Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016
978-0-520-28633-7

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of grey.ch-under-covers

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.

Evangelicalism and the Church of England: a review

It’s very good to see on the Fulcrum site an extended review article of Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, and featuring an article of mine on Michael Ramsey. The reviewer, Andrew Goddard, has some very kind things to say about that piece, which I reproduce below. (There’s an extended summary of the article here.)
Maiden Atherstone - cover
“Evangelicals in the Church of England are often remarkably confused and ignorant about their recent past. The wider church knows even less about who we are and where we come from as evangelicals despite our growing significance at every level of the church. Often as evangelicals we tell each other a story which fits our particular form of evangelicalism and fails to recognize the complexity and diversity. This volume, the fruit of a conference at Wycliffe Hall, is a wonderful (if sadly expensive) resource which ably rectifies such failings. After a fascinating introductory essay by the editors it presents ten papers from scholarly experts who both distil their previous work and offer new insights and material.
[…]
“Peter Webster focusses on the varied evangelical responses to Michael Ramsey, on whose archepiscopate he has recently published a significant study. One of his most interesting arguments is to challenge “a common conservative evangelical self-image, of a remnant in a hostile church which sought systematically to exclude them, with little alternative than to contend vigorously for truth” (182). In reading this chapter it was impossible not to think of what had changed and what was similar roughly forty years later in evangelical responses to an Archbishop very similar to Ramsey – Rowan Williams – and what lessons we still need to learn as evangelicals in relation to non-evangelical bishops and Archbishops.
[…]
“A constant theme [of the whole volume] is the diversity and sometimes consequent divisions and tensions among self-identified evangelicals revealing a history where “the ability of evangelicals to co-exist should not be overstated, but neither should it be overlooked” (38). Its various accounts raise the question as to whether we need to escape the myth of a golden age where we were all in broad agreement with one another (with the supposedly crucial role of John Stott in securing this consensus) and instead learn the importance of recognizing that last century there were a number of leading evangelical figures (most of them now forgotten to us) and various places of meeting across different groupings that now need to be re-created in order to share in fellowship, discussion and discernment.

“We will undoubtedly face the future better as evangelicals in the Church of England if we know our past – including our recent past – better and so overcome ignorance and misleading, sometimes polemical and self-justifying, narratives. This collection of papers is an indispensable guide which enables us to do just that.

Selling Billy Graham

BillyGraham-Haringey-recto

‘While he’s at Wembley you can read Billy Graham every day in “The Star”. Buy “The Star” outside the stadium on your way home tonight.’

A curious discovery, attached to the inside front page of my copy of Frank Colquhoun’s account of Graham’s 1954 Greater London Crusade, Harringay Story. This postcard was evidently being distributed outside Wembley Stadium during the the climactic evening of Graham’s twelve-week campaign in London on 22 May while, inside, Graham preached to some 120,000 people, including 20,000 standing on the pitch itself.

BillyGraham-Haringey-verso

It’s interesting for the evident emphasis on Graham himself as a figure, whose looks were often likened (positively or negatively) to those of a film star. (See this post on Graham as “Salvation Army plus sex”)

It’s also interesting to see a kind of religious marketing that would have been new to most British people at this time, but which was a standard feature of Billy Graham Evangelistic Organisation campaigns. The significance of the success of the marketing for the 1954 crusade was not lost on the British churches, although it was some time before anything was attempted on the same scale. In both aspects, Graham’s methods were often seen as ‘too American’ to be fully embraced in the British context.

Reading creationism in the web archive

In recent years, anti-evolutionist thinking has attracted some attention in the news, mostly because of the role of some Christian free schools in teaching anti-evolutionist ideas alongside or in place of evolution. Anti-evolutionist ideas are however by no means new, and have been a durable minority view in some of the churches, picking up speed from the 1960s onwards. (Although the term ‘creationism’ is colloquially used to cover all the particular variants of this thinking, I use the more general term ‘anti-evolutionist’ here.)

It is not always easy to gauge the strength of the movement, but the archived UK web allows a new angle of view on the question. In theory, the web allows minority views to flourish in proportion with their intrinsic attractiveness and plausibility, no longer constrained by the high barriers to entry to traditional publishing. And in the absence of publicly available web usage statistics for the main sites, it is possible to analyse the structure of links to these sites as a proxy measure of attention (both positive and negative.)

Using the Host Link Graph dataset, available from the British Library, I extracted all the unique hosts that had been found linking to any one of four prominent anti-evolutionist sites at any point between 1996 and 2010. Then, using both the live web and of the Internet Archive’s interface at http://archive.org, I examined each host in order to categorise it, which I was able to do for 91% of the results. One immediate point to note is precisely how many “false” results there are. A large proportion of the hosts (34%) are categorised as Other, most of which were links associated with search engine and other directory-type sites, rather than from any host representing an autonomous actor in the field. Excluding these as well, the analysis of the remainder is shown below:

anti-evolutionists

Of the remainder, 39% are the sites of individual congregations. A full analysis of these sites (39 in total) is yet to be done, but the majority are independent evangelical churches, with a handful of Baptist churches. They include very few indeed from Anglican, Roman Catholic or Methodist congregations. Given that at the time of writing the Evangelical Alliance has a membership of 3,500 individual congregations, the magnitude of these numbers suggests that anti-evolutionism is a minority view even amongst evangelical churches.

