Some weeks ago a member offered sort of a throw-away question to liven up the conversation. He asked what “evangelicals are thinking” these days.
Soon came a question in reply: “Could you please define in your own words what ‘evangelical’ means?”
And off to the races we went. I tossed in this definition from religious scholar Stephen Prothero’s excellent book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t: “(T)he term evangelical … refers to theologically conservative Protestants who stress the experience of conversion (being ‘born again’), view the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, emphasize evangelism, and believe that salvation comes by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ.”
From there the conversation ranged from the connection between evangelicalism and evangelism to something called “neo-fundamentalism,” along with a few words about Zionism, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and the “post-graphic revolution,” whatever that is. Even “Christendom,” believe it or not, got mentioned.
But I wound up regretting — again — the facile way many of us use labels, especially those that attempt to describe (or, more accurately, box in) people of faith. Such labels are everywhere, including in every congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — conservative, moderate, liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist and, maybe, post-graphic revolutionary.
All of them hide more than they reveal, telling us more about the person using the label than about the person labeled.
I know that sometimes labels offer helpful short-cut descriptions when referring to groups of people who share something in common and when speaking to people who understand pretty clearly what we mean when we use those labels.
But often labels mislead and are used pejoratively or they create the illusion that persons or groups are somehow monolithic. In fact, hardly any group, denomination, family, or even individual is monolithic. We know that from looking at our congregations and from glancing in the mirror, where I often see someone with whom I disagree.
So when we use labels without much care, they add to our many divisions because they allow us to ignore nuance, to pretend complexity doesn’t exist, to elect foolish simplicity over complicated truth.
In my career as a journalist I’ve no doubt misused labels, though I’ve tried to be careful to identify groups in ways that they want to be identified. For instance, instead of writing about “evangelical Christians,” an almost meaningless term, I prefer to use terminology like “people who would identify themselves as evangelical or theologically conservative.”
That may not add much meaning but at least it alerts readers to my efforts to let people self-identify instead of having me slap a label on them.
One of my teachers in this matter is Jesus, who even insisted on expanding the definition of three words all of us think we understand: mother, brothers, and sisters. He didn’t limit those terms just to his blood relatives but said that everyone who does the will of God fits one of those labels.
That’s why, in thinking about the extended family created by baptism, we Christians sometimes say that water is thicker than blood.
Back in 1993, as part of your Presbyterian family, I wrote some columns for the Outlook. You won’t remember them because I hardly do. But now that I’ll be writing here on a monthly basis, I prefer that you let me label myself.
So: I’m an awkwardly sinful, moderately egotistical, politically pragmatic, steadily changing, dependably inconsistent, noticeably tall Presbyterian elder of Swedish-German heritage who may be a post-graphic revolutionary and who once was — and may still be — an ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale, as well as someone who arguably has been redeemed by an awesome blue-and-red-state (to say nothing of cosmic) God who is, I believe, creator, cross-bearer, and comforter and who loves me and Jürgen Moltmann equally.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former columnist on faith for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http://billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].