Still Evangelical?

Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning

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Editor(s): 
Mark Labberton
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , January
     2018.
     180 pages.
     $17.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830845378.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Questions concerning the shape of evangelical identity have become decidedly contentious in light of the 2016 US presidential election in which, according to the Pew Research Center, 81% of white evangelical voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Not only was this voting bloc significant to the outcome of the election, but it also has led many evangelicals to conclude that the movement is in crisis. Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning is a collection of eleven essays compiled and edited by Mark Labberton containing reflections and perspectives from a diversity of contributors on what it means to be evangelical, given the social and political commitments with which the movement has largely come to be associated. Such reflection is particularly timely given that the results of the election have, as Labberton remarks in his introduction, left many “wondering whether they want to be in or out of the evangelical tribe” (1). 

The group of contributors to this volume are held together by the fact that they can all be considered, as the book’s title has it, “insiders” in the evangelical movement—although how comfortably they sit with that designation varies considerably. Among the contributors are leaders of major evangelical para-church institutions and ministries, academics—most of whom hold appointments at various evangelical universities and seminaries—pastors, authors, speakers, and activists who have significant followings and readerships in the evangelical world. Given this diversity of contributors, it would be impossible to discuss every contribution, thus, I will focus on several important themes that recur throughout the volume. Most significantly, many of the contributions express concerns that overwhelming white evangelical support for the political agenda connected to Trump is harming the witness of the evangelical church in America. As Shane Claiborne notes in “Evangelicalism Must Be Born Again,” polls suggest that young non-Christians view Christians primarily in terms of those who they oppose. As such, he argues, evangelicals have “become known more for who we’ve excluded than for who we’ve embraced” (154).

In this respect, the stories and voices of those relegated to the cultural margins of white America are particularly telling. In “Religion and the Latina/o Community,” Robert Chao Romero powerfully narrates three stories of the great hardship that Latina/o evangelicals have experienced in light of recent immigration policies, and the failure of the church to speak up in defence of its immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ. He argues that the evangelical church has largely been complicit in the “Latino Threat Narrative,” which posits that Latinos are destroying the American way of life. As such, although many Latinos consider themselves theologically evangelical, Romero writes, “many of us feel deeply hurt by the perceived apathy of the evangelical church in response to our suffering” (69). Likewise, in “Remaining to Reform,” Sandra Maria Van Opstal, who ministers to communities of color on Chicago’s West Side, relates the sense of betrayal that she felt on election night. As she puts it, “[m]any of the same people that had been sending missions teams to ‘help the poor’ of Mexico, Dominican Republic, Turkey, and Uganda were the same people who were now shouting, ‘Build the wall!’ It was no longer just intuition; concrete data support our experience of ethnocentric nationalism built on the wings of not only national security but also xenophobia” (121). Along with Van Opstal’s essay, Lisa Sharon Harper’s also calls on white evangelicals concerned for justice to not be paralyzed by shame, but instead to allow themselves to be decenteredsuch that the voices of women, non-white, and other evangelicals are given a more central place in evangelicalism beyond mere token representation. Similarly, Allen Yeh calls for greater attentiveness to evangelical voices from the Majority World.

Another major theme that unites several of the essays arises in response to the damage done to the witness of the evangelical church; namely, the call to lamentation and repentance. For example, Labberton insightfully suggests that the term “evangelical” has come to be seen as a “theo-political brand,” rather than “a set of primary theological commitments” (3). To escape this myopic view, he calls on evangelicals to focus on “communal, systemic, and public transformation” (15). But this means recognizing and repenting of our complicity in both personaland systemic sin. In a similar vein, Soong-Chan Rah urges evangelicals to return to the spiritual practice of lament, which is the language of suffering.

A final theme worth mentioning, which is suggestively raised but receives relatively little attention in the volume as a whole, is ecclesiology. In “Recapturing Evangelical Identity and Mission,” Mark Young suggests that the transition of evangelicalism into “a partisan political coalition” is due to a thin ecclesiology that fails to recognize our identity as a reconciled people. Likewise, Tom Lin argues that in a pluralistic world, where white evangelicals can no longer assume power and privilege, evangelicalism is severely disadvantaged by its “underdeveloped political theology” (187). I would consider these insights regarding the need for a more fully developed political theology grounded in a robust ecclesiology to be crucial for the task of carrying forward the evangelical witness faithfully in the current social and political context. What the evangelical church most needs in the current moment is not simply better political policies, but rather a richer political theology that will allow it to more faithfully navigate the political arena. It would have been helpful to hear a bit more in this direction from contributors, but perhaps that is the work of a future volume.

On the whole, this volume helpfully shifts the focus to voices that for too long have been on the margins of evangelicalism in its North American context.  As such, the book will prove of value both to those who are reconsidering their evangelical identity in light of recent political developments, as well as those who are firmly committed to such identity but are interested in what that commitment looks like from a perspective outside the mainstream who constituted the aforementioned 81% in the last presidential election. The book contributes to the task of helping the evangelical witness more faithfully represent the body of Christ in all of its diversity. Such a task is timely and crucial, given that if the movement finds its identity in being a “theo-political brand,” many who confess commitment to the properly theological distinctives of evangelicalism will likely, nonetheless, answer the question posed in the title of the book in the negative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Laffin is Lecturer in Ethics at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
March 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Labberton is President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Prior to that Labberton served for a number of years as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. He has also served as chair of John Stott Ministries. Today he continues to contribute to the mission of the global church as a senior fellow of the International Justice Mission. He is the author of CalledThe Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor and The Dangerous Act of Worship.

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