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Good news and bad news

I remember the first time I choked on the word 'evangelical'. We had joined for the Sunday service of the Metropolitan Community Church [1] near our hotel in San Francisco. The (himself gay) minister had just given a raw and real sermon on either Luke 6 or Matthew 5, I'm not sure – "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. [...] Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you." (Luke 6:27-28, 37). Hearing this passage applied in the particular context of deeply felt griefs inflicted on the LGBT+ community by the wider church was humbling to say the least.

He welcomed us after the service – asked us what we were doing in the city and took an interest in our own church backgrounds. The 'e-word' was out before I had a chance to consider the extra political and personal loadings it inevitably carried in the ears of any American, let alone this one. I mumbled something about it not meaning quite the same thing in the UK (which is very true, but still...) and quickly changed the subject ... "sooo ... the Golden Gate Bridge! wow, now *there's* a bridge." (He was, incidentally, unaltered in his friendliness for the rather inane remainder of our conversation).

Evangelical. It's a word that has blazoned proudly above the entrance of almost every church I've ever been a part of, in which contexts it is typically intended along the lines of (in short) "we believe in being born again, and we take the Bible seriously" [2] – perhaps all too frequently with the implied addendum "not like all those other Christians". Indeed, I have used it of myself to make it perfectly clear that I am not one of those 'others'. It's a bit like the old Marks and Spencer's ad campaign: "We are not just Christians..."

The etymology of the word is rather lovely. It comes from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion) meaning 'good news'. GOOD NEWS! OK, great; I'm all for being a good news person.

But sooner or later, etymology is eclipsed by use. A word means what it says to the hearer. (So say the descriptive linguists). And I would not be at all surprised if one of the associations uppermost in the minds of many of my non-Christian friends at the word 'evangelical' is the phrase 'Trump supporter'. It breaks my heart to see numerous leaders of (white) US evangelicals urge their congregations to back a racist, misogynist, abusive, anti-intellectual, conspiracy theorising, incapable, compassionless, compulsively dishonest demagogue for one of the most powerful jobs in the world "for the sake of the Supreme Court" (in other words, in order to secure a favourable societal position for the church in years to come, as I vented about in a previous post).

And I expect at least some of them are (out-loud or silently) adding 'besides, at least he's a man'. Because another aspect of the wider evangelical church that I've been glumly forced to acknowledge in recent months is its very real complicity in misogyny and the objectification of women. The influential 'Biblical manhood and womanhood' movement, for example, as far as I can see, appoints narrow and particular duties for women, validates male dominance and entitlement, and has helped foster what has been reasonably described as a Christian rape culture. (In an earlier draft I went more 'off on one' at this juncture than one post can reasonably handle. Now there's a spin-off to look forward to :-/ ).

Evangelicals have also been known to make the news for lashing out against those who have had abortions; for turning up uninvited at wedding ceremonies to voice their disapproval; for spurning other Christians who decline to share that disapproval; for aggressively resisting the introduction of gender neutral toilet facilities; for boycotting chains which have the gall to cease imposing worldly gender stereotypes on children; for refusing to let pro-life pre-commitments stop them owning weirdly many guns. Less than two centuries ago, many (though not all) white evangelicals were outspoken in support of slavery, and they helped to perpetuate racial discrimination and segregation long after abolition. And the close enmeshment of evangelical mission with colonialism is uncomfortably impossible to deny. [3]

What these 'expressions of faith' have in common is not simply that non-negligible numbers of my Christian brothers and sisters have affirmed or practiced them but that they have supplied apparently rigorous scriptural justification for doing so. That can't not frighten me; is all this abundance of bad news where "taking the Bible seriously" (something I am keen to do myself) gets us?

So I think back over the various evangelical teaching I have received over the years. And actually it occurs to me that, whilst the Bible has been professedly front and centre in most of that teaching, in practice it has tended to take a back seat to doctrinal certainties. The task of the preacher seems often to be to demonstrate how the passage he's been given fits our long-since-already-agreed-upon framework: why waste time, and risk heresy and upset, by looking at what it actually says when we've known for hundreds of years what it means? Especially to be avoided, we're all agreed, are those murkier bits that get skeptics throwing around uncomfortable words like 'genocide'. Not that evangelicals don't have good answers for those bits ... we have very good answers, and very serene smiles on our faces as we very promptly deliver them, as though remaining entirely unfazed by mass violence and suffering is a hallmark of very strong faith [4]. But still, the impression is given that they're an unnecessary distraction.

Nor do many of the evangelicals I have known seem to have much time for poetry and literary context. Whilst few would go so far as to deny the incidence of metaphor in scripture, a popular maxim seems nonetheless to be "if in doubt, take it literally". It's a rule I can recall adopting myself, in my pre-poetry-loving past ... just to be on the safe side. Nowadays, it seems to me anything but 'safe' to (e.g.) construct pseudo-scientific theories around a figurative anti-myth polemic, or derive universally applicable behavioural instructions from poetic heart cries.

"The Bible is the Maker's manual!" according to every second evangelical sermon. Except, in its raw, real form, it's really not. (Imagine Haynes releasing a compendium of road-trip anecdotes, lyrical meditations on the character of Karl Benz, acrostic poems about the manufacturing process, letters between plant managers, and stories about gardening and investment banking which are assumed to be analogies for maintenance...) And once we've reduced it to a list of right beliefs and behaviours to conform ourselves and others to we've done just that ... reduced it. And reduced ourselves.

