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Posted September 3, 2006
In recent years the national media has begun to recognize the influence of evangelicals in American life, perhaps most notably in giving voice to such scholars as professors Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington, and Craig Evans in networks specials on Jesus, The DaVinci Code, and the like. In the print media a great deal of ink has been devoted to the impact of evangelicals in the election of George W. Bush, an association that once seemed to have promised much in potential political influence. Now this association appears to be an opportunity lost, negated by an ill-advised foray into democracy experiment in Iraq. On the other hand, this newfound respectability which evangelicals have seemed to obtain has yet to trickle down to the level of primetime dramas (think Law and Order here for example) which continues to cast evangelicals as intolerant fundamentalists. Into this breach steps Jeffery Sheler, religion editor for the US News and World Report and author of Is the Bible True? (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000 mostly by the way). Determined to demystify the stereotype of ¿fundies¿ typically held by his colleagues and the public-at-large, and having started out fundamentalist in Grand Rapids and eventually settling into a ¿conservative¿ Presbyterian congregation in Washington D.C., Sheler decided that it was up to an ex-believer like himself to set the record straight. In Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America (Viking), he visits the Focus on the Family ministry headquarters, Saddleback Church, Wheaton College, the Creation festival (an outdoor contemporary Christian rock/folk fest), political operatives in Washington, and goes on a mission trip to Guatemala with a church group. After a few inconsequential visits elsewhere, Sheler visits the Focus on the Family ministry headquarters in Colorado Springs. He is there to interview James Dobson, who many consider to be America¿s most influential evangelical. Politics ¿dominates¿ his interview with Dr. Dobson (Dobson was formerly a practicing pediatrician), though acknowledging that the focus on politics was clearly irritating Dobson. Latching onto a touring Brethren couple on his way out of Focus on the Family headquarters, he discovers that ¿common¿ people don¿t think Dobson should focus so much on politics they liked him much better when he talked family. Moving on, he next gives high marks to Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, and Wheaton College seeming at times wistful as if recalling the better angels of his fundamentalist past. The chapter on Wheaton perhaps makes the most poignant observation in the book (at least from the viewpoint of the uninitiated). Evangelical Christianity in America is no longer characterized by the anti-scholastic stance it adopted in the 1930s. Oddly, in the Saddleback segment, Sheler recounts a conversation with a just-baptized couple who claimed that prior devotion to a Wiccan goddess brought them closer to Christ. After reading Mere Christianity, they became open to explore Saddleback where ¿One of the main tenets of this church is that you believe in Christ, but it¿s not exclusionary to that extreme (people who are not Christians are going to hell).¿ Sheler points out that they probably weren¿t ready for the ¿meat¿ (though clearly Saddleback, in spite of having a seeker-sensitive orientation, does not embrace universalism in any form). Perhaps the highest mark Sheler divvies out is to a group of lay churchmen from Alabama who habitually go short-term to Guatemala to aid in construction. As if to offset their sacrifice, he mentions an agnostic woman who has given up everything to join the staff of Habitats for Humanity in Guatemala. Likewise, the chapter on the Creation festival, the largest of a dozen national outdoor jam fests (of every scope) held each year, gets good press. Sheler¿s conclusion: Christian teens suffer the same conflict with their role in the world as their secular counterparts (though for diffeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.