Cosy bedfellows: Bultmann and Evangelicalism
Poor old Rudolf has often been labelled the liberal 'bad guy' by Evangelicals - most of the time, I suspect, by people who have never read him. And while I hate to admit this in the presence of Jim West, I have come to learn that a teaspoon of Bultmann's work is far more profound than buckets of much modern scholarship. This is not intellectual snobbery on my part – just read his work and you'll see! He's still the beast of Revelation, of course. I proved that ages ago.
But as an evangelical, surrounded by Evangelicals, I have noticed something rather odd that I wanted to share. It began when I read something in one of Tom Wright's (peace be upon him) books. I think it was The New Testament and the People of God, and he argued something to the effect that evangelical and existentialist hermeneutics are very similar. 'Strange bedfellows indeed', Wright remarked. The more I have considered this, the more sense it makes. Bultmann's existentialism finds confused yet striking echo in the Evangelical treatment of scripture that tends to think every verse of the bible must be relevant to me right now and how I live and feel in my private world today.
For example, I was recently in an Evangelical meeting that was discussing Isaiah 43:19: 'I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?'. The discussion proceeded to 'apply' the text in a rather direct existential manner, to the effect that one needs to now look and see what God is doing new in our lives. Passage discussed.
While I don't see any harm in this procedure in and of itself, when it is the only way people read are taught to the bible, we have a problem. It is simply the sickly ahistorical, anti-intellectual, pragmatic, and individualistic Zeitgeist reading the bible through the eyes of popular Evangelicalism.
Bultmann isn't simply the same as all this, of course, but it is this individualism (think of Käsemann's critique of Bultmann) and ahistoricism that one finds in his work, where 'significance' is pushed into the perpetual advent of the (ahistorical) eschatological, as David Bentley Hart puts it in his hilarious rhetorical scolding of Bultmann's project (cf. The Beauty of the Infinite). The inability of many Evangelicals to think beyond the 'how does this apply to me now' to consider the larger biblical narratives, and their significance, and how these are rethought and reflected in the canon and in church history, is a crippling and tragic weakness in popular Evangelicalism.
But it also occurred to me that it is this existential and ahistorical, pragmatic 'rushing to relevance' that gives Evangelicalism some of its appeal, especially to those who have grown in other more traditional denominations. All of a sudden, it is as if the bible becomes more real, more personal – i.e. it is read with something of Bultmann's hermeneutic – under the guise of Evangelical orthodoxy.
My proposal, then: It is the same spirit that animated Bultmann, albeit poured into a different mould, that gives Evangelicalism part of its glimmer of appeal.