Review of Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America

As part of my summer reading, I determined to pick up Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. I first became acquainted with Balmer after seeing him in the God in America series on PBS. During one of his moments discussing the emergence of the evangelical movement, he mentioned that he grew up in a fundamentalist family. I found that interesting because, let’s face it, most fundamentalist Christians don’t embrace traditional academia.

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is part historical examination, part sociological study [1]. Balmer traveled across the United States observing and interviewing various individuals and groups in an attempt to provide an “ethnographic study” demonstrating the “variations within a subculture generally regarded as monolithic” (7). He focused on “popular evangelicalism,” avoiding, for the most part, the big names in American evangelicalism, such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. His travels took him to Dallas Theological Seminary and Word of Life Fellowship, produced meetings with self-proclaimed prophets and charismatic Episcopalians, and introduced him to Christians working in film, music, and television.

The chapters that resonated the most with me were the ones that spoke to my own background in fundamentalist Christianity. For example, the chapter on movie director Don Thompson reminded me of childhood Saturday nights spent at Highland Park Baptist Church watching the Thief in the Night series that he directed. (It was also timely because of the conspiracy theories course I taught this past spring, in which I referenced Thompson’s movies in our discussion of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic thought.) I also enjoyed the last chapter on contemporary Christian music, which focused on one of my favorite bands, Jars of Clay.

I am not an historian of religion, but I hope that if Balmer puts out another edition, he will consider the following suggestions, two of which center on the fundamentalist aspects that I think get lost in discussions about American evangelicalism:

  1. The Christian school/homeschooling movements. As best as I can tell, both movements originated in the 1970s as a response to the supposed hedonism of the “drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll” decade of the 1960s. From kindergarten through high school graduation, I attended schools that used either Accelerated Christian Education or Pensacola Christian College’s A Beka curricula. That might have skewed my perception of how important the pre-collegiate Christian school was/is, as might have hearing stories from our older homeschooling friends about the battles in the 1980s to pursue that form of education.
  2. On a related note, I think a chapter on fundamentalist institutions of higher education, such as Bob Jones University (BJU), Tennessee Temple University (TTU), and Hyles Anderson College (HAC), would be especially pertinent today. BJU has experienced numerous controversies recently, from the controversy over its opposition to interracial relationships to this year’s expulsion of senior Chris Peterman, officially for accumulating too many demerits but realistically for organizing a protest against Chuck Phelps’ membership on the university board of trustees. (You can read more about the controversy involving Phelps and accusations that he protected a child rapist here and here.) The following that Jack Hyles obtained despite accusations of marital infidelity and other improprieties and allegations against his son, David, speak to the cultish behavior of some areas of Christian fundamentalism [2]. TTU’s transition from a fundamentalist “bulwark of the faith” into a “belittler of the faith,” as one alum put it, by rejoining the Southern Baptist Convention Great Commission Baptists brings into sharp relief the shrinking voice that old-time fundamentalists find in today’s United States.
  3. The uncomfortable relationship between fundamentalists and the LDS church is a particularly timely topic that, depending on the outcome of this year’s presidential election, may have lasting resonance. I don’t think it unfair to say that most fundamentalists and evangelicals reject Mormonism as Christian and believe it is a cult. A chapter on this relationship would be useful for examining how mainstream American Protestantism has rejected claims to the faith  by others who call themselves Christians. (Balmer, in fact, starts his introduction with an anecdote about his childhood attempt to convert a Catholic to real Christianity. The parallels, to me, are intriguing.)

Parts of the book show their age if one is looking for contemporary commentary, but the earlier editions are nevertheless important for capturing the evangelical movement as it has evolved. I enjoyed Balmer’s perspective and identify with his conclusion that just because he has left the fundamentalism of his youth doesn’t mean that he has rejected his faith in God.

[1] The first edition appeared in the late 1980s. I read the third edition, published in 2000. (The fourth edition, from 2006, includes two new chapters on Thomas Kinkade and Rick Warren.)

[2] To add to Jack Hyles’ legacy, his son-in-law, Jack Schaap, is now pastor of Hyles’ former church and spouts some of the weirdest theological nonsense I’ve ever heard . . . and I’ve heard a lot. UPDATED (7/31/12): Schaap was dismissed from his pastorate for allegedly having an improper relationship with a young woman in his Hammond, Indiana, church.

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3 Replies to “Review of Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America

  1. Thanks for these comments (I just happened upon this review). I’m especially interested in suggestions for further review because I’m updating the book for a 25th anniversary edition (2014).

    Thanks,

    Randall Balmer

    1. Randall,

      I’m glad to hear that a new edition is coming out.

      With the Jack Schaap scandal at Hyles’ old church and the numerous other sex/abuse scandals that have come to light recently, it seems like a chapter on the insularity of fundamentalism is even more important to include.

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