words

Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

22 July 2010

evangelical

The other day, on a bus trip, I sat down next to a chatty man in his sixties who had just been dumped by his third wife.

“Is someone sitting here?” I asked him, and he said, no, he was as alone as a person could be.

He had an unusually loud voice, and the people sitting around us all laughed. We were all on our way back to the Orlando airport to fly home after grading Advanced Placement exams for a week at a cavernous Convention Center in Daytona Beach with six hundred other professors and teachers. When the man asked me the inevitable question about where I taught, I lowered my voice and told him the name of the school, and then, when he didn’t recognize it, I said it was a private Christian university in Arkansas.

I waited for the usual pause that had followed this announcement all week whenever I got into conversation with someone new. I’m guessing many of my fellow academics there regarded Christian higher education as an oxymoron. Or perhaps it’s that something about me—my clothes or the way I talk—failed to prepare them for the fact that I might be a Christian, and they needed a couple of seconds to realign their thoughts. Everyone was too polite to tell me what went on in their heads in that pause, and afterwards, they typically changed the subject.

This man, however, went straight after it.

“You mean, evangelical?” he shouted. He twisted in his seat to stare at me—sternly, it seemed to me—and to see my face when I answered.

I have always been uncomfortable with the term evangelical, I have to say here. The adjective it used to be has been bandied around in the media so much of late that the noun Christian that it used to modify has been knocked off. Now it’s one of those attributive nouns that means something different to whoever uses it.

In the mouths of the people on NPR and on the pages of Time and The Atlantic Monthly, my primary sources of news and information, the label evangelical appears to be synonymous with politically benighted or bigoted or stupid, depending on the context. At best, ridiculously naïve. Time has taken to capitalizing the word, which makes it look even more embarrassing, somehow. Admitting I am one is tantamount to revealing that I am married to a man who spends his free time, together with a bunch of equally besotted men in his model railroad club, decorating expanses of plywood with spray-on grass and watching in glee as miniature locomotives pull empty cars around a circular track to return to where they started out. Worse yet, although I teach at an evangelical college and attend what most would call an evangelical church, whenever I meet fellow Christians who go out of their way to identify themselves as evangelicals, I find myself disagreeing with them on most of their pet subjects. To say I am an evangelical, in my mind, is to be the kind of push button believer my most arrogant inner self scorns any association with at all.

But, when this stranger asked so directly, so stridently and sternly, some vestige of [my] old dedication to godly embarrassment rose in my throat and demanded that I admit the truth.

“Yes. Evangelical Christian,” I said, in my softest possible voice above a whisper. I was sure all of my unseen colleagues around me on the bus were overhearing every word of what we were saying, and I sent up a little prayer, which the Holy Spirit no doubt edited out of my daily offerings to the Father, that the man would dismiss the topic and move on to something less threatening, such as what essay question I had been scoring or whether this was my first time at an AP conference.

“That’s great!” he said at the top of his voice and pounded me on the knee. “I’m an evangelical too.”

~excerpt from Confessions of an Amateur Believer (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

3 comments:

jarred lawrence said...

Growing up evangelical, and a product of christian higher education, i have some understanding of what you must go through when you find yourself outside of "the bubble."

That being said, thank you for going outside the bubble, and choosing to return to help challenge others to venture outside of the proverbial safety evangelicals create for themselves in an attempt to be "not of this world."

keep up the good work. I know i can trust an evangelical who listens to NPR.

Emily Cain said...

I don't claim evangelical any more (or JBU, for that matter), but maybe if the connotations changed, I might change my mind. In the meantime, thanks for getting out there.

Laura said...

That was a very unexpected ending. I loved it.