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Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham [Paperback]

D. G. Hart
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic, Div of Baker Publishing Group (1 Oct 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801031184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801031182
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 14.4 x 21.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 716,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Millions of Americans identify themselves as evangelicals. But what does the word mean? D. G. Hart provocatively argues that evangelicalism is a concept that has obscured more of Christianity than it has revealed and should be abandoned as a separate religious identity. Instead, he suggests that American Christians rediscover their rich theological heritage. "Hart's reasoning cannot be easily dismissed...Recommended." - "Library Journal".

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Questioning what Evangelicalism has wrought 23 May 2008
Format:Paperback
Hart reviews the literature on modern Evangelicalism, and finds it a movement without a center -- a loose trans-denominational association of people who don't really like rigid fundamentalism, or modernism, who end up adopting a kind of lowest-common-denominator version of historic Christianity. He cites scholars like George M. Marsden, who says, "In point of fact, the glue holding evangelicalism together has actually been the culture of celebrity, which is perhaps the flip side of denying the authority of traditions" -- so that an evangelical is basically "anyone who likes Billy Graham".

The book suggests that mega-churches of the airwaves or big revivals are no long-range substitute for real communities with real institutions and traditions. And for sure there's a lot of truth in that. Still, the book raises more questions than it answers. How well does it account for the Pentecostal movements among Black churches or Catholics? What are the positive sides of Evangelicalism's transcending old denominational boundaries? Can religious community be based more on shared questions and experiences than on institutions and doctrines? How are Evangelicals changing in their social and political values?

Hart is clearly more interested in raising good questions and making people think than in supplying his own answers. And in that, his book is highly successful.

--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evangelicalism is NOT! 28 May 2004
By CRB - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What is an evangelical? Where do we find their confession of faith? If I want to engage in a dialog with an evangelical, where do I find out what they believe? Who are their teachers? How does one get a membership card to join evangelicalism? Who is running this important and influential movement of the twentieth century?
D. G. Hart, elder and historian in the OPC, has written another fine historical study that ought to be considered by pastors and lay people alike. Hart's new book is a work of deconstruction. It is not deconstruction as we tend to think associated with French linguists and literary interpretation. It is a deconstruction of an identity.
It is Hart's important claim that 'evangelical' as a term exists, but that as a true identity within Christ's Church, 'evangelical' might as well be nonexistent. He writes provocatively in his interesting introduction:
"Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of the twentieth-century American Protestantism?.Despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing volume of literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction." (pgs. 16-17).
The book is divided into two parts: Part 1 is entitled "The Making of Evangelicalism" and Hart traces the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century. Part 2 is entitled "The Unmaking of Evangelicalism" where he argues that evangelicalism is a movement without a creed, but has similiarities in modern worship.
Hart fairly acknowledges the good that evangelicals have accomplished and in no way undermines the good that God has done through the work of twentieth century evangelicals. What he seeks to historically understand is how should we categorize a people who have no confessions, or external denominations to hold them together, but rather are held together by famous teachers (Billy Graham, James Dobson and Tim Lahaye he names as the "parachurch celebrities"), and a few lowest-common-denominator doctrines that allow evangelicals to work without any offense to one another or a threat to their unity.
Hart asserts that evangelicalism cannot exist as a visible part of Christ's Church in historically upholding the three "marks of the church": Right preaching of the Word of God, correct administration of the sacraments, and discipline in order to uphold the first two. Hart writes that evangelical parachurch organizations have different goals (pgs. 123-124)
Hart argues that in the twentieth century, individualistic evangelicalism has envisioned the church as more of a business, where those who benefit from evangelical ministries are the consumers. If they do not like the product, whether it is a radio sermon or a television broadcast, they can merely turn it off.
In contrast to evangelicalism, churches who have identities in the visible church through local church membership, are confessional and submitted to elders. Hart writes:
"Churches, unlike parachurch entities, have creeds that let people contemplating membership know the content of the denomination's faith. Churches also have structures of governance that provide a mechanism of accountability that is very different from that of the market model, which determines which parachurch celebrities are the most popular and therefore authoritative." (pg. 124)
Hart concludes that "Evangelicalism is a seemingly large and influential religious body, but it lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction." (pg. 176). What then is the "recipe" for evangelicalism according to Hart? "Combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppy music professionally performed; and bake every generation." (pg. 183).
Evangelicalism is a term that neither pastors nor lay people ought to use, and especially historians of American Protestantism as Hart carefully writes in his conclusion. For evangelicalism is not; it is no thing; it is nothing. It does not exist as an identity, or as a tradition.
Now we must be reminded that as a historian Hart is as guilty as anyone else for using evangelicalism as an identity (note his book other books such as 'That Old-Time Religion in Modern America', or his collection of historical essays on evangelicalism entitled 'Reckoning with the Past'), but he wisely included an afterword to explain his new conclusions concerning this identity and tradition that is non-existent.
Dr. Hart describes himself as a "victim in recovery", having used the same terms as other historians, he now invites the academic community as well as general readers of his book to reconsider the term evangelical as anything more than an identity constructed and created out of thin air.
What I appreciate about this book, especially for pastors working in evangelical communities, is that Hart reminds us all that the glue that is ultimately holding evangelicalism together is not historic creeds and confessions, but an individualistic ?culture of celebrity which is the flip side of denying of the authority of traditions" (pg. 120).
Anyone concerned with the rampant individualism in today's congregations, as well as the lack of commitment to congregational life and membership needs to read this book and take thoughtful consideration to his remarks. While evangelicals have been used by God for many good things, one being the upholding of the biblical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, there is much more to be concerned about than merely the inerrancy of Scripture.
We should also be concerned with the teaching of inerrant Scripture concerning the importance of Christ's visible church given to us equipped with gifted men ordained by God to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and to exercise discipline and godly concern over the flock of God. The same inerrant Scripture that evangelicalism wholeheartedly defends teaches the importance of being part of a visible church and congregation of Christ's people. What good is affirming an inerrant Scripture and not obeying it and allowing it to create our identity as the people of God?
Evangelicals need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit did not begin working in Christ?s Church when the National Association of Evangelicals was started in 1942, but has been sovereignly active in building Christ?s Church throughout history.
I am convinced by the book's conclusions; I encourage you to read it as well!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and Interesting 6 Jun 2005
By David A. Booth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Deconstructing Evangelicalism" is both less and more than the title suggests.

