Book Review: George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture

Posted: March 16, 2012 in book reviews, evangelical history, next evangelicalism, Uncategorized

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden challenges existing assumptions and portrays a more robust description of the emergence of fundamentalism.  Marsden offers an analysis of a movement that responded to the social, intellectual, and religious crises of their time.  Fundamentalists did not merely withdraw from these cultural changes, but engaged these changes in direct ways. Marsden depicts fundamentalists as expressing a distinct version of evangelical Christianity uniquely shaped by the circumstances of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — a time marked by an openly turning away from God.

Marsden’s description of the critical role of Scottish Common Sense Realism and Baconian scientific method in the fundamentalist worldview provides a contrasting image to the caricature of the backwater, uneducated, anti-intellectual, rural, Southern fundamentalist.  Understanding fundamentalists in proper context requires inquiry into the northern expression in denominational and educational contexts. The fundamentalists’ concern rested not in the use of any intellectual and scientific thought, but in the type of science appropriated by the modernists. Fundamentalists viewed their own epistemology as a rational system in contrast to modern liberalism’s reliance upon unproven hypotheses.

While Marsden’s work impresses in its breadth of coverage, the ambitious attempt to provide an expansive and comprehensive description of fundamentalism falls short in his under-represents of the experience of Southern evangelicals who faced less strident opposition. Because of the minimal discussion on Southern fundamentalism, the presentation of the Scopes Trial feels abrupt and under-analyzed. More explication of the Southern stream of fundamentalism would serve as a welcomed addition, not merely to recapitulate the existing work on Southern evangelicalism but to fulfill Marsden’s attempt to provide a thicker and more comprehensive description of fundamentalism.

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