Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen, Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything): An Insider’s Look at Myths and Realities (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2010). $16.99, 224 pages.
What is evangelical Christianity?
In Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong, Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen set out to discover “an adequate and accurate definition” by identifying and critiquing several caricatures of the movement on the basis of “the empirical realities of evangelicalism’s history, its present composition, and its trajectories toward the future.”
The chapter titles identify the caricatures. Readers learn that “Evangelicals Are Not All…”
- Mean, Stupid, and Dogmatic (ch. 2)
- Waiting for the Rapture (ch. 3)
- Anti-evolutionists (ch. 4)
- Inerrantists (ch. 5)
- Rich Americans (ch. 6)
- Calvinists (ch. 7)
- Republicans (ch. 8 )
- Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic (ch. 9)
Wilkens and Thorsen don’t deny that some evangelicals are any—or all—of these things. Rather, they argue that “we should not confuse the social [or theological] agendas of particular evangelicals with evangelicalism’s agenda.”
Both outsiders and insiders to the evangelical movement contribute to this confusion, by the way. For example, the New Atheists caricature evangelicals as anti-evolutionist and anti-science. What to do, then, with Francis Collins, who is both an evangelical and an evolutionist? Some evangelical historiographers caricature the movement as Calvinist revivalism. What to do, then, with my denomination, the Assemblies of God, which is a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals and not Calvinist?
Caricatures aside, evangelical Christianity encompasses a diversity of theological commitments, denominational loyalties, political affiliations, ethnic identities, and social classes. It always has. The leaders of the Great Awakening—Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley—exemplify this diversity. Edwards and Whitefield were Calvinists. The Wesley brothers were Arminians. Edwards was a Congregationalist. Whitefield and the Wesleys were Anglicans. Edwards died before the American Revolution, but his sons were Patriots. John Wesley publicly denounced the Revolution. He also published expurgated versions of Edwards’ writings on revival and preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon.
Does anything hold this diversity together? Evangelicals tend to be conservative doctrinally, although this conservatism is generic rather than specific. Remember, not all evangelicals subscribe to a pre-trip rapture of the church, young-earth creationism, biblical inerrancy (as opposed to biblical infallibility), or Calvinist soteriology. For evangelicals who subscribe to these specific beliefs, chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7 may be tough to read. Evangelicals tend to be conservative morally, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into political conservatism or allegiance to the Republican party. White evangelicals tend to be Republicans, but African-American and Hispanic evangelicals tend to be Democrats.
At the self-acknowledged risk of oversimplification, Wilkens and Thorsen settle on this definition of evangelical Christianity: “Evangelicals are people of the Great Commission.” In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is “the basic impulse of evangelicalism,” which derives its very name from euaggelion, the Greek word for “gospel.”
Evangelicals are gospel people.
I heartily recommend Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong to anyone, whether an outsider or an insider, who struggles to understand the meaning and significance of the evangelical movement. The book debunks stereotypes, complexifies issues where needed, and simplifies definitions where possible. Most importantly, clarifies the nature of evangelical Christianity, which has tremendous influence in North America and growing influence worldwide.
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