Dear Thomas Kidd: Bite me.

Oh my. I can hear the pearls being clutched from here. That’s not very “civil” is it?

OK, let’s try this: Dear Thomas Kidd, With all due respect in re: your pronouncements regarding “The ‘Evangelicals’ Who Are Not Evangelicals,” You Are Henceforth Cordially Invited to Bite Me.

Let’s not play games. There is nothing “civil” about the gatekeeper power games Kidd is playing. From the scare-quotes of his title on through, this is a nasty piece of work and anyone who wants to defend that nastiness by tone-policing the civility of anyone who dares to respond in kind is, likewise, invited to bite me.*

I’m beyond tired of the charade that pretends it’s “civil” for people like Kidd to make sweeping pronouncements about other people’s faith — relegating their devotion, sincerity and identity to scare quotes — while at the same time glibly accepting, say, Al Mohler’s purging of Southern Seminary as an expression of pious civility. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to carry water for tribal gatekeepers while pretending your hands are clean of their power politics. You don’t get to kick people out and squash all dissent from your preferred party line and at the same time pretend that everyone you’ve evicted left voluntarily.

So then, as you’ve probably guessed by now, this is a bit of an angry post. It’s a bit of an angry post because people like Thomas Kidd are still writing crap like the following while pretending they’re just being “objective” and civil:

There are at least four types of Christians who often get cast as evangelicals who really are not evangelicals, if that term has any meaning.

The first and most obvious are theological liberals who, because of their background in evangelical churches or seminaries, still get lumped in with evangelicals. A substantial evangelicalism must embrace basic orthodoxy, in accord with historic Christianity and the great creeds. So, for example, when Rob Bell declared himself a universalist, he put himself beyond the evangelical pale (implicitly denying the need for conversion, among other problems). Yet some in the media will still refer to him as an evangelical. The media has a particular interest in calling such folks evangelicals, because it allows for the ever-popular narrative of the liberal evangelical dissenter (“evangelical pastor denies hell,” “evangelical pastor conducts gay wedding,” etc.).

Oh, Mr. Kidd, your circular argument circles back to this: Bite me. And go “farewell” yourself while you’re at it.

Let’s all take a spin on Kidd’s merry-go-round, shall we? There’s no such thing as an evangelical universalist, Kidd says, because every universalist is henceforth decreed to no longer be a real, true evangelical. QED.

And also, apparently, there’s no such thing as an evangelical who denies Hell (farewell, John Stott) or as an evangelical who would conduct a gay wedding (farewell Steve Chalke), because anyone who does either of those is henceforth decreed to no longer be a real, true evangelical.

Allow me to henceforth decree that Thomas Kidd may, henceforth, bite me.

Kidd pretends that this ouroboros logic involves nothing more than the objective recognition of some pre-existing objective criteria rather than the ever-shifting priorities and caprices of tribal gatekeepers. That’s pretty shoddy coming from a historian, but you don’t need to study history to be aware of this constant shifting of tribal boundaries. All you need to do is remember.

I remember. I remember when I was henceforth decreed to no longer be a real, true evangelical — to be an “‘evangelical’ who is not an evangelical,” or a “post-evangelical,” or whatever tribal terminology is currently in vogue. That was in 2000. I didn’t declare myself a universalist or conduct a gay wedding. I just voted for Al Gore.

And that, according to the ironclad ouroboros logic of Kidd’s argument, meant I should no longer be “lumped in with evangelicals” just because of my “background in evangelical churches [and] seminaries.” That, somehow, meant I should be henceforth redefined as a “theological liberal” — just like all those uppity, “evangelical” women Al Mohler purged from Southern Seminary.

The experience was surreal. I was informed by the Real, True Evangelical Powers That Be that I no longer loved Jesus and that I hated the Bible. I was fairly sure that both of those things weren’t true, and that I was in a better position to know that than they were. “I love Jesus,” I said. “And I love the Bible. I read it every day.”

“No you don’t.” They told me. “You can’t — that’s something evangelicals do and you’re no longer an evangelical. You read John Shelby Spong.”

I’m afraid I still haven’t gotten around to reading anything by John Shelby Spong (neither have the gatekeepers, for that matter). And I still read the Bible every day. “No you don’t, no you can’t,” they still say.

And sometimes I’m thus left with the only response their insistence will allow: Bite me.

Now, before he allowed himself to get distracted as an over-eager toady for the tribal gatekeepers, Kidd’s topic was an interesting one. The attempt to define the sprawling, elastic term “evangelical” has long frustrated historians and anyone else who studies Protestant Christianity. It’s tricky enough coming up with a theological framework that can include both Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, let alone one that can accommodate both Edwards and Aimee Semple McPherson.

So Kidd proposes a Procrustean solution — lopping off anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into his preferred definition. The folks at Christianity Today make the cut (at least some of them, for now), but the folks at Charisma are cast out into the outer darkness with Rob Bell, Bishop Spong, and the rest of the tree-hugging, love-making, pro choicing, gay wedding, bare-footing hippies like me.

Pentecostal piety will prevent them from saying “Bite me,” but I’m sure they’re thinking it.

Kidd’s definition also rules out some “Reformed/confessionalist Christians,” noting that “This is the easiest category of the four, because many of these Christians would tell you that they are not evangelicals, even if the media would regard them as such.” Yes. But Kidd doesn’t seem to notice that what he describes there as “easy” is a difference in kind. Excluding people who do not claim the term for themselves is a very different thing from excluding those who do.

I remember a conversation years ago with a Dutch Reformed theologian who objected to the label evangelical. Unlike Kidd, he did not argue that this was because “the doctrines and confessions of Reformed Christianity are the center of their faith,” but rather because, “You people want to take away our beer.”

My vanderFriend had a better understanding of white evangelicalism than Thomas Kidd seems to have. He understood that the boundaries of evangelicalism have always been cultural, and that those cultural factors will always trump doctrinal or theological claims.

So allow me to offer a more civil note, proposing a more truthful and accurate definition that might better serve Thomas Kidd’s aims. An evangelical is a Protestant Christian who submits to the authority of the tribal gatekeepers of evangelicalism.

That definition, you’ll note, will serve to exclude most of the people Kidd wants to exclude — the Clark Pinnocks and the Steve Chalkes and the uppity women and the gays and even all the Gore-voters (while offering at least the illusion of a non-partisan fig-leaf for doing so). It won’t, alas, provide any help in adjudicating between the warring fiefdoms of competing gatekeepers, and thus can’t settle the question of whether, say, Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Rome or Stephen Strang’s Pentecostal Avignon wields the more legitimate authority.

But the main virtue of this definition is that it cuts to the chase. It arrives at the preferred exclusionary effect without involving all the semantic games and the smarmy gatekeeping euphemisms and the snot-nosed condescension of scare quotes.

This clarifying definition also has the added bonus of keeping the exclusive club exclusive without demeaning others’ faith by telling them they’re insincere and that they don’t love Jesus or the Bible. That’s an ugly accusation that needs to stop. It’s hurtful and hateful and dishonest. It’s bad history and bad behavior. It’s flagrantly uncivil.

And while most of the people Kidd et. al. seek to dismiss as scare-quoted “evangelicals” and supposed traitors to “their background in evangelical churches or seminaries” are too nice to respond appropriately, I’m not.

Which is to say, once more with feeling: Bite me.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* You want to play tone police? Fine. Tone police this.

Oh, right, this is the Internet and you can’t see where I’m pointing. Well, can you guess where I’m pointing?


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