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Thirty-five percent of Americans today are evangelical Christians, yet many people are uncertain of what that term actually means. The Beliefnet® Guide to Evangelical Christianity offers a clear, unbiased description of evangelical beliefs and ...
Thirty-five percent of Americans today are evangelical Christians, yet many people are uncertain of what that term actually means. The Beliefnet® Guide to Evangelical Christianity offers a clear, unbiased description of evangelical beliefs and practices—including how they have changed throughout history and what they are now. It also dispels many current misconceptions about this faith group and its followers.
The Beliefnet® Guide to Evangelical Christianity addresses topics such as evangelical Christians’ approach to the accuracy of the Bible, their relationship with Jesus Christ, and the connection to conservative politics. Its nuts-and-bolts approach will appeal both to evangelicals who want to know more about the history of their religion and community and to general readers who want to understand the rise of evangelicalism over the past decades.
From the premier source of information on religion and spirituality, the Beliefnet® Guides introduce you to the major traditions, leaders, and issues of faith in the world today.
Who Are Evangelicals?
I know a man who resigned from his evangelical church as a result of a youth-sponsored coffee house (it was a fund-raiser for a missions trip). The kids were hosting several youth bands, and one of them played that Mick Jagger classic "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." That same night, two middle-aged women who'd grown up on the Stones bobbed, weaved, and clapped hands overhead like something out of Woodstock. They too considered themselves evangelicals. Full disclosure: I was one of those two women.
The point being, as with every mode of religious expression on the American landscape, evangelical Christianity has its contradictions and champions, saints and sinners, workhorses and weirdos. There is not one "bloc" of the American population that fits into a category called evangelicalism. Evangelicals can be white, African-American, Asian, or Hispanic. There are the educated and the uneducated; the rich, the middle, and the under-class; the tax-paying upright citizens; the down-and-out drug addicts and prostitutes; the right-wing conservatives and left-wing liberals. It is better to think of evangelicalism as a river carrying life-giving water to its many branches and streams.
The individuals who inhabit the landscape may come and go. But the river remains, a mystical life force that nourishes otherwise disparate groups and, in a way, holds them together. When today's inhabitants are gone, the river will do the same for those yet to dwell upon the land.
It can, and does, get messy when a mighty river cuts through the crags of everyday life. For believing evangelicals, the source of the river abides in absolutes. But this results in complications. First, evangelicals themselves do not agree upon the interpretation of these absolutes; and second, they desire so sincerely to obey the mandates of faith that they sometimes take irrevocable stands for or against things with the best of intentions. The man who left the church because of Mick Jagger's song did right by his convictions. The rocking, dancing women expressed God-given delight over great music. In their minds they were responding as King David himself did when the Ark of the Covenant was carried to Jerusalem: Let's rock and roll!
"The lyrics are Augustinian," I later commented to my fellow rocker, upon learning of the man's antipathy. St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions (a work widely cited by evangelicals): "You made us for Yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You." Compare: "I've tried, and I've tried, and I've tried, and I've tried . . . I can't get no satisfaction." In Augustinian terms, Mick Jagger makes perfect sense.
Evangelicals tend to make such justifications. They feel the need to make sense of the culture in theological terms. This can be problematic. The world and even God himself sometimes do not make sense. That is one challenge for evangelicals.
Another challenge is dealing with the negative stereotypes perceived by the public--of evangelicals as right-wing extremists; nerdy Ned Flanders types; sourpuss puffy-haired church ladies; or pasty-faced soft-bellied television Bible thumpers. A survey taken by pollster George Barna in December 2003 noted that Americans generally disliked evangelicals more than any other social sector, except for prostitutes, whom they edged out by only a slight margin. Though true evangelicals wouldn't mind such company (after all, Jesus hung out with prostitutes and other fringe people), one purpose of this book is to clarify contradictions that have aroused public confusion and point out strengths largely undetected in public consciousness.
