Labels. I recall strolling the streets of Barcelona with a group of pastors. One member of our group and I were locked into a conversation about labels. One aspect of our gathering was to talk about the idea of “multi-affinity” churches. In some sense, those churches who may be described as “multi-affinity” could not be so neatly pitched into a category. They defied labels.
Was the church liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical, missional, emerging, denominational? How did the church self-identify doctrinally? According to confession, creed, aesthetic? Multi-affinity churches, it would be described, worked with a variety of groups even if there was not lock-step agreement on all matters of life and faith.
I admit to thinking labels are lazy. My friend believed them helpful. I believe them to be confining. My friend believed them to be important for context. We did not agree. We are still friends – and that is not simply a label.
In one of my first “Clippings” posts, I noted the recent swirl around labels, categories. The dust-up and discussion continues. I am working on a freelance project addressing one of the recent labels a particular Christian movement used to self-describe its overall ethos.
Over the past decade labels have contributed to a hyphenating of Christianity. That is, when attempting to self-describe how one locates himself or herself in the Christian tradition, Christian just did not seem adequate to the task. More was needed. If a person’s preferred adjective could not be hyphenated, then one found a subset description. The recent trend is “”Gospel-centered.” Missional now has a Manifesto as did Emergent a few years ago. “Gospel-centered” has its own peril as a recent Q video of Scot McKnight demonstrates. In fact, McKnight’s contribution in his forthcoming book seems a mashup of N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard. The King Jesus Gospel is a project I am interested to see worked out.
The Ex-Reverend offers a suggestion from the perspective of a journalist. Albeit he is a journalist with two degrees that qualify him to talk about religious grammar and theological concepts like few others. In this guest post, The Ex-Reverend implores Christians to self-identify as, well, Christian. Rather than opt for one of the staid categories of liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, or evangelical, Ex suggests we make the journalists do their work. Ask more probing questions. But, he also insists we do more work. That is, we do more work at infusing Christian with the ethos, habits and practices of Jesus, so that when looking for some correspondence of meaning with a label we are actually doing what we see Jesus doing. After all, it was Jesus who declared that he only did what he saw the Father doing.
If you find it difficult to follow on with The Ex-Reverend. Maybe you fear him to snarky. After you read here, head over and read David Fitch’s recent post on Incarnation. The two make the same case from different vantage points. They both know the Anabaptist tradition very well. (Images added to the Guest Post.)
A Rose by Any Name Would Smell as Orthopraxic, or How to Label Christians, Part II
This is going to sound silly and naive, but I know no other way to say it. Christians should let other people label them. They should use the moniker “Christian” and let everyone try to figure out what they believe based on what they do. They should speak to the press as rarely as possible, and they should almost never send a press release. Ah, [ ], never send a press release. Ever. Unless it’s to your tribe, and then it’s called a newsletter or announcement.
In Comp II, we’d call that a thesis, and I’m prepared to defend it because no other method seems to make any sense at this point. I’m finally old enough (47) to have seen a dozen or more allegedly major movements come and go. Rarely did one stay for more than a decade, and most fizzled well before the decade mark, if by movement you mean a trans-traditional collection of doctrines and practices that is either reactionary or revolutionary. I take reactionary to mean against some set of doctrines and practices, as in Lutheranism contra Catholicism. I take revolutionary to mean innovative without being necessarily reactionary, as in the impulse is more new than angry.
Last post, in addition to pillorying Tony Jones, I stated why I think some of the new candidates for Christian labels are insufficient, if not outright silly, redundant, vague, or painfully obscure. It’s a clear case of trying too hard to come up with a cool label that sounds theological. Here I confess my own historical guilt. In two successive emergent communities, I chose the names AWE (alternative worship experience) and Kaleo (as in God calls). My hands are clearly not clean. Just sayin’. I mentioned the post to the hhdw, and she said, “This is just stupid. They should just go with ‘Christian’ and leave it at that.” I initially attempted to explain why I thought that was short-sighted, especially in light of the journalism angle. After thinking about it for a day or so, and after asking myself what I would do as a journalist if someone said in response to a tribal question “I’m just a Christian,” I’ve decided that she’s right. Sometimes the simplest response is the best response. We theo-philosophy nerds can get our knickers bunched so tight that the circulation to our [ ] (brains) gets cut off.
For every new label a tribe chooses, they will be required to answer follow-up questions. Remember the consternation among the masses when people started calling themselves “emergent?” Remember the [ ] journalism that followed? The kinds of stories that confused an aesthetic for a theological position? The kind that confused theological questions for heterodoxy? The intractable emergents who refused to offer denotative definitions for the term? Ah, good times. Those times will come again, and this time, for the love of all that’s holy, just say Christian. At least that way a small collection of gatekeepers can’t insist they know Christian (emergent) books from non-Christian (non-Emergent) books. Most of the [ ] journalism could have been avoided had emergents followed a simple plan. They just talked too much and never really said anything. Everyone who writes for a living knows that you eventually have to say something, anything that makes sense, or you’re just full of [ ]. Emergents never did make much sense, but they couldn’t shut the [ ] up.
The follow-up question is usually a variation of “what tradition are you?” This is the point where journalists like myself attempt to understand all the subtexts. This is the point we hope to trap you into a confession, or worse, a juicy heresy. Just [ ] us over. Say Christian, and then we’ll have to do our jobs. We’ll have to think of better questions or follow you around. For every question about what you believe (Bible, inspiration, Trinity, tongues, Eucharist, politics, etc.) just answer with a simple statement of what your faith leads you to do: feed the hungry, go to law school to fight injustice, move to Africa to build fresh water wells, work in battered women’s shelters, write amazing novels, make music. Just don’t say “I believe” unless it’s followed by “God wants me to X” where X is an activity every human being can agree is non-douchey.
Journalists, even religion journalists, aren’t sufficiently schooled in religion to make up a label at that point. I’m schooled in religion, and I won’t use a label unless I know what you believe or confess. If you say you’re just trying to live redemptively, what label could I use? Redemptive Christian? That doesn’t suck. If they’re not schooled, and all goes well, worst case scenario is they call you activists or social justice Christians (depending on X, of course). Best case scenario is they write, “Christian A seems to defy categorization, but his life is dedicated to X.” Wouldn’t that be [ ] refreshing…