I was thrilled when Brazos Press sent me a copy of Jon Ward’s book, Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Failed a Generation. Like many young Christians, I am endlessly trying to understand how the evangelical movement that raised me became what it is today, and Ward’s book resonated deeply with the heartache of this question.
Like Jon Ward, I was also a pastor’s kid, and my parents also converted during the Jesus Movement revival sweeping America in the 70’s. I wasn’t raised in a mega church (Ward grew up in C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Church), but I relate so much to the cultural markers of Ward’s upbringing. “The leaders in my world were true believers whose intensity of belief blinded them to their errors” (p 3). “The seeds of harm were planted with good intentions. The men who shaped my childhood…simply wanted something real” (p 21).
Ward’s career in journalism gave him tools to examine his inherited views from a critical mindset. “It is now the norm to be intolerant of opposing views, to see others as the other, to fear them, to hate them. Black-and-white thinking is everywhere. Nuance is vanishing. Complexity is demonized” (p 4).
In his chapter on evangelical anti-intellectualism, entitled Surrender, Ward states that his “religious upbringing had given [him] lots of training in how to feel and what to believe but very little in how to think” (p 51). “There was no room for nuance. There was no allowance for complexity or shades of grey. You were either all in with what the leaders said to do, which they said was God’s will, or you were out” (p 52). The emphasis on emotional experiences and the necessity of accepting unquestioningly what your leaders taught made critical thinking a threat to your belonging, and it made people ripe for accepting conspiratorial thinking.
An important insight in Ward’s book is the chapter on Gnosticism, entitled Radicalized. “Gnosticism is a centuries-old way of thinking about the world that in its purest form is considered by Christian theologians to be a heresy. Essentially, according to this thinking, the physical world is of little value compared to the spiritual realm. Much of this thinking derives from fundamentalists’ excessive focus on escaping the world by going to heaven rather than being a good neighbor and working for the common good on earth. This Gnosticism is fueled by the evangelical obsession with euphoria, because emotional highs are understood as obedience to God, and it is virtually impossible to live in the real world while riding a wave of spiritual ecstasy” (p 65). Ward explains that it is impossible to follow Christ’s example of being present to the suffering of the world while seeking a constant state of joy.
Ward talks about the Republican use of the Pro-life movement, the music and literature of evangelicalism, the hyper-literalism of evangelical Bible reading, the complementarianism and power hierarchies of evangelical Christianity, the terrible responses of evangelicals to sexual abuse and spiritual abuse, the New Apostolic Reformation’s drift to Christian nationalism, and most movingly, the rise of Trumpism and how Ward’s relationships with evangelical family and friends was fractured by Trump’s rhetoric and presidency. As a journalist, Ward was interviewing conservatives around the nation, and noted their move to increasing fanaticism, tribalism and antiestablishment politics. He witnessed the rise in outrage-bait media and voters’ not knowing much about politics but voting on personality and image. “To me, superficiality is a far greater problem than point-of-view bias because it drives the political debate away from solving real problems, deepens polarization, and erodes trust in government” (p 132).
Overall, this is a powerful testimony to the change that has happened in evangelicalism as it has become more political and less Christ-like. Toward the end of the book, Ward writes that “I was not really shown how to take up my cross and actually follow Christ. The crisis of American Christianity basically boils down to this failure. I still don’t claim to know how to walk the way of the cross or the path of resurrection very well. But I think that the quest to do so is still at the heart of a meaningful faith. What does it look like to live sacrificially but also incarnationally? Christ was God incarnate, made flesh. How do we walk through death to life, here, now?” (pp 225-226).
If you are trying to understand what American Evangelicalism has become over the past few decades, I would highly recommend reading this memoir. Jon Ward distills the issues down concisely and starkly. His journalistic tool box has given him the perfect set of skills to convey this bewildering mixture of culture and politics and faith.
Again, here is my Amazon Associate link to purchase Testimony: https://amzn.to/3oQ0BcR.
Start your explanation with Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson hijacking the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, around 1980.