Confessions of a Reluctant Evangelical

(or why I often want to be cool more than I want to be Christian)

Sometimes when I introduce myself at professional conferences, I say I am a Mennonite feminist evangelical. There are many ways of hearing this, such as that I am enamored with labels or that I am clearly confused. But what I want to convey by appealing to these descriptors is that I am not my own. Whatever hope I have to enjoy that eternal feast with Christ, it cannot come apart from joining myself to the bedraggled, ragtag family into which I have been baptized. Given my strong inclination to independence and perhaps even idolatrous desire to be “unique” and authentic, I am not naturally a joiner. After all, I was born in the 60s and now I live in the age of selfies.

I suspect for many a Fuller student, staff, faculty, and alum, claiming to be “evangelical” sometimes drops from our lips only reluctantly. Perhaps like me, you might have a story of why that label both compels and repels you: It shapes the contours of your life and work, yet it also causes you to shift uncomfortably in your chair as you read an article, view a YouTube video, overhear a colleague’s rant, or listen to certain preachers. Yet despite the unlikeliness of it from a human perspective, I need to claim and be claimed by others if I am to be Christian. When I allow it, Fuller teaches me how to embody these particular identities—Catholic-turned-Anabaptist, feminist, and evangelical—so that they shape me for faithfulness to Christ. Indeed, this last term must shape the other two, so that they foster not merely my desire to be “cool” but rather direct me to the One who finally satisfies my desire to belong and forms me for faithfulness.

Cool by Association: Invited into a Movement

“You are fundamentalists!” Or so claimed my Marxist professor, a secular Jew popular with students for his engaging if sometimes rough-edged presentation of history. Like other students, I loved his class; he engaged us with his passion and pressed us with his radical criticism. In large part because of dedicated teachers like him, the experience at my small liberal arts college was enlivening and fascinating. Material in courses challenged me intellectually; I discovered poetry in English and debated mutual assured destruction as a nuclear policy with an ex-CIA Sovietologist in political science. Like many in college, I enjoyed new, unfettered personal freedom while exploring a life of the mind.

An important aspect of this freedom for me was religious. My faith had been shaped by a devout Catholic upbringing and 12 years of parochial schools, as well as by a brother who introduced me to a God who knew me intimately and was engaged in the world. If my Catholic heritage forever created an appreciation for liturgy and attentiveness to morality, my brother’s born-again experience and abiding faith offered a glimpse of a Jesus who saves souls, including mine. My brother was then—and remains today—a model of faithfulness for me. But by the time I hit college, I had begun to doubt his dispensational reading of Scripture. Alongside Shakespeare, I seriously studied the Bible for the first time. I heard Jesus issue an invitation in the Gospel of Mark: “Anyone who would lose her life will save it, anyone who saves her life will lose it.” I re-envisioned my career and spent the remainder of college learning to share resources, praying, and overall seeking a life formed by the Bible stories I studied each week with others.

By the time this professor “accused” us of being fundamentalists, I recognized that he was wrong not because he was trying to be insulting, but rather because he was being historically inaccurate. My brother’s reading of Scripture fit more clearly into that category; the small community of Christians of which I was now a part did not. But how could I explain this to him and to the growing number of people on campus who flung this accusation at us?

That is how I came to Fuller Theological Seminary. My college was nearby, and our InterVarsity staff had attended here. So I dove into Fuller’s library, gobbling up books on the so-called evangelical left. I discovered a rich history of other believers over hundreds of years who provided me with inspiration, from followers of Jesus who worked against slavery and poverty to others whose faith was creative, smart, and fearlessly engaged in intellectual debates of their day. If this was the evangelical left, then I wanted to be part of it.

Given Southern California’s cultural climate and disdain for “religious” people, attempts to clarify our position as evangelicals (albeit left-leaning ones) as distinct from fundamentalists merely proved uninteresting to most people. But for me, the revelation that I had become a member of a movement dubbed evangelical was initially heartening. Having struggled for years to find a religious home, I now belonged. Others shared my desire to follow Christ as Lord and Savior, trusting in his Spirit to transform us and in his Word to shape our personal and shared life. In particular, I wanted to claim the “left” aspect of this title not merely because it was descriptive of certain commitments (e.g., to justice, women in ministry, and peacemaking as well as to historical-critical scholarship); I also hoped I could be hip—rather than merely another religious moralistic freak. At bottom, I often still crave affirmation and belonging more than I want an abundant life that costs me, even if that cost is merely embarrassment.

