Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. 232 pp. $34.00.
As a contributor to USA Today’s “On Religion” column, Tom Krattenmaker has been a longtime observer of evangelical Christianity, offering a secular and liberal, friendly but critical perspective on the goings-on within the camp. At long last, after enduring years of evangelical numb-nuttery by the likes of Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush, Krattenmaker has found some evangelicals he can get behind. And he’s excited for you to make their acquaintance. Really excited.
The Evangelicals You Don’t Know is written to undermine the antipathy of “secular progressives, the spiritual-but-not-religious, liberal religionists, anyone with a concern for the common good and an open-mindedness about allies for the cause” (11). The plan is to show the world a kind of Christianity it might not exactly approve of, but toward which it can at least hold its nose and pretend not to bear contempt. While the average New York Times-reading, soy latte-sipping progressive might think all evangelicals are in the ideological pocket of Falwell and (cue the ominous music) the Religious Right, Krattenmaker wants to introduce them to a more palatable breed like Q Conference founder Gabe Lyons and Focus on the Family president Jim Daly.
There are times in the book when the portraits of evangelical leaders in action will make you want to cheer, like Phil Ryken’s gentle but clear response to LGBTQ-identified alumni of Wheaton College. But there are also stories at which many evangelicals will cringe; for instance, a long and approving discussion of a confession booth set up by Christians at a gay pride festival so the Christians could apologize for all the ways Jesus’ followers had sinned against gays. That might sound like a humble thing to do, and I don’t doubt that they were well motivated, but really? It seems a bit self-righteous and twee to confess other people’s sins for them, although I suppose it will make people like you better than if you call attention to their sins (like, say, Paul did).
Things to Like
I particularly appreciated three aspects of this book. First, Krattenmaker is generally fair and evenhanded in his treatment of this subject at hand. He seems to pull off the rare combination of sympathy toward both Christianity and also its secular despisers. It’s commendable that he seeks to understand and communicate the best about his subjects without losing his ability to be critical and analytical. He helpfully seeks to explain why evangelicals feel compelled to share their faith with unbelievers (36). And as much as he criticizes conservative Christian ethics, he also takes pains to point out the weaknesses of aspects of liberal secular society.
Second, the things Krattenmaker likes about the “new evangelicals” are good. He often chronicles Christians acting like, well, Jesus. He records evangelicals demonstrating humility, compassion, and love; feeding the poor; and caring for the helpless. That’s a good thing. There were many times I was excited about and challenged by the deeds of faith recorded in this book.
Third, his overall point is well taken. The stereotype of evangelicals broadcast in the media is just that. Many evangelical Christians are kind, humble, generous people. Krattenmaker makes that case in a compelling way.
What’s Not to Like
That said, there were also aspects of the book that left me cold. But first, let me say I’m sympathetic with Krittenmaker’s critique of the brand of Christianity that adopts a caustic bunker mentality and conflates the faith with Republican politics. I share his conviction that Christians should be kind toward unbelievers and sacrificially involved in caring for the needy. But as an evangelical Christian, I didn’t really care much for this book.
Ultimately, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know sets out to achieve something I think is untenable. In the end, it turns out that what social activist progressives can find to like about Christianity is when Christians act like social activist progressives. There are times when those Venn diagrams will overlap, when evangelicals and gay rights activists will agree and can cooperate on certain endeavors (working to put an end to human trafficking, for example). But that’s not finally going to bridge the ever-widening gap between evangelicals and secular members of society.
Fact is, Christians can do all they want to make themselves more palatable to those who don’t like Christianity, but in the end they have to choose between loyalty to Jesus and the approval of the world. Evangelicals can find common ground with liberal secularists so long as they stay away from issues like the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of judgment, the necessity of conversion, and the absolute nature of morality. Basically, as long as they stay away from asserting the truth of Christianity and just act like progressives (who happen to be about a few decades late coming to most parties).
Oh, and it turns out that people who disapprove of evangelicals also like it when evangelicals apologize. A lot. This book shows Christians apologizing for all kinds of crimes against liberals: being harsh and caustic, snuggling up in bed next to the Republican Party, and having a generally triumphalistic view of themselves and America. Those are good things to apologize for, I suppose, but it doesn’t make for very interesting or thought-provoking reading.
Ultimately, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know boils down to what non-Christians think Christians should be like. But that’s kind of like asking a vegan what kind of food you should serve at your family barbecue. You might be able to get some good tips on the potato salad and baked beans, but there’s going to be an intractable difference of opinion about the main course. So, then, should Christians be kind, compassionate, and winsome? Absolutely. But should they shy away from religious truth assertions and focus on things that are helpful to society at large but not unique to evangelical Christianity? Evangelicals should only have one answer to that question, and it’s probably not one Krattenmaker would like.
Mike McKinley is the pastor of Guilford Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia.