You can’t really understand the dynamics of American religion–and even of American politics and the myriad culture wars–today without having an understanding of “evangelicalism.”
It’s long been a contested term. It certainly is now.
Nearly 25% of Americans self-identity as evangelical Protestant. That’s a big slice of the American religious pie. But I’d bet a significant number of those 25% aren’t even quite sure what they’re identifying with.
And who can blame them? The term is notoriously fluid, often ambiguous, and is often used (or spurned) for political agendas of all sorts. Evangelicalism is most often associated with the twentieth-century “neo-Evangelical” movement, which morphed out of a a conscious strategy for more positive cultural engagement, while retaining the “fundamentals” of conservative Protestant Christianity. In recent decades, it’s become synonymous with the rise of the Religious Right. The recent months, thanks to the rise of Trump and his many evangelical supporters (and his many evangelical detractors) it’s undergoing a fresh round of internal conflicts and identity challenges.
But the association of evangelicalism with a particular expression of Anglo-American conservative Christianity is reductionistic.
For example, African-American Christianity continues to be one of the most vibrant expressions of American Protestant Christianity and they share many theological convictions in common with Anglo-American evangelicalism, but are often left out of the evangelical discussion. As Donald Dayton argued, African-American churches should be thought of as one of the many varieties of American evangelicalism.
Given this confusing situation, its complicated background, and my own past history with a conservative strand of evangelical Christianity, I’m looking forward to co-teaching a course called “Varieties of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism” at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities this fall. Dr. Demian Wheeler and I will be taking students through the many expressions of this quarter percentile of American Christianity–from its historical background to its contemporary conflicts, as well as its prospects for the future.
The following books stood out to Demian and me as we worked out our book-list for the fall and as we solicited opinions from other trusted scholars and friends. We wanted to include diverse perspectives, too–thus the list is shaped by that goal. (That said, the list admittedly reflects our progressive theological leanings).
So, here are ten of the best books on American evangelicalism (in no particular order, and with a few extras tossed in). There are many more that could be mentioned, of course. Add your own suggestions in the comment section.
1. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement, by Douglas Sweeney. This is probably the best brief historical overview of the movement. Sweeney begins the story of evangelicalism where it should begin: with its roots in Pietism and then the revivalism of the Great Awakenings, moving into its global reach with the modern missions movement. Another book we could slot here, by the way, is George Marsden’s influential work, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.
2. Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage: A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justice, by Donald Dayton. You could start with the book I mentioned above, The Variety of American Evangelicalism, but the Rediscovering book gives a unique picture of the social-justice orientation of much of evangelical Christianity in its past, before the Religious Right commandeered the evangelical story. Take note of one of the chapter titles, “The Evangelical Roots of Feminism.”
3. The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology, by Amos Yong. We can’t understand evangelicalism without accounting for both Pentecostalism and global Christianity. No one is better suited to explain these phenomena than theologian Amos Yong. Additionally, check out Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism, which shows how the future of American evangelicalism is contingent upon recognizing the forces of globalization in our midst: namely, immigrant evangelical communities.
4. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen. Worthen’s book garnered a lot of attention when it came out in 2013. She explores here the most pertinent issue to understanding the “crisis” within evangelicalism today–which is one of authority, or–if you like–of theological epistemology. Her thesis goes a long way towards understanding what’s going on with evangelical divide over Donald Trump.
5. Jesus and gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars, by Barry Hankins. Hankins has written several biographies, including an important one on evangelical apologist, Francis Schaeffer. But this work is intriguing enough for the title alone! This glimpse into the evangelicalism of the “roaring twenties” shows us that the more recent Religious Right is nothing really new. As one reviewer, Matthew Avery Sutton, pointed out, Hankins shows that the characters of contemporary evangelicalism “had nothing on” those earlier figures.
6. Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition, by Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn. This book is a brief and accessible “retrieval” of the early formative history of evangelicalism. Their important thesis is that evangelicalism’s best future lies in a recovery of its most fertile and most dynamic origins as a movement away from the doctrinal precision of creedalism and toward a socially-conscious, prophetic, and activist heart-religion of evangelical piety.
7. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by T.M. Luhrman. To understand evangelical Christianity, we need more than a historical survey and a theological analysis. In this work, Dr. Tonya Luhrman, takes us into a close look at evangelical religious experience by coming anthropological and psychological (neurological) research to understand, from the social science side of things, what’s going on behind the phenomena.
8. Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith, by Marla Frederick. This book continues the anthropological (ethnographic) understanding of spirituality, but by focusing on a demographic often overlooked in the conversation about American evangelical Christianity (because the term is too often reduced). The Black Church cannot be conflated with evangelicalism, but neither can the evangelical dynamic in America–and certainly the vibrancy of Protestant faith–be understood apart from it.
9. Prophetic Evangelicals: Envisioning a Just and Peaceable Kingdom, edited by Malinda Berry, Peter Heltzel, and Bruce Benson. The editors have assembled here an impressive cast of theologians and activists, who each write on a theological loci and show how a progressive evangelical theology is not only possible, but necessary for the future of the movement. For a more focused perspective (and more controversial book), check out Deborah Jian Lee’s Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism.
10. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, by Matthew Avery Sutton. This book combines the question of authority (theological epistemology) with fundamentalist evangelicals preoccupation with the “End Times.” It’s interesting to set the culture wars in the context of anxious expectations of the coming destruction of the planet and of the “rapture.” As the book’s description puts it, “American Apocalypse shows how a group of radical Protestants, anticipating the end of the world, paradoxically transformed it.”
What did we miss? What would you add?