Is ANYone evangelical enough anymore?

I saw two interesting bits of controversy this past week. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by either of them but I was disturbed by the way they overlapped.

The first item was a post as part of a series at Pangea (on Patheos). This one was reeling over the evangelical credibility of C.S. Lewis. Apparently his views on the subject of hell were a little too open-ended and remind some self-proclaimed watchdogs of the views in a recent controversy surrounding you know who and his book.

Over the past decades there has been an increasingly contentious debate about the invisible boundary of evangelicalism. Apparently some have become so concerned that even historical figures who were previously safe (even adored) are in danger if their views are found to be too loose for the contemporary conservative backlash.

I was only mildly concerned by this whole line of reasoning. Then, I found out that this past Sunday, the NY Times called Michelle Bachmann the evangelical candidate in the Republican primary pool.

So my question is:

  • what are the criteria that we are using for this public label of evangelical whereby the quintessential embodiment from the past century (C.S. Lewis) is out and tea-party candidate Michelle Bachmann is in?
  • who is in change of making these determinations?
  • what are the demarcations that signify whether someone is “in” or “out”?

This is something that I care deeply about as a Methodist minister (UMC) who is the son of a Methodist minister (Free Methodist) we are both proudly Wesleyan in theology. I think that whatever definition we use it should at least be inclusive of our most historical marquee figures and flagship franchises.

I like to use the definition from British Historian David Bebbington as a starting point. We should at least establish a historical framework. [here is an interview with evangelical scholar Mark Noll where he talks about it]

The four keys are:

conversionism: new birth and a new life with God

biblicism: reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority

activism: concern for sharing the faith

crucentrism: focus on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross

Admittedly, those four emphasis take on a different tone and tenor in each generation. They take on different manifestations in each generation. The presence of these four however is a stabilizing theme that runs through the many historical maturations through the centuries and around the globe. These four themes also hold together whether ones utilizes a bounded-set mentality for marking boundaries or a center-set framework to encourage a shared focus.

I celebrate these four themes and find them even amongst my more progressive friends. They could say these four things with confidence:

  • Relationship with God changes you personally (internal) and your relationships (external) .
  • The Bible is central as the Christian Scripture and sets both the agenda and the example.
  • One’s faith should both be shared (relationally) and will consequently impact the world around you.
  • God’s work in Christ is what illuminates and inspires the life of the Christian – Christ revealed God is a unique and significant way. Jesus’ way is to be our way.

This kind of faith is something that I am inspired by and find deep fulfillment by participating in. I am nervous that a reactionary period of retrenchment by the religious right , moral majority, or other politicized conservative groups would see evangelicals like myself and C.S. Lewis pushed out and figures like Michelle Bachmann made central.

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16 comments
Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

wow Bo got Greg to comment! If ya don't know Bo, Greg use to have a podcast back in the day that inspired me to start this one. You may have left the other night before Todd and I began talking about how Greg but if not this is him. thanks greg!

Greg Horton
Greg Horton

Deacon Bo, Fret not, I have thick skin. 1. I know Tripp didn't write it. Where you got that idea is beyond me. I was simply using "Tripp" as a form of address, kinda like "Hey only person whose name I know on this forum..." 2. I'm fully informed as to who C.S. Lewis is. I can fairly state that I've read everything in print, and spent a couple semesters in undergrad evaluating his literature and theology. He's wildly influential on evangelicals because until Mark Noll pointed out the problem, there was a lack of comprehension in evangelicaldom such that Chesterton was inscrutable. Lewis, who spoke with some authority (based on what, I don't know...a degree in Classics?), was always easier to understand, and those Narnia stories were way easier to read than Tolkien. Everyone was able to do the calculus: Aslan = Jesus. He was borrowed by evangelicals, except for elements in The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity (the dumbest title in his corpus), and The Last Battle; he never was one. And when he attempted to do philosophy, he got his ass kicked. As for CT, ha! Since when does a populist magazine speak as any sort of taxonomic authority? Especially one as confused about the term evangelical as CT seems to be. I mean, Chuck Colson for all those years, really? 3. Missional churches probably don't know they're missional because no one knows what it means. I do agree that mktg got hold of the term, but it's not like they corrupted it much; it was always a nebulous, self-identifying sort of term anyway. They did the same thing with emergent, and that one was undefined because so many of the primary participants eschewed the very idea of identification (i.e., labels). Marketing can take some blame, but so can the habit of applying trendy names that are only exceeded in vapidity by their ontological vagueness. It simply becomes a way of making a negative definition (I'm not mainline...) appear denotative and positive. 4.Thanks.

