One Jew’s new view of the evangelicals
Sidebar Excerpt: Non-converts will burn
ORLANDO, Fla. Mark Pinsky’s latest book, A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed, begins with a question “So, what’s a nice Jewish boy from Jersey doing in the front pew of the First Baptist Church of Orlando?”
What follows in 149 engaging and often engrossing pages is Pinsky’s answer: a personal account of his experiences as a stranger in the strange land of evangelical Christianity while working the religion beat for the Orlando Sentinel. Publisher’s Weekly recently recognized the book as one of the year’s 10 best on religion.
Long interested in the intersection of popular culture and religion, Pinsky previously authored the best-selling The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of America’s Most Animated Family and The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.
In A Jew Among the Evangelicals, he turns his attention to evangelical families and leaders from across Florida’s religious landscape Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, charismatic Catholics, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. He explores diversity and dynamism among evangelicals, the relationship between popular culture and the evangelical movement, and the double-edged nature of Christian Zionists’ support for Israel. And he touches on some very touchy subjects coercive proselytizing at the United States Air Force Academy; the subtext of anti-Semitism in the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of Disney; and the mixed messages of Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park, an evangelical extravaganza established by a former Jew named Marvin Rosenthal.
The 59-year-old Pinsky, who grew up in Pennsauken, brings to his subject the sensibilities of a strong Jewish background, including teen leadership in United Synagogue Youth and a deeply formative sojourn as a civilian volunteer with the Israeli army in the Sinai in 1967.
He has been plying his trade as a journalist since his years at Duke University, where he wrote a column called “The Readable Radical.” A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Pinsky spent a number of years as a freelance writer before joining the staff of the Los Angeles Times in 1985. Ten years later, he signed on with the Sentinel and found himself at the epicenter of evangelical Christianity. America has an estimated 50 million evangelicals Christians who feel themselves driven to spread the gospel of Jesus and there are two hotbeds of American evangelical Christianity, Pinsky soon discovered: Colorado Springs and Orlando.
“When I was in Orange County, Calif., evangelicals were part of the religious landscape,” Pinsky said during a recent interview in the Sentinel offices. “When I came here, they were the religious landscape. It was like being thrown into the sea.” As he writes in A Jew Among the Evangelicals, “For the first time in my life, I was living in a sea of actively believing Christians, and the cold shock felt like total immersion. Evangelicals were no longer caricatures or abstractions.”
What was most helpful in recovering from that shock, Pinsky said, was what he learned about evangelicals outside the confines of his work. “They were my friends and neighbors,” he said. “I met them at the PTA. I met them at Scouts. Our family doctor was an evangelical. I met them on the sidelines of soccer games. This was different. I wasn’t the reporter and, in that context, I began seeing them as people.”
More committed Jew
Pinsky began to recognize evangelicals’ diversity on such issues as environmentalism, war, gun control, and school prayer. Some opposed the death penalty; some were Democrats. “I was unprepared for this,” he said. “Like most Blue State people, I saw them as monolithic. They weren’t.
“What I found was they weren’t all that different from the people I grew up with,” he said. “Are there big differences? Absolutely: Abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research. Big differences. But the core values aren’t that different.”
Armed with that insight, Pinsky began writing more nuanced stories that reflected the diversity of the evangelical community. He wrote “Among the Evangelicals: How One Reporter Got Religion,” a long piece published by the Columbia Journalism Review, and began speaking about the subject to both Jewish and Christian groups. His publisher, the Westminster John Knox Press, invited him to expand the article into a book.
“It’s a mixture of memoir and reportage,” Pinsky said. “There are so many books on evangelicals. I offer the perspective of a left-wing Jew who is in many ways sympathetic to evangelicals without agreeing with them. They’re good people. They don’t all have torches and pitchforks. They don’t scrape their knuckles when they walk. They’re good, decent people principled people, loyal people, altruistic people.”
Asked to assess the personal impact of a professional life that often lands him in that aforementioned church pew, Pinsky responded without hesitation. “It’s made me a more committed Jew,” he said. “I suppose I see what others have to offer and I’m not tempted in any way.”
Pinsky attends Orlando’s Congregation of Reform Judaism with his wife, photographer Sarah Brown, a recent convert to Judaism, and their children, Asher, 19, and Liza, 16.
Some Jews in the South intermarry and drift away, Pinsky observed. Others reinforce their faith. They become synagogue members, join Jewish community centers, and observe the holidays. “Our synagogue is generally full,” he said. “I find that people, when they’re in the minority, sort of fortify themselves with their faith, and I’ve done that.”
Pinsky’s next project is an expanded edition of The Gospel According to the Simpsons, exploring religious themes in other animated television shows, including South Park, American Dad, Futurama, and King of the Hill.
“I’m hoping the book will give me a teaching credential,” he said. “I’d really like to move from daily newspaper work to teaching and book writing.”
As a first step in that direction, Pinsky will teach a course during the spring semester at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. The subject? “Kasha and CornBREAD: The Jewish Experience in the American South."
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