Archive for October, 2019

Reflecting on What is an Evangelical? A Movement in Crisis
Fr. Larry Hart

The Criteria
I once took a test, meant to be humorous, that identified me as an ex-fundamentalist radical with neo-orthodox leanings. So I recently read with considerable personal interest Alan Jacob’s article in the The Atlantic, “Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning.” Jacob’s article, which is actually a sort of review of Thomas Kidd’s book, Who Is an Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis. Jacob’s article, like Kidd’s book, has to do with what these two professors at Baylor University see and discuss, over carnitas and guacamole at their favorite taco restaurant, as their complicated relationship with an American evangelical Christianity in crisis. Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd are writing about evangelicalism then, not from a purely academic, but from a profoundly personal perspective. They both see evangelicalism as having been co-opted by the Republicn party to serve its political purposes. The result is that evangelicalism has become virtually synonymous with conservative politics and increasingly diverted from its original purpose of helping each other to live in conscious connection with Christ. This matters to Jacob and Kidd not only because their own religious identity lies in the evangelical “movement,” but because it matters to the spiritual, social and political health of America. I think they are basically correct. Evangelicalism is indeed in crisis––as are all religious institutions, movements and expressions in our post-modern world. And so, the future of evangelicalism and its impact on the larger Christian community matters to me also––and matters greatly.

One way Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd seek to rehabilitate evangelicalism is by defining it in as positive a manner as they can. In his book Kidd acknowledges that formulating such a definition is fraught with problems and more than a little complicated. Nevertheless he offers this definition of evangelicalism: Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Although there have been a number of attempts at more technical definitions I think Kidd provides a simple and practical point for beginning to reflect on what it means to be an American evangelical––I say “American” because what it means to be an evangelical in America is not quite the same as what it means in the U. K. But there are other more important ways in which, while I can sympathize with Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd, that I nevertheless find their definition problematic and in need of clarification.

Born Again
First of all, the expression “born again” occurs in only two chapters of the New Testament––The Gospel of John chapter 3, and the Epistle of 1 Peter chapter 1. In neither instance is it used as a specialized definition, religious jargon, or as a cliché for what it means to become, or to be, a Christian.

In the Fourth Gospel Jesus uses it in his late-night conversation with Nicodemus. The immense status Nicodemus enjoys as a member of the Sanhedrin, his considerable wealth, and his education are all his by virtue of the family he has been born into. But to “see” or to “enter” the kingdom of heaven, which includes but is something wider, deeper, higher, and infinity larger than being “saved” (going to heaven after death) as that word is normally used by evangelicals, Nicodemus will have to surrender the privileges and identity that are his by virtue of his birth–– die to them, empty himself of them and live a life that can be described as having been born of the spirit.

1 Peter 1:3; 23, also speaks of “being reborn.” The Christian, says Peter, is someone reborn, “not of mortal but of immortal seed.” This could mean either one or both of two things. It could mean something similar to John 1:13; namely, that this spiritual rebirth is not due to human action, thought, feeling, or will, but is the mysterious work of God’s word or truth in the human heart. Or/and, the emphasis may be on how a person is reborn or remade by the entry of the seed, the word, into his or her heart. Here, the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) furnishes good commentary. In any case, being reborn does not indicate a unique, one time, or special experience which assures someone that they are now numbered among the “saved.” It is a beautiful metaphor of the transformative process at work in the life of the believer. This inner transformation (Romans 6:1-3) can only be observed in the Christian’s outward attitudes, words, and actions of love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control, gentleness, loyalty, and practice of fairness and justice (Galatians 5:22-23). In the words of Jesus, “By their fruits you will know them.”

“Being born again,” does not work as a definition for one particular segment of the Christian population because it is descriptive of the transformation, metamorphosis is actually the word Paul uses, taking place in every Christian regardless of denomination or of where they fall on a conservative to liberal continuum. It just does not say anything distinctive about evangelicals, or that is limited to them.
I remember a very conservative Baptist telling me one time: “I am a conservative, born-again, evangelical, fundamentalist, Bible believing Christian.” Notice his piling up of terms as if he could not emphasize his orthodoxy enough, and that in the pile is “born again.” The term “born again,” I strongly suspect, is today simply a way of “conservative” Christians distancing themselves from “liberal” Christians, what they at one-time called “modernists,” and asserting their orthodoxy. Not only does the use of “born again” as used by evangelicals and fundamentalists trivialize that expression to the point of falsity, it also means something, whether acknowledged openly or not, that is just not true.

