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The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson
Published by Belknap Press in 2011

Alan Wolfe once made the observation that among religious traditions, the intellectual standing of evangelicalism “ranks dead last.”1 In a somewhat bereaved tone, Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson contest the very nature of what stands for credible thinking among the majority of American evangelicals, almost one-hundred million strong. How have leaders lacking scholarly gravitas attained the stature to address pressing concerns that affect the “parallel culture” (7) of evangelicalism, and what does their prominence suggest about those who participate in that culture and who follow such leaders? The authors claim that anointed leaders deliver ideas passionately, as prepackaged answers to complex questions, whereas trained academics follow more reliable procedures of dispassionate inquiry, attaining genuine knowledge and understanding. This comparative presentation, though absorbing, ultimately falls short because it too easily elevates the professoriate as a new priestly class, without sufficiently acknowledging its own characteristic idiosyncrasies and biases.2

Stephens and Giberson begin, first, by considering the challenge of science to a literal interpretation of Genesis, particularly analyzing the response of creationist Ken Ham, founder of the Answers in Genesis radio broadcast, and head of the famous Creation Mu-seum. Contrasting the rocks beneath his museum, and their “four-billion-year story” (22) corroborated by current geologic science, with the museum itself, and its young-earth mes-sage expressed through Hollywood-style electronic media, the authors readily welcome the evolutionary narrative as more credible. The creationists, they observe, may at times use scholarly evidence and methods, but they do so selectively, to fulfill an ulterior, spiritualized agenda. For example, the authors reference John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood,3 which profoundly influenced evangelicals in the ’60s, and beyond, to believe that evolutionary science lacked authoritative standing because its theories undermined the au-thority of God’s word. This sort of scholarship, the authors posit, fails the test of credibility because it begins with the presuppositional bias of a certain (meaning both particular and absolute) view of the Bible by which to conduct science.

Must evolutionary theory and orthodox Christianity ultimately be incompatible? The authors pose this query, arguing that “the sheer number of leading scientists who reject creationism while affirming Christian beliefs” (50) presents sufficient reason for evangelical openness to evolution. And yet, they provide no number or list of such scientists. Only two names are mentioned: Owen Gingerich, of Harvard, who is now exploring the intersections between science and religion; and Francis Collins, of the National Institutes of Health, who led the Human Genome Project to its completion. The problem, as the authors see it, is that stellar academic credentials do not always translate into the kind of trust that evangelicals are looking for, especially when matters of belief are at stake. “When it comes to millions of rank-and-file evangelicals,” they contend, “Ham’s simple message remains comforting and attractive” (59). This realization deserves a bit more consideration and nuance. Might evangelicals have a legitimate theological problem with the proposition that a personal and loving God would allow Adam, Noah, Jacob, David, Mary and Jesus, among others, to be representatives within an evolving hominid chain? The semiotic weight of this concept remains considerable for non-academics and academics alike. Arguments for evolution often trigger angst or anger precisely because they challenge Imago Dei hermeneutical conventions, raising thorny questions about God and humanity. The authors could affirm such consequential implications, yet without delving deep into theological arguments.

The theme of unscholarly evangelical authority receives further development when the authors spotlight Texas political activist David Barton and his anointed perspectives regard-ing America’s Christian heritage. Stephens and Giberson present Barton as a quasi-historian on a speaking tour, delivering detailed lectures from memory and impressing crowds of ordinary conservatives with his charm. Similar to Ken Ham, Barton possesses no advanced degree beyond a bachelor’s in education. Promoting his views via an organization ironically named Wallbuilders (considering Barton’s attempt to refute the idea of a wall that separates church and state), he works to rebuild America on the sure foundation of Christian truth, just as the Israelites rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls. Yet, the authors reveal that his foundation has not always been solid in its scholarship. Serious historians have criticized him regard-ing the manner in which his facts and interpretations have been established, without the mortar of credible research. Barton, consequently, was forced to revise his publications and acknowledge unconfirmed quotations. Nevertheless, there is no mistaking the hand of God in American history for Barton, if only rightly rendered. And many conservative politicians and pundits agree, despite his lack of academic credentials.

