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Is Rachel Held Evans an Evangelical? Or has this question gone the way of a cassette tape?

By April 17, 2015 2 Comments
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From Debra Rienstra: My father, Edward Shreve, died on Thursday night at the age of 88. Readers of The Twelve may recall that I have been writing occasionally about his decline for about three years, so my father’s passing is not unexpected. Thanks for your patience as I attend to my family’s needs at this time.  

Many, many thanks to Kristen DuMez, who had this post prepared and graciously offered to let me post it today.

The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Christianity Today, Patheos—everyone seems to be talking about Rachel Held Evans’ journey away from Evangelicalism. In her new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Evans narrates in lively prose her process of stepping away from her Evangelical church and eventually finding a home in the Episcopal tradition, a place where she finds spiritual nourishment in the sacraments and a better fit with her social and theological views.

And yet, Evans herself is a bit ambivalent about the “exiting Evangelicalism” storyline. Over the past few years she has struggled to find a comfortable place either inside or outside the Evangelical camp.

Her ambivalence, I dare say, has a lot to do with the difficulty of pinning down a precise definition of “Evangelical.”

Back in graduate school, I and my classmates dutifully memorized David Bebbington’s classic four-part definition of Evangelical Christianity: Biblicism (upholding the authority of the Scriptures); Crucicentrism (the centrality of Christ’s atonement); Conversionism (the need for conversion, or to be “born again”); and Activism.

It always seemed to me, however, that this definition was missing something. And so I came up with my own working definition of an Evangelical: someone who shops at a Christian bookstore.

As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I, like Evans, had long wondered if I was “in” or “out.” Theologically I might be able to check off Bebbington’s boxes, but, growing up in a rather isolated Christian Reformed enclave in northwest Iowa, I had never actually considered myself an Evangelical. I had never heard of Moody Bible Institute or Bob Jones, and though I had heard of Billy Graham, he didn’t loom large in my religious world—certainly not in the way that John Calvin or Abraham Kuyper did.

But I did shop in Christian bookstores. I wore my sweatshirt with “Messiah” proclaimed boldly across the front (in pastel letters) with pride. I listened to Petra cassettes in my pink plastic boombox. I got a wall plaque with a Bible verse emblazoned on it to mark my graduation from 8th grade. And another to mark my high school graduation. And I listened to our local Christian radio station, where I heard James Dobson offer daily advice on childrearing (and so much more), and sang along to the latest CCM chart toppers.

While I may not have self-identified as an Evangelical, I certainly participated in Evangelical culture. And looking back, I can see how, for many members of my small-town Reformed enclave, that cultural participation drew them closer to Evangelical theology, and to conservative Christian politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them now consider themselves both Evangelical and Reformed.

But a lot of things have changed since then. There certainly is a thriving industry for Christian products, but the market doesn’t seem to be driven by the younger generation. Instead of seeking a Christian version of popular culture, millennials grew up wanting to engage popular culture. “Cultural discernment” became their mantra, and they turned up their noses at inferior, sanctified versions of mainstream popular culture. They embraced good music wherever they found it, and for them “Christian music” might be U2, Sufjan Stevens, or Lecrae—artists who don’t wear their faith on their sleeves.

If there’s some truth in my working definition of Evangelicalism—that culture is a central component—and if that culture is changing beyond recognition for a younger generation—then perhaps Evangelicalism as we know it is on its way out. And maybe that’s why Rachel Held Evans has such a hard time figuring out where she fits. She chafes at the categories, because the categories don’t make sense anymore. And this is precisely why she speaks so compellingly to members of her generation.

And maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it’s time we stop trying to draw boundaries around Evangelicalism, deciding who’s in and who’s out. Instead, maybe its time to bring back a more inclusive category—“Christian”—and see where that takes us.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez teaches history at Calvin College and is on the editorial board of Perspectives. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, is just out with Oxford University Press. Follow Kristen on Twitter at @kkdumez.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. I am also the mother of three children old enough now that I can’t tell you exactly where all of them are at the moment. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin College, where I have been on the faculty for twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over a hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers.

2 Comments

  • Deborah Enman says:

    Laughed out loud at your “working definition”!
    Included in my Canadian definition is the expection that evangelicals evangelize – witness, in words, as to their experience of God in the hope of converting others to your belief. However, most Canadian evangelicals do not witness in this way because we’re too “shy” or “polite”.
    Actually we’re too respectful of the rights of others to make their own choices and so the current view of “witness” is to live your life as a Christian and be ready for the person who “asks you for the reason of the hope that is within you”. Which, for me, blurs the distinction between me as an evangelical and any other Christian in a non-evangelical denomination. I know that there are “deeper” differences but if we don’t fulfill the basic one of “witnessing” then we’re deluding ourselves or being very hypocritical.
    By this definition even the evangelicals who are “in” aren’t really, so I heartily agree with your suggestion that our banner become the word “Christian “, follower of Christ. That’s enough to define us for non-followers and they’re the ones that matter in terms of witness, I think.

  • […] that definition, since it gets at the idea of evangelical identity. A few years back, I toyed with updating that definition to “anyone who shops at a Christian bookstore.” It seemed to me that American evangelicalism […]

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