October 14, 2016

The Evangelical Brand is Trashed. Time For A Rebranding.

The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US.  Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.

If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.

It’s actually worse than a pox.  It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word

Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post this week, stated:

America’s evangelical Christians, awakened by the millions to political activism barely a generation ago, now find themselves in what can only be described as a crisis of conscience. The immediate and excruciating crisis has a name — Donald Trump.

Not that evangelicals in America got there overnight.  As Mohler points out, this is the end of a cultural assembly line, in which evangelicalism tied its hopes to the Republican party candidate du jour. Now, they find themselves at the end of the conveyor belt with  no one to catch them when they fall.  And there’s going to be an almighty splat when they do.

It was all okay for all those years when those reprobate liberal Democrats were the sexual deviants. That was to be expected.  Moral Majority anyone?

But my how things have changed.  Mohler states:

In retrospect, evangelicals invested far too much hope in elections and presidential candidates, but from 1980 onward they supported Republican candidates who had for many years seen the light and lived their lives free from scandal.

Then came The Donald.

The key words here are not “then came The Donald”, but these words “in retrospect, evangelicals invested far too much hope in elections and presidential candidates.”

You think?

Here’s the problem, it took “retrospect” and “the Donald” to come to that conclusion. Unlike his Republican predecessors he never saw the need to see the light or ask for forgiveness.  Now that anyone can see that he patently does, yet patently won’t, many who have supported him to the bitter almost end, have junked him three weeks out from the election.  He’s finally dashed their hopes.

If evangelicalism is a commitment to “the evangel”, the good news of King Jesus, his life death, resurrection, reign and imminent return, then any amount of hope in elections and presidential candidates in this age is too much.   That this conclusion has been reached “in retrospect” is central to the problem.

That it took the slow train wreck of the past few years to come to the conclusion that their hopes were in the wrong place is a damning indictment of many US evangelicals. Yet it’s a damning indictment in a world in which books like “Your Best Life Now” sell like hot cakes.

And in the irony of ironies, it was the broad evangelical movement in the US that spawned the huge “rapture” industry of the past fifty years.  Notably not all evangelicals, and certainly none in the reformed camp, but it certainly produced truckloads of books, charts, movies and angst about the  end times.

So, you’d think with all that rapture end-time talk, all that expectation of an imminent return by Jesus, that evangelicals would, by and large, have placed their hope in the politics of Jesus rather than the politics of whatever small “b” beast who came along promising the world.

You’d think that knowing that Jesus was not going to be limited to two terms in office by the Constitution then that’s where their hopes would have lain, retrospect or otherwise.

Apparently not.

Psalm 20:7 states “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God”.  That’s a line in the sand right there. The church of God in the Old Testament was a nation, unlike today’s church, but still, they didn’t trust in the chariots and horses under their command, but in the God whose command they were under.

Oh, wait a minute, that’s right!  They didn’t trust in God!  They did trust in chariots and horses. And kings and political alliances with pagan kings, and foreign idols.  In fact they trusted in anything that would give them their best life now. That was their primary problem and their constant thorn.  And look where that took them?  Exile.

So too today.  Too many US evangelicals have trusted in a horse who has turned out to be a stallion.  And instead of distancing themselves and repenting of it (though some like Wayne Grudem have, albeit a day late and a dollar short), they have pulled out the “Yes, but” lines about Hilary to soften the blow.

But lest we pat ourselves on the back, too many evangelicals in the rest of of the West have aped this trust from afar, seeking to replicate it in our own contexts, and as a consequence risking turning “the brand” toxic in our own backyards. Simply put, we’ve often hitched our wagon to their horses, and now we’re getting pulled along in the direction they want to go, whether we like it or not.

The global cultural brands in entertainment, consumption, lifestyle, are pan-cultural, it just happens that that pan-culture has its powerhouse in the US.  And to that we can add, to a large degree, evangelicalism.  There are notable exceptions, but at a popular level the US churns out the books, the conferences, the movements and the tone.

Of course the problem is not what we on the inside think “evangelical” means.  We know what it means theologically – or at least we should.  The problem is what a watching world thinks the word “evangelical” means culturally, politically and socially. And, by extension, where they think our hope, and therefore the focus of our energies, lies.

The semantic range of the word is now so wide, so broad, and increasingly so “toxic” to outsiders that we are in danger of being being tarnished by it. In language, meaning is determined by context. If you have to spend too much time explaining what you are not when the word “evangelical” is used, then perhaps it’s time to get another word that requires less back engineering.

Yes, as we keep hearing, we’re not America.That much is true.  Yet has any political event so captured the Western world like this election has?  The USA this election cycle represents the fracturing, broken wasteland of post-liberal reality across the Western world.

There is a breakdown of consensus in our western societies about fundamentals issues. Issues such as what it means to be human; what it means to flourish in life; how we resolve deep differences in our communities; what the goal of our existence is.  And the USA is the font of this breakdown.

Add to this the increasing polarisations between the haves and the have-nots, in which the top few percent of both political stripes are quarantined from the harsh realities of a declining West, and our culture is ripe for, if not exactly bloody revolution, then something bad at least.  Something that will see books like Your Best Life now pulped, or burned for kindling.

Hilary will no doubt win this election, but only the most naive of her supporters could think for a minute that this has done anything but put a bandage over a cancerous sore that is spreading. The have-nots will continue to not have for another four years, in fact they’ll probably have less, and there will be a lot more of them. This thing ain’t going away.

And for evangelicals? Time to get that new word.  Time to rebrand. Time to find a word that reflects that we invest little hope – indeed no hope, in chariots, horses, candidates, or even plebiscites.

“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.

“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle.  It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes and energies are not grounded in the political machinations of this age. Rather our hopes and energies are in the politics of the age to come, lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community. And we still have an “evangel” to proclaim: Jesus is King!

“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.

And make no mistake there are plenty of such Christians around.  Plenty  have scorned me publicly in the past when I raise the increasingly (unsavoury?) spectre to them that Jesus’ return might just interfere with their best laid plans and their own visions of human flourishing, which, I have to say, seem just as tied to this age as those of the most glued-on any Trumpite evangelical.

For such people, the already “post-evangelicals” who junked the term a long time ago, there is a tendency to be too self-referentially humble to name what they actually are.  Or in other words, their rejection of the term “evangelical” becomes a self-righteous “virtue-signalling”. A way to scorn what you once were but from which you – having been enlightened by an even better news that evangelicalism has to offer – have escaped. Oh, and it’s especially handy to point it out, if and when the national broadcaster is interviewing you about something.

This cohort simply ends up as the other wing of the bird. Those whose trust is alos in horses and chariots also, just ones that are housed in a different stable.  They too, in Mohler’s words invest “far too much hope in elections and presidential candidates”, they merely do it from the other side of the political divide.

So I like the idea of “Eschatological” as a rebrand.  If you’ve got a better idea let me know.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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