Summer, said the poet Archibald MacLeish, “is drawn blinds in Louisiana, long winds in Wyoming, shade of elms and maples in New England.” Yet it is also preachers longing for time to read and for books worthy of reading.
In that interest we offer a survey of recent books well worthy of the preacher’s attention for summer reading — books that may not come to the preacher’s attention by other means.
An excellent place to begin a summer reading list is with George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Disbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, cloth, $35). Marsden, currently professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is one of the preeminent historians of American religion. His earlier works, including Fundamentalism and American Culture, Reforming Fundamentalism, and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism have put him firmly in the front ranks of historians of twentieth-century Protestantism.
But Marsden, who previously taught history at Calvin College and Duke University, has now turned his command of the historian’s craft to the more generalized issue of the secularization of American higher education. The outlines of this project have been visible for some time. In recent years Marsden co-edited The Secularization of the Academy with Bradley Longfield, and then came a series of provocative articles in Richard John Neuhaus’ journal, First Things.
In The Soul of the American University, Marsden seeks to ask and answer this question: How did American higher education experience such a dramatic reversal from explicit Christian commitment to official secularization in such a brief period as the last one hundred years? As the author explains, the book “is about how and why pace-setting American universities are defined as they are. Particularly it is concerned with how and why they are defined with respect to religion.”
To that end, Marsden is concerned with the intellectual history of the most prestigious and influential American universities such as Yale, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Michigan.
The Christian roots of each of the earliest American colleges and universities is well documented and beyond doubt. These schools were, by and large, established first for the training of ministers of the gospel, and even for the propagation of the gospel throughout the young nation. Even in the era of the rise of the modern universities (the late nineteenth century), “the Protestantism of the major northern denominations acted as a virtual religious and cultural establishment.”
Many of these prestigious universities built awe-inspiring chapel buildings and even most state universities required attendance at both Sunday worship and weekly chapel. As late as the 1950s, notes Marsden, “it was not unusual for spokespersons of leading schools to refer to them as ‘Christian’ institutions.”
To that must be contrasted the current culture of American higher education, which is characterized by a fierce and unyielding secularism that is not merely dismissive of religious conviction but holds such conviction in contempt. Marsden is both clear-headed and honest in his indictment of contemporary academia: “While American universities today allow individuals free exercise of religion in parts of their lives that do not touch the heart of the university, they tend to exclude or discriminate against relating explicit religious perspectives to intellectual life. In other words, the free exercise of religion does not extend to the dominant intellectual centers of our culture.” Furthermore, “So much are these exclusions taken for granted, as simply part of the definition of academic life, that many people do not even view them as strange.”
Marsden is a capable historian of intellectual life, and his narrative carries the weight of his argument. He traces the development of major intellectual and cultural trends which aided and abetted the seemingly inexorable secular tide.
He follows the ride of modern conceptions of science, the eventual dominance of naturalistic theories of evolution, theories of academic freedom, and the imperialistic advance of secular ideologies of “tolerance.” Most pointedly, he demonstrates that the mainline Protestant denominations, which had spawned the great centers of learning, planted the seeds of secularization by their own liberal visions of inclusivity, which left only orthodox Christianity without a home. This was, as Marsden sharply entitled a chapter, “Liberal Protestantism Without Protestantism.”
Along the way Marsden offers fascinating anecdotes and illuminating insights into colorful characters such as Robert Maynard Hutchins, Daniel Coit Gilman, and Henry P. Tappan.
The Soul of the American University will be a much-debated book. Either the book or the author has been featured in editions of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. It richly deserves the attention it has drawn, and anyone interested in American intellectual and academic life will find the volume required reading. Preachers will find themselves intellectually stretched by the volume, and better prepared to understand the contemporary context of ministry and education.
The publishing world has released an overbearing body of literature on the baby boom generation. It seems that virtually everything which should be said or written has been so already. There are several gems among the rough stones, but most of the books tell the reader no more than the popular literature of marketing and demographics.
Wade Clark Roof’s A Generation of Seekers (HarperCollins, 1993), Preaching’s 1994 “Book of the Year,” stands out from the pack as a genuinely important contribution. Now, another “must read” volume has come through the collaboration of three sociologists. Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens have produced Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, paper).
Hoge, of Catholic University of America; Johnson, of the University of Oregon; and Luidens, of Hope College in Michigan, have made a genuine and much-needed contribution to the field of study — and to the preacher’s understanding of the baby boomers.
The three authors tied their concern for understanding baby boomers to the current debate over the decline of the mainline Protestant denominations. The fact of this decline is undebatable, but the proposed reasons for the statistical decline since World War II are the center of intense controversy.
