Apostles of Reason

The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

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Molly Worthen
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2016.
     376 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190630515.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Evangelicalism is a striking mosaic of historical experiences, theological traditions, institutional resources, idiosyncratic personalities, and shocking controversies: so argues Molly Worthen in her Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Whatever else one makes of evangelicals, they are impossibly resilient and remain as abiding fixtures in the evolving story of modernity. Caricature and sarcastic dismissal are irresponsible and insufficient.

Although Apostles of Reason was published well before the recent US presidential election, one cannot help but find Worthen’s argument all the more necessary and compelling today. If renewed scholarly attention to the fluctuating nature of evangelical identity and engagement is warranted, now especially, Apostles of Reason is an indispensable first intervention.

From the outset, Worthen acknowledges the elephant in the room: terminological precision concerning evangelicalism is as likely to be attained as for the category of religion itself. Nevertheless, “there still seems to be some ‘there’ there” when it comes to evangelicalism, for participants and scholars alike (4). Rather than delineating principles or practical benchmarks for identification (pace David Bebbington’s Quadrilateral), Worthen suggests three consciously open-ended questions that orientate—positively and negatively—the larger evangelical family: “How to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge; how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God; and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square” (4).

On the one hand, the ongoing cause and consequence of these questions, according to Worthen, keeps evangelicalism nimble, portable, and lively; on the other hand, the modern evangelical quest for authorization and assurance tends toward institutionalization and stability. Hence the title of Worthen’s final chapter, “The Paradox of the Evangelical Imagination.” The shared epistemological and existential accounts produced by these dynamic concerns continually generate both an internal recognition pattern for variegated evangelicalism and an intellectual heritage earnestly furnished by its own reasoning and imagination. In short, evangelicalism is the bounded set of a productive series of stubborn crises.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, more or less chronologically ordered. Although the substance of the monograph does not treat pre-1940s evangelicalism, Worthen briefly articulates the theological context that finally ushered in the so-called modernist-fundamentalist debates. The not-so-hidden motor behind this wider evangelical trajectory, contends Worthen, was the convoluted enshrinement of a particular doctrine of sola scriptura—singularly defended if heterogeneously defined. In search of authority, evangelicals fused the Reformation’s legacy of sola scriptura with rational apologies for the Bible’s inerrant character, and eventually summoned a resultant biblical or Christian worldview. As Worthen keenly notes, “evangelicals—in refusing to come to terms with the conflicting powers camouflaged in that thorny phrase, sola scriptura—have turned this torment into the hallmark of their identity” (259). Behind the process, of course, is the lingering specter of fundamentalism and its attendant anxieties for purity, certainty, and governance, also recognized by Worthen.

While the book glides from vignette to vignette, it is simultaneously fortified by Worthen’s concentration on the essential interrelation of an elite evangelical circuitry that fueled (or fretted over) its ascent. On this front, her revision of the myth of evangelicalism’s sudden political re-emergence in the late 1970s is instructive. A far cry from the quasi-scholarly ex nihilo narratives, Worthen points to the ferment of intramural feuds between elite evangelical conservatives and progressives on theological, cultural, and hermeneutical issues in the previous decades (see chapters 8 and 9). Here, Jim Wallis’s Sojourners clashes with Carl F.H. Henry’s and Harold Lindsell’s Christianity Today over the Vietnam War, while Beverly LaHaye (and husband Tim LaHaye) crusades against evangelical feminists, and Evangelicals for Social Action lament evangelicalism’s quietism on racial injustice to the satisfaction of few. Worthen traces the ubiquitous accusations and counter-accusations of capitulation to secularism, modernism, individualism, humanism, liberalism, and revisionism—and how the outcome of these internal quarrels constructed a façade of theo-political consensus (i.e., the Christian Right). The big evangelical question, as Worthen indicates, was: who owned the Bible and spoke for its Christian Weltanschauung?

For all the reasons the book is successful, it is unfortunate that Worthen neglects—admittedly so—evangelicals of color (e.g. African, Asian, and Latinx Americans). This is perhaps owing more to evangelicalism’s constituency than Worthen’s negligence. Nevertheless, conspicuously absent are self-identified evangelicals such as Howard O. Jones (hired by Billy Graham to organize the 1957’s New York Crusade, including a crusade in Harlem and an invitation to Martin Luther King, Jr. to open Madison Square Garden in prayer) or John M. Perkins (founder of Voice of Calvary and Christianity Community Development Association, and board member at World Vision, Prison Fellowship, and National Association of Evangelicals).

Finally, the lack of LGBTQ+ issues within Worthen’s intellectual history of evangelicalism is quite surprising, not least because she has written on the topic elsewhere. Worthen’s graceful ability to pull back the political veneer in order to shed light on deeper theological crises is exceedingly welcomed; however, the failure to do so on this score seems to subtly endorse the myth that LGBTQ+ issues arose first and foremost within the primordial ooze of political unrest and activism. Unfortunately, the scandalous omissions of Lonnie Frisbee (the indispensible provocateur of the charismatic Jesus People and the heartbeat of Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Movement) and Exodus International exacerbate the misstep.

In Apostles of Reason, Worthen combines a refreshing sensitivity with an enthralling narration in her otherwise rigorous intellectual history of such a complex and controversial subject. Her efforts are greatly rewarded and, thus, make it easy to recommend this book without hesitation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William P. Boyce is a doctoral student in theology, ethics, and culture at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Molly Worthen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill and is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and other publications.

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