- Paperback: 324 pages
- Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (October 16, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226764192
- ISBN-13: 978-0226764191
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #396,930 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving 1st Edition
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American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving by sociologist Christian Smith tells a very different story about evangelicals from the one most people believe. Most of us know that evangelical churches are growing fast. Many pundits have suggested that evangelicalism is thriving because it's an easy way out of dealing with the complexities of the modern world--it's a place where everyone is pretty much the same: not too well educated, not too upwardly mobile, and more or less frightened of the amorality that's supposedly flourishing in contemporary America. Yet Christian Smith's study, based on thousands of interviews and extensive polling, argues that evangelicalism is growing "very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism." He disproves the demographic caricature of evangelicals that's been drawn by conventional wisdom, showing evangelicals to be better educated than most of those calling themselves religious liberals, and establishing that their moral concerns are mostly exercised on behalf of others--most evangelicals don't believe they or their families are really threatened by modern life. Therefore, Smith's study proposes that American evangelicals have created a subculture characterized by "both high tension and high integration into mainstream society simultaneously." And as a result, "Contemporary pluralism creates a situation in which evangelicals can perpetually maintain but never resolve their struggle with the non-evangelical world." It's a fascinating idea, and one that should prompt readers to wonder whether evangelicals actually enjoy playing a divinized version of devil's advocate in contemporary American life. --Michael Joseph Gross
From Publishers Weekly
Based on a three-year study of American evangelicals, Smith takes the pulse of contemporary evangelicalism and offers substantial evidence of a strong heartbeat. Detailed descriptions of methodology and sources are included as appendices, but the body of the book is a story woven from interviews. Smith contends that evangelicalism is a resurrection of the "engaged orthodoxy" associated with Protestant theologian and pastor Harold Ockenga in the 1940s. Smith argues that the present strength of evangelicalism can be explained by its adherence to beliefs, the salience and robustness of faith, group participation, commitment to mission and its retention and recruitment of members. Religious communities are strong, he suggests, when they avoid disappearing into the secular mainstream, as Smith believes liberal Protestantism has, or isolating themselves into sheltered communities, as he argues like Protestant fundamentalism has. Evangelicalism is thriving, says Smith, not by being countercultural or by retreating into isolation but by engaging culture at the same time that it constructs, maintains and markets its subcultural identity. Although Smith depends heavily on sociological theory, he makes his case in an accessible and persuasive style that will appeal to a broad audience.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I thought corporate and bureaucratic, mass culture, which trains people to be distant and driven, undermined their ability to be in community. Not so, says Smith. It only makes people more hungry for personalized, intimate, community like the church.
I thought, a la Dean Kelly's classic _Why Conservative Churches Are Growing_, that evangelicalism thrived because it gave people an alternative world to live in. No way, says Smith:
"American evangelicalism ... is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is--or at least perceives itself to be--embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it. Indeed, evangelicalism ... thrives on distinction, engagement, conflict and threat. Without these, evangelicalism would lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless. Thus ... the evangelical's movement's vitality is not a product of its protected isolation from, but of its vigorous engagement with pluralistic modernity."
As in the beginning, Smith argues, mainliners are engaged in society but do not see themselves as distinct from it, and fundamentalists know they're distinct, but they never meaningfully engage culture. Evangelicals thrive in the in between place: embattled AND thriving.
Smith offers many more insights on evangelicalism today. (One more I though fascinating: in abandoning its strictures on card playing and going to movies evangelicalism hasn't been co-opted by culture, as some critics argue. Instead, new evangelical boundaries have been drawn that help define the "real" evangelical--listening to Christian rock, not observing Halloween, and the like).
There's enough to argue with, as well. Smith, for example, doesn't think the dominant evangelical social strategy (changed lives will change society) is very effective. I agree that many people are called to do more than change individual lives. But I'm not sure a sociologist can measure the impact of this strategy one way or another. And anecdotes to the contrary abound: the preacher who converted Billy Graham made a huge impact on American culture.
Quibbles aside, Smith is to be credited with getting this historian to do something I steadfastly avoid: commit sociology. If you want to get fresh insights into modern evangelicalism, you may want to do the same.
--Mark Galli, editor, Christian History