As with matters of science, Stephens and Giberson scratch their heads as to why credible history, conducted by reputable historians, does not hold sway in the minds of evangelicals. Historians such as George Marsden and Mark Noll do not, in the estimation of the authors, receive their due respect. Their peer-reviewed scholarship strikingly differs from “Barton’s pop, pseudo-history” (91). But why does Barton’s brand of history thrive? The authors look to Noll for insight, based on a 2005 New York Times interview: “What I guess I worry about is the collapsing of historical distance, and the effort to make really anybody fit directly into the category of the early 21st century evangelicals.”5

Evangelical culture’s fascination with the end times, through the writings of two anointed prophets – Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye – receives skillful attention by Stephens and Giberson. They describe Ronald Regan’s preoccupation with the topic, before and during his presidency. “Sometimes,” wrote Regan in his personal diary, “I wonder if we are destined to witness Armageddon” (140-141). These fears were attributed to the 1970 bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth, in which Lindsey interprets the prophecies of Scripture in graphic detail, according to contemporary geopolitical realities, prognosticating an ultimate conflict between Russia, China, and the United States. As Stephens and Giberson reveal, apocalyptic thinking typifies the longstanding belief that America is central to the purposes of God, a land where the kingdom will come. They tell how the Puritan minister Michael Wiggles-worth published the first apocalyptic book in America – The Day of Doom – with images of evil, judgment and punishment. Belief in a postmillennial parousia was common through the middle of the nineteenth century. But with the rise of the Millerite movement, and the publication of John Nelson Darby’s dispensational theology, the premillennial position took hold, especially after the Civil War. By the latter half of the twentieth century, with social upheaval and unrest, the conditions became ripe for premillennial prophetic interpretations, such as Lindsey’s and LaHaye’s, as the authors intriguingly show.

Both prophecy writers hold degrees from fundamentalist schools, which Stephens and Giberson underscore, backing their abiding theme of anti-scholarly leaders among evangeli-cals. After Lindsey finished his first blockbuster, which allegedly lay bare the meaning of Revelation, he later confided that the Lord assured him the book would sell over a million copies. Here, the authors show Lindsey’s ironic preoccupation with this world, noting his conspicuous materialism and two failed marriages; nevertheless, he enjoyed a remarkable resilience in relation to his Bible-believing fans, who remained loyal. If anything emerges from the authors’ captivating account of Lindsey’s life, it is that he has made a cash cow of Christ’s coming, spurning any need for responsible biblical hermeneutics. But Lindsey’s bovine book sales dwarf in comparison to LaHaye’s: the popular sixteen-novel Left Behindseries, coauthored with Jerry Jenkins, has sold in excess of 70,000,000 copies. “The conserva-tive bent of the series is unmistakable,” explain Stephens and Giberson. “Prolife, patriarchal, antisecular, and antigovernment messages appear on page after page” (170). Deemed as the most influential evangelical of the last quarter of the twentieth century by the Evangeli-cal Studies Bulletin, LaHaye has already left behind an uncommon legacy of premillennial ideas within and without evangelical ranks. Still, Stephens and Giberson rightly challenge their readers to ponder the sort of effects LaHaye has had. They conclude that LaHaye’s books have been deleterious, fomenting anti-intellectualism, which supports N. T. Wright’s observation that LaHaye’s theology is disturbingly unorthodox, encouraging “the American obsession with the second coming of Jesus” (177). Justifiably questioning both Lindsey’s and LaHaye’s eschatological writings, and their lack of scholarly bent, Stephens and Giberson duly doubt whether these writers have garnered proper authority among evangelical readers.

The penultimate chapter breaks the convention of the previous chapters in that it con-siders the life of one who has not attained “anointed” status, unless the term is applied with different intent. Paul Miller, a 20-something evangelical whose internal struggles and life practices epitomize the future of the parallel culture, is described as one living by “message-driven evangelical alternatives to secular offerings” (181), providing him (and those like him) with a purpose distinct from those in the secular world. The separation of Christian and non-Christian realms makes it difficult for someone like Miller truly to understand anything other than what is familiar. Evangelicalism pervades his life. Having attended Christian grade school, Miller’s education expressly trained him to avoid “worldly” thinking and living. There, the Bible represented the standard for all of life, the means by which God expressed his plan. The curriculum was sanitized, providing a filtered view of all academic disciplines. Science was presented through an anti-evolutionary sieve, and history under-stood through the lens of God’s unfolding purpose. Stephens and Giberson observe: “The Christian educational focus allows for little distraction or dissent” (193). But the depiction seems a little too uniform: surely evangelical grade schools offer greater variety. To be sure, the parallel culture promotes a distinct youth experience that allows for similar formative experiences, as the authors show. From Christian music to Christian books to Christian stores, “evangelical children experience this world of goods and services” (209). And this induction into consumer experience shapes evangelicals as they attempt to live out their worldview. In this regard, and preeminent in the evangelical’s purchasing power experience, choosing a Christian college or university becomes crucial. Miller, who originally enrolled at Bryan College, a school with a young-earth curricular focus and a communal belief in the inerrant Word of God, eventually transferred to Gordon College, a college on the other side of the evangelical spectrum. Stephens and Giberson emphasize: “The Christian identity of evangelical colleges is surprisingly diverse, populating the parallel culture with a host or real choices.” Thus, they clearly gesture toward a solution to “the anointed” syndrome: the relatively vibrant system of evangelical higher education as a tangible means of encultura-tion away from stifling narrowness. The reader recognizes that for Stephens and Giberson, the Chautauqua tent of the CCCU is large, with plenty of room for sojourning students of many types – the hope of evangelicalism.

