Thanks to the growing influence of evangelicals on the politics and culture of America, journalists like Jeffery Sheler are beginning to take a closer look at just who these people are who identify with evangelicalism. And what they're discovering is that evangelical America is far more diverse and far more normal than the media --- print, television and film alike --- portray. In making this discovery, Sheler, contributing for religion for U.S. News & World Report, crisscrossed the country observing and interviewing evangelical Christians, both well-known leaders and the so-called "people in the pew."
Unlike some journalists (including one clueless reporter Sheler heard about who expected to witness a person being born-again, as if it was a visible ritual), Sheler did not enter the world of evangelicalism as a complete stranger. Spiritually reared in a fundamentalist Baptist church, Sheler eventually became disenchanted with fundamentalism, began attending a Nazarene church and, later, a Nazarene college, before transferring to a state university. Clearly, Sheler understands the nuances that distinguish fundamentalism from evangelicalism, something many in the media miss.
To launch his quest, Sheler began at the Rock Church in Virginia Beach, VA, pastored by John and Anne Gimenez, where the line between faith and politics appeared to be particularly blurred to him (not all that surprising, considering Gimenez's geographic, political and spiritual proximity to Pat Robertson). Sheler's journey included visits to other mega churches, such as Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. Warren, author of the unprecedented bestseller THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, represented the opposite end of the faith-politics spectrum --- unlike Gimenez or Robertson, Warren stays out of the public policy debate, and with him the diversity in evangelicalism becomes even more apparent.
From the academic rigor of Wheaton College near Chicago to the fun- and praise-filled environment of the annual rock festival in Pennsylvania known as Creation, from the ministry-saturated city of Colorado Springs to the evangelical think tanks in Washington, D.C., and from Billy Graham's 2006 New York crusade --- his last --- to the mission field in Guatemala, Sheler covers most of the bases that are representative of a religious movement that has risen to significant prominence in a relatively short time.
One distinctive feature of Sheler's work is the extensive history he provides, not only of the evangelical movement but also of the churches and other institutions --- such as Wheaton College --- that he examines along the way. Another is the many conversations he has with the previously mentioned people in the pew, though there's seldom a pew to be found in today's evangelical churches. He strikes up conversations with visitors to the Focus on the Family headquarters, young people at Creation 2005 and a Canadian volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, among others. Each conversation serves to shed more light on the many faces of evangelicalism, even when --- or perhaps, most often when --- one professing evangelical contradicts another.
Those outside the evangelical world will likely learn a great deal from BELIEVERS, while evangelicals themselves --- who, like me, may find a misinterpretation or two if they choose to quibble --- should be relieved that a journalist of Sheler's caliber has offered a fair and generally positive look into a world that outsiders just don't seem to get.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on September 14, 2006