A Review of
Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation
Reviewed by Stephen Clark
Two topics are hot today in books: memoir and thumping evangelicals.
I’ve been drawn to a number of memoirs, both older and newer. The styles and quality of writing vary as you would expect. Some are engaging and winsome; some are flat and wooden; some are angry and accusatory. The better memoirs provide fascinating insight into the writer’s life, experiences, family, and friends in a credible way that reveals the writer and their journey. We feel empathy toward them no matter where they land.
On writing his book, Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation, Jon Ward shared in an NPR interview, that it was cathartic to write. He says, “There was a lot of emotion bottled up that I think was released in the process of writing it.” In another interview he also revealed that there was an angrier first draft of his book. His editors wisely guided him toward a softening of tone. He could have gone even softer.
Ward’s book combines memoir and evangelical thumping with a critique of politics mixed in. It has three main tracks: glimpses into his life, his experiences in evangelicalism (centered around Covenant Life Church / Sovereign Grace Ministries), and his reactions to Trump. He summarizes his faith experience saying,
“My childhood was dominated by the talk of demons and angels, speaking in tongues, the return of Jesus, and the end of the world. I was the son of a pastor and the oldest of seven kids. My father led protests outside abortion clinics. I was ambivalent about church until I turned twenty, when I became a radical and was put on the fast track to becoming a pastor. But I could not bear the uniformity of thought in that world.”
He was born in 1977, the same year C. J. Mahaney, Larry Tomzcak, Chip Ward (his dad), and others founded what would eventually become Covenant Life Church and then Sovereign Grace Ministries. When he was ten, his dad was asked to resign his pastorate. Clear reasons for this are never offered but it’s obvious it seeded resentment and hurt in Ward.
It’s in this environment where Ward’s faith is rooted. Ward makes it clear he was never truly comfortable in church, referring to himself as a border-stalker– something he sees as a positive but that comes across as a negative. He describes his general experience in the church as sheltered, isolated from mainstream culture, and he was taught to be suspicious of anything outside the church. Yet, at one point after experiencing what he describes as being “radicalized” deeper into the faith, he claims he was being groomed for leadership by C.J. Mehaney.
Ward is critical of what he saw as inappropriate minimizing of women’s roles, especially of his mother. Yet, unfortunately, we never hear her own voice or her own interpretation of her position alongside her husband.
As for what Ward reports about Trump, there’s little revealed that isn’t already common knowledge. His professional life as chief national correspondent for Yahoo! News means he’s entrenched in our nation’s currently dichotomized political scene. His reaction to Trump and Trumpers is visceral and negative, if not borderline toxic. Most of his family are pro-Trump which causes stress, for him especially. He states, “Some of my siblings rejected me entirely as I sought to counter Trump’s many lies about the 2020 election.” He takes it very personally when Trump labels the press as the “enemy of the people” and feels abandoned by his pro-Trump family, especially by his father.
While visiting his parents, he recalls “there was a blue [Trump/Pence 2020] sign in the middle of the yard.” He pulled it up and hid it behind the shrubbery, stating, “I didn’t want the sign in the yard while I was there. But I didn’t want to ask them to take it down. I wanted to avoid all discussion of politics.” Later, in his parent’s garage, he spotted a second sign which he put in his car claiming, “I clearly was not thinking straight.” When he left he didn’t replace either sign. As his parents and siblings found out, tensions grew. Tempers flared and harsh words were exchanged “on a family text thread.” Summing up the situation, Ward writes, “Our family was tearing itself apart, just like so many others around the country.” What he doesn’t address clearly is his own role in fostering conflict among his own family. In the narratives he often comes across as a victim while others are the problem.
What we learn about Ward’s life comes through the retelling of his evangelical faith experiences and reporting/political experiences. Much of the personal detail is vague or obscured. Everything is clouded under a shroud of disappointment, perceived betrayal, loss that happens over time, and unmet expectations. It’s not entirely clear where he has landed.
While I’m glad I read the book, it never fully delivers on the promise of the subtitle, nor does it fully satisfy as a memoir. In the introduction he declares that a testimony “is when an individual stands before a congregation and shares what God has done in their life.” The point of testimony is to bring glory to God. Ward’s book seems more about assigning blame.
One point he makes near the end of the book I wholeheartedly agree with. He states, “I realized in the next few months that I was fighting against something decades in the making: a failure of discipleship by much of the American church. The church had failed to train its members in exercising discernment.” Yes, the church in general has failed to grow up mature Christians, weaning them past milk onto solid food.
Finally, throughout the book, his dad gets short shrift. While Ward doesn’t seem to fully see it, it’s clear that his dad cares about him deeply and never abandoned him. Ward belatedly admits that he owes a lot to his parents “who instilled many of the right lessons in us through their examples.” He should listen to his dad more.
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance WritersNetwork blog. He has published three volumes of poetry and his writing has appeared in American Bible Society blogs, The Christian Century, Christianity & Literature, and more.
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