Review: Still Evangelical?

4537Still 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

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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.

Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent

Scot_McKnight_ACU_Summit_2013

By Flofor15 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Popular blogger and theologian, Scot McKnight, argued recently on his blog that it is time, and past time to bury the identifier “evangelical.”  Recently the former Princeton Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship, citing the confusion and negative associations the term has with students. Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication, now uses the language of “beautiful orthodoxy” to describe its vision. What it comes down to is the term is now associated with the 81 percent of voters who self-identified as evangelical who voted for our current President, and that essentially “evangelical” equates with a certain kind of Republican, and is a divisive and alienating term if one doesn’t identify with those Republicans.

I find I have to agree with McKnight, albeit with great sadness. This is the death of what was once a good word, literally. It has been corrupted by making it politically captive to one party whose policies and practices many thoughtful Christians find impossible to reconcile with a biblical faith.

McKnight is not one who is leaving what would be defined as an evangelical faith in abandoning the term, unlike others who have changed their beliefs along with their identification, some leaving Christianity altogether, others finding a home in mainline Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox bodies. What I hope for McKnight (and I would include myself along with him) is that he doesn’t leave behind the “81 percent” who still use the identifier.

I think there is a great danger for the “19 percent” to fall into the same error of the Democratic elite in this last election, who lost touch with their base, particularly in the working class and perhaps even looked down their nose at them as the “great unwashed” or “the basket of deplorables.” I would argue that there is an evangelical elite as well–academics, writers for national organs like Christianity Today, who would identify as “socially progressive” on many issues while remaining theologically orthodox. And this elite has its own “echo chambers.”

In his book Just ImmigrationMark Amstutz observes the progressive position on immigration of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and the disconnect between these evangelical leaders, and many of those in the denominations and ministries they represent. What this suggests to me is a telling lack of influence by those charged with teaching and shepherding their flocks. Amstutz also notes a troubling disconnect between biblical principles and policy recommendations reflecting a very thin biblical and theological analysis of the issues. When evangelical leaders fail to root their teaching in careful biblical argument, and promote a policy position that looks very much like a party platform, is it little wonder that there is a disconnect between shepherds and flock?

It is probably not uncommon for those in the “19 percent” to bemoan the divisive politics in our country. But what are we doing to heal the deep fault lines with the “81 percent”? I found it deeply troubling to read the uncharitable things written by those in the 19 percent about those who voted for the current president. Dropping the term “evangelical” helps shed what is a negative identification. But if it means dropping identification with those who share our core convictions, who we would call brothers and sisters in Christ, then we mirror our country’s political divisions in the body of Christ. What place have we for complaining about our nation’s divided house when we cannot even restore our own?

Scot McKnight represents a significant group within the 19 percent–those who are the teachers and pastors of the church. Ultimately, if the flock of God has entered into unholy alliances that have compromised our identity in the world, at whose feet must this be laid but those who are teachers and shepherds of that flock? Will we then distance ourselves to preserve our progressive theological purity and simply say “they” are the problem. How far from the prophets of old who identified with the sins of their people, or even Christ, who accepted a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin” even though he had no sins of his own to repent.

What is the responsibility of teachers and pastors when they believe their people in error? The apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

I wonder if we might need to spend less time in our echo chambers and more time with the people we serve, exercising kindness, able teaching, patient endurance, and gentle correction?

I also realize that some evangelical leaders are among those who have strongly supported the President. I’ve seen them decried in numerous blogs, but I wonder how many efforts have been made to “reason together” face to face.

Beyond all this, I wonder if there might be value in laying aside the politics to re-affirm the defining essentials of evangelicalism, even though we may need to find another name for it? Classically, we have been committed to the authority of the Bible in all of life, the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, the promise of new life through conversion of once lost persons, and activism in both witness and social concern. While we squabble about politics, a generation is embracing a secular ideology and a variety of alternative spiritualities, we face a rampant opioid crisis and growing disparities of wealth and poverty, education, and even life expectancy. We are witnessing militant extremists deepening our racial divides and promoting violence.

If we really believe the gospel in its wholeness is very good news and is a message of transforming power, why aren’t we coming together to consider how we might fulfill our Lord’s commission in our day? Why are we looking to the political order to deliver us, whether we are the 81 percent or the 19 percent? I wonder what would happen, and how many of our differences might either be resolved or set aside, if we came together across the spectrum to get about the Lord’s business.

Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, wrote an article critical of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright for his support of right wing causes. Bright was deeply hurt and the two didn’t speak for many years until they were staying at the same hotel and Wallis approached and apologized for failing to mend the breach between the two. Another meeting followed, Bright affirming that the Great Commission included care for the poor in doing all Christ commanded. The two prayed for each other’s work. Some time later, Wallis received a $1,000 donation for his work from Bright, along with a personal note,  at the same time that he had learned Bright had just died. He realized this gift and note were among the last things Bright did.

Might we give ourselves to healing such breaches and come together around our shared calling once more? It would be a sad thing if we gave up hope for that kind of healing along with the name “evangelical.” To do so would be to give up on the gospel.

 

Chomsky, Evangelicals, and a Letter to My Senator

Noam_Chomsky,_2004

By Duncan Rawlinson [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, July 14 Salon posted an interview between Charles Derber and Noam Chomsky under the title “Noam Chomsky: The Left Needs to ‘Find Common Ground’ with Evangelical Christians.” I found it surprising that Chomsky would propose this and perhaps reflective of a certain desperation of the Left to recapture national influence. Reading on, I found that Chomsky had in mind progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, who would be sympathetic to many of the same causes those on the Left embrace. That, of course, makes sense and reflects a reality not apparent to many in the media, that evangelicalism is not monolithic, and that there are many who would not align, apart from a common faith in Christ, with the putative leaders of evangelicalism–Franklin Graham, James Dobson et al. Still, I’m not sure that this is all that helpful and might only perpetuate the existing divides in our national life. I’d suggest something different that I have framed as a letter to the Democrat Senator from my state, Sherrod Brown. Here it is:

512px-Sherrod_Brown,_official_Senate_photo_portrait,_2007

Sherrod Brown, by United States Senate, Public Domain

Dear Senator Brown,

I’m writing to you in response to an interview with Noam Chomsky suggesting that the Left in our country reach out to evangelicals. I’m one of them, an Ohio resident, and I think that is a good idea, with a few cautions.

The first is that the worst thing, at least for the health and vibrancy of evangelicalism, is to treat us as a political block. The alliances between some white evangelicals and the Right have alienated many of our youth who are leaving our churches in record numbers. Part of this is that we are a diverse body, particularly along generational lines, as well as along lines of ethnicity. It would be great if you could bring some of our younger and older leaders together, some of our black, Latino, Asian, and white leaders together, if for no other reason than to hear each other. It would certainly help you begin to appreciate the complexity of the real evangelical movement, and not simply the one its putative leaders represent.

It would help you to understand that many of us don’t recognize the “evangelicals” being portrayed in the media and among the intelligentsia. Many of us don’t have the time or access to readily counter those perceptions. In a church like mine, what energies we have are much more devoted to running our food pantry, hosting our community garden and free clinic, collecting school supplies for a growing number of children from low income households and figuring out how to stretch what resources we have further if our country decides to further eliminate some of the safety nets on which those on the margins have relied. We know you care about such things as well.

It would help if you understood that evangelicals have had reason to be nervous about religious liberties, and why they are responsive to appeals to uphold these. When Bernie Sanders questions Russell Vought, a nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget on his religious views, in violation of Article VI of the Constitution and does so unchecked, it worries us. When religious student organizations on university campuses have faced de-recognition and loss of privileges simply because they wished to choose leaders who affirmed their religious beliefs, it worries us. When an order of Catholic nuns are forced to include contraceptive coverage in their health plan, violating their deeply held beliefs, it worries us. Yet concerns for First Amendment freedoms extend far beyond us and could be a place for forging common ground as we protect conscience, association, a free press, dissent as well as religious belief.

We are often written off as anti-abortion rather than recognized for the deep care we have for an ethic of life. You might press us to be more consistent with that. How concerned are we to protect the lives of those across socio-economic lines and from childhood to old age? There are a number of us who are consistently pro-life and an important conversation might be had about how to protect the lives of our children in neighborhoods riven by drug overdoses and gun violence, and our elders whose lives may be shortened and made more painful by sub-standard care.

Evangelicals from Cincinnati to Oberlin were on the forefront of nineteenth century movements to end slavery and to advance women’s suffrage. In recent times, evangelicals in this state have been on the forefront of fights against human trafficking and other social causes. At the same time, we could learn from you about some of the structural challenges under-girding some of our most pressing social problems.

We would hope you might understand more of how important marriage and family are to us. Most of us don’t want to campaign against those who see these differently, but we do think families are important places in the formation of the character, faith, education, and vocational aspirations of our children. We sometimes feel that families, and parents are marginalized in some education systems by “experts” who disparage the values we teach in our homes. Many of us don’t want to eliminate public schools, but do want a greater sense of participation as stakeholders in the education of our children.

There is much more we could discuss, but one last area I might touch on is care for our creation. Christians are often disparaged for their ideas about creation (although here as elsewhere, our views are quite diverse), but this is in fact basic to better care for our planet because we understand we will have to give an account for the care of the creation to the Creator, as well as to our children and grand-children. We differ among us about climate science, but any of us who are conscientious about our faith recognize that in our care for the earth, as elsewhere, we must answer to God.

I do hope you will reach out to evangelicals, here in Ohio and elsewhere, not to win us over as an electoral block, but for our common interest in the good of the country. It could be one more of many steps in healing our divided land, and finding ways to pursue the common good, rather than particular goods.

Your fellow citizen,

Bob

PS from 2018. You may also find that our commitment to life and family means many of us abhor what is happening on our southern border and would support measures that do not separate families and offer refuge to those who need it. Many of our churches stand ready to help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Endorsement Game

Wayne_Grudem_Photo_2014

Wayne Grudem, By Wayne Grudem, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35265675

My Facebook feed has been filled with both defenses of and outrage toward the various evangelical leaders, including Wayne Grudem, who have endorsed the Republican candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Maybe the reason for this is that I have friends across the spectrum (yes there is one!) of evangelical belief who have lots of different takes on these endorsements, and on the fitness for office of the one being endorsed.

I will not engage in any of that discussion here–there is enough of this. More fundamentally, I want to ask the question “what business do these ‘evangelical leaders’ have endorsing any presidential candidate?” I ask this because these leaders enjoy a certain status of influence within a certain segment of the community they represent. Also, as ministers of the Christian gospel, they have a certain calling from God to fulfill.

I believe they betray their calling when they become publicly enmeshed in the partisan politics of any candidate. This was brought forcefully home to me several years ago when talking with a friend about a particular church, which would be considered “evangelical” in belief. This friend told us that joining that church would be out of the question because our friend was not a Republican. It hit me like a ton of bricks that for this person, the impression was that to be a Christian, one had to both believe in Jesus and the Republican Party. I think there are many out there like my friend–attracted to Jesus, but not so much to political parties of any stripe. It is partisan endorsements rather than tenets of the faith that are stumbling blocks to belief for these friends.

Part of what is so troubling with these endorsements is that given their positions, it appears, and the news media plays up, that these people are speaking for a constituency. And perhaps they are. But because of the fuzziness of the boundaries of that constituency, and in fact the spectrum of political views in that constituency (I have friends who are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, American Solidarity Party supporters and more who would all consider themselves ‘evangelical’ in conviction), no endorser can represent all of those the media or general populace think they represent.

The deal with the endorsement game is that the endorser hopes that lending their reputation and influence will be rewarded with further influence if the candidate is successful. You would think that over the last 30 years evangelicals would learn. Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist, and Ed Dobson, a former political operative wrote a sobering account, Blinded by Might, of the high expectations and dashed hopes that Religious Right operatives in the 80’s experienced in the Reagan and post-Reagan years.

I am not arguing that the figures who have endorsed candidates do not have the right to do so. Free speech, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a tremendous freedom. My question does not have to do with the right of these figures to do what they have done but rather the wisdom of these endorsements in light of their calling. Nor do I object to Christian involvement in politics, at any level, in any party. Rather it is the implicit or explicit idea that these people represent anyone other than themselves, and the use of the perception that they do that I believe is wrong.

I would also contend that the proper role of these leaders is to pray (I Timothy 2:2) for whoever is in leadership, to prophetically preach, calling on whoever is in leadership to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) and to pastor the flock that is under their care (1 Peter 5:2), including such political leaders they have influence with.

And for the rest of us? I wonder if it makes more sense to just stop paying attention to endorsements, to give appropriate attention to the candidates, vote our consciences, and get on with other equally and perhaps more important things, whether it is the educating of our children, building bridges of understanding across our differences, protecting the most vulnerable, caring for the good creation, and creating cultural goods.