Sunday, August 7, 2011

The (Post) Evangelical™ Identity Crisis

There’s been a lot of interesting talk going around the Christian blogosphere recently about labels, especially evangelical, emergent, liberal, and progressive.  Heated debates are going on, and big questions are being asked: "Who gets to be an evangelical? If we don't, then what should we call ourselves? How flexible is the label 'evangelical' and how is it related to 'emergent'? What makes one progressive vs. liberal?"  A lot of this talk is coming from folks who either are themselves or are closely connected to post-evangelicals, fringe-leftist evangelicals, and emergent Christians. I don’t quite know how to classify myself properly, so I have something like "emergent/progressive" on my facebook profile.  I could label myself 'post-evangelical', which in my case means one who has cultural roots in evangelicalism (I’m definitely not a devoted mainliner, and struggle to feel at home in mainline churches), but more theologically influenced by progressive theology.  But post-evangelical is a slippery, largely useless term outside certain conversations.  I happen to like 'emergent' as a label, as it remains diverse enough to include folks from a lot of traditions, and it remains in my mind distinct from liberal Christianity.

As I have continued to reflect on these things over the last week, I decided that I needed to write a blog to contribute to the conversation.  My thoughts here are loosely structured around the difficulty of defining evangelicalism and how this connects to the post-evangelical identity crisis that seems to be rather widespread at the moment.

Along with Carol Howard Merritt, I too want to clarify my position as my good friend Deacon Bo Sanders presented it over at Homebrewed Christianity in his very interesting, thoughtful post (go read it!). What I originally claimed about evangelicalism to Bo a couple of weeks ago is that 'evangelical' seems to me to be most useful today primarily as a descriptive sociological label. At the same time, I do think that it carries theological weight as well, if what we mean by ‘theological’ is that the word ‘evangelical’ has a meaningful theological history that can help define the movement itself, and that it has a theological referent imbedded within it: 'gospel'. But as I figured out rather quickly as a religious studies major in college, history transforms religious movements over time in the deepest possible ways, and Christians express the 'gospel' quite a bit differently depending on which ‘team’ you’re on – as well as which historical period you happen to participate in. So 'evangelical' may eventually refer to another group than it currently does.  Like any religious movement itself, I understand evangelicalism as a historical movement subject to change.  The boundaries of such movements dynamically expand and contract in history, so pinning down the true 'essence' of any religious movement, including evangelicalism, is extremely difficult.  When religious studies scholars are seeking to describe a religious movement to a class, they often throw out the caveat that all religions are wildly diverse and are largely relativized by history, but we can still generalize pretty well about their most common, visible forms.  That said, evangelicalism has a recent enough history that one might argue that it's a little bit easier to define in a coherent fashion.

[If you have time, read the following discussion about defining evangelicalism - if not, jump to the bold underlined part and read from there for my concluding thoughts]

In Douglas Sweeney's book "American Evangelical Story", he has an interesting survey of current evangelical definitions. He argues that perhaps the two most famous definitions of David Bebbington and Alister McGrath are not in fact very helpful.  They are much too broad.  Critics of the two, such as Sweeney himself, point out that most Christians throughout history have in fact defined themselves along basically the same lines as the Bebbington and McGrath definitions of evangelicalism.  He also argues that those who resist the propositional method of defining evangelicalism like Randall Balmer and Robert Webber are not able to really define anything in doing so, thus leaving ‘evangelical’ as a loose, confusing term that denotes a ‘family resemblance’ - a kind of vague 'you know when you see it' understanding of evangelicalism.

Billy Graham
So maybe we should just follow the scholar Donald Dayton’s call for a moratorium on the label evangelical.  He argues that it is “theologically incoherent, sociologically confusing, and ecumenically harmful.” Similarly, the conservative Calvinist theologian David Hart argues that “evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist.” Yet another Calvinist Michael Horton states that “quarrels about the evangelical trademark are probably a profound waste of time and precious energy.” Or maybe we should just give up with George Marsden and say that an evangelical is someone who admires Billy Graham!

I'd like to point out Sweeney's own interesting definition as an alternative to these other options, based primarily on a study of evangelical history:

“Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist.” 

