Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Evangelical by Any Other Name

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote Gertrude Stein nearly one hundred years ago. Juliet said about her Montague boyfriend, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Can we say the same thing about evangelicals?

What is an evangelical? There is a continuing conversation about the meaning of the term. Baptists have struggled with the label for decades. (Read the ABP story of this struggle.) I have used it as convenient shorthand for communicating my acceptance of traditional Christian doctrine, but I have chafed under the unwelcome connotations of the term.

In many people’s minds it is synonymous with the religious right, and I am certainly not that. It smells like fundamentalism to many people. It carries with it an anti-scientific connotation and a Republican social agenda, neither of which I embrace.

I used the word in the subtitle of my book, “More Than a Purpose.” I described my approach an “An Evangelical Response to Rick Warren and the Megachuch Movement.” I wouldn’t use the same words today.

It does not have the meaning it once did. It is both too big and too small. If the term can embrace both Joel Osteen and Billy Graham, then it has become theologically meaningless. If it can include both James Dobson of the religious Right and Jim Wallis of the religious left, then it no longer has social content.

The only thing the term is good for is to engender misunderstanding and emotion. Instead of clarifying one’s position, it confuses it. It prompts emotional reactions that are not conducive to communication and understanding.

Religious and theological labels are misleading. I don’t like them. Apparently neither does God. Moses tried to pin the Lord down with a name, so he would something to legitimize his mission to the Hebrews in Egypt. The frustrated Lord finally shouted, “I am who I am. Tell them, ‘I am’ has sent you!”

So am I. I am who I am. If you want who know who I am, don’t pin labels to me. Talk to me. Don’t call me liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, evangelical or emergent.

Even the word “Christian” is misleading these days, being used to describe people who burn Qurans and picket military funerals while holding signs that read: "God Hates Gays." I have nothing in common with them.

People use labels for other people so they don’t have to listen to them. This past year I have been intentionally listening to a much larger variety of voices. I have listened carefully to people like Muslims and atheists. I thought I already knew who they were. I was wrong; all I had were labels and preconceptions.

The same is true of me. I don’t even know what I am; how can anyone else label me? An evangelical is not an evangelical any more. Neither do they smell so sweet these days.  

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