Greg Horton
Greg Horton

Tripp, I know you know that Lewis was never an evangelical. Evangelicals loved the anglo-Catholic in spite of his Catholicism, taking from him what resonated with their theology. It was always goofy to call Lewis evangelical. It's lunacy to call Bachmann evangelical. You know I've contended for a long time that fundamentalists have effectively stolen the label from real evangelicals, and that Bachmann and Palin and Dobson and Schaeffer, etc., have qualified is revolting and shows the ignorance of the mainstream media when reporting religion, but that leaves several million Christians in a quandary: what do you call yourselves? Progressive is just lame, as it brings to mind hipsters who want to be liberal without using the word, and who wish to cast their opponents as regressive. Emergent? Ha. Dead. Possibly stinking, but you know, yours is a Lazarus sort of faith... Missional. Please. Someone, anyone, define that word. The problem isn't that no one is evangelical enough anymore; it's that fundamentalists are defining the parameters. I think the word is worth redeeming. If Christians let the MSM bastardize all their vocabulary, well, then the word Christian isn't much good anymore either because Lord knows it's got all sorts of negative connotations. Might as well give up on that one too.

Stephen Sparks
Stephen Sparks

I read the patheos post to which you referred. I did not take from it at all what you took. As I read the author it seemed he would be more in line with your thinking than with the thinking that you linked him with. I stand confused at your post.

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

geez Bo. steve knight commented on your post! Carol! You hit is big time!

Steve Knight
Steve Knight

Bo, sorry it's taken me so damn long to finally read this and respond! At first I was excited about your re-imagining of the four tenants of evangelicalism ... And then I read Carol Howard Merritt's comment (above). And Carol is right: "Evangelicalism" is not, ultimately, defined by theological ideas (as much as some people may want to claim it is). "Evangelicalism" is irreversibly linked with the Religious Right and a particular political agenda that is anti-gay, anti-choice, etc. And that's where I've parted company with my evangelical upbringing, and, at the end of the day, trying to defend or reclaim (as David Fitch and others are admirably trying to do) the label of "evangelical" is just not something I really have time or energy for. I realize I still think and talk in very evangelical language, because that's how I was formed spiritually. Evangelicalism is my spiritual "tribe," if you will. But the gatekeepers have kicked me (and many others) out of that circle, and I'm honestly not too concerned about trying to get back into that/those circles. I've found a new home in the mainline Protestant church, and I'm pretty happy here, thankyouverymuch ;-)

nathan
nathan

To the question: As long as we let certain luminaries in Louisville, Minneapolis, etc. dominate and take over the discussion, then the answer will end up being "nobody, but who they approve".

Philip
Philip

American evangelicalism, as your next post points out, is a very decentralized idea. Which begs the question, at what point does something becomes so decentralized and detached from it's original meaning that it ceases to be the thing it claims to be? I believe we most often mean conservative christianity when we talk about evangelicalism, whether that's the religious wing of the GOP or sincere biblical literalist, they are a conservative group that feels compelled to push their myopic views upon the greater society. As I've heard you say before, they are a victim of their own success, or as I like to say, "they failed". It's time to move on and let the thing die. We live in a Globalized, Pluralistic and Modern world, the evangelicalism that we all know is about as alien in this environment as a salmon swimming in the Alabama bayou.

