a call for diversity in evangelicalism: more from Molly Worthen

a call for diversity in evangelicalism: more from Molly Worthen December 9, 2013

Here are the closing two paragraphs of Molly Worthen’s book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (see here for the previous post, which will lead back to the first in this series).

I think these paragraphs are an apt conclusion to the book, expressing both criticism for the intellectual history of evangelicalism while also acknowledging strengths. Bolded portions are my emphais.


The term evanglecial mind conjures images of a creature of many faces sharing one brain, or at least a movement of people who think and act in concert. No metaphor could be further from the truth. This story of shifting and conflicting authorities, evolving alliances and feuds, and debate over the essence of Christian identity means that it we continue to speak of an evangelical mind–if we continue to use the word evangelical at all, and we will–we must allow room for diversity and internal contradiction, for those who love the label and those who hate it. We must recognize that American evangelicalism owes more to its fractures and clashes, its anxieties and doubts, than to any political pronouncement or point of doctrine.

It may be wiser to speak instead of an “evangelical imagination.” In every individual, the imagination is the faculty of mind that absorbs ideas and sensations as fuel to conjure something new. It is a tool for stepping outside oneself or plunging into egocentric delusion. But we might also speak of the imagination that a community shares, no matter how furious its internal quarrels: a sphere of discourse and dreaming framed by abiding questions about how humans know themselves, their world, and their God. The evangelical imagination has been both an aid to intellectual life and an agent of anti-intellectual sabotage. Above all, it is a source of energy: energy that propels evangelism, institution-building, activism, care for the suffering, and a sincere passion for intellectual inquiry. It offers no clear path past the impasse of biblical authority, no firm discipline for the undecided mind, and no reconciliation with the intelligentsia of secular America. But any crisis of authority is no longer a crisis if it has become the status quo. If the evangelical imagination harbors a potent anti-intellectualism strain, it has proven, over time, to be a kind of genius.

Several things strike me here, but I will mention only one: the call for diversity in the use of the term “evangelical.” The term is here to stay in American culture, and rather than fighting and hand writing over who has the divine right to use the label, perhaps there is a better way forward: to embrace significant internal diversity as as part of the evangelecial identity.

To do this, however, the American evangelical power brokers will have to lay down their guard and allow for an evolution (if I may use the word) in what the label means. I think this will be hard to so, given that evangelicalism was created to protect boundaries rather than entertain a redefinition of those boundaries.

I suppose we shall see.




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  • Lise

    I was out to dinner this evening in a city that is supposedly ultra progressive, yet the reality is that the area is predominately caucasian with very little cultural diversity. I turned to my colleague and said, “How progressive can a city really be if it only represents one ethnicity and a predominate upper class?” Diversity is what gives a city complexity and cultural richness – and the evangelical movement is no different. Differences must be integrated and appreciated. This allows for healthy and dynamic evolution.

    I find the author’s term “evangelical imagination” an interesting one, as well as her correlation that this can be “a tool for stepping outside oneself or plunging into egocentric delusion.” I have not read Worthen’s book, so I hesitate to say much but a healthy use of the imagination allows for expansion. It liberates individuals from rigid boundaries and a need for defensive posturing. How then can creativity be employed to leverage growth, problem solve, unite and glorify the body? A deconstruction process might need to occur in the service of new creation but that is the crux of evolution, of art and of learning. I think it is also how we evolve spiritually.

  • Before I became an evangelical it struck me that their distinctives were an emphasis on Jesus as Lord and the Bible as the word of God. Since that time I have come to realize that evangelicalism is not worth pursuing, but those distinctives are.

  • brianleport

    We can only hope!

  • I consider myself a theologically progressive evangelical. I am aware that many evangelicals would not consider me an evangelical at all; some would not even consider me a Christian.

    In my advancing years, I am glad to see evangelicals like me increasing and becoming more visible. We must have diversity, or evangelicalism will lapse into a calcified fundamentalism.

    • Well if you don’t believe the OT to be inspired you are not an Evangelical, sorry.

      But be comforted: if fundies are right, we will burn together 😉


  • Bev Mitchell

    Following on from Lise’s points:

    Breathtaking diversity is perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the natural world. If we believe that such a world, such a universe, was God’s idea then we should not fear it. A city alive with people from all over the world is a wonderful thing to many people, a fearful thing to many others. The ‘wildness’ of nature is inspiring to many and, to many others, represents something that must be controlled. We could go on with respect to diversity of opinion, etc.

    When it comes to eternal things (where you go when you die) it seems that many fear diversity of opinion even more than usual. If we put more emphasis on what we should be doing now for the kingdom, perhaps diversity would be easier for some to embrace. One thing we can count on, it won’t disappear because it seems to be something God values very highly.

    • If one rejects the blasphemous notion that God will torture forever all those dying with the wrong beliefs, diversity can indeed be welcomed 🙂

      This is a step William Lance Craig is extremely reluctant to take, and as a consequence he undermines his whole apologetic ministry.

  • dangjin1

    “we must allow room for diversity and internal contradiction,”

    Is that what God said to do? I think not.. You are to follow God not those who accept false teaching and become false teachers.

  • rvs

    The “evangelical imagination”–what a great phrase! Lise makes a good point below about it. “Diversity and internal contradiction” is also a useful phrase (especially when having banter with systematic types). Is not the Trinity a diversity and a… mystery?

  • Craig Wright

    After looking at all this discussion about who is in the evangelical community, and what does the term mean, it makes you wonder about the term “Christian.” What does it mean? Who does it include?

    • If you read my commenter above you will see definitions I proposed.

  • Daniel Merriman

    I have read and enjoyed Worthen’s book. The concluding paragraphs quoted here are very reminiscent of Alister McGrath’s “Christianty’s Dangerous Idea”. The diversity that Worthen finally admits is not a crisis but is instead the status quo (her words) is a feature of Protestantism,McGrath would say, not a bug.

    One of the most valuable take aways from the book (surprising to me given the snarky tone of some of her early journalism) is that she shows that the “power brokers” Professor Enns bemoans really aren’t in control of nearly as much as they thank they are. That they may be in control of American academic institutions that, after all, their parishioners fund, and of publishers who cater to readers who aren’t as open to liberal theology as some would like, is, in the larger picture, small beer.

  • James

    I think crisis of authority is a type of genius that keeps us on our toes–see gospel injunction to “watch!” Of course this means some boundary protection of beliefs and institutions, but it also requires a lot of boundary redefinition in order to move forward at Jesus’ command.

  • I believe that the following definitions should be prefered:

    A Christian is someone believing that God showed us His true face through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

    An Evangelical Christian is someone believing that the Bible is our only infallible authority.
    A Conservative Evangelical believes that everything a Biblical writer intended to convey is true.
    A fundamentalist is a Conservative Evangelical believing that those not agreeing with that are second-class Christians or no Christians at all.
    A progressive Evangelical believes that God may have intended to include erroneous writings in His Canon to teach us some lessons.

    They do make perfect intuitive sense and I think they are both sufficient and necessary conditions for getting these labels attached to oneself.