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Why I Do Feel Like an Evangelical: Ten Themes of Evangelical Cultural History (Part II)

by Carson T. Clark on February 21, 2013


Allow me to be candid. As a regular critic of American evangelicalism myself, it has been my overwhelming experience that the vast majority of my fellow critics, in-house and elsewhere, are simply ignorant.11.This two-part series isn’t ontological in nature. I’m not exploring whether or not I am an evangelical Christian. As I’ve explored in many past blog entries, the answer to that is yes. What I’m exploring here is psychological in nature; I’m looking at my simultaneous feelings of alterity and affinity toward American evangelicalism’s culture. Theirs is usually a well-intentioned albeit ideologically laden, factually ignorant, and blatantly myopic perspective that exhibits a near absolute dearth of historical understanding. It’s often said that evangelicals haven’t and don’t care about social justice, for example. I couldn’t reasonably begin to disprove this accusation altogether, but it’s simplistic well beyond the point of being misleading. Such a criticism fails to take into account the critical role evangelicals played in such things as combating childhood illiteracy2.Much of their contemporary social activism is discredited because many disagree with its objectives, e.g. ending and/or limiting abortion. during the Industrial Revolution or ending the Transatlantic Slave Trade.2 In fact, I would suggest that many of the movement’s past and present virtues–at least virtues from a christian perspective–are forgotten, ignored, or minimized. Below are 10 such historical themes with coinciding figures who exemplified, or exemplify, them:33.I’m not taking the time to introduce each man and explain why I put them under each category, though. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to do a little research.

  1. Social activism: William Wilberforce, Shane Claiborne
  2. Theological precision: Jonathan Edwards, N.T. Wright
  3. Ecumenical spirit: John Mott, J.I. Packer
  4. Missionary impulse: Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot
  5. Evangelistic passion: D.L. Moody, Billy Graham
  6. Entrepreneurial vitality: Francis Asbury, Harold Ockenga
  7. Intellectual rigor: B.B. Warfield, Mark Noll
  8. Transnational humility: George Whitefield, John Stott
  9. Convicted civility: John Wesley, Richard Mouw
  10. Spiritual wrestling: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Philip Yancey44.By the way, don’t let anyone tell you it’s impossible to be evangelical and Anglican at the same time. Quite accidentally this list contains no less than six evangelical Anglicans.

Like all people, evangelical Christians possess the paradoxical human nature of being made in God’s image yet being totally marred by the fall. Not unexpectedly, then, the institutions and culture they comprise reflects that tension. Trust me. I as much as anyone else have cause to be a fierce critic of its glaring imperfections.55.Blind spots, excesses, flaws, deficiencies, hypocrisies, etc. And quite often I am. Yet I’d be remiss to emphasize one side of that paradox to the exclusion of the other. I love evangelicalism. Each of the historical themes listed above66.And many others, for that matter. have seeped deep into the soil of my life; they’ve been and continue to be an instrumental part of my psychological, intellectual, relational, and spiritual formation. As often as I hate evangelical culture, and as much as its characteristics are foreign to not only who I am but also who I aspire to be, I cannot deny feeling this deep resonance with many of the movement’s ideals. Is it any wonder, then, that I often do feel like an evangelical?

Click here to read “Why I Don’t Feel Like an Evangelical: Four Characteristics of Evangelical Culture (Part I) .”

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  • Dan Martin

    Aren’t you being a tad ahistorical yourself, Carson, if you fail to acknowledge that several of the people on this list would be roundly condemned by others who style themselves the arbiters of Evangelicalism today? Honestly, American Evangelicalism of today is a different animal from that of many of those of yesteryear you have listed. I’ve before suggested to you –and I know you disagree– that the label has been corrupted beyond redemption. Certainly a large swath of Evangelicals (by which I refer to the Pipers and Driscolls of this country) would not countenance many of the rest on your list. It’s certainly legitimate to ask who made them boss, but in some ways that only proves my point.

    • Carson T. Clark

      It’s a short blog post. I’d prefer to address what I did say rather than what I didn’t. Also, I fail to understand how their (potential) rejection of some persons on this list makes me ahistorical.

    • Dan Martin

      Only in that the present is also part of history … and the present form of much of Evangelicalism is completely deserving of most of the vitriol leveled in its direction. I was struck as I read your list that the majority of its members are either (1) dead, or (2) repudiated by the more visible and vocal leaders of Evangelicalism in America today (often both).

      So I think perhaps you’re building a case for your resonance with what we might call “historical Evangelicalism” only if we allow that much that labels itself “Evangelical” today has departed from, and sometimes actively dismisses, those historical figures. So as you accuse Evangelicals’ opponents as ahistorical, it seems to me you’re ignoring the degree to which the movement today is itself pretty thoroughly dissociated with the stream to which you have (rightly) attached yourself.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Honestly, man, I think your view of contemporary evangelicalism is too narrow. It seems to me you’re unduly privileging the most fiercely conservative voices. It might not be a one-to-one correspondence, but let’s keep in mind that it contains Southern Seminary president Al Mohler and Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, Reformed rottweiler D.A. Carson and Arminian (uhhhh… ?) Roger Olson, the always spazzing Reformed theologican Norm Geisler and the ever composed Reformed theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, 7-point Calvinist John Piper and Open Theist Greg Boyd, Anglican foundationlist J.I. Packer and Anglican postfoundationalist N.T. Wright, the walking foot-in-mouth Reformed pastor known as Mark Driscoll and the ever-gracious Reformed pastor known as Tim Keller. I could keep rattling off names like Mark Noll, Scot McKnight, Alister McGrath, Philip Yancey, Peter Enns, and so on. I don’t think things are as (universally) bleak as you suppose.

    • Dan Martin

      Maybe you’re right, bro, and I honestly want to believe you are. I guess my only rejoinder is that if the picture really is that diverse, why has it been so damned hard for me to find any of that interesting and welcoming diversity in my own church experience? I’m finally finding it in the little independent church we’re part of in Atlanta, but for most of my experience with Evangelical churches, anyone who doesn’t toe the right-wing and reformed lines has to whisper or shut up altogether.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Richard Mouw – California

      Kevin Vanhoozer – Illinois

      Greg Boyd – Minnesota

      N.T. Wright – England

      Tim Keller – New York

      Mark Noll – Indiana

      Scot McKnight – Illinois

      Alister McGrath – England

      Philip Yancey – Colorado

      Peter Enns – Pennsylvania

      Notice a pattern? Seems to me Roger Olson in TX is the exception that proves the rule.

    • Dan Martin

      You may be forgetting that I got to know you while I was in a mostly negative experience with an Evangelical church in California…and in the part of CA where I lived, I found exactly two types of non-Catholic churches…liberal to the point of unacceptability, or the very kind og Evangelicalism I’m complaining about. So it ain’t just the Bible Belt.

    • Carson T. Clark


    • Brendan

      Sure, Dan, there are many people who share your experience, and I know some of them. But there are, in my experience, many evangelicals who are very welcoming, generous, and inquisitive.
      And I agree with you that it’s not about geography anymore, it’s about the particular community we find. I’m beginning to understand that people like Noll (through books) and Carson (through blogs) and others (though other media) are here to remind us that the evangelical world is not monolithic, but is very diverse and has room for all sorts.

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