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Richard Mouw Wrestles with Evangelicalism, Past and Present

Among my favorite books is Catholic activist Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. When asked why, I often reply, “Because it’s like enjoying a cup of tea with a wise older woman who lived an astoundingly courageous life and led some of the most important movements of her generation.” Day’s book is conversational in tone and might mention names or historical events I don’t recognize. But I tolerate these quirks—in fact, I find them delightful—because I know she has something to teach me.

Richard Mouw’s Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels has a similar appeal. The book wrestles with questions of identity: What is this ever-changing movement called “evangelicalism?” How do we deal with conflict over the meaning of this term and over the direction of the movement itself? And should we even use the “E-word” anymore? As an elder statesman of Reformed evangelicalism, Mouw engages these questions (and others) through stories and reflections from a lifetime of ministry.

He discusses topics as wide-ranging as contextualization and the doctrine of sin, church unity (and disunity), and the importance of mystery, even including a whole chapter on hymnody. But, like tea with an older saint, moments that at first seem like digressions are often where treasure is found, and they all wind back to the book’s main theme: why Mouw remains an evangelical, by name and belief—and why he is “restless” about it.

Though not a memoir, the book walks through Mouw’s own story. As a brainy kid, Mouw found in evangelicalism a nourishing tradition of Christian scholarship that rescued him from fundamentalist anti-intellectualism. In the book’s most touching moment, he relates how an intimate, personal sense of the love of Jesus carried him through alcohol addiction. But he also voices frustration with parts of evangelicalism, chastising the evangelical tendency to be anti-institutional and anti-ecclesial. He remarks on his brief exit from evangelicalism—and how his “restlessness eventually led him back” to fellowship with a group of like-minded younger evangelicals who, in 1973, drafted “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” He writes about his frustrations with the “Religious Right” and the theological left (though most of these latter critiques focus on mainline churches rather than the younger cohort of “exvangelical” exiles).

Mouw espouses an ethic of “convicted civility,” and the book models his resolute charity—his insistence on framing disagreements in the fairest possible terms. Instead of lobbing arguments at ideological enemies online, he cultivates embodied relationships and stakes out thoughtful positions without a trace of snark or smugness. I found myself wondering if anyone formed (in the slightest) by Twitter and social media would be capable of writing this sort of book (or living this sort of life).

Even as someone who strives to practice the same virtues, I caught myself hoping he’d take the gloves off to pummel my most hated heresies. But, no, Mouw remains kind to the end, calling certain beliefs false yet always engaging them with curiosity, humility, and good cheer. He calls us away from a knee-jerk “prophetic” posture of incendiary rhetoric to a warmer approach that “pay[s] careful attention to how best to bring people to see things our way.”

Those wanting a hard-hitting critique of evangelicalism may be disappointed. And some may feel that Mouw underemphasizes the frustrations of exvangelicals or people of color (though he does urge us to confront racism both systemically and relationally). But though his book is not a takedown, it is not a blind defense either. Mouw remains among the vanguard of evangelicals calling the movement back to both theological depth and a passion for social justice.

During my last year in seminary, I attended a panel on Dorothy Day. During the Q&A time, I stammered about, trying to ask how I could emulate her. Day’s coworker and friend responded: “Don’t look at Dorothy to mimic her life, which was in a different time and context than yours, but look at the way, the ethos and manner, in which she engaged her own moment and challenges, and from that learn how to engage your own.” Not everyone will identify with evangelicalism precisely as Mouw does. But we would do well to watch how he engages Scripture, theology, culture, and those around him, learning from his example as we work toward a more faithful evangelical movement.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (InterVarsity Press).

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