Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: October 1985

Briefly Reviewed: October 1985

Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America

By Martin E. Marty

Publisher: Little, Brown

Pages: 500

Price: $25

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

In his English Letters of 1734 Voltaire observed that “if there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were only two they would cut each other’s throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happi­ness.” Modern America would have enraptured Voltaire: not 30, but untold varieties of religious belief jostle for attention. America is the taxonomist’s dream come true: practically ev­ery known approach to God (and gods and goddesses) thrives here and any not yet extant will as­suredly pop up sooner or later.

From its inception America has attracted pilgrims, restless souls prodded by dreams of carv­ing out havens in which to prac­tice their unique forms of wor­ship. The small band of congrega­tional separatists — the “Pil­grims” of lore and legend — who stepped ashore on a blustery day in December of 1620 established an archetype that Americans still honor. Pilgrims they were, and pilgrims Americans have been, using their country as a laborato­ry in which to “perfect” devo­tion to the deity of their choice. The variations played on this theme form the subject of Martin E. Marty’s Pilgrims in Their Own Land.

As Marty rightly contends, America has indeed been a land of pilgrims. One might argue, however, that in its very receptiveness to the pilgrim experi­ence, America has subtly subvert­ed the ultimate purpose of that experience. Blessed with freedom and material plenty, the pilgrim has tended to settle comfortably into the soft folds of American life. He casts aside his staff, kicks off his sandals, and makes him­self at home.

But the true Christian pil­grim is always a stranger in a strange land; his true home, as the old spiritual says, “is over Jordan,” beyond this world. Here he remains a wayfarer, ever journeying toward a land he has not yet reached. America easily transforms pilgrims into prison­ers of temporal culture. Quakers, the despised left-wing offshoots of the Reformation in England, lost their edge in America and made their peace with wealth-getting and (for a time at least) the enslavement of Negroes. Southern Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists — all sprung from pilgrims who spurned the corrup­tions of the world — lent their in­fluence and authority to the Southern defense of slavery. In 1917 America’s churches plung­ed into the war against Germany with a fervor that verged on fa­naticism.

Marty records such lapses but he does not dwell on them; he celebrates more than he chastises. This is especially notewor­thy in that Marty holds an hon­ored position among liberal Prot­estants, a group not known for shying from publicizing even the most picayune of America’s shortcomings. His fairmindedness extends even to groups that have frequently served historians as little more than sources of titil­lating anecdotes to enliven sopo­rific lectures. Joseph Smith and the Mormons gain a fair hearing; Ellen White and the Seventh-Day Adventists are taken seriously; and Charles Russell and the Jeho­vah’s Witnesses receive respectful attention. Like William James, who found “the varieties of reli­gious experience” an exhilarating field of study, Marty relishes the vivid diversity of the American religious scene.

Although religion has flour­ished in America, theology has not; ever the pragmatists, Ameri­cans have resisted systematic the­ologies as adamantly as they have rejected the blandishments of systems builders in politics. It detracts little from Marty’s book, then, to note that he has slighted theology; one cannot, as the say­ing goes, extract blood from a turnip. One can fault him, how­ever, for failing to make the most of what does exist.

To enter the realm of 17th-century Puritan theology, for ex­ample, is to embark upon an in­vigorating intellectual adventure: as Perry Miller demonstrated, the subtleties, tensions, and paradox­es of Puritan thought challenge even the most perspicacious of minds. Unfortunately, Marty fails to convey the high excite­ment that awaits one who ac­companies the Puritans in their exploration of the labyrinthine passages of Calvinist theology. Although Marty acknowledges the towering genius of Jonathan Edwards, he underestimates Ed­wards’s achievement: the execu­tion of an intellectual tour de force in which he forged the ideas of Calvin, Newton, and Locke into a theology of such in­candescent brilliance that it still possesses the power to dazzle. And from more recent times one final example of Marty’s sins of omission: H. Richard Niebuhr, probably a more penetrating thinker than his famous brother Reinhold, receives only passing mention.

This slighting of theology is a minor vice more than redeemed by the host of virtues possessed by Pilgrims in Their Own Land. With vivid prose, catholic tastes, and admirable fairness Marty re­counts a story that never grows stale in the retelling; as a popular introduction to the history of re­ligion in America his book is un­rivaled.

The Image of Guadalupe: Myth or Miracle?

