Also reviewed in the section:
The Kindness of Strangers,by John Boswell
Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification,edited by Donald L. Alexander
The Manger Is Empty,by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Religion By The People, For The People
The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan O. Hatch (Yale University Press, 312 pp.; $25.00, hardcover); Under God’s Spell: Frontier Evangelists, 1772–1915, by Cathy Luchetti (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 244 pp.; $26.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Randall Balmer, assistant professor of religion at Columbia University in New York City and the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Oxford).
Of all the popular myths about American evangelicalism, none is more durable than the notion that evangelicals nurse a grudge against modern culture and are somehow opposed to innovation or change in general. Granted, over the past century evangelicals have been suspicious of modernity’s assault on “traditional” morality, but evangelicals have never shied away from innovation—especially in the field of communications.
As historian Harry S. Stout has recently shown, the popular discourse and open-air preaching of the Great Awakening laid the groundwork for the persuasive rhetoric of the American Revolution. The Methodist circuit organization, I am convinced, provided a model for the development of grassroots political organizations, just as the frontier camp meeting served as a prototype for the political rally. In the twentieth century, radio preachers and televangelists exploited electronic media long before Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan discovered their utility as political tools.
In The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan O. Hatch argues that this dynamic between faith and culture explains why religion has always been and continues to be such a vibrant force within our republic. In America religion is by the people and for the people.
The Common Touch
The appeal of groups as diverse as the Methodists, the Baptists, the “Christians” of the Restoration movement, black churches, and the Mormons lay in their populism and in their appropriation of the same democratic themes that had fueled both the American and the French revolutions. “However diverse their theologies and church organizations,” Hatch writes, “they all offered common people, especially the poor, compelling visions of individual self-respect and collective self-confidence.” The “democratic Christianity” that emerged was characterized by lively singing, by a leadership that was unlearned and unpretentious, and by a simple theology that asserted “that common people were more sensitive than elites to the ways of the divine.” Calvinism, seen as hopelessly deterministic by a people who had only recently taken their political destiny into their own hands, was held up to ridicule.
The purveyors of this new democratic religion were legions of itinerant preachers, most of them lacking in formal training, but who were drawn from the common people themselves and who knew almost instinctively how to reach their peers. As Hatch writes, “This was an age of communications entrepreneurs who stripped the sermon of its doctrinal spine and its rhetorical dress and opened it to a wide spectrum of fresh idioms: true-to-life passions, simplicity of structure, and dramatic creativity.”
Hatch’s point about the popular appeal of these itinerants plays out nicely in Cathy Luchetti’s anthology, Under God’s Spell: Frontier Evangelists, 1772–1915, which combines brief biographical sketches of such figures as Lorenzo Dow, James Leander Scott, and Mary Collins with selections from their writings. The text together with the photographs illustrate the hardships of frontier life as well as the determination and the resourcefulness of these intrepid evangelists.
The clerical elites back in Boston, New York, and Princeton, New Jersey, took a dim and condescending view of these itinerants and their religion of the people. That, according to Hatch, was a grievous mistake, a mistake repeated by Protestant liberals in the twentieth century. Hatch argues that the democratic Christianity forged in the early years of the republic, with its populist and antiauthoritarian overtones, finds its voice today in fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and the holiness movement. These twentieth-century movements, he writes, “reject modernity as it is expressed in high culture but remain stalwart defenders of modern attitudes as they build popular constituencies with the most popular techniques.”
The Persistence Of Religion
Hatch’s argument goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of religion in American life. According to the latest Gallup data, 94 percent of us believe in God, as compared with 76 percent of the British, 62 percent of the French, and only 52 percent of the Swedes. Although such figures tell us nothing about the quality of religious life in America, it is certainly true that Americans think of themselves in religious terms, thereby confounding the sociologists and the modernization theorists who predicted that as any society modernizes and industrializes religion would be pushed to the periphery. In America, however, surely among the most modern and industrialized societies, religion still informs our lives, our identity, and even our public discourse. Why? If Hatch is correct, it is because religion in America is a democratic phenomenon that derives its energy from its assaults on ecclesiastical pretension and is continually shaped and reshaped by popular discourse.
While Luchetti’s anthology provides rich illustrative material, The Democratization of American Christianity offers a new paradigm for understanding religion in the early republic. Hatch’s thesis is simultaneously profound and beguilingly simple: Christianity’s continued vitality in American culture can be traced to its assimilation of democratic impulses and “the incarnation of the church into popular culture.”
Did Christians Abandon Their Children?
The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, by John Boswell (Vintage, xviii + 488 pp.; $15.95, paper). Reviewed by Michael J. Gorman, author of Abortion and the Early Church.
The Kindness of Strangers is a learned, eye-opening, and provocative account of the abandonment of children in the Roman Empire, the early church, and medieval Europe. Yale historian John Boswell, author of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, sets out to do two things. First, he provides a social history of the various motives for and methods of abandoning children. Second, he argues that, with few exceptions, the Christian church—which opposed contraception, abortion, and infanticide—accepted abandonment as a legitimate means of family limitation.
