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A Tour Among the Evangelicals

by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is assistant professor of history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 17, 1989, p. 529. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Book Review:

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America. By Randall Balmer. Oxford University
Press, 256 pp., $19.95.

The sign said: "Modern American Culture Museum of the Oxford University Press: Tonight’s Feature: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America." Once safely under the overhang of the museum’s portico, I turned to see the rest of the tour group dashing in from their cars. The storms of modernity were blowing more fiercely than usual. In a few minutes we had all gathered on the porch. Some of us were professors of religious studies, history or sociology; some were journalists; others were leaders of evangelical organizations; and several others were simply folk interested in evangelicalism. Randall Balmer, professor at Columbia University, identified himself as our guide and as an ambassador for American evangelicalism.

Once in the museum (it was good to get into this shelter -- the rain seemed unusually acidic) , we turned to listen to Balmer. He started by defining a few terms. He began with "evangelical," naturally enough, and after a little historical background proceeded to modern-day uses of the term. Balmer said it generally denotes Christians who agree with Luther’s theological emphasis upon salvation by faith alone and who add to that certain other convictions: one must experience a spiritual rebirth during which "one acknowledges personal sinfulness and Christ’s atonement"; one must practice "a literalistic hermeneutic for understanding the Bible" based on a confidence in the inerrancy of the original texts, or "autographs," of the Bible; one must have a "proselytizing zeal" that has occasionally "erupted into large-scale revivals or spiritual awakenings"; and finally one must burn with "warmhearted piety." Balmer incidentally acknowledged that not all evangelicals share all of these characteristics. I myself wondered whether the list was complete without more attention paid to the evangelical impulse and the quest for personal holiness. But it was, after all, just an introduction.

Balmer then distinguished within evangelicalism fundamentalists, Pentecostals and charismatics. Apparently noting some foot-shuffling (although a couple of professors had started to raise their hands to question a definition or two) , he moved on to describe his project. He had grown up evangelical, he told us -- fundamentalist, actually -- but had moved out of that subculture as a student. Links with his past remained, however, and he felt a strong ambivalence: he had criticized evangelicalism while wanting to defend it against unjustified attacks by others. He had done both, therefore, in this exploration of some social manifestations of American evangelicalism encompassing as much geographical and cultural variety and balance as he could manage. He had collected stories, artifacts and impressions, and out of this had constructed displays, each representing a different institution he had visited. We might not recognize any names, he warned; he deliberately had concentrated on ordinary evangelicals, hoping to give us a true sense of mainstream evangelicalism.

The first chamber was called "California Kickback." The floor was covered in sand and the sound of surf played lightly in the background. The display showed pictures of cars parked in many rows around a large, low church building called "Calvary Chapel." Balmer pointed out the bumper-stickers, ranging from "Robertson ‘88" to "I’m into God." The focus here was a typical worship service, led by Pastor Chuck Smith.

Balmer told us that Smith, a tanned, balding, friendly man, had been ordained in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel but had gotten tired of endless denominational attendance contests and had accepted a call in 1965 to a tiny, nondenominational church in suburban Los Angeles. Smith and his wife welcomed his college-age daughter’s friends’ into their home, many of whom were hippies. These friends began to attend their church and then to bring others. By the early 1970s, huge baptismal services were held at the ocean – "happenings" which attracted considerable media attention and more interest in the church. Today the baptisms are held less frequently and the congregation fully spans the generations. The little church has grown into a complex of lively institutions, from private schools to a radio station. In fact, pastors told Balmer that up to 25,000 people pass through their campus every week, including thousands for the three Sunday worship services.

Why the attraction? Smith didn’t seem like such a charismatic guy. Balmer apparently had anticipated the question, and turned on a tape recorder. Testimonies from a variety of Calvary Chapel people described Smith as a genuinely spiritual, plainspoken pastor whose relaxed style matched perhaps surprisingly well with a serious desire to teach the Bible in basic, practical terms. Smith’s integrity, clarity and warmth attracted people who lived in a culture of superficial smiles and false messages.

