Briefly Reviewed: June 1986
Evangelicalism and Modern America
By Edited by George Marsden
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)
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
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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