The Thing With Labels

On this week’s TNT I proposed that labels can be good and helpful. They don’t need to be divisive or negative. pantry_labels2

Now some people want to eschew labels all together. I get why they might want to do that but I find that not only a daunting task but a nearly impossible way to proceed through society and culture.

What I am suggesting is that labels are unavoidable and can be helpful – IF a couple of things are clarified.

Like labeling a Pilsner and a Pale Ale, it is necessary to know that you are getting a different product BECAUSE it has come through a different process and has different ingredients.

This is not a problem. An Episcopalian is different from a Nazarene and an Unitarian in pretty significant ways. No one balks at that.

Where this does become a problem is when

  1. You mean the label meanly – in a pejorative way. 
  2. When you don’t use the label correctly.

Both of these came up recently in an episode that is illustrative. In Fitch and Holsclaw’s new book Prodigal Christianity:

Please keep in mind – I am not trying to start-up the argument again and thus will not link to the original posts – I am trying to talk more broadly about HOW we use labels in theological conversation. 

“On the one hand, we are less than satisfied with what the “new kind of Christianity” has become. Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and others have helped us ask important questions and contributed greatly to creating a generous and compassionate Christianity, and to them we remain grateful friends. But their answers have often lacked substance on which we could live, and what goes by the name of “the emerging church” now appears to have settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

This is a horrible couple of sentences. First, because Tony Jones rails against the mainline.  Second, because as a mainline pastor (which I am) the use of that phrase is not remotely being utilized correctly.

Mainline is an expression of church. It is both a model of organization and a historic expression.

I think that what Fitch meant by it was a liberal theology. But liberal is a constellation of loyalties – a series of commitments that form and APPROACH to theology.

Now you can see the problem. The term was meant to distance the authors FROM those other 3 (McLaren, Jones, Pagitt) AND it was used incorrectly. 

Pilsner and Pale Ale,  Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon,  these are labeled as such and that is not a problem. But something happens theologically when labels are assigned BY others instead of letting one self-identify and when those labels are not accurate.


In a post-script, Tripp says in the TNT that he thinks something else is going on entirely.  He thinks that this error is really the result of trying to say something theologically when in reality is it ethics … but you don’t want to say so!

Jones is theologically orthodox. Fitch is probably left of Jones politically (due to Zizek). Tripp think that this is really only about homosexuality but that Fitch doesn’t want to say it – so he attempted to get at it theologically and thus missed his mark, causing confusion and conflict.


I would love you thoughts on this issue of labels: their utility and their misuse. 


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I'm much less interested in "labels" (on beers/wines or on people) than I am in, say, the "ingredient list". Randall Grahm, winemaker of Bonny Doon wines decided recently to include all ingredients on his wine labels. His Albarino didn't just have Albarino juice, rather:

"Biodynamic® grapes and sulfur dioxide.
Other ingredients used in winemaking: indigenous yeast, organic yeast nutrient and bentonite.
At time of bottling, this product contained: 65 ppm total SO2 and 20 ppm free SO" 

Other labels include how much oak he's chosen to use (or not to use) and other fun tidbits. While, to the average consumer just looking for Albarino, this is probably overkill. But it tells me a lot more about what's going on. How much more so is detailed information needed to make any kind of pronouncement about the inherent/evolving thoughts and beliefs of any member of any branch of Christianity, which in ten years are likely going to mean something significantly different anyways? Like Bo said, you can't assume the ingredient list by the label "Methodist". 

Of course, the pertinent question is, "why do you need the assumption?" To find a church? To choose which books to buy; preachers to listen to; podcasts to subscribe to; politician not to vote for? The only way to do that is rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work of tasting and drinking it in. Yes, the various labels can potentially speed that process up a little but, like @kenalto9 I suspect that labels are more often used to weed out the options we're predisposed to dismiss.

I'm so new to this whole conversation that I'm just learning all of the names y'all are throwing around (two of the three JC's, Whitehead, Pannenberg, Derrida,etc.), but I just label y'all "dudes that say things that resonate with me" and I'm glad that I continue.


The labels work well when folks might be using them to choose which of the many flavours they all recognize as beer they will taste and enjoy today, not so well when they are used to dismiss anything other than your favourite as "Lite." 

Given most of us are trying to follow Jesus, who had a lot to say about going to and being with the 'outsiders,' we are surprisingly quick to fire up the labelling machinery.

Coming from a denomination that follows a lectionary, one of the insights last weeks reading from Acts (Peter reporting to the Jerusalem elders after entering Cornelius' house) might point to was Peter's words before entering the house: “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10: 28 ESV).

We tend to think of Peter and those Jerusalem elders as fully enlightened by the Spirit at Pentecost, but they have all needed more Spirit, more vision, more enlightenment to realize the lesson that comes to Peter, the lesson Cornelius' household makes manifest.


One more brief thought: let me quibble just a bit with the beer analogy.  To distinguish among beers or wines or coffee varieties certainly marks the one-doing-the-distinguishing as an "insider" in a certain imagined community.  The fact that, without Wikipedia, I couldn't tell you the difference between a Pilsner and a Pale Ale, means that I'm not part of the community called beer-lovers, and that says a fair bit about me but not much about the beer.  

But the Pilsner itself isn't doing the categorizing, and I think that might be more important than you're letting on.  The fact that Bo Sanders has something at stake in saying "I'm not a liberal" and Nathan Gilmour enjoys telling people that he's a "bad evangelical" (even as he talks about himself in the third person) means that sociological grouping is reflexive and dialectical in a way that dog breeds, beer varieties, and geological formations are not.  A stalactite has nothing at stake in denying that it's a rock-sickle.  But you put a good deal of effort into insisting that you're a progressive rather than a liberal, and I take some pride in being labeled contradictory things.  

Anyway, like I said, I dig this conversation.  I'm glad you took on these questions.

David Fitch
David Fitch

Brother Bo,

  ...  I think the beer analogy is helpful. 

   and  you and Tripp forget (in the post script) that for me theology and ethics cannot be separated, and all theology is political. I look forward to chatting on the podcast next week!! Keep on with the good work!


I listened to and enjoyed the episode, but my own stance towards sociological labeling differs a bit. As I tell folks, I didn't become an "evangelical" until I left seminary.  While I was in seminary, among the segment of the population (in my experience at least) most obsessed with self-labeling, "evangelical" was a technical term, something that meant this-but-not-that and that was an insult if applied to one's positions, unless one wanted to self-identify as "evangelical."

When I left seminary and went to graduate school in English literature, I was a person who went to Church on Sundays, read the Bible, and talked openly about my baptism.  Thus I was an "evangelical." I didn't sign up for that label, but it was interesting to see how people interacted with me differently because I was "one of them." 

I suppose the interpretation of the parable is thus: keeping vigilant watch over one's own labels has its own reward, but I actually learn a fair bit about myself by asking why the label-placer would draw category-lines in such a way that I'm part of this group but not that group.  And beyond that, I have a fair bit of fun being Mike Morell's "conservative evangelical" and no less fun, if I'm honest, being my students' "subversive postmodernist."  Now I'm not going to pretend that everyone has the fun that I do playing into and messing around with the roles assigned me, but I will say without crossing my fingers that I do have a fair bit of fun at it.

So I suppose my own ethical/rhetorical/political question is this: why is it that other people don't find that as much fun as I do?  I don't have an answer, but I imagine other folks might.