24 August 2017

That "evangelical" label

Labels are only useful if they convey their intended meanings to intended audiences. So why do I continue to cling to the label "evangelical"?

Maybe I'm just stubborn. I left my atheist family and joined Quakers because I came to believe that Jesus is who he says he is, the Bible has authority, and evangelism is the church's highest priority. Those three features (the divinity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the urgency of evangelism) seem to me to be the central characteristics of the evangelical faith I thought I was joining.

Maybe there was another factor in my stubbornness: I became a believer as an adult. I had neither the advantages nor the baggage of lifelong church involvement.

In any case, I don't have the luxury of hiding in my sweet private definitions. On the one hand, theologians and religious authorities have been publicly slicing and dicing evangelicals practically from year one. On the other hand, secular journalists on deadline adopt labels without special regard for subtleties and distinctions within those labels. (See "Associated Press repeats mantra: Gosh those 'evangelicals' are standing by their man Trump.")

Speaking of "their man Trump," the issue gets even cloudier when politicians try to gain advantage by using these labels, and their religious counterparts return the favor by basking in the warm glow of supposed influence. As Cal Thomas and Ed Dodson pointed out nearly two decades ago in their book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, this sort of mutual backscratching can do more harm than good in terms of the desired goals.

Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God (which I wrote about here) also revealed the tangled motivations behind evangelicals' pimping themselves for political advantage. On the perennial struggle to define the political dimension of evangelicals (particularly those who care about social justice), the best history I've seen is David R. Swartz's Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.

Writers such as Brian Zahnd and Rachel Held Evans reveal the personal struggles many white evangelicals have faced, resulting from this gap between the heart of evangelicalism, understood theologically, and white American evangelicalism's public face. For some, the best solution is to abandon the label; for others, the best coping tactic is to expose the scandalous gap between the liberating faith of Jesus and the Bible, and the bondage involved in the Evangelical Religion Industry.

Probably that second tactic is the recurring theme of the thirteen years I've been writing this blog. I hope I've made it clear that the evangelical celebrities and their slashing judgments do not speak for me and my friends!

However, as for the first tactic (abandoning the label), I can feel my stubbornness asserting itself even as I write these words. "Evangelical" is a link to my own conversion to a personal faith in Jesus, my resistance to cerebral and relativistic substitutes. But that personal dimension might not be obvious to anyone else, especially those burned by authoritarian counterfeits. The irony is that genuine evangelicalism exalts evangelism, but the authoritarian counterfeits are generally repulsive to a skeptical world ... except when they hook those who are vulnerable to promises of total confidence.

Maybe the key point is not to invest myself emotionally in the label as a flag to be flaunted, or as the proud badge of a righteous gadfly. Instead, it's up to me to build a relationship with you or any other audience, a relationship that's able to carry -- in both directions -- the substance of what we want to say about faith.

I'm grateful that I came to the Christian community through the Quaker door, because, for us, even these crucial doctrines -- about Jesus, the Bible, evangelism -- are to be engaged with discernment and in community rather than understood or imposed mechanically. I don't panic if someone else rejects a label that I accept. No doubt they've learned something on their path that I have yet to encounter. And maybe I have something precious for them as well.

When I first came to Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends at the start of this century, Friends were considering two controversial proposals: joining the Friends World Committee for Consultation, and adding the word "Evangelical" to the name of the Yearly Meeting. I was in favor of both proposals -- after all, I'd worked for FWCC for ten years and loved its mission, and I had no problem with the word "evangelical." Furthermore, wasn't Northwest Yearly Meeting already a part of Evangelical Friends Church International?

I soon realized that the FWCC supporters and the "Evangelical" name supporters were usually not the same Friends. In fact, I heard that an idea for a swap was circulating: if the "liberals" would allow the name change, several influential "evangelicals" would not block joining FWCC. (Not sure now how widely this proposal was circulated.)

The Yearly Meeting ultimately agreed to a trial membership in the World Committee, but, to my surprise, the name change went nowhere. A pastor in the yearly meeting soon sat me down and explained why she was uncomfortable with any such proposal. It wasn't that she disagreed theologically with the term, but for her it called up all the associations with right wing politics and church authoritarianism that have more recently become so prominent.


I still hate to give in to those who let a perfectly good word go to waste on account of the religion industry. But maybe I need your help with a reality check: Is the word really worth saving? It reminds me of the time a Russian Orthodox journalist visited our Moscow Friends Meeting and told us that even the word "Christian" was held with suspicion among the far right in the Orthodox Church. He said something like this: "The politically correct term among patriotic conservatives is 'Orthodox'; the word 'Christian' makes them suspect you're a Protestant."

More labels: 

That evangelical label, part two.

A more typical monument to the Civil War: 
these two cousins from Maine died 
at a prisoner of war camp in North Carolina 
only months before the end of the war. 
(Raymond Village Cemetery.)
How do we pick evangelical celebrities? (I loved this line: "It's as if evangelicalism wants to include anyone who might make them look cool, but exclude anyone who might make them think.")

Jonathan Merritt interviews Zach Hoag on Hoag's new book, The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Might Just Bring Us Back to Life. Teaser:
These are apocalyptic times for American Christianity, in the literal sense that they are revealing times. The decline of Christian faith in the U.S. is, I believe in part, a result of this revelation. There is a deep compromise with the wealth, power and violence of the empire at work in the church in our time.

