Friday, June 26, 2015

Religious Travelogue at its Best: American Evangelicalism in Recent Times

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In the prologue to his classic study of conservative Protestantism in late twentieth-century America, Randall Balmer writes: "This is a book about popular evangelicalism, a kind of travelogue into the evangelical subculture in America, a subculture that encompasses fundamentalists, charismatics, and pentecostals" (4-5). With that, he launches into a series of chapters, each one taking him to a different place, each one offering him a different slice of his topic. A few highlights:

Chapter 1, "California Kickback," recounts a 1987 visit to Calvary Chapel, an evangelical mega-church in Santa Ana, California. Under the leadership of pastor Chuck Smith, the church took off in the 1970s when leaders began preaching to washouts from the hippie counterculture in Southern California. As Balmer describes it, the church seems to have taken on certain aspects of the counterculture. At least some long-time members of the congregation are "Jesus people" from the 70s. Yet, Calvary Chapel attracts a remarkably wide variety of folks, attesting to the fact that the church is something much more than a big group of "hippies for Christ."

The setting for Chapter 5, "Adirondack Fundamentalism," is thousands of miles from Southern California: Word of Life Fellowship on Schroon Lake in upstate New York. Balmer describes Word of Life's summer Bible camp for teens in the summer of 1987. He chronicles some of the awkward, anxious religious lives of kids growing up in a devout Protestant home. He also discusses the historic issue of transmitting a vibrant faith from one generation to the next.

Chapter 14, "Oregon Jeremiad," tells the story of Balmer's 1986 visit to the Oregon Extension of Trinity College. Trinity is located in the suburbs of Chicago, while the small Western extension school is in Lincoln, Oregon, at a former logging camp in the Cascade Mountains. The extension and small church there, as Balmer describes the community, is a refuge for smart but sort-of-odd people who wouldn't fit in very well in one of the power centers of American evangelicalism, and who wouldn't want to.

Chapter 15, "Prime Time" was written in 1998, ten years after Jimmy Swaggart's public fall from grace following the discovery of his voyeuristic involvement with more than one prostitute. Balmer visited the Family Life Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Swaggart's church. According to the author's description, Donnie Swaggart, the son of the evangelist, became contentious when Balmer told him he was there on assignment to write an article for Christianity Today magazine. By contrast, Jimmy was very gracious and likable. (After the worship service, Balmer accidentally met up with the Swaggarts at a nearby restaurant). Balmer describes what the church and college campus looked like then. Only about 45 students attended Swaggart's college. Not many people attended the church services, and the sprawling campus of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries was poorly maintained.

Those were, in my opinion, some of the more engaging chapters. But there are over a dozen more. In the "Afterword: Twenty-Five Years Later," written in 2014, Balmer revisits some of the places he'd gone to and people he had spoken with a quarter century before. It's an interesting version of "Where are they now?"

I suspect that Balmer's work has appealed to so many readers through the years because it smoothly and consistently brings together four qualities: vivid description, historical context, penetrating analysis, and the author's own personal reflections.

There was one thing that I, involved with Churches of Christ all of my life, wondered about. In recent years, some scholars have asked about the degree to which Christians with roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement might be described as evangelicals. Along that line it might be significant that in this wide-ranging book, in which the author frequently draws connections between history and his contemporary subjects, the following names and terms do not appear in the Index: Campbell, Churches of Christ, Restoration, and Stone. I don't believe that's a mistake. Restorationists, Campbellite Disciples, Stoneite Christians, whatever you want to call them, are in a real sense not evangelicals. It appears that perhaps this book provides indirect evidence to support that conclusion.

No comments: