In Honor of Books & Culture: A Review of The New Measures by Ted A. Smith

Yesterday John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, announced that the next issue of the venerable magazine of Christian arts and letters would be its last. I have been a loyal reader of the magazine for the last decade, and some of the most intellectually compelling essays I have ever read were in its pages. Back when this blog was more active, I often engaged in critical dialogue with John, and this ultimately led to his asking me to write a review of a new book, The New Measures, by Ted A. Smith. I jumped at the opportunity. The review took me too long to write—it is always hardest to review a book that you love. I finally submitted it in fall 2009. Unfortunately, it was never published. In honor of both Ted Smith, whose book is one of the best scholarly books I have ever read, and in honor of Books & Culture, which I will miss dearly, I now present my review for the first time.

Redeeming the Past

A Startling New Look at the Second Great Awakening

Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xiii + 340.

In his 1834–35 Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) presents his argument for the use of what he calls “new measures” for preaching, by which he means those tactics or aids employed by ministers in order to grant the gospel the best hearing possible:
Ministers ought to know what measures are best calculated to aid in accomplishing the great end of their office, the salvation of souls. Some measures are plainly necessary. By measures I mean what things should be done to get the attention of the people, and bring them to listen to the truth. Building houses for worship, and visiting from house to house, &c. are all “measures,” the object of which is to get the attention of people to the gospel. (167)
In an age of mass media, market strategies, and mega churches, Finney’s pragmatic logic—do whatever works—is simply part of the air we breathe. We are surrounded by “new measures.” We seem to be bombarded by new methods of getting our notice and keeping it. In this sense, the church is often no different than the local business or the latest pop star. The preaching of the gospel is just one more voice in a global cacophony—all clamoring for our undivided attention.

What is second nature for us today was scandalous in the age of Finney and the Second Great Awakening. In his unwavering pursuit of conversion, Finney believed that preachers must do whatever is necessary to ensure the greatest possible “success,” that is, the greatest number of “saved souls.” This might mean rebelling against the status quo, whether cultural or religious. It might mean wearing the latest fashion, addressing the congregation in different and unusual ways, changing the architecture and design of the church, and even jettisoning long-held doctrines which inhibit the preaching of the gospel.

Most (in)famously, for example, Finney rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination on the basis that, “Anything brought forward as doctrine, which cannot be made use of as practical, is not preaching the gospel” (184). Because conversion was the central goal, Finney believed it was necessary for every person to have the individual freedom to make a decision of faith. Instead of a God who elects sinners to salvation, Finney argued that sinners must elect God. This theological revolution coincided with what Ted Smith calls a “revolution in choices” within American society more broadly, in which political, economic, and religious choices proliferated. The disestablishment of religion and the rise of consumerism joined with Finney’s revivalist conception of human agency to permanently shape the nature of American culture.

These evangelistic strategies or “measures” were highly controversial at the time, provoking cries of heresy and the use of counter-measures—which, of course, only further solidified the new measures as permanent staples of American religion. As a result, today, the “new” measures are simply old hat. They are commonplace features of modern democratic, religious life—as common as the fact that men and women, rich and poor, black and white, are able to sit together. The new measures are ubiquitous, and thus practically invisible. We see them in the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham, in “seeker” mega-churches with the latest technology and stadium seating, in emergent communities that appeal to the younger evangelicals. Each of these examples, and the many more like them, adheres to Finney’s utilitarian frame of mind. And just as in Finney’s time, if today’s measures provoke controversy, that only further guarantees their dominance in the American religious landscape.

When assessing these measures, it is all too easy to become either the curmudgeonly traditionalist or the cheerleading progressive. The one disparages all measures (and the utilitarianism undergirding them) as capitulations to the present culture and thus as deviations from God’s Word or from “the way our ancestors did it.” The other champions the new measures as the basis for today’s democratic virtues, including individual freedom and social equality. The one adopts a “narrative of decline,” the other a “narrative of progress.” For both, the history of the new measures becomes an example within a larger story about the rise or fall of American religion and culture. The measures simply reinforce one’s ideological “worldview.” By treating Finney and the new measures in this way, one refuses to let the history speak for itself—with its unique successes and tragic failures, promises kept and promises deferred. The result is the loss of concrete particularity and the inevitable disappearance of history itself.