I thought that this was a pleasant way to begin the tour, although I missed hearing some of the music that had helped put Calvary Chapel on the map. After all, its own "Maranatha Music" label had brought "Jesus music" (and its distinctive logo of a stylized Holy Spirit dove) far beyond the borders of California -- reaching even to the hinterland of northern Canada.

Balmer recognized, though, that the Dallas commitment to dispensationalism reflected a more basic commitment to a "high" view of scriptural authority and a clearcut view of biblical inspiration, so he had set out as well a few of the writings of noted "inerrancy" crusader and Dallas professor Norman Geisler. I myself recalled having heard a number of Dallas faculty members and graduates in recent years distance themselves from "hardline" dispensationalism, reducing C. I. Scofield’s highly articulated framework to virtually two principles: the literal reading of the text is to be preferred unless strong evidence indicates otherwise, and Israel and the church remain distinct in biblical chronology (and so in eschatology) to the end. Beyond these two principles, I thought, I also saw more interest in eschatology than in other traditions. Balmer’s instincts were sound here: the one class he visited was in this subject.

Balmer therefore correctly put the big Bible and pulpit in the center. Dallas’s self-proclaimed goal increasingly has been to train expositional preachers -- more than, say, pastors as counselors, social workers or ecumenical leaders. The clarity and confidence (some would say dogmatism and arrogance) typical of Dallas graduates naturally comes from "knowing" what the Bible says (through dispensationalist hermeneutics) and "knowing" that the Bible is the highest authority in all matters (through belief in its inerrancy).

Balmer noticed another part of the "Dallas man" ethos: the "man" part. The other side of his display was a videotape presentation of the class he visited. It showed a teacher, one of the seminary’s oldest and most respected, freely answering male students’ questions while deflecting with a Bible quotation a female student’s question -- to loud male laughter and her embarrassment. The tape had been edited, so I wasn’t entirely sure of the fairness of Balmer’s version, but his main point was undoubtedly sound: Dallas and its constituency are closed to the idea of women preaching. Indeed, only in 1986 were women admitted to the standard Dallas pastoral degree program, and they still are not allowed to take homiletics, since they are assumed to have no need of it.

Perhaps it was only accidental, but the temperature in this gallery seemed much lower than in the Calvary Chapel room, and Balmer’s own tone was frosty. He made a few remarks about how Dallas’s view of things reflected a general antipathy among some evangelicals toward contemporary culture, but I was still puzzled, given Balmer’s criticism, as to why anyone would find this kind of religion attractive, and I wished our guide had helped us to see that a little better.

In the next gallery we viewed some clips from the work of film director Don Thompson, who had produced some sensational, if well-produced, movies which had graphically depicted the "end times" la Hal Lindsey. Despite Balmer’s obvious ambivalence about some of the films’ content and with evangelical use of mass media in general, Thompson had impressed him as a "godly Christian."

Evangelical Neal Frisby obviously had impressed Balmer too, but not positively. His gallery was a small-scale mockup of his Capstone Cathedral in Phoenix, a pyramid-like structure in which Frisby has conducted his high-octane healing services since the early 1970s. Again, Balmer included some historical memorabilia to help us understand the tradition of faith healing in America, but clearly this example was extreme even by its extraordinary standards. Indeed, I left wondering whether this self-acclaimed "Rainbow prophet" wouldn’t be seen as actually a cult leader by most of the other people Balmer described as evangelicals.

