Along with fellow bloggers Kurt Willems and Carson Clark, I have been contemplating my identity as an evangelical who is at odds with many other Christians that identify themselves as evangelical. I’m sure someone is snickering that this is the sort of thing that a privileged white Jesus nerd with too much time on his hands would pontificate about. Anyway, I’ve decided not to call the Christians I’ve been beefing with all my life evangelicals anymore. Since the word fundamentalist has apparently gone out of circulation, I’ve decided to rename them anathematicals. Let me explain.
There is one type of Christianity that says my faith works for me; it’s what I grew up with; other people have equally valid views based on their cultural contexts; I’m gonna do my thing, other people can do theirs, and I’ll live together with them in peace by not bothering them with my beliefs. That’s how I would tend to describe the “mainline” response to the gospel (correct me if I’ve got it wrong). My denomination (United Methodism) is mostly made up of mainliners, but I can’t say I’m one of them. Another type of Christianity says what Jesus taught, what He did for us on the cross, and how He was brought back from the grave really is the best thing that’s ever happened to the world since it provides the basis for human beings to be reconciled with God and each other in perfect community; therefore we should share this good news with everybody. This second kind is what I would call “evangelical” Christianity, with which I would identify. I would argue that the definitive feature of being evangelical is that your chief desire is to share the euangelion (good news) of Jesus Christ with the world.
But among those who think that Jesus is the only way, truth, and life, there is yet a further division: those whose theology is shaped by the constant desire to present the gospel in a way that makes sense to non-believers and those who presume that if a version of the gospel does make sense to the world, that’s proof positive that it has been corrupted by worldly views. I would argue that those who live to evangelize are rightly called evangelical, while those whose focus is calling out heresy in other Christians ought to be called something different, like anathematical, after the Greek word anathema, which was the term used for excommunication.
Whatever else is true about the recent Rob Bell controversy, the reason Bell got in trouble with anathematicals like John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, John MacArthur, et all, was because he wanted to present an account of the gospel that addressed many stumbling blocks that non-believers and ex-believers have with the way that Christianity is usually presented. Interestingly, he didn’t really make any claims that C.S. Lewis hadn’t already made in his Great Divorce, though Lewis got away with it by writing an allegory rather than a hard-hitting polemic. Certainly, it was fair for Bell’s arguments to be critiqued, but it was unfair for his motives to be impugned (he’s in it for the money, etc) and for him to be dismissively excommunicated from the church over Twitter.
I would argue that if Rob Bell made some mistakes, he made the kinds of mistakes that evangelicals ought to be making. We’ve got to find a way to explain the holiness of God that doesn’t end up making God look like an infinitely persnickety critic who’s allergic to imperfection like Simon Cowell from American Idol. God is not the parsimonious tightwad that He’s made to look like by the way that the gospel often gets presented. And people who aren’t at least a little troubled by God’s PR problem aren’t really evangelical. I’ve written elsewhere that the major problem with the mainstream evangelical gospel today is that we’re stuck on a hypothetical, extra-Biblical account of God created by St. Anselm that may have been appropriate to his 11th century feudal context but is no longer applicable to ours. Talking about sin as exclusively (or even primarily) a violation of God’s abstract infinite honor made sense to people who were concerned with preserving their king’s honor. But it’s not inappropriate to find a different way of describing the incompatibility of God’s holiness and our sin in a society where we do not have a king. Why not talk about God’s judgment of sin in terms of His solidarity with the victims of sin? There’s much more Biblical grounding for this way of framing God’s conflict with sin, and it makes more sense to postmoderns, particularly those invested in some notion of “social justice.”
In any case, it is because I’m an evangelical that I am filled with rage when the clunky caricatures of God that Christians present to non-believers make the One who is the source of all goodness and beauty look like a stupid redneck. My desire for the gospel I share to be genuinely beautiful is out of stewardship for my calling through the Great Commission; it’s not because I want to “fit in” with worldly people or find the magic formula to grow a huge megachurch where people go for shallow, feel-good spiritual entertainment. True evangelicals take seriously the critiques and challenges of our postmodern context rather than taking the intellectually lazy cop-out of dismissing it all in one broad swoop as “postmodern relativism.” My evangelism has been helped tremendously, for example, by Foucault’s explanation of the workings of power and Derrida’s account of the limitations of language. People who have actually read postmodern philosophy understand why the word “relativism” is such a bizarre and laughable descriptor for something which can scarcely be categorized collectively at all.
I think there may be a legitimate role for anathematicals, but they need to be acknowledged as falling into a separate category than evangelicals. Those who are truly called to evangelize shouldn’t be afraid to push the envelope and dance on the boundary lines of orthodoxy if they’re doing so in the interest of excising the unnecessary stumbling blocks that keep others from hearing the good news. Some people might call it “evangelism” when you share a canned gospel with others oblivious to its apologetic quality in the same way that some people think canned meat product is a reasonable lunch item. True evangelism implies a genuine concern with apologetics, whether or not the gospel makes sense to the person listening. It’s abominably cynical to throw up your hands and say, oh well, Jesus you told me to be faithful, not successful, when you’re making no effort to honor God with how you represent Him.
Now it is reasonable and important for those who are passionate about the Biblical integrity of the gospel to critique what the evangelists come up with as long as there’s a recognition that those who are experimenting with apologetics do not automatically become hell-bound heretics when they cross the line of Biblical orthodoxy. They need to be roped back in, not shunned and cast out. The conversation can occur if there’s an appreciation for each side’s respective dialectic roles.
The problem is when anathematicals start to believe that only an unreasonable gospel can be legitimate since “reasonable” automatically translates into “sold out.” A form of works-righteousness can take hold in which believing the “tough truths” about God is how I earn my salvation. I think this works-righteousness, which I call doctrinal Pelagianism, is the greatest heresy of the American Protestant church today, far more insidious than the errors made by evangelists who need correcting.
I’m doubtful that my new term anathematical will catch on. I just wish that the people who scorn the creative apologetic challenge of true evangelism would stop calling themselves evangelicals.