As the president of an institution with evangelical in its name, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on the mixed legacy that comes with that word. If you don’t explain what you mean, others will fill in the meaning for you—and today, all too often, they will treat it as a synonym for “narrow-minded,” “fundamentalist,” “intolerant,” or even “hatemonger.” The hard truth is that those of us who have borne the label “evangelical” have not always put our best foot—or our best gospel—forward. We may have held to orthodoxy, but it has not necessarily been beautiful or full of grace.
What should we do? We could abandon the word altogether and leave it to its narrowest, most reactive partisans. Or we can reclaim it with fresh descriptions of what evangelical faith really can and does mean. To paraphrase Charles Dickens just a bit, we have a far, far better gospel and a far, far better Savior to offer this world than what they have heard from us at times. It is time to embrace the call to be boldly, broadly, and beautifully evangelical.
The word “evangelical” today most often refers to an expression of Western Christianity that has generated considerable attention and controversy since World War II. But there’s a larger context we should bear in mind. The social reformers of 19th century America count in many ways as evangelicals, as do the revivalists who preceded them in the 18th century. All of these have roots in what we today call the pietistic movement, one of the most powerful responses to—and dimensions of—the Enlightenment era in both Europe and America.
The pietists, very broadly speaking, were those 17th and 18th century believers who insisted that faith required conversion of the heart and not merely assent of the mind. They affirmed devotional practices to nurture intimacy with God, and rooted such practices in the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture. And they were persistently active in sharing this gospel (the evangel) in word and deed. Historian David Bebbington has identified these unique emphases as conversionism (an emphasis on personal conversion as the mark of the true Christian), Biblicism (the Bible is the key or sole authority for faith and life), crucicentrism (the cross as central to one’s understanding of the faith), and activism (a gospel expressed in both faith and deeds). Those four descriptors resonate with our own experience of evangelicalism, understood across time and place. The earliest evangelicals appeared under various names, but so do many contemporary Christians who share with them those same emphases and priorities.
When we call ourselves “evangelical,” we can do so with the richness of this broader history behind us. And yet we must clearly define ourselves lest others do it in ways we would not prefer. I say this not merely as the leader of an institution that seeks to establish greater visibility and greater brand clarity in its market, but also as one who proudly calls himself an evangelical. I wish with all of the passion in my heart that the good news of Jesus Christ be proclaimed with grace and lived out with hope in this broken and complex world. And that leads to three crucial ideas that represent the best of our evangelical inheritance: being bold, being broad, and being beautiful.
David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, was released in 2011. It is set in an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, a setting of mind-numbing boredom and life-sucking bureaucracy, which was exactly Wallace’s point: that all we have left is boredom. As one critic put it, we are “marooned inside our skulls” and the purpose of fiction is to “aggravate this sense of entrapment.” If that sounds terribly depressing, well, it’s intended to. The Pale King is an unfinished novel; Wallace committed suicide before bringing the story to a close. Yet Wallace continues to be lauded as one of the foremost American novelists of this generation, precisely because of his ability to portray and even poke fun at the triviality and meaninglessness of existence. While extreme, his biography and his work painfully and poignantly remind us of the brokenness of this world, and why a bold proclamation of the good news is very much in order.