BOOK REVIEW: Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity

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The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity appears to be one of the first in a series of small introductory books on various religious topics (The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah was released at the same time). In this volume the author presents an overview of Evangelical Christianity covering evangelicalism’s definition, beliefs, history, and current status politically and culturally. It includes a glossary of “church-speak” and a very good reading list.

The book comes across in a friendly manner and is claimed to be written by an insider. Zoba does well in her attempt to dispel the negative stereotypes surrounding Evangelicalism (one of the stated purposes of her writing [3]), although she does not flinch from reporting its more embarrassing features. She also prefaces the book by stating that she does not speak for all evangelicals, a welcome admission considering some of her later statements. She gives a good definition of this difficult-to-define movement which can be summarized as those Christians having: an emphasis on a born again experience, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, belief in a reliable and authoritative Bible, and an obligation to share their faith [4-5]. This is followed by a very good section on just what the gospel is and why it was necessary for Christ to die for sin. Another valuable section includes a brief history of the movement and its relation to Fundamentalism [chapters 5-6]. Her explanation of Evangelical fascination with Eschatology is fair and balanced, as is her section on popular culture (such as Evangelicalism’s reaction to the arts [ch. 7]).

The book is certainly not perfect, however. While no single error necessarily makes the book completely unacceptable, there are many of them and taken together make the book of questionable value. While the author often distinguishes between those doctrinal features of Evangelicalism that fall within a range of acceptable possibilities and those that do not, she makes questionable or even false claims in other areas that she implies are fairly unanimous.

One troublesome assertion is her explanation of the Trinity where she writes, “The concept of the Trinity asserts that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit perform differing functions but share the same essence, . . .” [14, emphasis in original]. This smacks of heretical Modalism and does not make the more important distinction of the persons rather than their functions.

There is also a repeated referral to a “strangely warming” sensation that Evangelicals allegedly equate with the influence of the Holy Spirit [15-18]. I have been an Evangelical for over 15 years and the only time I have heard a phrase like this referring to God’s interaction with us was from Mormons (note: this wording is said to be taken from Christian sources – possibly Wesley? –  but it can hardly be described as normative).

A somewhat vague Charismaticism is assumed [e.g. 18] without mention of those who hold to Cessationism. Some important questions are also left open making it appear as though Evangelicalism is still struggling with issues that have actually been adequately answered (e.g. the fate of those who never heard the gospel is said to be a “mystery beyond human reckoning” [41]).

Her sections on morality leave much to be desired as well. The homosexual issue is considered to be more of an marketing problem for Evangelicals than a true moral dilemma, and the abortion debate is relegated to politics [83-88]. In her section on the former she allows the ridiculous question “How did homosexuality leap over murder and adultery?” to stand as an assessment of culture’s influence on Evangelicalism rather than its reliance on Scripture [83]. She even makes the bizarre conclusion from Romans 1:26-27 that “the seemingly really bad sins as well as innocuous ones carry the same result” [86] (which is the exact opposite of Paul’s discussion here). Other statements like “the evangelical approach to justice [is] restorative, not retributive” [100] are also less than representative. It would have been better to simply state only her views (as such) or always include all options. Mixing the two without notice paints an inaccurate picture of the evangelical landscape.

The intended readership appears to be those who know little about, but desire to learn more of, the evangelical form of Christianity. Those familiar with Evangelicalism may spot the errors, and those who are not might not even notice (or remember) them. Thus, it is a good introductory source for getting the big picture – so long as it is followed up by a more knowledgeable, careful, and representative source for the details.

It should be noted that the book’s marginally acceptable status is not aided by the fact that it may lead the more curious seeker to explore the website which is its namesake. The book claims on the back that Beliefnet® is “the premier source of information on religion and spirituality”. This is a rather arrogant claim and no support is given for it. Beliefnet® is actually a website (www.beliefnet.com) that features articles on various religious topics by a variety of authors. Unfortunately there is no official spokesperson for Evangelicalism, and this opens the door for a wide variety of claims under that banner. “Christianity” contributors range from Richard Mouw to T. D. Jakes to Marcus Borg, thus providing a bewildering assortment of opinions. The uninformed reader will likely be far more confused after a perusal of this “premier source of information” than they were before they began.

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