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“Among the Evangelicals”

A couple of weeks ago an article by Timothy Beal titled “Among the Evangelicals: Inside a fractured movement” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s publication The Chronicle Review [link]. It’s a neatly-written survey article, laying out the main strands of evangelicalism within American Christianity, discusses some of the history of the study of evangelicalism by academic writers, and provides a pretty good reading list. I recommend it with a couple of clarifications (and maybe corrections), and I’d like to point out something from the comments section that made my head spin.

Beal breaks down evangelicalism into “revivalist, fundamentalist, and charismatic movements that feed into contemporary evangelical Christianity” and that’s as good a set of distinctions as any, since it gets the revivalist and fundamentalist movements before what we know as evangelicalism and positions the charismatics as different but still part of the movement. Because I come out of a background with elements mostly of the first two and almost none of the latter I tend to think of charismatics by turns as “not one of us; probably not Christians” and “second-rate interlopers,” neither of which is likely fair or accurate.

Beal points out that evangelicals are typically ahistorical, having no sense of their own history and little of anyone else’s; this is a fair criticism but as it’s a byproduct of our tendency to think of ourselves as being just two generations removed from Pentecost (okay three if you count the English Reformation) and at most one generation from the Rapture it’s probably not going anywhere. It does as much to explain why we think e.g. the Founding Fathers would have been at home in Eisenhower America as anything else. Anyway, if I understand him correctly it’s the fact that evangelicals have gotten rich, together, and politically involved that we’ve come to the attention of second-generation academic researchers (e.g. not Balmer, Carpenter, or Noll).

I think Beal makes a mistake by lumping Jeff Sharlet’s book in with Kevin Roose’s; those people Sharlet studied for the most part aren’t theologically Christian and their behavior is almost entirely political. I’d offer his portrayal of Senator Sam Brownback as being typical. On the other hand Beal gets kudos for mentioning Ned Flanders.

The article devotes a substantial section to books published in 2009, including a study by Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke of various megachurch leaders as savvy innovators in a religious marketplace, a book by Johnathan L. Walton on “the ethics and aesthetics of black televangelism,” and one by anthropologist James Bielo which is a field study of interpretive practices in small-group Bible studies. Of these three the first two make me wince just to think of them and the latter sounds fascinating. Here are the numbers:

Bielo observed 324 Bible-study meetings of 19 groups of evangelicals over more than a year and a half. Within those meetings, he often noticed tensions among different readings of particular biblical passages, as well as different understandings of the Bible itself, that potentially threatened group identity and coherence.

There’s a lot there: imagine attending 300+ Bible studies with nearly 20 different groups. Imagine the worst of the browbeating behavior you’ve ever seen in a Bible study multiplied over numbers like that. “We don’t interpret the Bible; the Bible interprets us” indeed.

There are also paragraphs devoted to home-schooling and pro-life activism (but surprisingly no mention of the Quiverfull movement); unfortunately it seems like any discussion of evangelicalism nowadays starts and ends with politics, as if evangelicalism had no internal narrative of its own, but only makes sense in terms of its politics. Beal also doesn’t really mention evangelical alternative (not to say derivative) culture; maybe there haven’t been enough serious treatments of it to merit mention. I don’t know.

I will have to come back to the comments on this article in a later post; hint: they mention Mark Driscoll and Ergun Caner.

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