"Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism" by Randall Balmer

John R. Muether
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Jan/Feb 2003

What would it take to produce a 3,000-entry encyclopedia of a movement as diverse and ephemeral as American evangelicalism? A lot of ambition and more than a little audacity. In other words, it would take Randall Balmer. Balmer is a religious historian at Barnard College who has authored several books on American evangelicalism, such as his travelogue, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (1989). But he is most popularly known for hosting the PBS television series based on that book, where his rugged, chiseled facial features and blow-dried blond hair earned him, in the words of a friend of mine, at least a shot at the title of the handsomest man in Christendom.

Balmer's sojourning continues in the production of this encyclopedia, in which he toiled not merely as the editor but as the sole compiler. Balmer has an eye for the colorful and the unusual, and American evangelicalism provides plenty of both. The United Reformed Churches is not listed here, but you will find Cowboys for Christ as well as the Christian Jugglers Association. You will also discover evangelical practices (remember sword drills?) and taboos (like dancing and divorce) and technologies (from flannelgraphs to the Internet). Balmer captures the good (he tends to puff the evangelical left), the bad (televangelists), and the kitschy (artist Thomas Kinkade and Samuel Butcher, creator of Precious Moments). Even some "outsiders" (Frederick Buechner and C. S. Lewis) and erstwhile evangelicals (Bob Dylan) find their way into Balmer's universe.

The temptation in reviewing a work like this is to quibble about what's in and what's out. Arguably, Balmer has made a few questionable calls. There is a vague whiff of presentism, especially with some contemporary Christian music artists whom history may eventually classify as one-hit-wonders. Of course, sports celebrities are part of the evangelical subculture. That justifies the inclusion of Kurt Warner. But Trent Dilfer? There are also some autobiographical biases; Trinity College and Divinity School (Balmer's alma maters) are featured excessively along with their faculties. And surely Clarence Balmer would not rate an entry were he not the author's father.

There are more curious irregularities. While Balmer devotes space to the 1996 Cambridge Declaration, he omits the controversial document that partially prompted that gathering, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." There is a long entry for D. James Kennedy and an especially disproportionate one for Kennedy's Knox Theological Seminary (ironically described as a school dedicated to recovering Old Princeton). Yet there is none for Luder Whitlock or Edmund Clowney. Reformed and Covenant Seminaries are absent, and Westminster Seminary exists only as a cross-reference to its founder, J. Gresham Machen. One might conclude that Balmer simply got it wrong here, and badly underrepresented evangelicalism at least in its Reformed-leaning branches.

But that won't do, because Balmer is more than just a pretty face. He is a cultural historian who has traveled extensively and observed carefully. So what makes or misses the cut in his book bears significance. This encyclopedia is a helpful indicator of how conservative Protestants are being perceived, and it suggests that Reformed evangelicals are less significant than they imagine, which ought to ratchet down their claims about influence within the movement.

And what is an evangelical after all? Balmer's collection offers little help in refining a definition since he appears to be more interested in celebrating the movement's diversity than in keeping close reins on the faith once delivered. As in his other works, he sees it as a broad umbrella term, a patchwork quilt that is elastic enough to include fundamentalists, Pentecostals, charismatics, and the holiness tradition. The effect of this compilation is more boundary-blurring of a movement already porous.

With its occasional idiosyncrasies and biases, this is a fun read that could prompt hours of evangelical trivial pursuit. It might frustrate readers who are looking for a standard encyclopedia, however, and it is no substitute for Inter-Varsity Press's Dictionary of Christianity in America. Instead, consider it more travelogue genre and shelve it next to Balmer's earlier works.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

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