A Young Atheist’s Look at Young Fundamentalists

Book Review of Lauren Sandler’s Righteous

Neither Richard Dawkins’ God Delusionnor Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation held me with even the remotest interest, but young Lauren Sandler’s book, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), did. The intellectual, literary elitists and cold empiricists could probably learn something from this gal. At least she, like Jeffery L. Sheler (Believe: A Journey Into Evangelical America) and Monique El-Faizy (God and Country: How Evangelicals Have Become America’s New Mainstream), is willing to mingle with those loathsome evangelicals.

At the beginning of her book, Lauren frankly shares a little about herself with us:

In marked contrast, my three decades on this earth have been something of a liberal cliché. An unrepentant Jewish atheist, I was raised in Harvard Square, and have long been registered to vote in New York. To me, the Bible is essentially a game of telephone: a number of word-of-mouth accounts of years to be recorded on paper. (4)

Remarkable admission. That last statement distills all the weighty volumes of one of America’s leading intellects, Bart Ehrmann, with sparkling precision.Lauren is married. Her husband, Justin Lane, has inserted 27 pictures in the middle of the book to bring further sharpness to her topic. Of course, they have no children yet. Should I expect it to be any different for an outspoken feminist? Do you recall the book, Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free by Nancy Leigh DeMoss? In moral tones Lauren judges the book to be “a classic Christian subjugation canon, a guide to annihilating a woman’s independence” (37). Sincerely, with all the comments that Lauren has inserted in her book about tired mothers of little children, I would love to visit her home someday when she, perhaps, has her own little, mischievous toddler. This could change much of her outlook on those poor Christian mothers.

I am extremely curious. Would she in her narrow position as a materialist fundamentalist (if I may redirect the label) allow her child to even flitter in heart faith toward an invisible God? Perhaps Lauren might mature in later years into more of an atheistic moderate than Sam Harris, especially if her own daughter or son might consider God necessary for living. Surely life can be full of twists and turns that are truly unexplainable. The Incomprehensible One can crack any heart of brittleness.

Her Target Audience

In her book, Lauren focuses on The Disciple Generation, “an ever-growing population of people ages fifteen to thirty-five who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an Evangelical end.” She traveled the country to report all their activities in order to alarm the secularists and galvanize them into action. Therefore, the freethinkers (as opposed to the Bible-onlyists), materialists, rationalists, and infidels are Lauren’s actual target audience.

So with her biased readers, she now tells the story of The Disciple Generation, entrapped in their “political, emotional, and deeply anti-intellectual” ways and “easily slapped with the label of rebellion” (5) because they are “deinstitutionalizing the American church for the first time in about four hundred years” (6).

For some of her introduction, Lauren is right on. “To young Evangelicals, our secular world is devoid of the type of love they seek, not parental love or fraternal love or even erotic love, but an even bigger love—a love called agape” (9). “It’s the emotion that secularism, enraptured by its logic and empiricism, refuses to engage” (10). “Feminism, sexual freedom, and secular liberalism: all these words are profanity to the Disciple Generation… . In the new Christian counterculture, dreadlocks ally with buzz cuts, organizing against anything that challenges the perceived literal perfection of the Bible: the notion of ‘inerrancy,’ which means that every word of the Bible is considered to be absolute truth” (13-14). “Unlike any other youth movement in history, at least that I can think of, the Disciple Generation integrates kids across well-defined cultural boundaries in a single unifying bond, a dominant ideology without a dominant aesthetic” (15). “Young Evangelicals know what they believe. They stand for something; they have a hopeful narrative for human experience, a big idea to apply to our times” (16).

Lauren has everybody’s attention. Eagerly, she begins preaching!

Her Feisty Sermon

Rather than three points and a poem, she zeros in on eight examples of those making up The Disciple Generation. The introduction, “You’ll feel lead,” takes the reader right into the battlefield with Ron Luce and Acquire the Fire as Ron and others issue a call to arms for the 33 million teens in America who are hooked on MySpace and saturated with point-and-click pornography. Thirty-seven ATF rock-fests scheduled for 2006-2007 are shaking the country. They are hardly the typical hymn sings, but the sponsors desire to lead teenagers on a path of “Onward Christian Soldiers” to the max, like ESOLs (Emotionally Stretching Opportunities of a Lifetime) at Luce’s Honor Academy. Lauren sums it all up as a “Branch Davidian-style training camp and creepy militant motivational tactics” (18). I suppose Lauren isn’t a fan of the U.S. military.

In chapter 1, “Fetal Position,” Lauren reduces Erik Whittington, a guy in his mid-thirties who is in charge of the “Rock for Life” seminars, to a male dictator who desires his wife to keep on producing children despite the doctor’s warning that her uterus might end up being severely damaged. Lauren ignores the abstinence-before-marriage pitches and pro-life messages because of Erik’s hypocrisy on past “tomcatting.” Her cry is, “While it’s true that in most of the secular world—and certainly throughout the fundamentalist world—women’s sexuality is demonized (while men’s is praised), in Evangelical America this polarity is not just codified, it’s ecstatically celebrated” (39). And finally, after giving three miserable options for a “pregnant Christian girl” in today’s society, Lauren ends the chapter with one lingering memory, “a swastika” drawn in the dust of her car window as she leaves the embrace of Tina Whittington.

