Anthony Coleman. The Evangelical Experience: Understanding One of America’s Largest Religious Movements from the Inside. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Anthony Coleman deconverted from evangelicalism. In The Evangelical Experience: Understanding One of America’s Largest Religious Movements from the Inside, Coleman talks about his journey to and from evangelical Christianity. Coleman also offers his description of what evangelicalism is like, according to his understanding and experiences: its beliefs, practices, and culture, and the differences of opinion within it. In addition, Coleman provides a brief section on evangelicalism’s history.
The book is a solid introduction to evangelicalism. Coleman did not always document the positions that he was summarizing, but his summaries were informative, as overviews. Coleman describes evangelicalism in such a way that one can get a grasp of its substance, while still realizing that evangelicalism is diverse, in areas.
I did have some areas of disagreement with Coleman. In discussing the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, Coleman says that Calvinism believes in predestination and irresistible grace, whereas Arminianism believes in free will. Many Arminians would say, however, that they acknowledge that God must play a role in enabling sinful human beings to believe (prevenient grace), meaning that, for them, humans cannot come to God solely by their free will. Coleman’s section on eschatology was good in that it discussed premillennialism, amillennialism, and preterism, but Coleman also should have offered a brief description of different views on the rapture (i.e., pretrib? post-trib?), especially since he introduced this section by mentioning the Left Behind series. In a section on famous evangelical authors, Coleman mentions Rachel Held Evans, even though she is a polarizing figure among evangelicals, and herself has become a mainline Protestant.
I had a slight problem with Coleman’s discussion of how evangelicals hear from God. My impression is that he doubts that they do, that he chalks this up to their intuition, their imagination, or the creative ability of human beings to tie things in the Bible to their own situation. I do not dispute that this takes place, but I have heard stories from evangelicals that make me wonder if something supernatural is going on: there are just too many “coincidences,” or timely moments. Coleman himself may be open to this, for, although he has left evangelicalism, he still believes in the reality of spiritual experiences.
Coleman left evangelicalism primarily over two issues. First, there were his doubts about the reliability of the Bible, which, of course, includes a lot of issues. Second, there were the loving non-Christians he has known. This challenged his evangelical belief that non-Christians are sinners who need to believe in Christ and have the Holy Spirit in order to be good people.
Coleman’s discussion of the first issue (the reliability of the Bible) did not present anything earthshakingly new to me, but it may provide curious readers with a helpful picture of how an evangelical wrestled with the Bible and the conclusions of mainstream biblical scholarship. Interestingly, many of these conclusions were taught at the evangelical school that Coleman attended. I particularly identified with Coleman’s point that he would sooner recommend Brennan Manning or C.S. Lewis to people than the Bible. I myself wrestle with whether the unconditionally loving God of many evangelicals is the God who is found in Scripture. Sometimes, maybe. Other times, not so much.
Coleman’s discussion of the second issue (non-believers who are loving) made me wrestle a bit. As Coleman notes, Paul in II Corinthians 6:2 tells the Corinthian Christians not to be unequally yoked with non-believers, for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness, and what communion has light with darkness? That does present non-believers in a negative light. I try to respect that Paul was writing within a cultural context: Paul did not want the Corinthian Christians to place themselves at risk of compromising with idolatry. Still, Paul’s us vs. them stance does disturb me somewhat. Can we really say that Christians are righteous, whereas unbelievers are unrighteous? Both do good things. Both struggle with life and fall short of perfection in doing so.
There were areas in which I found Coleman’s description of evangelicalism to be edifying, spiritually-speaking. Coleman talks about how believers find their center in Jesus, whatever hardship they may be experiencing. Coleman said that, while there are many evangelicals who struggle with guilt, there are also many whose sins make them feel closer to God as they seek God’s forgiveness. Coleman described loud contemporary Christian worship as something that envelops worshipers and makes them feel as if they are participating in something larger than themselves, while also being something personal between them and God.
I appreciated Coleman’s stance. He was not belligerent against evangelicalism. His attitude was live and let live. One of my favorite parts of the book was when Coleman was trying to figure out what to do after leaving evangelicalism. As he says, people with that sort of deconversion experience often land in different places: being uninterested in religion, attacking religion, converting to a non-Christian religion, etc. I identified with where Coleman landed: he studied the mystics of different religions and found commonalities. While Coleman is not an evangelical Christian, he still believes in spiritual experiences. He states that mystical practices can center people and make them more loving and less self-centered. Coleman’s discussion here may be helpful to people who have deconverted and wonder what to do next.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.