What if woke is a post-Christian version of America’s awakenings? That’d tell us a few things.
You’ve likely heard of being woke. It’s social awareness, especially related to social and racial justice (as in, “I’m woke”). Woke was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in June 2017. Today, a growing number of Americans say they’re woke.
But what if woke is a post-Christian version of American Christianity’s awakenings? That’d tell us a few things. For instance, if woke is post-Christian and keeps growing in popularity, it supports the idea that America is increasingly post-Christian.
A second thing: If woke is a post-Christian version of an awakening, will woke see outcomes similar to America’s three awakenings? That’s right—three. The first occurred between 1730 and 1770. Led by George Whitefield, it was a revitalization of American piety. But it quickly deflated. We see this in what happened midway through this awakening.
In the 1730s, Whitefield preached in the Great Hall in Philadelphia that was built for him. By the late 1740s, it had fallen into disuse. Benjamin Franklin bought the hall, and the University of Pennsylvania (America’s first nonsectarian university) opened its doors in 1751.
The next awakening occurred between 1790 and 1840. It too was a revitalization of American piety, this time led by evangelist Charles Finney. But this awakening was different than Whitefield’s. For starters, Finney’s awakenings were rural, Whitefield’s were urban.
These and other differences were obscured as Finney and his followers called their revivals the Second Great Awakening, calling Whitefield’s the First Great Awakening. Finney sought the sort of cultural gravitas that Whitefield enjoyed.
Finney also sought some of Luther’s gravitas. Luther’s followers were first called evangelicals, later Protestants (for protesting Rome’s corruptions). Finney appropriated the term evangelical to his revivals, hoping to get the cultural gravitas that Protestants enjoyed.
Neither worked. The air went our of the second awakening rather quickly, leaving in its wake America’s first religious “nones,” children of parents who came to faith during this awakening. Many of these children embraced positivism as adults. Many had gravitas; they were leaders.
Our third and final revival occurred between 1858 and 1861—the Businessmen’s Awakening. It too was a revitalization of piety. The Civil War flattened it. The inefficacy of its piety is evident in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Both sides in the conflict “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
So why did the air go out so quickly in all three awakening? Bike owners know. If the bike tire’s losing air, first fix the flat. Then reinflate. Our three awakenings quickly deflated because American Christianity kept trying to reinflate a leaking tire instead of first fixing it.
Leaking tire? And what would a fix look like? It starts with recognizing how American Christianity is an “aberration, not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition.” Its gospel is more about managing our sin problem than God seeking to “marry” us. The result is, once you’re saved, you’re set. The sin management gospel yields a narrow focus on individual conversion that often lacks a wider social awareness.
If you doubt it, look at our awakenings. Whitefield owned slaves. Finney was against slavery, but the racial divide between white and black churches widened during his awakening. The third awakening focused almost entirely on prayer, making little impact on racial divisions.
Fixing the flat also requires returning to “thick” liturgies where the goal is to orient the Bride, the church, toward her Bridegroom, Jesus. Hence, she prays her liturgy ad orientem (toward the east / the rising of the sun), for “the sun comes forth like a bridegroom from his chamber” (Ps.19:5-7). This awakens the Bride, orienting her toward the coming of her Groom and setting her in procession to meet him.
We hear this in the doxology. Most folks know the final verses: “Praise God, from whom all blessing flow; Praise Him all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” But the first verses read: “Awake my soul, and with the sun, they daily stage of duty run; shake off dull sloth, and early rise, to pay thy morning sacrifice.” Next verse: “Lord, I my vows to Thee renew.” Couples routinely renew vows.
My hunch is the loss of the marital gospel in part explains the rise of woke. The entirety of the human race is fallen, but the entire image of God isn’t erased in the human race. It still longs to be awakened to the Bridegroom. If we first fixed the flat, we could reorient being woke to being awakened to God “marrying” us. That’d be wonder-full.
 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, 18-20.