Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Steven P. Miller – The Age of Evangelicalism [Feature Review]

[easyazon_image add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”0199777950″ cloaking=”default” height=”160″ localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51QXI8V-H6L._SL160_.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”105″]Page 2: Steven P. Miller – The Age of Evangelicalism

 
 
A particularly useful section—at least for the evangelical history nerd—is Miller’s brief overview of scholarship about evangelicalism written by evangelicals themselves, which appears in the middle of chapter four. Equally frustrated with the portraits of evangelical history painted by secular scholars and born-again leaders—the former lacking nuance, the latter lacking critical analysis (and, at times, accuracy!)—a generation of evangelical scholars emerged in the early 1980’s determined to do better. Miller’s admiration for these scholars is plain: “The thoughtful evangelicals pulled of an artful maneuver,” he writes. “They countered evangelical shibboleths while also forcing American historians to take account of evangelicalism” (100).

 

Throughout most of the book, Miller maintains a steady balance between political and cultural markers to create a well-rounded sketch of various roles evangelicalism has played in recent American history. At times, however, Miller tips heavily towards the political, wrongly equating the role of evangelicalism in American history to its narrower role in electoral politics. This is particularly evident in the final chapters when Miller cites evangelicalism’s decreased political power as his primary evidence that “the Age of Evangelicalism” has reached its zenith.

 

Miller might counter that “politics became the dominant lens through which a generation of Americans encountered and evaluated born-again Christianity,” as he asserted when describing the 1970’s (33). I disagree. As the Age of Evangelicalism thoroughly proves, the American public encountered born-again faith in everything from Veggie Tales to sex guides. Politicians might be the loudest, but they should not be the dominant voices of evangelical history.

 

By 2012, Miller writes in the epilogue, “the Age of Evangelicalism” was “winding down”—a careful choice of words. “My epilogue is not an autopsy,” clarified Miller in an interview with the blog Religion in American History. “It is an invitation to take stock of a moment in recent American history. I was very intentional about using the expression ‘winding down,’ rather than the more concrete ‘ending.’”

 

But whether he thinks evangelicalism is “winding down” or “ending,” Miller sees 2012 as a definite mark of decline, if not in evangelicalism itself, then certainly in its influence on mainstream America. His conclusion coincides nicely with a much-cited 2012 PEW report which noted that evangelical protestants have now joined their mainline counterparts in the trend of decreasing church membership.

 

Other scholars, however, are less certain. Where Miller sees a “winding down,” two other authors of 2014 titles from Oxford Press see renewal. Or more appropriately, a “remake.”

 

In Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen traces what she calls “evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square.” She concludes that American evangelicalism thrives on this tension and shows no signs of stopping, even as it is increasingly forced to integrate global expressions of itself. “If we continue to use the word evangelical at all, and we will,” assures Worthen, “we must allow room for diversity and internal contradiction.” In other words, evangelicalism will adapt, not wither.

 

Similarly, in their introduction to The New Evangelical Social Engagement, editors Brian Steensland and Phillip Goff explain that the rising social consciousness among evangelicals of all stripes is “but the most recent iteration of evangelicalism’s long-standing tendency to spin off its own renewal movements.” While noting definite change in the contemporary evangelical landscape—including renewed interest in the common good and decreased emphasis on biblical literalism—the chapters they have edited indicate that evangelicals will remain a key player in American history for yet some time. “Evangelicals want true religion, real Christianity—and they want to make it real to ordinary people,” writes historian Joel Carpenter in one of the final chapters of the collection. “If they don’t see it, even in evangelicalism itself, they will launch new quests to find it […] These old traits are forever creating new evangelicalisms.”

 

That American evangelicalism—the faith of the born-again—is ever giving birth to new forms of itself, is an irresistible conclusion for scholars. Even Miller can’t seem to resist. After concluding that contemporary evangelicalism “lacked the explanatory punch” and “was bound to lose its elasticity at some point,” he closes the book with an unexpected flourish of hope: “The desire to make all things new was itself nothing new. Yet it seemed especially poignant to imagine that evangelicalism itself could be born again.”
 
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Betsy Shirley (@BetsyShirley) is studying American religious history at Yale Divinity School. She is former editorial assistant at Sojourners.
 




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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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