All books are in competition with one another to be read. Go to a remainders book store if you want to dissuade someone from a writing career; see the piles of unread books about to reduced to wood-pulp. Somehow we select some books and not others, and sometimes for no better reason than the cover or the title.
On my reading list are great books in the Oxford series of the history of the American republic, such as Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization, a history of the world from a maritime perspective, Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, a brilliant and concise history of humanity from 500,000 years ago through now, which is a fast and efficient romp through the Large Facts, Doris Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, about the relationship of Theodore Roosevelt to William Taft, which is too long for the importance of the story related and Jesus: A Pilgrimage, by James Martin SJ, which is beckoning, and several others.
One in particular has won the race against all these “better” books of history, “The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in the American Family”, by Andrew Himes. The author is descended from a line of Baptist preachers, brother to Baptist preachers, and from a line of what are called Scots-Irish, really border people in Scotland, Wales and England who took off for America in the 1800s.
Himes relates the evolution of fundamentalism to the large events that shaped his forbears: dirt poor in Tennessee, to millionaire farmers and slave holders in Missouri, wiped out in the Civil War, the flight to Texas, and the slow climb out of poverty once again.
I am fascinated by people whose interpretation of Christianity is so alien to me. Fundamentalism, in my way of thinking, de-emphasizes the role of the human mind in interpreting the Scriptures, and downplays the role of error, of interpretation, and locks itself into needless battles with modernity, such as anti-Darwinism and resistance to the civil rights of American blacks. In short, they tend to get themselves into Islamic levels of intolerance of anything not themselves.
Once upon a time, a man who had been brought up in the Plymouth Brethren explained to me his interpretation of what fundamentalism entails.
We were at the dining table. He pointed to the position of the salt and pepper. “Imagine”, he said, “if the salt and pepper being on this side of the drinking glass meant you were going to heaven, and on the other, you were on your way to Hell. Imagine the daily anxiety. Everything, but everything, leads to heaven or hell. That is the point of life: salvation or damnation. So you would be pretty anxious about the smaller details of life, because you never knew for sure what would start you on the path to perdition.
“The anxiety is intolerable. So you project outward onto other people this anxiety, and start to find fault in others because the fault in yourself cannot be tolerated, so consciousness of it is repressed. Fault-finding becomes a deeply rooted reflex.”
Everything I am reading in Andrew Himes’ book makes sense from this perspective. The author was, as a child, a Baptist bigot, travelled through loss of faith and Marxism, (bigotry of a different kind) and arrived back at a post-fundamentalist Christianity.
What would such a Christianity look like? It would, in part, be belief in things that one does not know for a fact to exist. God is not a scientific question, that is, susceptible of proof by inference from the arrangement of physical forces. [On this issue Dawkins is not even wrong]. Moreover it would be a degree of comfort, and not anxiety, that belief would be different from perception of facts, and inferences from nature.
Himes’ story is the emergence of a more relaxed and at the same time stronger faith out of his conflicts with his preaching family, their doctrines, and the quarrelsome tribe from which he sprang. It conveys important lessons in how the United States came to be how it is, and how one man can evolve into something better than he was.