As Andrew Selby has already noted, “Amazing Grace” looks to be a pretty good film. But as much as I look forward to seeing the film, it’s been much more entertaining to see how some members of the secular press have been tripping over themselves to find an angle from which to review a story about an Evangelical Christian who achieved one of the greatest social victories of the last 300 years.

A masterful exhibition of this media conundrum is the following New York Times review by Manohla Dargis: “The Imperfect Soul Who Helped Bring an End to the Slave Trade.” Despite Wilberforce’s unmatched commitments to abolition and social justice, Dargis simply can’t bring herself to actually pass positive judgment on the unequivocally evangelical Wilberforce, or the movie that tells his tale.

You can see this tension from the very first paragraph where Dargis writes: “He was an evangelical Christian and social conservative who rallied for animal rights and against trade unions, which makes him a tough nut to crack.”

Translation: “Wilberforce was “Bad Thing A and B”, yet did “Good Thing X and Y”; how can this be?”

(Watch for Dargis to contradict even this mixed compliment later in the article by alleging that Wilberforce, leader of the socially active Clapham Sect, played pawn to business interests by focusing attention on the slave trade and avoiding the cause of the poor.)

My question, though, is this: how has it happened that today, the combining of “committed Evangelical Christian” and “effective Social Activist” creates circuit overload for secular mental categories? Do we blame a prejudiced secular conceptualization of Evangelicals, content with the caricature that Christians must be hypocrites, half-wits, or both? Or do conservative Christians have some role in making it possible for such an assumption to develop?

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Posted by Elliot Ravenwood


  1. Elliot Ravenwood February 23, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    @ Jim Anderson.

    ‘Splain. How, when, and why?


  2. 1. Via the complete schlockification of Christian culture and the rise of conversionism.
    2. Ever since Puritanism went out of style. Or maybe since the Civil War.
    3. I don’t know.


  3. It is Dargis’s fault; he is too myopic: Christians have always always always been at the foreront of promoting social justice. Some might not be; but as a group, we always have, always will be, because the Gospeal is our ideal.


  4. Re: pronouns
    I know this is irrelevant to your point, Elliot, but Manohla Dargis is a woman.


  5. Elliot Ravenwood February 27, 2007 at 2:13 am

    Re: pronouns
    I tried to find out the gender of the reviewer before posting but wasn’t able to, so I was hoping someone would set me straight if I guessed wrong. I’ve updated the post with the corrected pronouns. Many thanks!


  6. I am looking forward to reading this as well. But I think that while many of the great lights of evangelicalism and Protestantism more generally were literate in the spiritual classics, that is not being passed on. So I do not think it is inappropriate to say evangelicals are lacking in tradition because part of evangelicalism is skepticism of tradition.

    That skepticism of tradition is also supported by the traditionally anti-catholic posture of much of older protestantism, especially more conservative wings of protestantism.

    So as I was looking at James Stewart Bell’s book “From the Library of AW Tozer” (on sale right now on kindle for $1.99), all of the negative reviews were from people with clear anti-Catholic biases.

    And it is not only less informed people. The highly influential reformed blogger Tim Challies (who is not a theological slouch) has repeatedly commented in his book reviews that he would recommend the book except that it quotes a Catholic. And by that I mean a single quote of a Catholic is enough for him to re-consider recommending a book he otherwise likes.

    I am highly encouraged that books like this new one and Bell’s and others are coming out and Evangelicals are gaining a new interest in spiritual classics. But I think that movement will only gain ground, and Evangelicals will only start embracing the tradition that their forebears embraced, if the anti-catholic bias is adequately addressed by a wide swath of Evangelical teaching.


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