Westmont College and the Apotheosis of Evangelicalism

Jeff Sharlet is probably the best long-form religion journalist we have today. A few years ago, he published a haunting account of The Fellowship. It’s a must-read.

Now Sharlet has followed up with an article on Westmont College, the top recruiting field for the Fellowship, published at Killing the Buddha (which Sharlet co-founded). I have some personal resonance with this story. For one, I started college in 1986, the same year as one of the subjects of the story, Ben Daniel, enrolled at Westmont. That means I got to Fuller Seminary four years later, where I matriculated with some of Ben’s classmates from Westmont — the first time I’d ever heard of The Fellowship was when one of my Fuller classmates, a Westmont grad, told me how heavily he was recruited while an undergrad. He referred to it as “The Fellowshit.”

Ten years later, when I was a youth pastor, a few graduates of my church went off to Westmont College, and at least two of them were recruited into the Fellowship and lived in the Fellowship’s notorious Washington, D.C. houses.

Sharlet writes about Ron Enroth, a prof at Westmont who’s studied cults for years. Enroth has sneaking suspicions that The Fellowship falls into that category, but he also hedges his bets:

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Coming Next Week

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be writing about the essays in the newest book by the author who penned the book that I names the 2008 Religious Book of the Year.  Please join me:

Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between by Jeff Sharlet

No one explores the borderlands of belief and skepticism quite like Jeff Sharlet. He is ingenious, farsighted, and able to excavate the worlds of others, even the flakiest and most fanatical, with uncanny sympathy. Here, he reports back from the far reaches of belief, whether in the clear mountain air of “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” or in a midnight congregation of urban anarchists celebrating a victory over police.

From Dr. Cornel West to legendary banjo player Dock Boggs, from the youth evangelist Ron Luce to America’s largest “Mind, Body, Spirit Expo,” Sharlet profiles religious radicals, realists, and escapists. Including extended journeys published here for the first time, Sweet Heaven When I Die offers a portrait of our spiritual landscape that calls to mind Joan Didion’s classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Note to Readers Who Want to Read

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about three books that I plan to read and blog about before the end of the year.  And I invited any of you to join me in the reading and conversation — I hope that some of you will.  The three books are below the jump, if you want more info about them.

I plan to post five times on each book, once per weekday.  Here’s the schedule:

  1. Next week: The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight
  2. Week of December 5: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith
  3. Week of December 12: Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between by Jeff Sharlet

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Some Books I Plan to Read – Will You Join Me?

I read a lot of religious non-fiction.  I write it, and I read it.  Most of what I read, however, is assigned — it’s part of a class I’m teaching, or for the Patheos Book Club, or for a book I’ve been asked to endorse.

But there are three books that I’d like to read before the year ends.  I’m going to read them, in this order, and I invite any of you to join me and read them, too.  I’ll probably write one or two posts on each, and I’ll be a better reader (and more accountable) if I read them in community with you, the commenters and fellow bloggers, tweeters, and Facebookers.

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight

Contemporary evangelicals have built a ‘salvation culture’ but not a ‘gospel culture.’ Evangelicals have reduced the gospel to the message of personal salvation. This book makes a plea for us to recover the old gospel as that which is still new and still fresh. The book stands on four arguments: that the gospel is defined by the apostles in 1 Corinthians 15 as the completion of the Story of Israel in the saving Story of Jesus; that the gospel is found in the Four Gospels; that the gospel was preached by Jesus; and that the sermons in the Book of Acts are the best example of gospeling in the New Testament. The King Jesus Gospel ends with practical suggestions about evangelism and about building a gospel culture.

The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

Biblicism, an approach to the Bible common among some American evangelicals, emphasizes together the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Acclaimed sociologist Christian Smith argues that this approach is misguided and unable to live up to its own claims. If evangelical biblicism worked as its proponents say it should, there would not be the vast variety of interpretive differences that biblicists themselves reach when they actually read and interpret the Bible.

Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between by Jeff Sharlet

No one explores the borderlands of belief and skepticism quite like Jeff Sharlet. He is ingenious, farsighted, and able to excavate the worlds of others, even the flakiest and most fanatical, with uncanny sympathy. Here, he reports back from the far reaches of belief, whether in the clear mountain air of “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” or in a midnight congregation of urban anarchists celebrating a victory over police.

From Dr. Cornel West to legendary banjo player Dock Boggs, from the youth evangelist Ron Luce to America’s largest “Mind, Body, Spirit Expo,” Sharlet profiles religious radicals, realists, and escapists. Including extended journeys published here for the first time, Sweet Heaven When I Die offers a portrait of our spiritual landscape that calls to mind Joan Didion’s classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem.


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