How Christian Was Early America?

Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, by Jon Butler (Harvard, xii + 360 pp.; $29.50, hardcover). Reviewed by John G. Stackhouse, Jr., assistant professor of religion at the University of Manitoba.

Ronald Reagan was supposed to be the champion of evangelicals. Instead, this man of extremely limited church affiliation did little to advance the moral and social agenda of many Christians who supported him, and ended his term with embarrassing news reports about his and his wife’s interest in astrology.

Jon Butler of Yale University tells us in this prize-winning volume that this is not a new thing in American history. The evangelical religion of the seventeenth-century New England Puritans, eighteenth-century Great Awakening, and nineteenth-century Second Great Awakening was not nearly as dominant a current in American religion as many historians have led us to believe.

Instead, we learn that from colonial times to the Civil War (the chronological limits of this book) much of the American populace was indifferent to religion. And what religious interest there was often was directed toward folk religious practices—like astrology—that lay outside the pale of orthodox Christianity.

American Pluriformity

Butler’s book complements the excellent volume by Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (CT, April 9, 1990, p. 31), in arguing that American religion was much more pluralistic than previous generations of historians have allowed. Butler’s book goes behind Hatch’s as he reaches back to the early colonial days to demonstrate the strong links between American religion and the religious scene in Europe, a confusing panorama of official Christianity stretched over a wide array of folk religions. He goes on to survey the syncretistic innovations in American religion, whether in Joseph Smith’s Mormonism or republican Anglicans turned Episcopalians.

The book also complements Hatch as it observes the growth of eccelesiastical institutions and authority in the early national period, just as the nation is pressing its individualistic and antiauthoritarian Revolutionary rhetoric into the Jacksonian era of the “common man.”

Butler’s arguments are thorough—even, at times, threatening to bog down the reader in evidential detail. Occasionally his argument thins out, as when he discusses too briefly and vaguely the “African” side of “Afro-American” religion in the nineteenth century, and he seems overly concerned to underscore the revisionary nature of his interpretation, rather than seeing it more as complementary to the work of others. (For example, are the concepts of a “Great Awakening” and a “Second Great Awakening” really just “interpretive fictions”? Is there no coherence to the concepts at all?)

Article continues below

Nonetheless, the wide reading and clear organization of this interpretation sum up and exemplify admirably the current emphasis in American religious history upon pluriformity, rather than upon the traditional “center and periphery” metaphor which goes back at least to historian Robert Baird in the nineteenth century.

Evangelical readers in particular should note that the myth of America’s Christian origins comes in for more trouble here, as Butler scans the faith (or lack of it) among the whole American populace to expose relatively little orthodox Christian vitality until well after the Revolution. And evangelicals, especially those interested in “signs and wonders,” also will be intrigued to follow Butler as he discovers magic, prophecy, dreams, and healings in many different American religious traditions.

Pinnock’S Solution

Tracking the Maze: Finding Our Way Through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective, by Clark H. Pinnock (Harper & Row, 221 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Stanley J. Grenz, professor of theology at Regent College and the author of Sexual Ethics (Word).

Like many historians of theology, Clark Pinnock believes modern theology is in a crisis. In contrast to the general agreement concerning the essentials of the gospel, characteristic of earlier times, Christian theology today is in a state of confusion, comprising “a labyrinthian maze that practically defies tracking.”

Yet, in the face of this crisis, he is optimistic, seeing the demise of the dogmatism and self-assuredness of the past as providing an opportunity for the emergence of fresh insight. On the basis of this optimism, Pinnock sets out to “track the maze” from the perspective of evangelicalism, which he sees as offering the most promising contemporary theological alternative.

Postmodern Orthodoxy

Pinnock’s ultimate goal, however, is not to provide a primer to modern theology. The author offers only thumbnail sketches of the theologians he mentions, introduces individual thinkers and movements more in accordance with his own agenda than on the basis of historical chronology, and even in descriptive sections occasionally shifts into prescription. Instead, Pinnock appears to be interested in using recent theological history as a basis from which to offer his own proposal as to how we can “move beyond modernism and fundamentalism to a form of postmodern orthodoxy.”

