By Julia Polese
Blogger Frank Viola released an e-book this week entitled Beyond Evangelical. “Beyond” has become a rather popular buzzword recently around the evangelosphere and this is Viola’s contribution to the trend. This 80-page e-book includes a series of blog posts he wrote earlier this year of the same name and nearly twenty pages of quotations and book recommendations for further reading. In the book, he argues the word “evangelical” has lost its ability to define a group without hyphenation since when Carl F. Henry and Billy Graham broke from the fundamentalists of the mid-twentieth century. Instead, Viola advocates moving “beyond evangelicalism” and the pitfalls of defining oneself as left or right. He writes: “Another direction exists: It’s forward.” (8)
He breaks contemporary evangelicalism up into four streams: systematizers, activists, emoters, and those who are moving beyond. While he stresses that these characterizations “shouldn’t be used to denominate any particular individual,” their descriptions cannot help but beg for denomination. Viola insists he is not making a value judgment: ”Each stream represents a segment of the body of Christ that is just different from the others.” But this does not hold water through the rest of the book. Viola gives equal time to criticisms of both young, restless, Reformed types and emergents, but his claim that being “beyond” is not better falls flat. In fact, he denominates himself into the “those moving beyond evangelicalism” by consistently referring to that camp as “those of us.” And frankly, I don’t blame him.
The “beyond evangelical” camp is extraordinarily appealing. I don’t see anything in its distinctives that anyone from the other three streams would not like: “the centrality and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ; lining by the indwelling life of Christ; experiencing church as a Christ-centered, shared-life community,” and “living for the eternal purpose of God” (13). A few times in the book, Viola repeats that the Beyonders are “neither modern nor postmodern. They are neither fundamentalist nor emergent. They are neither pietists nor activists” but concerned solely with Christ Himself (32). Politically, those who are moving beyond “tend to be apolitical, believing that the local ekklesia (body of Christ) is the new polis and the kingdom of God is the true government. Beyond that, their political positions are enormously diverse” (12). This conception echoes Richard John Neuhaus’ reminder in Christianity and Democracy that “everything short of the consummation of the rule of Christ’s unsatisfactory.”
Viola has a lot of good things to say to the American church about focusing on the Lordship of Christ over all instead of the idiosyncrasies of a one’s particular “tribe.” But the main problem with this exhortation is that it claims to be something new or separate from the other three streams he mentions. His articulation fundamentally sets up a transcendent relationship between the “beyond” tribe and the rest of evangelicalism. This dialectical approach to moving forward is not new. At some points, Viola seems to affirm this, but at the same time still claim newness as a mark of being “beyond.” (See the end of Chapter 4, especially.) in the end, Beyond Evangelical is more about recovering a “mere evangelicalism” than moving past it.