Still Evangelical (Mark Labberton) -- A Review

STILL EVANGELICAL?  Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. Edited by Mark Labberton. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018. 214 pages.

                I am a graduate of the one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world (Fuller Theological Seminary), graduating with the M.Div. (1985) and a PhD in Historical Theology (1991). I value the education I received at Fuller, having studied with excellent professors. I feel as if I was given an excellent grounding for ministry. When I was a student at Fuller, I thought of myself as an evangelical of sorts, but over time I’ve had reconsider that identity. Would I consider myself an evangelical today? I guess the answer would depend on how we define evangelical. Martin Marty has with some regularity reminded people that as a Lutheran, of a liberal persuasion, he is a part of a denomination with the word evangelical front and center (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). Then there is that component of the United Church of Christ that was known as the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Definitions are important. So, while I probably would find it difficult to sign a statement of faith at an evangelical institution, this evangelical component is still part of my identity, along with my Pentecostal and Anglican elements, which then influence how I see myself as part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Disciples of Christ).

The question of evangelical identity has become more complicated in recent years as the definition of evangelical has taken on a more political dimension. This is especially in the aftermath of the Trump election, which apparently was supported by 81% of self-described white evangelicals. These evangelicals voted for him, and apparently continue to support him, despite his immoral life and bigoted views. These facts have led many who have called themselves evangelicals to rethink what that identity means. In other words, there has been a lot of soul-searching. As for me, I grieve over what has become of my former tribe.

It is with this background that I read Still Evangelical?, which is edited by the current president of Fuller Seminary, Mark Labberton, who is himself a Presbyterian minister. The book features eleven essays written by persons who self-identify as evangelicals. While there is a theological component to evangelicalism, Labberton admits that the lines dividing evangelical/non-evangelical are as much sociological and ideological as they are theological. What is often forgotten, and is revealed in the diversity of essays, is that evangelicalism is more than a white phenomenon. Many who hold to evangelical theological beliefs, and thus are within the tent, are black, Asian, or Latinx. Unfortunately, their voices are often ignored or suppressed. So, what makes one an evangelical? The essayists often refer to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, a four-point description of evangelicalism developed by British church historian David Bebbington. This quadrilateral includes, biblicism, crucicentrism (centrality of the cross), conversionism, and activism. The latter component refers not only to the commitment to evangelism, but also to the Great Commandment. These components are undertaken with an entrepreneurial spirit, that has birthed a myriad of denominational and parachurch efforts.  One thing that has marked evangelicalism, is an organizational flexibility and pragmatism that is often less present in Mainline Protestantism. If you notice from the Bebbington Quadrilateral, there is no reference to ecclesiology or sacraments.

The question that defines the book is this: In light of current trends, is it possible to retain an evangelical identity, and if so, what does that mean? What is interesting to me about the essays, is that the essays written by women and persons of color were the most compelling and helpful. It is these essays that raise concerns about the racism and bigotry that still inhabits evangelical circles. The essays written by white males, by and large, were not all that interesting. They were, for the most part, not all that circumspective. The essay by Shane Claiborne did raise the question of whether the word evangelical needs to be abandoned in light of its connection with the religious right and Donald Trump, but then again, he is often numbered among the so-called progressive evangelicals, many of whom have simply left the fold (e.g. Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Rachel Held Evans, and Rob Bell). Perhaps I am numbered among that group as well.

The essays then that I found most compelling were written by Lisa Sharon Harper, an African American woman; Robert Chao Romero, a Latinx professor of Chicano studies at UCLA; Soong-Chan Rah (Asian-American), Allen Yeh (Asian-American), Sandra Maria Van Opstal (Latinx woman), and Tom Lin (Asian American). Each of these authors address concerns about social justice, racism, and the continuing dominance of white males within evangelical circles. Consider this word from Sandra Van Opstal, a second-generation Latinx woman, whose parents immigrated from Columbia and Argentina. Being "born again" in a Southern Baptist church, "discipled in an evangelical parachurch movement, and trained in an Evangelical Free seminary," you would think she would have no problem identifying with evangelicalism, which has provided her with her theological foundations and her place of spiritual re-birth, and yet she struggles with this self-identification. She writes "It's not that I can't include myself with evangelicals. Rather, evangelicals have not sought to include me" (p. 123). This is in part a reality of being Latinx (born of immigrant parents and thus an outsider) but also of being a woman. She writes in the essay that she stays in the evangelical movement in the hope that she can contribute to the reformation of the movement. I should note that the publisher of this book, InterVarsity Press, has done an excellent job of publishing non-white authors, both male and female.  So, there is hope, but there is much to do.

It is difficult to take note of all of the contributions, so let me say that this is worth reading, both for evangelicals and for non-evangelicals. For my non-evangelical friends who speak with derision of evangelicalism as a racist movement, this might help understand the diversity that makes up the movement. For the most part, non-white evangelicals don't support Donald Trump, even if their theology is conservative. Sandra Van Opstal opens her essay noting the grief with which she and her friends witnessed the election of Donald Trump—not because they were political liberals, but because of the fear that his candidacy put into the hearts of people of color and immigrants. It is also important to note, as Allen Yeh points out, that evangelicalism is a global movement. At the same time that we hear about overwhelming support among white evangelicals in the United States for Donald Trump, many majority world evangelicals are wondering what is happening here in the United States. Thus, he advises evangelicals in the West to balance concern for orthodoxy (right belief) with orthopraxis (right action).  

I was a bit hesitant to pick up the book. In part this was due to the fear that it would simply be a defense of the status quo. Instead, I found a lot of self-criticism. You even get the sense that there is increasing openness to LGBT folks, or at the very least, recognition of the problem of homophobia within evangelicalism. Evangelicals, for the most part, may not be ready to move toward full inclusion, but here and there I saw signs of a slight opening. Regarding immigration and social justice more broadly construed there is greater openness, as is also true of the broadening the place of women in the life of the church. The book also reveals that one of the strengths of the movement is flexibility and pragmatism, but this is also the root of one of chief weaknesses of the movement, which is the lack of an ecclesiology.

Over all Still Evangelicalis an intriguing book that reminds us that no movement in monolithic. There is theological, political, socio-economic, and racial/ethnic diversity. There might even be some room in this circle for me, though I may have taken too many steps outside the circle to now return. Nonetheless, the very fact that this book was produced suggests that there is an important conversation occurring within evangelicalism. So, perhaps that flexibility will lead to a new day, in which the very diversity of the movement sets the agenda for the future. We don’t know yet, but here is an intriguing set of voices, which suggests that this is a possibility.

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