The king is dead; long live the King

The king is dead, and not only is there no heir apparent, we don't even have anything remotely resembling a plan of succession.

In the history of human society, this is normally a very bad situation for a group of people to find themselves in. It's why kings have historically been anxious to make sure they have heirs and spares, because having no one clearly in charge creates an opportunity for chaos, division, and war. It's why universities and churches and corporations so often end up with presidents/pastors/CEOs with the same name as the founder, only with a "III" or "IV" tacked on the end. It's why George Washington deciding not to run for re-election a second time was such a freaking big deal. Everybody dies; it's the one thing you can count on; so to know that it's coming and not plan for it is just sloppy leadership.

But when your leader is not the leader of an institution with a formal structure, but of an amorphous movement, a loose coalition of like-minded people and groups with no clear boundaries and an ever-shifting center, it's not like there's a mechanism to identify a spiritual heir who can claim the mantle that was bestowed by a unique combination of gifting, stewardship, networking, decades of discipline, and being in the right place at the right time. Any attempt to coronate a successor without the consensus of the movement is doomed to fail, and the movement is incapable of consensus. So we have no king, and we will probably never get another one. Grant Wacker masterfully captured this reality when he answered NPR's question about whether there will ever be another Billy Graham by quoting evangelicalism's other patron saint, C.S. Lewis: "The one prayer God never answers is, Encore."

As I've observed the current crisis of evangelical identity, I've been ruing the vacuum of leadership in American neo-evangelicalism in the decade-plus since Billy's retirement from public life. The names who are now commonly cited in the media as evangelical leaders are far lesser men whose pronouncements are more likely to elicit cringing or cries of protest from me than followership. The names who come to mind as the ones I now look to for leadership of the evangelical movement are, often as not, people who have chosen to distance themselves from the label "evangelical," concluding that it's become too polluted with political baggage to be a useful self-description in the public square. Another apt line sometimes attributed to Wacker, sometimes to George Marsden: "An evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham." Without that unifying figure, the movement that he was instrumental in founding and forming is adrift. It's been this way for a while; his death just makes it complete and final.

I'm only now realizing that as long as Billy was alive, there was a little part of me that hoped that, even if he never again made a public appearance or met one on one with a president, he might still knock some sense into Franklin, might still remind the purported "leaders" of evangelicalism what a horrible idea it is to get too closely involved with a morally bankrupt politician, might still exercise some sort of high priestly office over the evangelical movement that that he was destined to soon leave on our own. We weren't really without a king as long as he drew breath. We could still think fondly of Billy, and honor him and his legacy, and stay in denial about the future of the movement by cultivating warm feelings about its past.

Then Billy died, and Christianity Today hit "PUBLISH" on the special obituary edition that it's had in the works for a couple of decades, and pundits started contesting his legacy almost instantaneously, and there's no going back. The young adults who know not Billy will never have the opportunity to know who he is, only who he was. And the evangelical movement will have maybe a few lingering weeks of being "people who like Billy Graham," but then we're going to have to find another way to define ourselves.

And this beckons a couple of questions: (1) Can American neo-evangelicalism as we know it survive without a figurehead like Billy Graham? and (2) If not, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Probably not. And probably not.

"As we know it" are of course the key wiggle-words in Question 1. Of course evangelicalism will look different when it's not organized around whether you (or your grandma) like Billy Graham. And that's surely for the better in the grand scheme of things -- for all the good Billy brought to a movement of otherwise-fundamentalists, it's not healthy for a religious movement to be so identified with its prophet that it loses focus on its God. Still, the question remains, can American evangelicalism continue as a recognizable thing anymore (if it's even recognizable now!), or is it going to be reabsorbed into fundamentalism while the theological moderates who used to call ourselves evangelicals find new homes in other traditions and decide it's no longer worth the effort to cultivate the pandenominational identity that we once upon a time found so essential to distinguish ourselves from the liberals/mainliners that we used to think of as the enemy but now recognize as near-kin? (Yes, I know that sentence was way too long. But it's my blog, and I'll indulge in Pauline syntax if I want to.)

I don't know. But I realize I don't need to know. Human institutions don't last forever. Maybe neo-evangelicalism was a movement that the American church needed in the mid-20th century, but it needs something else for the 21st. The evangel doesn't depend on evangelicalism in order to survive. "Evangelicalism" has been, for most of my life, a comfortable shorthand for describing what kind of Jesus-follower I happen to be. But my loyalty is not to a sociological category, it's to a Person -- and not Billy Graham, but the Savior he spent his career proclaiming.

A recurring theme in the Bible is that God's people keep clamoring for a king, no matter how many times he tells them that he alone is to be their Sovereign.

"Give us a king! It's scary and uncertain without one!" They demand, again and again.

"Trust me on this," God answers. "You wouldn't like having a king. Kings will always end up abusing their power. You don't need any king but me."

"No, really!" God's people say. "We know what we're asking for. We'll be good subjects. Give us a king!"

"Okay," God finally answers. "But don't say I didn't warn you..."

And they get their king, and everything goes to hell, just like God said it would.

Evangelicals are my tribe, and I confess that I'm nervous about our future without an earthly king. Of course, evangelicals are just the kind of people to loudly insist that WE HAVE NO KING BUT JESUS, even as we're staking our identity on our favorite charismatic leader of the hour. We have just as much trouble as the ancient Israelites really trusting in a king we cannot see.

We may be in for a bumpy ride. We may find our hopes and plans dashed when we put our trust in leaders who lead us astray. We may fracture into a million little sects, each following our own favorite little leader. We may cease to be a recognizable people, and have to find new homes and new descriptions for ourselves as we try in new contexts to do the work that we believe we were once called to do as part of a movement called "evangelical."

But whatever happens, we do in fact have a King whose Kingdom endures when our own institutions and movements do not. We have a King who will not die, because our King has already conquered death. We have a King who will not abandon us, even if we get obsessed with our little power struggles and forget to seek first his Kingdom. And so we can endure uncertainty, because the King reigns.

The king is dead. Long live the King.


Unknown said...

Well done. Thanks, Rachel! I share your thoughts, but lack the time and mindfulness to put them into words as masterfully as this post.

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