Understanding Fundamentalism And Evangelicalism, by George M. Marsden
It was not until getting to near the end of this book that I really appreciated it. As someone who is on the outskirts of both fundamentalist and evangelical culture, largely through my biblicist worldview and devouring of books by publishers who appeal to various holiness and evangelical audiences, while maintaining a strong denominational loyalty at the same time which has an ambivalent relationship with both of these traditions, I am not sure to consider myself an outsider or an insider to these particular traditions. And I wondered the same about the author as well, seeing it generally problematic for people to write books as outsiders, since, as the author points out, a great deal of oversimplifying and misrepresenting goes on when this is done. At the end, though, I realized that while the author might consider himself somewhat of an outsider, he is by no means a hostile one and he shares a generally serious conservatism when it comes to Christianity, even if he may not identify as a fundamentalist or evangelical. And that realization made it possible to appreciate this book and its nuanced approach a lot more. All outsider traditions, if viewed by outsiders, should have such a sympathetic portrayal as this one.
This book consists of seven essays that total about 200 pages or so of material. After an introduction that seeks to define the terms fundamentalism and evangelicalism, the first two essays provide a historical overview of fundamentalism first during the Protestant crisis of 1870-1930 (1), and then after 1930 in its unity and diversity (2). After this comes five interpretive essays that look at the tradition of evangelical political (3), the paradoxes within fundamentalist thought and politics (4), the evangelical love affair with the Scottish Enlightenment and commonsense empirical science (5), the question of why it is that fundamentalists focus so much on creation science (6), and a sympathetic but honest portrayal of J. Gresham Machen (7). Throughout these essays the author examines the cultural impact of the Civil War, the way that some outsiders were more sensitive to various social trends than those in the Northern WASP elite, and the way that a great deal of contemporary evolutionary thought acts like a universal religious myth that is amenable to harsh treatment from those who have different worldviews. And since the author is polite to the desire of Fundamentalism to avoid ambiguity while also subtly pointing out that this is not the biblical worldview, this makes for enjoyable and nuanced reading.
Ultimately, the author sees in Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism a complex approach to knowledge that seeks to remain true to the Bible and also to live in a way that reduces ambiguity. The lack of postmillennial optimism that one finds in these movements at present (other than, say, the Calvinist Reconstructionists and Theonomists) tends to be associated with a distinct lack of a social program to deal with various ills that one would find in various social gospel views. And this is certainly easy to understand. If one has the belief that the establishment of God’s kingdom will require the direct involvement of Jesus Christ in a rebellious world and that those who are genuinely faithful to Him and to His ways are a minority population within a hostile and corrupt culture, one is not going to see very much point in engaging in political efforts that involve compromise and that will not lead to genuine cultural revival. In such a viewpoint few people, except those who stubbornly wish to apply biblical law to contemporary realities as an ideal or a future reality, will even be interested in aspects of social justice that would require an openly acknowledged covenantal relationship between God and a society, something that does not exist at present within the United States.