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A Better Way to Be Evangelical

"You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."
A Better Way to Be Evangelical
Image: Igor Saveliev / Pixabay
Il Duomo di Milano

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.

Being 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.

Being Bold

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.

But any boldness about our faith will encounter this challenge: “God language” is suspect, even frightful, to our neighbors. Are not the terrorists who have spilled so much blood and done so much damage drenched in devotion to their God? And, if we are to be entirely honest, is not the story of our own faith far too full filled with zealots who, enraptured by visions of divine and personal glory, have trampled over the freedom of others in their attempts to impose theocracy (a union of church and state) or hegemony (a culture in which our faith is dominant)? One of the chief challenges of apologetics in this generation is that we have largely lost the “moral upper hand.” No longer can we merely assert with Dostoevsky that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted;” instead, we must now respond to the very real fear of our neighbors that, because we truly believe God does exist, we would be willing to use any measure to impose him on others.

Fortunately, in between those two extremes lies another option: the wonderful power of the gospel of Jesus Christ lived out by ordinary believers in real life. We reject both the message of nihilistic boredom and the cries for blood-soaked theocracy. Evangelicals have defined themselves from the very beginning by resisting both temptations. Rather, we have offered what we ourselves have experienced: an encounter with the mysteries of the kingdom of God in the realities of everyday life, a love that invites us with persistent, passionate gentleness into repentance and transformation, and the unspeakable joy of intimate companionship with the Savior of our souls. It’s what Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century meant when he said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Because of that experience, our gospel is inherently Christological. Our core proclamation is that Jesus is Lord of all and the divine Lover of our souls. Like the woman at the well, we run excitedly to our neighbors, even (or especially!) those who have marginalized us, and we joyfully invite, “Come see a man who knows everything about me. . . and loves me still.” Missiologist Alan Hirsch sees in the “apostolic genius” of the early church the seeds for the renewal of the Church in the West. “It is Christology,” he writes, “that lies at the heart of the renewal of the church at all times and in every age.” Evangelicals gladly agree. And so we confess boldly that Jesus is Lord, not in the manner of those who “possess truth” but in the way of those who have encountered a person and who live in intimacy with Him.

Being Broad

We confess boldly. And we love broadly. Lest anyone be concerned at what I mean with the use of the word “broadly,” I note at the outset that it is intended to describe the word “evangelical.” Specifically, if we have encountered Jesus as Lord, then we will find ourselves serving, learning, and living alongside others with the same confession and the same love, no matter what other distinctives, petty or particular, we may hold to. It is for this reason, I suspect, that there has been a very noticeable breakdown in denominational identity across American culture in the past generation.

Such a broad embrace is a central message of 1 Corinthians 13. In the first few verses, where the apostle Paul speaks of the tongues of men and of angels, of mysteries and of knowledge, of surrendering our bodies to be burned, and other such unfamiliar images, he is identifying what the Corinthian believers regarded as the most important aspects of their faith. We might characterize them as “knowing,” “believing,” and “doing.’ Paul passionately argues instead that, as important as each of those activities is, “loving” both supersedes and underlies them. Whatever else abides or remains, whatever else we deem essential to the gospel of the kingdom, the greatest of these is love.

Love allows us to embrace a sister who disagrees with us on a minor point of doctrine and sometimes even on what we would regard as a major point. In other words, is it possible for us to say, “I disagree with you” without having to also say, “I cannot worship alongside of you?” Love suggests it is indeed possible. Love allows us to regard the brother in a foreign land as more than someone for whom things must be done but as one from whom wisdom can be learned. In other words, can we say, “I see that you are different from me” without feeling a need to say, “You must become like me”? Love delights that we can. Love allows us to look past labels and see the “other” and to recognize in them someone very much like myself. In other words, might we say, “You and I are from different tribes” while simultaneously celebrating that people from every tribe will one day be gathered before the throne of God? Love admits that we may.

Love, if we permit it, occupies “the space between us.” Wonderful things happen in such loving encounters. Miroslav Volf, one of the most provocative and far-reaching Christian theologians of our own generation, one deeply informed by his experiences growing up in the era of ethnic cleansing in the tribal warfare of the Balkans, has observed that whom we exclude and whom we embrace reveals much about our own understanding of the cross, and of the nature of God. And Martin Buber, a mid-20th century Jewish philosopher suggested that when “I” regard the other as a “thou” rather than an “it”—a subject rather than an object—I both honor her humanity and become more human myself. How we meet each other, how we share space together, not only reveals much about what we truly believe but also has great potential to heal us.

I am not suggesting that our differences do not matter. Nor am I suggesting that all beliefs, practices, or understandings are equally valid. They are not. There is truth and there is falsehood, and all sorts of shades in between. But we cannot with credibility proclaim a gospel of love and grace if we are not people of love and grace. We dare not offer a God of reconciliation and peace if we are persistently unwilling to be agents of reconciliation and makers of peace. My own beliefs likely do not align perfectly with truth as God understands it. But he loves me anyway, and continually invites me into deeper truth. And he asks me to offer the same grace to others.

Being Beautiful

A gospel rooted in love is beautiful. And those who proclaim it are beautiful as well. Even their feet are beautiful, according to the prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation!” (Isa. 52:7).

