Christine Wicker's new book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, began with a return to her evangelical roots that didn't turn out anything like she expected it would. She set out to write a book lauding the modern evangelical megachurch. And, in fact, had written that book, when she realized that she had missed the most exciting story in the evangelical world.
While megachurches do appear to be flourishing, American evangelicals are not. How did she find that out? Evangelicals told her. Again. Again. Again. Finally, she began to hear them.
Once Christine began researching membership, belief and practice in earnest, she found one study after another showing that America has been completely duped.
For more than 30 years, Americans have believed in that the Religious Right was supported by a huge, single-minded, committed group of evangelical voters that was increasing at a great rate. And making great gains for their causes.
That idea has shaped Americans' perceptions of themselves and the world's perceptions of America.
But it isn't true. And never was. Evangelical statistics and studies themselves are the main evidence.
In the second half of the book, Christine shows why That Old-Time Religion won't be coming back. It is being attacked inside and outside the church by forces that traditional evangelical faith is unable and unwilling to deal with.
Evangelical faith is a subject that cuts close to the bone for her. Christine's mother's grandfather was an itinerant Baptist preacher. Her dad's father was a Kentucky coal miner and a foot-washing Baptist. Southern Baptists and Pentecostals have dominated her family for at least six generations.
She is the first journalist among them. Upon hearing of her profession, her Oklahoma grandmother comforted her by saying, "That's all right. Just tell people you're a waitress."
During her 17 years at The Dallas Morning News, she was a feature writer, columnist and religion reporter. Her work took her from demonstrations in Nairobi to peace communes in Belfast. She slept in Mexican chicken shacks, trailed homeless people through Dallas alleys and tracked down East Germans who had worked for the Communist secret police. She covered Lady Diana's funeral in England and Pope John II's historic visit to Cuba.
The Fall of the Evangelical Nation is her second book about Christian faith. Her first was a spiritual autobiography, God Knows My Heart. In it, she tells of trying to leave fundamentalism, a way of faith that one practitioner tells her can never be completely rooted out. In this book, she is sometimes an apostate. Sometimes a believer. Sometimes a wannabe. Often a don't-wannabe.
As a reporter of religion, testing and questioning, she searches the experiences of others trying to know what is true and useful, not only to them but to her. Her story in God Knows My Heart echoes the lives of many people whose only hope for faith in these post-modern times seems to rest in their own efforts. Pretty much alone, they struggle, trying to piece together some kind of faith that might allow them to believe.
Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead came out of a newspaper story Christine had written about Lily Dale, a 125-year-old community of Spiritualists in Western New York. People there believe they can prove existence of the afterlife by bringing messages from the dead, or as the residents of Lily Dale would prefer, "messages from those who have merely passed to another plane of existence." In the book, Christine takes mediumship lessons and learns to give messages herself.
Her next book, Not in Kansas Anymore: The Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America, Christine shows how and why so many Americans are using ancient magical ideas in their everyday lives, most without ever realizing that they do.
Evangelicals figure in that book too. In the last 25 years, they have done more to revive those ancient magical ideas than perhaps any other group in the country.
Christine's current project, founding "The L.A. "What is God?" literary festival," grew out of her wide-ranging spiritual research. Working with the University of Southern California and the Levin Institute for Ethics and Humanities, she hopes to begin a national conversation on current American ideas about divinity, spirituality, morality, ethics and right-living.
The aim of the festival will be to involve a diverse audience of readers with fiction authors who deal with these topics. Eventually the "What is God?" project will travel to various cities helping form local book clubs that discuss literature and art in light of spiritual practice, especially private practices that aren't represented by institutions. One of the goals of the project will be to create new language that can help Americans express how they decide what's right and wrong.