In the mid-500s, missionaries from Ireland boarded small boats and began to come ashore in Britain and Europe. The once great Roman Empire had long ago gone dark. The great texts of classical Western civilization had largely been destroyed by the hordes of barbarians that had breached Rome’s borders. It was left to the Irish, in a story too few of us know, to “save civilization.”1 This story might be repeating itself in America. There’s a new flotilla of Christ followers coming ashore.
For almost a hundred years, the great texts of Plato, Thucydides and the Bible survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast. St. Patrick had introduced the gospel to Ireland years before. And the Irish had enthusiastically embraced the good news. Irish monks became zealous scribes of not only the Scriptures but of other classical texts that were at risk of being lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. Irish missionaries then scooped up these sacred texts and set sail to turn the lights back on in Britain and Europe.
A similar situation exists today in North America. We have a rich religious heritage that had largely gone dark over the last 100 years. At least in the Monday-Friday world. Yet there appears to be an invigorated breed of evangelicals emerging. And just as too few know how the Irish saved civilization, even fewer probably recognize the emerging influence of these evangelicals. It’s a story worth knowing. And it’s told in Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite by D. Michael Lindsay. Summarizing interviews with 360 evangelical leaders and extensive research, Lindsay shows how evangelicals are coming ashore and influencing the spheres of power in American public life: political, intellectual, cultural and economic.
Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University who has previously worked with pollster George Gallup Jr. He traces how over the past two decades evangelicals have moved into positions of great influence and might be coming to a “clarifying moment.”2 Will evangelicals “move the dial,” as Lindsay puts it, or squander the gains of the last twenty years? No one has a crystal ball, but some of the trends are encouraging.
Consider education and the life of the mind. Lindsay cites the establishment of the Evangelical Scholars Initiative that is bringing together evangelical and Catholic academics.3 He notes the popular success of Armand Nicholi’s course on Freud and C.S. Lewis at Harvard University. Begun in 1967, the course is one of the most popular offerings at Harvard. Socrates in the City is another venue that is establishing a beachhead in New York City. Taking to heart Socrates’ maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Lindsay describes this open forum that appeals to “urban, savvy, bright” professionals who are “open to thinking about the bigger questions in life” and is led by “a new species of evangelicals.”4
Consider the arts and our imagination. Lindsay tells of the work of Erik Lokkesmoe, the founder of Brewing Culture, an evangelical group that supports the arts. Lokkesmoe describes most of the art produced by the evangelical subculture as “soggy.”5 He writes: “Do we really want art that never challenges our convictions, wrestles with our beliefs, or questions our faith? Let’s not forget: beauty is hardly safe, truth is never tame, goodness is anything but trite.” Whew. We could spend hours unpacking that. Or we could visit
www.iamny.org and appreciate what New York City visual artist Makato Fujimara is doing. After graduating from Bucknell University, Makato returned to Japan to learn the traditional Japanese art of Nihonga. Fujimara pulverizes minerals like azurite and malachite, mixes the pigments with water and glue, and then applies it to handmade paper. The results are dazzling. Makato recently finished an artistic rendition of the “four-chapter” gospel for a corporate headquarters in the Midwest.
Speaking of business, Lindsay surveys the broad and varied expressions of Christianity in the workplace. We read about the typical struggles of expressing faith in a compelling yet not coercive manner. Leaders like John Sage, formerly with Microsoft and now the head of Pura Vida, acknowledges that he “doesn’t know what to do” with employees who say the firm’s explicitly evangelical ethos “makes them feel a little weird.”6 It reminded me of what Augustine said: the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly. I’m convinced the key to connecting Sunday to Monday is reframing the imagination first. This turns ancient truths into appealing ones and takes colleagues by surprise.
The Irish might have saved civilization, but they lost much of their own when Viking invaders later ravaged the peaceful world of post-Patrick Ireland. Cultural gains have to be ordered and sustained – but that’s grist for another mill. The good news is that the evangelicals are coming ashore and beachheads are being established in the political, intellectual, cultural and economic spheres. Michael Lindsay helps us see where evangelicals are beginning to play a larger role in renewing American public life.
1 All of this is wonderfully told in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall or Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Doubleday: New York, 1995)
2 D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2007), p.80
3 Ibid, p.99
4 Ibid, p.103
5 Ibid, p.124
6 Ibid, p.184