In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Timothy Beal reflects on the historic inattention of academic research to popular evangelical trends and highlights some of the most important work performed in this area since the late 1980s:
In December 2003, at a national conference on religion and undergraduate life in New Orleans, a representative of a major donor to higher education asked how many of the hundred-plus professors and administrators in his audience had heard of Rick Warren. One hand started to go up, tentatively, then drew back. The rest of us were blank, including me. Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, published a year earlier, was already well on its way to becoming the best-selling hardcover in the country’s history, having been on The New York Times‘ best-seller list for hardcover advice books for 46 weeks and at the top of the Christian Booksellers Association best-seller list for over a year. His Purpose-Driven Ministries, a church-development organization based on his 1995 Christian best seller, The Purpose-Driven Church, was already well known among hundreds of thousands of pastors and lay people, many thousands of whom attended the annual conferences he hosted at Saddleback Church, his Orange County, Calif., megachurch. Yet his name hardly rang a bell.
No doubt many other huge names in evangelical Christian circles—T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, or Joel Osteen, for example—would have met similarly void looks from that audience of academics, though it was brought together by a shared interest in religion’s changing role in the social and cultural landscapes of our campuses. And no doubt those names would have gotten the same nonresponses from most of our colleagues at our home institutions.
Why has there been such a lack of familiarity, indeed, of interest, among academics in the cultural depth and complexity of American evangelicalism until so recently? Perhaps we don’t do as much book browsing as most people do in Wal-Marts and Targets, and so are less likely to encounter evangelicalism in everyday life. Being among the least-churched populations in the United States, moreover, most academics don’t hear about it on Sunday mornings, when we’re more likely to be reading The New York Times than listening to a sermon. Beyond that, I wonder if there is a sense among many of us that the whole world of evangelical Christianity represents academic culture’s other, the antithesis of who we are as scholars and educators. As Shields suggests, many of us see it as representing the opposite of liberal democratic ideals, perhaps even a theological aberration of intellectual history in the way Walton shows black televangelism to have been among historians of African-American religious history.
One of the greatest values of social-scientific research is its power to defuse our tendency to see unfamiliar cultural beliefs and practices as totally foreign; it helps us recognize ourselves in the stranger and the stranger in ourselves. These recent studies do just that, drawing broader and deeper attention to American evangelicalism in all its complexity. In the process, they help bring to life the lively differences and tensions that have always energized the evangelical movement, even while threatening its coherence.
Read more here.