Reviewing the Anointed

by Matt Sutton

Part I: Anointing the Anointed

Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson’s book The Anointed has officially been out for two weeks. As reviews begin to appear, it is clear that this is one of the most important—and controversial—books on religion in modern America to appear in some time.

Booklist summarized, “[Stephens and Giberson] rise triumphantly to the challenge of explaining the leaders and the culture of the religious Right without rancor or condescension.”

The ever present Kevin Schultz wrote a smart review for the Wilson Quarterly concluding, “One of the principal virtues of The Anointed is that it represents an effort to demonstrate that the evangelical community is not a monolith of the unthinking.” He did, however, include a caveat. “Yet if that were as true as the authors hope, they probably would have felt less pressed to write this book.”

The Weekly Standard also wrestled with Stephens and Giberson’s arguments. But rather than praise their work, the review admitted half-heartedly that the authors were “not wrong.” I guess that’s as far as the Standard can go in praising a book that does not line up with the magazine’s politics. Nevertheless, “not wrong” is certainly better than being “not right.”

On the Huffington Post, Mark Pinsky used The Anointed to discuss the relationship between evangelical Zionism and the 2012 campaign.

Finally, my review of the book is in the current Christian Century. I conclude,

The Anointed is one of the best and most important books on religion published this year. It is a well-written, well-argued study that penetrates to the heart of modern evangelical culture. Stephens and Giberson have done an excellent job of critiquing what Mark Noll previously called the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ (the scandal is that there is no evangelical mind) while also empathetically explaining why so many evangelicals are smitten by dubious experts. This book deserves a wide reading, which it is certain to have. Evangelicals who take the intellect seriously as well as outsiders struggling to understand the evangelical subculture will benefit from the hard work and keen insights of Stephens and Giberson.”

Part II: Annoyed by the Anointed

But it is not all butterflies and sunshine for Giberson and Stephens. They have managed to offend a few of the most influential (or at least a couple of the loudest) voices in evangelicalism.

First, as Randall has explained, Ken Ham has been complaining about this book, inferring that the authors might be wolves in sheep’s clothing. In fact, the title of one of his blog post was the none-too-subtle “Beware of Wolves.”

Then Al Mohler jumped in. In a blog with the equally none-too-subtle title “Total Capitulation: The Evangelical Surrender of Truth,” Mohler too questions the faith of the authors—not the argument of the book, but the faith of the authors. He writes, “Giberson and Stephens are far outside of the evangelical mainstream, and they know it.”

Apparently he gets to decide what is and is not the evangelical mainstream (which also means that Eastern Nazarene’s administration and tenure committees are not as capable of determining what counts as an evangelical as is this Southern Baptist).

The response of Mohler and Ham is predictable. They are afraid to let their audiences think for themselves. They simply want to teach them what to think. So when a book comes along that challenges what they teach and believe, they react by questioning the faith of its authors. Rather than trusting that their followers are smart enough to analyze critically a book like The Anointed, they choose instead to scare their disciples into not reading at all. It’s easier that way. If their followers don’t read, they won’t ask questions.

In 1940 fundamentalist leader and Moody Bible Institute president Will Houghton lamented to Wheaton College president J. Oliver Buswell, “it takes very little to start a fight with some fundamentalists.” Because fundamentalism by that time had developed such negative and combative characteristics, men like Houghton and Buswell began calling themselves evangelicals.

Seventy years later, the evangelicalism of Ham and Mohler suffers from the same problem as old time fundamentalism. Rather than celebrate the fact that two Christian professors from a Nazarene school have published a wonderful—although not perfect—book with one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world, they insinuate that the authors’ faith is suspect. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Houghton certainly would not be. Fundamentalism is still alive and well as Stephens and Giberson so carefully document.


Paul M. said…

It certainly takes very little to start a fight with a fundamentalist. (I'm reminded of Bob Jones Sr.'s response to his son when asked why he didn't work with J. Frank Norris, "I already have enough enemies.")

