In one of his Q&R posts Brian McLaren responds to the question: “I appreciate your person and work, but why are you still an evangelical, emergent or not?” The argument, for the most part, is that evangelicalism is Brian’s heritage and that he has had no compelling reason so far to dissociate himself from it, though he has certainly considered taking such a step. His hope is that in the long run there will be a grassroots convergence of “progressive Roman Catholics, progressive Evangelicals, missional Mainline Protestants, and forward-thinking sectors of the African-American, Asian, Latino, and other churches”.
So for the most part he responds in sociological terms: he discusses his complex, ambivalent personal relationship with the contemporary movement known as “evangelicalism”. The strongest theological statement—if not the only theological statement—comes right at the end:
In the end, my identity is “in Christ” - and that’s not the same thing as “in evangelicalism” or even “in Christianity.” By rooting my identity “in Christ,” I believe I am in solidarity with all people, especially the last, the least, the lost, the outcast, the outsider, the scapegoat, and the marginalized. So it doesn’t matter much to me what labels people apply to me. Through the mystery and miracle of incarnation that we celebrate in Advent, I believe we see God in solidarity with all humanity (and all creation). And through that incarnation, I too am bound up in solidarity with all people, whatever labels are applied to or withheld from them.
This, of course, reflects the particular progressive, strongly humane position that Brian has arrived at, and I’m not entirely sure I understand what he means by being “in solidarity with all people”; but arguably it’s a good provocative statement of what it means to be “in Christ”. There is, in my view, a narrative transposition to be managed, which Brian may or may not recognize: Jesus identified with Israel’s marginalized; the church now identifies with the marginalized of the world.
We also need to be able to restate the missional purpose behind this transposition. Jesus’ association with the “sick” and “poor” was not merely of humanitarian or ethical significance, important as that aspect was: it was a means of enacting, both practically and symbolically, the theological significance of the coming kingdom of God. So what story do we now enact, practically and symbolically, by demonstrating solidarity with the “last, the least, the lost, the outcast, the outsider, the scapegoat, and the marginalized”?
In light of this question it seems to that by sharply differentiating between being “in Christ” and being “in evangelicalism” Brian misses an opportunity to redefine what it means to be “evangelical”—and perhaps more importantly, to bring into focus not just the person of Christ but the prophetic narrative by which we explain, to ourselves and to the world, what it means to be in him.
I think we can see with some clarity now that the concept of “gospel” or euangelion in the New Testament cannot be reduced to the dimensions that the modern evangelical movement has imposed upon it (see this post, for example). It certainly included some notion of personal salvation through the death of Jesus; but the gospel was, in the first place, a rather complex political statement about what God was about to do in and for the sake of his people with respect to the nations. This divine act—the coming of the kingdom of God—entailed the transformative reconciliation of Jews and Greeks to the one true God of all humanity; and there are undoubtedly legitimate ways in which we may speak of pursuing that reconciliation today. But the larger narrative context is crucial for understanding and orienting the personal commitment.
It seems to me that for the church now to be genuinely evangelical it needs to articulate a good news with the same socio-political scope as the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed to Israel or the “good news” that Paul proclaimed to the pagan world about Israel. In what sense now is the story of the people of God, as it struggles to recover an integrity and clarity of purpose after the assault made upon it by the forces of modernity, good news for the world? What can we honestly say about what God is currently and visibly doing in the church that constitutes an effective and compelling challenge to a world that from Babel onwards has pursued the course of imperial self-aggrandisement and repudiation of the goodness of the Creator? That comes across perhaps as a rather bloated question, but I think it gets at the heart of the issue of evangelical identity. To be evangelical is to find one’s place in the continuing story of the troubled existence of God’s new creation people in the midst of the nations.