Can You See Beauty in Things You Disagree With? The Ihsan of Evangelicalism

New Glasgow Christian ChurchI 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.

franklin graham preachingI 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.

1. My Life Has Meaning

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.

2. Sex is Beautiful

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.

3. Mass Culture is Not Always Right

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

4. We Need to be Self-Critical

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.

5. Education is Transformative

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.

6. Mental Health Matters

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.

7. Women Do Powerful Things

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.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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36 Responses to Can You See Beauty in Things You Disagree With? The Ihsan of Evangelicalism

  1. jubilare says:

    Well said.

    I get very frustrated by the conflation of belief and political creed. I even get it from family and friends nowadays: “you believe this, therefore you are of this party and must believe everything that party professes.” We’re all being boxed, stereotyped, simplified, it grows tighter and tighter, and no one is immune. Speaking out against that oversimplification, which is, I think, one of the things you are doing with this post, is increasingly important…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. mrdavidrowe says:

    Even without the list, the concept of Ihsan on it’s own made this a great post. Aquinas would surely have said ‘all beauty is God’s beauty’, had he got out of his ivory tower a little more often!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. robstroud says:

    Very thoughtful.

    There is much to be justifiably condemned in what poses for “Christianity,” but the truth is, that the more faithful we are to Christ’s teaching, the more animosity we will receive from the world (i.e. not the evil, but simply those who deny the testimony of the Word of life, Jesus).

    As our Lord said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15).

    Like

    • I think that principle is true, Rob. But there is a “yes and no” in the Christ life. Imagine if America’s 50m evangelicals spent 1 month saying nothing but words of life and encouragement. It would change culture. In Canada, it would make evangelicals more noticeable than they’ve ever been.
      Yet, there is a “no” to culture. We legitimately speak for the disenfranchised, lift the chin of the poor, feed the widow, heal the sick, house the alien–even when the worlds says that they should take care of themselves. We love neighbours, even when we need to say, “what we do has consequences.” We shed riches in a rich culture, living against the grain of a materialistic world. We need God when our culture says it needs nothing. When there is injustice we speak–even if we disagree. We protect the Muslim from violence, even if we disagree with her soteriology. We celebrate a win for our atheist neighbour, even as we challenge his worldview.
      So, there is a yes and a no.
      And, strangely enough, persecution can happen in either. But it happens more in the no.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So maybe the “baby bloggers” don’t go viral. But what a wonderful idea to have words of life and encouragement being the ONLY things that comes from all of us. Elder David Bednar asked members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to “sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth—messages that are authentic, edifying, and praiseworthy…” What changes would it cause? We might even learn that there is more to agree on than there is to disagree with.

        Like

        • It would be an interesting experiment, for sure.
          I am not saying that political engagement is bad, but few would disagree that:
          1. Religious political engagement in America is a mess;
          2. People put the political voice of vocal religious people too high up on their assessment of religious people in general.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. loritischler says:

    This is not new–religious stereotyping has been going on in the USA for a long time–I was shocked by how we were treated when we moved to Missouri in 1997. Half our neighbors were tea-totalling, bible-beltin’, Right Wing, evangelicals and the other half were drinkin’, dancing, Democrat partying agnostics. And never the twain would meet… all seemed very strange to me as a Canadian. There were severe biases on both sides and I had some success, but mostly grief, in attempting to bring them together.

    Like

    • jubilare says:

      There’s a lot of grief involved growing up in it, as well. It’s gotten worse over the past decade.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I heard it was bad too in the 90s… and the 70s… Perhaps it is a generational, boom and echo thing.

        Like

        • jubilare says:

          I’m old enough to remember the 90’s, and this is definitely worse. The 70’s might be a closer comparison. There certainly have been times in my country’s history where things have been worse than this. At least we haven’t started another civil war, yet.
          I know these things come and go, but it doesn’t make living through it any easier. Since my parent’s don’t share a faith and differ on some core beliefs, and yet have a loving marriage, I came with some stereotypes pre-broken for me. On top of that, I had friends of very different creeds growing up, and so I remember, even as a kid, having to defend friend A to friend B, and visa versa, on the grounds that they were people, not cardboard. It’s easier to hate what you can simplify… and that’s why what you’re saying here is so vital. Look for the beauty, look for the humanity, and suddenly that person over there isn’t so simple anymore, isn’t easy to hate.

          I’m a bit bitter about this just because I’m so dang tired of it. 30ish years is a long time to have been standing in no-man’s-land trying to get the people I love on either side to stop bloody well shooting at each other. It’s deadly personal. These are my friends and family members, spewing poison about each other, unwilling to listen to any moderating voice. They’re good people, all of them, and that’s what makes their blind rage so intolerable.

          And that’s why I’m grateful to you for posting this. …apologies for the mini-rant. It was good to get that off my chest.

          Liked by 2 people

          • There’s a bit of heat in this response, Jubilare. I’m so glad you tell your story. I feel the tension of moderation: it isn’t easy. Having to say, “Yes, I know you’ve been hurt, but you should consider…”–that’s a hard approach. Or, “Yes, I know they aren’t perfect, but….” Or, “Yes, I’m anxious to see change too, but….” It is hard being a YESBUT person.

