Recently in Published 1970-1979 Category

Title: The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing
Editor: David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge
Year Published: 1975
Pages: 304

The death of evangelicalism had been greatly exaggerated. This was the basic message of The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing. And it was published in 1975!

Now thirty-five years later, evangelicalism is still a vibrant movement. Is there any way the writers in this collection of essays could have imagined what would happen in the following more than quarter of a century? Focus on the Family would not be formed until two years after its publication. CCM was a fledgling movement then; now it is a multi-million dollar industry. We’ve managed to get two presidents of the United States elected since then. The success of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush can largely be attributed to evangelicals.

As far as I’m aware, The Evangelicals is not a particularly significant book. It’s no longer in print though you wouldn’t have too much trouble finding a copy if you really wanted to (as of writing this, there are twenty-three used copies available on Amazon starting as cheap as $1.60). Although many of the authors are well-known evangelicals even today, none of the essays are considered seminal that I know of.

So what led me to this book? Curiosity. Being the book lover that I am, when I heard the library at a small Christian college not far from where I live was having a book sale, I rushed over. Paperbacks were fifty cents and hardbacks were seventy-five cents. At that sale, I picked up books by renowned Biblical scholars Martin Buber, Martin Dibelius, and Phyllis Trible.

Then I came across this hardback missing its dust cover. It’s cover was falling apart (I’ve since taped it back together). But its title caught my eye. The history of evangelicalism is something I am intently interested in, and I was familiar with the names of the editors. Since I was out less than a dollar if the book ended up being a dud, I decided to take a chance on this tattered, yellow book.

When historians study personal letters from a certain time period, most of those letters are not significant. But reading what people were writing to each other during that time helps you get a feel for what it was like to live then. There are many excellent histories of evangelicalism available. But it is different to read a book about evangelicalism in the 1970s and to read a book about evangelicalism from the 1970s. The reason I decided to read this book was a curiosity about what it was like to be an evangelical before I was born.

To my amazement, many of the changes and growing pains evangelicalism was experiencing during the 1970s were not that different from the changes and growing pains evangelicals are dealing with today. It is not that we should study history lest we’re doomed to repeat it; we should study history because we are doomed to repeat it.

Back to the statement I made at the very beginning of my review. The death of evangelicalism had been greatly exaggerated, or, as the editors put it in their introduction, “the demise of evangelical Protestantism, both in the popular imagination and the academic mind, had appeared so complete” (9). The Scopes Trial of 1925 had “seemingly crushed” (12) evangelicalism.

But there was a resurgence of evangelicalism at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. By the end of the 1960s, to many people, “their faith had resulted in an escape from the horrors of the drug world, rescue from the free, but dehumanized love of the counterculture” (16).

The postmodernism of the 1990s and 2000s convinced many people that they could construct their own truth and reality. Why follow the church your parents went to when you can make up your own faith? Like people became disillusioned with the drug and free love culture at the end of the 1960s, I predict the 2010s will see people become disillusioned with buffet-style religion and return to orthodox faith.

Beginning in the 1940s, evangelicals wanted to differentiate themselves from fundamentalists while still identifying as conservative. One essay calls these evangelicals “new conservatives” (34). The same spirit can be seen among what Roger Olson calls “postconservatives” today. They want to respect the evangelicalism of the generation that came before them, but they also want to explore new ways of expressing their evangelicalism.

My favorite essay was Paul L. Holmer’s “Contemporary Evangelical Faith: An Asessment and Critique.” I will leave you with some quotes from his excellent essay:

[M]ost American evangelicals…have…not quite succeeded in being respectable. [T]hey have kept…the mood of Christianity being a minority movement, alive amid their erstwhile success. The oddness of God is almost shown you in the difficulties the evangelicals have in being true to him. The more smoothly run ecclesiastical outfits by comparison tend also to tame God (68).

[For evangelicals] becoming and being a Christian was and is a shattering experience neither a churchly performance nor an alternative code of life (69).

[S]uffering the angularity of trying to be evangelical and an intellectual, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the evangelicals had never completely forgotten how hard it is to integrate God with what we want to make of ourselves. The God of the Bible will have us his way, or not at all (69).