I remember when I first stumbled across the word “Ihsan” in my studies. It is from a mystical path in Islam, and is best translated “Doing What is Beautiful.” As soon as I read the word, I knew what it meant: a synchronicity between faith and hope that expresses itself in action in the world. I will always be grateful for the gift of this word, Ihsan, even though I disagree with some of the key parts of Islam.
Right now “evangelical” is an ugly word. In the wake of court battles in the U.S., a divisive election in the UK—and one forthcoming in Canada and the U.S.—a budding culture war in Australia, and controversial statements by Christian leaders, there is not much love for the evangelical around many kitchen tables and twitter cliques. Whether the neighbour is next door or across a digital expanse, evangelicals have become a symbol for sexism and homophobia. It is difficult to see a week go by when a major media outlet doesn’t connect evangelicalism to the resistance of response to climate change, or to the barriers to help the poor through universal education, training, or health care.
I have already warned readers that the media is clueless about evangelicals, but I want to take this blog another direction. The media shows no signs of engaging in new ways, and a baby blogger like me won’t help.
Instead, I want to talk about the Ihsan of Evangelicalism. Here, I am speaking to those who struggle with the conservativism or tenor of evangelical cultures and political engagement. Despite disagreement, and despite the negativity of much of the conversation, I believe that evangelicals do beautiful things.
Although I grew in a post-Christian culture with no family church connection, I have spent much of the last 25 years connecting with evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics here in North America, but also in the UK and East Asia. Here are seven things that evangelicals have taught me about Ihsan.
I grew up in a strong family that taught me, despite our intense poverty, that I could do anything. The moment I first encountered the Jesus story as a young adult, I saw what the global and eternal value of my work really was. The moment of my conversion was the moment of my calling into a life that would matter. All of my work since, from writing and teaching to flipping pizzas and waxing cars, has been in a desire for Ihsan, to do beautiful things that set in motion the renewal of the universe.
As culture became hyper-sexualized around me growing up, our secular sex education also amped up. But in doing so, it reduced the idea of sex to a muscle spasm. This is better, I suppose, than cultures that manipulate sex (and thus, the sex partner) by making sex a kind of protest, an assertion of independence, a quest to be included, or a perverse relational trap. Still, I was left with only biological function.
It is true that American fundamentalism has had a strange obsession with sex. There have been a lot of excesses, perhaps going as far as needed to counteract popular culture. But in the midst of that, I was taught the beauty of sex, the God-givenness of it. Its inherent value is not merely a biological release, but a psychological knitting-together of one soul with another. Sex can be an expression of Ihsan. I am forever grateful to this correction to the garbage that was floating around me as a young adult.
This one may not seem beautiful to many, but there is a value to having a voice speak from the outside. Look at the atheist response to prisoner’s rights in the 1700s, absolutely transforming the way we treat those who transgress the law. Similarly, evangelicals and fundamentalists spoke against slavery, winning abolition in the British Empire two generations before America. Later, evangelicals called for industrial reform, asking for safety for those working in factories—many of whom were children.
While we may bemoan the excess we see of politically engaged atheists and evangelicals today, there is value to the voice outside. Mass Culture Morality can go very bad, very quick. 1930s Germany will always remain a poignant example. As much as I engage in culture, I always look at it sideways, skeptically, thanks to my fundamentalist friends
If your only vision of a conservative Christian is the self-assured thoughtful guy or super gorgeous assertive girl on CNN or Fox, this one will sound weird. Or perhaps you know evangelicalism best by those that have fallen. Hypocrites abound.
Truly, though, evangelicalism taught me that a critique of culture begins with me. In this, evangelicals connect with the great Hebrew tradition of self-critique. I know of no other ancient court where prophets criticized their kings and priests, demanding authenticity from the crown to the cradle. This tradition was passed on to me; when I speak in protest or criticism, I know the danger of my own heart’s hypocrisy may betray me.
Education debates are very cultural, so this beautiful thing may feel different in different places. We know that our view of education in the West is shaped out of a marriage of the Jewish idea that what we believe and think matters, and Greek ways of shaping human culture. As a result, America, for example, has some of the greatest scientists, inventors, innovators, medical researchers, and artists in the world.
Education is central to evangelicals, from Sunday School classes to the sponsorship of universities and colleges. Huge amounts of money are spent to shape the mind of the young, knowing that education transforms the world. All of my education—BA, MAR, and PhD (in progress)—have been at schools begun by communities that believed that ideas change the world.
There has been a great transformation of ideas about mental illness in the last generation, which is great. But before after-school advocates and school nurses and Dr. Phil, psychological help was often inaccessible to the poor and disenfranchised. Yet, for generation after generation, pastors, elders, Bible Study leaders, women’s group leaders, and teachers at little conservative churches have been providing support for the mentally ill. Evangelicals have carried this health burden when our social systems could not—or did not care to—do so.
True, there has been lots of abuse. But ask what a gay man going to a mainstream psychologist in 1953 would experience. There is often abuse and error as people walk on difficult paths together. Much of it was beautiful. Much of it is good.
If you are a woman called to leadership in a conservative environment, you will be frustrated by this. I know the limitations on gender roles in churches. Some days they frustrate me. Some days they terrify me.
Despite these external gender roles, even when I was new to the church scene, I knew that women did powerful things. I may have been looking for it since I had powerful women in my life, but over and over again the evangelical and charismatic churches I encountered told me this truth: Women do powerful things.
The first Bible character I learned about was Deborah. My teachers were women. My early mentors included women. I heard of women missionaries and theologians and preachers. The charismatic movement is diverse, but women were essential to the rediscovery of the Spirit in Christian worship and life. Even in fundamentalist churches, where women are limited in the most specific ways, some of the most powerful workers and witnesses are women. We all know it.
There is definitely much to cringe at in conservative Christian movements. Something like 100,000,000 Americans have a tangible connection to the kinds of faith groups I’ve been talking about. It wouldn’t be hard to find lots of terrible stories there. And there are systemic problems.
But I especially want to challenge progressives and liberals to consider the beauty of these things—even if you don’t agree with other principles. Are we inclusive enough to recognize the things that evangelicals do that are beautiful? Part of the Ihsan of more liberal expressions is to look around and find, despite disagreements, ways to draw others into a bigger conversation. For my part, these are some of the ways that I’ve discovered the Ihsan of evangelicalism.
So, I would encourage people this week and this year, as you engage in online conversations and chats around the dinner table, to consider some of the beautiful things in the evangelical or fundamentalist you are critiquing–whether the character next door or the caricature on TV.
Art by Diego Rivera.