In his ambitious and brilliant study of Finney and the new measures, Ted Smith, associate professor of preaching and ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology,1 charts a radically different approach to history. Smith takes his cue from the conclusion of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which we find the following statement:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. (247)
Adorno’s statement has been discussed at length by philosophers such as Jacob Taubes and Giorgio Agamben. What makes Smith’s study so remarkable is that he has applied Adorno’s axiom to the field of church history. The result is what Smith calls “theological history,” which strives to avoid all narratives of progress and decline by viewing the past “from the standpoint of hope.” The New Measures is therefore an exercise in theological history applied to the life and work of Finney and the new measures that he championed.

Smith’s stated goal is to bring this fertile period of the Second Great Awakening under the “messianic light.” Put another way, Smith seeks to interpret the American religious past through an act of “eschatological memory.” For him, this means acknowledging “the complexities and discontinuities within the new measures” and recognizing “the indirect, ironic relationships between human projects and the saving work of God.” The result is, as he says, “both empirical and theological at every point.”

The key to Smith’s “eschatological memory” is that he refuses to construct an immanent historical continuum (read: Hegelian philosophical history) in which the new measures are evaluated wholly on the basis of their historical consequences in relation to some immanent teleological norm. Narratives of progress or decline view the past entirely in terms of whether the end result is positive or negative: “Both depend on a morally charged ending that is continuous with other moments in the story.” Against this, Smith’s “eschatological memory” places the new measures in relation to an end that is not historically continuous with them. This is Adorno’s “standpoint of redemption,” what Smith calls the perspective of hope. In addition to being eschatological, this hope is also apocalyptic; it comes, like Christ himself, as an interruption of our existence, an incursion into the world. For that reason, the stories of the past “do not run smoothly on, but tangle to a halt.” The redemption of the past “will come neither from a little more progress on the road they are already on, nor from a quick reversal to retrace their steps and then run in the other direction. It will come in death and resurrection, or not at all.” In other words, the work of theological history depends upon a thoroughly christological and eschatological hermeneutic. This gives the historian freedom, as Adorno says, to “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”

The theological historian is able to present the past neither as a long-lost Golden Age nor as the start of our current cultural ills. Instead, the theological historian speaks about the past as it actually was, with all its “rifts and crevices,” but also as it is and might yet be in the light of our redemption. As Smith puts it, “I try to offer a perspective that neither damns democratic practice, nor celebrates it, nor depicts it as a project in which we might bring in the Reign of God if we worked a little harder. I argue that the new measures never kept their explicit promises, but that in and in spite of those promises deeper covenants were kept. . . . I hope neither to affirm the new measures as if they did the work of God directly nor to reject them as if God had utterly forsaken them, but to break them open so that they might testify to a hope against their hope.” For Smith, this hope against hope occurs in the messianic Jetztzeit, or “now-time,” discussed by Walter Benjamin: “the NOW of redemption.” And it is only from this perspective that the new measures appear neither as an artifact of the past nor as a novelty to be recaptured nor as a banal feature of democratic life today, but instead as “a gift for us” who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

With this ambitious theological-historical method, Smith has crafted a book that not only succeeds as an illuminating work of church history, but also, and perhaps more importantly, serves as an excellent work of theology. More accurately, we should say that Smith has elided the distinction between history and theology altogether. The genre of “theological history,” as conceived and practiced by Smith, results in a project that enriches both fields, challenging historians to be more theological and theologians to be more historical. On this point alone, Smith has done us a great and lasting service.

Smith’s methodology provides the architectonic structure of the book. Smith limits his focus to six new measures. This forms the book’s backbone. These six chapters each have six sections which loosely imitate the form of a sermon by Finney: (1) Smith begins with a story that encapsulates the point of the chapter; (2) he describes a particular crisis in its social and religious context; (3) he introduces the new measure that seeks to address the problem; (4) he tells how this new measure was eventually adopted by two opponents of the measure; (5) he demonstrates how the new measure failed to live up to its promise (what he calls “mortification”); and (6) finally he seeks to bear witness to the eschatological “transposition” of the new measure. Instead of an easy progress from failure to fulfillment, Smith juxtaposes the “mortified” measure with its eschatological redemption. His goal is to employ what Jürgen Habermas called Rettendekritik, redeeming-critique, in order to “speak of practices as justified and sinful at the same time.”

Because of their “resistance to definition,” there is no list of the new measures, nor can one identify some common “essence”—other than the fact that they were used to increase the effectiveness of one’s preaching. They arose individually in response to specific social issues. As a result, they simply “invite illustration,” as Smith says. The choice of six measures is, he admits, arbitrary. Smith has chosen what he calls a “constellation” or a “hodgepodge of practices.” There is no necessary connection between them: they could be treated individually, ministers might use some but not others, and taking them together does not somehow constitute “revival culture.” As he puts it, “Neither the new measures nor this book pretend to organic coherence and completion.”

