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More Money, More Ministry

Most of the sixteen essays in this volume originated at a consultation on “Evangelicals and Finance” in Naperville, Illinois, in early 1998. The purpose of the book is to take “a first step toward understanding how evangelicals have thought about, used, and raised money during the twentieth century.” The majority of its authors are historians and sociologists, so the perspectives are, for the most part, historical and social in nature.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the book is its broad scope, which makes it interesting but also very hard to manage properly in a review. The editors divide the book into three major parts. The first is “Overviews and Orientation,” in which economists John Lunn and Robin Klay, with historian Michael Hamilton, survey the American economy from 1870 to 1997. Sociologist Gary Scott Smith follows with a chapter on how evangelicals “confronted” American capitalism between 1880 and 1930. Pastor/historian Charles Hambricke-Stowe writes on the financing of revivals, and then Hamilton discusses how evangelicals go about financing themselves generally.

The second part is simply “Specific Studies,” which begins with sociologist Peter Dobkin-Hall on the “interaction” of evangelicals and the economy of the United States between 1870 and 1920 (more on this essay later). Historian Susan Yohn follows with a chapter on the role of women in raising money for charities. Historian Alvyn Austin writes next on Hudson Taylor's famous “faith principle,” and historian (and expert on the South) Ted Ownby writes on the quite differing approaches to money among Southern Pentecostals and the Churches of Christ. Historian Joel Carpenter offers a revised version of an earlier publication on the rise of evangelical institutions during the Great Depression (more on this essay and his perspective, too). Then, historian/political scientist Robert Burkinshaw relates contrasts between American and Canadian evangelicals in their financial support for Christian colleges. Financial consultant Barry Gardner describes the correlation between growth in evangelical giving and growth in high technology. Next comes a chapter by Larry Eskridge on the life and theory of Larry Burkett on money and the economy. Next, sociologist Dean Hoge and historian Mark Noll combine to relate statistics on giving among American and Canadian evangelicals—again there are contrasts (Americans give a lot more). At last, legal scholar Thomas Berg offers an accounting (in detail) of the infamous New Era scandal.

In the final part, “Concluding Observations,” Carpenter draws some general conclusions, the most notable being “the relative absence of consistent Christian perspective tools” on this subject among evangelicals and a mistrustful (of systematic theory) “biblicism” (such as Burkett's, among others). It is a little ironic that the last essay, by theologian John Stackhouse, pretty much just states the problem of forging the required theology of modern economic life rather than offers the outline of one.

The majority of the essays are in their very different ways as solid and informative as they are lacking in integrated historical revision and/or constructive Christian theory. The exceptions are the quite dissimilar essays by Dobkin-Hall and Carpenter. Unfortunately, the finely researched piece by Dobkin-Hall raises a critical question for evangelicals that someone ought to have taken up elsewhere in the volume.

At the end of his careful effort to “locate” evangelicals in the course of economic change from 1870 to 1920, Dobkin-Hall more or less confirms the grim truth of Max Weber's well-known theory of the “iron cage.” Simply, it states that Protestant Christianity was really what ignited capitalism and made it work in the United States, but—great irony—capitalism itself was bound to become the sort of culture that was incapable of integrating genuinely Christian principles. Protestants had thus manufactured (literally) their very own cage of iron, and the only way out of it was—well—out of capitalism (which might have been a good subtitle for this book, judging from its many variations on that theme). Dobkin-Hall closes with these astonishing (given their context in this “consultation”) thoughts. Even the “contemporary resurgence” of evangelicalism in politics and the economy (and he could have added scholarship, too) “does not answer the question of whether evangelicalism, because of its deep-seated discomfort with the materialism and pragmatism of modern life can ever effectively institutionalize itself “ (my italics). For Dobkin-Hall, then, the rise of separate distinctively evangelical institutions (which Carpenter treats as a sort of triumph) is itself evidence of this problem.

If Dobkin-Hall's suspicions are correct, the rise of these institutions is no vindication of fundamentalism against the anti-religious interpretations of Richard Hofstadter and H. L. Mencken. The emergence of these institutions is not unambiguous evidence against the theory that fundamentalism went spiraling into decline in the 1930s. While important to note, as Carpenter rightly does (and as Hofstadter and Mencken do not), they prove that evangelicalism remained in these forms a “dynamic movement,” the implications are troubling. On Dobkin-Hall's analysis, for all these new institutions vigor and success, they are veritable monuments to what was, more deeply, a desperately sad and compromised retreat into cages of capitalism with distinctly Christian covering.

Perhaps not to be so gloomy, Dobkin-Hall grants that it is “not impossible to envision a potent combination of religious fervor and worldliness fully capable of remaking the world as we know it.” So on that condition, it is possible to envision a time when evangelicals have the “consistent Christian perspective tools” they require in this area of life. (Of course, we may wonder whether they would be real evangelicals anymore.) But until this happens, it is probably best to expect Christian theology for life under modern high-tech capitalism to come mainly from where it now mainly does—from Jewish, Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran sources, in which traditions exist for relating doctrines of creation creatively to matters of redemption in a modern economic context.