Book Note: Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason


It took me a few months, but this morning I finished reading Molly Worthen's 2013 book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelism (Oxford: OUP). Peter Enns shared several excerpts and comments from the book on his blog late in 2013 and that's when I added it to my "must-read" list (see his entries here). The subject of the book is "authority" in Evangelicalism. A topic Enns tackles quite often as a biblical scholar and theologian is taken up by Worthen, a historian of North American religions. It is one of the most insightful books you'll ever read about American Evangelicalism (most specifically white American Evangelicalism). Whether or not you would use the word "Evangelical" as a label for self-identification this book is worth reading just to get a better idea of how religious discourse in the United States has gotten to this point.

In gist, Evangelicals are moderns. Evangelicals buy into a modernist epistemology, but it is nuanced. They don't worship at the alter of "reason" alone like many other modernists, but they do have their own nuanced way of appealing to reason. Similarly, yet from a different angle, they don't have an official authority like the Pope in Rome, but their "paper Pope" the Bible is set forth as a substitute. Worthen presents in historical narrative what people like Enns, Christian Smith, and Kenton Sparks have said recently in their own evaluations of Evangelicalism: biblicism is a guiding authority for Evangelicals and this may be both its central unifying ideology and its greatest achilles heel. How does such a diversely interpreted book serve as an absolute authority when so few can agree on what it says? If you've ever wanted to know more about this strand of Christianity and its impact in our culture (from efforts like the "Christian college" to the Moral Majority, to battles against Darwinism, feminism, communism, and other perceived threats, and so much more) I highly, highly recommend this book. Finally, if you're an Evangelical who fears that Worthen is just another scholar out to bash Evangelicals let me relieve you of that fear. She is straightforward and critical at points, but also quite sympathetic, positive, and honest about Evangelicalism. For Evangelicals this is a good "mirror" book into which one should gaze in order to find a more solid self-understanding.