On Labels and Their Necessity
Tim Challies has begun an important discussion on how we are to read theology—to which Scott Clark and Carl Trueman each have responded—brought on by his own reading of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas. I’d like to offer a few thoughts to help us think clearly about what is at stake.
Challies cites two Bonhoeffer scholars (Richard Weikart and Clifford Green) who strongly object to Metaxas’ portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, essentially accusing him of making the German pastor into a 21st century American evangelical. Challies and others rightly take these scholars’ opinions to heart and are trying to view Bonhoeffer with a reasonable amount of objectivity. Having not read the book, I cannot give my opinion on how far Metaxas has stretched Bonhoeffer’s legacy to conform to a pre-set standard of “the good.” I’ll wager that it is not in the same league as arguing that Mark Van Bommel is one of the beautiful game’s premier midfielders.
I want to focus on the second of Dr Trueman’s thoughts: “I have noticed a general tendency in American evangelical circles to claim anybody who is helpful or admirable as an evangelical of some sort.” Trueman confesses that he does not know why this is the case, but offers, “Maybe because there is a general cultural difficulty with finding people who are different to be helpful?”
I don’t really want to turn this into a psychological profile of the biggest and most diverse demographic in the United States (R. C. Sproul and Benny Hinn!). But. I believe there is something to this tendency that causes the sort of reaction One big reason we evangelicals attempt to transform great Christians into “evangelicals” is because we have made it suspicious and dangerous not to be an evangelical. Carl cannot have Lawrence of Arabia as a hero, I cannot cite Karl Barth with approval, folks can hardly get elected to office, since these do not carry the proper label.
The logic here is tight: if the category “evangelical” can describe both R. C. Sproul, Benny Hinn, and Brian McClaren, and now Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C. S. Lewis, and Karl Barth, then the category truly is the lowest common denominator for basic Christianity today. Thus, for someone not to carry that label, however anachronistically, puts him or her off limits for interaction with modern American Christian folks. Challies’ last sentence seems to give this away: “I’m afraid that we evangelicals may just prefer a safe and friendly character over an accurate one.” It may be that “prefer” is too weak a verb here; more likely, it should read “must have”. Otherwise, something bad might happen to me, my church, etc., and so I’ll stick to the safe books with the right label on the spine. This feels a lot like the pragmatic argument for Christian tea-totalism: Rowan Williams, like beer, can lead to other bad things. Yes, we should be careful about what we read, but even more careful about what we believe. This, however, takes hard work and lots of time and humility, things which 21st century American culture doesn’t seem too happy to serve up to us in large portions. Since in the past I have been guilty of avoiding writers who were not on the Index of Approved Theologians, I’d love to say: do it anyway. Not everybody can be a part of The Gospel Coalition.
Lastly, a personal anecdote. As I read through Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable novel Gilead, one recurring thought I had was how utterly odd a pastor like John Ames seemed as I transposed him into my 21st century evangelical context. A small-town preacher, surely big on sin, grace, obedience, Jesus as God’s divine Son, lover of old hymns, this man at the same time read deeply and even quoted to his young son the likes of Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Emerson, and who knows what other German theologians. Why did he do such things? Mainly, I think, to understand and love his brother better.