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Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power

by David Harrington Watt

Buy the book: David Harrington Watt. Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power

Release Date: February, 2002

Edition: Hardcover


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Buy the book: David Harrington Watt. Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power

The Power and the Glory

In the book's introductory chapter, David Watt explains that his interest in examining evangelical authority stems from his own upbringing as a conservative Baptist. Like many young evangelicals, however, he began to question the strictures of evangelical orthodoxy and orthopraxy in college and has since joined the Episcopalian church (also like many young educated evangelicals). Lately there have been a number of books by disaffected or former evangelical Protestants that examine their old subcultures. Randall Balmer's output, for example, has almost exclusively dealt with this issue. Watt joins the chorus of evangelical dissidents and exiles who, with what they believe is an insider's perspective, want to take a fair-minded look at the kinds of churches they grew up in. Watt's unique contribution to this burgeoning sub-genre is an examination of how power is exercised in churches. Many of the studies done on evangelicalism focus on its language, mores, beliefs, or political strategies, and this book is a refreshing change from those now well-traveled subjects.

Watt looks at three churches: Oak Grove Church, Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, and Philadelphia (International) Church of Christ. The first is a fairly typical middle to upper-middle class evangelical megachurch, the second is a small, politically liberal and pacifist urban congregation, and the third is a branch church of a sect that many other evangelicals consider "cultish" or heretical. The most interesting things that Watt notices about Oak Grove is the unusual amount of respect given to people involved in business or some other capitalist enterprise, and the near-total power of the senior minister at church administration meetings. In this conservative church, submission to authority--to a husband, or the pastor's, or the free-market system--was routinely emphasized. Watt, now a liberal, is critical of these tendencies, which are actually tendencies found in much of the Religious Right (Pat Robertson is known for linking the Kingdom of God itself with capitalism). He talks much about "asymmetrical" power relationships that he disapproves of; he compares it to the democratic, congregational style of decision making and culture in the Baptist churches of his youth. In some ways his objection is puzzling. Certainly one of the dangers is that an all-powerful single leader, like a pastor, can become a dictator, but there are no indications in the book that this is actually so. Moreover, he is now part of a church that has a very hierarichal structure, the Episcopalian church (though it does take stances a liberal would be more amenable to). However, his critique of the church's swallowing of capitalist ideology is more astute, and is a telling aspect of a much-overlooked aspect of evangelical compromise with the larger culture that it so opposes on other points.

The Mennonite fellowship is in many ways an anomaly in the landscape of American evangelicalism, a representative of the small "Evangelical Left" that is led by Jim Wallis and Sojourners Magazine. It is pacifist, quite explicitly opposed to the consumerist/ capitalist economic structure, and fairly egalitarian in church structure. It was also located in the heart of a fairly poor urban neighborhood, and many of its members had deliberately chosen to work in the church rather than take on more lucrative careers. Watt had clear admiration for this church's countercultural nature, and for its lively Bible studies in which the members showed a surprisingly high amount of scholarly knowledge. In many ways, I too see this church as a kind of model, as it is clearly trying to encourage its members to follow Jesus in a costly way and is politically and socially active without losing its spiritual focus. One suspects, though, that Watt's assessment was more lax because the church's lefty political stances are closer to his than Oak Grove's. Nevertheless, the willingness of the members to give generously while under fairly limited financial means, their willingness to regularly serve the neighborhood they are in, and their voluntary poverty are attractive.

The most interesting portrait was that of the Church of Christ. The International Church of Christ practices an unusually authoritarian, intense form of faith that many Christians see as cultish. They believe, for example, that the intense form of evangelism they engage in is required for salvation, that only people baptized in their church are saved, and that all Church of Christ members must submit to a "discipler" that can sometimes control even the most minute aspects of the discple's life. Watt, a newcomer, has some admiration for the members of this church. He is awestruck by members' dedication and financial generosity, and he enjoys their vibrant worship services. They also maintain enough cultural independence to be critical of many of the structures of modern American life, unlike the Oak Grove congregation. Nevertheless, the near-absolute power of disciplers, the settled conviction of the members that their way of reading the Bible was the only way, and their constant efforts to proselytize him earn Watt's criticism. One can see how these kind of power structures can lead to abuse, no matter how orthodox or heterodox the theology. I myself was actually raised in the mainstream part of the Church of Christ, which theologically could be described as fundamentalist, but I never experienced anything like what Watt describes in the portrait. All in all, we might be able to learn from their zeal. But not their need for domination and control.

Christians worship a God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, voluntarily laid aside his power, even unto death on a cross. Through this renunciation came the true power to overcome death and win salvation. This should be the paradigm for all churches, but in real life, the actual running of congregations is a more complex matter. To exercise authority with a servant attitude, as evangelicals say, is a fairly delicate matter. Watt's examination is an instructive set of portraits about how different kinds of evangelicals deal with the issue, even if his portrait is somewhat biased by his political commitments.

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How like and unlike we are

David Harrington Watt takes a sympathetic, personal and critical view of three different churches in the metropolitan Philadelphia area. His look at a small fundamentalist church, a grassroots urban Mennonite congregation, and a market-driven "megachurch" illustrate the very different ways that Christians see their mission in the world and their relations to social, political, and economic structures. Watt reveals parts of his personality and his emotional reactions to what goes on in each church, but he also carefully analyzes the power structures, ethnic diversity, and gender roles in each congregation in an astute yet easily readable way. A must read for anyone wanting to get personal glimpses of the vast array of people seeking to be true to the Bible in very different ways.

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