Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ah, Evangelicalism can't live with it and it won't let me alone!

I think I have mentioned this briefly, but one of the things that sent me into a contemplative tail spin after being back in LA was how, even though none of our friends are "Evangelicals", Evangelicalism lurked in our conversations. I think I have also mentioned that I have for sometime lived sort of without much thought of Evangelicals apart from the Emergent sort. In some ways my parents could be considered Evangelical, and certainly the church they attend and in which my father is an elder is an Evangelical church, but I have never really understood why they were there, and even now after 11 years they still don't really fit. They are always trecounting for me how they still are fighting the leadership on this or that issue or how some new disagreement between them and the leadership has emerged.

Well life is conspiring and as my previous post shows you Evangelicals are once agian part of my life even if still at a little bit of distance. I am encountering people with evangelical pasts that aren't really so past for them, and then one of my parishoners, Jeremy, has an article in the current issue of Geez magazine devoted to Evangelicalism. I have been reading the issue and I find it really compeling. I think though all this re-encountering Evangelicalism is begging the question of what exactly is my relationship to it?
This question might seem strange to those of you who know that Evangelical is in the name of my denomination the Evangelical Covenant Church. But then no one claims the Evangelical Lutheran Chruch of America is "Evangelical" in the common North American sense of that word just because its in their name. And in a real sense at most the Covnenant Chruch is on the edge of Evangelicalism as we are not and cannot be a member of National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) because our affirmation of Scripture while claiming the authority of Scripture in Christian life and practice does not claim the Bible to be inerrant (if you are lucky enough to be ignorant of this theological tempest in a tea cup be thankful and don't ask, at least not here, I curently have no interest in explaining it.) and I believe our position on the meaning of the atonement is too broad for the NAE. I think there is another reason why our theological position keeps us out of the NAE but I am not recalling what else that might be. However, individual Covenant pastors may join the NAE and I undestand many are members, and some Covenant churches would call themselves Evangelical some even "conservative" and a few may even be "fundamentalist". I still would claim that while individual Covenanters and churches may so identify it is not entirely acurate to characterize the Covenant as an Evangelical denomination.

I must also admit that the Lutheran Pietism of the Covenant does have a certain resemblance to Evangelicalism, we talk about the "new birth" (it has always puzzled me why all Christians have abandoned that vocabulary to Evangelicals, from a sacramental view that is what happens through faith and baptism, no?), we have never been very tempted to follow hyper modernist interpretations of Christianity, and we affirm the whole traditional story of Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the Cross for our sins and rose again and ascended into heaven. But I suppose really that is more affirming the Apostles and Nicene creed than due to some Evangelical commitment.

I guess I really don't know what to do with Evangelicalism. On one hand I find it a threat to the Covenant identity as a Lutheran Pietist denomination since the surface resemplances of Lutheran Pietism and American Evangelicalism have lead many Covenaters over the years to either join the Evangelical/Fundamentalist camp and/or conflate Lutheran Pietism with American Evangelicalism. Even though the leaders of the denomination and the Annual meeting have generaly resisted these tendencies. Evangelicalims seems to be wearing away slowly but surely our Lutheran Pietist identity.

There is also, a Siren song aspect for me about Evangelicalism, something about it seems very comforting, and sophorific. If I would just sucumb to it I could rest. Just come to me it seems to say and all will be perfect and nothing will trouble you any more. Though, I know it is not true all Evangelicals are no less a contentious bunch than any other Christian group, and Evangelicalism is a highly decentralized and volatile subset of Christianity especially if you include in it Charismatic/Pentecostal types, as Geez magazine does in its Evangelical typology.
Also, if ever I was to submit to the Evangelical lable it would have been at Fuller Theological Seminary, where I wrote an article on the possibility of "Liberal Evangelicalism" for the student paper. (To my surprise I found such a sub-set in Geez's own typology!), though I wrote it more as an outsider to stir up the evnagelicals, than as an insider tyring to find a way to continue to identify with Evangelicalism.

Then when I studied at North Park and came to identify the faith I had known as a child more by the lable Lutheran Pietism than Evangelicalism, but I wonder if the people at Geez would consider my up bringing to be Evangelical. This thought that others may in fact lump me or my upbringing as Evangelical is disconcerting.

So what is my problem with Evangelicalism, why do I resist it so? It is not that I think all Evangelicals are the same, nor that I find everything about Evangelical theology to be full of it (far from it, in many ways one might suspect much of my preaching to be Evangelical, or maybe not perhaps you should ask those who attend Reconciler...), I am well aware that Evangelicals are not necesarily what they are stereotyped to be by non-Evangelicals (or even by some Evangelicals themselves), and I am well aware of the diversity within it that Geez has marvelously highlighted in this curent issue. What I resist in Evangelicalism is its weird often confusing mix of individualism and demand of conformity. One is too have one's personal individual intimate faith and relationship with God, but it also must conform to certain preset forms. Not that I think conforming to certain beliefs and practices is a bad thing, its just that Evangelical forms seem a bit arbitrary and of recent origin. What I can't accept about Evangelicalism is that it tends to lack any real concern for apostolicity as continuity. Sucinctly, Evangelicalism for all its Biblical literalism, concern for truth and knowing Jesus is very short on catholicity and orthodoxy. Evangelicalism (except for tha ancient future variety that is finding its center of gravity around Bob Weber's Ancient-Future faith) for the most part can careless if its interpretation of Christianity can trace any sort of line of continuity back to Jesus and the Apostles. Sure they may talk up a storm about getting back to the New Testament Church but a need to return would indicate a loss of connection and continuity in the first place!

I suspect I may actually believe that catholicity and orhtodoxy are what make a relationship with Jesus possible, not that a relationship with Jesus is true Christianity. And here is my frustration I suspect that many perhaps most Evangelicals would take that to mean that either I do not have a relationship with God and Jesus or that at best that I am a very confused Christian. But I can't quite see how I could have any faith at all or any relationship with God at all without being in continuity with those who came before. Either the Church was founded at Pentecost or it was not. Either the Church is something that could be founded once or it is not. Either the church is something real and existent or it is vague and unimportant. Evangelical use of the word Church is frustratingly vague and fuzy while simultaneously being a reference to all Evangelicals (that agree with me).

I have a strange relationship with Evangelicalism, and I think it has to do with the way in which the Covenant church has neither simply identified as Evangelical nor clearly destinguished itself from it, and so I have and still do i guess live in that strange place where I can neither identify with Evangelicalism nor escape into some pure non-Evangelicalism (what ever that may be.)


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