Mar 7, 2011

The fight for the right to define 'evangelical'

There's nothing very theologically interesting about the recent controversy within evangelicalism over hell. The sides were pretty much what we know the sides to be. And, more than an argument, much less any new or creative arguments, most of what there was, was re-insistence.

That, people said, is not Christianity.

Like an ex-communication could be twittered.

The controversy, such as it was, came down to this: Promotional material for emergent evangelical pastor Rob Bell's newest book (his first not published by a Christian publisher) seemed to suggest a universalist position. Maybe, in the end, hell will be empty. Maybe, eventually, everyone is saved. Maybe hell doesn't last forever and ever and ever (maybe God isn't angry for eternity). The response to the publisher's promo material was ... vociferous.

But more dismissal than disagreement.

There wasn't so much an attempt to argue for the wrongness of a theological position presumably held by Bell as it was an attempt to define "evangelical," "Christian," "gospel," and "orthodox." The threat of Bell, the threat reacted to so swiftly, wasn't the doctrine of a grace and love that overwhelms even perdition, but the fact that doctrine was being presented as evangelical. Certainly there are enough Protestants promoting one or another form or flavor of universalism without evoking such a reaction, or any reaction, but that's because conservative evangelical leaders have already defined those people out of the faith -- they're "liberal" -- and thus don't challenge what it means to be evangelical.

The debate itself isn't particularly interesting. The fact the debate was understood to be within evangelicalism is.

What can be seen here isn't, in its essence, a theological debate, but a cultural contest. It turns out that what "evangelical" means is contested.

There's a fight going on for the right to define it.

While the old guard, the conservatives, are dominant, and have, culturally, defined what it means to be this kind of Christian for more than a little while now, there's a notable minority, younger and also less organized, but perhaps needing less institutional weight, that refuses to give up the name or allow themselves to be defined out of the faith, but who also refuse to endorse the definitions put upon them, or accept the you're-in-or-you're-out lines that get drawn.

Bell's a part of this, but so is Jay Bakker, Shane Claiborne, those who identify with the emergent church, and even, to an extent, Rick Warren, who's been pretty conservative but has also pushed in interesting ways at the shape of what that means and at what evangelicalism is understood to be.*

It would be wrong to understand these people as forming some identifiable group and they can't even really be lumped together except in how they're involved in contesting the definition of what it means to be "evangelical."

It would be wrong, too, to understand there to be a normalized definition of evangelical and then imagine this group as the dissenters. Those on the other side of the Bell & Hell controversy, for example, have, notably, been people who want to make certain Calvinist doctrines of damnation part of the definition of what it means to be a "Bible-believing Christian," and have used the fight about Bell's book (or, anyway, the promotional material for the book) as a way to establish their ideas about double predestination and the wrath of God as the default position.

There is a contesting going on.

Each side appeals to the "truth of the gospel" or to the essence of Christianity because that's what the struggle is, a struggle to be the side to say what that is.

That only serves to point out, though, there there has always been a contest going on. Cultural authority and the right to speak for the whole was fought over, has been fought over, has been being fought over and is now being and is fought over. What it means is evolving. Not in the sense of progressing -- but changing, affected by the environment, and adjusting, forming and reforming in a cultural struggle.

There were, after all, the fundamentalists and the neo-evangelicals, the Billy Graham fights, the Jesus People fights, the worship music fights, the megachurch fights, the separatists and the activists, and on and on.

"Evangelical" isn't static. It isn't fixed. Religious studies scholars understand it to mean four commitments (the "quadilateral" of biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism) but those are not understood, not worked out or acted out, in the same way through evangelical history. It's culturally contested.

This is the context in which the "theological" argument should be understood. None of the statements should be taken as solely statements of doctrine, or statements of definitional fact, but as arguments about the shape of this faith, the creedal shape but also the cultural contours. It's an argument about truth, but also about authority, and the semiotic content communicated with a name.

*A majority of people on this list might dispute whether or not they're "evangelical," with most of them expressing a desire to be know by their commitment to Jesus, the gospel, or the Bible, rather than that label. This is also true of most everyone mentioned or linked in this post. Everyone who wouldn't question the application of the label to themselves is actively questioning it's application to someone else. This is very fundamental to what "evangelical" means, which guarantees the contentedness and the ongoing cultural struggle.