The Evangelical Experience is a book with two agendas. One is easily identified. The other is harder to discern, perhaps even for the author himself.
The more obvious of the two purposes behind this book is the intent to provide insight for non-Evangelical Christians into the traditions, customs, beliefs, ethics, leadership, and practices of the Christian movement. This goal is accomplished with astonishing thoroughness considering the brief length of the overall manuscript. Coleman begins by first defining “Evangelical Christians” in today’s world, and then continues to outline the core beliefs concerning the faith’s fundamental tenets, such as the divinity of Jesus, salvation, and the authority of the Bible.
After these primary points are explained, more difficult and detailed topics concerning the finer points of the Christian faith are clarified. Theological diversity, common ethics, and Evangelical leadership in the Protestant movement are covered in this section. Finally, Coleman details the struggles experienced by members of the Evangelical community, including a detailed account of his own acceptance of, growth in, disillusionment with, and break from the Evangelical faith.
This brings us to the second, much more ambiguous purpose of The Evangelical Experience. I believe that even Coleman does not know what he intended it to be. Though he has rejected the Evangelical faith, he portrays Evangelical Christianity in an unbiased, largely positive light. Denunciations and bitterness do not make an appearance. I’ve come to the conclusion that Coleman wrote this book as much to give an explanation for his decision as anything else.
As far as the writing is concerned, Coleman knows what he’s doing. His meaning is clear, his writing is educated, and his message shows extensive preparatory thought, though he occasionally presents opinion as if it were fact. This book is also focused on a specific niche, and is not necessarily for the unprepared reader. It deals with a lot of deep topics and engages in some heavy philosophical and theological discussions/debates/diction. For instance, issues like biblical inerrancy, predestination, eschatology (the study of End Times), and C.S. Lewis’ theory on universal morality are all given consideration. Readers who have not extensively studied philosophy, history, and theology may find large portions of this text confusing.
In many ways, The Evangelical Experience is as much a book of courage and tragedy as it is an informative exposé of Evangelical doctrine. Coleman’s writings on his experiences are poignant, thoughtful, and completely serious. This is as sincere as a person can get about religion. As an Evangelical Christian myself, I find his fall from the faith as a great tragedy, but I also see him as a man of extraordinary courage. It takes bravery to renounce the beliefs that define us. Clearly, he is an individual who is not content with a halfhearted lifestyle, and his decision puts many Christians to shame who would rather languish in beliefs to which they feel no need to commit fully. Revelations 3:15-16 says: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Coleman has opted to reject what he considers lukewarm faith in himself, and I hold much greater respect for that decision than for a life of indifferent apathy inside the Christian community.
To summarize, this is a deep look at one of the world’s largest religious movements, and it accomplishes its goal to inform. The Evangelical Experience manages to provoke introspection while remaining unbiased. I do not know that I have ever described a nonfiction book as being heartbreaking or brave, but somehow Coleman’s book manages to be both educational and emotional.