Molly Worthen: Three questions that open up evangelicalism
Evangelicalism is bigger than many realize, containing a variety of beliefs and resources for reconciling Christianity with the 21st century. A UNC history professor offers a different way to define evangelicals.
Though some scholars and others argue that “evangelical” has lost all meaning, Molly Worthen says the term still has life, describing a community of people who share something across denominational and political lines.
But what evangelicals have in common is not a set of doctrines — as many scholars insist — but a set of questions, said Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“In my research, I found that it was more useful to think about evangelicalism, not as a group of Christians who are united around a clear set of shared doctrines, but rather as a community that is circling around a set of shared questions.”
And that community is far broader than the religious right, Worthen said.
“The term ‘evangelical’ is capacious,” she said. “It encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and styles of worship and resources for reconciling Christianity with the 21st century.”
Worthen’s research focuses on North American religious and intellectual history, particularly the ideas and culture of conservative Christianity in the 20th century. She has written about religion and politics for The New York Times, Slate, Religion & Politics and other publications.
Her book “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism” is scheduled for release in November by Oxford University Press.
She spoke about her research and her upcoming book recently with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Who are we talking about when we talk about evangelicals? Is the term even useful anymore?
It’s almost a moot question, because we’re stuck with it. Scholars and believers and pundits have been debating the usefulness of the term “evangelical” for decades and saying maybe we need to chuck it altogether and use more precise labels.
But the fact is that people continue to use the word. So we have to figure out what they mean when they use it — both people in that community and people who are observers.
Also, I think that there is still a “there” there. There still seems to be this community of people who share something, and it goes across denominational and political lines.
The question is, what is that something?
From my perspective, there are a couple of ways to approach this.
One is to ask, what are the historical origins of evangelicalism? Those shared origins are the Pietist revivals that followed the Reformation, running smack into the Enlightenment. This community that we call evangelicalism really emerges at the start of modernity and has a lot to do with some of the questions and the intellectual and social problems that come about in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In my research, I found that it was more useful to think about evangelicalism, not as a group of Christians who are united around a clear set of shared doctrines, but rather as a community that is circling around a set of shared questions.
Some scholars have suggested more doctrinally based approaches to definition, which are useful. The British scholar David Bebbington suggested four basic doctrines that define evangelicalism:
- The born-again experience
- An emphasis on Christ’s atoning work on the cross rather than Christ as simply a moral exemplar
- A literalistic interpretation of the Bible and high regard for biblical authority
- An activist spirit, emphasizing evangelism and missionary work
Why I find this limiting as a definition is that when you dig into it and talk to self-described evangelicals, they disagree vehemently on what these doctrines mean.
Take being “born-again,” which people often think of as the quintessence of evangelicalism. When you really look at it, it becomes problematic. Many people who subscribe in some way to evangelicalism view conversion as a more incremental experience.
So as I moved through the history of a few different streams of Protestantism — ranging from Anabaptism to Pentecostalism — I settled on three questions that I think evangelicals share:
· How do I reconcile faith and reason? That is, how do I keep truth one thing so that what I know by faith and what I know by Enlightenment reason remain the same?
· What is true salvation? The way evangelicals often talk about it is, how do I have an authentic relationship with Jesus?
· How do I reconcile private faith with the secular public square? How do I reconcile private and public in my obligations as a Christian?
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