            Like

    • Were there any beautiful moments? Standing in the gap is always painful. Ask Ezekiel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. loritischler says:

    Btw: GREAT article. (And how am I supposed to blog when you keep writing on “my” topics. And doing it better than I can?? >smile<)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. loritischler says:

    One last comment:
    “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
    -C.S. Lewis, WEIGHT OF GLORY

    Liked by 3 people

  7. L.A. Smith says:

    Good thoughts here. It is hard to identify as an evangelical these days and not cringe. But I continue to do so, despite the fact that evangelicals are the group everyone loves to hate, it seems. The media caricature is hard to step away from. And let’s face it, there are some evangelicals who do really stupid things. But there are also lots of other people of other religious faiths and denominations who do stupid things too, so we are not alone in that!

    Like

    • I do so as well. In Lethbridge (which you know a bit of), it was just as bad as here or there, even though it was probably 15% evangelical or so. There was cynicism about it, and it was bound up in a kind of politics that couldn’t imagine disagreement on certain points. As pastors there, we struggled, many of us, despite incredible supports.
      Here, in PEI, the word is almost meaningless. Here, any passion is viewed sideways, whether it is faith or environmentalism or card collecting. Extreme love is evil here.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        PEI. Wow! Is Anne of Green Gables a presentation of this in particular (among other things in general)? And, ‘the more things change,…’?

        Don’t feel obliged to take this up, soon or ever, but since you say, “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”, do you have a sense of Canadian evangelicals as having been, or being, distinct from both U.S. and English/UK ones? Reading George Grant (and about him) has given me some sense of the Canadian ‘Christian landscape’ up until the 1980s, but I don’t know that a sense of ‘Canadian evangelicals’ is much of a part of that.

        Not that such things are not complicated: in Oxford in the 1980s there were Evangelicals who attended quieter more traditional St. Ebbe’s and Evangelicals who attended livelier St. Aldate’s – but did lots of other things happily enough together, both with each other and with other Christians. (The President of the Christian Union and I were neighbours in St, Gregory’s House, which existed to facilitate making aquaintance with Orthodoxy – with a Church in the garden shared by Russian and Greek parishes!) And in the U.S. scene over the past couple decades I’ve noticed people self-identifying as ‘evangelical’ who would have probably been more likely to distinguish themselves from the discription, historically.

        Like

        • Well, I’m not an Anne-expert. I would say, though, that Lucy Maud (author) was both more personally faith-invested than most of her main characters, AND she was more critical of religion. The books round off those edges, as a good Islander should. Can’t be telling secrets out of school!
          Yes, evangelicalism is distinct in Canada from the UK and the US. Here are factors I see: 1. Part of it is the post-christian movement. The UK was early, Canada later, and the US is still negotiating it.
          2. America’s “post-christian” conversation is bound up with the slow collapse of their civilization, so it gives more edge to the convo.
          3. There are more evangelicals in the US than either Canada or US.
          4. Canada and most of the UK did not experience as much in the 2nd and 4th Awakenings as the US. Moreover, Canada was not a thing yet in the 1st Awakening! We lack these foundations.
          5. We are more French and more Catholic than either US or UK.
          6. We lacked a national church like the UK, and lack the media-collegial centres of American evangelicalism, which works like a national religion.
          7. UK founding fathers were all hung, the US founding fathers had done hangings, and Canadian founding fathers were all hung over. Our founding myths are a lot different!
          8. Canada has few evangelical superstars. George Grant doesn’t ignore evangelicals, but brushes them aside like the pipe ash on his sweater vests. They are just part of the mix. We have a few quiet, important academics. That’s it.
          9. The UK, US & Canada each have moments where they contribute to various charismatic movements, but those movements are somewhat distinct from one another.
          10. Canada is far more influenced in pop culture by the US, but in politics by the UK.
          Perhaps there’s more? I don’t know–I’m just winging it.
          Plus, as you point out, the definitions are drifting….

          Liked by 2 people

  8. jubilare says:

    It’s definitely one of those things that I feel very strongly about, which I guess is obvious. 😉 It’s hard not to get heated, though I hope it was obvious that none of that frustration was directed at you, or anyone here. Quite the opposite.
    “yesbut” indeed. If I had a nickle… You’ve probably noticed this, but people tend to be a lot nicer when they think you like them, and a lot nastier if they think you don’t, so the best way to see the worst side of someone is to have them start off with the assumption that they aren’t liked. That may be one reason why a lot of evangelicals can seem unpleasant… they/we start off on the defensive because they expect to be disliked.

    Like

    • No, I felt no heat against me–though some comments in the past have had that direction. Mostly in my Tolkien ideas!
      I think evangelicals are on their haunches in America–there is social pressure, and some persecution. If they had always been marginalized, it might not feel so painful. That defensive posture, though, is not the cross-posture that we are called to in Christ.

      Like

      • jubilare says:

        Lol, apologies for that. I can be intense (especially when it comes to Tolkien 😉 ), but I promise that I’ve never been actually angry.

        Yes, this.
        I no longer get your replies to my comments in my feed. 😛 This seems to happen whenever a blog I follow gets their own url. I don’t know if there’s a good way to circumvent that problem.

        Like

        • That’s strange–I haven’t made an actual change in URL in 3 or 4 years. But WordPress has gone a bit wonky lately. Perhaps it ill fix itself?
          Or visit back–I usually respond within 24 hours. I look forward to your comments. I like your perspective, and am but a baby Tolkienist next to you!

          Like

  9. jubilare says:

    Nope. It’s consistent across a Mac, a PC and an Android tablet.

    Like

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An intriguing article (long on speculation) published since you posted this:

    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/issues/july-24th-2015/the-popes-great-evangelical-gamble/

    Like

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