If the subject matter immediately following is unlike what you had hoped, then good. Welcome to the world of postmodernism. You have now entered into the wild, wacky world of postmodernism. For that was my experience not many years hence where my expectations did not match the reality of what I would soon discover. It will push at you from a lot of different places, sometimes making you uncomfortable, at other times confused, and even downright bothered, and all the while making you want to give up and return to the simpler worlds that you once inhabited and thought you understood.
In my journey (because postmoderns must always speak of their journey) I've gone through a wide range of emotions until finally learning that it was my own background that worked against me, instead of for me. It was a painful transition which I now think (had I not made it) would've held me back for the rest of my life, confining me to personal spaces I should not be living within, nor able to personally grow within. I suppose there were many factors that contributed to its occurrence in my life beyond the ones I shall talk about here in this present discussion.
It began formally when I finally admitted to myself that I had to ask the question of why my Evangelical faith had become so conflicted between what I believed and what I was observing in the church fellowships and organizations I was familiar with. Having noticed trends in both church and theology that were highly conflicted. Trends that needed better questions, and certainly a lot better answers if it were possible. And then, somewhere along the way, over the past generation or two of my lifetime, I found myself moving at a different pace from my more comfortable, very structured, past. Its internal drift was growing by the day and required some little investigation along with some mighty large answers that, if they couldn't be answered, at least needed a better place to land.
The other thing I noticed was that the emergent Christian fellowship I was joined to were also experiencing similar growth pains of movement and barrier, centrality and definition. For it's seekers were dealing with questions of what a follower of Jesus might expect in a lifetime of familiar and unfamiliar experiences, resulting from deeply personal upheaval, unwanted and unsought. For I know of no one purposely seeking directional change in life without some sort of catalyst to get it all started. And for me it was the catalyst of being out of sync with the cultures around me - mine own, my friends, the church, and with society at large. It was more than simply living as a Christian with all its fundamental differences. No, this was something else completely different.
My earlier, evangelical-period of life, marked completion of academic training from a large, well-known university during the end of America's Vietnam War. A bloody war whose ravages laid everywhere about the campus and society - from the cruel sacrifices of America's sons and daughters, family and friends, to institutional breakdowns, civil race riots, rampant drugs, sit-ins, and "peace" rallies of despair, hate, and conflict. All of which had come to my "Berkley of the Midwest" making it a microcosm of the moiling turmoils and deep strife found within the nation at large as I walked everywhere upon its campus. And as I pursued my studies in science, mathematics, engineering, humanities, and language, the hot cauldrons of deconstruction boiled over into the hallowed halls of academia, its grand dorms, civic life, and all things in between. The academic setting I had imagined were in deep conflict with what was being personally experienced, so that after three years of nearly daily turmoil my heart, mind, and soul, were no longer at peace. My grades were slipping and I could no longer concentrate on the reasons that brought me here. I had become weary of contending the daily battles of atheism in all its ragged forms of deep despair and angled bleakness. And all the while, was discovering in my Christian witness and sustaining fellowships a need for more formal biblical studies than I could discover on mine own. I wasn't sure how to discern the mind-and-mood altering affects of the epistemological deconstruction witnessed about me, so that after three long years of absorbing godlessness and despair, and nearing my final two semesters of study in advance mathematics, I applied to a small, fundamental/evangelical college much to my family's dismay. All their hopes and dreams vanished overnight for me with that application. And I suppose a little bit of myself had died as well.
Before all this, I was raised in an isolated farming region that quickly was losing its past 150 years of pioneering history and becoming overrun with the spreading blight of urbanization. Many of the old timers I remembered seeing and visiting with were quickly passing away. And the mangled social interconnectedness that a once futile land brought to our farming communities was fast disappearing. From my perspective, farming families were uniquely bound to the land in very similar ways to that of the native American Indian we had displaced. With the exception that our spirituality was disconnected from it, though in another sense, it too grew from the land we loved and found rebirth. Without the land and its heritage we had no identity. And with it we had no income. So that from around the start of the 20th century farming families began to find work off the land wherever they could. And as they did, so also began the educational "uplift" of time honored stories, superstitions, legends and folklores (or, was it the cultural lost of the same that I was observing in my small childhood?) Whatever it was, I could sense even then the conflict between the clash of very old worlds lost upon the newer altars of enlightenment and revered modernism. And in this way, the pioneers of the old days, and the old ways, had grown in companionship to the native American Indians of old, who too had lost their ancient traditions, time-honored customs, and land-bound heritages. The tie that bound was one of deconstruction. Ever faithful. Ever present. Ever disruptive.