Such a paradigm needn't inevitably give rise to self-righteous, unpitying power-mongering ... after all, some of the topics on which the Bible gets most straightforwardly 'instructional' include social justice, human worth, humility, compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, and the like. But where there are strong leaders, vested interests, insecurity, and congregation members prone to religious anxiety who are only too happy to have someone else set the agenda if it means they don't have to do too much difficult thinking, items like "love your neighbour" are in danger of being bumped so far down the list that they're all but invisible to the ever-watching public eye.

If I'm fretting about us "using the Bible wrong" then what do I think "using it right" looks like? There seems to be no way to answer a question like that without falling foul of my own criticism. It's inevitable of written language – especially such a large and diverse corpus as the Bible – that we read it through one lens or another. And which lens makes all the difference. After all, the devil used the Bible to tempt Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13), and Peter warns his readers against "ignorant and unstable" people who were harmfully twisting the hard-to-understand bits of Paul's letters and of the Old Testament scriptures (2 Peter 3:14-18). Clearly, being able to quote chapter-and-verse does not in itself put you 'in the right' (although in America it may often put you on the right!) The best bet for any follower of Jesus is, I reckon, to look at how he approached the Bible and to try to make that our guiding model. That's a whole 'nother big topic, but he sums it up himself in response to a question about the "greatest commandment":
[Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)
Relational love is not one item on a list of many to be negotiated according to the priorities of the moment; it is the whole deal – the ruling principle by which all of God's communication to us should be understood and which gives life and meaning to our actioned response. As Paul puts it, "...if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:2-3) Before you leap to remind me that love isn't about niceness ... that sometimes, for example, it involves 'hard truths' ... I get that. I really do. But just try looking at some of evangelicalism's proclamation and demonstration of 'hard truths' from an outsider perspective and tell me that you feel the love.

My Twitter feed alone is enough to confirm that I'm not the only one pained and confused ... and angered ... by some of the more conspicuous expressions of church in the world (*hashtag-post-evangelical* etc etc). Rachel Held Evans writes honestly and eloquently about her reluctant journey out of the tradition in which she grew up (on her blog, and by all accounts in her book, though I've not yet read it). I'm grateful not to be faced with that sort of decision. I love my church community and feel no compulsion to walk away from valued fellowship that I'm only just starting to get the hang of. But 'evangelical', as commonly understood and as I see it exampled, no longer strikes me as a particularly accurate description of my relationship with the Bible, or of how that informs my relationship with God. It's no longer a word the invoking of which I find comforting, like I know where I'm at. It's not a label I'd reach for to disambiguate myself from 'other Christians', nor one that I'd look for to check whether someone was 'my sort' ... and I regret having been one to hold such distinctions.

I know that many of my friends, to hear me talk like this, might worry that I'm "turning liberal". I know because that's exactly the anxious response I would have had ten years ago. To which all I can say is ... well ... I'm sorry, but this is honestly where "taking the Bible seriously" seems to have got me (and indeed others, according to survey data!) Not that I accept the 'liberal' diagnosis. I'm not abandoning the truths of doctrines that have been carefully worked out over many years of collective, prayerful thought. But once doctrine has been codified and elevated into a ruling framework, detached from scripture and human experience, it starts to lose depth and meaning ... and heart. So maybe I am postliberal, although my understanding of postliberalism is as yet too slight to say for certain! (Here is a summary-attempt I found helpful). From what I can gather, postliberal theology emphasises the lived-out reality of the good news and lordship of Jesus. The Christian story emerges from the narrative of scripture and continues today in the communal lives of Jesus' followers. Truth is understood incarnationally rather than doctrinally – for doctrine to have meaning it must be concretely embodied in the Spirit-led life of the church. All of which, when I first stumbled on postliberalism (through reading Hauerwas, whom I've written about before), harmonised curiously with where I was already 'at' in my head – especially cohering with Jesus' teaching on love as the context for all of our being. So I'm keen to learn more. But whether I'll be looking to it for a new 'label' I'm not so sure. My hope is that postliberalism and evangelicalism needn't be an either/or [5]; that my good-news-professing community will increasingly delight to be a good-news-embodying community, and that I will learn to be more help than hindrance to that purpose...

[1] A denomination committed to being LGBT+-welcoming.

[2] The Evangelical Alliance unpacks the word as (intentionally loosely) understood by its members a bit more fully here (and in the linked paper).

[3] Many of the cases I've cited appear most exaggerated in (or even particular to) the US – which is, after all, home to the largest concentration of evangelical Christians in the world. But I feel too strongly about the unity and connectedness of the church to dismiss issues outside of my own experiences in the UK as 'not my/our problem'. Besides, the circles I've moved in have shared many of the same habits of 'biblical reasoning' that seem to have given rise to these uncomfortable examples.

[4] See, e.g., The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart by Rachel Held Evans, Jan 2013.

[5] See, e.g. A New Paradigm For Evangelical Faith by Matt Valler, 2014, which talks about a "paradigm of participation" within evangelicalism.

[Thumbnail image cc by au_tiger01 on Flickr].