Those readers who are interested in a social and theological critique of evangelicalism will be enlightened by this work which is best read with Ian Murray's "Evangelicalism Divided" and David Wells' "No Place for Truth". The book is somewhat less than it claims to be in that if you don't read these other books it would be rather difficult to evaluate the conclusions that Hart draws.

"Deconstructing Evangelicalism" is clearly aimed at a target audience of seminary students, professors, and professional historians. If you are in that category - this is clearly a text you should read. As one of the finest social-historians of 20th century American relgion, Hart is consistently insightful and the reader can have confidence that the scaffolding of observations is based on a foundation of solid scholarship.

For those who have read other works by D.G. Hart, this book needs no recommendation: Everything Hart writes is worth reading. For those who are unfamiliar with Hart, I would recommend "Defending the Faith" as your introduction to his scholarship.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Enjoyable Read 16 Mar 2006
By wisdomofthepages.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What is an evangelical? When the boundaries of a definition are broadened wide enough, eventually the definition collapses in on itself, and the meaning of the movement becomes meaningless.

D. G. Hart writes a great book declaring that "Evangelicalism" is not a real identity, but instead is a well-intended construction of conservative Christians in the post-World War II climate of modernism vs. fundamentalism. Seeking to define a segment of Christianity in opposition to either the Fundamentalism or modernism, a large swath of pastors, theologians, pollsters, historians, evangelists, musicians, etc. worked to create a unified "Conservative Protestantism". The resulting edifice is known as "Evangelicalism".

Fifty+ years later it is painfully obvious that the only "unity" of evangelicalism is a unity that is so devoid of biblical theological substance that... who cares about evangelicalism? In a nutshell, Hart argues that it is time to dump the idea of Evangelicalism.

