The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson (Harvard University Press, 2011)
It would be easy to be misled by this book’s title. It could well be the latest combative tome by a conservative evangelical. Yet it’s published by Harvard University Press; the ‘anointed’ and the ‘evangelical truth’ have invisible scare quotes around them. It is a book which explores how evangelicals will follow the teachings of populist extremists like Ken Ham, David Barton, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye while paying less attention to more balanced, moderate and better-credentialed voices within evangelicalism like Francis Collins, Mark Noll, David Myers and Tom Wright in their respective fields.
As befits a book published by Harvard and aimed at a scholarly or educated general audience, the authors write as neutral, secular observers of the movement. Yet the back flap reveals that Stephens teaches history at the (evangelical) Eastern Nazarene College and Giberson used to teach physics there. (Stephens has since moved to Northumbria University.) They are actually insiders to the evangelical culture, writing as if outsiders. Perhaps the nature of the book required this pretense, but I think it would have been valuable to have an acknowledgement in the text itself of their own relationship to evangelicalism.
This criticism aside, their analysis is very good, offering a historical account of the rise of young earth creationism, the myth of Christian Founding Fathers of the USA, Focus on the Family and populist premillennial eschatology. In each case, ‘anointed’ men have popularised a fundamentalist message, claiming to have derived it straight from the Bible, unlike the liberal ‘experts’ whose education and research can be dismissed. A historical treatment is particularly valuable, placing these ideas within the context of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s.
Having been brought up to believe young earth creationism in Australia, I found it particularly fascinating to read about the key role Queenslander Ken Ham played in making young earth creationism far more popular than it had been in the USA since he moved there in the 1980s:
Before his arrival in 1987, ICR [Institute for Creation Research] representatives – with the exception of the superstars, Morris and Gish – spoke to crowds that sometimes measure only in the dozens, making dry technical presentations about problems with radioactive dating, transitional fossils… and so on. (42)
Ham’s genius was to have a ‘bottom up’ approach:
He would convince millions of ordinary people to reject evolution in the hopes that the grassroots groundswell would change society and work its way up, or at least marginalize the eggheads at the top. (43)
He achieved this with the glossy Creation magazine, books aimed at children and, more recently, the famous Creation Museum. In this account, he and the others have been brilliant populisers, speaking to the evangelical masses in ways they can understand and with personas they can trust.
The analysis of the four areas of Christian thought is entirely US-centred, and to a significant extent, this is a US phenomenon, with the final chapter offering an explanation in terms of US egalitarianism. Yet the anointed fundamentalists have a death grip on Australian evangelicalism too. The revisionist history is the least widespread phenomenon in Australia, but even this has its Australian equivalent, with popular writer Col Stringer insisting Australia is actually a Christian country, despite Tom Frame’s persuasive case otherwise. In the other three areas, Ham, Dobson and LaHaye are extremely influential. Why should this be? A lot of Australians dislike the Americanisation of their culture – yet in both Christian and secular culture, they are always taking it on. Australia has a similar disdain for experts; this is surely one factor.
The weakest chapter for me was the penultimate one, “A Carnival of Christians”, which tries to explain the phenomenon through the eyes of one particular subject, a young evangelical named Paul Miller in his twenties who has lived most of his life cloistered in this ‘parallel universe’ of evangelicalism, explaining how he could embrace it growing up and how it came into question when he was exposed to the wider world. It is an interesting attempt to humanize their argument, yet in this case the details of the particular dragged for me, rather than illuminating the whole.
Overall, I found the book compulsively readable and fair-minded in its attempts to understand the appeal of the anointed. I think there should be a unit in evangelicalism at theological colleges, and that this should be required reading, in the hope that the fish might come to recognise the water they are swimming in – and perhaps prospective pastors could find ways to steer their congregation toward the best thinking Christianity has to offer in each area of thought, rather than to the bestsellers.