Thursday, April 27, 2006

The ‘E’ Word

Following a link, ultimately from a post on Good In Parts, I found a fascinating article by John Buckeridge, the editor of Christianity magazine. You can read it in full here.

John’s argument is that the word ‘evangelical’ is no longer useful to describe the current of church life that it once did. He says:

Half a century ago words like ‘gay’, ‘ecstasy’ and ‘wicked’ meant something very different than they do today. In the past ‘evangelical’ stood for four key values:

  • a commitment to the authority and centrality of scripture,

  • a call to personal faith and repentance,

  • the centrality of Christ’s death as our substitute,

  • putting faith into action through evangelism and social action.

Now to the unchurched and people of other faiths – evangelical is increasingly shorthand for: right-wing US politics, an arrogant loud mouth who refuses to listen to other people’s opinions, men in grey suits who attempt to crowbar authorised version scripture verses into every situation, or ‘happy-clappy’ simpletons who gullibly swallow whatever their tub thumping minister tells them to believe. Large parts of the British media seem happy to paint evangelicals into that stereotype. Today in the UK ‘evangelical’ is often linked with the ultimate 21st century swearword ‘fundamentalist’. The result is the name ‘evangelical’ which years ago, may have smelt of roses – now has the aroma of the manure that fertilises the bush.

This has connections with my ‘Upside Down’ post, only what I was suggesting was more than a play on words. I fear that our actual thought processes, our ways of relating to God and to our neighbour, our capacity to love, to minister grace, to embody Christ in his mercy and his purity, are being eroded by what is happening as right-wing attitudes and fundamentalist hermeneutics infiltrate the evangelical church. (Think of George Orwell’s definition of doublethink!)

I am deeply disturbed by all this.

I was reading someone’s summary of their own character in a blog profile somewhere the other day, and it set me thinking. Am I a romantic?

Now, if romantic implies expensive boxes of chocolate, small bunches of dewy red roses, tuxedos and patent-leather dancing shoes for men, and floaty dresses and stiletto heels for women, then I’m not, not, not a romantic. No way.

If on the other hand it implies long walks on the beach at sunset, going to sleep in one another’s arms, giving one’s heart and one’s commitment and one’s total intimacy to one other person, then I am definitely a romantic.

Am I an evangelical?

Now, if this implies uncritical acceptance of the industrial west, our foreign policy and our policies on economics, immigration, social welfare, housing; if it implies reading the Bible as one might read a manual for a washing machine, applying literally both Old Testament laws and every paragraph of all Paul’s letters to our own ways of doing church; if it implies a way of life lived according to instructions from church leadership that can’t be questioned in case one is thought disobedient or lacking in accountability; if it means in practice (no matter what may be said in theory) preferring law to grace, rules to love, doctrinal and ethical purity to mercy and acceptance, then I’m so not an evangelical.

If on the other hand it implies treating the Bible as God’s inspired word to his creation; if it implies taking seriously the Good News of Jesus, in all its grace and mercy, all its power and radically demanding purity, then maybe I am.

If I’m not an evangelical, then am I a liberal?

Well if that implies treating the Bible as no more than another set of axiomatically questionable ancient texts to be demythologised; if it implies treating the Good News of Jesus as just another set of ethical ramblings by a long-dead wise man; if it implies treating theology as just another academic discipline properly confined within the corridors of universities, and prayer as one of many techniques of self-hypnosis, then no, no chance.

But if it implies understanding the Bible as God’s word given to imperfect, culturally conditioned human beings, and expressed not only in history, theology and moral instruction, but also in poetry, polemic and narrative; if it implies recognising that while Paul wrote some of the most penetrating and profound theology, and some of the most poignant personal meditations on God and life, some of his letters contain very limited, particular advice to individual local churches that are not only very different from each other but immensely different culturally from anything we might encounter, especially in the west; if it implies “freedom to develop unique ways of approaching God and talking about Christianity”, and freedom from “dogmatic statements and claims of absolute truth on finer doctrinal points” (quotes from Wikipedia), then maybe I am.

Not for the first time, I’m so grateful simply to be able to call myself a Franciscan!

[Sorry about all the 'I's - you can read 'one' if you prefer, but personally one feels uncomfortable writing as though one were a member of the Royal Family...]


  1. True, you're very right. I think a great deal of misunderstanding results from the fact that both definitions of each of those words are "the" definition for different groups of people.

    And sometimes people will unpredictably switch definitions depending on the conversation. When trying to convince you to be evangelical they use your second definition, but once you claim to be an evangelical you had better stick to the tenets of your first definition...or you're not true to evangelicalism [if thats a word].

    Same thing with liberalism and romanticism and everything else! How are we supposed to communicate reliably when the dictionary has a (1), (2), (3), after each word?

    The only real solution is to develop and use a more nuanced and precise set of terms to designate each possible definition of the important words. That would require everyone to learn a bigger vocabulary though...not likely.

    Ugh, sorry didn't mean to write a book in the comment section, you've set me off on a rant though. I've commented more extensively about this on my own blog...

  2. What a good, if disturbing post. If you are right I'm going to have to stop calling myself an Evangelical. I am an evangelical liberal if the second definitions are true. (Shhh...don't tell my district presbyter that.)

  3. Thanks for the comments, people! I see I'm not the only one to be disturbed by all of this... No, it's not "just" semantics, it it?

    I'm no linguistic philosopher, but it does seem to me that the words we use actually do impact on our ability to think about things. We experience stuff, including stuff from God, and that's OK as far as it goes. Then we want to think about it, and so we have to interpret it, describe it to ourslves, as it were. In order to do that, we have to use words.

    Now, I like words. Don't get me wrong. I love 'em. But we better know what they mean, and if they're getting a bit ragged and tatty around the edges, like "romantic" etc., then maybe they need trimming up?

    H'mm. More of this later, I've no doubt ;-)