Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

I hate Evangelicalism. Or, at least, I think I do. Except that I’m pretty sure that I’m an Evangelical.

It’s complicated.

For anyone coming to BTS lunch this coming semester, we’ll probably be talking about what Evangelicalism is. Like most self-identifying Evangelicals, I’m unable to accurately define it. Is it a theological tradition? Well, yes and no: it’s not a denomination, and seems to draw from a wide variety of denominations and traditions, but its lineage can still be traced back to certain theological thinkers and groups. Is it a culture? Certainly, but it’s not a distinctly national culture, with there being Evangelicals around the world; and it’s not simply a subculture in each of the cultures it can be found, as those who claim it would often prioritize it over any other distinctives of their culture. Plus all of that theology stuff takes it beyond being merely cultural. Is it a political group? Sadly, yes; but not so sadly, it’s actually a major part of many different political groups on both sides of the spectrum. In short, it doesn’t fit any particular category very well.

So how can we define it? Theologically? As I said, its theological lineage can be traced to specific people and groups…but how many Evangelicals are even aware of this theological heritage? So do we define it by where it comes from (historically) if a very significant portion of those who claim the title are ignorant of its history and may even largely disagree with its founders? Perhaps. There are a lot of people (on all sides of the political spectrum) who claim to be American patriots and love to quote their constitution in ways that would make its writers shudder and weep, but that certainly doesn’t make them less American at heart, whether or not they actually live there.

So do we define it by those who claim it? Such a wide variety of people claim the title Evangelical, and they vary not just in culture (coming from around the world), politics (from across the political spectrum), or theology (Calvinists and Arminians and Open Theists; High church and Low church; just war theorists and pacifists; etc.), but also in their own definition of what Evangelical means. I’d wager that most Evangelicals have a very vague notion of what it means, and that most of us have always assumed the title uncritically. So the conventional wisdom of simply asking an Evangelical what Evangelicalism is might not get us very far.

These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this semester, but as I’ve been preparing for the discussion I must admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in frustration. I hate Evangelicalism (which is not to say I hate Evangelicals), not least because I don’t know what it is and because I am one. This is a bit of an identity crisis for me in that sense. It’s good to be self-critical, or critical of our own traditions, but I can never tell if I’m being self-critical or simply pissed off about bad theology, rotten politics, and regressive culture. All of those things are part of the label “Evangelical”, and the people I’m irritated with often do those irritating things in the name of Evangelicalism (sometimes not even in the name of God, though that’s bad enough!).

It’s kind of posh to be a disaffected Evangelical these days. It’s sort of a Christian hipster thing. Christian bloggers talk about their experience coming out of conservative Evangelicalism and its culture, politics, and theology, and how they rediscovered Jesus and connected with progressive churches and all sorts of genuinely awesome things. I’m not talking trash about them – I love them, read them, and sometimes try to emulate them – but I’m starting to get the impression that every Evangelical in my age category and younger is just like me and Rachel Held Evans. In fact, I assume this to be true, and I’m quite skeptical when I’m told that Evangelicalism is actually a theological tradition that is still alive today. I catch myself assuming that people who claim the title of Evangelical are either ignorantly snared into American fundamentalism (which exists here in Canada, too), or else they’re courageously trying to redeem the word by bringing some theological nuance and weight to it. And then I hate myself for hating Evangelicalism, because I recognize how badly I’m reacting to something. Something I can’t even define.

Do I really hate Evangelicalism? Not really. I don’t hate it as a theological tradition (though I’m not sure how much I agree with the distinctive views of its historical leaders). I hate it when bad theology is legitimized by having the term Evangelical slapped onto it though, and I hate the fact that the term itself legitimizes anything, and I hate the fact that so many people buy into bad theology because of it. Do I hate the culture? Well, it’s hardly a uniform culture, but there are certain aspects of the culture that I’m not a big fan of. I don’t like the so-called Evangelical approaches to sin (we tend to focus on it rather than on grace), sexuality (we tend to focus on shame and spiritual existence rather than on living in the fullness of the bodily existence for which we were created), art (we tend to have bare walls in our churches, and our cultural expression is usually limited to inane Christianized facsimiles of more original “secular” art), and so forth. But how much of those emphases are distinctly Evangelical, and how many of them are more narrowly Conservative or Fundamentalist or American?

Ultimately, I hate the way my religion is abused. I hate when the pretenders, the ignorant, and the misguided use my religion and my people as a shield for their own actions, views, and goals. I hate when something as important as an idea gets corrupted, and I hate it even more when that corrupted idea spreads faster than the truth it’s based upon. That’s folk religion: when what people believe and do differs from the actual religion they claim, and they don’t even know it. Evangelicalism, because of its varied and difficult-to-define nature, is the catch-all for all American folk religion. It’s the label for every non-denominational church that lacks affiliation as a way of lacking accountability; every church of the cult of nationalism; every health-and-wealth swindler (though they claim “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” too, but those also fall under the umbrella of Evangelicalism all too often); every cultural Christian who knows very little about what they believe but will enforce that belief on others with impunity (and often with disastrous consequences); every political group that wants to gain support from Christians of nearly every stripe (because nearly every type of Christian in North America can claim the title Evangelical for some reason or other); and so on. These types of Christianity often have very little to do with Christ, and they bear his name in vain. I hate that, very deeply. What I hate more is that most of the people involved in folk religion are completely ignorant of the fact, but that some of them know all too well, or should know better.