In another sense, though, I remain hopeful and resolute. Despite the percentage of evangelicals who voted for and support Trump, I believe we are witnessing the last angry gasps of a perspective that is coming to a necessary end as a dominant force in American society.
Evangelical silence and Trump: A Reformation irony. (However, note announcement from A.R. Bernard.)

Jerry Jones (A Life Overseas): When hard things happen back home.

What if your child becomes an atheist? (Thanks to meetinghouse.xyz for the link.)

I was very sorry to hear the news that Dick Gregory died. He was such a part of my personal history. I remember devouring his books, after his visit to Carleton University, where he spoke on the Kennedy assassination, healthy foods ("Don't eat what you can't pronounce"), being monitored by the FBI, and outwitting the Ku Klux Klan, among many other topics. The obituaries don't mention his book of Bible stories, which we sold at Quaker Hill Bookstore. Among the obituaries: Los Angeles Times. New York Times. A fascinating video sample from the CBC.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced a drastic reduction in visa services for Russian citizens. Ambassador Tefft says it's not a vindictive reaction. "Casual annoyance": RFE/RL reports on Russian citizens' reactions. Sergei Lavrov says that the Russian side will not retaliate.

Maybe my favorite links of the week -- celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Voyager interplanetary (interstellar) space program, and its record of amazing photos made and transmitted with the technology of four decades ago.

Blues dessert: This week it's a repeat, recorded in Denmark:


Marshall Massey said...

Most certainly, words like “evangelical” and “Christian” are worth retaining. We just need to live them in the way that we ourselves are called to, and make it clear that others do not define us.

As regards the use of “evangelical”, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), a broad-minded and liberal-friendly body, is an example worth keeping in mind.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Marshall. You've reminded me that in some parts of the world, the word "evangelical" simply means "protestant."

Micah Bales said...

Capital "E" Evangelicals have discredited themselves so much, I can't see much value in holding onto the term. On the contrary, I tend to think that the only way to preserve the integrity of the Christian faith in general is to name Evangelicalism (as a movement) as being an unfaithful branch.

From a public relations perspective, I believe that Christianity is salvageable. I'm not sure Evangelicalism is at this point.

Bill Samuel said...

In 2008, I wrestled with the term evangelical in a blog post entitled Why I am evangelical but not an Evangelical. These terminology questions can be difficult.

Unknown said...

My academic research into the variety of Quaker identities indicates that we will not come to agreement about the word Christian or Evangelical anytime soon. As a linguist, my observation is that Americans, and Quaker especially,
just keep redefining their terms. I,myself, cling the name of Christian even though I am mostly resisted among the post-Christians in meetings to which I have belonged.

Bill Rushby said...

Johan: To thine own self be true, and don't worry about what the PC folks misunderstand or dislike! Don't let them take charge of your persona! They have their own brand of extremism.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill, thank you, but I do take audiences into account. I don't care about fitting into the patterns of those who've already made their minds up but I do care about the Gospel's reputation among those who are "tender," who want a word of honest testimony.

It occurs to me that, as an adult convert who became a convinced Friend, I have more often encountered anti-Jesus attitudes among some groups of Friends than the kind of authoritarianism that repels others away from evangelicalism. After all, I started out as a naive evangelical (that is, I was reading the New Testament with all the joy and receptivity of a new convert) in a yearly meeting (Canadian) that was predominantly liberal. Thank goodness for wonderful mentors!

Despite my occasional discontent with Quakers, both among evangelicals and among liberals, I also have to say that I've lived a sort of sheltered life compared to many who've become disillusioned with the evangelical label. Given my inherited distrust of organized religion and my rejection of my family's cult of obedience, Friends' rejection of violence and false social distinctions was crucial. I've not had to put up with some of the shattering power plays that have disillusioned many former evangelicals. (Of course there are places among Friends where such stuff has also happened -- some of which I've witnessed personally.) Undoubtedly, race and class factors have also helped me in ways, even within our idealistic little denomination.

Finally, I cling to the evangelical label in part to woo other evangelicals into a wider perspective on discipleship, a greater ability to connect the dots between faith and practice, a greater sensitivity to the captivity of the religion industry. Maybe this is a fruitless conceit, in which case I hope I'll be ready to abandon it. Nevertheless, in my heart of hearts I'll cling to my "sweet private definitions."

Bill Samuel said...

Thanks Johan, for that response. I don't think all of us in our different situations are called to exactly the same response. We each have to discern how we are called, hopefully with the help of other believers.

Marshall Massey said...

Johan, you wrote,

“I don't care about fitting into the patterns of those who've already made their minds up but I do care about the Gospel's reputation among those who are "tender," who want a word of honest testimony.”

That is an insightful distinction, or at least it seems so to me.

On your earlier comment to me — I have known a few ELCA ministers, and I had a conversation with one of them about that word “Evangelical” in the name. He said that it was intended to mean exactly what it said — that the denomination felt itself called to preach the gospel to the world. So it was not, in his mind at least, a mere synonym for “Protestant” — but it was not a way of identifying with the right-wing branch of Protestantism, either.