You’ve got to label food these days. It makes sense. In these days of pre-packaged, pre-cooked food, you naturally want to know what’s in the package. So it’s a bit of a shame when it tells you you’re eating cow when all the time it’s horse. The remedy is not to ditch the label; just make sure it’s telling the truth. Labels are essential for consumer confidence and even, at times, to stay alive. For let’s face it: nuts can kill.
But people are different from Findus Shepherd’s Pie or Heinz Ravioli, believe it or not. You need a novel to even begin to describe a person – we’d expect nothing less from someone made in the divine image. But we all use them – we can’t avoid them. I think I’m just pleading for more circumspection.
I was on the fringe of an interesting little twitter discussion prompted by a question from Vicky Beeching (see right). Hers was a useful question. And I completely understand where Andrew Brown (the Guardian’s online religion editor for Comment is Free) is coming from here. But it’s got me thinking (though probably too much).
So, first things first: I am what you might call a classic or conservative evangelical. Yeurgghh… shock horror… unclean! But wait! Don’t draw conclusions… yet.
One thing I’ve noticed is that when we use labels of ourselves, we always intend the best we can by them. And we thereby seek to gather the like-minded around us. But when we use them of others (especially combatants and those we disagree with), we often mean the worst we can by them; whereupon they have degenerated into manipulative and polemical shorthand.
But human complexity (quite apart from the wonder of God) is such that while they have their uses, we can’t stop there. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that reducing people to a label is to deny that they truly are an ‘other’ worthy of respect. To express love (as opposed to control, derision, contempt), we should use labels (if they’re needed) only to start conversations and never to end them.
So let’s have a go at this: where might you start (though not end) with me (although I fear I’m creating all kinds of hostages tofortune by doingthis – please be gentle! I’m not actually wanting to get into heated debates about using any of these terms, I merely want to make the overarching point very clearly):
- I’m not “Liberal”: but that doesn’t mean I’m never liberal, nor that I think that liberality is necessarily negative. After all, divine grace is itself the most liberal gift of all.
- I’m not “Catholic”: but I do seek a catholic (in the true sense of the word) understanding of the gospel, the church, the kingdom. As Paul said, there is one church, one baptism, one lord. The problem comes when that all gets identified with a single denomination or institution.
- I’m not “Orthodox”: but I do value orthodoxy (as well as orthopraxis) as a worthy, even essential, aspiration.
- I’m not “Charismatic”: but I’m utterly conscious of a dependence on the Spirit’s work in our lives.
- I’m “Evangelical” because, in short, I stand in the grace-gospel and the scriptural testimony of that gospel; but this doesn’t prevent much of evangelical sub-culture bringing me out in hives or that it infallibly deserves assent. However:
- I’m not “Open” evangelical because I don’t closely adhere to some of the assumptions (as I understand them) of those who have adopted the label; but hey, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to listen. It’s a clever term, isn’t it – because you can own it and suggest that those who disagree with you are ‘closed’ (or equivalent antonyms of any other labels mentioned).
- I’m not “Post-evangelical”, because I’m still one (though see next bullet). Having said that, I read (and profited from) much that Dave Tomlinson wrote in his influential book The Post-Evangelical (even though I obviously have rejected some of the conclusions). I am not an out-and-out modernist, and I agree with many post-modern critiques of it. That doesn’t mean I wholeheartedly buy into it, even though my fear is that too much of evangelicalism still is (see previous posts to that effect).
- I’m a “conservative’ evangelical” because that’s sort of a box that fits. But not really. In fact, I actually hate the qualifier and prefer “classical evangelical”, but that doesn’t help many people. But to be clear, by being “conservative” I only mean holding to what was best from the past, rather than seeking to preserve the magisterial reformation in aspic. In fact, to be truly conservative evangelical is to wave the “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” banner.
- Etc etc etc.
But there you can see what I’m doing already – using the labels I want in their best sense. I need to work hard to ensure I don’t use others’ labels disparagingly or reductionistically. Which is tricky, is it not?
Anyway – enough random, half-cocked burbling. We can’t avoid using labels. But please never allow conversations, let alone relationships, to be boxed in by them. Because otherwise, you’ll always assume that the group you disparage as being a “bunch of Xs or Ys” will inevitably (in your view) always contain nuts. When actually, when you get to know them, you might just have to realise they have a point.