Squarely (and I mean that) in the mainstream of evangelicalism was the "Adirondack fundamentalism" of Jack Wyrtzen’s Word of Life summer camp. The most striking part of the display was a skit Balmer had arranged of a "testimony campfire." The actors nicely captured the strong, if fleeting and often contradictory, emotions of the campers, who spoke of past failures and resolutions to serve the Lord better (while perhaps yet afraid that things really wouldn’t change). Some of us remembered, though, that powerful issues of self-esteem and sexuality often pulsed beneath all of this spiritual concern. Perhaps Balmer had been a more spiritual camper than most; he mentioned only teen love, and that only in sweet, gentle terms. Several of us, though, recalled enduring mean-spirited competition among campers to see who could be the most "spiritual" or the most "worldly" (or, mirabile dictu, to be both "Christian" and "cool"!) And others spoke of the temptations of all those shorts and bathing suits and emotional nights around the campfire and darkness so deep no one could see you hold hands or steal kisses during the prayers. Released from fundamentalist homes at last, some kids sprang in the other direction.

The next room snapped us back to the adult present: the bracing froth of the 1988 presidential campaign. In a room festooned with bunting and campaign posters, with telephones ringing in the background, Balmer nicely covered the various characteristics (naïveté, enthusiasm and more than a little self-righteousness) and concerns (from abortion to "secularist" influences upon education) of evangelicals newly involved in this arena. He also noted the irony of so many premillenialists, convinced that civilization will steadily decline until the second coming of Christ working for all the world (as it were) like postmillennialists intent on bringing in the kingdom through hard, faithful effort.

Education seemed the last thing being advanced at the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association. The gallery Balmer had constructed oppressed us: "Jesus junk" was everywhere, from frisbees to pocket lights with Bible verses printed on each. There were books, but they were either endless varieties of Bibles (in a bewildering range of translations, "study versions" arid covers) or fluffy self-help and romance books. Music blared from speakers -- almost all of it the homogenized, "easy listening" sound of "Christian contemporary music." The whole thing reeked of avarice and bad taste.

The contrast in the next room could hardly have been more stark. Suddenly we were in the windy silence of North Dakota, looking through some snapshots of the ministry of Father Innocent Good House, a Sioux and rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. According to Balmer, Good House was a proper evangelical who exhorted his congregation to have personal devotions and to evangelize their friends, but who also attempted to demonstrate parallels between Christianity and native culture so as to encourage his flock to enjoy the best of both worlds. Balmer clearly sympathized with this concern, although he included testimony from other evangelicals among the Native Americans who feared the resurgence of certain Native traditions as a threat to true Christianity and therefore saw Good House’s project as dangerous, if not illegitimate.

Balmer’s ambivalence about evangelicalism and his deep sympathy for those in its orbit who did not fully fit into it was evident in the next room, about a holiness camp meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida. Camp Freedom, to Balmer, seemed to offer anything but freedom. Here preachers inveighed not only against the perils of the world outside but against those within the church who attended church only on Sunday mornings (rather than also on Sunday evenings and weeknights) , who wore makeup and fashionable clothes, and who entertained themselves with dancing, movies or card games. Holiness was very much up to the individual’s own will, it seemed, and one’s eternal destiny depended upon the cultivation of holiness. "We don’t go to heaven to become saints," one preacher declared. "We become saints to go to heaven."

Meeting one "saint," however, obviously had affected Balmer deeply. He played a recording of his conversation with an elderly man who was a regular at the meeting and who could spout all the correct clichés. But then the man admitted, "I’m a homosexual," and proceeded to pour out his story of decades of attempting, not always successfully, to live in celibacy. Balmer then reflected upon the surpassing sadness of this man approaching 70 whose echoing of the camp meeting rhetoric of "blessed assurance" made it seem so superficial in the shade of his fears that he yet was not certain of his eventual standing before God. We heard the old man’s teary voice as we exited the gallery: "Sin is not worth it, because that one little sin may keep you out of heaven."

Balmer played us quite a bit of a recording he had made of conversation with Frank. I began to wonder if Balmer was a little devious here, letting Frank opine on his behalf.

