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Life’s Complications and the Limits of Expertise: A Review Article

D. G. Hart

The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011, 356 pages, $29.95.

Life in modern society is tough. In any given week, an average American may have to decide which is the best and prettiest paint for the exterior of his house, what are the best and most affordable tires to put on his car, whether to replace a deep filling with another filling or with a crown, whether to diversify the investments in his retirement portfolio, and which candidate from the Republican Party is the best to run against a Democratic incumbent in the upcoming presidential election. No single American has sufficient knowledge to make all of these decisions simply on the basis of his own learning and reading. In addition to confronting these dilemmas, this person likely has a full-time job that occupies much of his time, and a wife and children that take up most of his spare time—not to mention incredibly difficult choices about bad influences on his son at school, whether his daughter should play field hockey, and consulting with his wife about his mother-in-law’s declining health and the best arrangements for her well being. If he is a Christian with responsibilities at church, he may need to wade through files of applications for a pulpit search committee, or consult with architects and engineers about plans to expand the church’s parking lot.

Complicating further this average American’s decisions are the accompanying choices to be made over which advice to follow. For in addition to life’s complicated questions are a bevy of advisors, available on the radio and television, folks such as Oprah, Rush Limbaugh, and Dave Ramsey—people who seem to have a lot of insight into life’s difficulties. But which of these advisors to heed raises an additional layer of decisions. Life is tough.

The authors of The Anointed, Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson, both of whom are evangelical academics associated with Eastern Nazarene College (the former a historian, the latter a physicist), do not consider this average American believer’s plight but do address a problem associated with it. It is the authority of experts and how Americans—in this case, evangelical Protestants—come to regard certain figures as reputable teachers and spokesmen on questions surrounding the history and character of the United States, the proximity of Christ’s return, the creation of the universe, and even the formation of a Christian outlook on the world. Of course, these matters represent an entirely broader range of decisions than the myriad of choices facing the American Christian mentioned above. But choosing whether or not to employ the counsel of a television preacher or a radio talk show host is a similar process even if the consequences of the decision, both for the person deciding and the celebrity being followed, are of a different order. Had Stephens and Giberson considered life’s complexity and the need for expert instruction they may not have presented evangelical Protestants in as unflattering a light as they do.

The Anointed defies ready classification. The publisher, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, does not include a topic on the dust jacket, thus leaving book shop clerks yet one more decision to make in a life of decisions. The Library of Congress subject classification included in the preliminary pages lists evangelicalism as the first, and “Intellect—Religious Aspects” as the second subject. These will help librarians when considering where to shelve this book. As helpful as these are, the Library of Congress’s catalogers go on to include another six subjects, among them “Conservatism—Christian Aspects,” and “Christianity and Culture—United States.” The lists suggest the cataloguers were as uncertain of the book’s genre as readers will be. One subject they refused—though it may be the most fitting one—is exposé. For the book reads like one by insiders who decide to blow the whistle to outsiders about the dirty secrets of their group. Stephens and Giberson are not overly vicious in their description of the evangelical subculture, though an Ivy League university press is not the place to look for a muckraking account of minorities in the United States. At the same time, the authors do not make a concerted effort to explain away the oddities of evangelical beliefs and how far these Protestants depart from the boundaries of accepted knowledge.

The book includes four chapters on significant features of popular evangelical thought, with two additional sections on the tendency of evangelical Protestants to separate from the world and the mechanisms by which certain born-again preachers or leaders become “anointed” figures within these subcultures. The first four chapters cover the unique (and odd) beliefs that evangelicals have about the age of the earth (in contrast to the findings of natural scientists), the Christian origins of the United States (in contrast to the conclusions of academic historians), the nature of the Christian family (as opposed to advice from professional social scientists), and the taste that evangelicals have for apocalyptic and prophetic portions of the Bible (as opposed to the interpretations of professional biblical scholars). Along the way, the authors devote lengthy sections to the careers of Ken Ham, the creator of Answers in Genesis, David Barton, a popular amateur historian who argues for the Christian roots of the United States, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, and Hal Lindsey, author of the enormously popular The Late Great Planet Earth. Stephens and Giberson look beyond these four figures and show how evangelicals have an appetite for uniquely Christian ideas about creation, the United States, the family, and the return of Christ. In fact, the traction that these notions gain among evangelicals is responsible for a religious subculture, the authors argue, that is generally impervious to scholarship, expertise, and professional opinions in the wider society. This subculture is also the soil from which televangelists, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts, gain followers and attract donations sufficient to found universities. Stephens and Giberson write:

The fundamentalist end of the evangelical spectrum contains a culture that does indeed seem unable to distinguish between meaningful scholarship and what Wolfe has called “gibberish.” Ken Ham places a dinosaur looking over Eve’s shoulder in the Garden of Eden exhibit at his museum. Tourists pay to look at it and leave the Creation Museum, believing that what they just saw is both scientific and biblical. Tim LaHaye inserts the emergence of a common European currency into the book of Revelation; David Barton converts Ben Franklin into a Bible-believing Christian; James Dobson claims that the institution of marriage has not changed in five thousand years. Absent a more vigorous intellectual mind, such ideas take root and flourish. And their spokespersons can function as authority figures. (243)

Conservative Reformed Protestants may find several points on which to agree with Stephens and Giberson even while questioning the authors’ implicit recommendations for those who believe the Bible. Orthodox Presbyterians, for instance, may find regrettable the faulty logic, poor reasoning, and erroneous biblical interpretation that allow evangelical Protestants to read Genesis, the American founding, marriage and the family, and Revelation the way they do. But are evangelical Protestants any stranger than other religious subcultures in the United States? These Protestants are about the same size as their African-Americans counterparts, and yet one could not well imagine these white authors finding approval from editors of Harvard University Press to publish a book that exposed similar idiosyncrasies among African-American Protestant pastors and leaders. One reason that Stephens and Giberson may feel comfortable singling out evangelicals is the political repercussions of the born-again subculture. Indeed, many of the ideas treated in The Anointed influence the way the evangelical Protestants vote. But is this any less true for African-Americans? Were not Jeremiah Wright’s widely circulated ideas about the differences between European and African mentalities not a factor in gaining some support for the current president of the United States, who was, by the way, a regular listener to Wright’s sermons?

The way the authors single-out evangelicals as a bizarre subculture is arguably the greatest weakness of the book. But so is the authors’ failure to acknowledge the real difficulties that bedevil the harmonization of Scripture and the findings of science. Equally lamentable is Stephens and Giberson’s failure to explore the real limitations of scientific or scholarly experts. They present their case as if evangelicals are foolish for not accepting what learned experts teach and report. To be sure, if evangelicals believe that the Bible teaches truth in such a way as to make science unnecessary, then Stephens and Giberson have a point. Even so, as evangelicals themselves, the authors might have made some effort to explain why the Bible is authoritative at least on some of the contested claims of scientists. And as experts themselves, Stephens and Giberson might have conceded the weakness of scientific expertise. After all, at the very same time that they were writing this book, economic experts were giving advice to politicians, investment brokers, and bankers that turned out to do far more damage to the United States than any Garden of Eden Museum possibly could.

Darryl G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and an elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2012.

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