In any event, as industry and urbanization spread, relatives and farming families began to leave the land of its heritage for the factory floors and business offices of the city. So that by the time I was raised, what then remained to me were the dusty shrouds of ancient artifacts hanging from the rafters of our failing, hand-hewn, post-and-beam, red-painted barns still seated upon their crumbling foundations. Or beheld in the rusted, empty stanchions of a dilapidated and crumbling milk house once vibrantly warm and alive with the life blood, and odorous manured stench, of fat dairy herds on a cold winter's morn. Closed in to the colours of the rising sun, and noisily ganged together eating underneath the stray coverlets of dimmed 40-watt light bulbs sparsely hung from the heavily strawed rafters seeping from double planked floor above. Or seen in the overworked and fallowing fields bounded by sagging barbed wire and disintegrating driftwood fencing. Once holding flowing fields of wheat and hay under a hot summer sun's risen heats, stained with the sweaty odors of working men dutifully labouring beside oiled remnants of mechanized machinery straining in the faraway turns and bends of distant fields, hearing the scrape of metal upon metal upon ungiving ground.
As well, my little one-room school house was in its last generation (my brothers and I we were the fifth, and last) of a long legacy of great uncles and great aunts. Since the age of 5 we learned to walk the fields and cross the broken fencelines between vigilant stray dairy herds ever watchful of our guarded, early morning crossings. Holding tin lunch pails in our small hands, and wet up to our knees in the tall morning grasses, we marched faithfully day-after-day to learn about worlds to come. Sitting in our wooden, flip-top desks, in crowded aisles and rows ushering 19 other children more worldly wise than ourselves. Who lived in the "city" and not on the land of their birth. Listening to the wooden floor creak underneath the step of every waif, and feeling the billowing breeze of uplifted curtains flowing above the high shelves of very tall windows. There, in front, looking upon us was Lincoln and Washington, and with these great men we stood to present our daily lessons to the only grand teacher I would ever know (spare one many years later). Loving, kind, patient. Our link to a wider world of grandeur. And paean to our future. Too soon would come the public school fast looming on the horizon like the vista of our little school beheld in the early mornings. To which sixth grade was my induction into its darkened labyrinths and stonewalled dungeons. And with it, the age of modernized education commenced leading to a later university training that would take me far afield to an infinite degree beyond what once was old and familiar. A place were radically new, and turbulent ideas, imprisoned the land of my heritage, and its distant spirits, to another time and era. At once unfamiliar, and breaking apart at the seams, by its own undoing and destructions. For this was the heady era of glorious modernism which was all hail and fury. A fury that undid its charms and made me long for the better days of youth and mystery. Adventure and wonder. A youth unclaimed until modernism died by its own hands, and with it came the promise of a postmodern future more alive with the wonders of an ancient past lost.
Years earlier, at the age of eleven, I became a Christian. It was a significant event that still stands clear in my mind on a late summer's Sunday eve after hearing the gospel of Jesus and what it meant to me in personal terms of salvation. Having followed my Sunday School teacher's instructions to pray the believer's prayer that night around 8 o'clock just before bedtime, I went down the hallway to tell my mom, deeply engrossed in knitting and darning, patching and sewing. After which, to rest, she would play a new upright piano to the deeply glorious strains of the classics, black-noted upon the thick pages of her music books, remembering the days of her stage performance downtown at the Royce Auditorium. When telling mom of my prayer, she absently replied that that was nice and wished me lovingly off to bed for early school the next day. Which was about the extent of my Christian upbringing. We went to a Baptist church in the city many miles away once a week on Sunday. And occasionally that same church sent out a faithful country preacher to our little school house to share flannel graph lessons of Bible stories with us. It was a steadily growing community of warm believers, filled with warm ministries, to both children and community. Dad grew up there and mom started to attend when they married, leaving her Swedish/Lutheran background behind for a Scot/English one. She once told me the Lutheran hymns she sang as a child made more sense to her in dad's Baptist church. Even so, during a length of several summers, I remember receiving "catechism" from mom's Lutheran church, experiencing the grand music and worship of its massive sanctuaries and organ-strewn pipes held against the walls in silvery runs everywhere I looked. At our simpler Baptist church we had devotional Sunday School lessons in children's church, sang occasionally for the congregation, and in time, when coming of age, were allowed to attend "big church". There, we were to sit quietly. Listen. And try not to fuss too much under dad's ever diligent eye (learned in the trade of the police after coming back from the lines of the DMZ in Korea). Or bother those around us, as we sat in the hardened, smoothed pews of the backmost row, with my uncle's family (always to the left), and a blonde-headed girl ahead, sitting quite contentedly with her family, to my curious adoration and wonder (something my brothers and I seemed always to struggle with!)
