During 1993, Public Television (Channel 11 in Chicago) showed a special program dealing with the present status of Evangelicalism in the USA. The project was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Foundation and based on Randall Balmer’s book with the same title. The work was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1989. An expanded edition appeared in 1993 with the subtitle: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America.
Perhaps thousands, if not millions, have seen the televised version of this mini series depicting the Evangelical scene in the USA. The following is a review of the contents of the video/book as well as an evaluation from a confessional, Reformed perspective.
To begin with, some words about the author. Randall Balmer teaches at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York. He grew up in an Evangelical atmosphere in the Middlewest. He studied at Trinity Deerfield Divinity School in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Some time later he left his Evangelical subculture and found “freedom” in a broader Protestant atmosphere. He embarked on this project partly because of his interest in the study of what he calls an American subculture and partly on account of his eagerness to make a reassessment of his past.
His journey takes him to several parts of America, including the East, the South, Texas, California and his own roots in the Middlewest. It seems that two main points stand out in his definition of Evangelicalism (sometimes he refers to it as Fundamentalism): a strong belief in the inerrancy of Scripture together with literalistic interpretation of the contents of the Word of God.
He visits Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, California which started as a sincere attempt to bring the gospel to the hippies in the mid-sixties. It has become a mega-church which ministers every week to thousands of young and old from all walks of life. Another important stop is Dallas, Texas and a visit with students and faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary, the Westpoint of American Fundamentalism. Here he learns about the adoption by a large majority of American Evangelicals of a rather novel and revolutionary method of Biblical interpretation: the Dispensational way of “rightly dividing the Word of truth.”
For some peculiar reason, Randall Balmer visits the Capstone Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona where he meets with Evangelist Neal Frisby who claims to have miraculous powers to heal all and any kind of illness and deformity. He learns from this encounter with Frisby several things about how some “miracle” workers operate.
Not wanting to restrict his journey to such extreme examples of American Evangelicalism, Balmer takes his readers to a rather old-fashioned method of passing on the faith of the fathers to the younger generations. We visit Word of Life Fellowship camp in upstate New York. The leader is an elderly Fundamentalist, Jack Wyrtzen who does his best to present the claims of the gospel to young people just as he began to do back in the late forties. Balmer also takes us on a visit to Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon. There we listen to professors who are totally committed to the solid tenets of Fundamentalism in the tradition of Moody Bible Institute. Not only are right teachings emphasized, but also the necessity of separateness from the world.
Our journey with Randall Balmer will not be complete if we neglect Black Evangelicalism, both charismatic and non-charismatic. We see again the strong place that various black churches have played in the life of the African-American communities across the years. The social dimension of the gospel is seen in the variety of the programs which seek to meet the urgent needs of our black fellow Christians.
What attracted me from the first time I watched MINE EYES was the graphic way in which various types of Evangelicals were portrayed. The sincerity and passion of Randall Balmer are in evidence in the variety of the interviews and visits of the “centers” which represent certain types of Evangelicalism. Not having had the time or the opportunity to visit all these places, I felt that I was “accompanying” the author/story-teller all the time.
Every episode and every comment of Randall Balmer becomes a challenge to any Christian who is still committed to a confessionally Reformed heritage. Reflecting on my study of the Word of God as well as the theological and historical subjects connected with my ministry over the years, I felt quite uneasy with many parts of MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY.
Exclusion of confessional Protestants
Coming from the Middle East where the pure gospel was re-introduced to us by missionaries of the Reformed tradition, I had always regarded myself as an Evangelical. After all, what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is the fact of the gospel (Evangel), that wonderful Good News of God’s way of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, the pioneer missionaries preferred to call us neither Presbyterian nor Reformed, but simply Evangelical. But it was not a type of confessionless and creedless Evangelicalism portrayed in Randall Balmer’s production. Rather it was a robust form of Reformed Evangelicalism. So immediately I felt ill at ease when I noticed that somehow and by definition, the author excluded all confessional Protestants from his category of Evangelicals. No attempt was made to visit either Lutheran or Reformed (and Presbyterian) churches which still adhere to the fundamentals of the Biblical faith.
Perhaps this remark betrays my ignorance of American Christianity, I mean Balmer’s exclusive emphasis on the children of the Anabaptist and Arminian traditions. And yet, I should not be too hard on him. After all, many of the American children of Luther and Calvin have not remained faithful to the tenets of Lutheranism or Calvinism. Should we then blame the non-confessional Evangelicals (with their often distorted or abbreviated gospel) for stepping in to fill the vacuum?
In one place, Randall Balmer does show appreciation for the giants of the Reformation as he laments the decline of these historic forms of Protestantism. “In many Protestant circles however, Luther’s breakthrough, which John Calvin codified and systematised in the Institutes of the Christian Religion has been compromised by a theological strain generally known as Arminianism. [It] has long eclipsed Calvinism in American Protestantism.” Any Protestant who truly appreciates the great work done by the early reformers cannot help sympathizing with the author’s criticism of the hermeneutic of Dispensationalism and the lack of proper spirit of worship within many an Evangelical worship service.
A puzzling part of the book is Balmer’s treatment of Neal Frisby. Why was this man included within the category of Evangelicals? His views are far out and mark him rather as a cult leader!
One of the most disturbing features of the work is the cavalier way the author dismisses the Evangelical/Fundamentalist concern with worldliness. It is too simplistic to dub such an attitude as dichotomous. The epistles of Paul dwell on right doctrine, and on a life which must manifest the new creation wrought in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. After all, does not the apostle John warn us about the devastating influence of the “world” (properly understood in one of its meanings as denoting the organized opposition to the Kingdom of God) upon the individual Christian and the church (I John 2:15–17)? While Christians should not shirk their cultural responsibilities, they should be equally on guard against worldliness and secularism.
Centrality of the altar
Another troubling feature of the project which is portrayed more vividly in the video presentation, is the telling of the story of “the coming of age” of a Pentecostal congregation in Georgia and its joining the Episcopal Church. Now that the Church of the King has embarked on appropriating the full trappings of this tradition, Randall Balmer’s comments on the centrality of the altar manifest a bias against the traditional Protestant centrality of the pulpit and the preached Word in worship. He claims that the use of an altar in the church “sanctuary” represents a return to a Christ-centered worship service. Evidently, to him, the pulpit draws attention to the preacher and away from Christ!
This is certainly not a thorough review of MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY. I believe that the reading of the book or the viewing of the video version should be a salutary experience for any Protestant who loves and cherishes the great confessional heritage of the church. It challenges him to lovingly share this wonderful treasure with many “starving” Evangelicals who yearn to discover something more solid and more historic than the simplistic versions of the gospel they have inherited from an impoverished and confused American Evangelicalism.
Rev. Bassam Madany has served for many years as Minister of Arabic Broadcasting of the Back to God Hour, Palos Heights, FL.