Editorial: Traveling Light

Entering into 2016, I want to travel light.  I want to journey with a renewed purity of heart that complexification prevents.

One of the things I am jettisoning is the word “evangelical.”  Those of you who know me understand how difficult this decision is for me.  Even as I make it, I do so with sadness and regret.  I never thought a day like this would ever come. But it has.

My review of writings by alleged evangelicals in 2015 clearly reveals how the word “evangelical” has lost its essence, and has now succumbed to a subjectivism that leaves it largely defined by whomever is using the word.  The “evangelical” community is now fractured and imploding, collapsing as a victim to its own judgmentalism and arrogance–now turned not only on the church and culture, but also on people within its own ranks.  “Evangelical” is an empty word (compared to the meaning it once had), and I must lay it down, joining others who have chosen, and are choosing, to do the same.

I pray there might be a day when “evangelical” will be resurrected to its historic substance and richness.  But that is not happening now.  Posts I have read in the past few days are enough to confirm this and to further break my heart.

I want to travel light in 2016, simply using the word “Christian” to describe myself and my faith.  In fact, given our penchant to turn any adjective into an extremist position, I doubt that most of our modifiers are helping us these days.  We need to get back to “the naked noun” (as Eugene Peterson has described the power of language), and live with the transparency and authenticity that nouns create.

Nouns have the potential to create conversations that adjectives prevent.  As soon as I can “modify” a person with an adjective which I do not use to identify myself, I no longer have to remain in fellowship with him or her.  And once separated, I can go on to justify almost any attitude or action against the newly-created “other.”

But if I stick with nouns (e.g. “human” and “Christian”), I remain close enough to see and hear people, to claim legitimate commonalities with them, and to ask meaningful questions.  Nouns generate conversations, adjectives ignite controversies.  Adjectives weigh down and weary the soul, forcing us to work too hard, trying to create the illusion of being “right” all the time.

So, I will travel light this year.  I will journey simply as “Christian,” hoping this naked noun will build more bridges than barriers.  And I will pray for grace to carry a ladder rather than a lever as I go my way in 2016. 

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books.
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11 Responses to Editorial: Traveling Light

  1. Rev Uch says:

    Thanks for your good word, Steve. I, too, have stopped calling myself evangelical. Funny how we spend so much time learning to use adjectives creatively only to find that they have narrowed our view of the world.

  2. Michael J. Teston says:

    I have shaken my head many times over the last 20 some years of work within the church and beyond wondering how such a word whose root is equated with good message, good messenger, even good angel could have been so radically undermined through the rhetoric and tone of so many. It speaks of the hallowing out and the reductionistic view of much that once held so much depth and breadth. Still shaking my head.

  3. Shelley Ryan says:

    Thank you for this powerful and insightful message, Steve. From a former student and newly ordained Episcopal priest. Peace be with all of us.

  4. Frank says:

    The problem with these labels is that they aren’t consistent with Jesus’ teachings to love and to follow, which are verbs.

  5. Steve, I’d like to repost this for the first issue of United Methodist Insight for 2016. Like you, I have grieved over the twisted connotation now applied to a word that one meant “bringing good news.” Hope you have a blessed 2016. Thanks!

  6. Gary Lee Parker says:

    Yes, well said Steve, but for me I will call myself “A Follower of Jesus>” Amen!

  7. I’m sorry you gave up on Evangelical. I am so stubborn I haven’t even given up on catholic.

  8. I relate Steve. Good word!

  9. Thanks for your faithful witness Steve.

  10. Jeff Blake says:

    Quite a profound and insightful perspective with my gratitude for your openness and honesty.

  11. Jack Harnish says:

    Well said. There are many of us who consider ourselves “evangelical” who no longer use the word because of its connotations with right wing religion and politics.

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