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A Quirky Vibrant Mosaic

Though by no means do I intend TalkingDonkeys as a blog to only be a community for Christians who call themselves "evangelical," I do find the Philip Yaney article on the "quirky vibrant mosiaic" that falls under the umbrella of the term "evangelical" to be quite helpful at pointing out the great diversity -- especially globally -- inside the evangelical community. Here are excerpts:

"Many Americans view evangelicals as a monolithic voting bloc obsessed with a few moral issues. They miss the vibrancy and enthusiasm, the good-newsness that the word evangelical represents in much of the world. Evangelicals in Africa bring food to prisoners, care for aids orphans, and operate mission schools that train many of that continent's leaders. There, and in Asia and Latin America, evangelicals also manage micro-enterprise loan programs that allow families to buy a sewing machine or a flock of chickens. About a third of the world's 2 billion Christians fall into a category to which the word evangelical applies, a large majority of whom live outside North America and Europe...

When I was writing What's So Amazing About Grace? I conducted an informal survey among airline seatmates and other strangers willing to strike up a conversation. I would ask, "When I say the word evangelical, what comes to mind?"

Often in response I would hear the word against: Evangelicals are against abortion, against pornography, against gay rights. Or, I would hear a name like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, two of the most visible (and political) representatives of evangelicalism. For many, evangelicals were a force to fear—a gang of moralists attempting to impose their will on a pluralistic society.
A journalist working in the New York media told me that editors have no qualms about assigning a Jewish person to a Jewish story, a Buddhist to a Buddhist story, or a Catholic to a Catholic story, but would never assign an evangelical to an evangelical story. Why not? "They're the ones with an agenda."

Evangelicals, according to the New York stereotype, will propagandize and proselytize. You can't trust them. They're judgmental. They have an agenda."

Pollster George Barna found that while 22 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of evangelicals, 23 percent report an unfavorable impression. Much of the reason traces back to the perception of evangelicals as a political force, a perception based on a most checkered history.

Until the 1960s, evangelicals were as likely to be aligned with the Democratic Party as the Republican. Evangelicals led the fight for women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery—and also the opposition to it.

(Revivalist George Whitefield in the 18th century justified slavery, and Southern Baptists formed over the right of missionaries to own slaves.)

Evangelicals battled for a constitutional amendment decreeing the prohibition of alcohol, a measure later overturned and now viewed with considerable misgiving. Evangelical African Americans led the civil-rights crusade while some white evangelicals opposed it. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell urged American Christians to buy gold Krugerrands and to promote U.S. reinvestment in South Africa in an effort to shore up the white regime....

In short, evangelicals have taken political stances that sometimes appear quixotic, sometimes heroic, and often contradictory.

Increasingly, U.S. evangelicals have allied themselves with conservative politics. Many rallied around Ronald Reagan, the nation's first divorced President, who rarely attended church and gave little to charity, while viewing with suspicion Jimmy Carter—a devoutly religious President who taught a Baptist Sunday school class throughout his term in office.

To complicate matters, many evangelicals in places like the United Kingdom and New Zealand align themselves with liberal political parties, believing their Christian commitment enjoins them to seek government help for the poor and to oppose war. And in China, many whom we would identify as evangelical see no contradiction in their support for the world's largest Communist government.

According to author Randall VanderMey, "Evangelicals tend to view the church not as a giant ship so much as a fleet of rowboats and boogie boards, with each individual in search of an authentic personal experience with God." As we have seen, politics hardly offers the appropriate labels to slap on evangelicals. What descriptors might apply, then?

The British historian David Bebbington suggests this overall summary of evangelical distinctives:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a "born again" experience.
Activism: the expression of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority.
Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

Under this overarching description, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox can be evangelicals even while remaining within denominational structures that might shirk the term. The National Association of Evangelicals bars denominations that are members of the National Council of Churches, and yet many of those denominations have constituents who gladly call themselves evangelicals.

As a writer, I have found that by sticking to Bebbington's four distinctives, especially his emphasis on the Bible, I have a wide range of freedom. When readers complain, I reply that I am not the radical; Jesus is. He sought out prostitutes and sinners, in the process attracting violent opposition from the religious establishment of his day. As he departed, he prayed that his followers would not be removed from the world, charging them instead to live in its midst as salt and light...

As one who has been nurtured by evangelicalism, I hope we retain the spirit leading a movement that has proven to be light on its feet, willing to self-correct, and is above all committed to follow Jesus—"who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through his poverty, might become rich, and who has left us an example that we should follow in his steps."
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