Who is an evangelical? Who isn’t? Who says so?

Who is an evangelical? Who isn’t? Who says so? June 22, 2014

Having thus, according to his own opinion, explained how a clergyman should show himself approved unto God, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, [Obadiah Slope] went on to explain how the word of truth should be divided; and here he took a rather narrow view of the question; and fetched arguments from afar. His object was to express his abomination of all ceremonious modes of utterance, to cry down any religious feeling which might be excited, not by the sense, but by the sound of words, and in fact to insult the cathedral practices. Had St Paul spoken of rightly pronouncing instead of rightly dividing the word of truth, this part of his sermon would have been more to the purpose; but the preacher’s immediate object was to preach Mr Slope’s doctrine, and not St Paul’s, and he contrived to give the necessary twist to the text with some skill.

— Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Chap. 6 “War” (1857)

I am pretty sure I know what an evangelical is — someone who believes and worships as I do.

Don’t press me too hard on this point. For the past 15 years I have written for The Church of England Newspaper, since 1828 the voice of the Evangelical party of the Church of England. Trollope refers to our august publication in Barchester Towers under its name at that time “The Record” with disdain, noting the odious Obadiah Slope, the oily chaplain to Bishop Proudie, is a “Recordite.” Evangelical for me is a set of beliefs and style of churchmanship. And it is a particular party affiliation.

Now I will not be the first Episcopalian or Anglican to systematize the Christian world according to our particular prejudices: there are Catholics, the Orthodox, foreigners — everyone else who speaks English should properly be an Episcopalian. Sadly the world has not been persuaded of the merits of these arguments. Nor do I expect my suppositions on who is an Evangelical to be the final word.

The Rev. Billy Graham for one, as tmatt has reported at GetReligion, will not define an evangelical. One of tmatt’s more frequent story lines is “define evangelical. Give three examples.” He also has devised a test, the tmatt trio, that places a Christian on the spectrum of belief, that many argue (tmatt disagrees) roughly corresponds to evangelical belief.

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Yet these questions could be answered the same way by Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, even Episcopalians (well some of us at any rate.) Placing my arch attempts at Anglican humor to one side, I agree with tmatt, (and Billy Graham) that it is quite hard to define an evangelical today.

However, I will stick out my neck and say a recent article in FaithStreet misuses the word evangelical. What it wants to say and should have said was “proselytize.”

The article entitled “Hare Krishna Gets Evangelical” with the subheading “The fringe Hindu faith is rebranding itself in America — with evangelical techniques” does an excellent job in reporting on the state of movement. The author, Rosalie Murphy, does a terrific job in discussing the trajectory of the group from a “hippie” counter cultural movement to a faith dominated today by immigrants from India. The article discusses attempts by the first and recent wave of American converts to return the Hare Krishna movement to the mission field and convert Americans.

A caveat about the text of the article is that I would have welcomed hearing from those who do not want the Hare Krishna movement to change. Is everyone in the Krishna Consciousness movement, American converts and Indian immigrants, agreed on the need to break free from the faith’s Indian trappings?

The article presents the issues of acculturation — can the Krishna Consciousness movement adopt the culture of its local environment, while retaining its faith principles? But the language the author uses is too imprecise. Christian vocabulary and its theological constructs are not readily applicable to Hinduism.

What drives Krishna West, however, is not merely a desire to adapt, but a profound evangelical spirit. Resnick and Penney believe Hare Krishna can bring peace to American lives. Devotees believe chanting Hare Krishna, much like prayer, brings divine energy into the chanter, which she can then use to better her community.

Dictionary definitions of the word place it firmly within the context of the Christian faith. As the National Association of Evangelicals notes:

The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

I understand what the editors mean by using Evangelical/evangelical. They are seeking to draw upon the mental imagery of Christian proselytism in Western culture. But is this shorthand cultural reference accurate or fair to The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)? Or, is the choice of Christian language in describing ISKCON proselytism a conscious reference to the concept of Sanatana-Dharma, the Hindu “eternal law” that other faiths can uncover?

This is the kind of language issue that journalists in the mainstream press must take seriously. That’s what we do here at this blog. So what do you think, readers?

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