All in the Family

"For evangelical insiders, Randall Balmer's one-man encyclopedia can be fun"
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Encyclopedia Of Evangelicalism
Randall Balmer
Westminster John Knox, 664 pages, $29.95

To a deep-rooted evangelical, Randall Balmer's Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism reads like a family album. The brief, cross-referenced entries invite hunts after alma maters, favorite authors, personal heroes, and other close kin.

The encyclopedia might read like a family album to readers outside the evangelical tradition, too, but not in the best sense. Some of Balmer's portraits are sketchy, and some theological and institutional bloodlines are hard to trace. Readers must wonder what caused these flaws—the author's method, the scope of the project, or evangelicalism itself?

Evangelicals emerge in this book as a colorful and varied crew. Musician John Fischer appears next to flannelgraph, 18th-century Methodist John Fletcher, and Focus on the Family. Billy Graham receives a whole page—but so does Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. Balmer acknowledges that he has defined evangelicalism "rather broadly," possibly more broadly than many people featured in the book would prefer.

The bulk of the nearly 3,000 entries are individuals or institutions, though Balmer also throws in a few events (Great Awakening, prayer breakfasts), terms (born again, sanctification), and wild cards, like the entry on just—as in "Lord, we just wanna thank you."

Overall it is an impressive achievement for one scholar (most don't have the boldness to edit an encyclopedia, let alone write one). And naturally, the pool is deepest in the author's area of specialty: contemporary evangelical subculture. Every Christian pop band that made it onto any chart in the 1980s makes a showing in this book, as do Thomas Kinkade, W.W.J.D., and Kurt Warner.

Balmer, ...

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