This is not such a case. Stephens and Giberson are blaming theologically conservative evangelicals for all that is wrong with evangelicalism. If you're a creationist or you believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality, then Giberson and Stephens are calling you an anti-intellectual, a cultural isolationist, and a theological simpleton.

That is no small provocation.

Nor is it a way of opening a true discussion of what evangelicalism is or what it should be. It's the scholarly equivalent of one kid calling the other stupid.

Hi Paul,

While I'm tempted for literary sake to say "stupid is as stupid does," that doesn't get anybody anywhere, besides furthering the cause of Forest Gump, a movie I find appalling.

More to the point, one of the best points in the book (which maybe you haven't read yet?) is that the conservative evangelical community has become so airtight that new ideas--good, bad, different--aren't allowed in. They are summarily rejected as apostates, rather than engaged. What makes this so interesting is that lots and lots of people who hold ideas contrary to, say, creationism, are bona fide evangelicals. Yet rather than engage them, folks like Ken Ham simply suggest they are bad Christians and move on. And this is another kind of conversation that doesn't get anyone very far very fast.

If Stephens and Giberson were doing what you suggest they are doing, then shame on them. But I don't think that's what they're intending to do at all.

With best wishes,
Edward J. Blum said…
Anybody else notice that many of the comments or articles on The Anointed begin with some form of the line "I haven't read the book yet, but I think" .... I noticed it first at RD and then on some comments in response to Fea's post about it. I'm reading it currently and thinking about how I can use it in the classroom ... which I'll blog about probably in December.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Dr. Sutton, as a matter of housekeeping on the formal level:

--A. Thomas Walker writes in The Weekly Standard, "To be sure, the authors are not wrong in many of their assessments..." which isn't quite the same as merely saying they are “not wrong.”

Walker seems quite less than sanguine with the authors' main thrust, that

"a crisis of faith for those willing to accept the veracity of secular claims can be resolved, for some, with a “simple liberalizing,” whereby

'...specific beliefs—biblical literalism, young earth creationism, homosexuality as perversion, eternal torment of the damned in a literal hell, the sinfulness of abortion—are abandoned and other beliefs—the Bible as literature, concern for the environment, racial and cultural equality for oppressed groups, universality of salvation, an emphasis on social justice, tolerance of diversity—move to the center as animating ethical and theological concerns.'

"One can register uncertainty on issues such as origins, and the difficulty of navigating biblical genres, but modifications on other issues (as those quoted above) suggest a betrayal of long-held positions in Christian orthodoxy and sexual ethics."

--Since the book's authors themselves write [and are quoted by Albert Mohler] that they “find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation,” it does not seem unfair for Mohler to then write “Giberson and Stephens are far outside of the evangelical mainstream, and they know it.”

Hence your objection that "Apparently he gets to decide what is and is not the evangelical mainstream" seems an unnecessary bit of contentiousness; indeed, the authors seem to stipulate to this above, and their own book would be of less worth if their targets represented less than the "mainstream" of evangelicals.

Thx kindly for the roundup, Matt, and may I add Baylor's Thomas Kidd here

I have followed the book and NYT essay and the reception of its thesis with interest, and the posts at RIAH have been invaluable. Again, thanks.
Unknown said…
Oh that crazy Ken Ham is at it again. I wonder how that loopy "caveman, Adam & Eve plays with the dinosaurs" theme park he has is holding up these days? You have to hand it to him though, he certainly does "stick to his guns" when it comes to creationism or his criticizing of Christians he doesn't agree with as modern day heretics. I wish he could do that Monty Python skit dressed as the Spanish Inquisition. "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" (Duh, duh, DUUUHHH!)
Well it just goes to show that spirituality can be blinding. Even when Christians write pieces that show a different aspect to their claims, it is expected to be met with some resistance. We had to read Fea's book on America's founding this semester. He wrote a good book to counter the mainstream Christian right's claim that "America was founded as a Christian nation," but somehow,I don't see it changing too many minds on that idea anytime soon.