In the main, three basic reasons have been put forward. Some argue it is the self-proclaimed “prophetic” role the mainline churches have assumed on the political and cultural left that has cost the churches their membership. Others have argued that institutional factors — including declining denominational commitment and outdated institutional structures, and demographic factors such as a decline in WASP birth rates — have precipitated the downward spiral. The third major argument is theological; that is, the mainline Protestant churches have become so secularized and have shifted to such a degree from their theological heritage that decline was inevitable.
Vanishing Boundaries leans to the third argument, arguing that theological issues have indeed been the most formative element in the pattern of mainline Protestant decline. The authors debunk the theorists of the second argument (institutional and demographic factors to blame), and they base their own arguments upon actual interviews with the baby boomers who are leaving — and those who are staying.
The authors recognize the contributory nature of several factors. They list cultural factors such as the increase of liberal education, and the rise of pluralism, individualism, and privatism, as well as anti-institutionalism. To these are added social structure factors, such as the decline of community, changes in family life and the role of women, and a decline in numbers of persons switching from evangelical churches to mainline congregations. Factors the authors describe as institutional include the failure to be relevant, a surplus of social activism, a failure of leadership and programs, and a loss of internal strength.
How do the baby boomers function in this equation? Put bluntly, they are the perfect generation to accelerate all of these trends.
Vanishing Boundaries grew out of a 1987 conference on the mainline churches sponsored by the Lilly Endowment. The three authors reflected that, “Although the conference participants were at no loss for theoretical explanations of the decline, it became clear that there was a lack of reliable information for assessing the theories.”
This book is the result of their quest for such reliable information. What followed was a major research study based upon a nationwide survey of persons aged thirty-three to forty-two years who had made adolescent commitments in Presbyterian churches.
The most remarkable achievement of the authors is their ability to rise above the platitudes which frame most discussions of baby boomers and religious faith, and to deal with substantial theological issues which genuinely reveal the convictional contours of the baby boom generation.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found a variety of profiles among their respondents. They identified four types of church persons: fundamentalists, active Presbyterians, other mainline churched, and other churched. Likewise, they identified four unchurched profiles: unchurched attenders, unchurched members, uninvolved but religious persons, and nonreligious persons.
The title of the book betrays the author’s central finding. The most important issue is theological — that is, a blurring of the boundaries between belief and unbelief. On issues of theological orthodoxy, the authors found a considerable deviation from orthodox positions among both baby boomers and pre-boomers, with the boomers slightly more liberal on most issues. On moral issues, however, the distance between the pre-boomers and the boomers was more marked.
The blurring of the boundaries has made the question of church membership and participation more difficult and abstract for the baby boomers, as are matters of conviction. The authors write: “Our in-depth interviews suggest that the great majority of active Baby Boom Presbyterians subscribe neither to the traditional Presbyterian standards contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism, nor to any of the more contemporary theological formulations espoused by denominational leaders.”
Most of the Baby Boom Presbyterians were identified as “lay liberals.” As the authors describe this position, “its defining feature is the rejection of the claim that Christianity, or any other faith, is the only true religion.”
Interestingly, the authors confirm the central arguments of Dean Kelley and his controversial book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, written in 1972. Kelley argued that the mainline churches were declining because of a lack of inner strength on matters of theological conviction. As the authors of Vanishing Boundaries assert, “Lay liberalism does not offer meaning in Kelley’s sense of the word. Our findings show that belief is the single best predictor of church participation, but it is orthodox Christian belief, and not the tenets of lay liberalism, that impels people to be involved in church.”
The eventual result of decline is clearly tied to this breakdown in theological orthodoxy as the authors measured the distinction, or lack of distinction, between lay liberals (who are churched) and their non-churched counterparts. The authors found that “lay liberals who are active Presbyterians do not differ sharply in their religious views from the people who are not involved in a church but who describe themselves as religious. There is, in short, no clear-cut ‘faith boundary’ separating active Presbyterians from those who no longer go to church.”
Thus, we see the vanishing boundary and its impact on the baby boom generation. Vanishing Boundaries is one of the most important and seminal books of recent years. It will deserve every ounce of debate it attracts. Its central argument will withstand all assaults.
Another consideration of related issues, this time from the pen of a gifted historian, is Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America by D. G. Hart (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, cloth, $35).
Hart, currently head librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, was previously director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism at Wheaton College. He has offered readers of this volume the most clarifying and satisfying treatment the imposing character of J. Gresham Machen has yet received.
Machen, we can imagine, would not be at all surprised to read Vanishing Boundaries, and he would certainly appreciate the attention the authors direct to theological issues.
Machen is often remembered in contemporary reflection (when he is remembered at all) as a hard and unbending introvert who served as the out-maneuvered conservative general in the Presbyterian version of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s.
