Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Who is the best interpreter of American evangelicalism?

An article that I find thrilling has just appeared in The New York Review of Books. It is an essay-review by the estimable Andrew Delbanco (author of The Death of Satan, a book I admire) of Garry Wills' new book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Wills' book is sure to find a large audience, but Delbanco is quite critical of it for reasons that should please liberal-evangelical Christian believers.

It is a fact that sometimes a sympathetic nonbeliever can give a better account of Christianity than a believer (Delbanco is a Sephardic Jew, probably nonobservant). The great Harvard historian Perry Miller, who was an unbeliever, was a dazzlingly insightful interpreter of the Puritans of New England (and a superlative literary stylist to boot). Miller did not get everything right, but he is a joy to read and he tapped into something enormously important about Christianity in early America. If you think you don't like the Puritans, read Miller (a good place to begin is Errand Into the Wilderness). Another non-practicing nonbeliever (well, sort of) is Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who defends evangelicals every chance he gets.

Delbanco's essay-review takes Garry Wills to task for being " anger" against anything he deems to be anti-Enlightenment. He thinks Wills has a narrow view of the Puritans and of the early evangelicals, so that his conclusions about subsequent developments are wrong too.

Here is an excerpt from the Delbanco essay:
[Wills' book] sometimes gives the impression that everything admirable in American history is the fruit of the Enlightenment, and everything coarse and stupid is the legacy of evangelical Christianity. Of course, as Wills well knows, evangelicals played a large the antebellum abolitionist movement and in later reform movements...Evangelicals have taken part in social reform from the Great Awakening to the civil rights era....

The New York Review of Books charges a pretty penny for access to its online edition, so I don't know if this link will work for you or not. Delbanco's essay-review is in the April 3, 2008 issue.