Theological education engages students in the a process that involves head, heart, and gut. This method is often considered to be solely linked to the “life of the mind,” and also includes deep diving to assess the largest part of our iceberg. Thus, the method of inquiry/review, assessment/analysis, change/reform, and reconstruction/transformation usually involves the heart and the gut. Since becoming a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago last year, M.Div. middler Troy Medlin has leaned into having a personal revolution of a sort; certainly a re-ordering-not just as someone seeking to acquire a more critical eye of his faith, but as someone who is specifically wrestling with what it means to be evangelical – especially in light of recent conservative politics in the United States. Take a peek friends, and read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
They say confession is good for the soul. So… let me start with a confession.
I am an evangelical.
Seriously, I am an evangelical Christian. For better or for worse, these are my people.
This is how I grew up. It is how I first learned to articulate my faith, it is where I first fell in love with Jesus, it’s where I was first caught up in this radical message that there was a God who loved me. It is where I found peace and comfort throughout my childhood, it is in the evangelical church where I first felt my call to ministry and where I preached my first sermons. It is where I was formed and shaped as a Jesus follower. I even went to undergrad at a well-known evangelical Bible college. And, still it is the Christian sub-culture I feel most comfortable in. I am an evangelical.
I must admit though, sometimes my relationship with evangelicalism is, shall I say: it’s complicated.
In some ways, I should have abandoned the evangelical label a long time ago. After all I am a proud Democrat, I have been active and outspoken on some fairly progressive politics. I believe Black Lives Matter. I believe climate change is a grave threat to our world. I made phone calls and went door to door for Bernie Sanders. I am a seminarian at a progressive mainline Lutheran seminary and I am a gay man, just to name some of the ways I move through the world. Yet, despite this feeling deep in my bones to claim my identity as an evangelical, it is also in some ways more complicated than ever; as life happens to get when we are in the throes of a presidential election. It is complicated because when I hear people like Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr, and Franklin Graham use the word “evangelical” I just can’t stop thinking, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”
At this point it is important to ask, “what exactly makes someone or something evangelical in the first place?”
Well, it’s complicated.
It may be helpful to do a quick survey of how evangelicalism has become so polarizing in popular culture. How we have gone from being this jubilant people of good news to, well, anything but. Especially in the United States the term “evangelical” has slowly been co-opted by people who see an opportunity for political power and cultural influence around issues like abortion and so-called “religious liberty.” So, now in popular culture “evangelical” has become synonymous with conservative politics. As a friend of mine brilliantly quipped, “We have gone from people of good news to people of Fox news.”
Like I said, It’s complicated.
It has not always been this way, though: even in the United States. In the 1960’s and 1970’s evangelicalism was a middle way in between mainline protestant liberalism and fundamentalism. This was clearly seen in people like Billy Graham and places like Fuller Seminary. They embodied this middle way that stayed out of politics and was focused on the good news of God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ. These were the evangelicals. People worried more about proclaiming John 3:16 for sinners in need of redemption then campaigning for candidates who used the term evangelical to gain wealth and prestige.
But, it gets (even more) complicated.
This all began to change with the cultural, political, and theological winds of the 1970’s and 1980’s with the rise of people like Jerry Falwell and the forming of the religious right and the election of Ronald Reagan. All of the sudden, with a taste of political power and cultural influence, evangelicalism and fundamentalism slowly morphed into the same thing. This newfound place in the public square mixed with passion for doctrinal purity as seen most notably in the “conservative resurgence” in the largest protestant denomination in the United States (the Southern Baptist Convention) was somewhat of a perfect storm. This helped lead the total co-opting of evangelicalism from a moderate, third way, Jesus-centered movement to one of the largest conservative voting blocs who helped to elect candidates from Ronald Reagan all the way to George W. Bush.
In popular consciousness evangelicalism is an angry demographic to campaign for not a joyful community of people spreading good news. It is in this awkward place that I am filled with hope. I see this particular historical moment as a grand opportunity to reclaim and liberate Evangelicalism and once again be known as people of unbridled good news. With the nomination of Donald Trump it is as if the cloaking of evangelicalism in the guise of political opportunity is being seen for what it is. For a growing number of people it has become clear that evangelicalism has become obsessed not with the good news, but with gaining political power at the very expense of our true vocation as baptized proclaimers of the gospel. At this particular moment, I cannot help but be filled with hope because we are at a tipping point of sorts. Evangelicals from the Southern Baptist Convention to Wheaton, the ELCA, an even Liberty University are feeling the call of the Spirit to once again be defined not by a narrow political agenda but the counter-intuitive announcement of the crucified and risen Christ who calls all of us to be a part of the reconciliation of all things.
Especially now. I think we should all claim to be people of good news, I think we should boldly reclaim it, and reclaim it with pride. After all, that is what the earliest Jesus followers did. I think we should stand in the public square and proclaim, “We are evangelicals because we believe that the message of Jesus has the power to change the world, and it’s changed us and we cannot help but share it.”
People of God, we were made for this, we were called for this particular historical moment, and the world needs us to stand up and proclaim good news for everyone. The world needs us to be evangelicals. This is my complicated relationship with evangelicalism.
For better or for worse, I’m an evangelical. I want to be one.
I want to be a person of good news, and I think we all should be.
Troy Medlin has a bachelors degree from Moody Bible Institute and is an ecumenical seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is a progressive evangelical who is passionate about helping people ask new questions and creating space for transformation. He believes that encounters with people who are different have the power to change us and set us free. Troy currently lives in Hyde Park and enjoys politics, liturgy, and 80’s classic rock.