So, for a lot of reasons, I think we should get rid of the term Evangelical altogether. It’s nearly impossible to define, and the lack of a clear definition leaves it wide open for abuse. Let’s stop trying to renew it or reform it, because we’re only prolonging the life of numerous folk religions that do violence to more legitimate uses of the term, as well as to the people who follow them. If we absolutely must have a broad-reaching term for followers of Jesus, I propose we stick with the old classic: Christian. Let’s be Christians, and make it very clear who we’re named after. Once we have that down, we can identify particular theological traditions and cultural expressions and political affiliations. I have a feeling that not all of us will get that far, and that we’ll be much happier trying to look like Jesus rather than spending our time defining our niche.

If there are no Evangelicals, then we’re simply left with Christians. Those people aren’t hard to figure out, and pretty easy to identify with and love.

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The Bible: Text, or Work?

I just started reading Francis Watson’s Text, Church, and World, and already in the introduction he’s dropped some bombshells. He begins by defining the three terms in the title, starting with “text”.

A “text” is not a “work” – both terms refer to a written document, but the term “work” implies an emphasis on the author communicating a message, whereas “text” emphasizes the role of the interpreter or interpretive community. We might refer to a book as the work of an author, but we might also refer to it as the text of an interpretive or religious community; I doubt we’d see reference to a book as the work of a community, unless the whole community had a hand in writing it, and if we speak of the text of an author we’re probably referring to that author’s influences.

Of course, Watson uses very different terms to describe the difference between text and work (he’s a bit wordy), but I hope I’ve captured the idea.

Of course, the Bible is both work and text. Someone wrote it, after all, and they definitely had a point (or else, why would they write it?). On the other hand, we can’t really read the Bible without reading it as a text, in the context of thousands of years of religious interpretation and tradition in our community of faith. The point is that our interpretive frameworks will treat it as one or the other, and it’s difficult to emphasize both at the same time.

Watson mentions the quest for the historical Jesus, which at its base is trying to get to the reality behind the text: scholars in this tradition recognize that the gospels, like all historical accounts, are quite selective about what they report, and want to unearth as much of the reality of what occurred as possible. The whole historical-critical approach emphasizes the “work” aspect of a book. Watson thinks that they’re mistaken about the true nature of the Bible – that is, he sees it as “text”.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who emphasize the Bible as text: we read the Bible as members of the Church, in light of (and even in continuity with) two thousand years of interpretive tradition. For Watson, it means that we must take theology into account in our hermeneutic (he’s arguing in this book for a method of theological hermeneutics), but taken further it implies a Roman Catholic hermeneutic, in which tradition is held up (almost) as high as Scripture as being authoritative for Christian doctrine.

In between these two ends of the spectrum seems to be where Evangelicals camp out. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, which was the textbook for the hermeneutics class I took in both college and seminary, Grant Osborne emphasizes that interpreters need to figure out what a book meant in order to figure out what it means – that is, we need to check out the original author’s intention in their original context in order to discern an appropriate interpretation for our own context, which may include our Church community and tradition. In light of the difficulty of being accurate in our understanding of the original context and message of a work, scholars since the 1970’s have been emphasizing the final form of the Bible – that is, we need to read scripture in light of its relation to itself, reading each book as it relates to all of the others, in the order and collection that we’ve received them (this is called Canonical Criticism). This is a move from “work” to “text”, though how far that move is can depend on where the interpreter sees the Spirit at work: does the formation of the canon to Scripture’s “final form” represent the Spirit at work in the councils of the early church, or does it represent the Spirit at work in Christian tradition up to the present day?

Theological interpretations have more room to breathe if we take a “text” view of the Bible, whereas historiography is more central if we take a “work” perspective. Is either perspective right? What do you think? Is the Bible primarily a “work”, or a “text”?

EDIT:

Reading on, Watson describes the “Church” element of his title, and this also reflects on his view of the Bible as “text”. Those who see the Bible as “work” emphasize the original intended meaning of the author, a point which has much to do with the genre in which the author chose to communicate. But because the Church is the central place in which the Bible is read and interpreted, Watson says, the primary genre of all of the biblical texts becomes that of “holy scripture” – that is, the original genre of the work is subordinated to the text’s position and function in the Church, which is to be read aloud as part of the worship of the church, and interpreted through a sermon. The very fact that it is interpreted by a sermon after it is read suggests that there is interpretive freedom – otherwise, wouldn’t the text just speak for itself and not require a sermon? (This has been argued.)

I’m torn about all of this. If we take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church and preserving the meaning of the Bible, then we should be Catholics, and embrace this approach wholeheartedly. Obviously we are not all Catholics, and tend to reject the notion that tradition is entirely trustworthy or authoritative, Spirit or no. This fact alone troubles me deeply, and I think it’s a point that Pentecostals haven’t done nearly enough to explore. But if we don’t agree that the Spirit affirms all of Christian tradition, then Watson’s approach seems to be saying “this is right because this is how we do it” rather than saying “we do it this way because it is right.” I’m interested to see how he navigates this balance without arguing for Catholicism.