Last year, I began a series reviewing academic perspectives on evangelical Christians, beginning with James Bieloâ€™s Words Upon the Word and T.M. Luhrmannâ€™s When God Talks Back. Iâ€™m picking up this series again with Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches by Queens College anthropologist Omri Elisha.
Elishaâ€™s work came highly recommended by two trusted sources. First, friend-of-ESN and occasional guest blogger Kevin Birth suggested I review Moral Ambition when I asked for suggestions last year. Then, at Urbana, my InterVarsity colleague Julian Reese commended Elisha for his insight into evangelicalism. Julian heard Elisha speak at the University of Tennessee in 2011 and had been impressed by his take on evangelical Christianity â€” which is especially notable because the subject of Moral Ambition is two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville, home of UT. If Julian thought that Elisha had gottent the religious climate right about his hometown, then this needed to be the next book I review. So far, having read three of the bookâ€™s seven chapters, Iâ€™m finding Kevinâ€™s and Julianâ€™s recommendations to be well-deserved. Moral Ambition is an insightful portrait of evangelical Christianity.
Like Words Upon the Word and When God Talks Back, Moral Ambition is an ethnography of specific groups of evangelical Christians, focusing on one particular aspect of the religious experience. Where Bielo looked at Bible study groups in Lansing, Michigan, and Luhrmann at the experience of â€œhearingâ€ God among Vineyard Christians, Elisha examines social outreach in two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville.
Evangelical Activism and Social Outreach
Central to Elishaâ€™s book is the concept of moral ambition, which he uses to describe the evangelical social outreach that both responds to evangelical beliefs and seeks to inspire those beliefs in others:
â€¦as socially engaged evangelicals work to attain religious virtues associated with grace and compassion, they simultaneously work to inspire others to adopt the appropriate moral dispositions necessary to enhance volunteer mobilization. (2)
By â€œsocial outreach,â€ Elisha specifically means work done for the good of the community beyond the church, especially among the poor, dispossessed, and alienated members of society, distinct from the care provided to members of the church or outwardly focused evangelism. As anyone who has been involved with these types of efforts at evangelical churches know, they occupy a complex place within the church. As he does with many other areas of evangelical life, Elisha captures the complexity and tensions well: [Read more…] about Omri Elisha: The Moral Ambition of Evangelical Christians