Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview
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AFTERWORD
History and Fundamentalism

As we have seen, the question of history was central to the fundamentalist‐ modernist controversy. Should Christianity and the Bible be viewed through the lens of cultural development, or should culture be viewed through the lens of Scripture? The fundamentalists and the modernists shared a common assumption on this point. Each assumed that the abandonment, or at least substantial redefinition, of traditional Christian teaching concerning God's acts in history was implicit in the modern historical method which explained events in terms of natural cultural forces.

This assumption concerning history, which was at the heart of the old controversy, seems to me incorrect. It is basic Christian doctrine that there is an awesome distance between God and his creation, and yet that God nevertheless enters human history and acts in actual historical circumstances. The awareness that God acts in history in ways that we can only know in the context of our culturally determined experience should be central to a Christian understanding of history. Yet the Christian must not lose sight of the premise that, just as in the Incarnation Christ's humanity does not compromise his divinity, so the reality of God's other work in history, going well beyond what we might explain as natural phenomena, is not compromised by the fact that it is culturally defined.

The history of Christianity reveals a perplexing mixture of divine and human factors. As Richard Lovelace has said, this history, when viewed without a proper awareness of the spiritual forces involved, "is as confusing as a football game in which half the players are invisible."1 The present work, an analysis of cultural influences on religious belief, is a study of things visible. As such it must necessarily reflect more than a little sympathy with the modern mode of explanation in terms of natural historical causation. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that such sympathy is incompatible with, or even antagonistic to, a view of history in which God as revealed in Scripture is the dominant force, and in which other unseen spiritual forces are contending. I find that a Christian view of history is clarified if one considers reality as more or less like the world portrayed in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role

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