We live in a world so weary of violence and strife, so hardened against rhetoric and marketing, and so soporific from our long dark night that we are tempted to conclude that there is nothing left but boredom and silliness.

But if we can get our own act together, this can be the church’s finest hour. That can happen only if we resist current-day Pharisees who perpetually seek to pervert the gospel of freedom into a mind-numbing legalism and if we reject the pleas of ever-present accommodationists to invest into the “bigger, better, faster” idolatry of American consumer culture. We need a gospel that embraces suffering, not as judgment or punishment, but as solidarity with the persecuted, marginalized, and oppressed of the world. We need a gospel that offers transcendence and hope instead of perpetual fear and judgment. We need a gospel that stands fearlessly in front of both persecutors and persecuted and offers grace to all.

We rightly struggle with the reality of evil in the modern world. The 20th century was expected by our great-grandparents to be a “Christian century,” a golden era of scientific progress and human freedom. Instead, it turned into the bloodiest century in human history. Some of those nations that led the bloodletting were those that had been most deeply steeped in the gospel. Something had gone terribly, terribly wrong, and we can never be truly beautiful again until we profoundly understand how this gospel of the kingdom has been so often and so dreadfully twisted and abused. Such profound understanding may, however, cause us to repent of pretensions to power and temptations of triumphalism, and to turn once again, as theologian Douglas John Hall advocates, to a cruciform theology, one formed fully by the cross of Christ.

In 2009 I visited Terrazin, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. I felt the pain of the place acutely. It was oppressively heavy and profoundly tragic. Our tour group was walked through the various holding cells and passageways, and then emerged into a courtyard where the firing squads had once done their dirty work. Bullet holes visibly deformed the stone wall behind the spot on which the victims stood, and the platforms on which the shooters knelt to take aim were—how can I explain the horror of this?—shaped like crosses. It felt like the cauldron of hell in that courtyard. And when the others moved on, I stayed there, tears far beyond my power to control, and cried out to my Beloved, “How was such a thing possible, God? Where were you?” And then I heard His voice, around me and within me, a voice as sad as my own. “I was right here, Tony. All the time. There is no difference between a firing squad and a cross.”

And then I understood, at least a little. While we await the fullness of the kingdom in this world, while we long for the complete redemption of our souls and bodies, Jesus has come to stand with us in our suffering and pain, in our questions and confusion. He comes among us, not merely to offering reassuring words but to actually absorb in his own body the violence and evil of this horribly broken world. When I meditate now on the atonement, it is not Christ’s satisfaction of the wrath of God I treasure most but his willingness to take upon himself the wrath of humanity—all of the anger of our rebellion against the good rule of our Creator. This is what love cost him.

This is what the saints who came before us recognized, and as a church historian, their voices still echo in my ear. Augustine, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Julian of Norwich, John Wesley, and others understood that God is love, and that such words reflect a deep, painful commitment. His beautiful love permeates a broken world so that we are slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, conformed to his beautiful image: “O Beauty, so ancient and so new…” There is a perpetual newness to God’s beautiful presence in this world and nothing, not the terror of religious zealots nor the fury of the world’s totalitarian ideologies, not the pain you and I have experienced nor the dark night of our culture, can separate us from his love. We even approach the future with what Jürgen Moltmann describes as an “eschatology of hope,” for we know that God’s beauty and goodness will eventually prevail against all attempts to eradicate or nullify it.

People are drawn to beauty. We seek it out. It restores our souls. It is for this reason that I believe that some of the best theology of the past generation and perhaps of this coming century is being done by playwrights, poets, novelists, and visual artists. Who knows better how to emulate our Creator by making beauty out of formless matter, or how to find transcendence in the midst of suffering? When I read Shusako Endo, a Japanese Christian novelist who gently ponders the apparent silence of God in the face of evil, or Marilynne Robinson, whose recent novels are more profoundly theological than anything I have encountered at an academic conference, I know that God is making himself known in places that go far beyond the academy or even the church. The fine arts are at least as powerful as the sermon in proclaiming the good news to this generation.

Being Confident

Our posture in the world is one of humble but bold confidence, not rooted in our own abilities, such as they are, but in the grace of God, who has lovingly called, prepared, and sustained me and you for the good work he has for us in his kingdom. This confidence that is nourished by the realization that such grace has been wonderfully present in those who came before, upon whose good work we today merely add another layer.

Sometimes, in the grace of God, he has granted us to see what might be. I see the delight of God in his people. I see his great desire that we all be more fully alive in this world. I see hints and promises of what we may yet become in the months and years ahead. I see vibrant, life-giving, grace-filled hubs of God’s people actively and intentionally living out God’s redeeming, transformative love in this world, waiting in hope-filled anticipation for more than we can ask or imagine. And, even more than that, I see him. When all other sights have faded into obscurity, when all other beauty is made mundane in comparison, he shines. He is the joy of our broken hearts, the lyric of every melody we compose, the beauty that is ever new. He is our bold, broad, and beautiful vision. May we be his.

Anthony L. Blair is president and dean of the faculty at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pennsylvania.

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