Instead, Smith looks at six concrete practices which have had an enormous impact on American society. The first is Finney’s pragmatic instrumentalism, which transformed everything in life into a means toward conversion (that is, into a measure), such that things “had value only as they served the end of saving souls.” The inevitable issue with this instrumental logic is that “in order to be effective, [the measures] had to attract attention.” As a result, the second measure is the endless pursuit of novelty and sensation as part of the ongoing competition for the attention of the people. In his Lectures, Finney thus writes, “The object of our measures is to gain attention, and you must have something new.”

The third measure, already noted, is the emphasis on the freedom of the will, illustrated nicely by Finney’s sermon entitled, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” Fourth, the new measures brought about a kind of egalitarianism, in which middle-class respectability joined with a formal equality. This affected everything from doctrine to architecture. The fifth measure is the shift in concern from the sincerity of new converts to the sincerity of the ministers. Along with this comes the rise of the “star system” and what we now call “cults of personality,” as well as the ongoing debate over the relation between public life and private life that continues to dominate political discourse today. The sixth and final measure that Smith treats is the use of “typological narratives” that illustrate a higher truth through a rhetorically compelling story, something we now almost expect preachers to do.

While Smith repeats the process of mortification and redemption for each of these measures, one example should suffice to show how this plays itself out in practice. Let’s consider the third chapter, on the issue of equality in the church. There is considerable ambiguity regarding the egalitarianism of the new measures. On the one hand, Finney preached a universal atonement in which all are potentially included. This change in the gospel message corresponded to a change in the layout of churches. Whereas the pews were formerly separated by sex, class, and race, the “free church” movement enabled men and women to sit together, eliminated the practice of pew rent, and in some cases even allowed for racial integration. And along with the changes in the church came changes in education, as gender and racial boundaries were abolished at Oberlin. On the other hand, this “formal equality” of all people went hand-in-hand with particular assumptions about middle-class respectability. As long as each person maintained a certain level of social decorum, everyone could enjoy “the respectable, static equality of a purified mass of formally identical subjects.”

The breaking point—the moment of the measure’s mortification—came with the infamous “lynching at Oberlin” in 1840. Without rehearsing the entire ordeal, the basic story centers around Horace Norton, who sent sexually explicit notes to several female students. A plot was devised to lure him out at night. While walking with a female student, Norton was attacked by a group of male students and faculty, dragged by rope to a barn, and strung up on a post while the men beat and interrogated him. The ensuing controversy revealed that the real issue behind the lynching was, as Smith puts it, that Norton’s notes “called into question the respectability of Oberlin’s style of equality. White and black women and men mixed freely as equals in the public spaces of classrooms, the church, and the dining hall. Such mixing retained respectability because it involved the transcendence, rather than the transgression, of differences.” In the end, “Norton became a demon who had to be exorcised so that the fragile union of equality and respectability cobbled together at Oberlin could survive.”

Smith identifies the mortification of this new measure with the fact that “universal equality” became “a badge of respectability, a marker of class distinction.” Ironically, “Formal equality became itself a marker that enabled distinctions that grounded inequality.” In fact, as Smith points out, such equality “not only marked but also legitimated inequality.” From this mortifying perspective, the new measure of universal equality becomes little more than class ideology. It is a form of “cheap grace” that proclaims equality while further baptizing social injustice. In this sense, we must give this measure a quick burial.

But there is another perspective—the perspective of grace. From this new angle, the “practices of formal equality ask to be remembered eschatologically.” We must look at equality in the messianic light. Instead of a formal equality that reduces every individual to a more general and abstract class of “human being,” this eschatological community “features amalgamation without loss of distinction.” It is a universal equality which will “risk difference, desire, and disrespectability.” Drawing upon Walt Whitman, Smith argues that the redemption of equality will come not through the violent transgression of social differences, nor through their formal abolition, but rather through a kind of “adhesiveness” in which love “binds different people together as citizens, church members, classmates, lovers, and equals.” The new measures witness to this eschatological end without ever being able to realize it in practice.

This is only one example from the book, yet it speaks to the overall depth of theological insight that Smith discovers in the new measures. And while it is a work of history, every page seems to be part of a grand sermon addressing the church in America today. The new measures are still with us, perhaps more now than ever before. Ted Smith’s book is thus truly a gift: he not only speaks about an eschatological hope, but his work embodies it.

1 At the time I wrote this review, Smith was assistant professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.