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, Christianity Today, 1957) 

The above quote was originally published, almost 60 years ago, in an article delineating the differences between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Both groups shared some key beliefs – primarily the need for conversion by faith in Jesus – but there are significant cultural differences. 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 and I at Think Theology are having an ongoing and spirited debate over whether or not the label evangelical can be rescued from the caricatures and misrepresentations circulating mass and social media of late. Ive been an advocate for keeping the term, but after watching the presidential spectacle south of the 49th parallel (USofA), Im less optimistic.

There used to be a recognizable difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. Todaysomehow – fightinfundies have been conflated with evangelicals, and right-wing extremism is now labelled evangelical.

The Wittenburg Door issue (pictured above) poked fun at Liberty University and Jerry Falwell, its founder. They also included a satirical application form for Legalism Bible College. The Door (and their readers) knew what a fundamentalist was. They also knew evangelicalism wasnt the same thing. 

Yet recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. and fundamentalist Liberty University have been held forth by the media as a representative example of evangelicalism. Somebody erased the distinction and lumped all of us under one handy label. 

Even some of the pejorative phrases that people love to employ online – e.g, bible-thumping– which one would normally associate with fundamentalism, are now applied to evangelicalism as if they were one and the same. 

Its difficult to redeem a word when its meaning has been co-opted and brought into disrepute.

"Charismatic" is another term suffering a similar fate. An example: I was recently invited to lead worship at an event dedicated to the promotion of theological education. I was asked, and a Bible college and seminary graduate, to share a brief testimonial about the value of higher theological education. 

Everything went well, from my perspective. As the meeting adjourned, the guest speaker – seminary president from my alma mater – shook my hand and thanked me. He was all smiles and friendliness. Until that fateful moment when I handed him copies of The Genesis Cafe (eighteen months' worth of research and writing) and Post-Charismatic (two years in the making), while saying something to the effect of I thought he might be interested in one of his former students theological writings. 

Ill never forget his reaction. Smile frozen in place, he stopped shaking my hand. So, you would consider yourself ... charismatic, then? 

I told him I prefer continuationist,” and Post-Charismatic would explain what I meant and why I thought it was important. Based on his reaction, I have my doubts that  he read either book. Id been labelled, categorized, and deep-sixed before the words escaped his lips.

I’ll admit continuationist is an awkward term. Its unfamiliar to many and may take some time to catch on. At the very least, its a potential way of explaining – positively – what I believe about the charismata, as an alternative to the emotional and theological baggage associated with “charismatic.”

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

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