Skip to main content

Is Evangelicalism a Mental Disease?

At a biblical studies conference last week I was having fun asking the politically incorrect question of the people I met as to whether or not they were a Christian.  To me, one's religious committments are bound to have a big affect on your scholarship (no matter what you say about "objectivity") and so I'm always keen to know, and at least I do it in person rather than public.  Well one very civilised chap I spoke to answered my question with a scowl and the statement "well, i'm not an evangelical" which was interesting, because I do self identify as such, but the way he said it I wasn't sure we would use the word in the same way.

But then reading about street preachers on Stuart's blog it occurred to me that for many evangelical is code for intolerance, bigotry, irrationality, right wing politics, emotional instability and public outbursts of hatred.  And this is the problem, I know lots and lots of evanglicals and they are by and large open minded, compassionate, polite, intelligent and a little shy.  How is it that such a huge majority has its reputation determined by a tiny excentric minority?

So really there are two meanings for this one word, and I wonder if like "fundamentalist" what was originally coined as a positive self descriptor will soon become an irreparably pejorative slur.  What do you think, is it a word you use of yourself?  To stand in the tradition of such conversionist and social activist examplars as Wesley and Wilberforce, for example, is no small thing, but then neither is being lumped in with every illiterate street preacher or free marketeering hawkish US politician.  Has the term reached the limit of it's usefulness?  Has it's broadness ceased to be useful for unity and become a liability to misunderstanding?

Let me know what you think.

Comments

  1. The first time I am aware of having heard the term, when I was a 19 year-old University student, it was used to define an "in group" (Evangelicals or sometimes only "Conservative Evangelicals") and an out-group. I was in the out-group, because I belonged to the wrong Christian society and was friends with the wrong people. I dislike the word. But then I dislike all self-descriptors that are used primarily (or even much) to keep undesirables out.

    If people must have in-groups and out-groups label me OUT, please (and allow me to quietly remember that my Lord was also outed Heb 13:11ff.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I consider myself an Evangelical, though I've learned that means a different thing in the USA than it does in Europe. The way I mean it is to label a group who shares similar commitments or views on salvation and evangelism. I've heard someone describe themselves as a "Catholic-Evangelical." I was a bit perplexed, and too young to have asked what they meant by that. I think it is a term which has been hijacked in the same way fundamentalism has (for example the political term "fundamentalism of the left").
    I certainly don't vote the way most "evangelicals" do though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi,

    when I saw this post I was reminded of the discussion by the Jubilee Centre on the term. You can see their Cambridge paper on it here:
    http://www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=207

    Their conclusion that the term is worth keeping:
    http://www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=208

    and they had a Radio interview on the issue:
    http://www.jubilee-centre.org/resources/bbc_radio_4_sunday_interview

    I'm a bit of a fan of the Jubilee Centre (and their Cambridge papers) as they discuss a lot of the issues that I'm interested in so please excuse the shameless plug!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Tom, thanks for the links and the comment, no shame in plugging a good resource!

    Tim, I agree with you if that is what it is used for, but my experience (used to be) more that the term provided a bridge between different denomination and was a way of emphasising commonality rather than excluding others. Should we just not define ourselves at all?

    Justin, yes I think the USA scene is a large part at fault for associating a particular political stance with evangelicalism, it used to be the case in the UK that evangelicals were more left than right, (how could they not be if they read the gospels??!!). However in NZ it is more like the states, and I wonder if it is because in the colonial environment non-conformist christians which would have been anti-establishment in the old world tend to become the establishment in the new.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jonathan,
    I think the wonderful term has been hijacked by the extreme right wing of the church as you mentioned. I think the one issue that biblical scholars have with self defining as "evangelicals" is the close association of biblical inerrancy with the evangelical movement. It is tough to remain an inerrantist and deal with biblical criticism, and self identifying as an evangelical often carries with it the unfortunate corollary of inerrantist.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Addictive Power of End Times Speculation

The mighty Rhett Snell has picked up his blog again (I wonder how long he'll last this time), check out his theory on why people get so into annoyingly unbiblical end times nonsense.

I think that where codes-and-calendars end times theology is dangerous, is that it can give a sense of false growth. We read a theory online, or hear it from some bible teacher, and we come to think that we have mastered an area of our faith. A bit like levelling up in a computer game, or Popeye after he’s eaten some spinach. At worst, we begin to believe that we’ve taken a step that other Christians have not; that we’ve entered an elite class of Christianity.

The false link between suicide and mental illness

One characteristic of human society is the tendency to keep doing something over and over again despite it not working. One example would be our approach to incarcerating criminals to punish them instead of rehabilitating them, compounding their trauma and making it harder for them to live productive law-abiding lives when they get out. But this is the "common-sense" approach, the intuitive human response to the failings of others, punish them and they wont dare do it again. It has never worked, ever, but let's keep doing it. Secular society is screwed because it cannot comprehend that its vision is blurred by sin and therefore knee-jerk, common sense solutions are usually destructive and counter-productive.

So it is with our response to suicide. To kill yourself must be the response of the weak minded and sick - so the thinking goes - so to combat rising suicide we treat individuals medically. Yet suicide is a perfectly rational response to a world as broken as ours and…

Wars and Rumours of Wars

I write in the morning after the USA 2016 Elections, which featured the historic election of Donald Trump. Apart from my personal interested as a resident of planet Earth at this time, it is interesting to note some of the apocalyptic language emerging in discussions of what this means. Even archaeologists are turning to the medium of prophecy. Hear the word of Tobias Stone,
So I feel it’s all inevitable. I don’t know what it will be, but we are entering a bad phase. It will be unpleasant for those living through it, maybe even will unravel into being hellish and beyond imagination. Humans will come out the other side, recover and move on.  Stone suggests that future historians will be able to draw clear lines from Brexit to Trump to the 3rd World War, or something equally bad. Mind you, just because historians can draw those lines doesn't mean they are here.

Then there is the word of Thom Hartman who is more interested in the domestic fallout than the fallout shelter. 
The last …