The "E" Word

There are few words thornier than "evangelical." It's a broad category that includes fundamentalists; it's also a reaction against fundamentalism. Possibly it's an exclusively Protestant phenomenon; to some Europeans, it's simply a synonym for "Protestant." It's a nonexclusive adjective or a group distinct from mainline Protestants, probably from Catholics, and possibly from peace church traditions.

David Bebbington and Mark Noll have characterized evangelicals by their emphases on personal conversion, the authority of scripture, activism, and substitutionary atonement. While this doesn't clear up every ambiguity, it is far more useful than simpler alternatives that confuse more than enlighten.

Mark Pinsky's A Jew Among the Evangelicals will enlighten many secular readers. Pinsky, a religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, demonstrates persuasively that evangelicals are neither particularly out of step with the larger culture nor tightly in step with each other. This is a recently popular theme: In 2006, you couldn't pick up a newspaper without seeing a divisions-in-the-born-again-ranks report, a profile of a moderate pastor with big ideas and a bigger e-mail list, or a headline punning on "The Changing Climate of Evangelicalism." But Pinsky's book stands alone as a fair and in-depth study by a credible outsider.

Others are likely to find this book confusing, as it's never quite clear whom Pinsky is and isn't talking about. Early in the book, he offers a definition of evangelical that approximates three of Bebbington and Noll's four points—biblicism, "conservative theology," and the Great Commission (which Pinsky understands to be concerned only with conversion). But he quickly dismisses the first two as far less important than the third, which "unites and defines" evangelicals. Later, his efforts to introduce readers to inoffensive evangelicals include encounters with individuals for whom converting others is not a priority at all. But are these people evangelicals? It's unclear what's become of Pinsky's earlier definition.

MORE TROUBLING IS that Pinsky avoids the fourth part of Bebbington and Noll's definition: the emphasis on a personal faith. This is the evangelical trait most off-putting to other Christians—many of whom are unsettled by extemporaneous prayer, find "I"-centered praise choruses offensive, and puzzle with Nicodemus at the concept of being "born again." The idea of a personal faith is arguably both the starkest evangelical distinctive and the one in which the others take root.

At the least, the four are intricately related. Pinsky points out that conservative views of scripture and theology do not always coexist with conservative politics, a crucial (if familiar) point. But he fails to address the significant correlation that, like it or not, does exist. A deeper look at the connections between biblicism, conservative doctrine on sin and atonement, and personal faith would unpack some of the complexities of the conservative social views held by so many evangelicals.

Pinsky doesn't attempt this; nor does he offer a more helpful idea of what it means to be evangelical than the standard not-all-of-them-are-puritanical-freaks talking point. Pinsky assumes a basic evangelical-mainline binary. But his cast of evangelical characters includes not only political liberals and moderates but also Protestants who don't try to convert others, who are theologically liberal, whose faith seems more communal than individualistic. If these people are all evangelicals, who exactly counts as mainline anymore?

The point is not to criticize a journalist for not being a theologian or sociologist. Pinsky's reportage of the recent shake-up over global warming is first-rate, as is his vivid account of the controversy surrounding President Bush's 2005 commencement speech at Calvin College. It's true that evangelicals are a more diverse bunch than many outsiders realize, and these outsiders have much to learn from this liberal Jewish journalist who has covered evangelicals for years.

There is also considerable evidence that this evangelical diversity is growing. But too often this point is made via lazy or sneaky definitions, resulting in rhetoric as misleading as it is effective. Labels and names—like those of city neighborhoods with boundaries that grow or shrink by blocks at the whim of trend-savvy developers—are reduced to useless words.

Perhaps when the "what's-the-deal-with-evangelicals" frenzy subsides, there will be more space for conversation about what, at the core, it means to be a Christian. (If only we had some sort of central figure ....) In the meantime, Pinsky's book deals effectively with some, if not all, of the general confusion. There's plenty of confusion to go around.

Steve Thorngate, a former Sojourners intern, is an editor and part-time seminary student in Washington, D.C.

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