The Upscaling of an Evangelical

Randall Balmer returns to his father’s faith—with qualifications and hesitations.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, January 7, 2002 (vol. 46, no. 1), p. 70.

Evangelicalism has always had two kinds of children, and they tell different stories. Its adopted children find their way into the family through conversion, whether from another faith or from none. Its biological children, on the other hand, grow up in the embrace of Sunday school, family devotions, Bible camps, and Christian colleges. In the terms of Jesus’ famous parable, they are the elder son—yet as they try to make sense of the faith they have inherited, they often trade places with the prodigal.

In these stories, Balmer describes a world that evangelicalism’s adopted children can only glimpse from a distance, one that every evangelical parent will instantly recognize.

When a young Columbia University historian named Randall Balmer published Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Travels Through the Evangelical Subculture in 1989, it wasn’t hard to see that he was coming to terms with his own story. The book’s most affecting chapter, describing the experiences of teenagers “rededicating their lives” to Christ at a summer camp in upstate New York, fairly shone with emotion. Loosing the bonds of academic observation in his imagined account of a late-night meeting around the campfire, Balmer rendered the unforgettable essence of youth-group retreats.

Now Balmer (a CT editor at large) has collected a series of essays that describe, often with wrenching vividness, the struggles of a pastor’s son to embrace his father’s faith.

Clarence Balmer was a minister, and later a district superintendent, in the Evangelical Free Church of America, a hard-working, devout leader with great dreams for Randall, his oldest child. His son is a master of the telling detail—the three-foot-high pulpit he received as a Christmas present when he was 5, the encouraging words of his father’s letters during college and seminary, the pain and silence when Randall chose to leave the path toward ordained ministry and pursue a Ph.D. instead.

In these stories, Balmer describes a world that evangelicalism’s adopted children can only glimpse from a distance, one that every evangelical parent will instantly recognize—a world filled with the sometimes unbearable tension between “training up a child in the way he should go” and allowing one’s children to discover the faith for themselves. That Balmer is now himself a father, with two sons from his first marriage, lends more poignancy to these essays, which bleed with an honesty that never slips into self-indulgence.

Balmer does not restrict himself to personal narrative. He has strong opinions about the theological and cultural strictures that alienated him from his father’s world. Musing on his 15th reunion at his alma mater, Balmer pulls no punches in decrying the school’s retreat in the 1980s, as he sees it, into “sectarianism” from the daring intellectual engagements of his student days. In other essays, he indicts evangelicalism for its intellectual “shibboleths” and guilt-by-association grid of theological correctness. Balmer writes, “I became disquieted by evangelical attitudes toward women, which struck me as chauvinist at best, and probably misogynist. In my youthful impetuosity, I came to regard evangelicals’ vicious theological controversies as churlish and irrelevant, the intellectual equivalent of shoring up the Maginot Line.”

Such criticism will ring entirely true to some readers and sound hollow to others, largely depending on which piece of evangelicalism’s patchwork quilt they call home. Balmer has a few shibboleths of his own, borrowed from the world of mainline Protestantism—for example, he relies more than once on the difference between the legalistic “God of the Hebrew Bible” and the New Testament God of grace, a facile distinction that is blessedly losing favor among most scholars.

What is fresh about these essays is not so much their tepid solutions to knotty theological problems as their continual plea for evangelicalism to match its commitment to truth with a commitment to honesty. An honest faith will acknowledge the abyss of doubt into which even the most faithful eventually stare, the danger of confusing our earthly fathers with our heavenly Father, and the mystery of “amazing grace,” so frequently preached and so incompletely practiced.

In one area Balmer’s introspection is tantalizingly incomplete. The author biography includes this little hint of upward mobility: Balmer and his wife Catharine Randall (a professor at Fordham University) “live in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and Stowe, Vermont.” Most evangelicals of his father’s generation struggled to maintain one home; Balmer divides his time between a white-collar suburb and a resort town.

Randall Balmer epitomizes so many baby-boomer children of rural America who left their parents’ world for the coast and the cities. Somewhere in that journey from Des Moines to Manhattan via Princeton is a story of changing class identity, and without that story we cannot fully understand the quarrel of evangelicalism present with evangelicalism past.

The fear for our children’s faith is ultimately fear for the faith itself. What will become of evangelical Christianity in the next generation, or three or four generations beyond? The answer comes from its history, which Balmer knows so well: it will change—inexorably, unpredictably, and dramatically. In Growing Pains, we see evangelicalism wrestling with that inevitable change. Like all wrestling matches—Balmer cites Jacob and the angel—it is muddy and messy. The disabled opponent relies on sheer stubbornness to compel his adversary: “I won’t let go until you bless me.”

Clarence Balmer’s final blessing of Randall is described only indirectly in these essays, perhaps because it was too intimate or too simple to recount. But its presence is tangible from the first page to the last, enabling the son to ultimately, amazingly and gracefully, offer his own blessing to an ambiguous past. For evangelicalism’s children, both adopted and biological, and for every anxious parent, this book points the way forward: Neither Clarence nor Randall was willing to let go.