In chapter 2, “Come As You Are,” the author compares Mark Driscoll’s “particular brand of fundamentalism” in Seattle with “the same idea many fundamentalist Palestinians have for gaining control of Israel” (43). According to Lauren, Mark’s church, Mars Hill, is “existing outside the slick American mega church establishment, but in fact, these days, they are the establishment” (44-45). She interprets John Vaughn, the founder of the research organization, Church Growth Today, to say, “Mars Hill is the new church, connecting orthodoxy to politics to culture in a whole-life articulation of fundamentalism” (45).

Sadly, Lauren is my first substantial introduction to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. I like “missional living.” When Lauren notes, “And unlike mega churches that attempt to gain relevance in their congregants’ modern lives by offering PowerPoint-displayed sermons with immediately practical applications, Mark preaches every word of the Bible, straight through in order” (52), I find myself agreeing. And despite the author’s biting sarcasm, I appreciate all the women of the church taking seriously the apostle Paul—Lauren’s worst nightmare. The book, The Fruit of Her Hands, by Idaho author Nancy Wilson, which Lauren refers to negatively, is in fact a good book.

But then things start to break down in my admiration for Mark as Lauren shares, “Film and Theology,” “indie rock,” an “edgy Jesus,” Mark’s “accessible slang,” and then executive pastor Jamie’s “view of evangelism” (61). If “culturally liberal and theologically conservative” (52) is the mantra for future church planting, then there is no hope for the intermountain West. After drinking deeply from the philosophy of Mars Hill, which young “Acts 29” church planter will head for Utah?

In chapter 3, “Saved on the Half-Pipe,” I enthusiastically read Lauren’s story of Idaho boy, Ted Bruun, “just shy of thirty” and the leader of Extreme Tour. The sincerity of Ted and his gang seemed to hit a soft spot in Lauren. But then the Hollywood theatrics of Stephen Baldwin and the glitz of the Luis Palau evangelistic team messed things up again for her. Because of Lauren’s reporting on Stephen, I have no desire to read his new book, The Unusual Suspect: My Calling to the New Hardcore Movement of Faith (NY: Warner Faith, 2006), endorsed by Ravi Zacharias. But concerning Ted, I would not mind meeting the guy one of these days. I would have a discussion with him over D.L. Moody’s words, “It makes no difference how you get a man to God, provided you get him there” (85). I disagree with the ethic, “Pick your medium—what matters is the message.” I am uncomfortable with how Ted is culturally packaging some of his ministry. But I applaud Ted in this sense: I think real ministry is modeled more by what he is doing, traveling in vans and sleeping in church buildings, than by Stephen’s approach of cruising in planes and signing autographs for three and one-half hours after altar calls (102). The Livin It skateboarding tour by the Palau Association makes me want to puke. In contrast, defying all the easy-believism hype of Palau’s card-collecting statistical machine, some Latter-Day Saints young people in Utah are giving up skateboards and going on two-year missions (see the latest LDS DVD hit for youth, “Money or Mission”).

For chapter 4, “In the Name of the Father,” Lauren highlights Jay Bakker, the pastor of Masquerade, a rock club with three floors—Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell—a little, rougher version than that of the three LDS levels of glory being taught in Southeastern Idaho (celestial, terrestrial, and telestial). Like the latest Episcopal “awakening,” the young Bakker loves U2. He also enjoys Jim Wallis, while Lauren bewails that no young fundamentalist “has even heard of this figurehead of Christian social justice” (109).

Poignantly, Lauren writes, “The inauthenticity that young Christians today strain against isn’t just the product of the secular corporate world, but the antecedents of their own movement” (112, emphasis added). Young leaders like James Dobson’s son Ryan and Franklin Graham’s son Will “tend to preserve their father’s faith [but] … do so with their own rebel yell against mass-market techniques” (113). Cameron Strang is “the thirty-year-old president of the Evangelical lifestyle brand Relevant Media, and the Disciple Generations’ publishing magnate” (116). “The key to Cameron’s success, and to the momentum of this steadily gathering movement, is to never stray from the mantra Not your parents’ Christianity” (118). Though they are all “the inheritors of modern-age altar calls,” they strive to be authentically different. They each possess a passionate ambition about the future. Will (a graduate of Liberty) wants to be a U.S. president. Ryan (a graduate of Biola) will podcast the event. And Cameron (a graduate of Oral Roberts University) will publish the Christian lifestyle to the masses.