"Yes," he allowed, "I did let Frank do some talking for me. What I admire about Frank is his ability to maintain a distance from all the ephemera of American evangelicalism without discarding his faith. It’s my impression, moreover, that most people reared in the evangelical subculture either embrace it altogether or abandon it altogether. Either option strikes me as disingenous, an easy way around a tradition that is at once rich in theological insights and mired in contradictions."

Balmer went on to describe evangelicalism as a tradition bound by doctrines (I would have said "beliefs and concerns") rather than one linked by ethnicity, history, liturgy or other things that unite other groups. In their shared convictions evangelicals have definitions of the world which include right and wrong, good and bad, insider and outsider. Everyone needs boundaries, Balmer affirmed, and evangelicalism provides attractively clear ones for many who fear the ambiguity and even despair of contemporary culture.

Evangelicalism is also, Balmer continued, a quintessentially American religious phenomenon in its ability to thrive in the pluralism of American religious disestablishment. The basic product, Balmer could have said had he been unkind, can be repackaged in a wide variety of ways to suit a large range of tastes. Some tastes, he did say, have been catered to quite inappropriately, and he singled out the widespread theology of prosperity and the uncritical embrace of both the technology and values of mass media as examples of the adulteration of evangelical religion.

His final main point was that each of the galleries we had visited represented a kind of socially constructed "world," an alternative to the larger culture into which evangelicals could retreat. Indeed, he said, "the entire evangelical subculture itself is a socially constructed reality. . . Evangelicals feel secure within the cocoon of this contrived universe of churches, summer camps, Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries."

I thought this last idea was both right and wrong. Yes, these institutions did help to constitute an alternative reality, but No, I couldn’t accept the wholly pejorative way Balmer put this point. Surely Peter Berger himself would have affirmed at least some of this "huddling together" in supportive institutions as necessary for any group that wishes to withstand the collective force of the larger culture. The nature of and perhaps the attitudes within those institutions doubtless are open to criticism, but the forming of some such "countercultural" societies (e.g., congregations) seems intrinsic to the Christian faith.

I also questioned whether the evangelistic impulse, underplayed in Balmer’s original definition of "evangelicalism," really got a good look in his travels. Perhaps a visit to a training center for missionaries like Moody Bible Institute or to the head office of a mission agency would have helped balance things better.

Finally -- perhaps this was my historian’s bias -- I would have liked some attention to actual historical connections between these people, if there were any. Such an investigation might help us see if there really is an evangelical "something" out there, rather than just some "type" of religious phenomena. Are there institutions (like Wheaton College, say) or individuals (like Billy Graham) that somehow link these various bits? Or are they "united" by common affirmations yet separated by doctrinal and moral idiosyncrasies, geography, social status and so on? Answering this sort of question would perhaps have helped confirm what is central and what is peripheral in American evangelicalism. For example, if two groups affirm that they hold these "fundamental" convictions in common and yet don’t cooperate, doesn’t this imply something about what they do consider most basic?

I broke out of my reverie to hear Balmer make a few comments about how evangelicalism will probably continue to meet at least some people’s needs in the future. He concluded: "I heard the gospel at various discrete moments in my travels. . . That the evangelical gospel can still be heard at all above the din of what passes for evangelicalism in America today is miracle enough perhaps, to capture the attention of even the most jaded observers. What it all means I’m not yet sure, but I now find it less easy to dismiss the preposterous evangelical claims about a God of amazing grace who, despite our bumbling and nonsense and hoary theological schemes, saves us from ourselves." With these ambivalent words, the ambassador kindly dismissed us, and we headed into the stormy blast.

I hailed a cab right away and settled down in the backseat to muse about where Balmer’s loyalties ultimately lay. I looked down at the program damp and crumpled in my hand and noticed for the first time some small print at the very bottom dedicating the project to Balmer’s son. It seemed to reveal something of Balmer’s final allegiance: "For Christian," it read, "who in time will find his place in the patchwork quilt of American evangelicalism."


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