After graduating from bible college I taught for a brief year out-of-state at a high school (a church school no less) and then returned with mixed feelings of whether to begin seminary education. My interest was still in biblical studies with a passing interest in pastoring (which both did, and didn't happen). My wife and I met, dated, married, and lived a long time without children, doing as much ministry as we could in her home church (fast becoming the city's main mega church supplanting mine own). Years past, ministries grew old, boards came and went, church families moved on, or passed away, becoming distant memories, and soon we found ourselves in our third church. A church that was birth from our past home churches and to become the city's next, newest mega-church. One that would change everything familiar, grand, and comfortable. While unknowingly to us - as well as to itself in those early days - it would soon become formed under the influences of nascent emergent Christianity. A new church movement feeling its way along a path both radical and new. Radical in that it wished to leave the failed days of modernism behind (to no dismay of mine own). And new in that the only thing to be put in modernism's place was a form of postmodernism, spun towards our religious/ideological drift and direction. It required of us a generation's worth of re-thinking what we had learned, had taught, had exampled, and must now change, much to our amazement. A change we didn't think was necessary until looking about and seeing that many Christian friends were hunkering down into staid, conservative forms of religion that felt unfamiliar to our own lively backgrounds of past university life and passionate Christian witness. Or, by those who had become road kill from Christian churches who said they didn't fit into the proscribed religious lifestyles and beliefs it held. Or, were simply overlooked in the busyness of life where careers, jobs, and wealth accumulation mattered most to the congregants of the church. At which point this "emergent" Christianity began to make sense, identifying as it were with our own turbulent past, and personal mandate, for Jesus-first ministry. So we stayed, learned to adapt, and worked through (yet once again) another formidable period of change (at least my third in a lifetime of fluid, and flexible, deconstructive boundaries).
Consequently, it is important to me to know how the evangelical churches and institutions that I was familiar with - where I found nurture and support - were likewise being affected by the same changes I was personally experiencing. I would like to know just what had occurred during those years between my graduation from seminary until now, a generation later, that would place me in the position of finding myself writing about a postmodern faith. An emergent faith requiring new thought tools, a more contemporary theology, and a more radical mission deployment, that my older faith had not given to me. A faith that would create a renewed focus upon Jesus, and His kingdom, and cause all things related to Jesus to be cruciform, and incarnational, in ministry and worship. That wishes to "work" its faith as much as "speak" its faith. And to understand how it is different - radically different! - from my own fundamental and evangelical past. And yet, not unlike my own past, where Jesus came in to my life and made all things radically new. Reinvisioning new worlds. New thought forms. New methodologies. New insights and practices. New embracements of a wider world. A wider culture. A wider global appreciation for those different from myself. Where the old wineskins of my earlier faith could no longer hold the new wine of Jesus' postmodern gospel. And even though I didn't know it at the time, I needed the new wineskin of Emergent Christianity to move on with Jesus into relevancy to the world today.
