Some of the books I read present a proposal or viewpoint the author wants his readers to adopt. These books intend to persuade. Sometimes the authors want to persuade me to accept certain practices or theological beliefs. At other times the authors want me to reject certain practices as harmful or doctrines as heterodox. In either case, the author will present certain arguments in the attempt to persuade me (and the rest of his readers). Sometimes the argument is stated plainly, at other times more subtly.
In my last post, I said that a pillar of evangelicalism (perhaps the pillar of evangelicalism) is the desire to be relevant. I mused that a ‘genre-marker’ of sorts for evangelical literature was the “apologetic from irrelevance” argument. The authors want their proposals to be adopted because the current evangelical practice or belief makes evangelicals look bad, either to the academy, the media, post-moderns, ‘sophisticated’ New Yorkers–you pick the group. In other words, one of the key reasons they want their proposals adopted is because it will make evangelicals more relevant; this argument is, to them, persuasive. Why should evangelicalism change? To alter the manner in which they are currently being perceived by non-evangelicals.
I have a case in point. The following citations are all from a single 2008 monograph written by a prominent evangelical theologian. Each one of them demonstrates this ‘desire-to-be-relevant-as-genre-marker.’ Note how the author is arguing his case. It is generally along these lines: ‘The present way evangelicals do things is creating a stigma. Change this, and we will not be thought of so badly.’
‘Gradually the impression has sunk into the American mind that being a conservative Christian, being evangelical, and being narrow, rigid, and militant, and angry are the same. But more important, the media’s use of these terms and categories has left the impression on the public mind that being evangelical means having a knee-jerk reaction against any and every cause considered progressive or liberal.’ (17)
‘Many of us find ourselves in a quandary: how to rescue the label ‘evangelical’ in this culture where it is so widely considered just another word for “conservative Christian” and where that label is generally identified with fundamentalism and the Religious Right.” (18)
‘Unfortunately, many Americans consider evangelical Christians judgmental, intolerant, and moralistic in a bad sense, even though every right-thinking person does acknowledge the necessity of a personal framework of morals.’ (43)
‘Ask any number of people walking the malls of America whether evangelical Christians are moralistic and you will find them affirming it. Their picture of an evangelical is someone who is morally conservative and judgmental. The standards of behavior they use are perceived to be old fashioned, if not totally out of touch with modern or postmodern life.’ (44)
‘Unfortunately, too many conservative evangelicals associated with the Religious Right have meddled in non-Christians’ conduct and behavior in God’s name.’ (53)
‘Few media people or others know about this because only those on the fringe of the evangelical movement tend to get any media attention. When those literalistic fundamentalists began to call themselves conservative evangelicals and were recognized as such by the media, moderate evangelicals who might have also welcomed the designation ‘conservative’ began to have second thoughts.’ (90)
‘Back to religion. What’s distinctively ‘religious’ about the churches so many young Christians and missional evangelicals are leaving behind for new experiments in being church that might be called ‘nonreligious’?’ (108)
‘For example, in the name of being conservative and religious, too many evangelical churches shun everything about today’s youth culture.’ (110)
‘What about secular literature and movies and dance? Can these be incorporated into worship, Bible study, and Christian mission? Why not? . . . Some risk-taking evangelical churches are experimenting with drama and dance in worship. . . . These are just a few examples of how churches can become more relevant to culture without compromising the gospel.’ (111)
‘In popular American mind, to the person on the street, “conservative evangelical” (if not just “evangelical”) has come to mean a person who wishes to use political means to make people behave.’ (114)
‘Moreover, in today’s America, many people have come to believe that being evangelical necessarily involves strong support for laissez-faire and opposition to government regulation of business and redistribution of wealth.’ (135)
‘Apparently this kind of highly systematized treatment of Christian doctrines is what many evangelicals want. Others, especially postmodern and postconservative evangelicals, find these usually massive tomes of dogmatics tedious and even misguided in their pretense of setting forth the ‘clear teachings’ of the Bible . . ..’ (144)
‘But in the popular mind, conservative evangelicals as a group are regarded as exclusive and intolerant because of their drawing boundaries around themselves to keep out the flagrant sinners of secular society around them.’ (171)
‘Conservative evangelicals are notorious for lapsing a couple decades behind everyone else when it comes to accepting behaviors as normal.’ (175)
‘. . . it is unfortunate that “evangelical” has come to be equated with the Religious Right in American social and political life whereas, in fact, evangelicals have often in the past been social and political progressives. Too many media pundits and journalists simply equate “evangelical” with “social and political conservatism. Many of us who have sound evangelical pedigrees and warmly embrace evangelical beliefs and practices resist this popular equation . . ..” (201)
‘Many of my evangelical friends and acquaintances are also embarrassed to be called evangelicals because of the popular identification of that label with social and political conservatism as well as with Christian fundamentalism.’ (202)
Make no mistake; evangelicals are very concerned–make that obsessed–with relevance.