Is Jesus Your Personal Saviour? In Search of Canadian Evangelicalism in the 1990s,by George A. Rawlyk (McGill-Queen's University Press, 239 pp.; $19.95, paper). Reviewed by Preston Jones, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Ottawa (Canada).
Judging this book by its cover, one might conclude that there are no evangelicals to be found in Canada these days. For the spirit-filled congregation pictured there, clad in garments from some inscrutably remote epoch—probably the early 1970s—is clearly not of this decade. Just a blooper, one might think: amusing but insignificant. But this peculiar incongruity betwixt cover and title is in fact a portent.
This is not to say that the book under review, the last one that Rawlyk penned before his untimely death in the fall of 1995 (an edited work is forthcoming), is without value. Of particular interest are the tables, graphs, and accompanying commentary on the results of surveys of Canadian religious belief conducted in 1993 and 1994.
The primary survey discussed here was commissioned by Rawlyk and conducted as part of the monthly national Angus Reid Poll in 1993. Between January and April of that year, 6,014 Canadians were asked to strongly/moderately agree or strongly/moderately disagree with statements such as "My religious faith is very important to me in my day-to-day life," and "God the Father is very important in my life." In chapter 3 ("A Nation of Believers?") we read that 60 percent of Canadians believe that God looks out for them "personally"; two-thirds think religion is important in their daily lives; 50 percent believe Jesus was the divine Son of God; and so on. Based on responses to questions concerned with opinion on the Bible, eternal salvation, and other defining doctrines, Rawlyk concludes that some 16 percent of the Canadian population can be called evangelical.
For Rawlyk, the results of the survey—which prompted Maclean's magazine to declare "GOD IS ALIVE—Canada is a nation of believers" on its April 12, 1993, cover—indicates that "any funeral planned for Canadian Christianity or for Canadian evangelicalism is premature." All this is well worth reading, though what such statistics really mean is open to question. How seriously should professions of "personal" faith be taken when most religiously informed discourse is anathema in Canadian public life? True, one might publicly praise a trendy New Age goddess on any Canadian university campus and fear no sanctions. But orthodox Christianity—what little of it ever finds its way into the public sphere—is decidedly unwelcome.
Whatever the case, publishing these details was not Rawlyk's real aim. More than anything else, this book is an exercise in a form of Canadian nationalism—that is, anti-Americanism. Rawlyk's stated goals are two: First, to determine the "quintessential nature" of Canadian evangelicalism; second, to distinguish Canadian evangelicalism from the "extreme" evangelicalism of the American South.
Rawlyk's first object is admirable. Unfortunately, the wide range of opinions expressed by the very evangelicals he interviews suggests that it was misguided. Just as Oklahoman Southern Baptists differ from snake-handling Pentecostals, Bikers for Jesus, and evangelical Catholics, so do Vancouver's Christian punk rockers differ from Bible-believing Manitoban Anglicans and Quebec nationalists who pass out gospel tracts in downtown Montreal. It is well and good to denote general beliefs most evangelicals share, and Rawlyk does so. But nothing especially "Canadian"—and certainly nothing "quintessentially" Canadian—emerges from these pages.
If Rawlyk's failure to meet or revise his first goal is unfortunate, the way he goes about arguing his second is downright disturbing. The bulk of this book was written during the 1994-95 academic year when Rawlyk was a scholar-in-residence at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He was initially quite pleased to be heading into the "heartland of the American Bible Belt," since that would allow him to gain greater insights into evangelicalism in North America. The thrill quickly dissipated, however. In his introduction, Rawlyk spells out his take on Southern fundamentalism. It "repelled," "discouraged, depressed, and profoundly alienated" him. As time went on, he grew furious with the "entire Southern evangelical world."
And so Rawlyk contrasts his "quintessential" Canadian evangelical with a few crass American preachers (pretending they represent the sum of Southern evangelicalism), concluding predictably that Canadian evangelicals are more "irenic" than their American counterparts. Thus we are treated to the latest manifestation of that perennial urge among Canadian writers to argue for their country's moral superiority over the United States.
American readers shouldn't let themselves off the hook too easily, though. Rawlyk—an influential historian whose work is not best represented by this oddly skewed book—was hardly alone in slipping into caricature.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.