Last time I was looking at some of the reasons why evangelicals get a bad press, often unjustly. I suggested that some dislike evangelicals because of their theology, their stance over certain issues, or because of feeling written off or looked down on by them.
I can identify with all of these, but in my case there’s another and more important reason for my anti-evangelical bias. It’s that for quite some time I was an evangelical (or thought I was and tried to be), but over the past few years have started emerging from evangelicalism – and reacting (maybe over-reacting) against it in something not unlike a teenage rebellion.
I’ve written plenty before about the idea of stages of faith development, and how an early black-and-white fundamentalist phase can often later give way to a period of doubting, questioning and perhaps rebelling against the authorities that you once trusted. This has certainly been the case for me.
My journey into – and out of – evangelicalism
So I found, or rather re-found, Christian faith 20 years ago and joined a charismatic evangelical Anglican church which was vibrant, alive and exciting. Having been brought up in an ultra-‘high’ Anglo-Catholic tradition which I never really connected with, this felt like a breath of fresh air; the real thing. And in plenty of ways I think it was, sort of; I don’t want to knock it now.
But over the years I found that there were elements within the wider evangelical and charismatic traditions that I felt increasingly uncomfortable and unhappy with, not to mention parts of the Bible I struggled to accept as ‘God’s Word’. I tried hard to accommodate all these things, but cracks started to appear in my watertight theology.
Finally, maybe about 10 years ago, I began to realise that I simply couldn’t accept a lot of the fundamental premises or worldview of evangelicalism. It seemed increasingly clear to me that the Bible wasn’t inerrant, and that there were other and (I felt) better ways to interpret it and to understand crucial aspects of faith such as sin, atonement, salvation, hell and so on.
Reacting against evangelicalism
So I began to react against evangelicalism. I felt that I needed in some ways to ‘recover’ from it, or perhaps recover my faith from it. I was (am) seeking a new, different way of being Christian – a way that radically reinterprets my former evangelical beliefs while remaining to some degree grounded in them.
So a lot of what I’ve said in this blog is a reaction against aspects of evangelicalism that I’ve found personally unhelpful, unhealthy, restrictive, not life-affirming… or which I simply don’t like.
And I’ll admit that quite often my reaction is irrational and disproportionate. It’s something of an allergic response. Particular evangelical phrases almost bring me out in a rash – for example ‘God’s Word’; ‘sharing (or preaching) the gospel’; the adjectives ‘biblical’, ‘scriptural’ or ‘sound’; certain Bible verses quoted out of context. I hear these red rag phrases and I want to shout rude things – doubtless a sign of my spiritually parlous state.
Something else that often unreasonably annoys me about evangelicalism is a tendency to take everything (not just the Bible) too literally and seriously, and so to miss out on symbolism and metaphor, complexity and ambiguity, humour and playfulness. I’ve complained before about an evangelical lack of imagination. I don’t actually think that’s a fair assessment. But even if it is, it’s not wrong to be that way; it just doesn’t work for me.
Evangelicalism suits a particular type of person
So I wonder whether evangelicalism may simply suit certain kinds of people and personality better than others.
My theory (for what it’s worth) is that evangelicalism is a brilliant system for people who like systems. It’s ideal for those who like things well-ordered, neat, correct, clear, systematic, logical, watertight. And I think it can also be great for activists, people who like to get out there and do faith rather than spend ages thinking about nuance, complexity and alternative possible interpretations.
I’d suggest then (at the risk of crass generalisation) that evangelicalism may be particularly well suited to lawyers, engineers and physicists, maybe even librarians, and rather less well suited to poets, artists or philosophers.
So the main reason I’m no longer evangelical is not that evangelicals are nasty, nor even that they’re wrong necessarily. It’s simply that I don’t feel at home within evangelicalism; don’t feel that’s where I truly belong, where my personality best fits.
Evangelicals are not baddies
I’d suggest that the vast majority of evangelicals are simply ordinary folk who love Jesus, love the Bible, and love people. They’re doing their best to follow Jesus (as they understand him through the Bible), and to care for people in the way they believe to be right (according to the Bible).
I would query some of their ideas about what Jesus wants, how to interpret the Bible and how best to care for people – but their care, devotion and dedication often put me to shame. And where we disagree, I’ve no real guarantee that I’m right and they’re wrong.
Indeed, perhaps some of my dislike or fear of evangelicals as a species (not as individuals) is because, deep down, I have a nagging fear that they might actually be right after all. And as my hero Albus Dumbledore once wisely observed, it’s much harder to forgive people for being right than for being wrong.
And if I’m really honest, some of the things that most wind me up about evangelicals are traits and tendencies I dislike in myself and wish to distance myself from.
Of course it’s all too easy to form groups and take sides, to define ourselves as not evangelical and then (by a small leap) anti-evangelical. As humans, we so often forge our own identity by attacking, dismissing or excluding others who aren’t like us (or who we wish to dissociate ourselves from). But that’s never Christ’s way. It’s not about goodies and baddies.
So if you hate or despise evangelicals and evangelicalism, I’d ask you to reconsider.
And if you’re an evangelical and have felt got at by this blog in the past, I’m sorry. I will try to do better (forgive me when I fail). And I’d ask you in turn to consider that evangelicalism may not be the only way to be truly Christian.
Despite all I’ve said, evangelicalism will probably always remain a part of me. I’m no longer truly an evangelical, but I can’t reject it completely. So for now at least I’m an Evangelical Liberal – an odd marriage of opposites that kind of works for me.