Book Review: Everything You Know About Evangelicals Is Wrong by Wilkens and Thorsen
Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen, Everything You Know About Evangelicals is Wrong (Well Almost Everything): An Insiders Look at Myths and Realities (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). $16.99. Paper.
The use of the words “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” continues to be the source of no little consternation in conversations among professing Christians. In some corners, they have come to connote everything that is thought to be wrong with Christianity in the 21st century. Some seek to preserve valuable common ground between believers of different doctrinal or practical persuasions and use these terms to fit them all under one large umbrella. Still others are convinced that evangelicalism has become so ambiguous a term as to render it useless in academic or popular discourse. Yet, Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen recognize that “evangelicalism” still receives heavy use in popular culture, and so they have written Everything You Know About Evangelicals Is Wrong (Well Almost Everything): An Insider’s Look at Myths and Realities with hopes of clearing up what they perceive to be misconceptions about what is implied when one uses the term “evangelicalism.”
The authors take up their task by first exploring whether or not we should even be bothered to try to use the word “evangelicalism” anymore. While acknowledging the notorious difficulty of formulating an “adequate and accurate definition” (11) of evangelicalism, the authors nevertheless press forward in search of a proper basis for understanding the existence of the movement. They argue that despite the differences that Christians have had over doctrine and practice, evangelicalism finds its identity in its history of cooperative works and causes such as orphanages, hospitals, and the abolition of slavery in the United States as well as Great Britain (14). After this brief introductory discussion of the essence of evangelicalism, the bulk of the book is taken up with chapters covering the supposed misconceptions about evangelicalism. The authors address ways in which evangelicals are possibly perceived by outsiders looking in (Evangelicals Are Not All Mean, Stupid, And Dogmatic; Evangelicals Are Not All Republicans) as well as topics that they fear might cause someone to be excluded from the evangelical camp (Evangelicals Are Not All Inerrantists; Evangelicals Are Not All Waiting For The Rapture). After making the case for the legitimacy of diversity within evangelicalism, the final chapter once again takes up the challenge of defining evangelicalism by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various attempts at a definition and finally settling on the authors’ own definition.
Wilkens and Thorsen approach their discussion of evangelicalism with a humility that is commendable. One of the great strengths of this book is the charitable way that they discuss topics on which Christians have historically come to differing conclusions. It is never difficult to ascertain which side of the debates the authors themselves land on, but they always make an honest attempt to fairly portray all views that they deem pertinent to the discussion at hand. The book also offers the reader a number of opportunities to be challenged. The authors keenly point out the ways that Christians put secondary issues such as identity with a political party at the same level as our identity as subjects of God’s kingdom. Their discussion of evangelicalism’s attitude toward homosexuality is a convicting reminder that it is is easy to depersonalize those whose lives are ravaged by sin with which we do not identify.
The book also has weaknesses, however, that ultimately make it unworthy of recommendation. The true aim of the book is never quite clear enough to make what that authors are saying very compelling. It is hard to tell most of the time which of their four intended audiences they mean to address with what they say in the following chapters. The reader comes away feeling like the book was more a chance for Wilkens and Thorsen to vent about some hot button issues in contemporary Christianity than an attempt to offer any new or interesting insights. If you are looking for a helpful, compelling examination of the phenomenon known as modern evangelicalism this book will, unfortunately, leave you disappointed. Despite its strengths, Everything You Know About Evangelicals Is Wrong does not add much to the continuing discussion of the essence and continuing viability of evangelicalism.
Reviewed by Aaron Harding