The Evangelical Identity Crisis

A lot of pieces have been appearing recently — especially in the past year since the election of Donald Trump with the support of many evangelicals — discussing the crisis currently besetting evangelicalism. They usually reference American evangelicalism, but since there are 10 times as many people in the USA than in Canada and 5 times as many as in Britain, and since the largest denomination in the USA is the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, what happens in American evangelicalism has a knock-on effect on the rest of anglophone evangelicalism, even when we know there are definite differences amongst our different cultures and church traditions.

One problem is that people who aren’t evangelicals have no clue what an evangelical is to begin with. This is not necessarily a terrible thing; most people probably can’t tell the Greek Orthodox from the Coptic Orthodox, and some people can’t even tell Greek Orthodox priests from Muslims (true story). But as evangelicals in the USA have been making themselves a visible and felt presence in the public sphere for a while now, it’s a bit surprising that people still can’t tell them from other kinds of Christians.

For example, a somewhat amusing but ultimately false and absurd post at Salon says this:

Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists.

First of all, one of the defining features of American evangelicals is the fact that they are explicitly not fundamentalists. That’s part of the point of the evangelical movement in the USA since at least the 1970s — to be a countercultural, conservative, Protestant voice committed to Scripture, Gospel, and evangelism that is an alternative to the fundamentalists. Second, this is not how most evangelicals actually understand inspiration. Some do, I admit. But I don’t think most do. This is how Muslims think about the Qur’an, sure. But Christians aren’t Muslims.

One prominent scholar of Late Antiquity once referred in 2010 to people who believe in Intelligent Design as fundamentalists, which demonstrates a failure to understand either Intelligent Design (a movement that says science and theism are compatible, with an openness to evolution) or fundamentalism (a movement that requires the sort of biblical literalism that says that rejecting a literal six-day creation means rejecting the authority of Scripture).

So, part of the evangelical identity crisis lies in the fact that, well before Trumpism, people couldn’t actually tell who evangelicals were. As a result, anyone who thinks of his’erself as ‘evangelical’ and who pays attention to the misrepresentations of evangelicals on the Internet became a bit uncomfortable with the word. I remember, back in 2001, talking to a Canadian who was surprised when I talked about evangelical Anglicans, because he associated evangelicalism with certain varieties of (American) neo-conservative politics.

I’d say that American politics are probably the main source of contemporary evangelical angst, but before I get there, I’d like to say that we’ve been having an identity crisis longer than that. This is partly because evangelicalism, in whatever nation and whatever form, is a cross-denominational movement and often involves para-church organisations and inter-denominational events.

In his little book, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Carl Trueman argues that the real problem facing evangelicals is that there is no such thing as an evangelical. He, a Presbyterian of confessional cast, recalls being seated at the ‘evangelical’ table at a conference and found that he had very little with the others at his table, who included an Open Theist. He looked to another table and realised he had more in common with the Dominican Roman Catholics in the room than his fellow evangelicals.

Indeed, the concept of the evangelical is so loose that in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Bradley Nassif is able to argue that the two are compatible due to using the common definition of evangelical as having four components:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

But, of course, for most Orthodox, to cite the title of a different book, Evangelical Is not Enough.

So, not only do evangelicals get confused with other groups that they are not, they also can’t even agree amongst themselves what they are. But whatever they are, it originally was rooted in particular Christian beliefs and a certain view of the Christian life rooted in Scripture and the Cross.

But politics has muddied the waters. Surveys now show that a lot of people who, if you quizzed them on their beliefs, would qualify as evangelical, do not use the word. As well, there are people who would use the word of themselves if it had no political baggage. Others wouldn’t. That, I think, was a recent Pew survey? Another survey revealed that amongst self-identified evangelicals, regular churchgoers were less likely to vote for Trump than non-churchgoing evangelicals.

Wait a second.

Evangelicals who don’t go to church?

In my mind, evangelicals are a committed brand of conservative Protestant, part of whose personal piety is regular church attendance, along with daily prayer and Bible reading. Indeed, not just weekly church attendance on Sunday, but a mid-week Bible study is a typically evangelical event.

So, not only do we have an inability on the part of non-evangelicals to tell them apart from others, an inability amongst so-called ‘evangelicals’ to define what they are, we also have people who identify as ‘evangelical’ who are not even active Christians.

Of course, what matters is not what labels we use. I still think of myself as an evangelical — not just those four distinctives but also a belief in robust preaching and rich theological reflection being part of my vision of evangelicalism. But it is clear that, because of developments in the culture of the USA, the term’s usefulness is running out.

What matters, then, is the commitment of Christians of any denomination — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox — to the Gospel of Christ Crucified and Risen, to Scripture, to the encounter with God, to making more disciples, to living holy lives, to seeing a world transformed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. This can happen, and we don’t need the word evangelical to do it.

Should people like me give up on it, then?

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Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…