Listening as the Practice of Rationality
The centrality of rationality at St John's was brought home to me in my first meeting with David, when he recommended I read Stark and Finke's Acts of Faith (2000) which, in his words, posits faith as 'entirely rational'. This emphasis on rationality meant listening was understood as a process through which the listener is able to evaluate the preacher's interpretation of the Bible and look for 'evidence' in the text of the Bible to support their views. Freddie told me that the ministers 'try and show our working [in sermons] enough to enable someone to evaluate whether they agree with what's said in the pulpit, but also to enable them to think, "I can apply that working method myself"'. As many members of St John's work in highly rationalized professions, it is not surprising that this shapes interactions in church. In the Bible study group I observed, members' professions were in law, financial services, teaching and medicine. When I asked Alistair, one of the group's leaders and himself a lawyer, why there were so many lawyers at St John's, he said he thought there was a homology between law and Protestantism, pointing out that Martin Luther had studied law before becoming a monk, and that Calvin had been a lawyer. 'So what do you think the similarities are?' I asked. 'Words', he replied, 'words, structure, analysis ... And also evidence'. He said he liked evidence, the tradition of British empiricism, and for things to be rational.
This privileging of rationality is a prominent marker of not only St John's, but also other large conservative evangelical churches, bound up with the social class background of this movement in Britain. As David said in one sermon, 'many of us are Stoics by upbringing ... stiff upper-lipped'. The formation of this culture is bound up with the male, public-school habitus of twentieth-century British evangelical leaders and the historical privileging of evangelism at public schools, leading to a privileging of reason over emotion (Ward 1997: 40), and some members of St John's linked this culture with the church's male leadership. A retired man I interviewed said he'd left his previous church because a new minister had taken the church in a direction with 'too much emphasis on the charismatic, and other social nonsense'. I asked what he meant. He replied that there used to be children allowed in throughout the service, because the mothers complained they would miss the sermon if they took them out, 'but of course, they couldn't hear it anyway, and neither could anyone else'. He said that at St John's, 'there is a tight male grip', which means that 'there is much more discipline in these areas'.
The intellectualized culture of listening at St John's requires high levels of literacy to participate, and this shapes how individuals characterize the church's culture. Alistair asked the Bible study group one evening how they'd describe St John's to their friends. Philip, another group leader, replied, 'We might talk about the excellent, intellectual preaching'.
'The witty illustrations', Alan, a group member added.
'The intellectual, clear rational and witty sermons', Alistair summarized. 'Anything else?'
'The smoked salmon sandwiches?' Lorna, another member, added, partly joking - she'd brought smoked salmon sandwiches to celebrate the end of term.
This emphasis St John's places on rationality is also linked with wider perceptions of evangelicalism as irrational and anti-intellectual (Noll 1994). Yet the roots of this emphasis on rational listening run deeper than this and are interrelated with a desire for a certain kind of 'public' culture. David expressed a sense of connection between rational listening and public life in a sermon in which he discussed how the church staff had read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) over the summer:
Postman's thesis was that with the arrival of television, methods of communication have changed radically. He suggests that we have entered a world - this is 1985, remember - where instant rather than permanent, impression rather than reason, entertainment rather than serious discourse are the norm. As you read the book . surely we have to say that Postman's thesis was right, that . we've entered a world of soundbite and spin, where politicians appear to be elected at least in part on looks and media appeal, newscasters are employed on the basis of their ability to look good in front of the camera, and where celebrity culture has taken over from an age of carefully reasoned, sustained logic in our public discourse.
David argued that this has led to evangelical celebrity preachers whose 'teaching style is anecdotal, short on substance, light on logic, full of self-referencing stories that puff up the preacher, that do little to instruct the listener'.
David argued that as the Corinthian church St Paul was addressing had been open to 'false teaching' by being impressed by 'worldly preachers', so Christians today are also 'wide open to false teaching' because of the cult of the 'celebrity preacher'. He described 'authentic Christian ministry' as characterized by 'failure', 'weakness' and 'frailty', and said:
It's never nice to look around at other ministries, but Paul does ... Some of you will have come across, for example, Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now, that has sold millions of copies around the world. Or here in London, Hillsong. There's no doubt that their message is different to the authentic message of the New Testament. You will not hear cross-shaped living: 'if any man would come after me, let him . deny self'. You will hear: 'your best life now'. But because this is presented in a style that is so deeply attractive and deliberately apes the celebrity culture of our age, hundreds, thousands of people have been taken in by it.
David's idealization of a rational public culture does not, however, straightforwardly reflect a 'modern' norm of autonomy. It is bound up in a conviction in both God's authoritative speaking in scripture and people's ability to use reason as they listen to discern 'authentic' Christian teaching.
