by John G. Turner
A few years ago, Christian Smith complained about "religiously ignorant journalists," particularly those who write about "evangelics," "evangelicalists," and "evangelists" when trying to come up with "evangelicals." [Books & Culture, January/February 2004].
If one ever feels blue about journalism on religion, especially on evangelical Christians, meet Mark Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel. When I was researching the history of Campus Crusade for Christ, I relied on his articles to explain Crusade's relocation from California to Orlando. He's also the author of several books, including The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Westminster / John Knox Press, Rev. Ed., 2007).
I recently read Pinsky's A Jew among the Evangelicals, which chronicles his experiences living with and reporting on the Sun Belt evangelicals of Orlando and includes some broader reflections on American evangelicalism. In his book, one can vicariously visit Orlando's Holy Land Experience, for instance.
I wish I had read A Jew among the Evangelicals and talked with Pinsky before finishing my book on Campus Crusade. First off, I love his capsule introduction to Bill Bright: "Physically unassuming -- a small, round man and a bit of a dandy -- he had a persistently beguiling way about him."
Pinsky then details an encounter with Bright in 1997. Bright had given the invocation opening a session of the Florida Senate in which he prayed in the name of "the Lord Jesus Christ ... the true God, the only God," upsetting several Jewish legislators. Troubled and embarrassed by the reaction, Bright asked Pinsky to arrange a meeting with his rabbi, Steve Engel, who was then the president of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis. Bright asked Engel how best to pray at public events in a manner that would be meaningful and authentic but inclusive of Jews.
Pinsky avoids simple stereotypes of evangelicals and finds evangelical leaders like Bright more complex than the caricatures that appear of them in many media outlets. Simply repeating those caricatures and stereotypes are a temptation for academics studying evangelicalism, as one can get a lot of mileage out of detailing evangelical homophobia, sexism, and hypocrisy. Evangelical leaders deserve much of the criticism they receive, but those of us who write about contemporary evangelicalism can find in Mark Pinsky a good model for sensitively writing about evangelicals in their full humanity.
For many historical topics, one of the best sources of information for historians is always newspaper reporting, especially for topics with limited archival sources. The excellent religion journalism of the Los Angeles Times was also invaluable for establishing Campus Crusade's history. It's bad news for future historians that newspapers around the country are cutting staff and that despite the general interest in stories about religion, reporters working the religion beat are finding themselves made redundant. They are anything but.