To reiterate, used as a catch phrase “born again” erroneously assumes or implies that those it identifies as liberal or progressive Christians cannot have had a “born again” experience; or, perhaps better, cannot know that experience as the on-going and continuous reality of their spiritual life. It works as defining terminology for evangelicals only because insiders share a common understanding of the exclusive sense in which the expression is consistently used; that is, its use as a kind of confession or affirmation of a very conservative theology. Indeed, an evangelical does not need to talk with you more than five minutes before being able to determine whether you are one of them or not. The clichés in which they speak, and for which they listen, are the shibboleths by which they determine Christian legitimacy and genuineness––just as “liberals” can quickly grasp by their clichés whether you are one of them

The Primacy of the Bible
Sola scriptura, Latin for “by scripture alone,” was one of the essential principles or doctrines emphasized by Luther at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It simply meant that the Christian scriptures are the sole authority for the faith and practice of the church as well as for individual Christians. Church councils, hierarchy, leaders, teachers, preachers, Bible commentators, a message allegedly from an angel or even a talk show host does not possess the decisive authority of Scripture. Luther and the other reformers in declaring the doctrine of sola scriptura meant for it to work as a counter weight to the authority of popes, bishops, conferences, synods, creeds, statements of faith, canon law, or the formalized traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Thomas Kidd, in his book, uses “the primacy of scripture” as an alternate for sola scriptura and so that is how we will think of it here.

For most evangelicals the primacy of scripture includes far more than what Luther meant. For most American evangelicals primacy of scripture includes the idea of inerrancy. The further one looks to the right of the theological spectrum, the more inerrancy is understood as plenary verbal inspiration. Beginning around 1972 Fuller Theological Seminary came under severe criticism from Harold Lindsell, the editor of Christianity Today, and other prominent evangelical leaders for removing the word “inerrancy” from its statement of faith––even though it continued to uphold the “primacy of Scripture.” Inerrancy is a doctrine which insists that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired and absolutely authoritative––that it is there because God wanted it to be there.

Where many people, both Christians and non-Christians, have difficulty with this is when they encounter the sort of biblical interpretation engaged in by fundamentalist. For example, I read somewhere recently of two seminary students who many years ago hitched a ride while traveling through Appalachia. This was during the early years of the space program. They asked the man giving them the ride what he thought about John Glenn circling the earth. They were just making pleasant conversation and so were surprised when he said he didn’t believe that had really happened. He said the photos of a round earth were just made up. The earth is flat, he told them, and so it can’t be circled. When asked what made him think the earth was flat he said it was right there in Isaiah 11:12, “God will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” The Bible he argued, says that the earth has four corners, and if it has four corners it is flat and cannot be circled like a ball. I don’t think that for a moment that anyone who is a genuine evangelical engages in such nonsense. I am saying that it is the sort of absurdity to which the doctrine of inerrancy and plenary verbal inspiration, which reads scripture rigidly and literally, tends to lead.

Actually, even the Roman Catholic Church believes in the primacy of Scripture––just not in this evangelical sense. The inerrancy of scripture held by the Catholic Church as expressed by the Second Vatican Council is that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted to put into the sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” And mainline protestant denominations while acknowledging the primacy of Scripture have also emphasized that the Bible must be interpreted in light of the reason, tradition, and experience of the people of God––the reason tradition, and experience of the whole Church not just that of a single individual. Kidd’s definition of “evangelical” is again problematic because it uses criteria that applies to Christians in general rather than to something unique to evangelicals. Many Christians both within and well beyond the evangelical circle cherish the Scriptures and believe them to be inspired (literally God breathed) or energized in such a way that one may experience the mysterious reality of God as the supreme glory of life.

The Divine Presence of God the Son and the Holy Spirit
This leads quite naturally into the third part of Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd’s definition of an evangelical as one who experiences, “The divine presence of God the Son and Holy Spirit.” There is no point in belaboring the point any further, so I simply repeat one cannot take a characteristic meant to be true of the whole and then make some sort of semantic leap to where it is a defining characteristic of a small part. The entire history of Judeo-Christian spirituality can be defined as the experience of the presence of God. The main difference I would see is that the great saints, mystics, and Christian teachers through the centuries have emphasized this experience as an experience of the Holy Trinity (The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) rather than limiting it as Thomas Kidd seems to do, to the Son and Holy Spirit. Indeed, for every Christian to desire God is the greatest passion, to seek God the greatest adventure, and to find God the greatest discovery.

