Everything You Know About Evangelicals is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything)
Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen.
The stated purpose of Everything You Know About Evangelicals is Wrong is “to find an adequate and accurate definition of Evangelicalism” (p. 11). This is a loftier goal than many might guess. The method the authors propose is to “examine several characteristics commonly linked to Evangelicalism, and reject them as essential attributes” (p. 11) [Note: this review cites a pre-publication review manuscript, the final page numbers may not match]. The attributes chosen make up the titles of chapters 2-9 of the book, each of which begins with Evangelicals Are Not All: (2) Mean, Stupid, and Dogmatic, (3) Waiting for the Rapture, (4) Anti-Evolutionists, (5) Inerrantists, (6) Rich Americans, (7) Calvinists, (8) Republicans, and (9) Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic. The book concludes with a consideration of evangelicals as “People of the Great Commission.”
As the authors note in the Introduction, there are four audience types in mind for the book: (1) secular non-evangelicals, (2) self-identifying evangelicals who are unable to say what the word “evangelical” means, (3) self-identifying evangelicals who define the movement according to some doctrinal, sociological, political, or lifestyle criteria, and (4) those who doubt that the word “evangelical” is even useful. In order to address each audience type, the authors state that their investigation will be based on “an attempt to find a foundation in the empirical realities of Evangelicalism’s history, its present composition, and its trajectories toward the future” (p. 12).
Chapters 2-9 provide excellent summaries of historical facts, current statistics, and forward-looking advice concerning each chapter’s theme. Even when the authors’ bias does show (and it is sometimes simply stated), they generally provide balanced presentations on each issue, giving arguments from all sides of most debates. Oddly, this will probably be seen as one of the book’s most irksome features—for anyone who believes that evangelicals need to take a strong stand on either side of any of these issues may to that degree find themselves frustrated over the authors’ lack of dogmatism. Overall, though, the research and provision of broader considerations is certainly useful. Especially enlightening is the authors’ challenge to consider Christianity outside of America where it is growing and thriving despite depressing Barna polls.
While making up the bulk of the book, however, chapters 2-9 are reliant for their value on the success of chapters 1 and 9—those dealing with defining Evangelicalism. Historical facts and current statistics are only helpful insofar as they represent the group they are said to represent—but this is the very issue in question. If, for example, a “Type-3” audience member is correct in identifying Evangelicalism with “Dogmatic-Pretribulational-Calvinistic-Inerrantists,” then the authors’ evangelical sample group would have been misidentified if they included non-Dogmatic- Pretribulational-Calvinistic-Inerrantists as evangelicals. The authors state toward the end of the book that, “As much as we want to contribute to defining the nature and extent of evangelical Christianity, the main purpose of this book is to extricate it from caricatures wrongly and detrimentally identified with the movement” (p. 202). But the authors must have their own working definition of Evangelicalism before they can even begin their project. The content of the book makes it clear that the authors believe many in the “Type-3” audience are simply incorrect—but who are the authors to make such pronouncements? This is an issue the authors admit is a problem, for Evangelicalism “has no formal membership process, standardized belief statement, centralized organizational headquarters, or official spokesperson” (p. 23). Lacking the center needed to authoritatively define the movement, the essence of Evangelicalism (if such a thing exists) is left open to debate.
So were the authors successful in their quest for adequate and accurate definition of Evangelicalism? While a completely negative assessment would not prove fruitful, the authors provide adequate proof that some group’s essence is not found in the above criteria. But, again, what is this group? Unfortunately, the authors include only bits and pieces of their working definition in the Introduction, saving their clearest statements for the Conclusion. For example, Evangelicalism is contrasted with fundamentalism and liberalism (p. 20), as well as mainline (i.e., denominational) Christianity (p. 21). Essential-sounding assertions are made concerning the need for evangelicals to affirm preserving human dignity and the supreme authority, sufficiency, trustworthiness, and divine inspiration of Scripture (pp. 68 and 84). This last, which seems to be a clear Protestant statement of sola Scriptura, might be seen to exclude Roman Catholicism and Eastern forms of Orthodoxy (the authors are, however, willing to let these “riffraff” into Evangelicalism’s fold—see p. 200, especially point 9).
