A Future for American Evangelicalism: A book review

Harold Heie. A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. xvii + 156 pp.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—August 2016

Harold Heie, a retired college administrator (Gordon College, Messiah College, Northwestern College), has embarked on a second career as the coordinator of a series of impressive conversations among evangelical Christian thinkers on important and oven conflicted issues.

Heie has created a website (Respectful Conversation) that hosts these conversations. The archives are a fascinating record of conversations on issues such as same-sex relationships, political philosophies, biblical authority, human origins, and numerous others. Remarkably, these conversations are respectful—but also honest and in-depth, revealing differences and agreements in insightful ways.

In A Future for American Evangelicalism, Heie provides an account of a number of these conversations. The chapters are each titled “Evangelicalism and …” and cover topics such as the exclusivity of Christianity, the modern study of scripture, morality, politics, human origins, and higher education. Each conversation included several invited participants, selected in large part to provide a fair amount of diversity in perspective.

To Heie’s immense credit, he has chosen topics that genuinely matter, and he has chosen participants who do differ from one another. The book is Heie’s report on the conversations, not a transcript of the conversations (though those are available on the website). As such, it is a good summary on current thinking on these various issues.
Perhaps more importantly to Heie, though, the book is a report on a process. Clearly, at the heart of this work is a desire to help evangelical Christians not only examine particular issues but even more, to learn how to talk together respectfully and honestly. This is an excellent challenge, and Heie’s book gives us a good sense that such conversations are possible and when engaged in with good will, thought provoking and insightful.

So, for example, in the chapter, “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture,” we learn from a spectrum of thinkers about what’s at stake in current debates about how biblical authority does and should work. Heie emphasizes that all the participants affirm the centrality of “biblical authority,” but they disagree on the meaning of that commitment.

A big issue is the use of historical criticism in the study of the Bible. Peter Enns, a prominent “progressive evangelical” Old Testament scholar outlines his rationale for the reverent use of critical methods, with a clear sense of appreciation for the “human dimension” of scripture (pp. 43-44). Heie rightly notes that how this “human dimension” is understood is a key sticking point for evangelicals. He cites several participants who vary in their response to Enns’s proposal, from strong agreement to serious questioning.
Heie not only summarizes the discussion, he also adds his own thoughts. While the discussion is brief and Heie’s own thoughts barely more than hints, I appreciate that he is personally engaged in the discussion. That engagement heightens the reader’s sense that this is not simply a sociological exercise, but a theological investigation in which the author has a direct personal stake.

The irenic tone of this book is its great strength. Heie truly believes that respectful conversations about even deeply divisive issues are possible—more so, necessary. The future viability of the evangelical Christian coalition demands the ability to engage in such conversations since the differences are not going away.

On the other hand, I wonder a bit about the use of the term “American Evangelicalism” for the focus of this project (not only this book but the broader “Respectful Conversation” effort). I am impressed, and I am grateful for what Heie is doing. However, I find his notion of “evangelicalism” a bit problematic. For one thing, clearly there are many voices within what is understood as the evangelical world that are not present—especially voices more to the “right.” Isn’t there a kind of selectivity to the exercise of having a “respectful conversation” that will screen out significant number of more conservative evangelicals who are not interested in such an open-ended and tolerance-emphasizing exercise?

Also, as one who does not self-identify as an evangelical, I felt myself kind of left out of a conversation I would very much like to be part of. Why limit this to evangelicals? Don’t we need other kinds of Christians to be part of such conversations? And those who are not Christians?

This is an excellent and encouraging book, though. It is interesting and helpful in the information it provides on the thinking of these various participants on crucial issues. And it is extraordinarily hopeful in its portrayal of what are necessary and fruitful conversations. Little is resolved here, but a way toward fruitful resolutions is presented. For that, we should be grateful.

[To be published in Brethren in Christ History and Life]

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