Friday, November 15, 2013

Ill-fitting Clothing and Theological Labels

When I walked into my office yesterday here at the seminary I discovered a shirt bearing the seminary logo waiting for me on my desk. The shirt was a gift from a colleague who is always kind enough to make sure that I have the latest in seminary propaganda fashion.  

But when I picked it up to admire it I noticed a problem right away. The shirt tag read “Large GG.” I am not sure what the “GG” meant, but I suspect that it was something like “gargantuan giant” since the only way I was going to wear that shirt was either with the assistance of tent poles or with someone else in there with me. It was simply too big.

So I headed over to the seminary bookstore to see if they had one in medium. They did and the kind lady behind the counter suggested that I try it on in the restroom to make sure it fit. What I discovered was not encouraging. While the shoulders and chest of the large shirt seem to swim on me, the medium was a bit too snug in the very same areas. Oh, they both did the job, but it was clear to me that no matter which shirt I chose there was going to be an element of discomfort involved. I decided I would take the medium and hope it would stretch out a bit. When I returned to the bookstore the lady behind the counter asked which one fit best. I responded “Neither, I think I need a medium-large.”

I must admit I wasn’t completely surprised by what happened. Over the years my shirt size has changed.  For a longtime I wore a medium, but then all of sudden I noticed that mediums were too small and I had to move up to a large.  But then one day I noticed that larges were too big and I was back to the mediums that I had always worn. I suspect there is a conspiracy among the clothing manufacturers since my closet now has a variety of medium and large shirts. This of course presents a challenge for me since, as my wife knows, I hate ill-fitting shirts. It is not unusual for me to put a shirt on and take it off immediately with the comment “well, that’s not happening today.” Sometimes I find the medium a bit too tight and would rather go with the large. Other times the large makes me feel unkempt since it seems to just hang on me.

I feel the same about theological labels. Many years ago I would have readily identified myself as an evangelical. But, like the medium size shirts in my closet, I began to notice that it was a bit ill-fitting. It didn’t allow me to move freely in the areas where I needed some space and was more restricting than freeing. Later I thought of myself as a liberal, but that too didn’t seem to fit very well.  Like the large shirt, I had to find too many things to help fill out the shirt so it would fit and what I realized is that the shirt/label no longer revealed who I am. Like the shirts, I had begun to find labels to be ill-fitting.

Next week I will attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. And like the dance I sometimes do in my closet when deciding what shirt to wear, I will find that the labels other want me to use to identify myself won’t fit. I will spend time in groups or sessions where people proudly proclaim they are liberal (or some variation thereof) and I will realize that the shirt is too large and make me look like someone I am not. I will then spend time with those who proudly proclaim to be evangelical and I will realize that the label is a bit too tight and doesn’t give me the room to move that I need. I have been experiencing this situation for some time. In the past I would go to the conference and come home amazed at the situation in which I find myself. Now I think I have adjusted to at least know what to expect.

As I mentioned above, in the end I chose the medium shirt with the hopes that perhaps it would stretch out a bit to fit me better. It’s the same with being an evangelical. I still don’t like nor identify with the label. Evangelical is still too tight for me, but it fits me better than any other label. I suppose what I need is a medium-large. 


  1. Excellent! I have gone even farther and refuse to wear a theological shirt, which no doubt some find obscene.

  2. Well put!
    GG by the way, is Spanish/Portuguese designation for Extra-Large: "Grande x2", so they mislabeled it for US sizes.

  3. Fabio,

    Many thanks. Maybe I will go back to the bookstore and get a real large! LOL


    1. Why not just skip the labels altogether. There seems to be someone more conservative or liberal on every issue I might consider. I used to have a bumper sticker which read "Generic Christian". Great conversation starter.

  4. It is not possible to avoid labels, to skip them, or otherwise ignore them. One can merely confound them. As Audre Lorde (who knew) wrote, "if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others - for their use and our detriment"