Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series where we pose the question: Is it time to leave the term “evangelical” behind us?
See the first two articles here:
The Last Evangelical by Geoff Holsclaw
Evangelicalism: It’s a Brand, but it’s Also a Space by Dan Stringer
You’ll notice that not all of the articles land in the same place, but instead express different viewpoints. Our purpose in publishing these articles is not to dictate what we believe the “right answer” is, but to begin the conversation. And we’d love to hear from you too (submit an article here). May this help to foster much-needed dialogue and discernment for the days ahead.
Evangelicalism’s Moral Confusion (on the right and the left)
Evangelicalism in America is a mess these days. The ideological polarization that has divided our country politically, and continues to do so, extends even into the evangelical community. Indeed, the current polarization in many cases has been exacerbated by certain factions within evangelicalism that offer seemingly uncritical support of politicians whose personal moral lives would make a Borgia Pope blush. Coming from a contingency of the population that claims to be on the side of traditional, Christian values, the hypocrisy of this is not lost on the culture at large. Evangelicalism, so it seems to many, wants political power at all costs, and is using the language of morality and “family values” as a facade. Evangelicalism, so it seems to many, wants political power at all costs, and is using the language of morality and 'family values' as a facade. Click To Tweet
In light of this bad press and evangelicalism’s own internal moral confusion, many are shedding the label. Evangelicalism, as a movement, has become corrupt, they say. It is implicated too deeply in the struggle for power and control and has aligned itself, in some cases, with ideologies that are incompatible with a Christian vision for the world. Many of these Christians who leave evangelicalism for its blind alliance with some form of a right wing political agenda end up aligning themselves with its opposite: a progressive left wing ideology. Unfortunately, this ideology often proves to be just as totalitarian and unfriendly to orthodox Christian convictions as its worst expressions on the right.
It is clear that something must be done to clarify what it means to be an evangelical. However, this will not be something that is done through a collective statement published on the Internet, or signed by high profile leaders. Evangelicalism, in its historic sense, is defined as a transdenominational protestant movement focused around the need for personal conversion, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and activism for the good of the community. The clarification of what it means to be an evangelical will need to be done by courageous people who retain the label, and work to rescue the essence of the movement from the moral and political mire in which it is trapped. The clarification of what it means to be an evangelical will need to be done by courageous people who retain the label, and work to rescue the essence of the movement from the moral and political mire in which it is trapped. Click To Tweet
Evangelicalism’s Pinocchio Story
The Canadian Psychologist and University of Toronto Professor, Jordan Peterson, uses the story of Pinocchio to describe the journey that each generation must undertake to sustain and renew their culture. Drawing on Carl Jung’s archetypes, Peterson argues that Gepetto represents the spirit of the existing order that gives rise to the next generation. Gepetto’s desire for Pinocchio to become a real boy represents the highest aim of that culture. Pinocchio, in his journey away from being a mere puppet, attempts to make his own way in the world.
Peterson notes that he faces the two deadly temptations of lying and becoming a victim, the latter being demonstrated in his journey to pleasure island where he is almost destroyed. As Pinnochio navigates the moral complexity of the real world, his father has gone looking for him and has somehow ended up in the belly of a whale, and cannot escape. This represents the fact that the culture that gave birth to Pinocchio is corrupt and in need of rescue. Pinocchio’s journey to become a real boy will not be complete until he descends into the depths of the sea and rescues his father from the whale. This is symbolic of the need for every new generation to make peace with their culture, integrate it, and also renew it. Pinocchio becomes the new embodiment of his culture after he symbolically rescues the spirit of his father from the depths of chaos.
I propose that evangelicalism today is in such a state of chaos. It is in the belly of the whale, so to speak and in need of rescue. The temptation that the emerging generation must avoid is to let the “spirit of our father” remain in the belly of the whale while we attempt to divorce ourselves from its perceived corruption and make our own way. Like Pinocchio, we must learn to speak truthfully and avoid becoming hedonistic victims, and instead take responsibility for rescuing that which gave us life.
This task requires truth and love. It requires truth because if we are going to rescue the spirit of our father, we must know exactly who and what it is we are rescuing. We must look at the good and the bad together, recognizing that the spirit of our father is neither wholly corrupt nor wholly good. This task requires love because love is what prompts us to recognize that there is something worth descending into chaos to rescue. The movement which we are tempted to divorce ourselves and to lampoon on social media is that which gave birth to us and formed us, no matter how imperfectly. Truth and love working together, allows us to honestly assess what we are rescuing and gives us the courage to become its embodiment for the next generation.
Practically, this will require the emerging generation, my generation, to have the courage to maintain the label “evangelical” even in spite of its bad press and moral compromise. We must not let the whale of moral chaos and political polarization keep the good spirit of evangelicalism in its belly. Rather, we must recover and practice those core aspects of historic evangelicalism, namely, the need for personal conversion, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and activism for the good of the community. We must resist the temptation to let these good core tenets rot in the chaos, but must resuscitate them by embodying them in our own local communities.
By embodying the best of our evangelical heritage in local communities, we stand at a place to correct its corruption and perversions. As Jesus says, “How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye” (Matthew 7:4-5, CEB). By standing within the community itself and by integrating the best of the spirit of our ancestors in the faith, we can better call evangelicalism to be true to its highest aims, while maintaining a mindfulness that we too are prone to corruption. By standing within the community itself and by integrating the best of the spirit of our ancestors in the faith, we can better call evangelicalism to be true to its highest aims. Click To Tweet
Evangelicalism in the United States today is in need of rescue because it has been swallowed by the whale of our polarized culture. The good of the movement will perish unless it is rescued by Christians who are willing to take responsibility for embodying the best of it and so renew it.