It hasn’t been easy, but I still call myself an evangelical.
There was a day when historian Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind became a friend, a companion I returned to in a grad school apartment each evening. It lay on the couch after I read it to remind me that I wasn’t alone in my views on evangelicalism. As Noll and later sociologist James Davison Hunter said, many evangelicals were holed up in their bunkers fighting the culture wars but not being culture influencers. My Ph.D. colleagues mocked the simplistic comments of evangelicals in the news and the preacher who stood on the campus green shouting venomous Scripture at them. I couldn’t disagree.
I write this the day before I become the chair of a department at an evangelical Christian university. During the interview process at this institution with a baptistic background, I declared I was an evangelical when my membership in an Anglican church became a topic (or at the very least I named myself an “evangelical Anglican”).
It had been ten years since those days in my Ph.D. program when I had stopped referring to myself as an evangelical. What has changed?
I had not stopped calling myself a conservative Christian or an orthodox Christian with a small “o.” In my dissertation I was required to disclose my faith for my ethnographic research of a religious community. I defined conservative Christians as those who believed in the message of the Christian Bible as authoritative; who had narrow interpretations regarding the actuality of Christ’s purpose, death, and resurrection; and who affirmed the dissemination of their faith. Evangelical I believe is manifested the most in the dissemination of faith—evangelism.
But the word evangelical, I cringed at and still do as the news tells me that evangelicals have gotten Donald Trump to the point of nomination to the Republican Party or as I have witnessed on social media the fearmongering evangelicals have asserted about individuals who identify as transgender.
Here are some reasons I still call myself evangelical.
- Life has taught me that just because the vocal people make a stink, it doesn’t mean they are the majority, or if they are, there may be a prominent minority who disagree. If Mark Noll can be called an evangelical, I can too.
- As a friend who grew up in a mainstream denomination pointed out, evangelical thinking about truth can be helpful in teaching discernment about big ideas even if the lobbing of criticisms of others’ worldviews or the broad strokes in its applications have not been. For example, someone such as William Lane Craig can help me consider the rationality of God’s existence while I may wince at his and other Christian worldview teachers’ overemphasis on what goes on in the head.
- Many evangelicals are recognizing that the historic church and its collective worship traditions are also important to spiritual formation, and I’m not necessarily thinking of what was once known as the “emergent church.” The megachurch New Life in Colorado Springs has a downtown campus, populated by millennials, with a pastor, Glenn Packiam, who has also undergone Anglican ordination. The baby is no longer being thrown out with the bath water of the Reformation.
- Evangelicals are caring more about influencing culture through social justice and art initiatives. Evangelical friends in my Christian writing guild are activists against sex trafficking in the U.S. and elsewhere. My friend Judy is gathering emerging Christian artists in the city of Minneapolis. I belong to an organization in Colorado Springs, the Anselm Society, that provides support and challenges member writers, musicians, and visual artists (the most neglected of creative individuals) to do better.
- I need Jesus, and I think you do too. I once heard religion writer Phyllis Tickle speak to a group in an Episcopal private school’s chapel filled with my friends considering a new monastic community and numerous well-heeled middle-aged women who, I mused, in the stereotype of Episcopalians would return to their book clubs ready to imbibe glasses of wine. Tickle opened up by announcing something along the lines of how she loved Jesus and she hoped all of them did, too.
The way I convey my desire for you to know Jesus won’t be my project—I’m not going to make friends to target them to become Christians. No more treating people as if I have something to offer them and they have nothing to offer me. But you’re gonna know that I love Jesus and need him, and through my vulnerability you will hear my invitation. That is evangelical.
[Image: Preaching (Billy Sunday), by George Bellows. Lithograph. 1923.]
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.