Home > Books > Whose modernity is it, anyway?

Whose modernity is it, anyway?

A few months ago I finally sat down (on an airplane, turns out) and read George Marsden’s 1991 book Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [link, link]. I wish I’d done this a year or so ago, since he covers (much better) some of the ground I’ve covered here regarding the historical relationship(s) between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. One of the puzzles Marsden tries to solve is why some fundamentalists adapt so readily to some aspects of modernity and not to others. In particular Marsden is puzzled why fundamentalists readily take up mass communications and modern transportation when fundamentalism itself is anti-modern.

This is something that puzzles me, too; but I’ll get to that later.

This led me to look for a definition of modernity, both in contrast to what it replaced and what is gradually replacing it. We tend to think of modernity as being characterized by

  • A general if occasionally vague or fuzzy faith in human progress
  • Gradual but inexorable empowerment of the individual [link]

That’s the shorter less precise definition I’m more or less familiar with, and the one I heard as a kind of straw man back in the Eighties when I first encountered this stuff. More detailed definitions tend to identify aspects of modernity as if they were separable:

  • A post-traditional or post-medieval outlook
  • Displacement of feudalism in favor of capitalism, industrialization, secularization, rationalization, and the nation-state [link]

These are interlocking pieces: to a degree secularization is the banishment of religion; capitalism and industrialization went hand in hand; capitalism more or less shaped the modern nation-state and industrialization gave it its power, etc. Some pieces are harder to fit together, though: while it’s easy to see how rationalization aided industrial progress, and undermined religion, it’s harder to see that industrialization and secularization should necessarily coincide.

And that’s an aspect of Marsden’s puzzle in a nutshell. Some people lose their faith as they become rich; others don’t. Some people believe in the power of science and technology exclusive of their belief in God; others don’t.

Still, much of the history of American Christianity can be described in terms of accommodation or rejection of modernity. The Amish more or less reject it outright; various theological innovations have been overt accommodations of modernism (e.g. liberation theology). And  I think I’d be tempted to lay out the various aspects of conservative Christianity according to what aspects of modernity it accommodates: some merely accommodate modern technology; others technology and optimism; others capitalism and/or the politics of the modern nation-state. The last, of course, being the primary point of difference in the late Seventies between fundamentalists and evangelicals. And the adoption of business management practices as church management being the big controversy within e.g. the LCMS.

I think I would even argue that differences in preaching style could be framed this way: some preachers appeal to our emotions and traditions and so doing are premodern or early modern; others appeal to our reason or even ask us to calculate, and so are (more) modern [link].

Marsden wrote this particular essay back in the late Eighties; I wonder what he would say if he were writing the same essay today. After all, the megachurch per se wasn’t yet a well-formed concept until at least 1992 [link].

I recommend Marsden’s book whole-heartedly. If anything I wish it were longer and more detailed, with more data and less story; that being said, nobody else that I’ve found said what he says as clearly as he does or looks at modern church history this way. It’s a pretty useful model; Joe Bob says check it out.


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