Certainly it was confusing. And chaotic. Because how many times does one go through a 500 year seismic change in the history of the church? The early Remonstraters once did in the Age of the Reformation. And before that, those followers of Jesus did during the collapse of the old Roman, and later Ottoman, Empire. And before that, those early Jewish Christians did with the advent of Christ into their Old Testament Jewish religion. Even so, is the church of the early 21st century undergoing such a change. Reconfiguring from its formerly understood self, having worn for too long the outdated garments of Enlightenment and Modernism, while hesitantly looking at the newest runway apparels and designs from New York and Paris' latest fashions of deconstruction and postmodernism. The music has changed. The politics and economics have changed. The cities are growing to mega-proportions. The climate and ecology of the Earth has changed (what massive glaciers I once walked in my youth have disappeared). Man's scars and marks is on everything organic and structural. Our wars and disagreements have changed. Even our lifestyles have changed.
So then, it is of no surprise that our Christian faith must change. And will change. And will never be like itself from one era to the next. From one generation to the next. If it doesn't then the gospel of God in Jesus will have no relevance unless we learn to break down the barriers we seem to constantly placed upon it. And to stop thinking we are diluting the Gospel by allowing relevant change to occur. To trust that there will be enough relevant theologians working within the fabric of society to help keep to the ancient faith without fear of losing it. While learning to accept it's more relevant expressions and forms of outreach, ministry, and mission. Count on it. For it must be so, even as there will ever be constants within the Christian faith of old. That will be assured through the patient study, and presentation, of the Bible into every era of mankind at the ever faithful hands of God.
Nay, God has not forsaken His church. Quite the contrary.... He is powerfully working within our midst calling to repentance, reform, revival, renewal, reincarnation, even resurrection. Do not make the error of the Scribes and Pharisees by calling God's redemptive work within humanity that of the devil, and putting to death the Son of Life. Jesus came to bring life. Not death. Learn to trust God and to distrust ourselves. It is how the Spirit works by calling all afresh to hear God's holy name. Be at peace and rest in this knowledge. You are not forsaken. Nor has your ancient faith been abandoned. Simply challenged to become relevant in its mission and message.
And so, not unlike Jesus, I've felt that we've entered into a long line of dissembling eras just as the church of yesteryear had until an Augustine, or a Luther, or a Calvin, stood up and spoke out, declaring new practices, new worship styles, new theology, new dogma. Even now is that occurring again - as hard as it is to entertain or comprehend. And this time by not only figureheads but by the masses of believers themselves as they serve, and work, and witness of Jesus each day around this nation, and this earthly globe.
For we have entered into that long line of "the first and the last" - the "first" to enter into new eras unsought and unwanted. And the "last" to leave the ruins of a crumbling past and precious memories to be forgotten in the long ruins of a more ancient, more distant past. Each journey was as unknown then, as it will be now. Each filled with adventure, exploration, rebirth, and renewal. As much as with uncertainty, hardship, turmoil, and a diminishing hold to the misty moorings of an earlier time. Eh verily, I suspect there might yet be a few new lands to discover until the end of days. But through all these many journeys does God walk with us - whatever the shadows or valleys, the mountains or glades. He is there. And will be our firm assurance. Our rear guard. Our advancing scout. And ever faithful Captain of the Hosts of the Lord.
January 16, 2013
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Defining “Evangelical”: Why It’s Necessary and Impossible
Defining “Evangelical”: Why It’s Necessary and Impossible
January 13, 2013
Some years ago Presbyterian publisher Westminster John Knox Press asked me to write a volume for a theological handbook series. Mine was to be The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology. It was published in 2004. This was one of the most labor-intensive writing projects I’ve ever undertaken and completed. In published form it contains 328 double column pages. Although it has not been one of my best-selling books (that would be Finding God in the Shack), it received good reviews including positive endorsements (published on its back cover) from Randall Balmer, Gary Dorrien, and David Bebbington.
“I am almost finished with your Westminster Handbook of Evangelicalism. Who would have thought that a handbook that is essentially a dictionary would be a great read, but I have enjoyed every entry. I think you have achieved a much better integration of the material than most dictionaries/handbooks with multiple authors. As usual, the work reflects a very ecumenical perspective without underplaying the important differences. I especially appreciated how you brought out J.I. Packer’s “paradox” view of God’s sovereignty as a kind of middle path between Calvinism and Arminianism, and I think you have clarified the precise difference between Semi-Pelagianism and Classical Arminianism as well as I have ever seen it done. Your works are all self-contained courses in themselves, and I think you have a rare talent for being able to achieve this in a truly balanced way. Most authors just seem to have to bash their opponents somewhere along the line but you never do that. Great work, Roger, and many thanks for providing these tools. They are models of clarity and balance.”
