Last October, I wrote a column titled “Coming Attractions for Autumn.” The first book I mentioned was How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, by T. M. Luhrmann. “As an anthropologist,” I wrote, “Luhrmann has cultivated to an unusual degree the ability to pay attention to the words and actions of her subjects, and I have found her work valuable even as I often disagree.” And so it proved to be again, in both ways—and in spades—with this book.
That was a few months ago (and thanks to the pandemic, it feels as if it were longer). But just now, thanks to the beloved Wheaton Public Library, I’ve been reading the March 11, 2021, issue of the New York Review of Books, which includes fiction writer Anne Enright's substantial review-essay of Luhrmann’s book and Eliot Weinberger’s Angels and Saints (also published last fall).
What’s fascinating about Enright’s piece, in a creepy way, is its account of “American evangelicals.” Hate them or love them (whoever you suppose “they” are) or merely indifferent to their existence, you may well be fed up with hearing about them. I certainly am (and I am one of “them”). But I think American-evangelicals-as-described-by-Enright for-readers-of-the-high-toned-NYRB are worth a few minutes of your attention.
Enright’s piece begins with a quotation from Luhrmann’s book: “People evangelize because they fear that the belief to which they have committed themselves may not be true.” Well, sometimes that is no doubt true. But it seems reasonable to assume (whatever your own assessment of the belief in question) that in many cases people evangelize because they are convinced of the truth of that which they believe.
In the second sentence of her piece, Enright, now speaking in her own voice, says that Luhrmann’s “insights into the experience of American charismatic Christianity are rather sad.” That remarkably patronizing tone is sustained throughout. But there’s an oddity here, apart from the glacial contempt: Just several lines after referring to “American charismatic Christianity,” Enright refers to “the evangelicals [Luhrmann] interviewed,” as if “charismatic” and “evangelical” were interchangeable. Obviously they are not; they are in some respects distinct, in some ways overlapping (“charismatic Christianity” in the U.S. includes many Catholics; some evangelicals are “charismatic” but more are not; and so on).
The magisterial generalizations continue: “For American evangelicals, the problem of God is endlessly a problem of the self,” Enright tells her NYRB readers, adducing Luhrmann’s account of “the Horizon Christian Fellowship in Southern California.” Let us stipulate, just for purposes of argument, that this statement applies to many members of this particular fellowship. Does that warrant such a generalization about tens of millions of believers? How are we to say?
For comparative purposes, Luhrmann also studied evangelicals and Pentecostals in other societies (they fare at least a bit better in Enright’s account) as well as believers in other religious traditions. And Enright herself confesses that, for a short time, she was herself a Christian believer, having been “born again” when she was sixteen years old and living in South Dublin (she is now just short of sixty). This does not, alas, seem to give her pause in her account of those awful American evangelicals. After shifting from Luhrmann to discuss Weinberger’s interesting book (which I read last fall shortly before reading Luhrmann’s), Enright returns at the end to invite readers (“if you are feeling hardy”) to visit “the webpages of the masculinist, Alt-Christian movement, with their Nazified graphics, talk of the devil, and many ads about cheating wives and erectile dysfunction.”
I’m reminded of a phrase attributed to Eli Siegel: “Contempt causes insanity.” I would be fascinated to know how readers of the NYRB, across the board, have reacted to this piece. Did many subscribers read it? Did it seem entirely plausible to them? Surely among that crowd—in which I was included for decades—there must be a fair number who actually know some “evangelicals,” or perhaps have an evangelical family member or two. Would they be put off by this caricature? I don’t know, but I hope so.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.