The authors’ clearest statements in the Introduction concern one’s “passionate faith commitment” (p. 20). This “orthopathy” seems to be the glue that unites all of those whom the authors see as evangelicals. Thus, it seems that a warm heart for a humanistic-non-denominational-yet-Protestant Christianity is the key. But is this sufficient? At one troublesome point the authors assert that, “it would not be Evangelicalism if it was inconsistent with the essentials of historical Christian doctrine” (p. 24). However, they do not give any guidance as to what those essentials might be. In fact, they later imply that some evangelicals do not hold to at least one creedal essential. In their section on the rapture the authors say, “While many evangelicals do not believe in premillennial eschatology, most of them agree that we should expect the physical return of Jesus.” As part of the Nicene Creed, the belief in Jesus’ return is an essential—at least for orthodoxy. If only “most” evangelicals believe the doctrine, then it would seem that orthodoxy is not required for Evangelicalism. This problem is exacerbated when, in the book’s final chapter, the authors define evangelicals as “people of the Great Commission.” But could not Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses meet this criterion? Such a conclusion would not comport well with other statements by the authors such as, “We are big fans of orthodoxy” (p. 142), but it may be seen to follow from the authors’ reluctance to exclude from Evangelicalism virtually anyone claiming to be evangelical.
A wide net will catch many fish, and so will a vague category catch many members. Indeed, “a theme that runs between the lines of this entire book is the ambiguity of the term ‘evangelical’” (p. 142). Could we really label as evangelical one who is pro-abortion, polygamous, and polytheistic, simply because he has a heart for sharing the gospel? Most would probably say no, and the authors do assert that they “like to think of evangelical Christianity at least in terms of right beliefs (orthodoxy), right actions (orthopraxis), and right feelings, affections, and relations (orthopathy).” They go on to assert that, “Evangelicalism may be defined in ways that include more than these categories, but they cannot contain less” (p. 201). This is a welcome addition to their mere “people of the great commission” definition, but it may be too little too late. Without adequate explanations of what counts as orthodoxy / orthopraxy, all we are left with is some vague orthopathy. Without the addition of clearly formulated doctrinal and ethical requirements, this definition hardly excludes the Fundamentalists, Liberals, and members of Mainline Denominations that the authors contrast Evangelicalism with earlier. It also opens Evangelicalism up to religious crackpots and cultists.
In the end, the authors do a good job of extricating Evangelicalism “from caricatures wrongly and detrimentally identified with the movement” (p. 202). Of course if any group is defined widely enough, then most any of its caricatures can be dispelled. Much of what many would consider required for one to be legitimately evangelical, however, has been left to assumption. Thus, when the authors do eventually give their definition of Evangelicalism, the net may be too wide (an issue the authors are well aware of—see, for example, pp. 142-143). Whether this is due to a mistake on the authors’ part, or due to the authors’ accurate assessment of Evangelicalism’s lack of an “essence” (e.g., pp. 197-198) remains to be seen.
One issue that the authors bring up in a section on evolution is worth pursuing more fully with regard to the identification question. From pages 69 to 72, an important distinction is made concerning “isms.” The authors point out that one can believe in creation without being a “creationist” (pp. 69-70, see also ch. 4 fn14.). This distinction is possible because attaching the “ism” suffix to a term makes it into a movement or system. Likewise, adding the “ist” suffix denotes a follower or member of said movement or system. The key here is that adding “ism” to a word changes its referent. But this practice is not followed when it comes to Evangelicalism and evangelicals, and this may be a cause of confusion. Being evangelical may simply mean to believe in the need for personal conversion to Christianity according to the biblical gospel (caring about the gospel is, as the authors note, just to be a Christian [see pp. 198-199]). But whatever its past, Evangelicalism today is often identified as more of a cultural movement—a collection of individualistic ministries that that produces evangelical tracts, gospel movies, Contemporary Christian Music, fish bumper stickers, and the “Jesus Junk” found in most Christian bookstores. Attempting to define the culture of Evangelicalism according to standard religious categories may add to the problem of discovering a useful definition in the first place.