Tag Archives: Harold Camping

What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities Pt II

Seemingly everyone is middle class. Ask someone who makes $75,000 a year and someone who makes double that amount, and both will tell you they’re “middle class.” And, it seems, even millionaires in the US claim to be middle class, as this 2007 survey indicates (I’d like to see what people would say now, in a post-recession economy). So who is right? What defines “middle class”?

Based upon data collected in surveys like the one above, “middle class” has come more to define a mentality than a dollar amount. If you feel middle class and act middle class, then you are, regardless of income, considered middle class—it has become a kind of sensibility. Does a similar notion also apply to evangelicals?

I think so.

I feel that, in some way, all Christians are evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, like it or not. We can’t escape the fact that evangelism is encoded within the DNA of the Christian faith, regardless of difference in denominational belief. Yet the definitions of the word that float through society don’t always accommodate this diversity.

As I see it, there are two easily identifiable definitions of the word “evangelical,” and one that is much harder to pin down: the first easily recognizable definition is used predominantly within the church community and the other is used predominantly outside of it. We will address the third one in a moment.

The first definition aligns rather closely with the one given in the OED, and stresses biblical inerrancy, salvation by faith alone, etc.

The second definition uses “evangelical” in a broad and often ambiguous way to describe basically any protestant who professes to be a Christian.

One can see this second definition come through in the recent flurry of activity surrounding Harold Camping’s rapture predictions. Multiple media outlets (here are just two examples: one, two) have referred either to Camping himself or/and to his media organization as “evangelical,” and I’ve heard it tossed around regularly in conversation that it’s those “evangelicals” who are at it again predicting the end of the world. And in some way, I can see where this assumption/association comes from: was it not the evangelicals who ate up the Left Behind series? Did not Camping’s followers harness evangelistic tactics to get their message out? Do they not conform to the OED’s definition? Are we not at least broadly discussing the same group of people?

Yet most evangelicals thought Camping was (and is) a loon. Even Tim LaHaye, the author of the  Left Behind series and prominent avowed evangelical, denounced Camping’s predictions as ridiculous.

I think you can see the difficultly here. If the word currently holds two meanings, but neither is stringently adhered to, then the word only leads to confusion and mis-categorization. I, for one, have quite a lot of Christian friends who might deem themselves “evangelical” in some sense of the word, but certainly don’t want to find themselves roped into Camping’s gang… or even Tim LaHaye’s gang.

This is where we find a third definition lurking in the background of this discussion. I represent that third definition. I am inclined to think of myself as an evangelical by virtue of the fact that I place importance on both sharing and living the Gospel, I believe in the transforming power of my faith, and I make no effort to hide my faith from others—I am, if you will, more than publicly Christian. I have many friends who would say the same for themselves; however, none of us would ever want to draw an association between us and the oft-stereotyped “evangelical” that demands donations on TV or hearkens back to the days of the Moral Majority. We don’t own that definition, and consequently, we don’t really own the one given in the OED, either.

Thus for us the question of mis-association becomes more pronounced. Is it necessary to say that someone must believe in total depravity of the human soul or biblical inerrancy as prerequisites to sharing their faith with the world? This assumption seems silly and needlessly exclusive. To me, those theological appendages fall subordinate to the importance of the gospel narrative.

While I’m certainly no lexicographer, I believe we need to reshape the word “evangelical” around this more universally Christian foundation (the one found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as it seems strange to use such a narrow definition of a term that can be applied to so many different Christians in as many different contexts. It only leads to confusion and ambiguity. If we fail to extend the definition to those outside the more fundamentalist box—or for that matter the Calvinist box or the biblical inerrantist box or the anti-gay box or the televangelist’s health and wealth box—of the Christian faith, then I believe we endanger ourselves in a media-saturated world where terms get tossed around without much thought to their association or meaning.

As a Christian attempting to strengthen interfaith relationships, I become attuned to categories and their oftentimes-harmful connotations. I also see how categories can come to define one’s identity. I believe that interfaith cooperation is a way of evangelizing. However, Greg and I have encountered those who seem skeptical of this—what we’re trying to do, some say, is more assimilation that evangelization. And while I don’t buy it, such a criticism does pose the questions: What does it look like to evangelize? Who is an evangelical? In some ways, finding answers to these two issues undergirds all that Greg and I do at FLP, and gets at our very identity as Christians.

Anyway, this has run on too long. You now have my opinion on the matter— I’d love to hear yours! Should “evangelical” have an inclusive definition that accommodates to some extent all Christians, or do you think it should describe a narrow sect of the Christian faith? What do you think are the implications of both? Weigh in below!

(Also check out this great blog by renowned Baylor theologian Roger E Olson, which Greg found after I had written much of this post. Dr. Olsen explores much these same issues—I highly recommend giving it a read.)

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The Tension of the Kingdom

Photo credit: Eve Anderson

 

Despite the fact that I made a point out of the believers who had so confidently preached the message of a “Bible-guaranteed” (i.e. Harold Camping-guaranteed) rapture last week, they were on to something: the second coming of Christ is something Christians look forward to experiencing.

