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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

Preface

The scholar and the fool, as a colleague pointed out to a college "honors" convocation, are in Renaissance Christian imagery often equated. Anyone who has spent many days secluded on a project like the present volume can sympathize with such an identification. Though Christian scholars often find it difficult to be fools for Christ, we have at least as much aptitude as other scholars for simply being fools. We must be reminded, then, that there are many virtues greater than that of forsaking the world in order to write about it.

Yet this book, for all the isolation it has involved, is not solely academic or detached in its purpose. It is addressed not only to the scholarly community, but also to an audience of thoughtful Christians and other observers who are interested in a dispassionate analysis of the development of a significant Christian tradition in an American cultural setting. While I have attempted to assume a stance of detachment and to avoid using history as a tool for partisan debate, this study represents a definite point of view and set of interests. Since these give it direction, they are best revealed at the outset. This is an essay in distinctly Christian scholarship, an attempt to present a careful, honest, and critical evaluation of a tradition not far from my own. My sympathies may be described most succinctly by saying that I greatly admire two American scholar-theologians, Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr. In the theology of Edwards—especially his sense of the overwhelming love and beauty of God revealed in Christ, in Scripture, and constantly communicated through all creation—I see a starting point for the attempt to comprehend reality and to see our place in it. In the ethics of Niebuhr I find a way of understanding the pretensions, limits, and folly of even the most admirable human behavior. Particularly, his analysis reveals the inevitable ambiguities in Christians' relationships to their culture.

These perspectives, especially those associated with Niebuhr, can be found implicitly throughout this study. "Culture" and the relationship of Christians to it are prominent concerns. By "culture" I usually have in mind the collection of beliefs, values, assumptions, commitments, and ideals expressed in a society through-popular literary and artistic forms and embodied in its political, educational, and other institutions. In most cultures the prevailing formal religion has been an integral part of and support for the dominant beliefs, values, and institutions. Although this has been largely true in Western civilization during the long era of "Christendom," the relationship

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