One of the reasons I accepted the publisher’s invitation and assignment was because I didn’t trust just anyone to write such a book. I feared if I didn’t do it, someone else who defines “evangelical” differently would do it! And by “differently” I don’t mean “slightly” or even “somewhat,” I mean “radically.”
As anyone who has come here frequently and long knows, there is a huge struggle over the meaning of “evangelical.” Many evangelical spokespersons and leaders desperately want to define it by putting their preferred boundaries around it so that they can control public perception of it. Many of my interlocutors have asked me very sincerely why I care about this struggle. Why not “let them have it?” (Meaning by “it” the ability to define “evangelical.”) Well, the reason is obvious to anyone inside the movement. The struggle is for the hearts and minds of influential evangelical decision makers—publishers, editors, denominational executives, college, university and seminary administrators, etc. Having been on the inside of the movement all my life and having been close to such influential people in it, I can tell you that many of the movements’ movers and shakers make decisions based largely on their perception of the meaning of “evangelical.” Is so-and-so “truly evangelical?” She might get hired or not based on that perception. He might get published or not based on it. A great deal of money flows around within evangelicalism and it flows in the direction of someone’s perceived “authentic evangelical” status. For the past fifty years students have flocked to evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries, often making their decisions based on the schools’ reputations as either evangelical or not.
I’m not saying this tendency is right; I’m just explaining why “ownership” of the label is such a battleground. “We’re more evangelical than they” (and often “than anyone else”) is the claim of many executives and administrators.
A few years ago a group of influential evangelical scholars began a several years long project to define “evangelical.” I attended some of their sessions and was at the final one where it became clear that there was no working consensus about the matter. Frustration filled the room. Why couldn’t a diverse group of evangelical scholars come to agreement about what the term means? The urgency was fueled, I believe, by the fact that many people who in times past would have called themselves “fundamentalists” were attempting to shift the center of the evangelical spectrum far to the right and even truncate the spectrum to exclude many individuals and organizations that they considered “doctrinally compromised” or “theologically liberal” (which almost always meant “influenced by neo-orthodoxy”). The session dragged on, tensions rose, there was a general feeling (I sensed, anyway) of disappointment. Then, a Lutheran scholar who had written on evangelicalism and evangelical theology stood at the very back of the room and said “I suggest that an ‘evangelical’ is anyone who loves Billy Graham’.” The room broke out in applause!
The product of that project was published as The Variety of American Evangelicalism first by the University of Tennessee Press and then, in 1991, by InterVarsity Press. The editors were North Park College and Seminary professor and provost Robert K. Johnston and Donald W. Dayton, professor of ethics at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Both men moved on to other institutions since then.) The volume portrayed evangelicalism as a very large and broad tent, inclusive of a great diversity of traditions and affiliations.
Partly, I suspect, in response to those broad definitions (or descriptions) of “evangelical” and “evangelicalism,” some evangelicals began attempting to narrow those concepts down by identifying “evangelical boundaries”—as if such a large and diverse movement could be confined within walls. Many wanted to identify inerrancy as such a boundary such that anyone who does not at least pay lip service to it cannot be legitimately evangelical. Some of the same wanted to add monergism to the definition of evangelical such that anyone who does not believe in irresistible grace cannot be authentically evangelical.
Throughout the 1990s I became increasingly involved in these debates. I knew I was authentically evangelical; I had grown up in the thick of the movement and still believed in its basic tenets and held its basic convictions and yet realized I was among the many targets of those who wanted to define many of us out of the movement. They wanted to rip my wallet out of my pocket (so to speak) and take out my evangelical credentials and rip them up and burn the pieces. Of course, I wasn’t nearly as much of a target as some of my friends. So I came to their defenses. Then I became even more of a target (than I had been).
