Religion in Contemporary America

Review of Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory New York : Oxford University Press, 1993.
Reviewed by Michele Koszarek.

After reading, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," by Randall Balmer, I am still quite mystified by the evangelical religion. I have learned, however, that evangelicals emphasize spiritual piety, which is where the term "born again" comes from. They actually feel God in them and may even have a life-changing experience. This experience is necessary for entering the kingdom of heaven.

Conservative Protestant Christianity, which includes evangelicalism, can be divided into four groups: evangelicals, fundamentalists, charismatics, and pentecostals. The fundamentalist group follows a strict system of personal morality and taboos against such evils as cosmetics, card-playing, dancing, movies, and alcohol. They have a very negative attitude and are viewed as attacking society. The evangelical group emerged from the fundamentalists. They basically have the same views as fundamentalists, but decided to be positive and work with society. The pentecostal group believe that a spiritual experience of baptism or filling by the Holy Spirit, usually marked by speaking in tongues called glossolalia, creates the mark of a true Christian. Other spiritual gifts may be the word of knowledge and divine healing. Charismatics, like pentecostals, also believe in the spiritual gifts. However charismatic services usually aren't as emotional and dramatic as the pentecostals. The book lumps all four groups into "evangelicals" instead of saying Conservative Protestant Christianity all the time. This really confused me. But for the purpose of translating and reporting on the book, I too shall group them all together as evangelicals.

As for explaining the differences between the groups in Conservative Protestant Christianity, two pages is all the book contained. The majority of the text is composed of different stories of the author's journey through America to visit different assemblies, and his attempt to explain the array of Conservative Protestant Christianity. Randall Balmer grew up an evangelist, but disagreeing with their strict views, withdrew from the culture. Randall's excursion begins in California, at the Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana. He was amazed at the largely active congregation. There were 51 activities going on the week of his stay, such as The Woman's Joyful Life Bible Study, The Working Woman's Joyful Life Bible Study, The Proverbs Class for Men, single parents night, The High School Mother's Prayer Meeting, and The Calvary's Messianic Jewish Fellowship. The church also had a radio station. I was really shocked to read about the many activities taking place in the week of Randall's stay. Although the book doesn't say how big the congregation was, it had to be pretty huge to have enough people to attend these meetings. The leader of the church is Pastor Chuck Smith, who many of the members say is responsible for keeping the church so alive.

An interesting event for the younger people on Saturday during Randall's stay, that I found fascinating, was Outreach Night. From seven-thirty to nine-thirty the group of mostly twenty year olds came together in the auditorium to listen to a Christian recording artist and then a sermon from a juvenile preacher. After this, the meeting continued at the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach for "witnessing." The book neglects to explain witnessing, but from the text I got an idea of what took place. The young preacher from the auditorium continued his lecture at the peer. The congregation of people (from the auditorium) were to act as if they had never seen him before and stare and listen in awe, in hopes of attracting non-believers to the scene. Then the auditorium congregation spread out to tell others of Jesus' love and what being born again had done for them, and tried to get people to become born again.

I said this fascinated me, mainly because I couldn't see my Catholic Church going down the shore and walking around trying to get people to become Catholics. I couldn't even see us talking about what being Catholic means to us to a bunch of strangers. It takes a lot of faith in yourself and religion to do something like that. And it's not that I don't have faith in my religion, but I just get the feeling that evangelicals think everyone should convert to their religion, that their religion is the best. Another fascination I had with this event was that the young people gave up their weekend of partying, drinking, and dating only to listen to Christian music and then try to get non-believers to convert! After California, Randall traveled to Dallas and then Des Moines, Iowa where he met up with Donald Thompson, a movie director. All of his movies have action, suspense, and drama with an unsubtle evangelical message. At crisis points in the plots, characters may kneel and give their lives to Christ. In one movie, an escaped convict realizes that God has forgiven him and asks to be saved from his sins. Throughout his interview with Thompson, I really get the feeling he depends on God for everything. For example one day it was pouring rain, and as Thompson and his crew were about to shoot the rain stopped miraculously and came to a sudden end. Thompson showed his approval with, "God is good." After meeting deadlines, another approval of, "Praise God," can be expected from an elated Thompson. Thompson's work has granted him praise from both the Christian and secular film industry. And of course when asked about his accomplishments, Thompson credits God for his success. He has won 17 Christian Oscars for his hard work.

My favorite group of all that Randall visited was the Capstone Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona. This predominantly black congregation was run by Evangelist Neal Frisby, who is a known healer. Thursday evening was Miracle Deliverance Night. On this night Pastor Frisby healed a mentally retarded boy, helped another young boy breath better, and caused an elderly woman to walk without her cane. Frisby claims to have created ear drums and other body parts. He is convinced that he is a prophet sent from God, and the final prophet before the world comes to an end. Frisby even gives God credit for telling him where and how to build the Capstone Cathedral.

Randall questioned Frisby of his calling to be a prophet. His answer shocked me at first, but after remembering what I've read so far about evangelicals it seemed typical. Frisby stated that after his wife gave birth to their second child, she killed herself and left him devastated. Soon he went to an Assemblies of God Church, a Pentecostal Church, and says his heart was healed when he was saved. He claims he spoke in tongues and was convinced that the spirit of God wanted him to preach and pray for the sick.

At one time in our lives we have seen a televangelist on TV, whether it be Jimmy Swaggert or Jim Baker, claiming to heal. I have always wondered if they were for real, as did Randall. To prove his suspicions were right, Randall set up a test for Pastor Frisby. On Sundays, Frisby had a special healing service for those from out of town or those who came to pray for others. Randall attended and asked Pastor Frisby to pray for his friend who had lost the hearing in her one ear. Frisby placed his hand on Randall's head, shouted some prayers, and claimed the girl would be fine! When Randall returned home from his journey, he questioned his friend of her hearing. She answered that she still couldn't hear. It didn't surprise Randall, or me either.

As I finished the last chapter of the book, I realized most of my questions about the Conservative Protestant Christians were left unanswered. Not even attempted to be answered, for that matter. There was one main reason I chose this book to read. Both sides of my family have a strong Catholic background. A couple years ago, my godmother chose to become a Born-Again Christian, which shocked all of us. She began carrying a Bible everywhere, preaching to us, and telling me what I believed was wrong. She didn't let her kids listen to the radio or watch certain shows, she didn't wear make up or dye her hair anymore, and she only shopped at thrift stores and yard sales. She started saying things like, "It's God's will," and "Praise God," after a lot of statements. All these years I wanted to know WHY! What made her do this, how can she put her kids through such harsh upbringing, and what exactly are her new beliefs?

Choosing this book I anticipated learning about my godmother's religion, maybe even to respect and appreciate it. Although I haven't gained much knowledge about the evangelicals, I can at least respect them now that I have learned about certain groups. All the assemblies I read about touched me and even made me question my actions. I couldn't write about all of them, so I picked my favorites.

Since I enjoyed reading this book, I think an evangelical would too. In no way does it put down, or demoralize their religion. They may not be too happy with the fact that Randall left their religion. The reasons he gives for doing so was "a series of personal circumstances," and wanting to know what lay beyond the barriers of evangelicalism. Randall also said how he thought the strict rules placed on children were petty and mistrustful. Not knowing enough about the evangelical religion as a whole, I can't really say what I would do if I were in Randall's place. But I do know if my parents said I couldn't watch TV, listen to the radio, drink alcohol, play cards, and that I had to listen to Christian music, I'd probably drop out as soon as I was on my own too!

Reviewed by Michele Koszarek
April, 1998

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