Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning

Still Evangelical?- Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological MeaningTakeaway: The meaning of the word evangelical is complicated. The groups it refers to still are present, even if there is reform necessary.

I am ambivalent about the word Evangelical. Theologically I am a bit on the edge of the term, depending on how it is defined. Sociologically, I am a bit further away from the term if it is used to describe a political grouping (Religious politically conservative Whites.) Historically, I grew up in an Evangelical section of a mainline denomination while participating with solidly evangelical youth groups of friends before heading to Wheaton College before going to seminary at a decidedly non-Evangelical institution (University of Chicago Divinity School). I currently am a member at an evangelical non-denominational mega-church. So I have some historical background, theological bias, but politically I am a Democrat and incredibly frustrated with the political definition of Evangelical, especially around racial issues.

I initially wasn’t going to read Still Evangelical. But I appreciate Karen Swallow Prior even if I disagree with her at times. In spite of my reluctance I picked up a review copy and expected to be mostly frustrated. It is not that I wasn’t occasionally frustrated. But I also really appreciated the choice of authors and the directness of the discussion about the weaknesses of the Evangelical movement, especially locally within the United States. It is a rare collaborative book like this that is actually well put together and balanced. Still Evangelical really is balanced. It has very pointed and direct criticism, but also a lot of love for and hope for the church as a whole and the Evangelical church in particular.

The subtitle is ‘Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning’ (of the word Evangelical.) And these are insiders. Not every name is a household name. But all of them have paid their dues and are solid Evangelicals by history, by institution, and by love of the church.

It is a rare book published in the Evangelical world that is has as many chapters by minorities and women as by White males. The diversity of the authors matters to how positively I feel about the book. After the introductory chapter by Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary and the editor of the book, only one of the first five chapters was by a white male, although three of the five last chapters are by white men. (Two additional names are listed in the Amazon description that are not in the pre-release edition that I have.)

Lisa Sharon Harper focused on the weaknesses of the cultural understanding of Evangelicalism, particularly around the idea of justice, especially around race.

Karen Swallow Prior balanced her own understanding of her place in Evangelicalism as someone that grew up in and was formed by Evangelicalism with the historic understanding of the term, especially from its British history and the way that British Evangelicals were expanding the role of the church into social justice.

Mark Young suggests that the way forward is to recapture what it means to be Evangelical by focusing on its theological identity and mission rather than its sociological or political background.

Soong-Chan Rah pointed to the need to pay attention to the Evangelicalism that is outside of the US. He believes that the root of the problem of evangelical identity is American Exceptionalism that views Evangelicalism as primarily American and not seeing American Evangelicals as part of a worldwide community.

Allen Yeh had a wide ranging chapter (and the best chapter) about the need for Evangelicalism to balance its current bias toward a theological orthodoxy with orthopraxy that is rooted in world-wide community. The western Evangelical world needs to develop more focus on right action while retaining orthodoxy and the majority world needs to be given more space to develop theologically within their cultures. Yeh resists the idea that orthodoxy can really exist without orthopraxy. There is far more to this chapter, but the main focus is that orthopraxy along with orthodoxy need to come together so that there can be real unity within the church as a whole, but also within the Evangelical community worldwide.

Mark Galli has a mostly pessimistic take on Evangelicalism. As the editor for the periodical most closely associated with Evangelicalism, Christianity Today, he is aware of the problems and strengths. He points primarily to the disconnect between the elite and non-elite Evangelicals. (Karen Swallow Prior in a similar vein on Twitter Saturday night was positing that outside of pundits and professionals, she did not think most Evangelicals used the word to describe themselves.)

One interesting comparison that he made was to Puritanism. Evangelicalism today is defined quite differently by those outside of the movement than it is by those inside the movement.

Where I think Galli is wrong is that he wants to give the benefit of the doubt to Trump voters and others as a sort of economic or cultural determinism. The polling and research seems to suggest that racial vulnerability, not economic or cultural insecurity was a primary driver of Trump voters. If this line of thought is right, then the understanding of economic and cultural differences between elite and non-elite or left and right parts of evangelicalism or the coasts and the flyover parts of the country may be results of differences of other attitudes instead of the drivers of those attitudes. (But Galli would probably suggest that I am proof of his assertions.)

There is a lot that Galli says that I think is right. The problem is that I think of the of the assumptions that give rise to what he says that is wrong. But this book, if anything, needs more contrary ideas.

(Added later: Alan Noble commented on twitter about the idea that there was an elite/common Evangelical split. Noble correctly noted that with the exception of Russel Moore and Al Mohler, the elite Evangelicals that have a history of political action almost all have supported Trump. Those that are primarily known as academics or missions leadership were much more likely to have been part of the #NeverTrump group. I think this is right. And the political Evangelical elite was probably more important in voter turnout than Academic/Mission elite.)

Shane Claiborne’s chapter is the shortest and weakest of the book. He talks about being a Red Letter Christian and how actually paying attention to Jesus’ words are important. It adds very little to the overall conversation.

