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Briefly Reviewed: June 1986

Evangelicalism and Modern America

By Edited by George Marsden

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 220

Price: No price given

Review Author: Carl R. Schmahl

This collection of essays charts the rise of evangelicalism in America from its origin as a fringe movement of conservative Christian separatists to its pres­ent position near the “vital cen­ter” of American religious life. The contributors examine evan­gelicalism from a wide variety of perspectives and conclude that it has supplanted the older main­line denominations as the “pri­mary carrier of affirmations for an American culture otherwise in disarray.”

According to Leonard I. Sweet in his essay “The 1960s: The Crises of Liberal Christian­ity and the Public Emergence of Evangelicalism,” evangelicalism’s recent successes grew out of the collapse of the mainline liberal Protestant churches in the 1960s. During that time American cul­ture brimmed over with opti­mism and the feeling that some­thing new was abroad in the land. The election of John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever to become President of the Unit­ed States, symbolized what Sweet calls a “millennial move­ment of tremendous force” dedi­cated to eliminating “selfishness, hatred, injustice, and entrenched authority.” Genuflecting to the spirit of the times, mainline the­ologians and churches sought to immanentize the eschaton by us­ing all the modern instruments the culture could provide, includ­ing “social activism, technology, science, the arts and the Demo­cratic party.” Convinced that the modern mind was no longer open to conventional religious lan­guage or symbols, progressive clergymen turned away from tra­ditional Christian beliefs and practices and looked to the pre­vailing cultural authorities for guidance. The results were disas­trous, for when the inevitable collapse occurred, the mainline churches were swept up in the wreckage of “broken dreams, worn-out emotions, shattered in­stitutions, fragmented selves, and failed communes,” leaving a vac­uum at the vital center of Ameri­can religious life which the evan­gelicals were swift to fill.

Sweet believes the evangelicals have been so successful in recent years because they offer people authority and a sense of identity which the now marginal churches of the mainline cannot match. Evangelicalism’s “sense of absolute truths, moral standards, and evangelistic passion proved attractive to a culture adrift in the shallows of uncertainty, rela­tivity, and boredom.”

Yet all is not well in Zion. Not only is the word “evangeli­cal” notoriously slippery, but evangelicals themselves are far from united on such vital issues as the proper Christian under­standing of h story and the na­ture of biblical authority. George Marsden’s contribution to this volume, “Evangelicals, History and Modernity,” describes how evangelicals are constantly pulled by two conflicting world views: the dispensationalist belief that “God is entirely in control of his­tory, and we can do little more than believe, preach the gospel, shun evil and wait for God to act”; and “the covenantal, or Christian-America view” that since America is God’s chosen nation “it is important to be constantly measuring the spiritual health of the nation.” Marsden finds both positions unsatisfacto­ry and formulates an alternate reading of history based on the reality of the Incarnation, which seems entirely satisfactory to this reviewer, but will probably not convince many dispensationalists or those who see America as God’s new Israel.

Although well-meaning evangelicals may differ on their interpretations of history, surely they are united in their approach to the Bible? After all, evangeli­cals have long been distinguished by the Reformed principle of so­la scriptura and the zeal with which they search the Scriptures for answers to every problem. Unfortunately it is not so. Mark A. Noll writes in “Evangelicals and the Study of the Bible” that even though evangelical scholars are distinguished by “superb aca­demic qualifications” and have produced a “tremendously di­verse literature on Scripture” in recent years, serious problems re­main. A quote by Robert K. Johnston indicates the dilemma: “That evangelicals, all claiming a common Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theologi­cal formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To ar­gue that the Bible is authorita­tive, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commit­ment), is self-defeating.”

