Christian Piatt answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Christian Piatt.
Christian Piatt.

The “E Word” in Christianity is a funny thing.

In one respect, Evangelicals are self-identified, and therefore, self-defined. On the other, popular culture (particularly media) lays its own meaning on what it means to be Evangelical. In the latter context, the word inevitably translates to “Conservative Christian.”

But I think this definition isn’t fair. What’s more, it’s not accurate.

I’m a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” so I tend to turn to etymology for help. The root meaning of “evangelical,” at least as a paraphrase, means “to tell the good news.”

Sufficiently vague, right? Depends on who you ask.

John Schmalzbauer answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Missouri State University Sociologist John Schmalzbauer
Missouri State University Sociologist John Schmalzbauer

Every so often, evangelicals get the urge to ex-communicate. Feminists, open theists, and universalists have all drawn the ire of their co-religionists. In the absence of a central religious authority, such efforts are doomed to fail.

According to most scholars, evangelicalism is more of a network than a unified church. Magazines, publishing houses, colleges, and parachurch groups play a bigger role than ecclesial bodies. While condemned from many pulpits, the emerging church continues to publish with Zondervan and Baker. Owned by the same company as Zondervan and Fox News (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), HarperOne has provided a home for Rob Bell and his Love Wins.

Though it hasn’t been easy, Bell has remained a part of American evangelicalism.

Fried by their battles with fellow believers, some have decided to ex-communicate themselves. Even then it is hard to cut the tie. As in the case of cultural Catholicism, religious terminology may haunt a post-evangelical’s speech. Commenting on this phenomenon, Tony Jones wonders whether evangelicalism is the “new Jewish" — more cultural than confessional.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson Answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Wes Granberg-Michaelson. Photo courtesy of the author.
Wes Granberg-Michaelson. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Evangelical voters” have now been sized and squeezed into a homogeneous political block. These folks have views on the political right wing, trust in robust American military might, believe that wealth is a blessing to be protected by tax policy, want society to be inhospitable toward gays, oppose any form of abortion, feel that “big” government is always malevolent, and assert that American individualism is the divinely sanctioned cornerstone of the Republic. Apply the label “evangelical” to a voter and you can expect these political responses.

The problem is that it’s simply inaccurate. One size doesn’t fit all when in come to evangelicals. It distorts reality. But that’s just too inconvenient for pundits intent on predicting how various blocks will vote.

Larry Shallenberger answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Larry Shallenberger. Photo courtesy of the author.
Larry Shallenberger. Photo courtesy of the author.

Self-identifying as an Evangelical might get me labeled a political activist. Yes, I’m an Evangelical. I’m also a Republican. But touching these two labels together invokes pictures of voting checklist guides, culture wars, and the case of Visine needed to make Michelle Bachmann eyes blink. I‘m not a militant, taking the country back for God.

So am I an Evangelical? Did you know that the family name is actually Swiss-German? That explains our passive-aggressive nature.

The term "Evangelical" is like a pair of hand-me-down underwear. It's been stretched over so many shapes and sizes that it's lost its snap and doesn't fit anyone anymore. It’s been pulled around the circumference of Mars Hill, Seattle and Mars Hill, Grand Rapids. Billy Graham, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Jay Bakker Benny Hinn, Scot McKnight, Don Miller, Jimmy Carter, W., John Piper, Ken Ham, Jim Wallis, and Bill Hybels have all had their turn sporting this hand-me-down garment.  

Ask me if I’m an Evangelical and I’ll ask if you know where that label’s been. It’s rubbed against far too much junk for my taste.

Words lose their currency with overuse, it’s true. But it’s also true that a large part of my issue with being labeled an Evangelical is vanity.

Susan Isaacs Anwers "What is an Evangelical?"

Susan Isaacs. Image courtesy of the author.
Susan Isaacs. Image courtesy of the author.

I first heard the term "evangelical" in the 1980s, about the time the Swaggarts and Bakkers were imploding. Christianity needed a new name for sane, intellectually sound faith.

"Born-again" had been sullied by the televangelists and worn out by Debbie Boone’s explanation of how she justified singing the lyrics to “You Light Up My Life.”

"Jesus Freak" had died with the Peace movement.

We needed another word to separate true Christians from fake ones; sheep from goats; serious believers from those who merely checked the “Christian” box on their driver’s license application because Jew, Muslim or Ekkankar didn’t apply. 

(Sometimes I wonder if all the denominations in Christendom are merely a list of the nomenclature we’ve used to separate Us from Them.)

Makoto Fujimura answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Makoto Fujimura via www.makotofujimura.com
Makoto Fujimura via www.makotofujimura.com

Why I’m not an evangelical … and why I am:

“Evangelical” is a dirty word in the New York art world. A friend, an artist, told me that before she understood the claims of the Bible, she thought Christianity was a weird political group, and evangelicals the most extreme and terrifying. Whenever this word is raised, the next statement is “oh no, you are not one of them, are you?!”

Then, I usually say,“well, it depends on what you mean by the word ‘evangelical,’” followed by a confession, “I am not sure if I am an evangelical but let’s do talk about what the word actually means.”

People often assume that I am of the evangelical persuasion because I have been associated with many churches and Christian organizations. I just completed a major project for the 400th Anniversary of King James Bible. I was even appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Council on the Arts. People in the art world assume that if you have anything to do with President Bush and the Bible then you must be an evangelical.

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