Fast on the heels of Easter comes summer — that season of the year when we enjoy the illusion of a less hectic schedule and more free time. More and more, that is merely an illusion. The restful and bucolic summer has, like afternoon tea and the front porch swing, passed from our cultural horizon. We are poorer for the loss.
Nevertheless, preachers do look forward to summer as an opportunity to catch up on reading and take a look at critical volumes which are especially worthy of attention. The books considered below are worth he preacher’s close attention.
James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 392 pp., $25.00, cloth.
Even the most casual observer of the American scene can detect that something has changed within this social fabric of our nation. The specific issues abound, but the field of battle and confrontation seems to have shifted.
Abortion, the drug war, homosexuality, the family crisis, the battles over the arts and media — all these contested issues are part of a larger social and ideological struggle, argues James Davison Hunter.
Hunter is a University of Virginia sociologist whose previous work on the identity and future of evangelicalism has won him a wide and respectful readership. In his earlier volumes, Hunter considered America evangelicalism as it struggled to maintain a convictional identity in the face of modernity.
His forecast was mixed. Younger evangelicals indicated an increased willingness to concede theological convictions in order to maintain contact with the larger cultures of the academy and the public at large. Hunter’s investigations demonstrated a clear-headed research methodology wedded to his remarkable insight into the most critical issues of investigation.
In Culture Wars, Hunter employs those considerable skills in his consideration of the unraveling of America’s social fabric. He knows the fields of battle: the family, art, education, law, and politics.
Superficial explanations of American social patterns no longer apply. The mythology of a stable national “middle” with extremes on either political end will not stand close scrutiny. The fact is that Americans now engage each other in fierce battles over a constellation of issues, with no victor and no end yet in sight.
Like contemporary physicists looking for a general field theory to explain the universe as a whole, observers of American society seek a unified theory to explain the complex of social fissures which threaten the body politic. Hunter offers the most credible approach to the challenge.
The struggles over abortion, public education, sexuality, and economics are, Hunter explains, part of a larger contest. The various issues of debate are but fronts on a massive culture war.
Americans attempt to keep the issues and events separate and unrelated, but, Hunter says: “What if these events are not just flashes of political madness but reveal the honest concerns of different communities engaged in deeply rooted cultural conflict?”
The “culture war” derives its historical context from the German Kulturkamp which divided the German nation during the time of Bismarck. The issues have shifted and the context has changed, but the notion of a culture war fits the lay of the land in late twentieth century America.
Hunter argues that “America is in the midst of a culture war that has and will continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere.”
The culture war thesis is not new. The concept has been employed by George Weigel to explain the cultural and ideological chasm within American Catholocism and by others to explore larger social patterns. But Hunter gives the thesis its classic presentation, and his arguments are convincing.
To his credit, Hunter underlines the moral nature of the conflict. Media images and popular culture attempt to explain the fissures in terms of mere politics and socio-economic pressures. Hunter — and all honest observers — know better. The cultural conflict Hunter explores is defined as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.”
A quick glance at the morning paper, the latest statement from the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the current box-office hit, and the evening news reveal the fundamentally moral nature of the conflict. And moral conflict gets to the heart of all issues. As Hunter notes: “Let it be clear, the principles and ideals that mark these competing systems of moral understanding are by no means trifling but always have a character of ultimacy to them.”
That character of ultimacy explains the depth of the conflict. Though Hunter does not cite Paul Tillich in this connection, Tillich’s conception of religion as “ultimate concern” clearly applies. The debates are inherently religious. Tillich shifted religion from a matter of objective truth to matters of personal concern and cultural extension. His definition has demonstrable cultural significance.
Scenes of Operation Rescue activists attempting to block an abortion clinic and the abortion supporters struggling to keep the clinics open provide Americans with a profound sense of the moral gravity of our current cultural crisis. Both sides claim ultimate allegiance to ideals and truths which frame their worldview.
Hunter describes these competing “impulses” as the “impulse toward orthodoxy” and the “impulse toward progressivism.” Each impulse describes “a particular locus and source of moral truth.”
The tendency toward orthodoxy “is the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority.” I have identified this impulse elsewhere as an “ethic of submission” to the worldview and truth claim of revealed religion.