Populist low-brow attitudes, robust religious entrepreneurialism, and driven char-ismatic personalities – all of these contribute to the phenomenon of anointed leadership. “By effectively exploiting cultural cues, evangelical leaders resonate with their audiences and quickly become insiders – members of the tribe” (248). This practice is what Aristotle described as the operation of pathos – the shrewd analysis and anticipation of an audience’s convictions and sympathies – which is the skill of the fundamentalist. If scholarly evangeli-cals are to rise to the anointed status, they must learn this skill, not simply relying upon the practice of logos – the rational appeal of an intellectual argument – which is the skill of the academic. Furthermore, they must learn to practice ethos – the convincing portrayal of trustworthy character – which is the skill of the truly anointed orthodox Christian leader. Stephens and Giberson’s book serves as a useful primer in the pursuit of these noble aims, despite its binary oversimplification.

Cite this article
Jeffrey C. Davis, “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 433-437


  1. Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” Atlantic Monthly, October 2000,, accessed March 1, 2012.
  2. For example, Alan Sokal addresses peculiar professorial ideologies in Beyond the Hoax: Science, Phi-losophy and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Louis Menand evinces the liberal political bias of the academy in The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University(New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).
  3. John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implica-tions (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1961).
  4. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Putting God Back Into American History,” New York Times, February 27, 2005, , accessed March 1, 2012.[/efn_note Placing America’s founders into the evangelical belief camp belies the facts. Notwithstanding this insight, Stephens and Giberson state that evangelicals yearn for “a comforting story” about America: “The complicated and alienating alternatives, especially when critiqued by an approachable fellow believer like David Barton, seem confusing and unsettling” (96). Could this claim be a categorical oversimplification, too?

    James Dobson receives somewhat more respect from the authors, given that he earned a Ph.D. in child development from the University of Southern California. Unlike Ham or Barton, “he launched a brief, successful research career” (112), publishing in respected medical journals, presenting academic papers on childhood education, and supervising a multi-million-dollar study on mental retardation. In other words, Dr. Dobson won scholarly respectability. But as Dobson became increasingly concerned about the disintegration of the family, he chose to write a popular book to check the pitfalls of permissive parenting in 1970 – Dare to Discipline. Offering plainspoken advice on how to raise children, a mix of biblical wisdom and social science, the book became a quick success. Consequently, in 1976 Dobson decided to leave Southern California School of Medicine to found Focus on the Family. With this segue, Stephens and Giberson proffer that Dobson traded his mantle as a serious medical researcher for that of an avuncular consecrated leader.

    The authors concede that during his long ministry, Dobson and his staff have “talked young people out of suicide, advised mothers on dealing with unruly, belligerent kids, grieved with husbands and wives facing divorce, and prayed with individuals over the phone” (118). All the same, they bemoan his increased political bouts against the left dur-ing the culture wars of the 1990s, and his adamant belief that the Bible offers clear and authoritative answers to complex human problems. Furthermore, Stephens and Giberson recount instances in which Dobson was accused, by academic luminaries including Carol Gilligan, of manipulation of scholarly research in an effort to make the case against homo-sexuality. Although the authors admit that a majority of evangelicals, according to a 2008 PEW poll, believe that “homosexuality should be discouraged by society” (137), they do not give credence to this position. Rather, they sardonically conclude, “neuroscience research on human sexuality is no match for directives from God” (137). This statement implies that the issue no longer merits serious scholarly debate, despite published natural and social science findings to the contrary.46Stanton L. Jones, “Same Sex Science: The Social Sciences Cannot Settle the Moral Status of Homo-sexuality,” First Things, February 2012,, accessed March 1, 2012.

Jeffrey C. Davis

Reviewed by Jeffry C. Davis, English, Interdisciplinary Studies, Wheaton College