I have read dozens and dozens of books on the history of American Christianity, with a great number of these focusing on Evangelicalism. I say that because it is hard to tell if this would be an enjoyable book to read if you haven't already consumed a lot on the history of Evangelicalism. For me, the book was a delight. I love discovering new historical insight into key figures such as Carl Henry, Billy Graham, Fuller Seminary, the CCM industry, religious pollsters, etc. I think Hart writes exceedingly well. He is one of those authors that is not afraid to state his strong convictions. He calls it like he sees it - and this makes for good reading.

Here are some quotes from early on in the book:

"This book is about the way neo-evangelicals built the evangelical edifice and how academics have maintained the facade of the building commonly known as conservative Protestantism."(28)

"But the chief aim is to document the construction of evangelicalism as a scholarly tool of analysis and the concomitant deconstruction of evangelicalism as an expression of Christian faith and practice." (29)

"The first part of the book examines the scholarly construction of evangelicalism during the last twenty-five years... The last half of the book explores the way evangelicalism as a post-World War II religious movment has fragmented." (29)

"Without a self-conscious notion about ministry, a common theology, and a coherent understanding of worship, evangelicalism has deconstructed."(29)

One of the best quotes in the book comes in the last paragraph:

Was it actually conceivable that the word evangelical could hold together disparate Protestant beliefs and practices and mold them into some kind of unified whole? Even more basic was whether such an evangelical identity was desirable. The idea to make evangelicalism the conservative version of Protestantism was an interesting attempt to create an alternative religious voice that would counter mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and would beat fundamentalism at the public relations game. But this evangelical movement was simply duplicating work already being done, not to shape a nation but to shepherd God's flock. Before evangelicalism, Christians had churches to hear the Word preached, to receive the sacraments, and to hear sound counsel and correction.Without evangelicalism, Protestant Christianity may not be as unified (when has it ever been?), but it will go one. And without the burden of forming a nationally influential coalition, American Protestants in all their Heinz 57 varieties, from Presbyterian to Calvary Chapel, may even be healthier.

Hart's book is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

One negative thing - why is there only one passing mention of Francis Schaeffer?
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deconstructing Evangelicalism 29 Aug 2010
By Paul Manata - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this book Hart shows that evangelicalism really has no meaning and should probably be dropped as a theological identification category altogether. Not only that, Christianity would be the better for it. Hart succeeds in showing that the term 'Evangelicalism' is a shoreless ocean, about an inch, at best, deep. At its worst, 'Evangelicalism' has been described, by no less a historian of American religion than George Marsden, as "someone who likes Billy Graham." All the attempts at creating a lowest-common denominator definition to fit in all those who didn't want to be identified as either fundamentalist or liberal have failed. Not only that, those like Hart (and I guess myself, and many others) have been included under the rubric 'evangelical' even if we didn't want to be. So have many others depending on how sociologists have phrased questions. But, Hart asks, what if he doesn't want to be identified as an evangelical? Who would he contact to get removed from the rolls? What is the address where he would send his resignation letter to? No one and no place. So Hart wonders what would be the bad fallout if we just dropped the term altogether. Not much of anything, besides some minor troubles for some parachurch organizations. Hart would rather have churches draft confessions of faith and have groups identified the old fashioned way. This may not make for as much "unity," but the unity evangelicalism gave us was a facade. Not only that, its lowest common denominator appeal turned what is most important about Christianity into some vague appeal about the authority or trustworthiness of the Bible. That caused problems in many other areas: enter CCM and mega churches (which helped spawn emergent churches). Indeed, evangelicalism brought about conservative politics and a church that mixed with the world's values. That is, as evangelicals became more socially conservative they became more liturgically liberal. Evangelicalism's penchant for old time revivalism couched in music the kids thought cool helped them gain numbers. Their focus on the subjective "personal relationship with Jesus" proved just what the doctor ordered in an age where psychiatrists focused on the self-help, life-coach, best life now antidotes for spiritual hum-drums. The idea was to come up with a set of objective propositions that unified a group that was neither liberal or fundamentalist. The end product was a loss of doctrine and an emphasis on the moral. On deeds not creeds. The proper taxonomy should not be liberal/conservative, it should be confessional/evangelical. This means, whether you have a set of propositions by which you can be marked out and identified or not. This means that you can tell about a group by whether you get into more hot water by denying some expression of the doctrine of the atonement, or by disagreeing with Rush Limbaugh, or even Obama.