A few explanations: First, although I employ the masculine pronoun when referring to the Deity and to the Holy Spirit, God possesses no gender (and there are references in the Old Testament where God is likened to a mother). My use of the male pronoun arises from Jesus' description of God as Father, and from evangelicals' use of it to refer to God and the Holy Spirit. Secondly, for the purposes of this book, the two sections of the Bible are denoted as the Old and New Testaments. The former is commonly and rightly known as the Hebrew Scriptures. But evangelicals emphasize a "new covenant" and "new kingdom" inaugurated by Jesus, and look upon the Hebrew Scriptures as Act 1, ultimately fulfilled by Act 2 (the New Testament). The terminology means no disrespect to Judaism, which claims these remarkable writings as their sacred text. Although I have tried to limit my use of insider language, some points cannot be addressed any other way. The reader would be well served to mark the glossary page, as he or she will be turning to it regularly. Finally, I do not presume to speak for all evangelicals in this book. I've consulted many who are knowledgeable in these matters. At the same time, I don't doubt some of what I write will offend and/or be dismissed by others in the evangelical community. I do not intend any offense and regret any that might be taken.
The Big Questions
Nowadays, not all who identify themselves as Christians hold to a specific set of beliefs. In America, the term has even taken on cultural nuances--people who decorate a Christmas tree or eat chocolate bunnies at Easter might think of themselves as Christian, even if they have never been inside a church. Some Islamic countries identify Christianity with satellite-beamed U.S. television shows like Baywatch.
Even churchgoing Christians don't all believe the same things. There are three main branches of Christianity: Catholics, who recognize the authority of the Pope; Eastern Orthodox Christians, who follow an ancient liturgy in worship; and Protestant Christians, who reject the authority of the Pope and embrace the Bible as their primary source of inspiration and authority. Evangelicals are Protestants, but not all Protestants are evangelicals.
In a nutshell, evangelicals
• believe they must have a "born-again" experience to become a Christian; many follow their conversion with a public "believer's baptism"; in other cases, however, those who are "born again" have already been baptized as infants.
• emphasize a "personal" relationship with Jesus.
• believe the Bible is historically reliable, and is the best authority for people's lives and relationship with God.
• feel obliged to share their faith in Jesus (which they believe saves them from eternal damnation) with other people, in order to save them, too, from eternal damnation.
Although other Protestants may not object to this approach, many opt for more subtlety. For instance, many Protestants don't emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus or a "born-again" experience, preferring a more gradual approach. They tend to be more private about their faith, and therefore don't share it publicly. They get their inspiration from the Bible by studying the texts--using history, literature, language translation, and archaeology--to figure out what the biblical writers were trying to say. (Despite stereotypes to the contrary, many evangelicals use this approach too--scholarship is not incompatible with the "born-again" experience.)
However, according to evangelicals, the term "Christian" has a very specific meaning. It means claiming Jesus Christ as their champion. They believe that without Jesus' death on the cross, which they see as a sacrifice, union with God is impossible. They also believe that although Jesus died, he rose from death, left them instructions for winning others to life eternal, and then returned to God the Father in heaven. They believe Jesus will return at some future point, and when he does, all will be called to account for their deeds. These beliefs are grounded in the Bible.
In The Beginning
Evangelicals believe humankind was created by God in the persons of Adam and Eve, and that through them, God imbued humanity with a spark of his image. Therefore, evangelicals believe humans were meant to share harmony with God and enjoy the benefits and abundance of the creation about them. Creation is God's masterpiece, of which human beings are the pinnacle. Many evangelicals do not embrace the theory of evolution, which asserts that human life developed out of lower life-forms. They usually explain the fossil record as perhaps one means God used to advance his creation, though crediting God, not natural selection, for intervening in the process. (This topic is discussed further in Chapter 6.)
As the one and only creator, God held the prerogative as to how this harmony was to play out and laid out a single rule. He said to Adam, "Look! I have given you the seed-bearing plants through the earth and all the fruit trees for your food," and added, "you may eat freely any fruit in the garden except fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat of its fruit, you will surely die." This moment in the creation narrative introduces a critical insidious player who, from this point forward, undertakes ruthlessly to ruin people's confidence in God's good purposes. He is Satan, the onetime high angel Lucifer who fell "like lightning" from God's presence, having tried and failed to usurp God's authority.
Evangelicals battle Satan's attempts to sabotage God's plans by preying upon the weakest spot in every human's heart, including (especially) theirs. He started with Eve and Adam, planting the slightest seed of doubt with the simple words: "Did God say . . . ?" Evangelicals believe that from the moment our ancestors doubted God and ate the fruit forbidden to them, so alluringly held out to them by the Great Antagonist, the earth and everything in it fell under Satan's dominion. That is why evangelicals call this moment "the Fall."
