Evangelical Is As Evangelical Does, I Suppose   Leave a comment


Evangelical used to mean something.  For years, I’ve watched the meaning of the term stretch to encompass any number of groups or personalities that weren’t really … well, evangelical, in the old sense of the term.  Evangelical used to be a sort of nice term for Christian fundamentalist, preferred after the term fendamentalist lost its original sense and became, instead, an epithet of scorn or ridicule. 

Then a couple of days ago, while grazing a note about a blog from a different blogger I follow, I noted that he used the term “evangelical left.”  For some reason, that phrase rang in my ear something like “capitalist communist” might have sounded.  You know, sort of oxymornonic.  Weren’t evangelicals supposed to be fundamentalists in shined shoes and freshly pressed pants?  No matter how you construe “leftist,” it shouldn’t fit with evangelical, righ?

I should get out more, I guess.  Millard Erickson’s book didn’t even float to the surface of my sheltered consciousness.  So, going to Mother Google, who knows a ton of stuff I don’t, I Goggled “evangelical left.” 

Oooops.  Boy was I sooooooooooooo wrong!

For starters, check out Wikipedia  for a short report on evangelical lefties that names names.

Or, go to this site that promotes a book entitled A Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, and you’ll find someone’s idea of who the evangelical right consists of — a collection of people and groups ranging from the Pope to Ted Haggard.  Now, if that isn’t an elastic sense of “evangelical” and “right” I don’t know what would qualify!

The Weekly Standard tells us megachurch pastor Greg Boyd is gunning for the Evangelical Right, for which he is styled a member of the Evangelical Left.  What, prithee, does “evangelical” mean in these contexts? 

Not much, I fear.  So what do we dinosaurs, who might have styled ourselves evangelical 50 years go, call ourselves today? 

Labels are handy things, you know.  When you want a particular tool, it’s nice to have a name for it.  Like “hammer.”  It keeps others from handing you a watermelon when you want to sink a nail. 

And, yes, I know that some terms are usefully vague, so that when you deploy them you might need to qualify them.  There is a difference between an Anglican pastor and a Oneness Pentecostal pastor — a whole lot of differences, even though it’s accurate to call both of them pastors. Pastor is a big-tent sort of word.

But, when it came into use, “evangelical” wasn’t a big-tent word.  It named Christians with common core convictions about Christian truth and Christian mission.  Those core convictions were shared by Christians who lived in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, even Roman Catholic (!) communities, though Christians in the latter communion hated it when that term was applied to them. Evangelicals were Protestants, dontcha know!

No more.  You want an evangelical Roman Catholic?  Click here  and read about some. 

Let’s try an experiment, shall we?  How about “evangelical Communist?  Admitted, it only got me 300 or so hits when I Googled that phrase, but still … .

How about “evangelical gay?”  Whoa!  Over 8,300 hits!

Or what about “evangelical toaster?” (3 hits)

Or “evangelical monkey-wrench?” Finally!  A noun-phrase containing the word “evangelical” that did NOT get a single hit at Google!

Try that game when you’re bored.  You’ll amaze yourself at how elastic the term evangelical is these days.  Evangelical can mean anything, modify almost anything. 

Which means it doesn’t mean a thing, except (maybe) “vaguely religious in an American Protestant sense.”

I’m afraid to play this game with the term “Anglican.”  I might turn up an Anglican monkey-wrench somewhere, and then how would I get through the opening collect next Sunday morning without cracking up? Or, maybe, breaking down in sobs?

UPDATE: Just to show you that I really ought to get out more, I provide nere a quote supplied by my fellow-presbyter Ryan, from a book by David Wells entitled, No Place for Truth, page 134.  Like Mother Google, Wells shows us how elastic the term evangelical has become:

As evangelicalism has continued to grow numerically, it has seeped through its older structures and now spills out in all directions, producing a family of hybrids whose theological connections are quite baffling: evangelical Catholics, evangelicals who are Catholic, evangelical liberationalists, evangelical feminists, evangelical ecumenists, ecumenists who are evangelical, young evangelicals, orthodox evangelicals, radical evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, Liberals who are evangelical, and charismatic evangelicals. The word evangelical, precisely because it has lost is confessional dimension, has become descriptively anemic. To say that someone is an evangelical says little about what they are likely to believe . . . What is now primary is not what is evangelical but what is adjectivally distinctive, whether Catholic, liberationalist, feminist, ecumenist, young, orthodox, radical, liberal, or charismatic. It is, I believe, the dark prelude to death, when parasites have finally succeeded in bringing down their host. Amid the clamor of all these new models of evangelical faith there is the sound of a death rattle.

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Posted September 28, 2010 by Fr. Bill in Evangelicalism

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