Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
Yale University Press, 2008
256 pp., $40.00
No Longer at Ease Here
Vincent van Gogh's life story is as forceful as his paintings. What must it have been like dutifully to get out of bed one crisp autumn Sunday morning in 1876 and go to church, only to discover that he was the preacher? Underwhelming, apparently. Only after years of trying unsuccessfully to become a Christian minister did van Gogh eventually abandon this vocational path. If he came to think that Christianity was too outmoded to meet the needs of the day, nevertheless, as a true artist, he did not go around spouting such generalities. Instead, as Hempton insightfully explicates, he offered the world a sharply observed particularity, The Old Church Tower at Nuenen.
For this reader, the most moving portrait in this consistently engaging book is that of James Baldwin. He was raised on the harrowing street life of Harlem, the stepson of an abusive Baptist preacher man. Hempton vividly describes how an evangelical church became his city of refuge: "Tormented by sexual feelings he could neither understand nor control, fearful of a surrounding culture of pimps, drunks, and criminals, and subjected to endless harassment by white policemen, Baldwin forsook the bright lights of the city for the 'safety' of the theatrical rituals of the church."
This church was the Mount Calvary Assembly Hall of the Pentecostal Faith Church for All Nations. Its eminent senior pastor was Mother Horn (once again, demonstrating that a critique of male interpretations of the Bible is a tradition within evangelicalism itself). Baldwin was slain in the Spirit and, when restored to consciousness, heard the good news that he was saved. He soon was pursuing his own preaching ministry.
Baldwin's later ideological rejection of evangelical Christianity was absolute and thoroughgoing, making all the more resonant his continuing tribute to the visceral force of its piety:
There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing … . Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and glory that I sometimes felt, when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, "the Word."
Evangelical Disenchantment is a book that needed to be written, and David Hempton was the perfect person to do it. First, he is a superb scholar, doing the research with care and the analysis with real insight and sensitivity. (The only mistake that stood out was that he attributes the phrase "the dissidence of Dissent" to Matthew Arnold, while that critic was actually quoting Edmund Burke. I don't think this derivative citation will do unwary readers any harm, but finding it gave me an enormous sense of self-satisfaction.) Second, Hempton is unflinching enough to tell evangelicals what they do not want to hear, while sympathetic enough not to lose sight of the strengths of this Christian tradition.
There is a genuine cumulative effect to his book. Patterns do emerge from these portraits. Hempton observes that these people were often frustrated idealists. If I may augment this argument, it is also noticeable that many of them once championed an unusually strict or rigid form of evangelicalism. Although this detail is not mentioned in the book, George Eliot, at the height of her teenage evangelical phase, condemned Handel's Messiah as too worldly. Likewise, Theodore Dwight Weld is shown here rebuking the great evangelist Charles Finney for occasionally unwinding in his free time rather than relentlessly sustaining spiritual intensity: "I fear [revivals] are fast becoming with you a sort of trade, to be worked at so many hours every day and then laid aside." Setting the bar so high, it is hardly surprising that Weld eventually gave up and settled into a placid Unitarian fellowship.
Is evangelicalism today too accustomed to breezy, overconfident answers to contemporary intellectual challenges to retain some of its most thoughtful adherents? Is it too widely aligned with reactionary forces and the status quo to allow impassioned social reformers to stay in the camp? Does the evangelical movement demand so much prepackaged conformity from its supporters that it drives away some of its most creative followers? Let us pray.
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press), and he is at work on a book about the Bible in the 19th century.
1. For an elegant elucidation of this claim, see Alan Jacobs, Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2008).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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