Was God powerless to stop his children from making this bad choice? Was he a bad parent? Evangelicals believe he was not powerless, and that he is a good parent. But being a good parent, they believe, compelled God to allow Adam and Eve to make this bad choice. In eating from the one forbidden tree, they dictated their own terms, forfeiting the privilege of intimacy with God and the benefits of the bounty of his creation. Evangelicals say God was willing to risk this failure because he loved his children and wanted their love back freely. To allow for that, he (regrettably) had to open the possibility that his children would choose not to love him.
Eve and Adam chose not to live according to God's terms, which, evangelicals believe, forged an insuperable breach between them (and their descendants) and God. Just as humans inherited from Adam the spark of God's image, in this rebellious flourish humans likewise inherited the damaged relationship with and alienation from God. This evangelicals call sin--or "missing the intended mark." It is defined in the Book of Common Prayer as "seeking our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with people, and with all creation." The broken bond grieved God, the way any parent would be distressed over a fractured relationship with a son or daughter. Evangelicals believe God effected a plan of restoration and that he executed it by submitting to the terms our ancestors had chosen. He himself entered the situation. He assumed the form of a man in the person of his Son, Jesus.
God Becomes A Man
Astounding events have been associated with Jesus, as noted in the New Testament. His mother, Mary, became pregnant without "having been with a man." Violent winds grew still at his command. When he willed it, wine flowed out of jars that had held water. Many other extraordinary events occurred during his life that remain difficult to explain apart from an intellectual concession to the miraculous. Evangelicals accept this. They believe that since God, as creator, can manifest molecular arrangements and time sequencing any way he chooses, Jesus as God's physical presence possessed similar capacities.
The reader must note that saying God "assumed the form" of a human being in the person of his Son does not suggest Jesus, at heart, was damaged the way Adam and Eve and their offspring have been. Evangelicals believe Jesus possessed the limitations, emotions, and temptations inherent in being human, but confronted this with his eyes clear, his heart clean, and his step sound. In other words, he was born without original sin.
The saving plan began at the Jordan River. There, to show solidarity with people, Jesus stepped into the muddy river to be baptized by his cousin John, whose baptism symbolized repentance. Thereafter Jesus spoke about a "new kingdom." He told stories that excited some and offended others. He healed many diverse diseases, mental and physical. Increasing numbers rallied around him, mostly down-and-outers, but lawyers and intellectuals were also curiously attracted to him. Many were confounded by his teachings. People from all walks of life wanted to learn more about this new kingdom. This swelling group alarmed patriots and the religious establishment, who feared revolt and the unraveling of tradition. This fear, coupled with Jesus' unabashed pronouncements against hypocrisy, turned the cultural and political elite against him. He became ensnared in a web of conspiracy, betrayal, and entrapment that ended badly, as noted in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. "They led him away to be crucified," writes Mark in his Gospel (15:20). Jesus was about age thirty-three.
Is "Christ" Jesus' Last Name?
If Jesus had a last name during his years on earth it would have been bar-Joseph, son of Joseph. "Christ" is his title, which is Greek for "the anointed one." It is equivalent to the word "Messiah," used in the Old Testament. It became attached to his common name because, as news spread about his life, death, and resurrection, his followers, both Jewish and Gentile, saw him as God's Messiah, or chosen one, who would save God's children from their bondage to sin.
Did Jesus Have To Die?
The principle of Jesus' death on the cross as a sacrifice is articulated by evangelicals as "the atonement." Some preachers help listeners understand the notion by breaking it into three small words: at--one--ment. By this, they mean Jesus bridged the chasm between humanity and God by offering his sacrifice as the means to carry the guilt that (because of the Fall) separated humanity from God. It is his act of "putting at one" (at-one-ment) a once-fractured relationship, through his willing sacrifice. In the evangelical scheme, this is a mystical transaction, beyond human understanding. C. S. Lewis, a favorite writer of evangelicals, says in Mere Christianity, "A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him." He claims the same could be said of the atonement: "A man [person] can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know it works until he [or she] has accepted it." Lewis seemed to indicate that not all believers would agree on how atonement actually "works." Some say the bad choice of our ancestors demanded redress because God is holy and justice must be meted out--and Jesus volunteered to do the job. Another explanation reduces the death of Jesus to a moral example of neighborly love of a type we should rally around as a model (giving up his life for his friends). The meaning of the atonement lies somewhere between the two. For evangelicals, it remains a holy mystery.