Friday, February 04, 2005

More on Evangelicals

I've gotten some good responses to my post yesterday on evangelicals. Here are some further thoughts on the topic.

First of all, thanks to Michael Pahl for his thoughtful reaction on his blog. He provides some excellent links that provide a deeper background, so those interested in the topic should definitely follow those links.

Second, let me stress a few things that I didn't make clear.

1. My rough definition of "evangelical" was intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I have no qualifications (or interest) in deciding what an evangelical should be. If anyone claims the label, I'm not about to deny it to them.

2. My definition, as I noted, was not intended to be applicable either historically or globally. Based on the article in Time, I think the word meant something different 30-40 years ago than it does now, as I indicated. I think the addition of the political component is probably at least partly due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and possibly Carl Henry, who very much wanted to see a full-fledged culture conflict in the US, with evangelical Christianity driving back the forces of secular humanism, both politically and religiously.

My impression is that overall evangelicalism identifies with this ideal, but that Schaeffer's program has been co-opted by power brokers in the Republican party. Check out that list of figures in Time and count how many of the influential evangelicals are political figures or culture warriors (a lot) and how many are theologians (maybe Packer), men of letters (none), or biblical exegetes (none).

3. Ken in his comment below brings up the question of confusing Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Personally, I do not think the term "fundamentalist" is a very useful one; as Chris Brady points out in his comment, few or none admit to the label. In 2005, I think the word "fundamentalist" is used primarily by the Left to refer to (1) evangelicals, (2) Christians in general, and (3) anyone who disagrees with them. Its actual referring power is very low.

4. I think I was wrong in the using the term "literalist exegesis." I think there is such a thing, and by "literalist" I refer to the tendency to narrow down the possible genres in Scripture; to see, for instance, all narrative as history, and all assertions as containing a proposition. But this is probably too broad a generalization to apply overall to evangelicalism, and I'll now acknowledge that the term "biblicism" chosen by several commenters and correspondents was better.

By implicitly criticizing "literalist exegesis," I don't mean to imply that, say, a skeptical or an allegorical exegesis is preferable. I only mean that the force of the words used — the job the text does — has to be interpreted in light of its context and its genre. For instance, in my opinion, the genre of Genesis 1-11 is not historical in the same way that the Gospel of Mark is. Obviously there is a huge amount of text where the proper understanding of context and genre has to be struggled with; that's what keeps scholarship in business.

5. In using the word "rightist," I also don't mean to imply that I am a "leftist"! My political opinions, such as they are, are all over the map. But I'm not going to go into them on this blog.

Thanks again to all of you for your comments and e-mails!

UPDATE: Other reactions continue to trickle in; no doubt I've missed some! Justin contributes some thoughtful comments on the question of Scripture, as does Eric@The Coding Humanist. Their posts are well worth reading, and I look forward to hearing more from them about this topic. Joe Carter@The Evangelical Outpost thinks I might be a "Canadian Evangelical" — figuratively speaking, of course!

AJMac@DoJustly also comments at some length. He suggests that one reason that Time's list of 25 influential evangelicals was heavy on the politicians and culture warriors is because Time was defining "influence" in terms of cultural influence. These faces are the faces of those looking outward to the world, not inward to the church. This is an interesting suggestion and worth pondering; in the end, however, it just won't do. I don't think J.I. Packer, for instance, has any influence on the surrounding culture comparable to his stature within evangelicalism. The same probably goes for Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and Bill Hybels. Many of the others face both "inwards" and "outwards" — Mark Noll, Billy Graham, Charles Colson, Richard Neuhaus. Nope, I don't buy it.

I also want to say a few words about the term "conversionist." Here, too, I was trying to be descriptive and not emotive. "Conversionist" as I use the term contrasts with other religious approaches to culture: the separatist (separate from the culture and let it go to hell), the accommodationist (let the culture call the shots ethically and politically), the Lutheran idea of the peaceful co-existence of Two Kingdoms, the revolutionary (kill 'em all). In the last 30-40 years it seems to me that evangelicalism has changed from a predominantly separatist social ethic to a conversionist one: work to change the surrounding culture into one more closely resembling the Kingdom of God. This is a big switch, because a conversionist social ethic was previously the province of the liberal "social gospel" and suggests the possibility of an earthly Utopia. Of course, the traditional Christian "works of mercy" are compatible with all these positions and in fact are obligatory on all who call themselves followers of Christ.

I'll stop rattling on, I promise. I will note however that AJ also called me a "Godblogger." I am not a Godblogger, whatever that is. I am a biblioblogger, and proud of it. :)


ajmac said...

I like what you've started here. Important and interesting question. In case you're interested, I'm responding over at my own blog

Ken said...

It may be true, Ed, that not many admit to the label "Fundamentalist" anymore but it was, at one time, a definite Christian movement with a clearly defined set of seven principles. The movement included or forms the foundation for the people who fit the criteria that were set forth in the previous blog entry. Evangelicalism is a different movement with a different history; it started in England. Indeed in Europe and even Canada today, it tends to maintain its considerably more inclusive and certainly less militant connotation with more Fundamentalist groups rejecting the label because of that.

Michael Turton said...

This opinion -- the anti-secular crusaders have been co-opted by the right-wing imperialist, corporate wing of the Republican party -- is quite common. No doubt there is some truth to that point of view. Yet I have often wondered if that perception is naive. Many of these organizations are linked by umbrella organizations such as the Council on National Policy, a shadowy right-wing organization of organizations that in turn is closely linked to the Far Right Christian Reconstructist movement, many of whose members are founding individuals of key right-wing institutions. The CNP itself was founded by Tim LeHaye of Left Behind fame, and Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Bircher and a funder of the Campus Crusade for Christ. I am not even sure there is so much difference between the corporate and "Christian" sides of things that one can speak of "co-opting" -- they seem to be two sets of scales on the same snake, seeming different only because of the twists in the creature. In any case I am forcibly reminded that many industrialists, and many watching from the outside, assumed that Hitler and the Nazis could be co-opted and used. Let us remember who was actually using who, and who, in the end, won out.