes alittle sense.

    Your brother in Christ,

  10. Hi Repent, great to have you on the site. You are very articulate in what you write and you represent the conservative side well. Just keep in mind that when you talk about voting in line with the Bible, you are talking about your particular interpretation of it. I don’t want to impose my interpretation of Scripture on anyone else. After all, it was the church that was one of the worst persecutors of people throughout the centuries as they sought to rule the people “biblically.” When one group tries to legalize it’s interpretation of the Bible or any other religion and outlaw others, tyranny is always the result. I respect your position, though I do disagree (and if that makes me “deceived” in your opinion, I respect that too). Thanks for commenting!

  11. Makes great sense Dave, you’re a good writer! It’s an excellent point and I think we should say first that the most important things are clear and if you look at just Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, they pretty much all agree on the main things and even on some things that are not central to the faith. It’s when we start getting into particulars that the divisions become more apparent and when we get into the particulars of the particulars there becomes a huge variation! So what do we do? Well, we reason using the clear things to interpret the more difficult things.

    For starters, Jesus said that He is the truth. He said that He is the way. And He said that He is the life. If I want life, the truth, or the way then I look to Jesus. Since they all sort of touch on your question we can answer some basic questions. If I want to know what true life is, I live selflessly like Jesus. If I want to know the truth about something (e.g. a doctrine) I compare it to the heart of Jesus and ask myself if it’s consistent with his heart to believe “fill in the blank” and if I want to know the way to Heaven then I know that it is Jesus who brings me there. Most things you can run through that “filter” and you’ll arrive at the right answer.

    Concerning your analogy, it’s a good one, but it’s faulty on one part in my opinion. It forgets that the user’s manual was written 2000 years ago to a particular people, at a particular time, with a particular culture, with a particular language – all of which are very foreign to modern 21st Century Americans, and westerners in general. Imagine a person in the year 4008 picking up a manual from a car and trying to figure out what it meant. Should they interpret it’s sayings and meanings in the light of their culture or in the light of ours? I’m sure you will agree they should interpret it in the light of ours because that’s the context in which it was written. Thus, we must do the same. Part of the reason this site exists is to be a place where we can all work together to get at the original meaning the authors sought to convey to the original audience.

    I’m glad you asked this question, because I once struggled with it myself. But I do believe that using the life of Jesus as a starting point is the way to go, followed by checking my belief’s against the early church writings (prior to Augustine would be preferred – although not all of them agreed either – and they were closest to Christ!), and then examining the different perspectives against the necessary background information I alluded to earlier and you will gain confidence that your position on a matter is either closer or farther from the truth. God’s Word is truth, but our interpretation when it comes to things that are not central are just probabilities and must be held with humility (as I’ve been learning ;-).

    You’ve inspired me to write a lengthier post on this in the near future. I will build off of what I said here and will offer specific examples. Lastly, I just want to say regarding finding heaven and the certainty that we can have over that: Jesus says that anyone who comes to Him will for no reason be cast out. “No reason” includes every reason out there. If you want to live in the light of His love, then that relationship through the Holy Spirit is yours freely.

  12. Good topic. Now here where I see an issue.
    Every one has there own interpretation of what the bible says, or what a particular verse is really saying, to the point of using Gods holy word as a license to or justify there sin. They would say I believe in God so I can do what I want. Satan believes in God and look where he is.

    When translating from one language to another, choices must be made. Should it be the more exact word, even if the meaning of that word is unclear to the modern reader? Or should it be a corresponding thought, at the expense of a more literal reading? Most translations of the Bible are done by committee. This helps to guarantee that no individual prejudice or theology will affect the decisions of word choice, etc. Of course, the committee itself may have a particular agenda or bias (such as those producing the current “gender-neutral” mistranslations). But there is still plenty of good scholarship being done, and many good translations are available.

    Does this mean we cannot trust a translation? Again, the answer is no. Through careful study of Scripture, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can properly understand, interpret, and apply Scripture. Again, due to the faithful efforts of dedicated Christian translators (and of course the oversight of the Holy Spirit), the translations available today are superb and trustworthy. The fact that we cannot ascribe inerrancy to a translation should motivate us towards even closer study.

    So we all must get on our faces and ask the LORD to show us guide and guide us, to the truth of what his incorruptible word is saying. And not use his word to justify what we feel is a sin or is not a sin. If God says stealing is a sin, and we take a pen home from work and in turn we say well I just needed it. Doesn’t change the fact you are still sinning. We CAN NOT DISREGUARD A CERTIN SCRIPTURE, because we don’t agree that’s what it is saying to justify any particular sin. Perhaps not the best example, but hope you get the point.

    John 8:32 32
    And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

    A Prayer for all of us.

    Psalm 79:9
    Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge away our sins, for thy name’s sake..

  13. You are very right that some people use the “that’s your interpretation” position to excuse their own sin, but in my mind it is a hasty generalization to say that EVERYONE that holds this line is doing it to excuse their sin. I know many people who believe the opposite: that it’s clear cut, black and white, straightforward, no ambiguity that then use the fact of the Bible being God’s Word like a battering ram against those that believe something different, insisting that if they don’t believe the Bible (which is really just their interpretation of it) that they are somehow sinning and then hide behind the “I’m on the Bible’s side” line to justify their unloving condemnation of those with whom they disagree. Just wanted to point out that “justifying” goes both ways a lot of times, regardless of which position you hold.

    Absolute objectivity as I pointed out in my welcome post is not possible. Many passages and words (especially in Hebrew) have ambiguities of meaning that need not only a translation, but an interpretation. To me, every translation IS an interpretation. Some words from the ancient languages don’t have an English equivalent so the authors need to “sum up” the intended meaning – a perfect example of interpreting. That’s not to say that this is bad, but it’s to alert the reader that anyone who makes the claim that something is mistranslated is not arguing with the Bible, but with the interpretive decisions of the editors. Of course, it’s also up to that same person to make their case. You’re right, there’s a lot of good scholarship out there especially in light of recent discoveries that shed better light on the cultures and context of the Biblical setting. All the more reason why we should check our readings of the Bible against other translations and other people’s views of it in order to collaborate together to come as close to the original meaning as we can. You wrote: “[T]he translations available today are superb and trustworthy. The fact that we cannot ascribe inerrancy to a translation should motivate us towards even closer study.” Well said, my friend.

    You also wrote: “So we all must get on our faces and ask the LORD to show us guide and guide us, to the truth of what his incorruptible word is saying. And not use his word to justify what we feel is a sin or is not a sin. If God says stealing is a sin, and we take a pen home from work and in turn we say well I just needed it. Doesn’t change the fact you are still sinning. We CAN NOT DISREGUARD A CERTIN SCRIPTURE, because we don’t agree that’s what it is saying to justify any particular sin.” A much needed reminder that we need always check our reasoning and motives honestly before God before we come to His Word.

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