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The Power of the Word

Matthew Hedstrom's The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the 20th Century
The Power of the Word

Rommel… you magnificent *******: I read your book!”

                                                              Patton (1970)

Though the quotation above from the movie Patton may be urban legend, it is no less true that knowing your enemies prepares you for knowing how best to overcome them. Evangelicals have often had a warrior mentality in modern day America, and their enemies of choice have regularly included liberal Protestants. Viewed as in league with the devil along with the worst of the Pharisees, C. S. Lewis’s demons Screwtape and Wormwood, and the entire Islamic population throughout the world, the vilification of those who would designate themselves as theologically “liberal” has been deep and wide.

Of course, painting with such a broad brush is always a bad idea, but there are good reasons to question the faith of the descendants of 19th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Their beliefs and methods have not only included the embrace of enlightenment attitudes toward the findings of modern science and the desire to meet the needs of the poor and dispossessed of society, two viewpoints that many evangelicals have shared as long as liberals have. The deeper problems of theological liberalism—and, please: I am talking here about theological liberalism, not necessarily political liberalism (though the two are often aligned)—run along theological and historical lines. Liberals have for the most part eschewed belief in the supernatural (though usually not belief in God), particularly the virgin birth, Gospel miracles and physical resurrection of Jesus. With their emphasis on the experience of the individual, they have moved easily into the 20th and 21st centuries and enfolded themselves into therapeutic culture with little distinction from it except the name “Christian.” There is often a lack of mission in liberal churches except that which can be found in many segments of society and seeks to deal with social problems almost everyone—people of all faiths and no faith—agrees need attention. Homelessness, poverty, hunger and the like are hardly the exclusive territory of religious mission. Evangelicals often wonder aloud why liberals attend church at all, since their “faith” seems so secular.

Few have pondered this question to the point where they asked an important ancillary one: If liberal theology is so baseless, how did it gain such a powerful place in our society in the latter half of the 20th century? Matthew Hedstrom’s book, The Rise of Liberal Religion, offers a plausible and intriguing answer to that question.

Rise is based on the premise that the “popularization of religious liberalism happened largely in and through books.” It is a well-known story that the onset of philosophical humanism at the time of the Enlightenment was fueled in America by the optimism engendered from the writings of Charles Darwin on the scientific side and the rapid technological changes of the industrial revolution on the economic side. It was not until the very end of the 19th century, however, that the powerful Gifford Lectures of William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) gave religious intellectuals the psychological explanation needed to be able to accept Schleiermacher’s tenets and at the same time enter into the mainstream of a growing secular intellectual culture in the social upper classes and in the academy.

But what of the middle class masses, where at the beginning of the twentieth century evangelicalism and fundamentalism were still so strong as to be not just dominant, but virtually total in American society? Hedstrom begins his story of the conversion of large masses in America to Protestant liberalism with the publishing in 1904 of Social Law in the Spiritual World by a Quaker mystic named Rufus Jones. The admitted popularization by Jones of Varieties of Religious Experience was picked up and widely disseminated by preachers all over. Harry Emerson Fosdick said Social Law “opened the door to a new era in my thought and life.” According to Hedstrom, “Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, did economic, cultural, social, and religious forces align to make the consumption of mass-market books a part of everyday American spiritual practice.”

Starting with the establishment of what Hedstrom calls “religious middlebrow culture,” he traces how ideas about mystical experience were coupled with modern psychology and fed to the parishioners of thousands of churches through modern publishing and mass marketing schemes including Religious Book Week, book clubs and an emphasis from the pulpit on the individual developing strong reading habits for their spiritual health. Socially speaking, too, the importance of reading for overcoming the horrors of World War I in the 1920’s cannot be overemphasized. Hedstrom reports, for example, that Religious Book Week was endorsed by a letter from President Warren Harding in 1922 in which he stated that the reading of religious books was important so “that the world may become morally fit. Unless this is done, trained bodies and trained minds may simply add to the destructive forces of the world.”

Most of the mechanisms in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s for the publishing of religious books were controlled by religious liberals. Though evangelical publishing had been active in American life in the nineteenth century, the evangelical giants of the latter half of the twentieth century were weak and ineffective in the crucial decades between the wars. Zondervan Publishing Company for instance was not even founded until 1931. Hedstrom’s story is one of thoughtful strategies employed in ways that profoundly shaped religious culture in America, and the main players include everyone from individual authors to denominational officers to publishers to political and social leaders. Names like Frank Laubach, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Eugene Exman and Walter Lippmann hold together a narrative that is as engaging as it is sad to contemplate.

In America, evangelicals have come late to the party, where religious publishing is concerned, though their growing dominance in the field over the last thirty years is encouraging. Of course the world is a different place than it was in the first half of the twentieth century and the challenges of visual media, digital delivery systems and global informational overload are stretching and straining the boundaries of verbal communication. But the word is a powerful instrument; it is not by accident that the magisterial opening of the Gospel of John describes the Son of God as the Word. We must strive with all our power to preserve the importance of the word in our own lives and in the lives of those we encounter, the written word perhaps most of all. A discussion of this book can help us mightily with that charge.

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