Book Review

"A Field Guide to Evangelicals & Their Habitat" by Joel Kilpatrick

Brandon G. Withrow
Joel Kilpatrick
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

Satire is alive and well. For every person who has ever cringed at boxes of "Christian" breath mints or "Christian" perfume at the checkout counter of the local Christian bookstore, here is a writer who understands your pain. Like his fake news website, aimed at evangelicals and their trends, editor Joel Kilpatrick brings us A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat. The effective humor of online for confusing the satirically challenged-fills every page of this book. But be warned, Kilpatrick is an evangelical insider, and as such, his humor cuts so close to the truth that at times it will make you simultaneously laugh and squirm.

Kilpatrick's book purports to help nonevangelicals identify the evangelical "in the field" by detailing their beliefs, political sympathies, theological issues, clothing preferences, educational institutions, decorating habits, and even their mating habits. But with chapter titles such as "What Evangelicals Believe, Plus a Master List of Who is Going to Hell," and "How to Talk and Act Like an Evangelical Without Being One," the evangelical reader should get the hint-this book is actually a lesson in laughing at oneself.

Kilpatrick begins by asking the reader to assess their EHQ or Evangelical Hostility Quotient. For example, he asks, "When you see someone toting a Bible in public you: 1. Think to yourself, 'I wish that person would share his or her personal faith with me.' 2. Feel grateful that our country ensures freedom of religion. 3. Express loud annoyance at this intrusive public display of faith. 4. Beat the person with available objects." After you've determined how tolerant you are of evangelicals, you are encouraged to read on with care.

Chapter 1 digs at a handful of evangelical beliefs. Here we learn that "heaven is the ultimate gated community"; that evangelicals believe they can figure out God's will "through prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and watching The O'Reilly Factor"; that being a backslider includes being "a fan of original HBO programming" and smoking the "occasional cigar or pipe (except in Australia or England or at meetings of the C. S. Lewis Society)." Kilpatrick includes a checklist of those going to heaven (evangelicals, Jews for Jesus, Mel Gibson, and Ronald Reagan) and those going to hell (ACLU members, Al Franken, Catholics, SpongeBob SquarePants, Mormons). Apparently, there is a special level of hell for the French, who are destined to be "locked in a room with Richard Simmons and Charo." Be warned, Dante!

In Chapter 2, we learn how to find and identify evangelicals. Likely places to spot them include Wal-Mart (which is later compared to an evangelical megachurch); evangelistic crusades, of which Kilpatrick notes 98.7 percent of attendees are already saved; and Denny's Restaurant, Sundays, 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. From evangelical bumper stickers ("Don't drive faster than your angel can fly") to vanity plates ("GOT JESUS"), Kilpatrick picks up on all the evangelical identifiers.

Say you're adventurous enough to go into the heart of evangelical territory. How do you distinguish evangelical churches from the other congregations listed in the phone book? Employ a few handy rules of thumb, such as: "Cross off any church named after a saint-these are Catholic or Episcopalian" and "Cross off houses of worship whose names include Jewish words and the word Temple. These are Jewish temples. But watch out! 'Bethel Temple' and 'Calvary Temple' are common evangelical church names that only sound Jewish."

Once you arrive at the service, you need to know how to fit in, so Kilpatrick translates the worship leader lingo for you: "Lift him up" means "Sing louder." He also includes charts of "Common Hand-Raising Postures" in worship and helpful job descriptions for worship leaders and assistant pastors.

If you really want to fit in, you must decorate your home like an evangelical. Kilpatrick instructs you to remove all "'real' art in the home" and place a Thomas Kinkade print over the sofa, a missionary magnet on the fridge, and a needlepoint sign that says "Bless this Mess!" Then volunteer for a short-term stint on the mission field. Want to know the difference between a short-term missions trip to Cancun and a spring break party trip to Cancun? One requires a 40-oz. bottle of Purell, the other a 40-oz. bottle of Jose Cuervo.

Each chapter includes clippings of fake but humorous articles such as "Worship leader closes eyes, forgets where he is," plus plenty of sidebars, including a recipe for that church potluck staple ambrosia.

Some readers who have adopted the evangelical lifestyle portrayed by Kilpatrick may be offended by his frankness. For example, Kilpatrick says of home schooling families that "they believe that educational liberty sets America apart from the world's oppressive regimes, like the Taliban, where homogenous groups of religion-minded children in tightly controlled environments learned only ideas approved by their religious leaders." Possibly more offensive is his chapter on evangelical mating habits, which contains some explicit language-although ironically, much of it is in the form of quotes from Tim and Beverly Lahaye's book The Act of Marriage and the Song of Solomon. (By the way, Kilpatrick concludes from his research that evangelicals have "highly satisfying" sex lives.)

Kilpatrick displays a clear grasp of general evangelical quirks, but at times his understanding of evangelical pop culture is a bit dated. He provides more of a panoramic of all the conservative evangelical oddities from the time of Reagan, leaving out other camps across the evangelical spectrum, like the Sojourners crowd, for example. Theological nuances are rare, but the lack may be overlooked, keeping his purpose in mind; when was the last time you heard someone say, "That Charles Hodge-what a satirist!"

This is a quick read and a great conversation starter. Much as one might find on The Simpsons or The Daily Show, Kilpatrick's book serves the evangelical reader as a mirror, providing a glimpse as to how the outside world views evangelical Christianity. More than simply pointing out evangelical silliness or hypocrisy, the book leaves the reader with the overall impression that evangelicals do what they do because they are serious about their beliefs-a badge of honor some evangelicals will wear with pride. Though not destined to become a classic like Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, Kilpatrick's A Field Guide to Evangelicals & Their Habitat is worth every chuckle and wince.

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Brandon G. Withrow
Brandon G. Withrow (Ph.D.) is an adjunct professor at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama).
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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