- Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in A Secular Age by John Fletcher
John Fletcher’s new book analyzes the multivalent performances for conversion across the evangelical Christian spectrum, tying these performances to those of the progressive Left and arguing that the very motivations that drive activist Left performances animate evangelicals reaching out to the “lost.” Fletcher’s contribution builds on readings of religion as a performative construct, such as Jill Stevenson’s Sensational Devotion (2013) and Jason Bivin’s The Religion of Fear (2008), and works alongside analyses of the intersection(s) between secular and religious spheres, such as Winnifred Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (2005). Fletcher’s key addition in this insightful volume comes in his readings of both secular academic work about religion and evangelical scholarship of religion aiming for what he terms a “good faith” reading of evangelical religious practice (10).
Over the first two chapters, Fletcher teases out definitions and engages with the divide between the faith and secular spheres. Despite the progressive Left’s stance of tolerance and radical democracy, opposition to certain key causes—pro-life arguments, [End Page 160] for example—are often characterized as unreasonable or intolerant. Fletcher argues, alongside thinkers like Stanley Fish and Krister Stendahl, that one must find something to admire in another’s faith practice while acknowledging ideological differences. Modernity and the advent of rationalism have diversified rather than diminished belief, a proliferation that necessitates interaction with faith-based systems without reducing or sacrificing their complexity.
Chapters 3 and 4 address kerygmatic evangelism (door-to-door “soul-winning”), which Fletcher refers to as the “ground game” (119) of evangelism, referring to both its repetitiveness and the take-it-or-leave-it approach, and meta-kerygmatic evangelism. Meta-kerygmatic evangelism emerged as a reaction to kerygmatic’s blunt methods by engaging with nonbelievers based on the apologetic tradition. Apologetics are concerned with how kerygmatics’ reputations hinder the spread of the Gospel; as a result, meta-kerygmatics utilize interpersonal communication, often without overt religiosity, to gain converts. These tactics, Fletcher asserts, are two that seem least prevalent in Left-progressive activism. Throughout the text, he deftly describes evangelical thought without sacrificing its complexity; his compassionate and critical reading enables a fuller understanding of evangelical motivations, which he correlates to secular performances and theatrical criticism. In chapter 5, Fletcher interrogates the performances that have the most in common with Left-progressive activism, yet these performances are often found to be the most abhorrent: Hell House and Judgement [sic] House. Fletcher brands these outreaches as “interactive eschatological theater” (160), adding that while these performances are often lumped together, both evince distinct evangelical strategies. The section on Hell House builds on Fletcher’s earlier work where he argues that Hell House creates a “dystopian performative” (171)—a term that reworks Jill Dolan’s “utopian performative”—to distinguish the congregation from the doomed world. Judgement House also emphasizes “preaching to the converted” (170), a phrase that Fletcher takes from David Román and Tim Miller, as both types of productions emphasize the very distinctions between believers and nonbelievers.
Drawing on how Hell House and Judgement House “preach” to the converted, Fletcher argues in chapter 6 that the motto of the Creation Museum, “Prepare to Believe,” is less outreach to atheists and more a tactical statement aimed at the evangelical audience. What legitimizes the museum’s collection, which is as much scientific as it is historical and religious, is biblical authority. Fletcher’s analysis is based on the work of theologian Francis Schaeffer, who argues that since Hegel, Western civilization has lost its ability to discern truth from fact. From Schaeffer’s perspective, science and religion are in competition for interpretive authority, and for evangelicals, scientific interpretation is doomed to failure, as it does not provide the all-encompassing system of truth found in Christianity. Thus, Fletcher asserts that both the Creation Museum and interactive eschatological theatre are motivated to reinforce faith in believers, unifying evangelicals’ theological mission through the promotion of...