Article continues below

In this way, Pinnock intends to foster dialogue between evangelicals and liberals for the sake of enriching both and proclaiming the gospel in the world. And in keeping with this overarching goal, the book concludes with a timely exhortation to both evangelicals and progressives.

The three-part structure of the work is straightforward. Pinnock devotes part one to description, organizing current theologies under three ideal types. Each type forms one response to the crucial theological question concerning how God’s revelation is related to the contemporary context in which we are to communicate that divinely given message. Progressives emphasize context and therefore find it necessary to reformulate Christian doctrine to make it palatable to the secular mind. Conservatives seek to be faithful to the original revelation, and as a result they appeal to an authority outside themselves and view doctrines as fixed truths. Moderates move between the two concerns, desiring to strike a balance.

Part two explores the rise of modernity, the historical roots of today’s theological disarray. Pinnock’s story of the theological response to this new challenge unfolds in three stages. He cites Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel as pace setters for the progressive program, which seeks to bring Christian faith up to date through a “salvage operation.” But the radical revisions proposed by the progressives led to a backlash, “a major course correction,” in the form of Kierkegaard, Bultmann, Barth, and evangelicalism.

Yet liberalism has been resurrected in our day as various theologians have capitulated completely to secular thinking (e.g., the “death of God” movement). Thus, the ghosts of the past live on in theologies of revolution (Kant), mysticism (Schleiermacher), and process theology (Hegel). From this story Pinnock concludes that the present is characterized by a polarity between “theological realists who affirm the literal truth of the Christian creeds” (with whom his sympathies lie) and “nonrealists” who view Christianity “more … as a human construction of meaning.”

Beyond The Impasse

In the final part, the author outlines his own constructive proposal concerning what constitutes the essence of Christianity and thereby in what direction theological progress lies. Pinnock’s foundational thesis is that the central message of Christianity is the epic story of redemption, the intervention of God in history for the salvation of humankind, a story that makes a claim on everyone and calls for decision.

Article continues below

This understanding leads to a proposal, sketched by Pinnock, that has certain similarities with contemporary narrative theology. By faith, the story of God’s action in Jesus supplies the interpretive framework for our perception of ourselves and of reality.

Pinnock’s move to narrative theology shapes his response to several thorny issues that in the past have separated evangelicals from mainline thinkers and have even caused division within the ranks of evangelicalism. For example, he argues that theology is a secondary language. It is a reflection on the Christian epic and its meaning, not a system of doctrine. The task of theology is “to expound the story and tell us what the meanings are.”

As a result, Pinnock shies away from the traditional evangelical emphasis on propositional truth. Propositions are important, but they “live off the power of the primary story.” Concerning this controversial point, Pinnock writes with evangelistic fervency: “It is high time we became less preoccupied with rational certainty and doctrinal precision and more concerned with telling the Christian story with its rich interplay of meanings that speak to all our human needs.”

Further, the author moves away from the traditional evangelical elevation of the Bible as the sole norm for theology. In its place he sets forth a hierarchy of four sources, reminiscent of the Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture (interpreted in accordance with Luther’s Christological hermeneutic), tradition, experience, and reason. These “vehicles of revelation,” Pinnock argues, are generated by the revelation of God in the events of the Christian story.

Finally, his narrative approach facilitates a mediating position concerning the nature and purpose of the Bible, which Pinnock articulated in The Scripture Principle. He affirms the doctrine of inspiration, while wanting to give full place to the Bible’s humanness. To do so, he offers what may be termed a functional or theological understanding of biblical authority: “The Bible points us to the story of salvation and facilitates it coming alive in our experience as it is mixed with faith.”

Evangelical “Gadfly”

Throughout his career, Clark Pinnock has functioned as an evangelical “gadfly.” Never shying away from offering bold statements of fresh, but controversial views, his publishing career has reflected the theological pilgrimage of a conscientious soul. Pinnock’s odyssey has led him from the rationalism of his early apologetic phase, reflected in works such as Set Forth Your Case (1968) and Biblical Revelation (1971); through a stage in which he attempted to reintroduce Arminianism into evangelical theology, typified by Grace Unlimited (1975) and The Grace of God, the Will of Man (1988); and now to a period in which dialogue with mainline theology has apparently become his passion.

Article continues below

Hence, Tracking the Maze may be viewed as the latest installment in the ongoing series of Pinnock adventures. In his personable, irenic, and disarming way, he challenges the reader to rethink established methods and ideas. At points his challenge will be unsettling, especially for evangelicals oriented toward the traditional dogmatic theology that Pinnock has left behind. Others will welcome him as a fellow pilgrim. Perhaps the best approach, however, would be to listen with discernment to the voice of an evangelical seeker. Thus this volume reflects another exploratory search rather than being the constructive guide that it could be.

Critical listening could result in the reader taking issue with the author on any number of minor and not-so-minor points. For example, similar to Tillich, Pinnock views theology as moving between two poles—message and contemporary context. To these two I would add a third, “heritage,” as offering a more helpful way of organizing theological proposals.

Further, the appeal in part three to the Wesleyan quadrilateral as the source for the theological task comes as a surprise, given the discussion of the bipolar nature of theology found in the beginning of the book, which suggests a two-source matrix for the discipline.

But my chief criticism of the book is that it is simply too short for all that it attempts. The work ought to be two volumes rather than one. The first would be a more-detailed history of modern theology; the second would set forth more completely Pinnock’s fascinating alternative theological proposal. Of the two, the second is the more worthy of Clark Pinnock’s attention.

Sound Bites From The New Dark Ages

The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives, by Ian I. Mitroff and Warren Bennis (Birch Lane Press, 218 pp.; $17.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Reed Jolley, pastor of Santa Barbara (Calif.) Community Church.

The modern world is complex. A person in the 1990s has more exposure to “news,” “events,” and other persons in a day than someone living in the Middle Ages had in a lifetime. While the information explosion makes us anxious, our need for coherence remains. In order to cope with the daily discharge of data to which we are exposed, our society has responded by becoming a vast entertainment industry. Business, news, politics, and religion distill and simplify the real world in an entertaining manner.

Article continues below

Such is the thesis of University of Southern California business professors Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis, who argue in their book The Unreality Industry that we are in the midst of a new Dark Age; an age in which individuals are no longer able or willing to think for themselves.

They contend that the manufacture and dissemination of “unreality” gives the individual the “pretense of coherence.” No longer do we confront reality directly. Instead, politics, personalities, products, art, and culture are prepackaged in smaller and smaller units. Whether it is the succinct news story in USA Today or the “sound bite” on the evening news, reality is broken into manageable bits of information and presented in an entertaining manner.

Television is the primary culprit. According to the authors, the medium trivializes and demeans everything in its picture tube. Television imitates life, which then imitates television. Consider, for example, the news media. Television reports on news events in a succinct manner. USA Today presents itself as a caricature of a TV news broadcast. Then USA Today becomes a television news show (now off the air waves). At each step in a chain we are removed further from the real world.

The Unreality Industry is not another book that catalogues the number of hours an average high-school student watches video images each week or the number of violent acts and sex scenes we are likely to view during prime-time hours. Neither do the authors posit a conspiracy theory of television. “TV is not Orwellian in the sense envisioned by Orwell, nor does it employ overt ‘thought police’ to control a population. The U.S. government controls neither the content nor the format of TV in the way that totalitarian governments do. Further, neither the networks nor the state force people to watch the tube. Rather, TV operates much more insidiously, lulling us silently and seductively into collective dumbness through its very banality.”

What then is “unreality” and why is its popularity cause for concern? According to the authors, unreality takes two primary forms. “Artificial reality” refers to the vast technological advances we have produced that blur the distinction between the real and the unreal. “We are now so close to creating electronic images of any existing or imaginary person, place, or thing that an electronic image and a real person can interact at the same time on a computer screen or TV so that a viewer cannot tell whether one or both of the images are real or not.” In other words, when Peter Jennings appears to be speaking from Red Square in Moscow, the viewer cannot be sure if he is really there or if he is in a studio in New York.

Article continues below

“Pseudo reality,” on the other hand, is the deliberate distortion of what is real. Pseudo reality is the most popular and perilous form of unreality in that it makes the “unreal so entertaining that we no longer care about reality.” (Observe, for example, the syndicated TV shows that recreate unsolved crimes or the debate over the dramatic restaging of certain news events.) Taken in ever-increasing doses, unreality will do to our collective social consciousness what drugs do to the mind of an addict. Creativity, imagination, and rational interaction become impossible.

Bennis and Mitroff align themselves with previous naysayers regarding television (Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Richard Schickel), but their conclusions are more haunting and their analysis more trenchant. While McLuhan suggested that we “turn off” our television sets, The Unreality Industry argues for a restructured educational system that will produce workers who are able to think and interact with the complexities of our world.

The Unreality Industry is not the last or even the best word on the evils of television in our society. Nevertheless, the work of these two professors deserves a careful reading. Their analysis is cogent and perceptive. It provides a much-needed break from “Cheers” or “Prime Time Live.”

Brother Cadfael, Private Eye

The Heretic’s Apprentice, by Ellis Peters (Mysterious Press, 186 pp.; $16.95, hardcover). Reviewed by David Neff.

I first heard of Brother Cadfael, the hero of Ellis Peters’s “mediaeval whodunits,” on a subway train in Manhattan. A brainy teen and his bewildered mother were scoping out Columbia University, and they asked me (a Midwesterner!) for directions. The teen told me how his Latin teacher had introduced him to the “chronicles of Brother Cadfael” and assured him of the author’s absolute accuracy. Nary an anachronism could be detected. Soon after, a medieval historian told me of her discovery of Brother Cadfael. Again I heard how authentic it all was.

Article continues below

But talk of historical authenticity should not scare anyone away from Peters’s novels. She limits her novels’ length to a comfortable weekend’s reading of 200 or so pages; and she carefully explains the necessary historical setting to orient the reader.

Unlike G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Peters’s Brother Cadfael is not a man against his times. He is very much a creature of his medieval English culture. If he is uncomfortable with anything, it is the rigor of the monastic life and the inhumanity of the heresy hunt. Well traveled and much adventured in his youth, he commands a wide knowledge of customs, habits, and nature.

But most of all, he possesses a compassion for human frailty. Not a priest, Cadfael is an herbalist and a healer, one in tune with nature and who cares for both the bodies and souls of his fellow creatures. Even without the modern tools of crime detection (fingerprints and ballistics tests), Cadfael reasons and deduces from evidence.

The Heretic’s Apprentice is the sixteenth chronicle of Brother Cadfael and the latest of the English author’s medieval mysteries to be made available in the U.S. The plot revolves around two foci: heresy and a treasure. The novel begins with the return from a holy-land pilgrimage of young Elave, who bears the dead body of his master, a local businessman and sometime patron of the abbey where Cadfael tends the herb garden and the sick. A proper burial on abbey grounds is expected until someone asserts that the dead man was a heretic and demands an investigation. The heresy in question is Pelagianism, and after his master is vindicated and buried, the apprentice himself is found to be suspect.

The plot’s second focus is a dowry for the foster daughter of the dead man’s brother. The exact nature of the gift is one of the novel’s secrets and so should not be disclosed here. But the detailed care with which Peters describes the treasure displays her extensive knowledge of medieval culture and craft.

The half-awake reader will detect the identity of the culprit and the nature of the treasure a full 75 pages before the end of Heretic’s Apprentice. Yet because Peters tells her stories with such charm, the reader is content to keep reading, to stay and live in the re-created world of twelfth-century England.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.