Postman's book idealizes nineteenth-century public culture in the United States, in which audiences had the capacity to concentrate on political speeches lasting a couple of hours. David's desire for 'reasoned' public listening and discourse similarly expresses dissatisfaction with the perceived triviality of contemporary public discourse and suggests a desire for forms of 'rational' public debate on 'non-trivial' issues in which religious voices resonate. In a sermon on secularism, David described the British public sphere as shaped by 'secularist fundamentalists' who 'ban[ned] from the public sphere the possibility of discussing and openly criticizing and weighing and condemning the relative value and truth claims and moral values as to what is good and bad in the different religions and no religion'.
David's words, like Postman's, describe individuals' modes of listening as themselves affected by broader cultural shifts and new technologies. When I interviewed Mark, the church's head of media, he said it was important to be aware of how the media affects people's ability to listen. He said the church needs 'to reverse the trend of short attention spans. We need to educate people to listen, because the Christian message is a coherent message ... The Bible -particularly the letters of Paul - is full of arguments, and you've got to learn to be able to follow an argument, and to think, and that is increasingly countercultural . [T]he core business of what we're doing is getting people to listen very carefully'. He gave me a paper he'd written for church leaders addressing how modern media 'affect our culture and particularly how they impact/should shape our preaching'. He wrote:
Ease and speed of communication means recipients are potentially bombarded at all times of day and night by incoming information, mostly trivial. In the absence of sufficient self-discipline, recipients are easily and frequently distracted by incoming data ... The tendency towards shorter attention spans, caused by the 24/7 bombardment, undermines people's capacity to think critically and coherently and to follow reasoned argument.
Mark argued that whilst new media should be used to 'maximize scale of distribution through social networking sites etc.', the church should help train attentiveness:
If people have difficulty concentrating during a sermon, they need to develop the discipline and faculty of listening. Talk outlines (and notetaking) can help, but the sermon should still be able to function without these aids . If people cannot concentrate on a sermon, how will they be able to concentrate on reading the Bible for themselves ? It is important to develop these skills rather than find a substitute genre . It is the duty of the Church to encourage concentration and the appreciation of sustained argument, so that believers can benefit from sermons and personal Bible study. Just as the Reformation caused a huge growth in literacy in the past in the places they touched . so too today's Church needs to counteract the short attention spans of the Internet age and foster an abiding appreciation of the written and spoken word of God.
Some individuals at St John's were however critical of this privileging of rationality. Hannah, who'd been at St John's for over 20 years, expressed a sense that through her time there, she had lost an emotional intimacy in her relationship with God. She said, 'I think sometimes we are too rational, and not emotional enough . I wouldn't ever want to take away from the rational side of [St John's], but sometimes I think we perhaps don't allow ourselves to love God enough', and John, who'd previously attended a charismatic church said he found services at St John's 'quite dry ... it's all stand up, sit down, hands in pockets'. In Bible study groups, individuals sometimes opened meetings by praying that the study 'would not just be intellectual, but Lord, that you would change our hearts and lives by your Word'. Thus despite the focus on rationality, individuals desire an experience of God that is both intellectual/rational and emotional/intimate.
A complex picture of evangelical subjectivity emerges from these practices of internalizing sacred language, rational listening, and desire for intimate relationship with God. Although this emphasis on reason might appear in line with modern autonomy, this is bound together with the impulse to 'deny the self' in attending to God as other. Members of St John's form themselves as listeners through techniques of making the Bible's words their own. Although this is presented in terms of a self-discipline, this is bound up with the ideal of subjection to the Word whom members of the church hold, as one of the ministers, described, as 'total wisdom and total authority', anchoring meaning and identity. Although human agency is implied in the valuing of rationality, this is held together with a critique of autonomy, for example when David said that 'what stops people accepting God is that they don't want to submit to Him. When it comes down to it, they don't want someone else deciding how they should live, their autonomy is too important to them ... This is what we call sin'.
Members of St John's are therefore 'un-modern' in the sense of being marked by their relation to the spoken Word they strive to heed. Although there is a sense of individual agency implied in their work to form themselves as listeners, this listening also reveals a desire to direct attention towards something that transcends the self, whose address, asking for their response, simultaneously individuates them. Jonathan, a young graduate I interviewed, criticized charismatic evangelical songs because they 'make the focus the individual much more than God and who He is, what He's done for us, who we are in the light of Him'. The body pedagogic means of incorporation into the church is thus both a form of communion with others whilst also sowing the 'seeds of individualism' as their individual bodies become vessels of redemption through receiving and internalizing Jesus's words (Mellor and Shilling 2010: 32). This creates a sense of separation from those outside the church and connection with others in the church, whilst indexing the inter- and intrasubjectivity of the evangelical in relation to God, who is felt as both Other and experienced within the self, shaping a notion of agency in which the Christian is always understood as participating in what transcends any notion of self. As Robert Orsi describes religions as practices of 'concretizing the order of the universe, the nature of human life and its destiny, and the various dimensions and possibilities of human interiority itself' (2005: 73), so the concerns articulated at St John's about the agency of God, objects, society and themselves in relation to listening can be seen as a means of expressing irreducible interconnections between self and other, agency and subjection, and experiences of power and powerlessness, drawing into question modern ideas of self-sufficiency.