Hart offers a sympathetic but honest portrait of Machen, based upon original research and an unparalleled access to the Machen papers. Machen, a brilliant and single-minded man, defies facile categorization. Hart does not attempt to force Machen into the simplistic categories of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Furthermore, the author gives careful attention to the social and cultural context of both the man and the movements which surrounded him and shaped his times.
Hart reveals the influence of Machen’s southern heritage (rooted in his Baltimore origins and aristocratic Virginian ancestry) and his scholarly commitments. Though Machen was clearly the intellectual giant of the fundamentalist movement, he carried this burden uneasily, as he was neither a dispensationalist nor a prohibitionist.
Defending the Faith gives careful attention to Machen’s career at Princeton Theological Seminary and his eventual founding of Westminster Theological Seminary after the forced reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929. Throughout, Machen held to his orthodox theological convictions. He was determined to hold fast to both the Reformed orthodoxy of Old Princeton (with clear adherence to the Westminster Confession) and to the classical model of theological education which Old Princeton represented.
Hart’s detailed reconstruction of the events surrounding Machen’s battles within Princeton Seminary, the Presbyterian denomination, and the larger context of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy reads with the passion and pathos of historical reconstruction at its best and most honest. Hart is a gifted writer, and he has taken as his subject a fascinating individual set within one of the most formative moments in modern Protestantism.
The author is also able to drop another of his favorite characters into the narrative at turns, as he cites the acerbic H. L. Mencken, who wrote that Machen is to William Jennings Bryan “as the Matterhorn is to a wart.”
But this evangelical Matterhorn would perplex many of his current admirers, as he tenaciously held to the Southern Presbyterian conception of the “spirituality” of the church. This conception, which defined the church in spiritual terms and denied the propriety of ecclesiastical incursions into secular politics, clashed then and clashes now with the more politically-minded of his evangelical compatriots.
Hart registers his hope that Machen’s contribution “may still prove instructive to believers and secularists in America today who through a series of culture wars struggle to reconcile the demands of faith with the realities of modernity.”
These culture wars have again drawn the attention of James Davison Hunter in Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War (New York: The Free Press, 1994, cloth, $22.95). Hunter, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is well established as a scholar and author. His noteworthy contributions have included Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, and Culture Wars, his 1991 volume which set the stage for a larger cultural discussion and is the prolegomenon to this present volume.
Before the Shooting Begins is a less-sanguine contribution than Culture Wars. Hunter compares the culture wars of the 1990s to the period just prior to the civil war. He is clearly concerned that very real shooting may begin, and his book is an attempt to frame and to forge a truly democratic conversation which can bridge understanding if not achieve agreement or consensus.
The book is at its strength when clarifying moral debate, as in the book’s fourth chapter (coauthored with Carl Bowman), “The Anatomy of Ambivalence: What Americans Really Believe.” But the argument falters when Hunter moves to define the proper mode of moral discourse and argumentation within democratic commitments. The great question hanging over the volume is this: are there not some issues the democratic process cannot handle, once a theistic referent is removed? Some issues are clearly more important than democracy, and some convictions are prior to democratic commitments. This is what makes the culture wars so inherently dangerous — and it explains why the mainstream media and an ambivalent culture simply do not understand.
But one who does understand is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and it is fitting and timely that Edward E. Ericson has recently produced Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1993, cloth, $24). Solzhenitsyn is one of the most important living figures on the world scene, though you would hardly know this from viewing and reading the American media. Furthermore, his stature as a Nobel laureate would never be inferred from the shabby treatment he receives at the hands of booksellers.
As Ericson demonstrates with style and grace, Solzhenitsyn’s vision is deeply rooted in the Christian worldview. Indeed, it is incomprehensible apart from it.
As Ericson recites, the American media have portrayed Solzhenitsyn as anti-democratic, anti-Western, ungrateful, reactionary, chauvinistic, nationalistic, and authoritarian. Ericson replies: “This view of his thinking is false at every point. Yet, it prevails.”
Ericson, professor of English at Calvin College in Michigan, has made Solzhenitsyn a focus of his scholarship for over twenty-five years. The fruit of that study is to be found in this volume, and this is an appropriate moment for a thorough reconsideration of Solzhenitsyn and his worldview. It is well-written and superbly well-timed.
This son of Russia is about to return to his home. He will return as a prophet vindicated by the course of events and fall of the murderous Soviet regime. He also returns as one who knows why the Russian future — and that of our own nation — is so perilous. Ten years ago, Solzhenitsyn began his famous Templeton address, “Men have forgotten God.” In our dangerous days, that is the beginning of wisdom.

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