Sunday, 1 June 2014

Why I'm NOT an "evangelical" (at least in the way most people use the word today)

In the classical use of the word "evangelical", the word comes from the Greek word for "good news", or "gospel".  It says that the Christian message is "good news".  It says that the Christian faith is able to transform individuals and communities for the better.  I would be happy to call myself an "evangelical" in this sense, in the sense in which John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and Martin Luther King were "evangelicals".  (If only the word "evangelical" was used in this way today. ....)

However, the term "evangelical" today means something very different from this classical use of the word.  While I am a minister in a classical "Protestant" church, I have never been an "evangelical" in the sense in which the word is used today.  Thinking of the spiritual anxiety experienced by friends who are former evangelicals (or "recovering evangelicals"), I am grateful for my liberal Methodist upbringing (biblically literate, without being biblically literal), along with my youthful exposure to Vatican II Catholicism, High Anglicanism, and Reform Judaism.  Because of my Methodist upbringing, and my contact with other healthy, life-affirming, life-giving faith traditions, I never really felt the compulsion to travel the conservative evangelical path.

While "evangelicals" frequently claim that their beliefs are simply "basic Christianity", this is not really the case.  In reality, "evangelicalism" is not "basic Christianity".  It is made up of a variety of beliefs and attitudes, some of which are grounded in the beliefs of particular Christian schools of thought, others of which originate outside Christianity.

For example, a typical "evangelical" Christian living in a western, English-speaking country today normally has a cluster of beliefs and practices including:
  • a theology of human nature with a strong emphasis on the reality of human sin (but without the balance of a similar emphasis on the reality of human virtue),
  • a theology of the atonement based on the notion that the death of Jesus was a substitutionary "blood sacrifice" (but without reference to the many other ways in which Christians have understood the significance of the death of Jesus),
  • an attitude (based on a misreading of the writings of the 16th century "Protestant" Reformers) that assumes that holding a system of correct beliefs is essential for a positive relationship with God,
  • an doctrine of scripture that declares that the Bible contains infallible oracles from God, rather than human reflections about God,
  • an attitude toward issues relating to gender, sex, and family life in which men are valued more highly than women, married couples are valued more highly than single people or unmarried couples, and "straight" people are valued more highly than LGBT people,
  • a far-right-wing political philosophy, often closely related to the ideas of the novelist Ayn Rand (who also happened to be a committed atheist):  i.e. "Greed is good", "Selfishness is a virtue", etc., and
  • an attitude toward worship that is far more dependent on the values of the entertainment industry than on the practice of worship or spirituality in any mainstream Christian tradition.
For many "evangelicals" living in the United States, this cluster of beliefs and practices fits in naturally with many aspects of American popular culture.  For "evangelicals" living outside the United States, this cluster of beliefs and practices does not fit in quite so naturally with the culture of Australia, or England, or Scotland, .... etc.  When a person living outside the United States is an "evangelical", it's frequently seen as the religious equivalent of being an enthusiast for Gridiron football, Country and Western music, regarding fast food chains as haute cuisine, etc..

We need to reclaim the term "evangelical", so that it once again speaks of the way that the Christian faith can transform individuals and communities for the better, rather than using it as a code-word for a style of Christian faith which is based on an eccentric mixture of religious ideas, which has made a Faustian deal with far-right political movements, and which communicates itself using the razzamatazz of contemporary showbiz.

Until that time, I choose not to call myself an evangelical.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.