“Many evangelicals themselves have little understanding of their own historical roots and little appreciation of the movement’s diversity across many cultures and nations.” – Lewis & Pierard
“History is but a fable agreed upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
“For most of history, anonymous was a woman.” – Virginia Woolf
I love history. In particular, I love to look through the lens of history to see how we got to where we are today and how we are shaping history at this very moment. That’s why I have really enjoyed the books we have been reading this past few weeks. The history of the ways in which church, faith, and culture have intersected and continue to interact is fascinating and oddly invigorating. When I taught high school history and government, some of the liveliest discussions were about how church influenced politics, art, and even fashion trends, as well as how culture has shaped the church today.
Lewis and Pierard’s collection of essays, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective, provides a good refresher of some of the history of evangelicalism we encountered in Bebbington’s much weightier Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, and adds perspective to evangelicalism’s global expansion. In particular, I appreciated that the editors included thoughts about African evangelicalism from Ogbu Kalu, and Latin American evangelicalism from C. Rene’ Padilla. While the authors who wrote about Asia, Australasia, and the Pacific Islands are undoubtedly experts in their field, I was disappointed to note that they are not indigenous people of the areas about which they wrote. I learned a great deal from their perspectives, but wondered if there might have been an Asian (or maybe several considering the diversity of Asian evangelicalism) or Pacific Islander who could have contributed a more focused perspective on how evangelicalism has spread in these cultures.
My greatest frustration with this collection is that the one essay written by a woman (Sarah C. Williams) is essentially an apologetic for Victorian evangelicalism and seems to be a token afterthought tacked onto what otherwise had been a vibrant discussion about evangelical expansion and culture. Williams insists that, in studying gender and evangelicalism, it isn’t fair to impose 21st century ideas about gender on evangelicalism in Victorian Britain. I wholeheartedly agree and found many of Williams’ arguments persuasive. It simply didn’t make sense, however, for this essay to be included in the section of this compilation entitled “Issues in Evangelical Encounters with Culture.” Unlike others in this book, this essay does not attempt to answer the question “how did we get here?” as it doesn’t address the way fundamentalism coopted evangelicalism and influenced not just the evangelical churches, but all of American middle to upper-class norms regarding gender roles, masculinity, and femininity through the movement known as Muscular Christianity. Evangelist Billy Sunday, for example, champion of exaggerated masculinity, took to the pulpit to remind men that Christianity was not a “pale, effeminate proposition” and that “Jesus was no ascetic…but a robust, red-blooded man.” This Muscular Christianity has continued to influence evangelicalism with a toxic masculinity that is often couched in “complementarian” terms, but is really about maintenance of power and fear of the other.
I don’t know what parameters Williams was given in this essay, or if the editors simply chose an already published paper to include in this text, but presenting a discussion of Victorian gender issues as something relevant to evangelical encounters with culture does more harm than good if it is not traced to the issues faced by these traditions today. While I definitely appreciate the editors’ intention to bring a female voice to the party and to address gender as an issue facing evangelicalism, it would have been better to leave this essay out of the mix and save it for a more detailed collection tracing the history of gender issues. Just as it is important to include a diversity of voices in our conversations and research about history, it is perhaps more important to be cognizant of how those voices will be valued (or dismissed) in the context of our own writing. If we want the voices to be valued, we must include them in such a way that readers know we value them as well.
. Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalization and Gender (1875 to Present), (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 24. See also Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America, Manhood in America, 3rd ed., (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012), and Betty A. DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the first wave of American Fundamentalism, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000).