Sometime in the late 1990s I was invited to speak to the presidents of the thirteen colleges of the Christian College Consortium—all self-identified evangelical institutions. They were holding one of their annual meetings and invited me to talk to them about evangelicalism. I knew they were particularly interested in the issue of evangelical “boundaries.” I also knew all of them were under pressure from constituents, many of them with “deep pockets,” to bow to conservatives who, through their publications, wanted to label many of us as what Luther called “false brethren.” I gave my presentation, which argued for a relatively broad and inclusive definition of “evangelicalism,” using the same hallmarks as Mark Noll and David Bebbington (biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism). I was supposed to answer questions after my presentation, but the presidents had few questions of me. They fell into polite but pointed argument among themselves about the meaning of “evangelical.” What became clear to me as I listened was that two of the presidents very much wanted to define it in terms of creedal orthodoxy, with very narrow boundaries, while others insisted on keeping it broad and inclusive. What was playing out before my eyes and ears was my own description of two approaches to defining “evangelical” and “evangelicalism”—one centered and one bounded. To two of the presidents, I discerned, a person is either “in” or “out.” It was for them a matter of black and white. They did not seem to want to admit degrees of “evangelicalness.” To others (some didn’t express opinions but only asked questions), “evangelicalness” is a matter of degrees—a spectrum. (A couple of presidents seemed to want to abandon the concept altogether but everyone there knew that wasn’t possible for them.)
That’s just once case study of problems top level evangelicals have with the concept. I’ve been in many meetings where the same issues have divided the participants—sometimes in very harsh tones.
It seems necessary to at least attempt to define “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” At the same time it seems impossible—at least in terms of reaching consensus. Noll’s and Bebbington’s four hallmarks approach is helpful, but then, among those who use them, the question arises about whether they constitute the “center” of a set or its boundaries. And, especially if boundaries, how are they to be defined? What, for example, constitutes “biblicism?” Is inerrancy part and parcel of true biblicism? Most boundary seekers would say yes; most center seekers would say no. The moment you define biblicism as including inerrancy you set a boundary. But then the problem becomes patrolling it and keeping the right people “in” and the wrong people “out.” Who does that? There’s no evangelical magisterium or headquarters, so what exactly is the function of boundaries?
Some boundary people answer that identifying and keeping clear evangelical boundaries has practical functions. It helps people know whom to hire or publish or listen to. But, of course, especially with regard to the first two functions, everyone knows and admits that organizations have boundaries. That’s not in debate. But just because an organization sets a boundary doesn’t mean that’s a boundary for all evangelicals. A case in point is Carl F. H. Henry, a founder of the Evangelical Theological Society. He, and they, set a boundary for their organization that includes biblical inerrancy. But Henry himself stoutly denied that belief in inerrancy is a boundary for evangelicalism as a whole. He considered non-inerrantist evangelicals inconsistent but not thereby non-evangelical.
As for the third function, knowing whom to listen to, that seems to me what this is mainly about. But, of course, all it means is that someone doesn’t want someone else (usually students and administrators) to listen to another. But, of course, all that is happening, when someone declares someone else not truly evangelical and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously as an evangelical thinker, for example, is expressing an opinion.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Pietism. And I’ve written some articles and given some talks about Pietism. (My most recent article is on Pentecostalism and Pietism in Pneuma, the journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It’s a version of a lecture I gave at Regent University in North Carolina about a year ago.) Debate about defining Pietism has heated up again. It was hot in the early eighteenth century. Then and now one point of disagreement among scholars is whether Count Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravians, should be considered a pietist or not. Historians of the movement disagree sharply about its boundaries.
It has always seemed self-evident to me that movements cannot have boundaries. In fact, secretly, only to myself, I have long considered people who think movements can have boundaries either disingenuous or sociologically ignorant. Organizations have boundaries; movements do not. It’s self-evident. Movements have centers, not boundaries.
Just yesterday I came across a reference to, and discussion of, a scholar I’ve never heard of before whose work helps a great deal—in explaining what movements like Pietism and evangelicalism are, and are not, and how to describe them when clear definition is impossible. The scholar I refer to is George Lakoff and the book where he puts forth his idea of prototypical defining of categories (such as movements) is Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1997). The scholar who pointed me to Lakoff and his ideas is Peter James Yoder (whose excellent chapter in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity is entitled “’Rendered Odious’ as Pietists: Anton Wilhelm Böhme’s Conception of Pietism and the Possibilities of Prototype Theory”).
