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Saturday, November 23, 2019

"Who is an Evangelical?" (Thomas S. Kidd)

TITLE: Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis
AUTHOR: Thomas S. Kidd
PUBLISHER: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019, (200 pages).

A few decades ago, evangelicals were understood as people who were Bible-believing church goers of the conservative stream. As more of them engage in politics, they have become associated with Bible-thumping activists pushing the Republican agenda in the name of Christianity. Due to the sizeable influence of such lobbying to tilt the results in their favour, many see with disdain the mixing of politics and religion. In contrast to the born-again believer affirming the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, the evangelical label is going through a unpleasant public perception, especially in North America, thanks to the Trump. However, according to author Thomas Kidd, historically, evangelicalism was never defined by partisan politics, unlike today's climate.

Rather than to let modern understanding hijack the meaning of "evangelical," Kidd gives us a historical tour of the origins of the name. He argues that the rise of the evangelicals occurred as early as AD33, for the name arose from the Greek word "euangelion," which means "gospel."  He argues that the word evangelical comes way before the 16th Century rise of "Protestantism." He demonstrates that evangelicalism exists in various forms through the periods of English Anglicanism, German Pietism, Reformed movements, the spiritual awakenings in North America, etc. Yet, the original evangelical movement remains a minority faction. The rise actually began during the American War of Independence. With rising dissent from the established churches, the movement rose out of a reaction against the excesses of religious practices and political alliances. With dissent, many denominations also grow more independent from their predecessors. Fundamentalism became a new label for the evangelicals who emphasize biblical doctrines.Other factors for dissent includes slavery, antinomianism, modernism, and liberalism. The issue of evolution was a big thing in the 1920s. This spawns the "Neo-Evangelical Movement" which tries to set themselves apart from the "fundamentalists," with the former focusing more on "evangelism, missions, and higher-life piety more than theological combat." Some famous names associated with this movement are Harold John Ockenga, Jim Elliot, William Townsend, Carl F Henry, and Billy Graham. Organizations include Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, Young Life, Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, IVCF, Christianity Today, etc. By the 80s, the movement splits again. There the "Christian Right" that calls themselves the moral majority, and the moderates and the evangelical left. Thanks to people like Jerry Falwell, the Republican party becomes associated with this "Moral Majority" right wing, which is largely white. Then came the Reagan presidency which briefly united the broader evangelical public. After journeying through some major characters from the 80s to the Millenium, we arrive at the state of evangelicalism today, as associated with Trump. The author calls this period a "crisis of evangelicalism." It is a crisis because the division extends deep and wide. Voting patterns are distinctively different in terms of race, gender, social issues, and political allegiances. Arguments over biblical doctrine have become secondary. Lobbying for political advantage has taken center stage. Just like how many confuse nationalism with patriotism, many who call themselves evangelicals confuse their faith with political alliances. Ultimately, we must all do our homework to discern the main tenets of our faith. This calls for an honest examination of ourselves and a humility to let truth speak to power.

My Thoughts
One of the best descriptions of an evangelical still belongs to historian David Bebbington. He lists four marks of an evangelical; namely; conversionism (born again), biblicism (Bible affirming), activism (diligence and passion), and crucicentrism (centrality of the Cross). This classic definition should continue to be the guide for understanding who is an evangelical. I agree with the author that we need more people who care about the main tenets of our faith rather than the external labels of whether we support the Republican party or not. Truth be told, there are many who hold on to core biblical beliefs who are members of different political parties. Which organization they belong to do not dictate the faith. Our faith is determined by Jesus and revealed to us in the Bible. We need to make this distinction clearly for the sake of those who faith are new or young.

We need to bring back the definition of who evangelicals are. Instead of letting the press and atheist publications teach us, books like this will correct the excesses of such news outlets which are driven by agendas of their own. Let the truth teach and guide us instead of sensational news that entertain or mislead. We live in increasingly confusing times. For non-believers, they may be put off by the blatant agendas put forth by Christians who unashamedly politicize their version of evangelicalism. We cannot let them have the last say. If something is true, it is worth fighting for. I remember JI Packer's book entitled "The True Humanism" where Packer's conviction that humanism cannot be surrendered to the nominal humanists of today. For the true humanist is not someone who is atheistic or people setting themselves up as masters of this world. It is the Christian faith that has the final say as to what a true humanist is. In the same way, someone who calls themselves an evangelical may support a political party, members of that political party are not necessarily an evangelical. The faster we de-link the label from any political alliances, the better it is for proper and effective Christian witness of the gospel.

The danger now is two-fold. The ignorant would continue to be trapped by the politicizing of the word. The outside world would jettison the baby of truth out with the bathwater of negative perceptions of evangelicalism. Thanks to Kidd's, we have strong reasons not to let that happen.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Yale University Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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