Evangelicalism: A Lost Cause?
A Review of
Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels
Reviewed by Leroy Seat
As president for twenty years (1993-2013) of Fuller Theological Seminary, “one of the world’s most influential evangelical institutions” (according to their website), Richard John Mouw (b. 1940) should know something about evangelicalism. In the fifteen chapters of this rather slim book, he shares much about what he knows–and questions as well as affirms–about evangelical beliefs and practices.
Since the very word “evangelical” has become a highly loaded term, Mouw begins by dealing with “The Label Question.” Although he writes in that first chapter, and later, about being a “restless evangelical,” he affirms and explains why he still holds on to that label. Mouw also makes it clear that he has “no desire to be associated with the politicized excesses of present-day evangelicalism.” From that statement on the second page and throughout the book he distances himself from the evangelicalism of the Religious Right. In fact, on the next to last page of the book he declares, “I don’t want to be called an evangelical if that gives the impression I am a mean-spirited right-winger.”
In this book, Mouw seeks to develop “a clear strategy for preserving what has been the best of the legacy” to which the label “evangelicalism” has long been attached. Just as he is opposed to right-wing evangelicalism, though, he is also critical of much left-wing theological and social activity. As this reviewer has advocated in his own book (The Limits of Liberalism, 2010), Mouw seems to be a good proponent of “the radiant center.”
It is because of the moderate (between-the-extremes) position of Mouw, who has chosen to remain an evangelical, that some of us who became fed up with much of what is labeled evangelical today can still see the value of that label and not jettison it altogether. Some problems remain, however. It is not particularly helpful for him to retain the use of the word “inerrant” with reference to the Bible, given the way that loaded term has been used in recent decades. Further, his re-affirming in the fourth chapter that he can still say, “If the Bible says it, then I believe it,” is a bit troubling. The Bible “says” a lot of things, including many things that Mouw does not, indeed, “believe.”
Through several chapters, the author shares some key events/thoughts regarding evangelicalism in his “restless faith” journey–beginning with “Faith in Motion” (chapter 2) in which he emphasizes the importance of movement in spite of being encouraged as a young man to “stand fast.” While his journey has been a restless one, though, he thinks it is “still a good thing” and “still important” to be an evangelical (p. 21). His own evangelical journey was shaped in the beginning by his reading of the first issue of Christianity Today in 1956 and then at the age of seventeen attending–and “going forward” at–Billy Graham’s Madison Square Garden crusade in 1957.
However, like Graham throughout most of his remarkable lifetime, Mouw is a big-tent evangelical and seeks to be inclusive in contrast to the exclusivism that characterizes much conservative evangelicalism (fundamentalism) of the past and the present. He tends to focus on that with which he can agree rather than criticizing and rejecting that with which he disagrees. His irenic approach to various matters, such as worship music in the eighth chapter, is appealing and one of the strengths of this book.
Another attractive characteristic of Mouw manifested in this book is his humility. This is evident, for example, in “Embracing Mystery,” the ninth chapter, and in “Neighborly Dialogue” in the following chapter. And then in a later chapter he avers, “The persistent habit of careful self-examination requires a spirit of humility, including in our political lives” (155).
Mouw’s emphasis on political action, however, is quite different from that of the current politicized Religious Right. In the 1970s he was associated with the “neo-evangelicals,” and he writes about his involvement in producing “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns” in 1973. The younger evangelicals at that Chicago gathering–and Mouw was only 33 then–called for “an activism that focused on issues of justice and peace” (129), issues most often associated with progressive Christianity today.
Mouw acknowledges that although some of his evangelical associates gravitated toward Anabaptist thought as developed by John Howard Yoder and others toward Bonhoeffer, he himself was most influenced by the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition as represented by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. Here in the twelfth chapter, as throughout the book, it is apparent that Mouw has consistently been aligned with the Calvinist tradition as represented by the Dutch Reformed Church. Thus, those in that tradition will perhaps find him more appealing, and understandable, than those of us in other Christian traditions.
In spite of his restlessness with evangelicalism through the decades, in his closing paragraph, Mouw clearly states that he definitely wants to work for “evangelical renewal, rather than simply allowing the movement’s label to be co-opted by leaders who have departed from the best of the legacy.”
This reviewer, as a former evangelical, heartily agrees with Mouw’s desire to help bring about evangelical renewal. But at this time when white evangelical Christians are the largest demographic in support of the Trump presidency, one wonders if, perhaps, his desire is, unfortunately, more or less a lost cause.
According to a recent PEW poll, white evangelical Christians are the most disliked Christians by mainline Christians and Catholics and the most disliked religious group (including Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons) by Jews and the “unaffiliated” (atheists, agnostics, etc.). That is mostly because the large majority of those polled don’t know evangelicals like Mouw but rather mainly know about those evangelicals that Mouw also dislikes.
Sadly, few people with negative views about evangelicalism will likely read Mouw’s book. But those who think the evangelical label is worth trying to save, his book would an encouraging one for them to read and to recommend to their anti-evangelical friends.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com