_ by Randall Balmer _ Oxford University Press, 246 pages, $19.95
While familiarity and education both breed contempt for things like traditional religion, they also, especially in combination, can spawn interesting insights into traditional religious life. Randall Balmer’s study of the American evangelical subculture. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, provides a case in point. Balmer, a teacher of American religious history at Columbia who in his own words “grew up fundamentalist,” has produced a description of popular American evangelicalism that is at once skeptical and yet full of keen perceptions.
The idea behind Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory was simply for Balmer to travel around America and examine by way of interview “popular” evangelicalism (as opposed to that expressed by official evangelical leaders or media representatives). The book is a kind of American “travelogue” in the tradition of Tocqueville and Steinbeck. There was a particular need for this, Balmer felt, in that recent media coverage, by relying upon shopworn stereotypes created by the likes of Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken and by focusing exclusively upon the more spectacular expressions of American evangelicalism, had consistently failed to understand the movement. As he puts it, “I wanted to show variations within a subculture generally regarded as monolithic.” At another level, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory reflects Balmer’s attempts to come to grips with the meaning of his own fundamentalist past and to identify “those kernels of truth and insight into the human condition” that he suspects are embedded within the evangelical message but that have become distorted by consumerism and other corrosive elements of American culture.
Balmer makes a great many stops in his tour of American evangelicalism. He begins with a visit to Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, one of Southern California’s famed “megachurches.” He is interested to see if “routinization” has begun to set in at Calvary Chapel after almost two decades of explosive growth that began in the Jesus movement of the 1970s. While Calvary Chapel has continued to thrive, Balmer does find its evangelistic outreach somewhat bereft of charisma. Balmer next visits Dallas Theological Seminary to inspect what he suggests are the “twin pillars” of American evangelicalism’s theological infrastructure: biblical inerrancy and premillenial dispensationalism. Finding the two rigidly intact, Balmer also finds Dallas students and faculty exhibiting residual tendencies toward sexism. After leaving Dallas, Balmer spends several days ” on location” with evangelical filmmaker Donald Thompson. Thompson has earned a national reputation for his movies depicting life on earth during the apocalypse. Popular stereotypes that emphasize the bizarre nature of the evangelical world will not be dispelled by Balmer’s subsequent description of a visit with faith-healer Neal Frisby at Phoenix’s Capstone Cathedral.
Perhaps the greatest fear that haunts evangelical parents, Balmer says, is that their children will not come to believe as they do. To see how evangelicalism is passed from one generation to the next, Balmer observes a week-long program for adolescents at Word of Life Island in the Adirondacks. He concludes that the engineering of spiritual consent may simply not be able to overcome the forces of routinization. Next, Balmer campaigns with evangelicals during the 1988 presidential election and observes their support of candidates Kemp and Robertson and their opposition to abortion-on-demand. Perhaps evangelicals have taken up the issue of abortion, Balmer suggests, because they “identify with the vulnerability of the fetus, its susceptibility to larger, alien forces outside the womb.” Balmer then reports quite favorably on the efforts of John Perkins’ Voice of Calvary Fellowship to alleviate the effects of poverty and racial discrimination in Jackson, Mississippi. From there, Balmer travels to the Christian Booksellers Association’s annual convention, where, depending on how you look at it, evangelical commercialism may be observed at its best or worst.
A subsequent visit with Father Innocent Good House, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Yates, North Dakota, leads Balmer to reflect that there are a number of affinities between Christianity and Native American religions. What a shame, then, that Christian missionaries have tended to believe that conversion necessitated the destruction of Native American religion and culture. From North Dakota Balmer travels to Camp Freedom in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he detects “precious little assurance beneath the fragile veneer of confidence.”
Balmer’s final stop is back on the West coast, at the Oregon Extension of Trinity College in Lincoln, Oregon. Balmer was once a student at the Oregon Extension and has a good friend in one of the founders of this alternative education program for evangelical college students, Douglas Frank. By directing his students through an intensive course in social criticism and neo-orthodox theology, Frank wants to make them see that the evangelical subculture is based, as he puts it, “upon lies and denials,” and that it has become blinded by moralism to the real gospel of Jesus Christ. The episode ends with Frank laughing introspectively about American evangelicalism: “We are sorry bastards. Lord, have mercy.”
Balmer says that he does not yet know just what his tour of American evangelicalism actually means, but he confesses to sympathizing with Frank’s assessment. The evangelical subculture, Balmer argues, is just a “socially constructed reality,” one that is “illusory and incongruous with the larger world.” The distinctions evangelicals make between the “church” and the “world,” between the “saved” and the “damned,” and ultimately between good and evil are simply reflections of their disappointment with the direction American culture has taken since the end of the last century. Still, the evangelical subculture persists, Balmer reasons, because of its timeless appeal. “It offers eternal life,” he writes, “and nothing frightens us mortals more than death.”
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is a wonderful source of Americana, and Balmer writes of what he sees with clarity and humor. In addition, each of Balmer’s contemporary vignettes contains useful bits of historical background, enabling us to put his observations in a larger context. While the reader may wonder how effectively the book will serve to dispel the stereotypical view of American evangelicalism, at the very least it illustrates the diversity of the movement and so should serve to calm those who worry that evangelicals stand poised to reconquer American culture. One wonders, though, if it is possible to understand the sub- cultural “reaction” of American evangelicals without some discussion of what, culturally speaking, they have been reacting against. In suggesting that the evangelical subculture is simply a socially constructed reality, does Balmer mean to imply that the “larger world””the world, presumably, of academia and the cultural elite”is not so constructed?
Evangelical intellectuals, or at least those intellectuals who have narrowly escaped the evangelical orbit, have become increasingly embarrassed in recent decades by the culture of conservative Protestantism. As a result, a kind of reflexive evangelical criticism of evangelicalism has become something of a genre within the movement. At first this criticism was limited to fundamentalism’s conservative culture and its conservative political leanings; but the criticism has gradually, one is tempted to say inexorably, been extended to include conservative Protestant theology as well. Balmer’s chief theological argument with evangelicalism, for example, appears to be not simply that it makes the wrong kinds of distinctions between itself and the world, between the sacred and the secular, but that evangelicals continue to insist upon distinguishing between good and evil at all. No small wonder, then, that there is a kind of sadness that pervades Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Not only has Balmer failed to see glory in the subculture of American evangelicalism, he appears to be doubtful about our ability even to say what glory is. Along with his mentor Douglas Frank, he is left able to say only what it is not.
Craig M. Gay is a post-doctoral fellow and sessional lecturer at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.