Do You Really Believe?
Amber and Scott Woller hold Corner Church services at their Corner Coffee shop.
Last winter, I spent an evening watching one of the Truth Project DVDs with a study group that, as per the directives of the program, had formed in the wake of the teach-in at Cedar Valley Church. The group was hosted by Scott and Amber Woller, both thirty-one, at their spiffy condo in Minneapolis’s North Loop district. The couple also owns Corner Coffee, a nearby café where they serve several hundred people on a typical workday; on Sundays, they shut down the espresso machine three times to transform Corner Coffee into the Corner Church. The tiny coffeehouse stage serves as an altar platform, and worshippers sip free hot chocolate during the service. Scott is a big believer in New Urbanism, and dreams of having a Corner Coffee/Corner Church within walking distance of everyone in downtown Minneapolis, from Loring Park to the North Loop. “We’ll be a kind of anti-chain chain,” he says.
The Wollers met and fell in love in Springfield, Missouri, where they studied at Evangel College (now Evangel University), an Assemblies of God-associated school whose mascot is a Christian crusader in full armor. They bought the coffeehouse and established Corner Church there with the view that among the few real sanctuaries for young people, almost all sell espresso. A typical Sunday draws about sixty-five twenty- and thirty-somethings for the three services, which open with contemporary hymns and lead into Scott’s cheeky but heartfelt sermonizing. At a recent service, he talked about how important it was to have a “celebrity sighting” of Jesus Christ during the Christmas season.
On this freezing February evening, as part of the in-home training the Wollers, five young evangelicals, and I are watching the Truth Project episode that deconstructs evolution. They all seem to find the material neoteric, like it’s some kind of experimental jazz. It reminds me of mountain banjo—frantic, clucking, and flagrantly familiar. The pierced and tattooed school-bus driver on the sofa is nodding softly, though, like he’s hearing Coltrane for the first time, and the part-time caterer across the room scribbles intently in her notebook. My back begins to sweat, and a paranoid thought occurs to me: everyone here knows I’m going to hell.
When the DVD ends, my anxiety dissipates and I’m almost giddy with relief. Clearly a part of me is still convinced that I will spend eternity in flames. My companions, however, have deeply connected with the material. “It’s really gotten me to consider how opposed the world is to what the Bible says,” says Chanda, an aspiring chef, “and how the Bible is so contradictory to everything else we’re told in the world.” Amber agrees: “I would say that the DVD is right in saying that the true Christian world view is persecuted against, that there’s a war against true Christian beliefs.”
All of the Truth Project DVDs reiterate a classic theme. “The suffering self,” says philosopher Judith Perkins, who wrote a 1995 book of the same title, is one of the hallmarks of American evangelicalism. As they battle the wages of sin, postmodernism, and all the other lies of the world, true evangelicals—people like Chanda, Scott, Amber, and my own family—feel as trod-upon as the Christians under Nero, or, if you will, as misunderstood and alone as gay people in the years before Stonewall. It was through this idea of the persecuted Christian, Perkins wrote, that the movement was able to build social, political, and institutional power.
No wonder, then, that a movement now foundering should step back to reconsider its original strength. The numbers of evangelicals in the U.S. adhering to that “Biblical world view,” according to the oft-cited Barna research, is scarcely more (by some measures) than the number of self-described atheists. In fact, if you look at Barna’s numbers as a kind of prophecy—certainly that’s how the folks in Colorado Springs saw it when they conceived of the Truth Project—a kind of equaling-out is now underw
Last fall, “The Evangelical Crackup,” a lengthy cover story in The New York Times Magazine, detailed how Wichita’s fieriest evangelical preacher, Terry Fox, got sacked—not because of a sex scandal, but because of his very conservatism. Writer David Kirkpatrick showed how a newer breed of evangelicals like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are talking about fighting AIDS and poverty, and wrote that these “centrist evangelicals” are “one stirring away from a real awakening.”
So why are born-agains drifting to the middle? Is it disgruntlement with the war? Anti-abortion overload? Demoralization from the scandals involving Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, and Ralph Reed? And as the 2008 election approaches, many wonder about those evangelicals who used to reliably turn out for Bush: to what extent have they become disillusioned with politics, given reports that Bush’s political advisers privately called evangelicals “nuts” and “goofy”? (Not to mention, what effect might Mike Huckabee have on all this?) I don’t know, and neither did Kirkpatrick. What is plain is that the “permanent winning strategy” to mobilize white working-class voters with “values” issues—so carefully detailed by Thomas Frank in 2004’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?—isn’t a sure thing after all. But here’s another truth: Tackett and other Bible literalists of his ilk aren’t giving up on these iffy centrists. As with swing voters and undecideds in a political campaign, they see an opportunity to turn capricious hearts into heavenly gold.