Marshall
Marshall

Personally I'm not too interested in gatekeeping because where you have special-interest groups, you the politics of maneuvering for particular advantages, which is not the right way to go about rendering to Caesar. IMO. I think the central point about Evangelicalism is that the "good news" is directly available to each person without reliance on institutional authority... that is the point of #'s 1, 2, and 4. (Although being personally progressive, I place Jesus' baptism higher than his crucifixion.) Then, being told we are to go out into the Vineyard and do maintenance (#3), we have discussions about plans and strategies, which is the right way to "render to Caesar" as long as we don't loose sight of the relevance of direct revelation even to people we disagree with. We're having a hard time with that last, but now is just a moment. "They" are always taking over "our" words. I would also like to own "puritan" and "new covenant" for the central literal ideal, but just look at the attached baggage. But I'm willing to fight for "evangelical".

Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt

Sadly, I can't identify with Evangelicalism any more because (as I said on twitter) there are a lot more people watching FOX News than there are reading Mark Knoll. The rich historic and theological meaning of "Evangelical" has been traded in for sound bytes and inside-the-beltway power. It has become a term that is tightly wound up with politics and the religious right. In most people's minds, it triggers sexism, homophobia, family values, anti-environmental and pro-business. I'm not sure that Evangelicals can get past that. I often talk to people who want to resurrect the term. For me, I think it's too badly damaged in our particular culture... I do like "born-again" though. It conjures up the beautiful imagery of a feminine, life-giving God.

Jeremy
Jeremy

conversionism: new birth and a new life with God biblicism: reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority activism: concern for sharing the faith crucentrism: focus on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross A focus on conversion is woefully individualistic in orientation. Biblicism is a bit unclear as a term because aren't all Protestants necessarily Biblicist? The real question is how one understands the Bible. Activism as simply confined to sharing of one's faith with the hope of 'saving souls' agains smacks of individualism. God forbid activism be about embodying the faith. Finally, being a theologian of the cross (Luther) is not the same as being committed to the substitutionary atonement theory exclusively (the real hallmark of evangelical theology). I'm mistrustful that this works for a definition of evangelicalism. As a mainliner, I'm pretty sure most those in that tradition would embrace those four but would construe in radically different ways that would disqualify them from being properly evangelical.

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

ah HA! funny how a definition can clarify things :) over on Twitter people are distancing themselves due to politics and power. Some are still quite proud to wear the label. it will be interesting to see how this goes. https://twitter.com/#!/leadfromfringe

Travis Mamone
Travis Mamone

Well, I guess I'm an evangelical, then. A progressive evangelical, but an evangelical nonetheless.

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Greg - some thoughts: 1) Tripp didn't write this. You should read more carefully and not make so many assumptions. It's probably how you get into so much trouble ;) 2) C.S. Lewis has been and continues to be wildly influential on evangelicals. Even Christianity Today (the bastion of evangelicalism) admits and promotes that. 3) You wouldn't recognize something that was Missional if it stuck it's finger up your nose and called you Sally. 4) Other than that you make some good points ! -Bo (havin' some fun with ya)

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Jeremy, you have quickly cut to the crux of the issue. I have tried to present a more generous and progressive conceptualization. I may not get away with it. Those who consider themselves the 'gate-keepers' may choose four other marquee issues to use as a litmus test - or more likely ADD four other issues! You have highlighted some of them: individual salvation and substitutionary atonement. It is probably safe to anticipate the next decade will see views of eternity and sexuality brought in as additional tests. I appreciate your perspective on the Mainline as well - I think you are correct in your assessment.

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Oh- and Missional by the way started as a self-designated orientation that stood in intentional contrast to Institutional, Traditional, Theological, etc. as primary motivation and direction of ministry. It was really beautiful and inspiring language that reflected a sincere focus, priority, and motive. Unfortunately, it was soon co-opted by Machine of Christian marketing and promotions of Christian publishing houses as an adjective to designate books they wanted you to read after you finished the latest Shane Clairborne. IF you missed that small window of time before it was co-opted, then I understand why it may be hard to comprehend exactly what that word is intended to highlight. -Bo

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