Book Review: Fundamentalism And American Culture

Fundamentalism And American Culture, by George M. Marsden

I do not believe there is a large market for a book like this one.  That is not to say in any way that this book is not good.  It is, in fact, a great book, a book that demonstrates both the author’s ambivalent thinking towards American fundamentalism as well as the author’s clear mastery of relevant sources (which is demonstrated subtly in the entertaining graphics from various fundamentalist press, especially “The King’s Business,” that are sprinkled throughout this volume).  Yet it is the sort of great book that it is not always easy to appreciate for a variety of reasons.  For one, the author writes in a highly technical fashion that demonstrates him as a scholar of religion but not one who (in this case) is aiming at a wide audience.  Likewise, the author’s ambivalence towards fundamentalism will likely alienate both fundamentalists who might see the author as being too liberal in mindset as well as those who, unlike the author, think there is no need to take it seriously as a religious approach or to understand its history and its cultural power.  Likely, this book will only appeal to those whose sentiments and position with regards to fundamentalism are somewhat ambivalent or ambiguous, as it the case with me.

This book is, for one thing, a bit complicated.  The author begins with a short introduction and then moves into the first part, discussing America before fundamentalism (I), with chapters on the state of Evangelical Christianity on the brink of crisis (1), the divergence between liberal and evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity (2), and the role of D.L. Moody in forming a New American evangelism (3).  After this the author spends quite a few chapters examining the forming of an evangelical coalition (II) including subparts on the relationship between this age and the millennium, with four chapters on the paradox of revivalist fundamentalism (4), two revisions of millennialism (5), the relationship between dispensationalism and the Baconian ideal (6), and the relationship of history, society and the church (7).  After this there are four chapters on holiness (8-11), three more on the defense of the faith among Northern Baptists (12), Presbyterians (13), and the Fundamentals (14), and a chapter that gives four views of Christianity and culture from around 1910 (15).  At this point we look at the crucial period between 1917 and 1925 in the establishment of fundamentalism (III), with chapters on World War I (16), the cultural crisis that followed (17), the fundamentalist offensive (18) and unsuccessful efforts to drive liberals from various denominations (19), and the breaking apart as fundamentalists left liberalizing churches (20), along with a period of quiet resurgence from 1925 to 1940 (21).  The author then moves on to four interpretations of fundamentalism (IV) as a social (22), political (23), intellectual (24), and American (25) phenomenon before closing with a look at fundamentalism yesterday and today (V) and a discussion of the issue of history and fundamentalism in an afterword.

One almost has to be an intellectual to appreciate this book, but an intellectual with at least some respect for fundamentalism.  The author seems to be of two minds when looking at this phenomenon.  For one, he has a respect for the commitment of fundamentalists for the truths of the Gospel, though he distinguishes between the sort of propositional truth that fundamentalists sought with the truth in relationships that the Bible speaks of.  Likewise, the author points out that the sort of historical view that was compatible with or associated with liberalism and especially with evolutionary thinking was one that was completely foreign and alien to the Fundamentalists, but also one that has a lot of serious problems with it.  One can be an intellectual while still appreciating simple truths, but this book asks something of its writers in seeking to understand a movement that is often (falsely) accused of being hostile to intellect and reason without contempt, and that is no easy task, but a worthy one.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Fundamentalism And American Culture

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I really liked his biography about Jonathan Edwards. He got an award for that, I think. I also heard him speak over a decade ago. His comments were all right.

    • I haven’t read his biography about Jonathan Edwards, largely because it wasn’t in my library and I wasn’t offered the chance to review it by his publisher, but given what I have read of his, I think it would be a good book.

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