An Evangelical By An Evangelical
One of my first steps away from evangelicalism came as I realized that it was no longer possible to say, “I am an evangelical,” without simultaneously saying, “I am a fundamentalist.” One can think of any number of British scholars, or in America of the Fuller Theological Seminary faculty, or of people like Jim Wallis at Sojourners, who refer to themselves as evangelical but who would not be considered as true evangelicals by a great many, perhaps a majority, of American evangelicals. The greatest problem for the evangelical “movement” is not that it has been co-opted by the political right, but that it has been superseded or absorbed by fundamentalism. In both the media and popular mind evangelical has become synonymous with fundamentalist. The greatest problem I see with what both Alan Jacob and Thomas Kidd write is that they both, at least tacitly, accept the idea that evangelical and fundamentalism are the same. And as soon as you accept that notion, evangelicalism becomes difficult to define because it includes a whole ethos, numerous assumptions, beliefs, norms and ways of thinking which you won’t find written down anywhere, but are definitive. From here on in this paper, I will use evangelical/fundamentalism to refer to evangelicalism, not in its generous and intellectually honest sense in which I first experience it, but in its use as a synonym for fundamentalism.

I once heard the humorist Sam Levenson tell this little “parable” on The Johnny Carson Show: A man put on a tugboat captain’s cap and went to visit his mother. “Look Mom!” he said, “I am a tugboat captain!” Slowly and gently his mother replied, “Yes son. By you, you are a tugboat captain. And by me you are a tugboat captain. But tell me this: By a tugboat captain are you a tugboat captain?” What we all know is that it takes much more to be considered an evangelical by evangelicals (evangelical/fundamentalist) than what we have here in Thomas Kidd’s definition. Let me suggest a few:

• One must angrily oppose gay rights and denounce homosexuality.
• One must be militantly anti-abortion (In spite of the fact that the Old Testament does not understand human life as beginning before the fetus exits the womb).
• Women are regarded as “the weaker vessel,” which for practical purposes translates into treating them as inferior, and minimizes their potentiality for Christian ministry.
• Racism is to be tolerated.
• Nationalism is elevated to the point it becomes idolatry and the flag to the status of a religious symbol.
• Status and power are admired and honored; and, therefore, corruption and greed are overlooked while the poor and powerless are denigrated even as they are being used.
• Wars of aggression and crimes against humanity (such as those at our border) are seen as patriotic.
• In a complete reversal of what Scripture actually says, sexual sins are taught to be far worse than social injustices like denying workers a livable age, an unjust criminal system, or making life difficult for the poor.
• Salvation is to be understood primarily as a system of reward and punishment––going to heaven rather than hell after death.
• Leadership by coercion is considered biblical.
• Science and technology are thoughtlessly rejected, unless they can be used for one’s personal profit or benefit; and, the Biblical responsibility to care for the earth ignored and demeaned.
• Conservative Republican ideology is to be uncritically and religiously embraced.
• Thinking “correctly” (believing the “right” things) matters more than how someone actually lives life.
• Faith tends to be characterized by “magical thinking,” meaning that if I pray in the prescribed manner, believe the prescribed things, and act as scripted I can control God and nothing bad will happen to me (see Wayne Oats When Religion Gets Sick).
• I would add that one must learn to speak in clichés, but liberals have their own clichés and beside that it would probably be snarky which my wife, who is correct, tells me is no way to be.

All of these characteristics, and more, are what it means to be an American Fundamentalist. Evangelicals by allowing themselves to be lumped in with fundamentalists do themselves no good, nor do they help the cause of Christ.

A Futile Project
I keep arguing, I hope politely, with my evangelical friends, whom I know to be men and women of genuine faith and integrity, that their attempts to distinguish themselves from fundamentalism is an exercise in futility. For one thing, as I have mentioned, in the media and in the popular mind they are now seen as one and the same. And I see no way for evangelicals to disengage from this popular perception as long as they allow fundamentalists to speak for them. If evangelicals don’t want to be equated with fundamentalism they will need to quit allowing people like Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffers, Paula White, Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed to speak in their name––to speak in the name of evangelicals. However, it is, in my opinion, unlikely that the evangelical brand can ever be salvaged. In many instances what evangelicals believe is so close to fundamentalist thought that the two are difficult to tell apart, and the ancient temptation to touch the President’s head and “eat his dainties” too great.

Mark of the Christian
Jesus said, “If you love one another everyone will know that you are my followers.” As the quite conservative Francis Schaffer noted years ago, the world of humanity around us has neither the ability nor inclination to determine theologically or doctrinally whether we are Christian; but, it does have the competency and right to judge whether we are followers of the Jesus Way by our love. What is it the Grateful Dead sang?

Think this through with me
Let me know your mind
Whoah-ho what I want to know
Is are you kind?

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