By Jody Brant Smith

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 173

Price: $6.95

Review Author: Thomas W. Case

Some religious people have an elitist attitude toward sensory evidence of the supernatural, as if to say: you must see to be­lieve; I believe without seeing. Granting such people their super­ior faithfulness, I would suggest that what Moses saw on Mt. Horeb was a bush that burned but did not burn up and a Voice that made him an offer he could­n’t refuse — and that Christianity would have died aborning with­out the resurrected Christ seen and seen again by the apostles. The body believes with a belief stronger than the mind, and it is to the whole of us that God re­veals Himself.

Thus the Shroud of Turin, now, in my opinion, proved be­yond a reasonable doubt to be genuine; thus the dancing sun at Fatima; thus the “painting” on the tilma of Juan Diego, an In­dian peasant who in 1531 saw Our Lady on a hill outside Mexi­co City.

This is the story in brief: the bishop at first would not believe Juan Diego, and asked for a sign. The Virgin appeared again and told the peasant to gather the roses blooming on the hill­side in mid-winter. Juan gathered the out-of-season roses in his tilma (a cloak made of cactus) and delivered them to the bishop, and when he opened the tilma and the roses dropped to the floor, an exquisite portrait of the Virgin was revealed. The tilma with its portrait remains fresh, unfaded, and uncorrupted to this day.

This book, written by a “psychic investigator,” contains several noteworthy features. The author collaborated with another investigator in a detailed photo­graphic analysis of the image. The results: the original parts of the portrait could not be identi­fied as to paints or dyes, no brush strokes were detected, no undersketching was present. This is in contrast to what was judged to have been added later: the gold rays around the figure of Mary, the stars and border of the mantle, the gold crown, the gold fleur-de-lis on the robe, and the moon and angel at her feet. Apparently a pious soul “improved” on the original by embellishing it with a Revelations 12 motif. These additions are moreover cracked and deteriorated and re­veal brush strokes.

But the original portrait cannot be other than a miracu­lous impression.

Besides these scientific find­ings, the book contains reproduc­tions of the earliest extant re­ports of Juan Diego’s vision, as well as what may be the earliest “book” written in the Americas: an Indian pictographic chronolo­gy which apparently begins in the 1400s and at the year 1531 shows a drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Notwithstanding these valu­able features, this book (which was recently reissued in paper­back) cannot be unreservedly recommended. On the one hand it is padded with irrelevances; on the other hand the author admits to letting it be published before analyzing the results of a whole series of tests. The reader is left wondering what these tests re­vealed.

The Genesis Connection

By John Wiester

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Pages: 254

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Bryce Christensen

Arguably, science originated in Europe and not in the East be­cause Judeo-Christianity had taught the West to regard the temporal creation as God’s be­neficent creation, not as the illu­sory and evil maya of Oriental be­lief. Probably, the emergence of the West’s egalitarian democracy (as opposed to the slave-holding democracy of the early Greeks) similarly required the scriptural concept of the equality of souls before God. Nonetheless, biblical faith is larger and more inclusive than either the science or the egalitarianism it has made possi­ble. Would-be apologists for Christianity who try to cham­pion the faith within overly sci­entific or rigidly egalitarian terms inevitably betray more than they successfully defend: this way lies both creationist science and lib­eration theology.

As an argument for crea­tion ism, The Genesis Connection by John Wiester is better than most. Himself a trained geologist, Wiester does not, as do too many other creationists, twist the data into some untenable six-day or six-thousand-year history of crea­tion. Instead, he tries to establish that the scientifically established record of the earth’s history can be interpreted as being in essen­tial agreement with the sequence of creative “days” described in Genesis 1. Further, he shows that each of the divine fiats in this se­quence corresponds to an unsolv­ed scientific puzzle. Some read­ers will no doubt object to the minor discrepancies in this scheme — the appearance of the birds in the fifth instead of the sixth era, for instance. More fun­damental than any problem with details are suspicions that the very attempt to vindicate the Old Testament through the use of sci­entific evidence is reductive and misguided.

In a scientistic age in which the lab coat has already become a sacred new vestment, the worth of scientific “proofs” for Scrip­ture is dubious. The need is far more unequivocal for compelling philosophic and religious arguments against overweening scientism in any form. More than pos­ited correlations between paleon­tology and sacred writ, we need reminders that the epistemology of all branches of science is de­monstrably too constricted for dealing with most of mankind’s most important spiritual and in­tellectual questions, including the origins of the human mind. Surely the writings of the apos­tles and prophets, as well as of later commentators, amply dem­onstrate that those living before the scientific revolution were not handicapped in contemplat­ing such issues.

