The Strange Spirituality of Evangelicals

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The term evangelical is about as slippery as a wet bar of soap in a hot shower.Try to define an evangelical… I dare you. The moment you do some self-identified evangelical will invariably take offense at the boundary you drew which excluded them (ahh… we are such an inclusive bunch aren’t we?).The necessary consequent of this is the oddity of trying to discern “an evangelical spirituality.” Perhaps the best way to approach it is to ask the cosmically significant question “how many hairs make a beard?” That is, I know what a beard is and I know what a beard isn’t, but somewhere right in-between things get fuzzy (no pun intended). So also I know what an evangelical definitely is not (there is no such thing as an evangelical atheist, at least so far as I have heard), and I can be pretty certain I have met self-identified evangelicals, but what precisely constitutes an evangelical.

Various marks of evangelicalism have been posited by academicians, ranging from a high view of scripture to justification by faith to “mere christian” fundamentals. But I have interacted with and read of self-proclaimed evangelicals who would deny one or more of these and yet still attempt to maintain their evangelical identity. There are even evangelical Catholics, or so it is said (I think they are more like unicorns myself, if you find one please let me know). My working definition is kind of street level; that is an evangelical is someone who really loves Jesus (I think if you asked most non-professional non-Christians this is how they’d define it) – however they may define love and however they may define Jesus. E.g. there are some evangelicals that think it unnecessary that Jesus be born of a virgin, or even a descendant of Adam – these historical particulars are incidental and can be shed and still preserve Jesus’ identity. There are also some whose love for Jesus is primarily defined by political activism, while simultaneously other evangelicals shed the trappings of politics and put on the trappings of, well, Trappists and take pilgrimage to Merton’s hermitage in Kentucky.

One really begins to wonder – does evangelical mean anything at all? Is it like the term adolescent, i.e. simply a sociological construct created by academicians and media elite to earn research grants and sell swag? This is why it will be tough sledding to clarify a distinctly evangelical spirituality – perhaps we can but it will be about as easy as pinning a pig covered in vegetable oil to the ever shifting ground of the mire which he inhabits. Evangelicals resist definition (anyone remember the Evangelical Manifesto and the firestorm of controversy that followed?) and so will their spirituality. 

With that being said I’d propose an inquiry into the difficulty of being and defining an evangelical and its spirituality. My inkling is that this difficulty revolves around some of the following issues:

1. A Vacuum of Authority – Who is an authority in evangelicalism and how do they gain said authority?

2. An Extra-Ecclesial Tendency – Evangelicalism at its best is trans-ecclesial, and at its worst is extra-ecclesial

3. An A-Historical Orientation – Evangelicalism is suspicious of much of church history/tradition and yet tends not to scrutinize its own history very well, and/or it appropriates from other traditions without discernment.

4. A Theological Reductionism – In an effort to form a “movement” evangelicalism has tended to pare down theological convictions to its lowest common denominator as if those theological convictions were the only ones that really matter.

I hope to post on each of these difficulties and how they are interrelated, but perhaps there are others that you perceive? What say you?