According to Lakoff - according to Yoder (I have yet to read Lakoff for myself) - categories such as Pietism and evangelicalism (Yoder’s and my examples, not Lakoff’s) can only be defined in terms of “prototypical members.” Yoder summarizes Lakoff’s suggestion this way: “Some members of a category are more prototypical than others. As individuals or groups construct categories, they show a propensity to see some category members as better representatives of the grouping than others. At the same time, these categories tend to have “fuzzy edges,” as they stand for several conceptions of the same grouping.” (The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, The Princeton Monograph Series, ed., Christian Collins Winn, et al., [Pickwick, 2011], p. 24) Such categories admit degrees of membership and they are defined centrally, that is, in terms of a center constituted by the prototypes. “Prototypes merely speak of a cognitive centrality and allow for fluid, fuzzy boundaries.” (p. 24) According to Yoder, Lakoff’s theory allows one to recognize central members of categories and yet maintain fluid boundaries of the movement.” (p. 25) Yoder applies this to the debate over whether Zinzendorf should be considered part of the Pietist movement. He concludes Zinzendorf should be so considered while at the same time allowing that he may not be a member of the center of prototypes. Yoder concludes that “Prototype theory, as a mediating model, provides the ability to maintain central figures and attributes while also allowing for a more fluid boundary of the movement.” (p. 26)
Of course, I intend to obtain Lakoff’s book and read it for myself, but if Yoder is right about Lakoff’s theory, it agrees completely with my vision of evangelicalism, but it adds a dimension I have been previously lacking—“prototypes” as category-defining (and movement-defining). I use the word “defining” cautiously because many people automatically think that once you’ve defined something you’ve pinned it down so that it is either this or that. But when it comes to categories, and especially movements, “defining” means something else. It means describing in terms of prototypes and allowing for degrees of membership. (Here “membership” doesn’t mean what it means when referring to organizations with formal membership. It simply means “belonging to the category.”)
Thus, I argue that evangelicalism, like Pietism, charismatic movement, “New Age,” etc., etc. refers to a category that can only be defined in terms of prototypes that constitute a center. I would put Noll’s and Bebbington’s four hallmarks at that center and with them Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. What did those men have in common that was not as noticeable among most of their peers in Protestant Christianity? I would say those would be biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. And I would add to that a tendency strongly to defend the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy (broadly defined). Yes, to be sure, there were others who displayed the same characteristics, but they especially stand out as the prototypes of the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century that gave birth to the modern evangelical movement.
Narrowing “evangelicalism” down to the post-WW2 “evangelical movement” (which is mostly what I write about and insist on being included in), I would again look to prototypes such as the five hallmarks above and prototypes such as Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, Harold John Ockenga, Christianity Today, Carl Henry, Fuller Seminary, Wheaton College, Billy Melvin, Eternity, World Vision, etc., etc. This way of “defining” evangelicalism and “evangelical” allows fluid boundaries (if they can be called boundaries at all!). How close to the prototypes are certain entities (people, organizations)? is the question. The Lutheran theologian was not far from right, if far at all, when he suggested that an “evangelical” (in the sense we all meant) is someone who loves Billy Graham. Of course, he did not mean, and nobody in the room assumed he meant, anyone who simply likes Billy Graham as a person is an evangelical. He meant, of course, we all knew—anyone who ardently desires to emulate Billy Graham and/or looks up to him as a prototype of modern, authentic Christianity in terms of his basic beliefs and approach to Christian life (conversion, devotion, evangelism, holiness of life, activism in seeking to change the world “for Christ,” etc., etc.).
Now, I fully realize, this approach to defining (!) “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” will never satisfy those who are out to manipulate those concepts for their own gain. But it is the most reasonable approach; all others have far greater problems.
I tend to think most people look at the world either in black-and-white, either-or terms - or, in terms of degrees, that is, appreciating ambiguity as embedded in the nature of things (or at least in our knowing). Black-and-white thinkers who are allergic to ambiguity will have great trouble with Lakoff’s and my approach. I simply think they are stuck in a relatively immature stage of mental development. I have no problem with their setting up organizations and patrolling their boundaries. That’s their business. I don’t have to belong to any of their organizations. But when they start treating “evangelicalism” as one of themselves as the boundary setters and patrollers, I have great trouble with that. I will call them either disingenuous or uninformed.
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