That is because the second coming of Christ, which is foretold in the New Testament, promises the full arrival of the kingdom of God.  But wait!  The Bible describes Jesus as saying:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

This notion of “now, but not yet” (i.e. that the kingdom of God has come but is still coming) is a tension that, in his book Kingdom Come, Allen Wakabayashi analogizes to getting a pile of presents on Christmas morning as a kid but only being allowed to open two of them.  The kingdom of God (“God’s dream society on earth” to borrow the words of Scot McKnight) came with the coming of Jesus (described in the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but won’t be fully realized until Jesus comes again – an event awaited eagerly by all Christians because it means restoration for all of God’s people.

So what does this “now, but not yet” tension have to do with Faith Line Protestants?

First, this tension is essential to understanding the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus was preaching.  And, to restate my central thesis on FLP for the past several months: the message that Jesus was preaching is the message that we as Christians should be preaching.

Second, this tension confuses us as Christians.  It seems like one must choose between (a) preaching to the world its sinfulness and it’s need for repentance or (b) trying to act out of concern for the earthly needs of others through acts of social justice.  Rarely does one hear from Christian teachers that these two concepts can be brought together without contradiction. In my experience, it’s typically (a) a fixation with “winning souls” because judgment is coming or (b) a way of living out faith only by serving others without concern for eternity.  Neither tells the full message of the gospel.

But the full message is apparent.  Indeed, we see that the restoration of an individual soul and the restoration of a broken world are wrapped into a single man (who was both human and divine) through his life, death, and resurrection.  In Christ, these two seemingly opposite notions eternal need and earthly need find harmony.

If you’re of the (a) type, you don’t see the benefit of interfaith work because it’s not an activity that embraces your desire to point out everyone’s sin, and if you’re of the (b) type, you might engage the interfaith movement passionately while missing the mission of communicating a message.  (Actually, I think this exercise of categorization, although never perfect, can be really helpful in understanding Christian life in a religiously diverse world.  It can also be dissected a bit further.  That’s a teaser for my next series, where I’ll draw help from Gabe Lyons’ new book The Next Christians.)

If we, as Evangelicals, want to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to the world around us, we must speak – and live – the whole message.  The tension of a kingdom that is being realized but is not fully here is the great paradox of the kingdom message.  How do you understand the tension of the kingdom?  How does it influence the way you live?  I’ll wrap up this series the kingdom of God in my next post as I suggest some answers to these questions.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what our readers think.

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What Harold Camping Taught me About Being a Christian

Harold Camping is still here.  For that matter, so am I.

The world’s population of Christians wasn’t “raptured” last Saturday night as 89-year-old civil engineer-turned Bible numerologist Harold Camping predicted, which leaves at least a few Christians dumbfounded, embarrassed, and several thousand dollars poorer.

Naturally, I didn’t buy-in to Camping’s game, which is seemingly directly contrary to Matthew 24:36, and I even took the time for a chuckle on Friday when a friend pointed out the post-rapture service Eternal Earthbound Pets.

But sadly, several believers were featured in the media this weekend as having spent their life savings on placards and advertisements to warn the world of a “Bible-guaranteed” May 21, 2011 apocalypse that Camping was “utterly, absolutely… absolutely convinced” was going to happen.

As a Christian, I’m embarrassed.  Here at Faith Line Protestants, Cameron and I like to talk about evangelism and our relationships with people of other faiths – opening a can of worms that we don’t necessarily know how to close.  But the sad demonstration by Camping and his followers this week has pointed once again to the thesis that Cameron and I are trying to articulate to other Christians:

It’s missing the point.

For all the media buzz and interviews I saw leading up to May 21, 2011, not once do I remember hearing the message of the kingdom of God – the message that Jesus was preaching.

It’s not a message that denies Jesus’ second coming or the notion of judgment.  It’s not a message that ignores the need to recognize one’s imperfections, the requirement of repentance, or the truth that redemption is found only in Christ.

But it is a message that talks about restoration, about compassion, about forgiveness.  It means restoration for the individual soul and the whole world.  And it’s so much more than a ticket to heaven (whether you’re boarding that train at Jesus’ second coming or via the more… traditional method).

As a Christian, I feel a responsibility to communicate to people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) that the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was a message far greater than what Family Radio billboards were preaching.  In fact, I believe that when this message is communicated clearly and effectively, people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) may even be interested in knowing more.  When it’s a message presented through scare-tactics however…

Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt said it well in their reaction piece on the Washington Post’s On Faith:

It seems this charade provides both Christians and the watching world with a teachable moment. Christians need to recognize that fear-based conversion tactics may work on young children, but they rarely resolve rational thinkers’ long-term concerns about faith. Those who went running for the rapture must now sit to wrestle with the serious questions that plagued them before. We must learn that it’s easy to rile people up with future headlines of destruction, but it’s better to inspire people with God’s will for our lives in the present.

When Christians succumb to thinking that sees escape as the answer to the world’s brokenness, we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Jesus didn’t shrink from talking about future realities, but it’s hard to ignore that he spent the majority of his life restoring brokenness, rather than running from it. Christians often become so focused on the afterlife that they stop investing in their current life. Harold Camping will have done us all a favor if this serves as a wake-up call to Christian escapists and fear-peddlers.

Restoring the brokenness, not running from it.  That’s the message I want my life to preach.

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