Molly Worthen on Defining American Evangelicalism

In a recent blog post, Scot McKnight recommends a new book on American Evangelicalism published by Oxford University Press, Apostles of Reason. The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen.

Molly Worthen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill and is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and other publications.

Here is the presentation of the book on Amazon:

Evangelical Christianity is a paradox. Evangelicals are radically individualist, but devoted to community and family. They believe in the transformative power of a personal relationship with God, but are wary of religious enthusiasm. They are deeply skeptical of secular reason, but eager to find scientific proof that the Bible is true.

In this groundbreaking history of modern American evangelicalism, Molly Worthen argues that these contradictions are the products of a crisis of authority that lies at the heart of the faith. Evangelicals have never had a single authority to guide them through these dilemmas or settle the troublesome question of what the Bible actually means. Worthen chronicles the ideological warfare, institutional conflict, and clashes between modern gurus and maverick disciples that lurk behind the more familiar narrative of the rise of the Christian Right. The result is an ambitious intellectual history that weaves together stories from all corners of the evangelical world to explain the ideas and personalities-the scholarly ambitions and anti-intellectual impulses-that have made evangelicalism a cultural and political force.

In Apostles of Reason, Worthen recasts American evangelicalism as a movement defined not by shared doctrines or politics, but by the problem of reconciling head knowledge and heart religion in an increasingly secular America. She shows that understanding the rise of the Christian Right in purely political terms, as most scholars have done, misses the heart of the story. The culture wars of the late twentieth century emerged not only from the struggle between religious conservatives and secular liberals, but also from the civil war within evangelicalism itself-a battle over how to uphold the commands of both faith and reason, and how ultimately to lead the nation back onto the path of righteousness.
And here is what Mark Noll says about the book:

Apostles of Reason brings a new level of sophistication, as well as sparkling prose, to the study of modern American evangelicals. A combination of empathetic understanding and critical acumen makes this an unusually humane, as well as unusually insightful, book.”

* * *

And here is part of what Scot McKnight says about the book:

A standard story is that the fundamentalists couldn’t handle their own questions so it was the ne0-evangelicals who found a better way. The leading lights of neo-evangelicalism were Billy Graham, Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga. In neo-evangelicalism American evangelicalism found a new kind of unity. That, in fact, is one story but Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina), in what may well prove to be one of the most important books on evangelicalism in a decade or two, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. At a number of points Worthen challenges the narrative I sketched above.

A number of important themes at work among evangelicals are sketched admirably in this book. To begin with, the issue of inerrancy. Christian Smith argued that the obsession with sola scriptura among evangelicals is not matched by cohesive or compelling interpretations, leading to the “Bible made impossible.” Molly Worthen provides the narrative of that tension.

The most recent Evangelical Theological Society gathering focused on inerrancy, and Mike Bird, who was on the lead panel, came away asking the question: Whose definition of inerrancy does ETS follow? Is it that of Al Mohler or DA Carson? Precisely, and that is the problem that Molly Worthen is addressing in the first major section of the book: Who decides who is evangelical? Who decides what evangelicalism believes? Her contention, and I think she’s right and revealing at just this point, is that it is the elites. Well, who’s that? Ultimately it came down to a few leaders: Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Christianity Today.

Read HERE his entire post. It is really worth it.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

3 thoughts on “Molly Worthen on Defining American Evangelicalism”

  1. Brilliant book! Molly Worthen (former colleague in the same PhD department) is an insightful historian and indeed, an empathetic reader of the evangelical movement in North America.


    1. It sounds very much like a book I should absolutely read. Even if mostly about American evangelicalism, it is also, to a large extent, about the struggles and problems of evangelicalism in other parts of the world, because of the (financial) ability and the (imperialistic) passion with which American evangelicals export their pathologies around the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s