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 aperversion 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 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 adjourned, 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 handed him copies (free!) of The Genesis Cafe (eighteen 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 Id prefer to use the term continuationist,” and Post-Charismatic would explain what I meant and why I thought it was important.

I’ll admit continuationist is an odd term. Its really just the opposite of cessationist, which is a familiar term to manybut my hope was that it might, potentially, hopefully spark enough interest for someone to 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.

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