Picking up the Pieces: Can Evangelicals Adapt to Contemporary Culture?

Written by David Hilborn Reviewed By Chris Sinkinson

Hilborn has undertaken an urgent task for contemporary evangelicals. He has sought to chart, through extensive interviews and reading, the impact of cultural change upon evangelicals. The primary attention of the book is on the situation in the United Kingdom and so Hilborn deals extensively with such leaders as David Tomlinson and Clive Calver along with events like Greenbelt and the Sheffield Nine O’clock Service.

Written in an engaging style the result is a book that provides an impressionistic snapshot of evangelicalism today. The views of evangelical leaders are compiled primarily from Hilborn’s personal conversations and anecdotes. The first half of the book deals with the meaning of postmodernity and the challenge it presents to evangelicals. The second half is rather warmer to postmodernism and outlines the positive developments of evangelicalism in areas such as worship and social action. The methodology of this approach is somewhat dissatisfying. The views of significant leaders are brought in for some subjects but not for others. Hilborn does not justify his selection of some movements or events and exclusion of others: for example, there are a number of references to the work of Greenbelt but little mention of UCCF, IFES or any other student Christian grouping. Given the impact of postmodernity in higher education one might expect a consideration of the response made by an evangelical student movement.

In a final chapter on theology and doctrine Hilborn makes the simple (but important) point that doctrine is more than propositional truth. Though it cannot be less than this, it must be more than the bare statement of abstract propositions. It is unclear to me who would disagree with this point. Certainly, none of those interviewed and nor the literature of evangelicals Hilborn surveys give this impression. Presumably, the group he has in mind are the ‘conservative evangelicals’ by which he means UCCF, the Proclamation Trust and the Banner of Truth who he equates with Enlightenment Rationalism (66). However, no evidence is given in his work that any of these groups restrict doctrine to mere propositional truth and deny the relational, doxological and political dimensions of those truths.

Hilborn closes his work with a kind of charter for postmodern evangelicalism. This is essentially a push for a certain kind of evangelicalism that does not adopt the radical stance of Tomlinson’s ‘post-evangelicalism’ but is less culturally conservative than classical evangelicalism. However, a conservative view of culture was never a defining part of evangelicalism and so it remains unclear what, exactly, Hilborn is rejecting. He offers such ambivalent statements as ‘postmodern evangelicals will be less concerned with the formal inerrancy of Scripture than with its functional authority’ (285). The meaning of ‘less concerned’ is not given. If he means that the practical authority of Scripture is more important than mere intellectual assent to the reliability of scripture then we must again ask who would disagree with this point? Another statement describes postmodern evangelicals as those who ‘accept that God can act in a supernatural way today’ which, again, is not something characteristically denied by classical evangelicals. However, Hilborn continues that they will ‘thus be open to the full range of charismata’ (285). No reason is given anywhere for his assumption that belief in God acting today implies belief in the continuing availability of the full range of charismata from prophecy to apostolic office.

Evangelicals do have a massive cultural task before them and Hilborn does a service to the church by cataloguing the views and ideas he has done. The book is written in an accessible style with attention to the devotional implications of theology. However, the untidy methodology and authorial agenda weaken its scholarly usefulness.

Chris Sinkinson

Moorlands College, Christchurch