Wolves in Sheep's Clothing; or, Knowing Them by Their Fruits

Chris Beneke

You might have anticipated that Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson's new book, The Anointed, would cause a stir. Just two weeks after arriving on shelves, it already has. Yesterday, Ken Ham, co-founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky and CEO/President of Answers in Genesis (AiG) USA suggested on his blog that the authors were like wolves intent on destroying God's flock. (by the way, there's another interesting passage on wolves in Mat 7:15)

Meanwhile, at the affiliated AiG blog, Georgia Purdom and Mark Looy observed flatly that: "[Stephens and Giberson] argued that when Bible-believing Christians engage the culture in controversial areas like creation vs. evolution, believers should trust a highly educated PhD theistic evolutionist and evangelical like Dr. Francis Collins over someone like Ham (who has the Australian equivalent of a master’s degree)." I suspect that Stephens and Giberson would respond that credentials aren't irrelevant, but they aren't the real issue here (see: Herberg, Will). Rather, it's the misuse or wholesale neglect of critical facts that distinguishes rigorous, honest scholarship from the work of self-anointed experts such as Ham.

The Anointed is itself an example of how the preponderance of evidence can be mustered to make a well-supported and coherent argument. The first four chapters feature trenchant accounts of fundamentalist-leaning authorities--Ham, whose Creation Museum draws tens of thousands of visitors every year; David Barton, whose highly selective readings of early America have captivated multitudes of believers, including Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck; James Dobson, founder and former president of Focus on the Family whose influence on understandings of gender roles and child-rearing rivals Dr. (Benjamin) Spock; and Tim LaHaye whose bestselling Left Behind novels foretell the imminence of the rapture and the dismal fate of unbelievers.

Ham, Barton, Dobson, and LaHaye are leading intellectuals in what Stephens and Giberson refer to as an evangelical "parallel culture," which also includes Christian "publishing houses, music labels, and colleges." Chapter Five offers a revealing glimpse of a young male evangelical, Paul Miller, who grew up ensconced in this devotedly non-secular world. Chapter Six details the ascendancy of three figures that even regular readers of Salon would recognize: Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.

Part history and part ethnography, The Anointed reveals the authors' serious and sympathetic engagement with the challenges confronted by evangelical thinkers. Indeed, at critical moments, the book defers to accomplished and believing scholars (especially Francis Collins and Mark Noll) who work tirelessly to reconcile their faith with modern science, history, and biblical interpretation. And that leads to the question: If there are legitimate evangelical contenders for intellectual influence, how did gross abusers of facts such as Ken Ham and David Barton end up wielding so much influence?

As with so much else that we experience as mere mortals, the explanation is neither simple nor certain. For starters, Stephens and Giberson suggest, there is the Anointed's alluring confidence that their work reflects God's will. This same characteristic helps account for their tendency to personal hubris and their aversion to generally accepted information about the world. Stephens and Giberson also credit a longstanding “common-sense populist hermeneutic” that is by no means confined to evangelicalism, but certainly buttresses the Anointed's case against mainstream scholarly authorities. The best explanation for their preeminence may simply be that they are really just attempting to engage a religious group in a theological enterprise, rather than social science, natural science, or history. By repeatedly and skillfully asserting the seamless connection between their own interpretation of scripture and their misbegotten understanding of the facts, they never really have to demonstrate any of it. With help from Stephens and Giberson, more people may come to know them by their true scholarly fruits.


Paul Harvey said…
although when Randall was in his bushy beard phase as he was a few years back, he did sort of vaguely look like a wolf, if one looked at the right angle. Doubtless that comforted his dog Beatrice -- a pack mate!
Edward J. Blum said…
my copy just came! can't wait to read it!!!
my review is forthcoming in Wilson Quarterly, and Chris gets it exactly right here, especially by pointing out the important question that pervades the book--how do these folks--the Hams and the Bartons--gain intellectual stature when there are viable, better credentialed alternatives? Only part of their answer is the different project one (say, Barton isn't a historian but an evangelist). But the other part--one I think they stress a bit more--is about the importance of the "parallel universe" that evangelicals have created, and how that just stifles dialogue and different ideas. Great stuff to chew on, if difficult to swallow.
Chris Beneke said…
Thanks Kevin. I'm looking forward to your review, which will no doubt be better reasoned than this post, which I wrote, somewhat pugnaciously, in the wake of Ham's comments. Paul, I have noticed Randall's predilection for howling toward the end of evening seminar meetings, but always attributed it to his satisfaction with the paper, or the cheese.