GEEZ, am I a "liberal evangelical"?

GEEZ magazine has recently offered what they call a typology of contemporary evangelicalism. We pedants would prefer the term “taxonomy”–since typologies set out ideal types while taxonomies classify real-world instances–but hey: GEEZ is too hip to use an odd word like “taxonomy.”

Anyhow, GEEZ puts me in a category they call “liberal evangelical.” And some of their readers have contacted me to ask me what I think of that categorization.

I’ll say this. What GEEZ says it means by “liberal evangelical” is actually not a bad description of the people they put in their list of examples. And I’m delighted to be listed with some of my heroes, including Ron Sider, John Stott, and C. S. Lewis. (I think they put me on this distinguished list, which also includes Rick Warren and Bono (!), to satisfy Canadian Content regulations.)

Yet to get all scholarly about this for a moment, there really was a “liberal evangelicalism”–about a century ago, in the Church of England–and I don’t fit. That movement was both too liberal and too Anglican for me and for some of the rest of them too, I daresay.

Furthermore, my sense is that, on the one hand, the conservative evangelicals would say, if they’re sufficiently censorious (and one or two are), that I’m not even an evangelical.

To be sure, GEEZ has that prospect wittily covered too, as their “Evangometer,” like Spinal Tap’s amplifiers, goes past 100% to 110%. So you can be less “evangelical” than the conservatives, and still be fully evangelical –and that’s quite right.

True liberals, on the other hand, such as most of my former professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School–the ne plus ultra of liberal theological institutions–would say I’m nowhere near being qualified as a liberal.

So I sit instead in what I like to think of as the sensible mainstream of the historic evangelical tradition, along with others of my heroes, such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, and lesser, but still “burning and shining,” lights such as John Fletcher, Christopher Smart, and others. And that’s why I enjoy teaching at Regent College, which tries to be a 21st-century version of this kind of evangelicalism.

But let’s face it. Trying to be that kind of Christian in North America nowadays does locate one toward one edge of contemporary evangelicalism. So perhaps GEEZ should use a nice Canadian term instead and call me “centre-left.” I can live with that.

0 Responses to “GEEZ, am I a "liberal evangelical"?”

  1. Jason Koleba

    Thanks for the clearing-up the matter of your “evangometer” reading. After seeing the article I was very curious as to what you might say about it.

    I found some of the Winter 2006 issue to be stimulating and a lot of it entertaining. My struggle as an evangelical (probably more centre than centre-left) is that GEEZ’s unwritten rule is that the higher one’s rating, the less likely it is that one is, as you put it, “sensible.” For example late in the issue they provide advice for those who want out of evangelicalism (I am guessing the 60-110% varities). One solution is to “take big J,” (I think that’s Jesus) “straight up and seek divine mystery on the margins of society.” What does that mean if I don’t want out? Is there no mystery left in my Christianity? Am I not taking Jesus “straight up”? I’m pretty sure that the crew at GEEZ would be more conciliatory than that, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I rated any more than 60% I might as well be a fundamentalist.

  2. Aiden

    I think if Jason Koleba wants to take Jesus at his word and migrate to the margins, mingle with social outcasts, try voluntary poverty, and so forth, he’d find plenty of mystery to ponder — regardless of his evangometer rating. This goes for me too. And I’m considerably left of the evangometer centre, unless you call the social gospel the gospel. Thanks for the feedback. – Aiden Enns, co-editor, Geez magazine.

  3. Kate Power

    Yes, centre-left is comfy. Critical realist, my preferred.

  4. Donna-Jean Brown

    Quit bashing GEEZ magazine. As far as I know, they’re doing something that no one else in the Canadian Christian media is doing and I am thankful that their irreverant,(yes, maybe a little extreme) style is attracting young, angry church kids who feel like outsiders in organised churches. No one publication can do it all, but I think GEEZ’ cranky voice is important.

    Just a thought: the word “evangelical” has become almost as useless as the word, “feminist”. It causes more trouble than it’s worth. Rather than struggling to agree on definitions, which help us to quickly pigeonhole each other (as GEEZ did to you), maybe we have to take the harder route and dispense with the linguistic shorthand.
    It’s funny, for instance, to try to find a definition of the term, “emerging church”. Lots of people use the term but everyone seems to have a different understanding of what it is.

    I know, John, that you’re allergic to the modern attitude of, “It means whatever you want it to mean” and so am I. Drives me crazy. But since that is the way our culture talks, we’re going to have to speak more precisely and carefully, taking personal responsibility for what we communicate and then checking with our listeners about what they think we meant.
    Sounds like a lot of work. Maybe I’ll just stop talking instead.

  5. Jennie McLaurin

    I used to hate the term “devout Catholic,” which others always said in hushed tones, meaning my family went to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and really believed what we could understand. Now I hate the term “evangelical” when used by “non-evangelicals” because it always makes me think of church ladies,ugly clothes, TV worship, and people with too much makeup.But I find that both these groups that get referred to have my people in them. So I’m a post-Catholic evangelical bleeding heart serious Christian (who does have a sense of humor).

  6. John Stackhouse

    I’m not too worried about criticizing GEEZ. One of its editors is an old friend and former student, and an experienced and talented journalist. I expect, in fact, he would feel GEEZ was off the mark if it didn’t provoke a certain amount of indignation.

    Furthermore, GEEZ will only do its work better if friendly critics and critical friends will say, “Ouch!” or “Off the mark!” once in a while–as we all profit from such criticism, no?

    Anyhow, evangelicalism continues to be a difficult concept to define, to use, and to own. And, as several of you have pointed out, you might be okay with the term as long as you can define it and not instead be subject to someone else’s definition.

    –Which reminds me of a story. A Presbyterian scholar had finished a public lecture and a questioner then spoke up: “Are you a Calvinist, then?”

    The scholar was about to reply affirmatively, but then wisely asked instead, “Well, what do you mean by ‘Calvinist’?”

    “I mean someone who worships a God who enjoys damning babies to hell.”

    “O-o-o-kay,” he responded. “Then I’m not a Calvinist. But neither is John Calvin.”


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