R.I.P. “Evangelicalism”?

Ah, we hardly knew ye...well, we hardly knew what ye meant

I am beginning to wonder if the time has come to retire the term “evangelicalism” from its role in describing the faith community to which I belong (or rather, less presumptuously, its role in my own self-identification).  The problem with using this term at this point in history comes from its association with two different contemporary phenomena:

  1. The term “Evangelical” has now been used in the media to describe the members of Insane Clown Posse.  I quote from an article Elijah pointed me to on The Guardian website:  “Insane Clown Posse have this entire time secretly been evangelical Christians.”  I’m not sure what exactly in the ICP statement of faith led to using the adjective “evangelical,” but it seems like it is sticking.  And if you know anything about this group, we should be heading a million miles an hour in the opposite direction of anything associated with them.  But beyond that, the term has also been used in connection with (almost) Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, God-Hates-Fags-sign-holding pastor/dbag Fred Phelps, the founders and participants in the so-called “Jesus Camp,” and in reference to many more wackos and imbeciles.
  2. On the other hand, there are a number of quite intelligent Christian groups who want to co-opt the term “evangelical” to describe ONLY those who agree with the doctrines of  their particular tradition.  In other words, they want to re-write the definition of what it means to be evangelical…and due to their aggressive fervor and polemical methods, they are actually succeeding to some extent!  Suddenly, certain leaders, churches and organizations are declaring that Pentecostals are not “truly” evangelical, Arminians are “heretics,” theistic evolutionists are rushing headlong into apostasy, etc. and that only their doctrinally-pure tradition can safe-guard “true evangelicalism” from these heterodox movements.

Both of these appropriations of the term “evangelical” bring me to the point where I feel uncomfortable associating myself with this tradition, although evangelicalism is CLEARLY my background, these folks are “my people” in a cultural and traditional sense, and I have some inclination to maintain my affiliation with the term “evangelical” (albeit with some modifiers i.e. “post-conservative” as described here) in that it connects linguistically to “the Gospel” and historically to a Protestant heritage in which I find much to appreciate.

However, I also wonder if it might be helpful to dissociate from some of the term’s negative connotations for a period and allow a later generation to re-appropriate the term once the “ass” is removed from its “association” with these embarrassing and narrow-minded movements.  It seems obvious that Christian groups have often used a variety of labels throughout the centuries to identify their faith stance (beginning with the biblical moniker: “Followers of the Way”) and perhaps it is our turn to “re-invent” ourselves in this cultural era.

  • If you disagree and think those of us considered evangelicals should keep the label, how would you suggest we deal with the connotations which are being attached to this term?
  • If you agree with me or  have the slightest inclination to sympathize with this assessment…what should we begin to call ourselves (consider this a creative experiment intended more for fun–we mustn’t take this all too seriously)?

I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear any of your thoughts first!

UPDATE:  One of my main theoroes, Roger Olson, has started a blog and wrote about “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”  Here’s a pull quote that illustrates point #2 above:

Rather than practicing hospitality through dialogue and consensus-building, today’s conservative evangelicals are too concerned with excluding people.  In some cases this lack of value placed on alternity borders on violence.  Not physical violence but spiritual abuse which is another kind of violence.

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5 responses to “R.I.P. “Evangelicalism”?”

  1. David Boyajian says :

    I like the discussion Greg. I could talk your ear off about this subject but I will refrain from doing that on cyber space, it’s better in person 🙂 I think I agree with most of what you say.

    You might be interested in knowing about 2 years ago, John Bloom, a science professor at Biola, told me that Talbot no longer considers itself Evangelical but rather “Theologically conservative.” Now of course, this is a label for theological beliefs alone, but I do think that it is interesting to note their change in name affiliation. Apparently it was changed because at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting that year, there were papers presented that were deemed as too liberal by Talbot faculty. So, they decided to no longer affiliate with “Evangelical” when describing their theological stance. Just thought I’d throw that in the convo.

    • Greg says :

      David,
      Thanks for the extremely relevant and surprising anecdote about Biola’s abandonment of the term. I know that there are definitely those who want to disassociate with this label due to it’s “liberalism,” as well as those who see it as having been hijacked by emergents and “marketers” (cf. David Wells “The Courage to Be Protestant”).

      I’ve been thinking about writing about neo-fundamentalism…this has sparked my re-interest in the topic…though it’s sad that Biola seems to be moving that direction itself.

      Thanks for commenting & let’s get together soon! You are simply an incredible conversationalist!
      Greg

  2. Katherine says :

    how about “Intellivangelicalism”? As in, “I am an intellivangelical, with a deeply thoughtful heart for the gospel that eschews narrow-minded reactionism while striving to avoid pomposity.” Although if you actually say that, you’re probably failing at the latter. Darn it! I thought I was onto something…

    • Greg says :

      Right! Over there are the imbicilevangelicals, and there we have the naivevangelicals, with a small group of crazevangelicals hanging about.

      (PS when I was a kid, my parents bought us a P.O.S. game system called “Intellivision” which I suddenly recalled when I saw your term!)

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