As might be expected, a significant proportion (17%) are other anti-evolutionist sites; a later post will explore the nature of this particular network. Interestingly, few inbound links are from secularist organisations, other than the British Centre for Science Education which exists to document (and counter) creationist ideas. Once data is available for the period after 2010, it may be that this interest grows as the schools controversy mounts. There are also very few links in from the mainstream media, which might also be expected to grow after 2010.

A complaint often heard from anti-evolutionists is that the scientific “establishment” does not engage with the critique of evolution which is being offered. That claim would seem to be confirmed here, as both the proportion and absolute number of inbound links from academic domains are also very small.

In sum, this data would suggest that between 1996 and 2010, British creationism was talking largely to itself, and was mostly ignored by academia, the media and most of the churches.

Data
You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space as, when unzipped, the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop of Canterbury’s site.

Assumptions

(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to these sites than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.

(iii) that my sample of four target sites was reasonably representative of the movement as a whole. It is therefore possible that the profile of inbound links is very different for another hosts of the same type.

(iv) the analysis does not include cases where a site moved from one host to another during the time period. The host URLs used are those in current use, and so if another host linked to a previous host and that link was not subsequently updated, then that linkage will not be recorded in this data.

(iv) that the inconsistency in deduplication at the British Library noted here does not affect this analysis.

Michael Ramsey and Anglican evangelicals: new article

The pleasure of picking a new book up off the doormat never seems to diminish, and so it is with this new book on Anglican evangelicalism in the twentieth century, in which I have a chapter on Michael Ramsey and evangelicals in the Church of England. The chapter isn’t available Open Access anywhere, for various reasons, (although I’d be happy to share the PDF offline) and so here’s a summary of my argument, which runs as follows:Maiden Atherstone - cover

(i) that although Ramsey was no evangelical, his time as archbishop was also a crucial period of transition in evangelicals’ view of themselves and of how they should relate to the wider church;

(ii) that Ramsey has too often been assumed to have either indifferent or actively hostile to evangelical concerns, mainly because of a reputation fostered by one episode, the “fundamentalism controversy” of the mid-1950s;

(iii) that this understanding of Ramsey was a product of a wider relationship of tension between evangelicals and the wider church, a story which has since been told in terms of dogged evangelical persistence in the face of calculated marginalisation from the hierarchy;

(iv) that despite all this, Ramsey in fact enjoyed good working relationships and indeed friendships with many within the liberal or centrist parts of the evangelical constituency, including men such as Max Warren;

(v) that early contact with conservative evangelicals was tentative, but that there was a marked change in atmosphere after the safe passage through Parliament of the Vesture of Ministers Measure in 1964 (of which more here);

(vi) that despite evangelical wariness of Ramsey in relation to the more ‘political’ aspects of the church, he was nonetheless viewed as clearly orthodox in his theology; and that there were several points of sympathetic contact between Ramsey and evangelical theology, in relation to the Cross, his concern for evangelism, and his emphasis on personal holiness. Much of this was connected to Ramsey’s own Congregational background;

(vii) that there was a difference of emphasis in relation to method, in that what some evangelicals saw as doctrinal ‘clarity’ and a willingness to contend for the truth was to Ramsey evidence of intellectual rigidity and an unwilingness really to engage openly with anyone holding an opposing view;

(viii) that an examination of the Ramsey Papers shows clearly that, even if there was mutual distrust between wings of the church, there is no evidence of deliberate efforts by the central institutions of the Church to keep evangelicals from positions of influence. This was the case with the appointment of bishops (a favourite bone of contention) and membership of the Church Assembly, as well as with the memberships of the many commissions and working groups set up to consider difficult issues. It was also the case in relation to the failed scheme for Anglican-Methodist unity.

The article concludes that the persistent story in evangelical folklore of exclusion from the corridors of power in this period cannot be grounded in fact. The continued existence of this explanatory myth tells us as much about (some) evangelicals’ view of themselves as it does about the actual workings of the Church of England.

New sources at Lambeth Palace Library, 2014

Some twentieth century highlights from the latest Report of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library:

(i) a note on the cataloguing of the papers of John Stott, funded by Stott himself and his executors. There’s more on the LPL site, and on their blog when the cataloguing was finished.

(ii) newly catalogued files from the Council on Foreign Relations, including key dialogues between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. These began before the Second Vatican Council; became the Joint Preparatory Commission (1967), and in turn the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The papers touch on many of the most difficult issues of the time, including ‘mixed marriages’

(iii) amongst the papers of the archbishops, the series reaches 1983, and Robert Runcie’s view on nuclear weapons and his visit to China as part of a delegation of the British Council of Churches.

(iv) the papers of Joseph McCulloch, rector of St Mary-le-Bow (London) and instigator of the weekly public debates in the 1960 and 1970s known as the Bow Dialogues.

Religion and the household: Studies in Church History, 50

A recent arrival on the doormat is this year’s volume of Studies in Church History, from the Ecclesiastical History Society. The amount of twentieth century material in Studies tends to vary with the theme of each volume, and this year is relatively small. However, there are two essays of note:

(i) Andrew Atherstone’s piece on Raymond Johnston, leading light of the Nationwide Festival of Light. Johnston is something of a heroic figure amongst some parts of the evangelical community in the UK (see this paper by David Holloway). It is very good to see Johnston, and the NFOL, getting scholarly attention. (See also this on the NFOL by Amy Whipple.

(ii) Callum G. Brown on the oral history of women leaving religion. Brown shows that the terms in which these journeys away from the churches are narrated are heavily gendered. It can be read very much as the companion piece to his essay in Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s recent collection on men, masculinities and religion.