Once again, when information overwhelms us and traditional gatekeepers are no longer trusted, we can renegotiate our networks of trust and find a new sense of orientation in tight-knit communities. In my recent ebook on the ‘new storytellers’, I described the manner in which many—Christian women especially—now turn to a class of people who act as what one might call ‘super-peers’ in order to navigate the confusing new world without trustworthy authorities. These ‘super-peers’ are typically untrained non-experts, whose significance arises from a situation of alienation between traditional Christian gatekeepers and persons in the pew.
The power of these ‘super-peers’ is the power of trust. Many of these ‘super-peers’ are advocates for women, who contrast with the pastors and churches they believe have betrayed them (most recently in their open support for the misogynist Trump). They give voice to truths that have been officially suppressed or downplayed—to the truth of women’s sense of marginalization in the Church and to the truth of abuse. These ‘super-peer’ women are ‘peers’ who are relatable and likeable, who form close communities and ideological consensuses around themselves. They are typically near in age to most of their followers, not least because there is a crisis of alienation between the generations in many churches, and people are looking for leaders of their own generation, rather than attending to fathers and mothers in the faith.
As they are the key influencers within their communities, they are appropriately termed ‘super-peers’. They represent a peculiar kind of populist leader, leaders who illustrate the way in which our determination of truth depends on more than merely narrow concerns of accuracy and veracity.
Whereas in the past, communities of trust would tend to be locally based, typically rooted within church congregations, extended families, workplaces, and neighbourhoods, in the age of the Internet, communities of trust are increasingly abstracted from locality. Twenty or thirty years ago, one’s community of faith would primarily have been found in one’s local congregation, and would have been overseen by pastors and church leaders. Nowadays, our communities of faith are much more diffuse and much less pastorally guided. Where once pastors, church leaders, and mature Christians could keep watch over a congregation, ensuring that error didn’t creep in, this is much harder to do today. Likewise, dissenting and disaffected persons are much more able to form their own independent communities online.
Jen Hatmaker is a good illustration of some of these dynamics. Hatmaker isn’t a trained theologian, yet her changed position on same-sex marriage has recently received an immense amount of discussion among Christians. In some respects, there isn’t a huge difference between Hatmaker on same-sex marriage and a celebrity anti-vaxxer who has claimed to have extensively ‘researched’ the issue. In both cases, even supposing they were correct, the person’s position is of little academic worth (because they only have very limited ability to engage in first-hand research themselves). Nevertheless, it is of deep social consequence and danger. The opinions of such persons hold weight on account of their popularity, likeability, and people’s instinctive trust of them, whereas the official authority figures challenging them are distrusted, despite their greater learning.
To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust. If people are confident that evangelicalism will generally be opposed to same-sex marriage in twenty-five years’ time, for instance, I wonder whether they have been paying close attention to the movements that have been taking place. The most prominent voices that have opposed same-sex marriage are now regarded with deep distrust from many quarters, especially by the younger generations, not least on account of their politics and the abuse scandals that have tarnished their reputation. People no longer trust them as leaders, so their position on same-sex marriage is now thrown into greater question. Although they may officially have authority, practically they have little authority over the younger generations. Most of us have LGBT persons in our families and friendship groups and many of us have a much closer bond with them than with an older generation of Christian leaders. Many people’s trust in Scripture’s power to speak to issues of gender and sexuality has also been damaged through the influence of purity culture and the often hateful extremism and callousness that they associate with traditional evangelicals’ opposition to homosexual practice and same-sex marriage.
Again, younger generations have grown up and live in a context of overwhelming information and competing gatekeepers. As a result, they have learned to function more as independent theological and religious consumers, assembling their own faith through picking and choosing among authorities. As much biblical and theological reasoning lies beyond the power of their independent understanding, yet they must now determine what positions to hold based on their own research, they are increasingly inclined to treat theological positions whose truth lies beyond their power to determine as adiaphora. Alternatively, they introduce different criteria for assessing truthfulness, criteria more amenable to minds without rigorous theological education, privileging impressions or their sense of what is most ‘loving’. In such a context, a heavily contested view such as the legitimacy of same-sex marriage is likely to come to be regarded as optional by many.
As with the social crisis of truth, thought, and knowledge facing America, the crisis facing the Church will only be addressed as it is addressed precisely as a social problem. Where trust has broken down, a crisis of truth will soon follow in its wake. Rebuilding trust once lost is an immensely daunting and difficult task, yet it is the task that faces us. Where trust is lacking, there is little to be gained from directing ever more information and arguments at people. Repentance must be made, forgiveness must be sought, bonds of trust must be repaired, and then truth might begin to do its work.