Jim Daly’s contribution is short but helpful. Daly is the current leader of Focus on the Family. Daly points out how the second generation of leadership of many personality driven organizations is more focused on organizational leadership and less on charismatic leadership. He also points out the strength of the democratization of media. The rise of self publishing, blogging and podcasting means that there are many outside of the traditional Evangelical leadership that are speaking. Healthy leadership is a leadership that listens, not just to God (although that is important) but also to those around them, especially those that have different perspectives.

Tom Lin ends with a hopeful essay revisiting the importance of seeing Global Evangelicalism as the center of our discussion about Evangelicalism within the US. As the head of Intervarsity, a trustee at Fuller Seminary, and a trustee of a large Evangelical Foundation he sees the shift in Evangelicalism away from some of the old and toward some of the new. I think he is right to be hopeful when he focuses us on global Evangelicalism.

His hopefulness is in part based on his work with mostly young people. And that is where my hope is mostly based as well. But I am not sure that you can point to the global definition of a word as taking priority over the local. I think it is a weakness of this whole project.

The word Evangelical refers to a global, historical and theological movement. One that is growing world wide. One that has theological and ecclesiastical strength. But also one that has some significant problems locally within the US.

As one side note: I have always understood Bebbington’s Quadrangle, which is referenced a number of times in this book as Biblicism, Activism, Personal relationship with Christ and the need to share that personal relationship (evangelism) and Christologically focused. It wasn’t until I read this last chapter that I realized that the official term isn’t Christological, but Cruciform. I think there is a different between a focus on the work of the Cross and on the person of Jesus. My personal theological biases are uncomfortable with the way that some Evangelicals become bibliocentric in a way that can sometimes appear to be almost idolatrous. I am okay with the basic idea of the activism and Evangelism, although the individualistic part of the Evangelism does give me pause at times. But I am much more focused on Christological understanding than a Cruciform focus.

I think the cross is historical and important and the death and resurrection are both real and physical. But I think the incarnation and life of Jesus, as well as the reality of the resurrection are just as important as the actual death. Christ wasn’t only here to die. He was also here to live.

Still Evangelical is worth reading if you are interested in the direction of the group that is currently called Evangelical. The movement isn’t going away regardless of the term that is used to identify it. I think the discussion about the term is important to the extent that words matter. And while not everyone is particularly interested in word choice, it is not merely semantics. One problem is that while I think that this is a balanced take, paying attention to the critiques slightly more so that they are understood, the problem with the cultural/political understanding of Evangelical is that those that are only cultural/political will have no interest in the critiques.
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Update: This morning I listened to a panel discussion on the podcast “Pass the Mic” by Witness: A Black Christian Collective (formerly called the Reformed African American Network) and it also directly addressed the idea of what it means to be an Evangelical. In many ways it more directly addressed the problem of the different of the local understanding of the term Evangelical, especially to those that are not White in the US, compared to the global understanding of the term. Many minorities within the US are not unaware of the global concept of Evangelical. And theologically many minorities are Evangelical. But they do not identify as Evangelical for two primary reasons. 1) Culturally and politically Evangelical is understood as a label for White Christians. 2) Even those minorities that are willing to overlook the cultural or political definition of Evangelical and want to act on the theological definition often have difficulty participating in predominately White Evangelical denominations, parachurch organization or educational institutions. Earlier this year I reviewed another collection of essays by minority voices that work within White Evangelical institutions and the message of that book is that quite often minorities try to work within the theologically Evangelical framework and come to realize that the cultural biases of the White world overwhelm their ability to work inside Evangelical institutions and the they give up and leave or are pushed out.

Again, a primary reason that Evangelical has come to mean culturally White conservative Christians is not that those that are not white are not conservative Christians, but that the White cultural bias pushes out all others. Much of my ambivalence about the term Evangelical is not about the historical or theological meaning of the word Evangelical but the resistance of White Evangelicals to be called to repentance for their racism and actually do the work to change. It is not that I don’t have lots of work do repent and change of my own racism. But I at least am willing to acknowledge the problem. Many others do not seem to be there yet.

Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle EditionAudible.com Audiobook

One Comment

Lisa C Penley Uotinen January 28, 2018 at 8:17 am

Adam, this is a wonderful review and resonates with how I feel about Evangelicalism today. I live in southwest Virginia, in the heart of the Bible belt, in the heart of Trump country. I live among people who are big fans of Jerry Falwell (Liberty University is in the next county). And, I live among people who are blatant racist Christians. The kind of people who, when I offered to dog-sit, informed me, “Our neighbors are black. Are you OK with that?” Racism is real, it exists, and it is so blended in with Southern American White Conservative Christianity that it’s hard for these people to even understand what racism is. But it goes back a couple centuries, when Christians began preaching that slavery was endorsed by the Bible, and continued to the 1960s, when Christians preached that it was Biblical to separate the races. I no longer identify myself as an Evangelical for this reason, among many. Keep blogging!

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