Boswell defines abandonment as “the voluntary relinquishing of control over children by their natal parents or guardians, whether by leaving them somewhere [‘exposure’], selling them, or legally consigning authority to some other person or institution.” Reasons for abandonment were many, but above all the rich abandoned children to limit the number of heirs to their estates, the poor to continue feeding their existing family. The fate of abandoned children could be death, slavery, prostitution, or—through the kindness of strangers—adoption and a new, better life.
Boswell demonstrates clearly that some early and medieval Christians exposed or otherwise abandoned children just as the Romans had done. He argues that from the beginning of the church, church officials generally accepted abandonment, institutionalized it, and regulated it. Church buildings became common places for the abandonment and rescue of children, just as public buildings had sometimes functioned in the Roman Empire. Monasteries and nunneries received many children as oblates—permanent offerings to God—a Christian innovation that allowed religious orders to perpetuate themselves and families to limit themselves. Eventually, the church established “foundling homes,” where many children suffered and died, according to Boswell (with little hard evidence, however).
In this book Boswell displays his skill as a social historian. Not all of his interpretations will gain acceptance (for instance, his suggestion that Christians were able to accept abandonment because of their belief in God’s “abandonment” of his own Son and his “adoption” of believers), but he handles the often-fragmentary evidence with both scholarly care and human sensitivity to the desperation of parents who would abandon their offspring.
His work is marred by one glaring error, however. Boswell is so intent on his thesis that Christians tolerated abandonment—a thesis that he successfully defends with respect to medieval Christianity—that he is unable to acknowledge or account for the clear and consistent condemnations of it in early Christian literature. He repeatedly calls this early opposition the “minority” opinion of a few “ascetics”; yet he is unable to produce any evidence of tolerance for abandonment in the early church.
This error in the interpretation of early Christian attitudes prevents Boswell from seeing the significance of the church’s change from condemnation to acceptance. The early Christians condemned abandonment because they saw it as a dangerous, pagan act of parental neglect, even murder, with serious consequences for all involved. But as the church responded to the reality of abandonment, especially by the poor, it developed means of allowing parents to “abandon” as responsibly as possible. Only with the development of such means did the church acknowledge that abandonment might be a legitimate way for parents to discharge, rather than neglect, their parental obligations. Never, however, did the church follow the Romans in granting a parental (fatherly) right to abandon unwanted children. This crucial difference also escapes Boswell’s attention.
In a book entitled The Kindness of Strangers one might have hoped for more discussion of the rescuing and welcoming of children. Nonetheless, the book provides more than a social history of abandonment and, despite its central thesis, more than a model of tolerance for the decisions of others. Above all, this book and the history it recounts remind us that when the church rightly condemns immoral means of “family limitation,” it must encourage parental responsibility and provide humane, creative alternatives for desperate parents and their children. Perhaps the church’s greatest ministry to such people would be providing ways to keep parents and children together.
Five Paths To Holiness
Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, edited by Donald L. Alexander (InterVarsity Press, 201 pp.; $9.95, paper). Reviewed by John Hughes, a free-lance writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Salvation is said to possess three components: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Most Christians agree on the source and nature of the first and third of these—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our heavenly hope. However, the spiritual life of Christians, or sanctification, has been the object of disagreement for centuries.
Christian Spirituality provides a multi-authored overview of beliefs pertaining to sanctification held by five major theological schools of thought within Christianity: Gerhard O. Forde on the Lutheran view; Sinclair B. Ferguson on the Reformed view; Laurence W. Wood on the Wesleyan view; Russell P. Spittler on the Pentecostal view; and E. Glenn Hinson on the contemplative view. Each essay is followed by a short response by the other contributors. The book is introduced and edited by Donald Alexander, who teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul.
Readers will detect sizable common ground shared by these diverse approaches. It is heartening that in their mutual critiques, these writers often begin by affirming what they can of the other’s contributions.
Within this context, however, significant differences emerge. Five knotty questions divide the writers: What is the foundation of a believer’s victory over sin in daily life? Is sin a conscious, voluntary act or a state of being? How are the “old self” and the “new self” interpreted and related? What is the function of the law in believers’ lives? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in our growth as Christians?
Grappling with these nuts and bolts of Christian belief does not make for an inspiring or fun book, and the reader is hindered by frequent patches of arid, ponderous writing. Furthermore, there are occasional, yet distracting moments when rancor and misrepresentation of one another’s views rear their ugly heads. Still, this book attempts an important task, because the way we think about spirituality will affect how we live as believers.
The Lutheran view stresses sanctification by faith alone. Forde writes that sanctification is “the art of getting used to the unconditional justification wrought by the grace of God for Jesus’ sake.” We must abandon the “old self,” which wants to justify itself through works, and accept the invasion of the unearned “new self.”
The Reformed view stresses sanctification by faith and the believer’s participation. Ferguson writes that holiness is achieved through union with Jesus and his saving act, which was provided for us in the events of the Incarnation. It is “effected” through our obedience to the Word, fellowship, and the sacraments.