Anyway, that's kinda the gist of his book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bake every generation! 1 Jun 2009
By Crazy Horse - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Orthodox Presbyterian seminarian and distinguished historian D. G. Hart has no use for the label evangelical. Why? The word has come to identify such a broad range of conservative Christian ideologies that it has lost its power to identify much of anything. There is no evangelical creed or confession, nor is there any ecclesiastical structure. Because the label identifies a vast diversity of opinions about a number of issues, Hart makes an argument for its irrelevance.

Hart describes how a very old label was given new life and meaning soon after World War II by Billy Graham (and his wealthy associates who founded Christianity Today). Those folks began at first to talk about a "new evangelical" movement. They did this in an effort to overcome and combat what was considered the deadening influence of the older fundamentalism. But the word evangelical in America, Hart contends, does not identify a polity or church or ecclesiastical structure. Instead, it identifies a vague faith tradition or umbrella under which a host of parachurch agencies, nondenominational megachurches, Pentecostals and charismatics, and differing opinions on crucial issues compete with each other. In Hart's view it is pointless to lump these and similar movements and agencies under one name, since to do so obscures more than it reveals about contemporary Protestantism in America. For this and many other reasons, Hart calls for the label evangelical to be abandoned. "Despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing volume of literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction" (pp. 16--17).

In the first part of his book, Hart traces the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century (pp. 33--106). He is deeply troubled by pollsters who use the label evangelical and give it a vague, minimal meaning to identify conservative, nonliberal Protestant American religiosity. They end up including under that label such a wide variety of religious opinions and commitment that one cannot trust their results. Part 2 of Deconstructing Evangelicalism--entitled "The Unmaking of Evangelicalism" (pp. 107--74)--is an attempt to argue that what the label identifies is really a flush of competing ideologies that are without a fixed content or creed. Hart strives to understand how one might fruitfully categorize a movement that, having no confessions or denominations to hold it together, looks to celebrity parachurch figures like Billy Graham, James Dobson, and Tim LaHaye for leadership.

Hart asserts that evangelicalism cannot exist as a visible part of Christ's church in historically upholding what he considers the three marks of the church--that is, right preaching of the word of God, correct administration of the sacraments, and discipline in order to uphold the first two. Hart insists that evangelical parachurch organizations have different goals than those he considers essential to Christ's church (pp. 123--24). Parachurch organizations are, for Hart, more business undertakings than they are bonafide churches. If consumers do not buy the product (radio or TV sermon) or whatever the parachurch is selling, they can simply look for a different provider. Hart insists that "churches, unlike parachurch entities, have creeds that let people contemplating membership know the content of the denomination's faith. Churches also have structures of governance that provide a mechanism of accountability that is very different from that of the market model, which determines which parachurch celebrities are the most popular and therefore authoritative" (p. 124). Hart argues that "to be an evangelical is to be in a perpetual frenzy of trying to get more--more money, more contributors, more access, more zeal, and of course more believers" (p. 124). And, of course, "parachurch organizations have the goal of adding to mailing lists to increase the chances of raising more revenue through direct mail appeals" (p. 124). These comments are a very modest selection of Hart's criticisms of contemporary American conservative Protestantism from the perspective of a distinguished intellectual historian with an acerbic style.

Hart strives to talk professional historians out of their current enthrallment with whatever currently mingles and wars under the label evangelical. His conclusion is that much of what takes place under the label evangelicalism is an effort to attract consumers, not genuine disciples of Christ. It "lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction" (p. 176). He holds that post--World War II evangelicalism is the product of an individualistic "culture of celebrity, which is perhaps the flip side of denying the authority of traditions" (p. 120). The result has been to "combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppy music professionally performed; and bake every generation" (p. 183).
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