Michael Jinkins: The Protestant Principle and Satanism

You can see the Protestant proclivity for constant reinvention of ourselves all over the place. Even in Satanism.

Growing up in a church with deep evangelistic roots, as I did, can be both a blessing and a curse.

On the curse side I still remember the evening in high school when I came home from the latest in a long line of revival services, reporting for the fourth time that year that I had “walked the aisle.” My father, a devout Baptist deacon, asked me how many times I was planning on getting saved. “Once saved always saved,” he said with a snort.

On the blessing side, however, I appreciate the seriousness with which we took personal faith. Believing ought to make a difference in how we think and live and feel.

A hidden blessing of growing up evangelistic, however, has emerged only gradually in the last few years as I reflected on the proliferation of new Christian movements. Each of these promises to sweep away the staid old ways of Mainline Protestantism, but each has only confirmed again what Paul Tillich referred to as “The Protestant Principle.” They are the institutional equivalent of “getting saved again and again.”

The awareness first hit me when I read Donald Miller’s fascinating study, “Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium,” and was struck by how old and well-established this “reinvented American Protestantism” is. The congregation I grew up in had a weekly worship service which was essentially an evangelistic revival. The churches that Miller describes as “new paradigm” were actually old hat. Only a life-long Episcopalian or Presbyterian could find them innovative.

The anxiety of mainline Protestant denominations has only heated up since Miller’s 1997 book. The new, newer and newest paradigms have only proliferated. Protestantism just keeps reinventing itself, renewing its charter, renovating or rejecting its traditions. But the harder it tries, the more clearly it conforms to the principle of reinvention. Whether described as new paradigm, missional, emerging, or whatever is next, we’re Protestant. And so we keep moving on, distrusting our past as every new foray confirms its elemental hold on us.

My attempt to understand our Protestant need, institutionally, to “get saved again and again” was nuanced a bit this week by a fascinating new book, “Sacred Schisms: How Religions Divide.” Jesper Aagaard Petersen contributed an essay to it called “Satanists and nuts: the role of schisms in modern Satanism.” Drawing on Colin Campbell’s concept of “the cultic milieu,” Petersen writes that “Satanism is a bundle of ideas and practices related to other ideas and practices in the ‘cultural underground of society’.” As a quasi-religious group, Satanism is “held together by common traits, mainly deviance, syncretism, overlapping communication structures and, the ideology of seekership.” But here’s where Petersen’s analysis dovetails with “The Protestant Principle.” He writes: “New religious movements continuously crystallize from this cultural field. It works as both the substantive and functional context for group evolution -- it is the cultic milieu and not the individual groups that are permanent.”

The “cultic milieu” that makes us Protestant in the first place, that mixture of social and cultural and historical factors which drives us to reinvent ourselves every fifteen minutes, is the thing that endures to flavor the kind of Christianity we share. The generalized anxiety mainline denominations are experiencing plays its part. The electric jolts delivered by every new technology and the frenzy of social changes shake all our institutional foundations. But from our Reformation beginnings to our evangelistic revivalism and every new version of contemporary seekership, our drive to repackage ourselves for the next new religious “market” is the thing that makes us Protestant in the first place.

The curse lies in mindlessly giving-in to the impulse. The blessing lies in recognizing the truth.

Michael Jinkins is academic dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas.