Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

This post is the first part of a paper whose working title is "American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship 1956-2006." In this first section, a good bit of the material is based on a set of outline notes shared with me by Dr. Douglas E. Brown, Jr., who formerly taught courses in theology at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, TN. His worthy successor, Dr. John Mark Hicks, was also one of my teachers there. I have learned much from these two great men. May their work result in the honor of God and the blessing of others.

Prior to the Civil War, traditional Protestant (that is, “evangelical”) thought and life in the United States saw an impressive period of growth, sparked by the Second Great Awakening around the beginning of the nineteenth century.[1] The flip side to this phenomenon was that throughout the same period none of the liberalizing movements in American religion were able to gain much more than a foothold. For example, though Massachusetts liberals of the 1820s expected Unitarianism to spread “like a prairie fire across America,” the fire “sputtered out west of Worcester and south of the Connecticut line." [2]

But the Civil War not only brought unprecedented division. It also struck a blow to American confidence in divine blessing and in human ability to know the mind of God. President Lincoln described the two sides of the conflict with high rhetoric and his Augustinian sense of ambiguity:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. [3]

The post-war period of theological uncertainty opened the door to newer philosophical, political, and religious trends. And beginning around 1870, for the first time in American history, theological liberalism was steadily gaining ground.[4] In response, not far into the post-war years there arose a movement that intended to combat liberalism and develop a platform and strategy for the survival of traditional Protestant orthodoxy and the awakening of an increasingly-secular culture. Several indicators support this thesis.

First, conservative Bible conferences, forebears of the prophecy conferences and full-gospel fellowship meetings of the twentieth century, became common. The best example of this phenomenon is the immensely popular Niagara Conference which first met in 1868 and which led to the organization of the first International Prophecy Conference held in 1878. The popularity of these conferences led to the establishment of dozens of similar events, which were typically held during the summer a week at a time. Hallmarks of the ascendant liberalism of the day were the adoption of higher critical approaches to the Bible and a rejection of biblical literalism. Conservatives like those who attended the conferences believed that such trends were motivated by a desire to defame the Scriptures and to explain away the supernatural elements of the Bible, undermining its authority and its power to convert outsiders. In such a climate it was easy for conservatives to conclude that if liberals were offering damaging discourses about the Bible, the only antidote was positive proclamation of the Bible, and little else. Thus, it was no accident that at the Niagara Conference and the events it spawned , a new sort of exposition was developed. Commonly called “Bible reading,” it consisted of a collection of passages, all relating to a single Bible topic, which were read one after another with only brief comments in between. However, prompted by the urge to root out the prevailing postmillennialism and supplant it with premillennialism, in 1878, James Brooks ironically issued a fourteen-point “Niagara Creed” which not only upheld the correctness of the dispensational-premillennial view, but also affirmed the verbal inerrancy of the Bible. [5]

Second, conservatives established Bible institutes for the purpose of defending the Christian faith, conducting mission work, and restoring the spiritual vitality of the church. Prime examples here are the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, named for the great revivalist Dwight L. Moody (pictured here)[6] and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), which featured the instruction of Yale Divinity School graduate and evangelist extraordinaire R. A. Torrey.[7] In 1959, Charles Fuller expressed what these para-church institutions meant to the fundamentalist heritage. Reflecting on his early years at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and his then-recent founding of a theological seminary, Fuller stated that at the close of the nineteenth century

many of our seminaries began to succumb to the lethal fumes of liberalism, and it became apparent that orthodoxy was soon going to be without an adequate supply of trained leaders. Providentially, God raised up many Bible institutes, which were very effective in training thousands of young men and women—many of whom were not college graduates—to know their Bibles and have a zeal for evangelism.[8]

Third, there appeared a tremendous quantity of distinctively conservative literature. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Hodge [9] and A. H. Strong [10] produced systematic theologies. James Orr guided the production of the original International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, the first edition appearing in 1915. Most significant of all, between 1910 and 1915 a definitive series of twelve booklets entitled The Fundamentals was published and mailed to as many Christian leaders as possible in the United States, Canada, and England.[11] And in 1923, the conservative Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen published his book, Christianity and Liberalism, which declared that the liberalism of the day and historic Christianity were essentially two different religions.

Fourth, in 1919 the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, whose name was taken from the popular booklets, was organized in Philadelphia. The Association stood against the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the rise of theological liberalism among the denominations. William B. Riley, a Southern Baptist leader, published its official magazine, the Christian Fundamentals in School and Church, later called the Christian Fundamentalist.

Fifth, conservatives mounted efforts to oust popular liberal ministers and to recapture their large, influential churches for the cause of orthodoxy. The controversy surrounding Harry Emerson Fosdick and the New York Presbyterian Church provides the best example. Brought up a Baptist, Fosdick was by no means the most radical of the liberal leaders in the United States. But he was one of the best known. A gifted wordsmith, he gave eloquent expression to the liberal view in his sermons and popular books. Moreover, beginning in 1915, he served as Jessup Professor of Practical Theology at Union Seminary in New York. With influential positions in both the church and Christian academy, he was rightly regarded by conservatives as an important target. Fosdick intended his famous sermon of 1922, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” as a “plea for good will.” But its clear definition, pointed language, and national distribution led to a terrible controversy which ended with him stepping down from New York Presbyterian’s pulpit three years later. [12]

That these efforts came together in order to make a powerful force in American Christianity cannot be denied. Here one needs only to repeat the shopworn complaint of H. L. Mencken: “Heave an egg out a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today."[13]

[1] Peter W. Williams, America’s Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 166-74 provides a good overview of the history and impact of what he calls “the Second Great Awakening(s).” Williams uses the unconventional plural because of what he identifies as three distinct centers of religious fervor. The first was Connecticut where the preachers Asahel Nettleton, a Congregationalist minister, and Timothy Dwight, the dynamic president of Yale College, were the main leaders. Another center was the southwestern frontier, particularly Kentucky, where the incredible Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 established the religious camp meeting as a staple of frontier life. The third center was western New York state, where the power and variety of religious life rendered the region “the Burned Over District.” See also the discussions offered by, for example, Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972) 413-35, and Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 166-90.

[2] William R. Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968), 3.

[3] The quotation is from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, just over a month before his death. I owe the recollection of these words and a sense of how they must have shaped post-war theological thinking to Jean Bethke Elshtain whose fine article “Abraham Lincoln and the Last Best Hope” originally appeared in an issue of First Things. I came across a reprint in The Best Christian Writing 2000 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 92-104.

[4] See the overview provided by Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, 1-14.

[5] For one of the better discussions of the Prophecy and Bible Conference movement see, Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 132-61. Most summaries of North American religious history give some attention to the phenomenon, especially its connections to the rise of dispensational premillennialism. See, for example, Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, 290-91. See also the references by George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 46, 51, 66, 93. For an overview of the Niagara Conferences, see the article by T. P. Weber in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 773-74.

[6] See T. P. Weber, “Moody, (D)wight (L)yman (1837-1899)” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 768-69, hereafter cited as DCA. The standard texts on American religious history report on the life and impact of Moody. For example, Winthrop Hudson, Religion in America, 3rd. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981) 230-36 provides a good overview.

[7] See P. C. Wilt, “Torrey, (R)euben, (A)rcher (1856-1928)” in DCA, 1180-81.

[8] Christianity Today 3 (January 15, 1959): 13.

[9] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Scriber, 1872-73).

[10] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Rochester, NY: E. R. Andrews, 1886).

[11] Notwithstanding the current derision associated with the word “fundamentalist,” Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 816, is right in his estimation of "The Fundamentals": The booklets, he says, were written “with dignity, breadth of subject matter, rhetorical moderation, obvious conviction, and considerable intellectual power. . . . The conservative case was firmly and honorably made.”

[12] For a reprint of Fosdick’s sermon, with a helpful introduction, see Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, 170-82. Hutchison cites as his source for the sermon The Christian Work 112 (June 10, 1922): 716-22.

[13] H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Fifth Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), 74.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship

[T]he evangelical position is pledged to a scientific scholarship operating within the circle of Christian faith. No obscurantist methodology is available to the evangelical to enable him to interpret Scripture. . . . Evangelicals may be flayed for not facing up to modern criticism [i.e., modern analysis of the Bible] or for not making a significant contribution to it. They may be accused of harboring too large a population of obscurantists. But the thesis here propounded is undamaged: The pattern of the Reformers states that when divine certainties end, the only safe guide is the finest of scientific scholarship exercised in humility before God.

Bernard Ramm, "Are We Obscurantists?" Christianity Today 1 (February 18, 1957), p. 15.

No, it's not exactly an epigram. But the foregoing is my lead in, let's call it, for a paper that I'm planning to publish in segments here at Frankly Speaking. My working title at this point is (drum roll, please), . . . "American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship, 1956-2006."

The project goes back to a good bit of research I did just a few years ago. I've had some more time to think about it since then, and I'm ready now to pick up where I left off.

I may wind up submitting this work to a refereed journal. (Always think of men wearing striped shirts when I say that). Or I may hold on to it and save it for a future dissertation or book or all of the above. So I'll be glad to hear anything constructive you might have to say about its content, style, significance, whatever. One reason I've chosen to blog this material first is so that I can receive helpful feedback before going to press rather than after.

My plan is to follow three steps: First, I want to describe the influences, events, and personalities that led to the establishment of Christianity Today magazine.

Second, I'll overview the contents of the magazine from its inception until 2006, especially as it takes up and deals with contemporary Old Testament scholarship.

Third, I will offer a couple of provisional conclusions regarding the identity of, and apparent changes within, American evangelical scholarship (and evangelicalism in general) during that period of time.

One of my main conclusions will be that, during the last half century, what I've decided to call the "intellectual middle class" of American evangelicalism, which was once quite strong, has all but vanished. Ironically, this has happened during the same era when the academic achievements of the best American evangelical scholars have grown more and more impressive.

It might even be possible to identify lines between what I'm describing and the apparent loss of vitality within evangelical circles coming into the twenty-first century. At any rate, I want the study to do more than simply offer description. I want it to also provide some analysis, and to show how the recent past has shaped the current scene. It might even provide at least part of the map that would indicate where the American evangelical movement should go from where it is now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Myth of Managing Grief

Here come the holidays. You know, "the most wonderful time of the year."

Alright, can we just say what everyone knows anyway? For a lot of people--many more than any of us will ever know--the holidays are horrible, a season in which the grief they carry around with them all of the time becomes that much more painful.

If that sounds autobiographical, that's because it is. But like so many people who hurt, I don't want to talk about it. Not here anyway. And not now.

The main reason I'm bringing this up at all is because not too long ago I was digging around in this wasteland called the Web when I came across the article that follows. It has a very specific context. It was first published on April 7, 2002, less than a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But its message is timeless.

And even though it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, a secular newspaper located on the left coast no less, it contains a lot of insight and even a good bit of what might be called pastoral wisdom. I copy it here for what it's worth:

The myth of managing grief
by Stephanie Salter

Not long ago, a friend in New York said that she often feels cut off from the rest of the country because Sept. 11 is still so much with most New Yorkers.

"We've all gotten on with our lives, and if you don't go down to the (World Trade Center) site, there are no visible traces," she said. "But there's still so much grief and sadness hanging in the air."

People outside of New York can't really understand, said my friend.

"You talk with them and, if you didn't lose someone directly in the twin towers, it's like their tone says, 'Hey, shouldn't you be moving on?' They don't get that there's a collective grief. I actually prefer it when people don't even ask how it's going. It's easier."

Our American culture boasts many virtues and several strong suits, but grieving -- collectively or individually -- isn't one of them.

Unlike older societies, we have few formal grieving rituals in place to guide us. So, we try to tackle grief in our typical American way -- as if it's a problem to be solved, an illness to be cured, an unnatural, machine-gumming breakdown that needs to be fixed, ASAP.

Perhaps more phobic about suffering than any society in history, Americans tend to start the clock ticking early in "managing" grief. While solicitous and caring of the newly bereaved, we encourage heartbroken mates and parents to medicate themselves so they can "keep it together" through the funeral.

This ignores the fact that wailing and keening and "losing it" are a pretty accurate rendering of what humans inside feel like when someone we love dies or leaves us. But, in our culture, public wailing and keening are considered bad forms; they are seen as unwelcome reminders of pathology among "healthy" people.

Even the most devastating loss -- that of a child by a parent -- seems to carry an unwritten statute of limitations on grief, something I learned several years ago when I reported on an international organization called Compassionate Friends.

Founded in England in the late 1960s, the massive support network's chapters provide something that bereaved parents and siblings can't get from the rest of the world: "unconditional love and understanding" (as its informal credo states) with no expiration date.

As one member told me, she knew that a Compassionate Friends meeting was the one place she could go and never hear the unintentionally accusing question, "How many years ago did you say your child died?"

Grief is not like an illness, to be fought and cured with medicine or chemotherapy and radiation. Generalizations can be made about human behavioral tendencies, and time lines can be drawn for predicted "healing," but each person's grieving process is unique.

Some people never "get better." And nobody survives grief unchanged.

As Stephanie Ericsson wrote in "Companion Through the Darkness," grief is "a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped."

Or, as a man who lost his 7-year-old son once confided, "I'd always thought of myself as a happy man, but that's gone now. We have moments of happiness, some of them long and filled with laughter, but the sense of what is lost is never far away."

In her book, Stephanie Ericsson also warned: "Grief makes what others think of you moot. It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you. It shoves away friends and scares away so-called friends and rewrites your address book for you."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sources for Introducing the Psalms

Today I'm especially grateful for the good service of our active duty military and of our veterans. Many thanks to my father, Frank H. Bellizzi, Jr., who honorably served in the United States Air Force for over twenty-six years.

For what it's worth, today veterans and active duty military eat free at Applebee's.

- - - - - - -

Occasionally, I like to use this blog as a public archive, to store away things that might be useful to me later. It's important for any student to preserve the fruit of his or her study. And if what I'm saving might be useful to you as well, then I sometimes post it here.

Believers have always loved the Book of Psalms. A few statements and quotes that can be used for introducing the Psalms:

In a letter to his friend Marcellinum, the fourth-century bishop Athanasius said,

It is my view that in the words of this book the whole human life, its basic spiritual conduct and as well its occasional movements and thoughts, is comprehended and contained. Nothing to be found in human life is omitted.

In the early sixteenth century, Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, said that the Psalms

might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine . . . handbook.

In his Commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote that in this book

there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of salvation.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis, said that the Book of Psalms

occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures. It is God's Word and, with a few exceptions, the prayer of men as well.

Source: James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 1

The Psalms continue to live and [to] grip the attention of needy humanity. Fads blossom and wilt, generations come and go, civilizations rise and fall, but the Psalms continue to serve the ages. No other book has been so fondly read and so freely commented on. The inescapable conclusion is—it has something helpful for [people] in every circumstance of life. . . . The Psalms are [a] common heritage, filling common needs. They contain guidance for the errant, power for the weak, courage for the trembling, rest for the weary, cheer for the despondent, hope for the fainthearted and comfort for the afflicted.

Source: Leroy Brownlow, Living with the Psalms (Fort Worth, TX: Brownlow Publishing Company, 1976), no page number.

The Hebrew psalms hold up a mirror to religious experience, to reflect with astonishing fullness and frankness its many moods. Exultation and doubt, pain, persecution and sorrow, passion and aspiration, fortitude, bitterness and despair, complaint, gratitude, and heartfelt praise--all find equally candid expression. The utter sincerity, the wide range, and the deep humanity of the psalms make them the voice of Everyman exploring the religious dimension of life.

The variety of circumstance and occasion covered by the psalms is truly amazing. Sickness and restoration, distress and the fear of death are frequently mentioned. So are the joy in nature and the moral instructiveness of history. Guilt-laden confession prompts some psalms; so do homesickness, nostalgia, and social and religious protest.

Source: R.E.O. White, A Christian Handbook to the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 4.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A is for Abductive, B is for Balderdash

It's not too often that you read "Hogwash!" in a scholarly book review. But that's exactly one of the comments that Tim Sensing, a professor at Abilene Christian University, makes in his review of the book A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church, by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer. Sensing's review appears in the most recent issue of Restoration Quarterly (Volume 51, Fourth Quarter 2009, pp. 251-253), and it serves as a model of one of the functions of good scholarship: to drive out bad scholarship.

According to Sensing, A is for Abductive is a dictionary type book that "advertises itself as a primer for people desiring to discern the thought processes of churches that are responding to postmodern culture." The book includes entries like "I is for Icon." But Sensing doesn't have to go beyond the very first entry, "A is for Abductive Method," to find what he calls "enough fodder" for his review. In that first entry, the authors cite the work of philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, and advocate an approach to preaching that, instead of analyzing, looks to create an image or compose an experience. Sounds sexy, doesn't it?

But as Sensing points out, not only are the authors guilty of mere assertion, they apparently didn't bother to read the work of C. S. Pierce: you know, the work that supposedly provides the theoretical foundation for what they're saying. They do cite a 1970 dissertation dealing with Pierce's theory. So Sensing read the dissertation and compared it to A is for Abductive. What he found was "no basis for associating Pierce's understanding of the logic of scientific discovery to the abductive method presented by the authors." In short, Sweet, McLaren and Haselmayer have completely misappropriated C. S. Pierce, and are, at least in this case, patently guilty of a name-dropping sort of pseudo scholarship.

Meanwhile, Sensing points out, all of the sudden everyone's getting all "abductive." For example, a recent article by Paul Windsor, "A Space to Occupy: Creating a Missional Model for Preaching," (Stimulus, Vol. 13, no 1 [2005]: 20-25) cites A is for Abductive as though it were a genuine authority.

Carl Savage and William Presnell do much the same thing in their book Narrative Research in Ministry: A Postmodern Research Approach for Faith Communities (Louisville: Wayne E. Oates Institute, 2008). Sensing notes that Savage and Presnell cite A is for Abductive "to make claims about narrative research methodology. Relying on the authors' pseudo-work leads them to assert that the essence of narrative as the primary voice of theological research in ministry is 'non-logical.'" (This is where Sensing has to say, "Hogwash!"). He closes with, "Those footnoting this work contribute to the dissemination of ignorance."

Upon reading this review, I was reminded that some of the best preachers I've ever known didn't know much about communication theory per se. But they did love the Lord. They modeled, imperfectly, what it means to live for Him. And they understood a few things about how to convict and persuade people, how to show them the hope that is found only in Christ Jesus and build them up in faith. Most of that know-how came as a result of their deep study of the Bible and a passion for preaching God's Word.

I know, to some ears that might sound a bit sappy, nostalgic, inadequate. I can only protest that maybe that's part of what's behind the loss of vitality in American church life today. There can be no doubt that major shifts are taking place in American thought and life. I don't understand much about that. What I do know is that nonsense masquerading as Christian scholarship or "the next big thing" isn't the answer. How 'bout you?