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Modern American Religion Volume I: THE IRONY OF IT ALL, 1893-1919 by Martin E. Marty (University of Chicago: $24.95; 320 pp., illustrated)

April 19, 1987|Huston Horn | Horn is a writer and an Episcopal priest.

To judge from the production of thoughtful articles, insightful newsletters, scholarly books and bantering literary entertainments that flow from the flying fingers of historian Martin E. Marty, the man must write as fast as the rest of us read.

A self-styled Marty Watcher of my acquaintance, himself a journalist who dawdles, is intimidated by Marty's prose-worthy pace. He broods that Marty must be able to maintain almost effortlessly the flair that distinguishes his writing.

Alas, Marty is as mortal as any other author, as readers come sadly to realize while laboring through "Modern American Religion, Volume I: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919."

Despite the whimsical title on the one hand and Marty's remarkable erudition and command of detail on the other, the book is more leaden than ironic, more comprehensive than comprehensible. That three more volumes are promised . . . for me, at least, the anticipation is not uncontainable.

Marty is professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, and his estimable objective is to produce the "first coordinated history of 20th-Century American religion" and thus to "change public understandings of what is usually called secular culture," of how, adventitiously, the two have kneaded and shaped one another.

And the interpretive thread he traces through Volume I is "humane irony," that corrosion of progress, Marty explains, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, when "virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue" and "wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its limits."

An ironic theme best fits the circumstances of his subject, Marty says, because contrariety dogged the steps of American Protestants, Catholics and Jews in the late 1890s and early 1900s as they adjusted to the modern world's intrusions of science, technology and contemporary thinking.

For though their several adjustments were varied--some to sanctify the modern, some to scorn it altogether, some to wrestle with it, some to pass through it and move on to ideas more exotic--results were uniform: All tended to be off the mark and frequently the reverse of initial intentions.

Introducing in Chapter 1 those who are to carry forward his story, Marty presents an amorphous cast. We sniff on about Page 2 that the weather we're in for will be heavy.

There are five groupings: the modernists-- progressive WASP clergymen comfortable with science and things modern; the moderns-- men and women of secular leanings with residual religious backgrounds; the anti-moderns or cocoon people--largely Catholics, Orthodox Jews and ethnic Protestants who hoped to insulate themselves from modern change; the countermoderns-- fundamentalist Protestants opposed on theological grounds to such irreverent notions as biblical criticism; and transmoderns-- the extra-scientific Christian Scientists and Seventh-day Adventists.

The historical format Marty then employs is a synthesizing sampler of ideas and quotations tumbling over one another in happy proliferation--all duly noted, too. The author, sharp as he is, is no doubt able in his own mind to keep this array of shifting subtleties in clear focus at all times. But I must declare that here is a conglomeration not easily compassed about.

Good stories, all the same, are to be dug out, and surface, occasionally, on their own. This one--as it happens, one for which I feel some kindred sympathy--is typical:

The turn-of-the-century quarrel over evolution, Marty writes, was not a simplistic spat between "united scientists and stupid and stupefied clerics," as the story of the struggle is usually told. The scientific community no less than the religious one was divided.

Pastoral-hearted, science-minded modernist Christians in the late 19th Century, for example--those who, as one of them said, believed "in Jesus rather in spite of the miracles than because of them"--thought they had found a reassuring link between themselves and the emerging evolutionists. The scientists' thesis that life was developing from lower to higher forms bolstered a progressive religious conceit: that social progress toward the kingdom was also in the divine order of things.

But Charles Darwin, contradicting the work of the directed evolutionists, was saying something significantly different: Change was not in the least bit well-intentioned by God or anything else; it was accidental, fortuitous, mindless.

Accordingly, says Marty, "not evolution itself but natural selection turned out to be the scandal for reactionary believers. It was also a problem for . . . progressives" who could deal with biblical myth far more handily than with the implications of this new and unsettling theological twist.

The clang of irony sounded again within the temple precincts during World War I when the Church Peace Union became an instrument of U.S. war propaganda. And there is more, but let us close, taking as our text for the day Matthew 20:12 (King James Version): "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."

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