Lately I’ve been rereading and (with Wendy) listening to the stories collected in G. K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown (1911). There are always good reasons to pick up something by GKC, but I’ve been reading a lot of him just now in connection with a project of Wheaton College scholar Matthew Milliner, familiar to readers of First Things. This academic year, at Wheaton’s Wade Center, Milliner is giving the Hansen Lectures. His series will include three talks under the general title “Turtle Island Renaissance,” illuminating “the broad sweep of Native American art, especially in the Midwest,” and drawing on insights from Chesterton—a wonderfully improbable but, as it turns out, fruitful conjunction. To better prepare myself for this series (the lectures will later be published as a book), I’ve been reading GKC somewhat indiscriminately.
What has struck me on this encounter with The Innocence of Father Brown is how often in these stories “evangelical” and allied labels (“Calvinist” and “Puritan,” too) are terms of scorn. They are associated in the book with folly and even villainy, much as “Catholic” or “popish” might be in other fiction of the era.
I find this oddly comforting, at a moment when rubbish about “evangelicals” appears on every hand. The astonishing Chesterton had his blindspots, as we all do. Alongside the egregious racist tropes that were so commonplace in the fiction of his time, he deployed caricatures of evangelicals that were every bit as blatant (and yet also every bit as true, alas) as the stock anti-Catholic slurs. Given that, shouldn’t I be more tolerant of their 21st-century equivalents?
I’ve also found balm for my spirit in a book that will be published by Eerdmans in November, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden. The editors, all of whom have essays in the volume, brought together an excellent list of contributors, ranging from well-established veterans to some of the leading younger scholars in the field; there are also a couple of pieces from outside the academic sphere. The variety of viewpoints represented, the sometimes sharply contrasting angles of attack, can be suggested by juxtaposing Thomas Kidd on “The Bebbington Quadrilateral and the Work of the Holy Spirit” with Kristin Kobes Du Mez on “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity” (an appetizer for her forthcoming book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, scheduled for publication in June 2020).
In his excellent essay concluding the volume, “World Cup or World Series” (you can guess which is deprecated here), Noll writes,
By no account does decentering the United States resolve all problems for conceptualizing evangelicalism in general. It might, however, mean that for both the general history of evangelicalism and assessments of the contemporary American situation it would be easier to follow the lead of George Whitefield—immensely significant for the upsurge of evangelical movements in the eighteenth century but also blithely unconcerned with so many matters about which we academics and our cousins in political punditry obsess.
This resonates particularly with me just now, having received an email earlier today from Nate Hickox, the pastor of our church, Faith Evangelical Covenant. The email said that Ron Fordham, a longtime member of our congregation, has died. Ron, who had worked in the Wheaton College library for many years, was diagnosed with brain cancer some months ago.
“Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” That promise isn’t mentioned nearly as often in (American) evangelical churches as it once was. Some earnest young evangelicals I know positively shun it (it’s said by some to underwrite denial of climate change, indifference to injustice and suffering here and now, and much more). A brilliant writer I’ve just been reading (neither evangelical nor Catholic nor a Christian of any persuasion) describes it as “a sentimental inanity.” But I believe the promise is trustworthy, and worth sharing, as we look forward to the restoration of all things.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.