I am not going to spend time on chapter 5, “Soldiers of Fortune.” Is Lauren really serious when including Creflo Dollar or Eddie Long in her sermon? Good grief. And when she called the apostle Paul in Romans, the “Book’s greatest blowhard,” I left the pew of her auditorium and went outside for some fresh air. She is completely blind to the idea of discontinuity in Scripture and only defames her Jewish history by darkly warping Old Testament texts and often confusing them as binding on the church today, “like the rule that a ‘bastard,’ and his or her succeeding ten generations, may not be allowed into a church” (154).

By chapter 6, “The Ultimate Party School,” Lauren is dripping with sarcasm over Patrick Henry College. She warns, “Patrick Henry exists explicitly to develop a militia of radical right-wing commandants who, armed with their fundamentalism and debate skills, will march upon Capitol Hill and claim it for Christ” (159). In this chapter, rather than crying “anti-intellectualism,” Lauren changes her name-calling to “robots.” Oh, I guess now that persons like Sarah Pride (her mother, Mary Pride, is a popular writer in the homeschool movement) or someone like young Salvador Cordova, a leader in the next chapter on intelligent design, are nothing more than stiff nerds.

In chapter 7, “Evolutionary War,” Lauren equates the intelligent design movement with the “Whoa Principle”: “Like, whoa, the mathematical probability of the earth’s sustainability for humans is stunningly low, or, whoa, the level of complexity in a cell is mind-boggling, or in the jargon of the intelligent design movement, is ‘irreducibly complex’ ” (193). The Whoa Principle is based on faith, which, I readily admit, I eagerly succumb to on a regular basis as I think of God. But where I easily show faith, does Lauren show any eagerness for science? Apparently not. Listen to her lack of patience with Michael Behe at the Dover trial last year:

The press took notes from seats in the jury box, while pewlike courtroom benches accommodated spectators and local school groups. This must have ranked high on their list of lamest possible field trips; even the judge could barely stay awake during Behe’s stultifying testimony, featuring primers on scientific peer review and lecture slides of flagella and blood-clotting cascades. (201)

Believe it or not, for the most part I agree with the final chapter, “The Last Generation,” the last main point of Lauren’s sermon, though I caution you to watch out for the excesses of interpretation over apocalyptic material! In this chapter, she discusses Ted Haggard, New Life Church, the U.S. military, the Left Behind books, William Koenig, Robert Livingston, and the idea that “perhaps nothing motivates conversion more than fear” (228). Please see my discussion about aspects of this on the thread following the SI article, “Steel on Steel in Coeur d’Alene.” I am all for thankfully acknowledging political leaders in our churches and praying for them. But when we get to the preaching, let us clearly emphasize Christianity as a separate entity from capitalism and nationalism.

Her Closing Invitation

She concludes:

For all their oblation, one must not overlook the fact that the Disciple Generation is foremost a growing fundamentalist population. The apocalyptic imagination, the annihilation of the individual, the subjugation of women, the resistance of competing ideas—all these startling facets of this movement are conventional aspects of fundamentalism of any kind, anywhere. (239)

The Disciple Generation is caught up in “a triumvirate of emotion, politics, and anti-intellectualism” (240). “Fundamentalism offers a snake-oil cure for their ills, promising the tight community groups of churches, the steadfast solidarity of activist groups, and most of all, the deep certainty of biblical inerrancy” (240). (I think I have heard this all before from Lauren’s atheistic forefathers.) Since the country is in a “morass of fundamentalism” (9), she delivers on the last page her clarion manifesto: “It is time for our own secular Great Awakening” (247).

I sincerely feel sorry for her. She does not have the voice of George Whitefield. She does not even come close to the intellectual brilliance of Jonathan Edwards (think of what he wrote as a late teenager). But most of all, she is relying on her own ability to communicate to the masses of America—which is the biggest, blinding contrast to either one of these godly men. I hope her misguided, opiate bubble pops now rather than later. Her last words in the book, “This need not be our own end of days; we must rebuild our broken homes with bricks of reason, under a roof of agape, and upon a foundation of enlightenment rock-hard enough to withstand the flood to come,” make me really question something. How much has Lauren studied beyond the history of the sixties? She seems to carry rose-tinted glasses for the “Love Generation” of the Haight-Ashbury District.

My Closing Thought

For those still lingering in the foyer, I offer a closing thought. Lauren has missed a constituency of young fundamentalists in her book by not tapping into the Internet. If today’s Generation Y, Echo Boomers, millennials, or whatever you might call them are the most tech-adept generation yet, I would be interested in the movements being created on the Internet by The Disciple Generation, ages 15 to 35, which probably are encroaching into the “intellectual,” Internet world view of Mrs. Lauren Sandler. By the way, at age 30, this is her first book, and she is far from demure in her approach.

Todd Wood is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He received his B.A. in Missions, M.A. in Theology, and M.Div. from Bob Jones University. But more than anything he hungers for the A.I.G. degree affixed to Apelles (Rom. 16:10).

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