Sunday, 6 May 2012

Mine Eyes Have Not Seen the Glory

For the past few weeks, I have been writing lectures for my fall 2012 course on American Religious History. I decided to use the Butler, Wacker, Balmer text Religion in American Life, which is an excellent survey of religion in America. In developing the course, I wondered if I could include some video segments to break up my lectures. I recalled a colleague mentioning that she had been using Randall Balmer's PBS documentary, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," which is based on a book he wrote with the same title, and so I ordered the video hoping also to integrate clips in my course.

While humorous at first, because of the outdated clothes of the participants in the video (Balmer's stonewashed jeans is one of the highlights), Balmer's depiction of evangelicalism is appallingly inaccurate, even when judging it in the late 1980s/early 1990s atmosphere at the time the video was produced. He subtly chastises Willow Creek Church for marketing religion to meet the corporate culture of Chicago's suburbanites and suggests that the "health and wealth" gospel is prevalent among all evangelicals in America. In the midst of his commentary are Balmer's reflections on his own conservative upbringing, which must have created much of the bitterness he apparently feels toward certain forms of Christianity. In the video, Balmer tells his audience that he was forced to attend camp revival meetings as a teenager and that his family expressed harsh opinions of Pentecostals, calling the religious movement an "embarrassment" to evangelicalism.

My question is: can't there be an accurate depiction of evangelicalism that avoids stereotyping people of this movement, on the one hand as anti-intellectual, seizure-ridden, money-hungry bigots (Ballmer's video), and on the other hand as academic wannabees (in such books as The Anointed)?

I remember reflecting on a similar predicament when I was a financial consultant living in Miami in the early 2000s. As far as I know, there were only two evangelicals on staff at the brokerage office in Coral Gables, myself and a temporary receptionist. The latter was a woman who the rest of the office made fun of because of her outlandish comments about the end times, prudish lifestyle, and commitment to separatism. I recall my colleagues shocked when I admitted that I too was an evangelical Christian. Why were they shocked?--because I hung out with them, going out for lunch and occasionally grabbing a beer on Friday afternoon at the close of the day. To them, I seemed like a regular person (at least that's what they told me), and, more importantly in my opinion, a friend. I had the chance to talk with my friends at work about the Bible and my take on religion in general. We had some interesting discussions about the problem of evil and the meaning of life. Perhaps surprising to Balmer, I never instituted an "alter call" after our conversions. Rather, it was just me and some friends talking about pertinent issues in life.

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