Still Evangelical? Mark Labberton ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.
Summary: Ten ethnically diverse evangelical “insiders” explore whether to still identify as “evangelical” and what that means in light of the 2016 election.
Still evangelical? This is a question I’ve wrestled with and written on. What seems clear, and perhaps even more after reading this book, is that 2016 is a watershed moment in the evangelical movement in the U.S.
The book brings together a collection of evangelical insiders, albeit not those in the news for their associations with the president. This alone is telling because one often has the sense that the only ones speaking for evangelicalism are those (mostly white and male) figures surrounding the president.
The work is edited by Mark Labberton, whose introductory essay explores how an understanding of the varying “social locations” of evangelicals helps account for the deep divides in the movement. The contributions that follow are by an ethnically diverse group of leaders who identify as evangelical (itself a startling fact when evangelical is equated in polls and the media with whiteness).
- Lisa Sharon Harper, a black evangelical discusses how evangelicalism was both where she found faith, and found her passion for justice betrayed. Her essay raises the question of what justice will require and whether evangelicalism will step up to this.
- Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, explores why she has remained evangelical–it reflects her convictions, it speaks powerfully to our modern age, there is a beauty in its witness, a history of advocacy for justice and equality, and it is her own family’s tradition.
- Mark Young discusses evangelicalism as an alternative to fundamentalism and the critical challenge of recovering and refocusing on identity and mission–an ecclesial missiology across the church lines that make up the evangelical movement.
- Robert Chao Romero represents the Latinx community and speaks both of the powerful evangelical movement within while challenging the broader movement to step beyond fear in engaging issues of immigration and the Dreamers.
- Soong-Chan Rah challenges the American Christian exceptionalism of a white evangelicalism with no room for lament faced with a growing multi-ethnic movement both in America and globally.
- Sandra Van Opstal, a Latinx woman engaged in mobilizing multi-ethnic worship expresses the sense of betrayal many felt on election night coupled with a commitment to reform from within, being situated in an evangelical denomination in a multi-ethnic congregation.
- Allen Yeh contrasts the theological orthodoxy of Euro-American evangelicalism with the emphasis on orthopraxy in the developing global movement of evangelicals and that we need a theology that incorporates these voices.
- Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today writes of his realization of being part of an evangelical “elite” that often criticized the fearfulness of the “81 percent” while being blind to their own fears. He recognizes the messiness of our scene and the need to recovery a unity not around our politics but around Christ and our love for each other in him.
- Shane Claiborne believes evangelicalism needs to be born again along the lines of his “red letter Christian” movement.
- Jim Daly, James Dobson’s successor at Focus on the Family speaks to the critical need for threefold listening at this time: to God, to each other, and to the world.
- Tom Lin, president of InterVarsity, wraps up the collection with the reminder that evangelicalism is far more than its American expression. It is a global movement and the embrace of that movement as well as a re-affirmation of the distinctives often referred to as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral may be critical in our day. He is heartened by what he sees in the next generation in the movement he leads (in which I am also employed)–conversions, collaboration, the embrace of people of color (53 percent of InterVarsity), and faithfulness to doctrine.
At first glance, this might be another version of the old saw about lining up economists end to end and having them point every direction. Yet I also found several threads running through these contributions:
- Evangelicalism in American life is just as messy as American life. Part of the reason for this is the success of evangelicalism in saturating so many of the “social locations” in our national life. Our failure is one of not being able to transcend those locations with a stronger identification with each other through and in Christ. What could happen if we awake to that, lament our mess, and allow Christ to do a fresh work?
- A part of our needed awakening is to the people of color who share with those of us who are white a love for the Savior and for his scriptures, and a recovery of an evangelical passion for justice for all who are image bearers of God.
- Our awakening also needs to be to a movement that is global in character, one in which we are a minority, and from whom we have much to learn, even as we repent from Christian versions of American exceptionalism. How might our vision of every tribe and nation, and people worshiping God in the age to come shape how we view those peoples in the present time? A departure from evangelicalism that doesn’t reckon with our global identity risks simply falling into a different variant of American exceptionalism.
- There is much that remains that is good and beautiful and true, from our history, from our bedrock convictions, and from how the Spirit of God is moving amid our messy national life.
Finally, the existence of leaders like those in this book, the wider movements they represent, and the relative lack of notice they receive in the broader media reminds us that it is worth questioning the media accounts of evangelicals. I do not consider these “fake news.” I believe they are giving us true accounts, but not full accounts of a complex and messy movement. I also believe that we cannot let these accounts define our self-understanding of what it means to be evangelical, or to determine whether we are still evangelical. For me, the contributions in this book much more closely reflect the lived reality of my faith than the media accounts. Hence, I would be one who says he is “still evangelical.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.