Author: Richard J. Mouw
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publishing Date: March 19, 2019
Pages: 192 (Paperback)
I was sitting in a classroom at Dordt University (then College) the first time I was asked if I considered myself an evangelical. The question was posed to the entire class, and we responded with a show of hands. The classmates on either side of me shot their hands into the air with at least two-thirds of the room. My hands stayed on the table. While the definition on the whiteboard technically fit me, I associated a cultural experience with the label with which I didn’t identify. And now, several years later, I have been confused by—and frankly, annoyed with—the use of and debate over the label. Given its politicization, is “evangelical” a label even worth fighting over? Is it worth keeping at all?
If asked even a month ago, my answer would have been a quick, hard “no.” Labels may be nice for the ways they help describe and group us, but when a label becomes in need of rebranding or is used to divide rather than unify, it quickly loses value in my opinion. That was my quick assessment of the label “evangelical,” at least. But, in the aftermath of reading Richard Mouw’s latest book, my answer and overall approach has softened considerably; maybe it is worth keeping.
In Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels, Richard Mouw reflects on the historical evangelical legacy and his own journey as an evangelical. Mouw intertwines his personal faith journey with reflections on a variety of topics, including hymns, dialogue across lines of difference, and engagement in the public square. Through these reflections, Mouw shares both why the label “evangelical” is important to him and why he is continuously “restless” in it. Mouw, embodying the civil discourse he has long promoted (read this In All Things review of Uncommon Decency), wrestles with his desire to protect a legacy of evangelicalism that spans continents and generations, while also contending with the stigma—sometimes fair, sometimes not—associated with it.
At the outset, Mouw sets forth the classic definition of evangelical to ground his reflection. The definition, referred to as “the Beddington Quadrilateral,” identifies four emphases defining of the evangelical movement: 1) the need for personal conversion; 2) a belief in the Bible’s supreme authority; 3) a theology grounded in the atoning work of the cross; 4) a faith that informs actions. This definition was identified by a British historian through his work on the evangelical movement in modern Britain.1 I found this note particularly important because, as Mouw anticipates, my understanding of evangelicalism has been limited to my own current American context, ignorant to the movement’s transnational legacy.
Throughout his reflections, Mouw argues that the label “evangelical” is good and important in that it helps us identify and remember the legacy of evangelicalism. He also shares that he “[finds] the need for a label that distinguishes [his] pattern of Christian from many others” (7), and that he has “long called [himself] an evangelical because [he doesn’t] wanted to be identified with theological liberalism” (171). That being said, Mouw affirms that the label should not be held onto “at all costs.” It is the legacy of the spiritual and theological movement that should be protected: the emphases, lessons, communities, and thought-work that have emerged within the movement. The label’s importance ends when its helpfulness in evoking this legacy ends. The unanswered question the reader is left to grapple with then, alongside Mouw, is where is that line?
While Mouw’s reflection back to the historical legacy of evangelicalism is compelling, he affirms we must also wrestle with the current context of American evangelicalism: “Like many of my friends these days, I don’t want to be called an evangelical if that gives the impression I am a mean-spirited right-winger,” Mouw writes. “If that is what the label has come to, then I am willing to give it up” (171). Throughout his decades of participating in civil dialogue and approaching contentious relationships with a listening posture, Mouw has heard many stories from those hurt by individuals and institutions identifying as evangelical.
Perhaps the most compelling and refreshing piece of Mouw’s book for me is his acknowledgment of these experiences. Mouw reflects that as a white male in the evangelical movement he has been protected from enduring the harm experienced by others. His lack of personal hurt, however, does not invalidate the harm perpetuated against others. As an evangelical, he must grapple with the evangelical legacy in full.
In reading this book, I was left with more questions than answers—an unsurprising gift coming from a professor. Mouw’s reflective prose provides a broad sketch of evangelicalism’s legacy, leaving space for historians, biographers, and other theologians to provide additional insight and texture:
How has evangelicalism developed outside of America?
What does it look like in other countries today?
How has the label “evangelical” united and divided Christians in different contexts?
How have theologians from non-Western cultures and communities engaged evangelicalism historically?
For those who decided to identify as “formerly known as an evangelical,” how have they weighed the topics in comparison to Mouw?
If evangelicalism is transnational and transcultural, why is evangelicalism in America so white?
What about evangelicalism inspired intellectual thought-work and the building of public action institutions, and how do we continue to encourage it today?
Mouw’s historical understanding of his tradition is evident, but he leaves space for curiosity and further exploration.
Overall, Restless Faith reads like a conversation with an old friend. Mouw’s restless voice rings out as he grapples aloud with questions for which even he doesn’t have clear answers. On one hand, “evangelical” has existed as a trans-denominational, unifying theological label. It has taught many about Christ’s gift of atonement and resulted in the building of institutions that help Christians live as disciples, engaging in many areas of life from a distinct Christian perspective (including the institution I currently work for). On the other hand, “evangelical” is a label used broadly, and in the American-context is often associated with political partisanship and an intolerance of difference. Such a connotation easily leads the label to act as a barrier to Christ rather than as a description of some disciples following Christ.
“We may not know exactly where our conversations will lead us,” Mouw writes, “but we have to want to keep at it” (121). I imagine Mouw’s willingness to wade into this messy conversation is a gift to readers of many backgrounds. As a young person without a close tie to the label “evangelical,” Mouw’s writing equips me to be a better friend to those wrestling with this important question for themselves. I am prepared to be more patient and empathetic to those wrestling with the label, and I am more curious about the engaging the legacy of evangelicalism beyond my American context than I was prior to sitting down with Restless Faith.
David W. Beddington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989). ↩