Jin-Hwang-COLORToward a New Chapter of Korean Evangelicalism

“Korean students come to Fuller to be trained with an open evangelicalism that holds true to orthodoxy, engages culture innovatively, and furthers the gospel by seeking to embody God’s rule in every area of life. This is how Fuller and Korean evangelicals can think and work together to help Korean evangelicals meet the contemporary challenges of our time.”

Read more from Jin Ki Hwang, assistant dean of Fuller’s Korean Doctor of Ministry program

The Lure of Being “Socially Progressive”

Fairly quickly, any hope to belong by association to the cool crowd via evangelicalism diminished. I got more familiar with evangelicalism, and I often didn’t particularly like what I saw. Kinnaman and Lyons’s book UnChristian1 highlights more recently and for a younger generation what many of us within the movement could have named as bizarre, inconsistent, or wrong with evangelical Christian culture long ago. As one who was raised Catholic, so many aspects of the evangelical subculture—from cheesy book covers to predictable chorus chord progressions to Christian lingo—caused me to squirm for strictly ethnic or cultural reasons. As I continued to grow in my faith, this label that I claimed—or that had claimed me through Bible studies, conferences, and worship experiences—sat uneasily on my shoulders. Like many others of my generation and the current one, I pondered whether I could get along just fine without labels, be they names of denominations or of movements. Why not simply say I follow Jesus (whom people seem to like even if they do not know about him) and avoid the baggage that comes along with communal markers? Why not adopt an alternative identity, one unmarred by the distress and mortification the evangelical movement inevitably provokes in me (and in others like me)? I might even be better off as a witness for the gospel, unfettered by potentially distracting associations.

Over time, at least two other markers consistently offered themselves as descriptions of my commitments: Mennonite and feminist. Both of these seem at first blush to offer a greater chance for being Christian-yet-cool than the title “evangelical.” That is, despite claiming them, I might still get invited to an intelligent dinner party.

While now out of favor in mainstream culture as well as in Christian ones, “feminist” might at least still get me entrance into gatherings sometimes hailed as socially progressive. For me, commitment to this perspective remains both personally and theologically necessary. On one hand I say I am a feminist to honor my mother, an intelligent woman born the year women got the right to vote. She had two choices of career: teacher or nurse. Like many women and men in the world, neither of the available options quite fit her. She deeply loved, supported, and respected my father. But she also wrestled with raising seven children while maintaining a career as a nurse anesthetist, often displaying profound unhappiness and sometimes despair. Yet in all this, she also encouraged me to explore an alternative way of negotiating my roles as a woman. To honor all the complexity that was my mother, I claim the title feminist.

Among many these days, including women, feminism has fallen out of fashion; to many evangelicals it smacks of the worst of liberalism. After all, I am not my mother; I have a career I chose and was allowed (note that) to attend seminary and now to teach in one. Why not dump the label if I have to consistently nuance it and distance myself from those “other” women—or if they consistently distance themselves from me? But I remain one generation away from those considered too emotional to participate in public life. More obviously, women around the world as well as within my own city continue to struggle against poverty, inequities, gender violence, and sexism in myriad forms. Although others fail to recognize its theological significance, feminism identifies a determination to name the dull, banal, sinful patterns into which we fell so long ago. As such, feminist writings and insights remind us to attend to these stifling effects on true unity that such patterns inevitably inflict. Because I am an evangelical, I know that feminist intuitions can work to reroute humans out of the tired ruts of oppression, blame, and isolation and onto the way of Jesus. Via a path lit by surprising texts from the Song of Songs to 1 Corinthians, we work out our partnership in service, love, and witness in a kingdom unlike any other. And lest we become too enamored by the label of being “oppressed,” evangelicalism reminds me that women are just as sinful and violent as men (albeit sometimes differently, given available weaponry). After all, “equality” cuts both ways.

