25 November 2011

To Group Or Not To Group - There Is No Question

We've heard it said: "Birds of a feather flock together." The phrase of justification is used to gently explain why people with similarities prefer to join a certain group. It's quite unavoidable. Guys like to hang with other guys watching sports or playing golf. Women like to go shopping or to restrooms together. Science fiction fans enjoy huddling together at various conventions.

From church denominations, to office teams, to politics, to skin color...people prefer interacting with groups in which they have something in common. Commonality fosters comfort. If there's no comfort, one is less likely to remain in a group.


How a group perceives itself may differ from how another group views it. One group may appear to be a clique outwardly but the members are not consciously trying to exclude anyone. Or groups are stereotyped based on the input received or perceived from other sources. For example, there was a day when the right-wing and fundamental groups weren't viewed as racists, bigots, or terrorists.

Dozens of young people lost their lives to a shooter whose name I will not type here. This shooter was misidentified in the media as a "right-wing fundamentalist Christian." I'll group him appropriately: murderer. Done. The rest doesn't matter.

Yet, there seems to be a need to understand why it happened. Just like there's a need to understand why every tragedy happens. We pride ourselves on being able to understand why. To understand the person or situation, we try to group it as if by the person or situation being in a category the incident is more understandable.

With the shooting, superficial evidence pointed to his right-wing, fundamentalist, and Christian views. These were quickly offered as reasons for his actions. Yet, soon it was apparent that none of these labels were true of him. The media, yet again, made the mistake of not checking facts and trying to be first with the sensationalism that seemingly generates more stats.

Murderer was the only relevant label.

Sometimes, there simply is no reason. Or no reason that we can found and understand. But this got me thinking. How would writers and bloggers whose works I admire and read define the words right-wing, fundamentalist, and evangelical? Since these three terms are often tossed around in a negative connotation within multiple circles of people, would the answers I receive be similar? Or would I find an interesting perception never considered?

Responses to my inquiry came in from John UpChurch, Mauricio Vivas, Jesse Medina, Matt Appling, Matt Heerema, and Tracee Persiko. Click their names to learn more about these disciples.



Right-Wing
John UpChurch: For me, right-wing implies a person or group that demands strict adherence to a racial, religious, or historical creed. In my mind, the Pharisees would be the typological example. They demanded reverence to the historical laws—and not necessarily the God who gave those laws. However, in America and other Western nations, right-wing has come to mean anyone who wants to preserve a current system instead of being "progressive." This makes it easy to lump people into an artificial category, but it reduces the nuances of what people truly believe.

Mauricio Vivas: More like a conservative, traditional perspective to all things. Faith is important, also history and the "way we did things"

Jesse Medina: This term refers largely to one's political interests, revolving around the beliefs shared by Republicans. "Right-wing" connotes a more extreme form of conservative politics which has a tendency to be characterized by fear-mongering, arrogance, and partisan politics on the negative side. On the positive side, "right-wing" is fiscally conservative and confesses traditional Christian morals (i.e. abortion, homosexuality, etc.)

Matt Appling: Right wingers are unusual in the extremity or the passion or their political or social views.

Matt Heerema: This is a political term that has nothing to do with Christianity.  In the purest form of the definition it has to do with wanting to get back to "the way things were", which is foolishness. (Ecclesiastes 7:10).  In modern vernacular it usually has to do with a mean spiritedness.  But, as with any given group of people it is a mixed bag.  You have people who are right wing because they have observed a (very real) breakdown in the moral fiber of our society, and want to return to a more innocent time.  Unfortunately, these things only come about through the slow, slow work of individual redemption. 
So, do you identify with these definitions? These comments offer threads of similarities. Yet, each offer differences in perception. I agree that right-wing has nothing to do with Christianity. It's political and cultural in nature. More often today, the term "right-wing" is used by a person of liberal views to identify one with conservative views. Likely, many consider me right-wing although I wouldn't consciously think of labeling myself with the term. I wouldn't be offended by it either.



Fundamentalist
John UpChurch: Post 9/11, the media often used this term to mean anyone who adheres to a historical faith no matter how far the world has "progressed"—and there's usually the hint of violent intent. But thanks to groups like Westboro Baptist, there's been a forced reassessment. After all, if you call all religious groups "fundamentalist," from the SBC to Mars Hill (Seattle) to Westboro to the PLO, it basically means nothing. Right now, the term sits like an amorphous cloud in the culture's conscious with no clear way to define who is and isn't fundamentalist. It's one of those words that may be better left behind.
 
Mauricio Vivas: Christians who focus more on literal meanings of the Bible and completely disregard history, opinion, and knowledge outside of their "mentality".

Jesse Medina: The term "fundamentalist" refers to that particular segment of evangelical Christianity which confuses it's political stances with Biblical Christianity; overemphasizing God's judgment, while neglecting to preach/show Christ-like grace.
Matt Appling: Fundamentalists are similar in the unusual extremity and single-minded passion for a few biblical interpretations they hold to that most people find unimportant.  Fred Phelps is a fundamentalist, and typifies that breed of Christians by being completely fixated on one issue, fueled by a biblical interpretation that is unorthodox at best, and flat wrong at worst.  When the people who make the news the most are guys like this, it's easy to paint everyone with the same brush.
Matt Heerema: Two definitions here again. Fundamentalism began as a response to liberal theology, stating the basic and core beliefs of all true Christians.  It was nearly synonymous with evangelical. Over time it has come to mean a mindless extremist, usually bound up with ridiculous legalistic, moralistic, and separatistic behavior and practice, and (therefore) completely devoid of an accurate understanding of the Gospel of Grace (though they will talk a lot about Jesus, sin, and salvation). I consider myself an evangelical fundamentalist and the old definitions of each.

