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David Bebbington

Not So Exceptional After All

American evangelicalism reassessed.

A real-life character in one of these books, a Mississippi Baptist insurance company executive, recounts an unusual Christian testimony. As a teenager, he had started pilfering from a local grocery store, but one day he was caught, taken by the owner into a back room, and directed to sit down facing the man's desk. A pistol lay on one side of the desk, a Bible on the other. Either, the storeowner told him, the lad would be handed over at gunpoint to the police, or he would listen to some Bible passages. He chose the latter option, found himself convicted of sin and ran home to ask God to change his life. "So," he concluded, "that's how I became a Christian." The menacing with a pistol may be exceptional, but the subsequent denouement was not. The Mississippi teenager went through the conversion experience that forms the entry gate to evangelical religion. He became one of the millions of Americans who form the subject of the volumes here under review.

Conversion is just one of the four characteristics that, in combination, evangelicals habitually display. Alongside that hallmark are an eagerness to learn from the Bible, an activism rooted in zeal for the gospel, and an appeal to the Cross as the means of redemption. It is welcome that all five books mention each of these four points, not neglecting, as many efforts to describe the key qualities of American evangelicals have done, the atoning work of Christ—even if the study by Monique El-Faizy relegates the Cross to a subordinate position. Only if some such set of criteria is deployed can the extent of evangelicalism in modern America be plotted. Self-identification is far from conclusive, since evangelicals do not necessarily use the term of themselves. In a recent survey undertaken by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, a mere 15 percent of the respondents classed by the investigators as evangelicals employed the word as a self-description. So, even in studies where people are asked their religious allegiance, ...

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