In the current cultural climate, “Anabaptist” more readily seems likely to evoke the coveted dinner invitation. Like converts, my college community thought we had discovered true Christianity. Unlike countless other Christians asleep at the wheel of faith, we took Scripture seriously; among other texts, we read the Sermon on the Mount and sought to build our houses on obedience to Christ. You can imagine our shock when those exposed to church history told us that the discoveries we had made about, say, nonviolent resistance to evil, simple living, and discipleship had been adopted by Christians since the beginning, let alone that they were encoded in confessions of entire denominations. Here, too, I would wrestle with the desire to remain unattached and unfettered by labels. While the broad descriptor “Anabaptist” honored my Catholic heritage while importantly redefining it, I particularly balked at joining a denomination. Aren’t they all merely institutions that stifle real faith? But eventually, I recognized that I needed a community of like-minded Christians who were given permission to cajole and wrestle my stubbornly selfish, fearful, and violent self into God’s good kingdom. I caved and eventually joined a Mennonite congregation, while still holding (sometimes reluctantly) to my evangelical identity. Why the need for both, especially if “Mennonite” now names a distinctive embodiment of faith to which I am deeply committed?

Indeed, many Mennonites shirk the label “evangelical,” especially as it often associates us with US Christians who narrate their relationship to the nation-state quite differently than we do. But most recently my tiny adopted tradition has become cool; nonviolence has become fashionable (and God help us if we so depreciate the cost of waging peace). We have too often forgotten the words of Menno Simons, the Catholic priest turned persecuted reformer from whom the tradition takes its name. He spoke famously of “true evangelical faith.” Most often quoted is this lovely yet challenging section explaining new life in Christ:

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

Too frequently forgotten in this same work is Simon’s insistence on the cross as the source of our forgiveness, on the centrality of Christ for the newness of life that renders such self-offering love possible for even people like us.2 Thus Mennos, like me, are indeed evangelical; if this isn’t good news, what is? We, too, rightly belong to the family of those who seek transformation by Christ through the Spirit, veritably exploding with this news of God’s reconciliation in word and deed throughout a troubled and troubling world. Like other traditions that bring rich insights to our one table of remembrance and celebration, Anabaptists remind evangelicalism to reject a gospel that cleanly severs salvation from the embodied needs of us all but particularly of the poor, outcast, forgotten, and suffering. Whoever claims such concerns are merely “social gospel” or “liberal” miss Scripture’s insistence that the gift of redemption extends through us to others who long for healing and hope. Meanwhile, at Fuller my Reformed friends niggle at me, warning me not to remake God into a tame deity rendered manageable by a limited vision of the atonement or by a cheap, hipster pacifism. They challenge me to consider how it is that I say I want to live as a resident alien and yet remain so clearly an American.

James-KA-Smith“The church does not exist for me; my salvation is not primarily a matter of intellectual mastery or emotional satisfaction. The church is the site where God renews and transforms us—a place where the practices of being the body of Christ form us into the image of the Son. What I, a sinner saved by grace, need is not so much answers as reformation of my will and heart. What I describe as the practices of the church include the traditional sacramental practices of baptism and Eucharist but also the practices of Christian marriage and child-rearing, even the simple but radical practices of friendship and being called to get along with those one doesn’t like! The church, for instance, is a place to learn patience by practice. The fruit of the Spirit emerges in our lives from the seeds planted by the practices of being the church; and when the church begins to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, it becomes a witness to a postmodern world. Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world devoted to consumption and violence.”

+  from James K. A. Smith, in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. As professor of philosophy at Calvin College and Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, James K. A. Smith will be the lecturer for Fuller’s annual Payton Lectures in April 2015. He is widely published, with topics of interest that include radical orthodoxy, the continental philosophy of religion, urban altruism, and science and theology.

