Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America

This past week I read a new book entitled Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America. The author is Jeffery Sheler, contributing editor for religion at U.S. News & World Report. Sheler is a professing Christian, but not a self-designated evangelical. In his younger days he was actively involved in a fundamentalist Baptist church, then moved on to the Nazarene denomination, and has now migrated to a fairly conservative church within a mainline Presbyterian denomination (I assume PCUSA).

What sets Sheler apart from other writers in this genre is that he desires to be as objective as possible, he has done his homework and talked to the right people, he interviewed a range of folks (not just the "religious right"), and he allows his interviewees to articulate their own views--quoting them at length rather than reproducing slanted summations. As Darrell Bock noted today on his blog, "There is little new here for one who has ranged through evangelicalism, but the beauty of the book is its breadth and sensitivity."

His investigative journey took him to Saddleback (Rick Warren), Colorado Springs (James Dobson), the Creation Festival (Christian music festival), Washington, D.C. (the National Association of Evangelicals' representative), and on a short-term missions trip to Guatemala. He also sat down with Al Mohler (president of Southern Seminary) and Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Seminary) to talk about the future of evangelicalism. I found the chapter on Christian music to be among the most insightful in the volume.

Along the way, he sprinkles in helpful historical background sketches of evangeliclaism. (He frequently conversed with Mark Noll throughout the project.)

"As I came to my journey’s end I realized that there had been few real surprises along the way. In my travels around the country I had met many fascinating people, and some who were inspiring. A few I had found perplexing or tedious or simply annoying. For the most part, though, the evangelicals I had met were just extraordinarily normal. Al Mohler was right: Evangelicals are not oddities. They are your neighbor, your doctor, the insurance salesman, the person who checks you out at the grocery store. They are hardworking couples and single parents, callow college students and elderly widows—ordinary people who are trying hard, like the rest of us, to find their way in the world as best they can, carrying for their families and serving God.

"Their distinctive faith obviously sets them apart from those who do not share it. But there is nothing alien or weird about evangelical Christianity. It is a faith well rooted in the cultural and theological traditions of the West. Some among them express crazy notions from time to time about how life works. But in a population of sixty million people that is to be expected. I still believe, as I did starting out, that evangelicals as a group do sometimes face unfair and inaccurate stereotypes, and some of us in the media are at fault for that. But they are not victims, at least not in the ways or as often as some would claim. Their distinctive faith aside, evangelicals are looking and acting more and more like the rest of America. They have found their way into the cultural mainstream, where they are both influencing and being influenced by the society around them." (pp. 297-298)

A pretty fair description, I think. And Sheler here taps into one of the key issues of the day: are evangelicals more influencing or more influenced.