George Whitefield
He argues that they are best defined by their adherence to “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.” He unpacks three key terms here: first, movement – not a church or denomination, but a totally voluntary and diverse coalition working to pursue a single common goal: gospel witness. Second, orthodox Protestant – creedal orthodoxy and gospel centrality, especially as these were expressed by the Protestant Reformers. Though not all evangelicals are Protestants, at the center of the movement is justification by faith alone apart from the law, or "salvation through faith alone by grace alone."  And right doctrine comes only through scripture – all evangelicals affirm this, Sweeney states. Third, eighteenth-century twist – modern evangelicals, as opposed to those who share the label ‘evangelical’, are heirs of the Great Awakening. At minimum, this means a sense of gospel urgency, conversion-oriented missions, and an emphasis on devotional bible reading.  That first point is what was emphasized to me by my  professor of American Religion in a secular religious studies department.  Although her definition was more complex, she argued that all evangelicals have "the urge to convert."

Just because I was curious, I checked out a couple of extra loose definitions from non-evangelical religious studies scholars.  Karen Armstrong emphasizes that evangelicals are primarily defined over against fundamentalists.  At the center of their movement is an ecumenical approach to witnessing and missions, that is, evangelicals believe that in order to save souls most efficiently, broader cooperation amongst Christians is more essential than fundamentalists are willing to concede.  UC Santa Barbara scholar of American religion, Catherine Albanese points out that virtually all evangelicals emphasize moral holiness, expect the second (and final) coming of Jesus, affirm biblical inerrancy or infallibility, and talk about “getting saved”, “coming to Jesus”, and the “sinners prayer.”

In conclusion, here are my scattered thoughts about the label ‘evangelical’:
a) If it is to be useful at all, it needs to be more narrowly defined than the vast majority of emergent-type theology aligns with. While our best evangelical scholars can’t completely agree on what evangelicalism is, there are some overlapping emphases - and while I see some common ground, most of the emergent movement today seems to have shifted to the left of evangelicalism (even if they are still to the right of 'liberal').  I see room for many types of evangelicals, and while the movement’s diversity and lack of structure or hierarchy allows for almost any Christian to label themselves ‘evangelical’ and get away with it, I don’t think that’s the most helpful route.

b) While still distinct from fundamentalists, with Tony Jones and Carol Howard Merritt, I think it’s a label largely dominated by conservatives and moderate-conservatives, primarily theologically – and while some so-called progressive evangelicals might want to still work for their space in the movement, it’s probably time for most emergent-types to just realize this and give up the fight over a label that isn’t ours anymore. And - while this seems obvious, it's worth pointing out - for those emergents who embrace some combination of liberation/feminist/post-colonial/queer theologies, existentialism, process theology, theological religious pluralism, and post-structuralism, evangelicalism never was ours to begin with. You're probably a liberal or a progressive if you have really appropriated those types of theologies (and not just 'taken notes' from them, or 'heard their critique').  Or you can call yourself prophetic, emergent, kerygmatic...just not evangelical (well, actually, you can do whatever you want - I'm just not sure it really means very much in a wider conversation at this point).  Some of us either need to come up with a new label, stop caring about labels so much, or take on previously existing ones.  Then again, because being able to call yourself an evangelical provides more employment opportunities in churches, seminaries, etc, I'm sure there will always be a fringe-left evangelical group who cling to the label.  And that's honestly a dilemma I  sympathize with.  Those of us in higher theological/religious education sometimes feel like there are only two live options for us at the end of the road in an age where the mainline seminaries are struggling to survive: secular religious studies department or evangelical seminary.

c) Just to add to all of these definitions, I want to note some of the most popular "test-cases" for evangelical orthodoxy today.  The examples might seem a bit random, but I assure you that these are some of the hot-button issues for evangelicals (plus, their other big issues already were touched on above).  These may change in time, and are not absolute.  Rather, they are a few solid generalizations of what the vast majority of self-identified evangelicals believe (and have always believed): affirming that at least homosexual practice is a sin (even if one is ok with legalizing gay marriage); believing that angels and demons are at least quasi-personal, real, created beings (I doubt more than 1% of all self-identified evangelicals demythologize supernatural beings to psychological projections or mental illnesses); and affirming at least one substitutionary atonement theory to be at the core of the gospel (according to Mark Baker, Joel Green & C. Norman Kraus, this is an umbrella term for ransom, recapitulation, christus victor, satisfaction, and penal theories - it excludes moral exemplar).  So yes, you can still be an evangelical if you don't pass these evangelical orthodoxy tests (so don't take this too seriously!).  But, it puts you on the far left edge of the movement in a tiny minority position.  And you will just have to live with the fact that when scholars, media, and normal people talk about 'evangelicals', you most likely aren't what they mean by the term.  For some that will be fine, and they will be helpfully stretching the boundaries of evangelicalism.  But I bet that unless they're employed by evangelicals, most will get tired of living in that kind of tension and just spring for a new label instead (like me). Then again, who knows whether any of this will matter in 20 years.

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