The assumption behind the impulse toward orthodoxy is that a revealed tradition (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam) calls for faithful submission to the teachings, laws, cognitive claims, and ethical principles of the objectively revealed truth. Moral issues are settled by reference to the external authority.
The impulse toward progressivism, on the other hand, “is the tendency to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.” This is rooted in what British a/theologian Don Cupitt has termed the “interiorisation” of faith. All truth is interior — within the individual. Hunter documents the moral discourse of progressivists who insist that biblical injunctions against homosexuality, for instance, are simply out of date and to be discarded.
As Hunter notes, “the binding moral authority tends to reside in personal experience or scientific rationality, or either of these in conversation with particular religious and cultural traditions.”
As Hunter suggests, the pattern also applies to America’s increasing number of secularists. The vast majority of secularists follow the progressivist impulse. “For those people,” offers Hunter, “religious tradition has no binding address, no opinion-shaping influence.” Some secularists (such as the neo-conservatives) are drawn to the impulse toward orthodoxy by means of natural laws or other secular authority.
Preachers understand that something of massive significance is taking place within the society — and often within their congregations. Religious communities are torn between these two impulses as well. Nothing less can explain the tortuous battles fought over issues of sexuality within many churches. The sexuality issue is but the tip of a gigantic iceberg of issues.
As Martin Marty notes, the time has come when a conservative Roman Catholic has more in common with a conservative Southern Baptist than either has with a liberal counterpart in his own denomination.
Has religious conflict passed? By no means — it has simply been transformed from an inter-denominational conflict into an intra-faith struggle over the very definition of faith and truth.
Culture Wars is a tour de force which should be read by every preacher who would understand the moral gravity of contemporary issues — or understand the local congregation.
As Hunter indicates, the battle is likely to be fierce and protracted — and casualties will be many. Americans may compromise on political issues, but moral contests allow no negotiated solutions. No truce is in sight.
Hunter offers chapters on the various “fields of conflict” and other sections which describe the technology and discourse of moral battle. He concludes with a consideration of the threat to the democratic ideal posed by the culture war, and possible means of moving forward within a democratic structure. The book belongs on every preacher’s bookshelf and in every church library.
William Martin, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 717 pp., $25.00, cloth.
The man whose address is simply “Billy Graham: Minneapolis, Minnesota” has, until now, never received the biographical approach his stature and ministry demands. Previous biographies have been either uncritical boosterism or cynical and caustic attacks.
A Prophet with Honor is neither — it is an engrossing and majesterial consideration of Billy Graham as person, preacher, and symbol.
William Martin is a Harvard-educated sociologist who teaches at Houston’s Rice University. He is an accomplished teacher with considerable communicative ability, whose articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and Texas Monthly.
In fact, an earlier Martin article on Graham led to the evangelist’s proposal to Martin that the sociologist write the definitive biography of the world-hopping preacher. Graham considered Martin a credible and fair researcher who would write a respectable and honest biography. Martin relates that Graham told him: “There are no conditions. It’s your book. I don’t even have to read it. … I want you to be critical. There are some things that need criticizing.”
Martin was given unprecedented access to Graham, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), and the Graham entourage. The result is a biography which may well define the biographical art as applied to public figures — especially religious leaders.
The author is critical, but never caustic; respectful, but never over-awed by his subject. A Prophet with Honor follows Billy Graham from his childhood in Charlotte, to his experiences at Bob Jones University and Wheaton, and throughout his career as the world’s foremost Christian evangelist.
Like all good biographers, Martin sheds considerable light on the contextual issues which frame the story. The politics, economics, and organizational issues are never out of sight, but Martin gives attention to the historical, cultural, and religious context of the Graham phenomenon.
Martin is a servant of detail — massive and thoroughly-documented detail. The research is first-rate and the documentation is extensive. But Martin never lets the documentation get in the way of the story (though you do learn more than you ever wanted to know about BGEA travel and crusade details). He obviously knew he had a subject with a compelling story. Martin lets that story shine through even as he sheds light in other corners.
Graham’s story is presented as a window into the nation, twentieth-century evangelicalism, and American politics. Martin does not concentrate on Graham’s political affairs and relationships, but he does shed new light on Graham’s influence and friendships.
But politics is not the story, and Martin allows the Graham story to explain how a tall, thin boy from North Carolina would preach to more human beings than any other preacher in world history. Preachers will find the volume an enjoyable and enlightening summer read.

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