Again, any one definition with which you identify more closely? There's nothing wrong with getting back to basics or fundamentals. Yet, society seemingly wants to label this approach as archaic, narrow-minded, and possibly violent. This happens easily thanks to extreme examples such as Westboro Baptist being promoted by the media. While I wouldn't consider myself a fundamentalist, I support the idea of focusing on the basics of the Scriptures, allowing those to be one's foundations for life, and not getting distracted by all the goofiness of the world.
 


Evangelical
John UpChurch: I prefer to take the most generic use of this term as being someone who takes the Great Commission seriously and must share the Christian faith as Jesus commanded. That's why I don't want to jettison it. However, in the media, the term seems to mean Christians with unyielding beliefs and political aspirations to impose their will on everyone. In particular, this allows the media to distinguish certain Protestant groups from mainline groups—especially those that embrace at least mild universalism. Personally, I think Barna has it right by looking for born-again believers over those who consider themselves "evangelical."

Mauricio Vivas: A Christian who believes in the Bible and who bases his life on it. The scriptures have authority and they live their lives according to it.

Jesse Medina: The term "evangelical" refers to that population of Western (largely American) Christians which is characterized by low-church (e.g. non-liturgical) Protestant Christianity.  Evangelicals self-identify as "born again" and tend align themselves under right-wing politics, almost by default.

Matt Appling: There is nothing inherently controversial about the term "evangelical."  It used to refer to the dominant American Christian culture.  It represented particular doctrines and values.  Today, it has become a loaded term, probably because of the public personalities that identify themselves as evangelicals.  Your average evangelical is likely a very lovely person who likes to get along with people and does not stir up controversy among friends by acting like a firebrand.  But because guys like John Piper, James Dobson, or Pat Robertson are the names and faces of modern evangelicalism, the stereotype or caricature of an evangelical is a distinctively un-modern, culturally backward, irrelevant, loud, oftentimes obnoxious dinosaur who probably hates gays and Democrats.

Matt Heerema: There are two definitions here.  The current, popular one, and the correct one.  The current popular one has to do with a Christianized (not Christian, Christianized) religious adherence, related to fundamentalism, that has to do with a certain moral/ethical code and religious observance. Since the 70s, it has also been bound up with certain political positions and efforts. The correct definition of evangelical is a believer and follower of Christ who believes in justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as revealed by the scripture alone, to the Glory of God alone.  This understanding of Grace (God's forgiveness of their sin in spite of their depravity) leads to proclamation of this same Gospel to all they come into contact with. In other words evangelical Christian = Christian.
This is the one term that I feel there should be no disagreements. If you are a Christian, you should be evangelical. You should wish to share the gospel with all. I wonder if some people hear or see the word "evangelical" and think "televangelist" with visions of prayer cloths being sold?



Final Thoughts
Tracee Persiko: The operational definition that brings these three together would be – People who believe that life is best lived by implementing principles. Those principles are founded from those presented in the bible.


We live in a culture of chaos. The issues of right and wrong seem to be relative. The person who resonates most with these words, believe that life is lived/experienced with in the boundaries of biblical or conservative principles.


The illustration I can think of that best describes this group of people would be parents and kids. RWEF play the role more of parent in our society. They are also described to be more reactionary. Liberals are considered more free spirited. Kids are often wanting to try new things, to which parents respond accordingly to the decisions made by the kid. Depending on the decision the child makes, the parent responds with the “right” boundary or discipline accordingly. I see that RWEF’s type people take on the role this role. It’s not always handled well, but I do agree with the wisdom of trying to apply biblical principles as a way of life, or a foundation for the frame work of our lives. Life is lived most full in Him.

Matt HeeremaI also think you are fighting against a cultural tide that has been mandated by God. We are to be about the work of evangelism and edification of the church.  The culture, in some ways will continue to get worse and worse, and in other areas, continue to get better. The wheat (church) will continue to grow as well as the chaff (the world / humanistic culture) until then end.

Matt Appling: First, I think that all three terms are today often maligned and used inter-changeably to paint people as religious or political caricatures that should not be listened to. But the terms have become less useful as they are used more and more to paint "normal" people as hateful, bigoted, narrow-minded, ignorant, and any other number of cliched adjectives.



My Conclusions
We are too focused on labels. We worry too much about what others think and if we're fitting into certain groups or not. Ultimately, how you define these terms may align with these bloggers, myself, or a combination. You may even have a completely different take.

But here's where it gets interesting. We should discuss these perceptions and not assume. We should ask questions of the other person because maybe...just maybe their view is different enough that you're agreeing or disagreeing on unrelated principles.

We need to all set aside our emotions and stop trying to be heard over other voices and feel validated in our views. What we fail to do is to understand where someone else is coming from...why they think a certain way...why they've chosen a path. We're not concerned about the other person. Instead, we want someone to believe and feel the same as us. So, if they feel differently, we either wish to slam our views down their throat or not have anything to do with them. Neither approach has any progress.


Talk. Discuss. Dialog. Let's do it.