Our End: Accepting the Invitation to the Family Feast with the Crazies

I confess that I continue to wish myself into a family that never causes me mortification by association or dares to challenge my spirituality, ethics, or politics. But of course that wouldn’t be family; it would be more like a country club, PAC, or monochrome social network. I continue to claim evangelicalism and celebrate Fuller’s insistence on shared lineage. But importantly I am also claimed by it, forced to consider how my Anabaptist and feminist convictions must shape my work and witness so that they are clearly tethered to Christ’s Word and Way.

Just as I cringe a bit at the bra-burning days of feminists, I also wince at some of my fellow evangelicals’ comments or thin theological grounding for moral stances ranging from economics to foreign policy to family life. But as I experience repeatedly at this messy, wondrous experiment of extended kinship called “Fuller,” I need my crazy kin. Just as I did not choose my blood family, I did not decide who would also come into this space of open gifts of grace and peace through Christ. We all have crazy aunts and uncles (and of course, I am surely someone else’s ranting religious family freak). Despite our sometimes tense and important divergences, we are all claimed by the good news of what God has done in Christ, enticed by what God reveals in Scripture, and invigorated by the Spirit for engagement with a creation beloved by the One who created it.

In the end, being a Mennonite feminist evangelical might not get me that invitation to an intellectually stimulating dinner party of the hip and cool. But my hope is that each of these—particularly that pesky claim “evangelical”—forms me for the Messiah’s eternal familial feast. In the meantime, I find myself circling back to this particular evangelical table called Fuller, hungry as I was so many years ago for friends who also commit themselves to a life formed by the strange and wonderful hope we have in Christ amidst a rather dark world.

1. David Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm with nearly 100 nationwide studies on Americans, clergy, faith, and cultural dynamics.
2. He goes on: “[Believers] break the bread of peace with their beloved brethren as proof and testimony that they are one in Christ and his holy church and that they have, or know no other means of grace and remission of their sins, neither in heaven nor in earth, than the innocent flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ alone, which he once, by his eternal Spirit in obedience to the Father, sacrificed and shed upon the cross for us poor sinners; they walk in all love and mercy, and serve their neighbors.” From The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: 1871).

+ Five Years Later

The essay above was written over five years ago, in what seems to be a different era of US politics, although the divisiveness of US society—among both “right” and “left”—continues unabated. Yet this piece was written before media reminded us that 80 percent of “white” evangelicals voted for a man who openly crowed about being able to “grab ’em by the pussy” and “do anything” to women. Too many people noticed the irony that many evangelicals supported someone who promised to make abortions more difficult to obtain; we seemed to play by the rules of the world’s realpolitik. But what if instead evangelicals enacted good news for women by, for example, defending their bodily integrity or by making imaginable the difficult redemption of unexpected or unwanted pregnancies—especially those resulting from sexual violence?

In light of these and many other instances over the years, I am again sorely tempted to shun the label evangelical. Yet I refuse, because it is a biblical term that always carries within it a capacity to critique and judge those who use it. US evangelicals must remember that by definition there is no “apolitical” gospel. By “politics” I mean not only allegiances, but more fundamentally politics as an understanding of the power we wield, the manner in which we wield it, and toward what end we use such power. “Evangel” was originally an overtly political term, one taken up by the gospel writers and turned on its head. Rome birthed the first evangelicals, whose good news centered on the cult of empire: “A new emperor is born!” or “The Emperor won another victory!” Caesar was called lord, son of God, and savior; Augustus was lauded as the one who brought true peace. But the gospel writers (think Luke and his Christmas story) pick up on this language and repeatedly contrast the politics of Roman and, later, religious empire with the politics of the reign of Jesus.

If nothing else, I remain a reluctant evangelical because the good news of Jesus as Lord frees me to seek the interest of my society from a place of security, from the place of God’s lovingkindness and promise of provision (of God’s own sort). Christ sustains us, so we are not completely dependent on other identities that may demand too much of us, often seeking to enlist us in an evangel formed by fear (be it right, center, or left). Politics as fracture and fearfulness cannot stand the force of God, who raised this Christ.

May we all continue to be taken up into this good news, this disruptive evangel, of the God of Israel come to us in Christ Jesus.