When I was a kid, I loved the sight gags in the old Adam West “Batman” series. One in particular used to crack me up: in the Bat Cave, the equipment was labeled with large signs, no matter how obvious it was what the item was. “Bat poles.” “Bat phone.” Etc. Ever since then, I’ve had both a short patience level and a sense of irony about the labeling of the obvious.
When my twin children were about two years old, they developed a habit of calling out the names of everything they saw. “Bird!” “Couch!” “Car!” “Train!” We thought it was pretty funny at first, but after a while it grew a bit tedious. After all, how many times can we affirm those observations with “Yes, that is a bird!” before it’s one bird too many? Even as our parental patience grew thin, though, we knew that they were developing their vocabularies; at some point they would move beyond simply labeling what they saw.
Sometimes I have a similar feeling about how Christians deal with the world. We are pretty good at pointing to things and saying, “Right!” or “Wrong!” but after a while, the rest of the world grows weary with this and wonders, “Is that all you folks can do? Label and criticize things?” Too many times we go one bird too far in our criticisms without offering up anything like genuine solutions.
Mark Bertrand, in his very fine book “ReThinking Worldview” (Crossway 2007), notes, “Culture isn’t shaped through criticism” (187). What Bertrand means is that mere criticism isn’t enough; change requires that we move beyond criticism to action. I think that there is a real truth in this. Criticism is the easy part; even a two-year-old can do it. What’s hard is actually doing something about injustice.
To me, though, this is a part of the essence of evangelicalism: the quest to move beyond simple criticism toward meaningful action. Evangelicals are faithful to orthodoxy (we actually believe things that are rooted in biblical theology) and we seek to find ways to effect orthopraxy (we seek opportunities not only to champion orthodoxy but also to serve a broken world). If the latter part of the twentieth century was second-wave evangelicalism, with emphases on national movements, then perhaps we are now a part of third-wave evangelicalism, which seems to focus increasingly on local actions undertaken one person at a time.