Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Evangelical: Say What You Mean


image credit: CredoHouse

I wrote a post recently about how the term evangelical seems to have been co-opted and caricatured to the point where it has almost become meaningless. And possibly even detrimental. This came out of ongoing conversations with friends, representing a variety of denominations and age demographics, about whether or not the term evangelical could possibly be redeemed.

More than once, weve sadly lamented that its probably better to dump the word altogether. Irredeemable. Beyond hope. Deep-six that sucker. Ghost the term.

But the more I think about it, the more I have become convinced that abandoning the term evangelical  would be the wrong choice to make. And heres why:
  1. If having an honest conversation is the goal, then the term evangelical becomes a door-opener. Hey, do you have time for a coffee? Id love to explain, as an evangelical, what the term means to me . . .
  2. If people are just looking for a quick way to write you off, and they have a stereotype caricature inaccurate understanding of the term, well . . . that was never a conversation in the first place.
(So why allow them to control the narrative and try to put you into a box that doesnt exist?)
The graphic at the beginning of this post is a good summary, and I like providing solid explanations in a visual arts medium. But at the same time, its full of a lot of insider-jargon that could make any conversation over coffee long and one-sided.

A more basic approach might be to start with the four key elements that describe evangelicalism as introduced by David Bebbington in what has become known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral (in one of his earlier books)There are ranges of opinion and nuance under each of these four items, but as a broad description, it works:
  1. Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  2. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross making salvation possible
  3. Conversionism: the belief that each person must choose to follow Jesus (oldskewl: be born again)
  4. Activism: the gospel is a marketplace faith and societal impact is the fruit (missions & ministry among the poor and marginalized)
I would probably insist strongly recommend that you put it into your own words, so you dont sound like an encyclopedial parrot. For starters, you dont need to call it a quadrilateral or give a biographical sketch about who David Bebbington is.

Just sum it up in your own personal-speak:
  1. The Bible is a Big Deal: when its teachings and my life dont match up, guess who needs to change?
  2. Jesus was crucified so we can have life. Yes, He loves us so much, that He would voluntarily go to that extreme.
  3. Nobody is born a Christian, you have to make a choice to surrender to Jesus. And keep surrendering (that's called 'discipleship').
  4. Faith in Jesus is a private decision that is expressed in the public square. By serving, not by being obnoxious.
However you might choose to put it into words, I think its time for those of us who are evangelical to stop playing possum when people misrepresent who we are and what we believe.

So when you hear somebody make a comment about typical evangelical and you suspect they dont really know what the term means, why not invite them into a conversation about it? Buy their coffee.
Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. (1 Peter 3:15)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Reclaiming the Co-opted Label

Historically, fundamentalism was a theological position; only gradually did the movement come to signify a mood and disposition as well. In its early [years], leadership reflected ballast, and less of bombast and battle . . .

If [liberalism] stands discredited as a perversion of the scriptural theology, certainly fundamentalism in this contemporary expression stands discredited as a perversion of the Biblical spirit. (Carl F.H. Henry, 1957)

The above quote was originally published almost 60 years ago, in Christianity Today magazine, to delineate the differences between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Both groups shared some key beliefsprimarily the need for conversion by faith in Jesusbut there were some significant cultural differences. The fightin fundies railed against liberals, culture in general, and each other, while evangelicals were firm in their theological beliefs but more culture-neutral.

My friends & I at ThinkTheology.org have had an ongoing & lively debate over whether or not the label evangelical can be rescued from the caricatures that have been created around it in the past decade or so. Ive been an advocate for keeping the term, but after watching the current presidential spectacle south of the 49th parallel (USofA), I am less optimistic. Heres why:
As the Wittenburg Door cover at top left suggests, there once was a recognizable difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. Todaysomehowthe fundies have been conflated with the evangelicals, and right-wing fundamentalism is now labelled evangelical.
The Wittenburg Door issue (pictured above) poked fun at Liberty University and its founder Jerry Falwell, and included the satirical application form for Legalism Bible College. The Door (and their readers) knew what a fundamentalist was. And that evangelicalism was not the same thing.

Yet recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. & Liberty have been held forth by the media as an example of  evangelical.

Back in the day, we knew the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical. But somebody erased the distinction and lumped everybody under one handy label.

Even some of the pejorative phrases that people love to employ onlineie. bible-thumpingwhich one would normally associate with fundamentalism are now applied to evangelicalism as if they were one and the same.
It is difficult to redeem a word that has had its meaning co-opted and brought into disrepute. A recent example of this would be a gathering where I had been invited to lead worship, and also provide a brief testimonial about the value of higher theological education.

Everything went well, and as the meeting was adjourning, the seminary president (guest speaker for the event) shook my hand and thanked me for what I had shared, and for leading worship. He was all smiles and friendliness.

Until that fateful moment when I gave him copies (free!) of The Genesis Cafe (18 months' worth of research & writing) and Post-Charismatic (over two years of research & writing), while saying something to the effect that I thought he might be interested in the theological writings of one of his former students.
Ill never forget his reaction.
His smile froze, and he stopped shaking my hand. His only comment was, So—you would consider yourself a . . . charismatic, then?
Id be very surprised if he read either book. I had been labelled, categorized, and deep-sixed by the time hed finishing making his comment.
I told him that Id prefer to use the term continuationist, and that Post-Charismatic would explain what I meant and why I thought it was important.

I admit that continuationist is an odd termits really just the opposite of cessationist, which is a familiar term to manybut my hope was that it might, potentially, hopefully spark enough interest that someone would ask what I meant by it.

And then I would have the opportunity to explainpositivelywhat I believe, instead of having to say yes, I guess you could call me charismatic, but not like . . . and devolve into the kind of smug anti-statement that my friend Kenny called on the carpet not too long ago.

But the term/label evangelical . . . What to do, what to do?