The contributors to this book write with clear-eyed hon­esty on such subjects as evangeli­cal publishing and broadcasting, the search for women’s role in American evangelicalism, and the dilemma of evangelical scientists. They have shed much of the ob­scurantism that marked the fun­damentalism and evangelicalism of the past and are unafraid to face the many problems that threaten the tenuous unity of the movement. Whether evangelical­ism has indeed occupied the “vi­tal center” of religious life in America is another question. This reviewer suspects not; at least for now the movement car­ries with it too much baggage from its insular past for it to as­sume a position of leadership to anyone beyond its own flock. Be that as it may, this is a uniformly well-written book whose essays inspire thought and shed much light on a vital spiritual and intel­lectual force in American reli­gious life.

Blood Brothers: A Palestinian Struggles for Reconciliation in the Middle East

By Elias Chacour with David Hazard

Publisher: Chosen Books (Zondervan)

Pages: 224

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Stuart Gudowitz

Blood Brothers is mainly a story about the triumphant workings of divine grace in the heart of Elias Chacour, a Melkite-rite Catholic, a Palestinian, and a priest. When a young boy, Jewish soldiers deviously and forcibly evicted the inhabitants of his vil­lage. The villagers, including his father, never recovered their land. Faced with such injustice at such a very young age, Fr. Cha­cour had to struggle with the temptation, both natural and Sa­tanic, to hatred.

In this struggle, he had two powerful allies. One was the ex­ample of Christian kindness, understanding, serenity, and for­giveness of his father. The other was the deep prayer life he had cultivated to Jesus. Thus while Fr. Chacour has been what we in the West would call an “activist” for justice for the Palestinian people, he is no anti-Semite. He gave blood for the Israeli soldiers wounded during the 1967 war, for example. He also shows a movie on Anne Frank to Pales­tinian audiences so they can un­derstand the predicament Euro­pean Jewry faced after World War II. Even more than an acti­vist for justice, he is a worker for reconciliation, a peacemaker.

Yet one cannot write of the Middle East without touching upon politics, and Chacour does so. While considering the Jews his brothers, he paints the mod­ern Zionist movement in very black shades indeed. One need not be an ardent political Zion­ist, or a political Zionist at all, to wonder whether the blackness is too unrelieved. In most any con­flict, one supposes, there is some injustice on both sides. But, if Zionism is not unspotted, nei­ther, perhaps is it quite the bogeyman one would expect it to be if one took Chacour’s views on the matter whole and entire.

Christian Short Stories: An Anthology

By Edited by Mark Booth

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 200

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Arthur Paul Livingston

Only two possible reasons exist for wanting to own a book: it has intrinsic value or it can be used for special purposes in cer­tain contexts. Christian Short Stories is an example of the lat­ter. Readers well acquainted with short fiction will find no need for owning a relatively brief col­lection containing yet another re­printing of “The Outcasts of Poket Flat,” “The Selfish Giant,” or “The Artificial Nigger,” even though some rare stories are in­cluded too, by the likes of Oliver Goldsmith, Elisabeth Gaskell, Frank Harris (of all people!), and William Canton.

It is not hard to imagine a college professor in an appropri­ate school choosing these stories as text for a fiction class, or for any course devoted to the rela­tionship of Christianity to litera­ture. Although each story, when stripped to its thematic state­ment, exemplifies some aspect of Christian doctrine, the cumula­tive aesthetic effect is to reveal for the reader these truths in ac­tion rather than extrapolating them. In this way, a Christian short story always has its roots in Christ’s parables; the story of the prodigal son is a ripping good yarn, even if the listener isn’t looking for the point, which is precisely what makes it so pow­erful.

Another discernible purpose is possible for this little volume. Until quite recent times, one cus­tom in even moderately educated Christian homes was to read aloud of an evening. Picture the humble Puritan family hearing Pilgrim’s Progress, or the scene depicted by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited of the Marchmain family listening to Father Brown tales (one of which Mark Booth reprints here).

Speaking of Chesterton, he once referred to Thomas Hardy as “the village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot.” But even an old curmud­geon like Hardy could occasion­ally produce a story like “Old Mrs. Chundle,” a tale that re­veals the need for God’s grace, whether that was its author’s overt intent or not. Here, then, are 17 tales by 17 authors who, even if they are sometimes not Christians themselves, have a Christian tale to tell.

 

© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved

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