Book Review: How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative

The opinions and views set forth in this blog post are entirely mine. If there is a serious argument with the author of the book,  I will attempt to address it in a fair, sympathetic, and yet truthful manner. You are welcome to comment on the book review but be sure to do so in the same fair, sympathetic, and truthful manner espoused by my review. Please avoid personal comments, gossip, and slander as they have no place on my blog. Thank you and enjoy the review!

How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative

by Roger Olson

Zondervan Publishing


There were reasons that I, a moderate Baptist-leaning Christian, wanted to attend Truett Seminary at Baylor; it is a school that has a mixture of theological traditions and that encourages rigorous study and reflection on the biblical text. While I do not necessarily agree with all of the ideas that come from the less conservative side of Christianity, I do appreciate the willingness to consider and discuss what Scripture teaches on matters that affect Christians in the United States. Let me also say that too many times believers assume that we should back conservative (normally Republican) candidates because they use our vocabulary and speak our language; we are reticent to rethink our association with such political backers because the vision of Puritan, Christian America still dominates the imaginations of some of our leaders. I think Martin Luther said it best though when he said that he would rather have a competent Turk (a heathen, a Muslim for his era) than an incompetent Christian magistrate; perhaps, we ought to reconsider his words.

Moving on to the layout of the book, How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative is arranged into an introduction of the term “evangelical” and twelve polemical chapters dealing with the subjects of dogma, moralism, nationalism, doubt and certainty, biblical literalism, secularism, culture transformation, wealth redistribution, updating non-essential theology, contextualizing worship, creating safe acceptance for sinners, and gender inequality. While he does at times blend some of the ideas together, the book pretty much keeps to this structure. One aspect that I particularly enjoyed was that Olson was a scholar without being scholarly; he went out of his way to repeat his definition of evangelical in almost every chapter. If Olson was seeking to have the average Christian read his work, he succeeded by making the work engaging, thought provoking, but yet relevant and readable.

Olson’s stated purpose was to show the reader how we can be “post-conservative Evangelicals” and he does this by trying to realign the reader around five (he adds the fifth one and borrows the other four) essentials to being an evangelical: 1) biblicism (or Scripture as authoritative and trustworthy), 2) conversion (the need for a personal repentance and following of Jesus Christ), 3) crucicentrism (making the death of Jesus the center of the Christian life and practice), 4) activism (use of evangelism and social action to bring societal transformation), and 5) a respect for the tradition of the Church (Patristic Fathers, Roman Catholic theologians, Reformers, etc.). I think he does a better job of sticking to this purpose toward the beginning of the book and then veers a little from it toward the end (the last chapter does not live up to rest of the work). Olson’s analysis of each subject addresses normally one or two of these essentials, but very rarely does he demonstrate how each argument would conform to the five essentials of being an evangelical.

Now the content of How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative is better toward the front than the back (even though the back content does give one food for thought). I found myself agreeing with Olson…a lot; the chapters that particularly resonated were the one’s that dealt with the dangers of mixing being an Evangelical with being an American to the point you cannot distinguish the two. I also benefited from the chapter on certainty and admired how honest Olson was about how much a search for absolute certainty damages our ability to trust God by faith. There is nothing, not even science, that is absolutely certain; why do we act and live like we need to be 100% sure all of the time? In the Christian life there will always be times of great faith and great doubt. I also appreciated Olson’s discussion about biblical literalism and how we tend to place too much value on the historical merits of Scripture (or the scientific merits) rather than to focus on the what Scripture could teach us universally without our added filters. A lot of the debate over inerrancy in our day is men acting out of fear and the need for certainty rather than an honest look at what Scripture actually teaches and how our trust need to not be in our own interpretations on minor doctrines of Scripture. Olson’s chapter on wealth redistribution was insightful, but he needed to do a little bit more explaining; he came off as an enemy of capitalism in any form, which I do not think won him any ears in that debate. His chapter on gender inequality, while sincere and passionate, was weak on evidence and heavy on what he felt and experienced; there are good arguments (from Scripture) for gender equality and mutual submission…but Olson did not use any of them. Though sometimes polemical, Olson’s perspectives are refreshing and challenging, making How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative well worth the read.

Olson’s passion about being an evangelical is evident throughout his work, as is his passion to distant himself from the conservative camp. Toward the beginning of the work, the rhetorical and writing style was much more subdued and understanding, which is surprising considering those were some of the most controversial topics in the book. However, the passion becomes really amped up as the book nears its close; you can almost see Olson in a pulpit pleading for a new way to be evangelical. It is as if Olson became more and more angry or passionate as he was writing the work until he focused more on his personal experience than his biblical proof. Olson is not funny and his writing is not out of this world, but he writes like he understands a moderate Christian’s struggle to be evangelical and that pays off big time.

Is the work unique or original? I would not say so, but the perspective is a unique. It is common to find in bookstores authors that write for extreme audiences; John MacArthur is writing to defend absolute literal truth while Rob Bell is repeating Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Very rarely do you find authors who understand both and extremes and try to flesh out the mess of our certainty and skepticism. While not perfect and not unbiased, Olson does a good job of keeping a middle, biblical perspective about most of the issues he is discussing. Olson has no interests in evangelicals becoming chameleons in society, neither does he care to be among those who want to subjugate society to evangelicals; Olson wants us to be faithful in our witness no matter where we are at; I respect that message in the face of the shrill extremes.

Would I read it again? Yes, of course. There are some sections that I think make great arguments and reference points; there are other sections that are much weaker and based more on subjective opinions than biblical faithfulness and scholarship. However, the work was incredibly readable and I found myself identifying with Olson’s struggle to be evangelical and yet to distance myself from the label “conservative” (that is a lot more Social Darwinism than many people would like to admit). Want to work through how to be an evangelical and not a conservative Republican, a moralist, or a nationalist zealot? How to be Evangelical Without Being Conservative is a great place to begin your quest.


Rating System:

1 Star – Don’t waste your money.

2 Star– Only get it if it is on sale.

3 Star – Think about buying it.

4 Star – Save up and purchase it.

5 Star – You MUST have it, TODAY.