Wiester does perceive the impossibility of explaining “man’s unique qualities of rea­son, creativity, humor, altruism, or…his knowledge of God” within a naturalistic framework. Further, he astutely concludes that “the question is not creation versus evolution. The real ques­tion, the truly vital issue is Crea­tor versus no-creator.” Yet, con­fronted by atheistic scientists, Wiester does little more than re­arrange empirical furniture into new groupings. It is easy to sym­pathize with his complaint about the teaching of irreligion in the public schools. But to make the science classroom the place for reintroducing God into the cur­riculum, as Wiester apparently wishes to do, would only rein­force the false perception that all important truths must fit within a scientific paradigm. There may be some limited virtue in Wiester’s effort to show that “science is…in harmony with Scrip­ture.” A far worthier task, though, must be performed by those who hear religion’s pro-founder euphonies.

The New Story of Science

By Robert M. Augros and George N. Stanciu

Publisher: Regnery Gateway

Pages: 234

Price: $6.95

Review Author: Stephen D. Schwarz

One of the main values of this excellent book is the per­spective it gives us. It makes clear that materialism is not simply a theory among others, but some­thing much more fundamental: a basic and comprehensive world view, a way of seeing reality, or, in the authors’ terminology, a Story.

The theme of the book is the contrast between “The Old Story,” materialism, and “The New Story” — how the former developed and how we are now in a sense) in a transition period to the latter. It explores some of the important ramifications of each Story, such as the denial of God, free will, and purpose in the universe in the Old Story, and the affirmation of each of these in the New Story.

The New Story is, briefly, a worldview in which the human mind (as essentially distinct from matter), freedom, purpose, beau­ty, order, and meaningfulness not only exist as authentic, irre­ducible realities, but play a key role in the nature of things, and are brought into a close relation­ship with science. The New Story integrates them into a coherent whole, one that makes all of real­ity more intelligible to us, and points to God as Creator and De­signer.

It must be stressed that the Old Story and the New Story, though they are largely about sci­ence and the data studied through science, are themselves not sciences, but philosophies. The conflict between them is strictly a philosophical one; for world views are philosophical ap­proaches and the topics of the book (God, mind, freedom, beauty, meaningfulness, tradi­tion, etc.) are philosophical prob­lems. Though materialism is of­ten presented as something “sci­entific,” it is itself strictly a phil­osophical position, however much it may try to justify itself by appeal to science. It must be understood philosophically, and can only be refuted philosophi­cally. For the most part the au­thors are quite clear about this; occasionally this point seems to be obscured or even overlooked, as when they say that “the Old Story could be overcome by one authority alone: specialized sci­entific experience, the source of the New Story.”

This, I submit, is not true. The overcoming of the Old Story is a philosophical task — one that is in fact performed in the book itself, which is of course a philo­sophical work and not a scientif­ic treatise. The role of science in moving from the Old Story to the New Story is essentially an auxiliary one: it provides key evi­dence to help refute Old Story errors and help establish New Story truths. Examples include modern discoveries in neuroscience that contribute to our un­derstanding of the essential dif­ference between the mind (or the person as person, as a conscious being) and the brain; and new findings in cosmology that point to an absolute beginning of the universe (and through that to God as Creator).

While the perspective, Old Story/New Story, is extremely valuable and contributes im­mensely to our understanding of reality, and of theories about it, it must be pointed out that not everything fits neatly into one or the other of these two pictures. A significant example here is modern secular psychology (Rollo May, Carl Rogers, et al.), which is given a place in the New Story. And yet it is strongly anti­thetical to genuine Christianity, as William Kirk Kilpatrick shows in great detail in his outstanding book, Psychological Seduction: The Failure of Modern Psychol­ogy. Christianity also belongs of course in the New Story. Kilpat­rick shows how modern secular psychology functions in place of genuine Christianity as a “coun­terfeit Christianity.”

Christianity, an “old” reli­gion, belongs philosophically to the New Story; so do the philos­ophies of Plato and Aristotle. This illustrates once more the philosophical nature of the two Stories, as well as something else that the authors bring out, name­ly, the important role of tradi­tion. The New Story integrates the discoveries and treasures of the past, including discoveries made by adherents of the Old Story. It is only in the New Story that one gains a true his­torical perspective. In a sense, the New Story isn’t really new, but a reawakening to timeless truths and values. The authors put it well when they say, “the Old Story of science appears as a 300-year detour from the mainstream of Western thought.” The New Story is essentially that mainstream, buttressed and sharpened by certain key discov­eries in modern science.


©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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