The contemplative view agrees with the Reformed in stressing both faith and a task for believers. Our task is to open ourselves to God’s gracious energies. Hinson quotes mystic Jan Ruysbroeck: “God’s grace pours into us in the unity of our higher powers and of our spirit,” and thus filled, “the higher powers flow out to become active in all virtues.” Or as Hinson writes, “God loves you. Love God back.”
The Wesleyan view stresses the Holy Spirit’s role in sanctification. Wood writes that holiness is the process of becoming what the gospel has achieved in us—the embodiment of “Christian perfection.” Christian perfection is not sinlessness or absolute perfection, but to love God with all our being. The Spirit invades our heart as the Israelites invaded the Promised Land.
The Pentecostal view agrees with the Wesleyan in stressing the role of the Spirit. However, Spittler’s essay does not focus on Pentecostal beliefs and the rationale behind them. This reflects the historic unconcern for developed theology. (Each of the other writers could point to seminal thinkers such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Bernard of Clairvaux, but the Pentecostals have no guiding theologians.) Spittler instead presents an interesting overview of the movement’s history and widespread modes of Pentecostal experience.
Some of the differences between these five traditions—such as whether or not the believer has a task to perform in growing toward holiness—are real and not readily resolvable. Others, however, amount to a difference in accents, and the reader can learn something valuable from each. In fact, Christian Spirituality would have been improved by a conclusion attempting to show how some of these accents enrich each other in a creative, faith-enhancing tension.
The Colors Of The Calendar
The Manger Is Empty, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Harper & Row, 184 pp.; $14.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Robert Bittner, a free-lance writer and editor.
“My daughter cried on Christmas Eve. What should I say to the heart of my daughter? How should I comfort her?”
This opening paragraph sets the spiritual and emotional course for Walter Wangerin’s latest book, a collection of essays, stories, and poems, which poignantly and personally explores those moments when ordinary people glimpse something of God.
The author believes the Christian life is, like Mary Wangerin’s sadness on Christmas Eve, a mixture of sorrow and joyful expectancy, rebuke and forgiveness, death and resurrection. By highlighting the often unexpected moments of epiphany in his own life and imagination, Wangerin encourages us to see faith with new eyes, to live with greater sensitivity.
Three major sections, based on the colors of the liturgical calendar, provide the structure for the book: “Christmas: The Season in White,” “Ordinary Time: The Seasons Green,” and “The Final Advent: Purple.” Each section contains diverse genres of writing: memoirs, essays, character sketches, prose poems, hymns, and allegories. What unites the material is the conviction that the church year, the experiences of childhood, the people we meet, the imaginations we develop, all dramatically reflect the hand of God at work.
The first section, “Christmas,” is the most uneven, due to the unnecessary moralizing at the end of “The Hornbill” and a trio of oblique and rambling prose poems. The story of Jesus’ birth is a familiar one, but the two stand-out essays—“The Manger Is Empty” and “A Quiet Chamber Kept for Thee”—shine new light on the nativity.
The prose shines, however, in “Ordinary Time,” a section rich in memories of people and experiences that have affected Wangerin’s life. The most wondrous and heartbreaking entry is “The Cicada.” This recollection tells of Wangerin, as a child, discovering a glorious green cicada struggling out of the brown husk of its old skin.
As the reborn insect smoothed out its silky wings to fly, Wangerin writes, “I had to touch. I rubbed the wing. And then I was astonished. Green liquid spread in the tiniest rivulets within the membrane. A pale green fluid … produced a single, lucent, sea-green drop—a perfect solitary emerald.… This was beautiful. This was utterly beautiful.” But as the boy watches the insect buzz its wings and fall crippled to the ground, he realizes with horror what he has done. “The green liquid in her wing—that was blood. That was her blood. The thing so beautiful to me was all her virtue and her life.… I knelt down. I wanted to cry.” The kneeling and tears echo another sacrifice: “Christ on the cross is more beautiful than anything—for extreme is the cost of extremest beauty. What I witnessed on that summer’s day at seven was the sign of sacrifice.”
The last part of the book, “The Final Advent,” is a fitting coda that, in two essays and one poem, offers an overarching view of God’s forgiveness, his promises, and humanity’s place in the world. “The Signs of the Times” offers these unusual words of hope and challenge:
God is coming.
Have you no ears? No fears?
No eyes to see the silencing?
Look to the muting of the spheres.
Listen to the tarnish of the skies.
Why, the wind itself is tawny,
Contracting toward a lunge—
God is coming.
And not one canny mammal,
Mother of small brood,
Honest artistry among contemporary Christian writers is rare, and when it appears it should be congratulated, appreciated, and read. Such is the case with The Manger Is Empty. Although there is an occasional touch of sentimentality, and an intrusive, unnecessary moral added here and there, the fact is that Walter Wangerin is one of our truly gifted writers. His words, at their best, are like prisms that absorb our common, ordinary experiences and draw forth the unglimpsed wonder of God.
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