Book Review: Evangelical Disenchantment

Evangelical Disenchantment: 9 Portraits of Faith and Doubt
by David Hempton
Yale University Press, 2008
233 pages (hardcover)

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I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I was probably around ten when I was a part of a small adult Bible study in Temperance, Michigan. We sat in our steel folding chairs on a shag carpet with Bible’s and notebooks (the pad-of-paper kind) readied as someone unfolded a large newspaper ad. I am not sure if I remember which newspaper, but the ad announced not the next shoe sale or car dealer extravaganza, but the coming of a messiah.

To be more specific, Jesus, or the antichrist, or Mephistopheles, or whatever his name was, had already come and was living somewhere, just waiting to be revealed. Apparently, he had an apartment or house and this ad was his John the Baptist, making the way for his coming.

He never showed up, of course, but our group wondered at the time if this could this be the dawn of the antichrist? A few heads nodded.

When one delves into the mysterious world of evangelicalism, scenes like these, though they are not universal, are also not uncommon. My evangelical youth was formed out of moments like these and today I find that I react strongly—and negatively—to them as a result (see, for example, my piece at HuffPo). David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: 9 Portraits of Faith and Doubt tells me that this is nothing new.

In these pages one gets to look at the lives of those who, for one reason or another, either left religion in general or left evangelicalism for a non-creedal, non-institutionalized religion. These portraits include George Eliot, Francis W. Newman, Theodore Dwight Weld, Sarah Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Vincent van Gogh, Edmund Gosse, and James Baldwin. Each of them have their own stories, but there are often striking similarities, either due to the circles they were involved in or the common theological concerns evangelical communities have when it comes to the Bible and the gospel.

Hempton’s chapters contain “figures of some eminence who embraced evangelicalism for a season before repudiating it.” These are narratives that measure (in some form) how evangelicalism has stacked up to issues of morality, reform, feminism, racism, etc. They also take place mostly in the last half of the nineteenth century. By then, evangelicalism had established itself and was positioned “for serious counterattacks from within and without,” notes Hempton.

Those “selected in this study,” writes Hempton, “are either creative artists or independent thinkers and public intellectuals who increasingly chafed at the restrictive dogmatism of the evangelical tradition.” They often embraced their evangelical traditions vigorously, wrote about Christ, took to the pulpit to preach on the Gospels, and at times even engaged in an almost ascetic and pietistic lifestyle.  At some point, however, something forced a break in their devotion.

The two figures I found most intriguing were George Eliot, the author of Middlemarch, and Vincent van Gogh.

George Eliot’s initial break with evangelicalism came from her social circle, reading, and rejection of certain theological conclusions on the nature of God. The process likely began in the early 1840s, when her reading “introduced her to controversial new ideas on a range of subjects from phrenology to biblical criticism, and from the solar system to Mosaic cosmology.”

In 1841, after reading Charles Hennell’s Inquiry Concerning the Origins of Christianity (1838), she wrote a friend to say that her mind was consumed by new ideas and that where these ideas would lead she was not certain. Her pursuit, she says, is truth.  By 1842 she no longer attended church.

Hempton shows that in 1851 her circle included a wide range of Unitarians, Socialists, feminists, and others, and by 1855 her attitude toward evangelicalism was one of antagonism. For example, in the Westminster Review she wrote a scathing review of a Calvinist preacher, Dr. Cumming:

Given a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English Society?  Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher…

While Cumming was “an exemplar of all that she disliked about…Victorian evangelicalism,” she later toned down her anti-evangelical rhetoric in general. She appeared to find some appreciation for those whose religion exhibited a sort of sincere humble piety and true humanity.

Early in his life, Van Gogh expressed an intensity for his faith and for the ideal of humility and piety that was beyond his reach and in competition with his artistic expression. He could not maintain the high standards of his Dutch-Reformed upbringing and his zeal eventually met the insurmountable obstacle of hypocrisy within the church. It appears that “van Gogh abandoned his melancholic commitment to evangelical Christianity because he was disillusioned with its institutions, its theology, its practitioners, and its effects,” writes Hempton.

Van Gogh's Starry Night, 1889. In this famous painting, the church is both the center of the town and without light.

As old as some of these stories are, the struggles of Eliot or van Gogh are timeless. Today’s evangelicalism is different in its sophistication or modernization and it falls across a wide spectrum from the ardent conservative to the progressive liberal. Still, even with this spectrum, there continues to be those disenchanted with it for classic reasons latent in the lives of those found in this book.

Not all evangelicals will appreciate the book. Base on my childhood experience, I can imagine someone challenging the evangelicalism of Hempton’s subjects. After all, a real evangelical would never have fallen away and so the problem is with Eliot or van Gogh, not with evangelicalism. The ideas they reacted to were either misunderstood by them, some might say, or not really evangelical.

Historically speaking, Hempton’s understanding of evangelicalism borrows from standard sources. David Bebbington’s oft-cited quadrilateral (conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism), W.R. Ward, and George Marsden all get consideration in finding some common ground for calling someone an evangelical. These are evangelicals.

I have a feeling, however, that others (and there are specific persons I have in mind) may have experienced evangelicalism in such a way that this will mean something to them. Overzealous parents, or apocalyptic dreams, or anti-intellectualism can all build a house of cards and leave the next generation looking for something more—something closer to one’s own reality.  In other words, one should not dismiss these stories as dated and irrelevant to today’s evangelicals.

Hempton generally makes good use of space in providing these portraits. Each chapter is not a full biography, but more of a series of snapshots taken several years apart, which individually say little, but together demonstrate significant change.

This book is also not a look at those who were disenchanted, but eventually got over their disappointment and had a picture-perfect evangelical ending. This is not an evangelical novel, in other words, where the happy ending is found in someone finally coming to church. This book is a reminder of disenchantment’s reality, something that needs further exploration within the evangelical world and in religion in general.

“It also has become clear to me that disenchantment is almost inevitably a part of any tradition, Christian or others,” writes Hempton, “as noble ideals of sacrifice, zeal, and commitment meet the everyday realities of complexity, frustration, and disappointment.”

No matter one’s ecclesiastical tradition, Evangelical Disenchantment is a good read. Hempton mostly manages to maintain a neutral voice throughout, and while there are many points of speculation, the conclusions are reasonably drawn. Well written, the voice of his subjects are heard throughout and the reader is left with a good sense for the historical and cultural issues surrounding the lives of each person discussed. For those interested in discussions of faith and disbelief, there is no doubt that Hempton’s book will be an interesting read.

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