1. She begins with something I hope is fairly obvious. The word "evangelical" is ambiguous. It can refer to everything from "churchly Virginia Baptists" to "nondenominational charismatics" in LA. It seems to be a "nebulous community that shares something, even if it is not always clear what that something is" (4). Despite the power-brokers most associated with the name, she insists that individuals like my own tradition must be included in the discussion, people like "Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals," "communities on the fringes of evangelicalism's 'mainstream' that might contest the term altogether" (5).
What I like about the way she sets up the discussion (I put YES!!! in my margin with two additional underlines). She realizes that the definition of evangelicalism is NOT a question of core ideas or a core truth. "American evangelicals have a strong primitivist bent. They often prefer to think their faith indistinguishable from the faith of Christ's apostles, and scoff at history's claims on them. But they are creatures of history like everyone else, whether they like it or not" (4).
That is to say, she does not define evangelicalism in terms of some dreamy, abstract core like Bebbington (biblicism, cruciformism, conversionism, activism). Bebbington may use history as the foil for these principles, but many evangelicals use these four as if they dropped out of heaven like the image of Artemis that fell from heaven to Ephesus. Ironically, they make it the true catholic faith--one Lord, one faith, one evangelicalism. Pishah.
She hits the bull's eye smack center: "History--rather than theology or politics--is the most useful tool for pinning down today's evangelicals" (4). For background on why I respond enthusiastically to this comment, see here.
I might add that, true to history, she does not discuss African-American Protestants, Latinos, Asian evangelicals, and other immigrants. "Many, especially in the African-American community, view evangelicalism as a white word and claim the label rarely, and always cautiously" (5). She is not saying that these other groups would not have ideally been included, but that evangelicalism is such a white phenomenon in the US that, in the need to provide limits to her study, the lack of detailed focus on these groups actually contributes to her point.
2. She identifies three elemental concerns that drive evangelicalism historically: 1) How do you reconcile faith with reason, 2) how can you be saved and have a true relationship with God, and 3) how do you resolve the tension between personal belief and a secular age?
"The preoccupations that define evangelicalism emerged here, at the intersection of premodern dogma, personal religious experience, and modern anxieties" (6). She is speaking of the age in which Pietism emerged. Pietism was emphasizing the need for "heart religion" at the same time that the Enlightenment was on the rise as well. Herein arose the tension we have been playing out ever since.
"I believe" changed from a statement meaning something like "I love," "I will be faithful to" to the Enlightenment period's, "I assent to the following doctrinal proposition." This relates to what I have said over and over and over and over. The meaning of words is not in the words, nor is it self-evident in all contexts. There is a socio-cultural background that informs what words mean.
"Since that time a broad swath of Protestant believers have found themselves united, not by specific doctrines... but by questions borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era" (7). Here is a key point: "While many ancient Christians assented to the basic doctrines that scholars mark as 'evangelical,' that assent took on a different character after the seventeenth-century rebirth of reason and the invention of our present-day notions of 'religious' and 'secular.'"
Again, the same words can have drastically different connotations in different contexts. This is why the "self-evident" meaning of the Bible to people today is often an invention of their own making (and their tradition's) rather than what the original authors understood. This is also the mechanism by which the Spirit gave new meanings to the OT words in the NT (and why Walter Kaiser is a hermeneutical imbecile who should generally be ignored). The Spirit continues to speak to us in this way today.
Another nugget: "The sundry believers who share the evangelical label have all lacked an extrabiblical authority powerful enough to guide them through these crises." Thus, I might add, Tillich's Protestant Principle--in the absence of a standard to determine what the Bible means, Protestantism will continue to multiply into tens of thousands of little groups, all of which are absolutely convinced that they are following the inerrant Bible alone. When you look at 20,000 Protestant denominations, sola scriptura is, from a practical standpoint, completely ineffective as an operating principle.
Evangelicals "are children of estranged parents--Pietism and the Enlightentment--but behave like orphans." That is to say, we pretend like we are following the Bible alone when in fact our beliefs and practices are historically located. She has a great way of saying what so MANY of us have been saying now FOREVER!
3. She ends with something so many of us wrestle with--the movements associated with the evangelical stream have tended toward the anti-intellectual. We might tout our educational institutions as islands of protection from the world and then wanted to be accredited so we could be respectable. These twin drives conflict with each other.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a long time ago, "Extreme orthodoxy betrays by its very frenzy that the poison of skepticism has entered the soul... Men insist most vehemently upon their certainties when their hold on them has been shaken" (8). WOW! Pictures of several individuals came immediately to mind. "Frantic orthodoxy is a method for obscuring doubt" (also Niebuhr). I like how Worthen notes that so called "anti-intellectuals" are themselves "staunchly committed to ideas" (8).
The book is about the last 70 years of intellectual life (i.e., from the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s to today). The introduction ends with this: "If American evangelicals do not share a single mind, they do share an imagination: one grounded in a substrate of basic questions about the relationship of faith and experience to human reason, and the direction of the modern world" (11).
The game is afoot!