The Anointed

I read The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson back a few months ago and have struggled with exactly how to respond. I have a bit of time right now, so I’m going to go out on a limb and make a few comments.

One kind of response would be like that of Al Mohler. He suggests it is total capitulation and an abandonment of truth. Despite some legitimate complaints Mohler raises, he seems too defensive and fails to engage with important points the authors do make. So I’ll try to briefly do better. I’ll do so under several main points:

1) The title seemed to promise something the book didn’t quite deliver. The thesis of the book is not that certain people are anointed by God (or at least consider themselves to be so) and hence are unwilling to listen to the science or reason. There may be one or two general cases of this, but more generally, this is a book largely about populism versus the intellectual elites (I’m wary of framing it precisely this way, but it’s close enough). Perhaps the title wasn’t their choice, but it obscures some of the force of their argument, in my judgment.

2) They undertake to examine four primary issues: a) Science [especially evolution], 2) History[mostly American], 3) Social sciences, and 4) Eschatology [dispensationalism]. Obviously this is a wide-ranging critique and most chapters make some interesting points (at least). But these are not the same, nor do all the issues function with the same kind of constraints or epidemiological tools. Let me address each one briefly:

a) The strongest case they make is clearly in history, as the case for a “Christian American” (at least in any strong sense) is historically untenable, yet many evangelical Christians have been persuaded of a non-historical view because of non-experts. Evangelical historians like Mark Noll and others can be called on to support this result (and I wish critics of the book like Mohler would at least acknowledge this problem). I should note that American history is not based on biblical exegesis or even theological reasoning (at least in any great detail). And this means that the experts (even non-Christian ones) frequently provide us with important insight.

b) For me at least, the weakest chapter was on the social sciences. When we move to these areas, our understanding of human sexuality and gender, morality, homosexuality and so on are much more linked to biblical exegesis and theological reasoning. This is not merely populist ranting (though of course there are populists out there making the argument). In this chapter, James Dobson, despite some populist elements in his ministry, does have academic credentials that don’t mesh especially well with their thesis. If we note that much of the intellectual tradition of the Catholic church agrees with these evangelicals, the argument becomes much cloudier.

Because of the biblical, theological, and historical groundings of convictions about many of these areas, even if there were areas where convincing scientific data challenged evangelical views (and those are far fewer than the authors suggest), we would have good ground to wonder if the science might be wrong in these areas, given what seem to be pretty clear biblical teachings. I would want to be at least theoretically open to being corrected (my interpretation is not infallible!), but given the weight of tradition, that seems less likely than in my interpretation of American history. One other point on the social sciences. I suspect (though I don’t have direct confirmation right at hand), that Mark Noll and many other evangelicals the authors laud on their other topics may not agree with their conclusions here. In my judgment, this chapter was needlessly provocative and allowed Mohler and others to discard the more serious critique in the other chapters.

c) On science, this issue is a mixed bag and much more complicated. But the question of why people of limited scientific credentials are embraced instead of evangelicals with unimpeachable scientific credentials is an important one. I’m not sure I have an answer, but history tells us that evangelicals have dealt with these scientific claims in a variety of ways, and young earth creationism (even if correct) is not the exclusive evangelical option. And rejecting young earth creation for exegetical (and even scientific) reasons is not a surrender of truth, despite Mohler’s claims to the contrary.

d) As a dispensationalist (albeit a sometime unconventional one), this chapter hurt a bit. The fundamental point being made is valid, even if I do not accept an equivalence between dispensationalism and anti-intellectualism (Mark Noll and others to the contrary). Dispensationalists seem to be attracted to easily to the sensational and the fact that a multi-volume work of fiction is the popular and definitive statement of our theology should give us pause. Or one could put it this way: populism has been the great strength of dispensationalism (allowing it to spread and reach into all kinds of surprising places) but it has undermined in significant ways the seriousness and intellectual strength of the movement. So I think there is a lesson here, even if I haven’t yet abandoned my dispensational tradition. And of course, there are many serious academic dispensationalists (I’ll just throw out Darrell Bock as an example) which suggests the case is not quite that simple. One more point on this topic, though there is a broad populist dispensational tradition, many evangelicals (including many committed to the “conservative” option on the other three issues) would probably agree with much of the authors critique of dispensationalism.

So it is complicated – are some traditions more populist than others, or are all these traditions reflecting broader American populist traditions in various ways (a thesis I find initially plausible, at least)? In summary, then – for at least three of the four chapters I think the authors have raised important points, even if aI don’t always agree with their evaluation of the full outcome of intellectual engagement. So, to this extent, the book is successful. But I think especially in the social sciences chapter they made it too easy for their work to be dismissed as a whole, which I think is a lost opportunity.

3) One last final impression, I guess (though much more could be said). The book includes a chapter which describes the pilgrimage of a student from a more conservative evangelical environment to a broader one. Obviously, the narrative is meant to sketch out a desired path, but the reality is that there are many narratives going the other way. These individual narratives are not really proof of much. And the account obscures some of the problematic nature of this specific account. While no doubt the endpoint of the model pilgrimage is different in many ways (more open to evolution, less committed to theocratic interpretations of American history, and perhaps less eschatologically narrow), the endpoint is still well within conservative evangelicalism where much of the populist tradition the authors decry remains in many ways (again, I think the social sciences are likely a problem for the broader thesis as well).

It’s one of those books that makes you wince in embarrassment at spots, then gets you a bit angry from time to time (in a Christian way, of course), and then baffles you at other points. Worth a careful and discerning read.

 

 

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