Brokenhearted Theology, Reading Reflections

Reading Reflections #1 – Reforming Fundamentalism

I’ve decided that I want to post reflections on books that I’ve been reading as I finish them.  It’s really easy for me to read a book and promptly forget what struck me the most, or areas I’m challenged to grow in, or something that I find so poetic and beautiful that I don’t want to forget it.  So…instead of forgetting all that, I’ll hopefully post some of it here.  These aren’t meant to be reviews of books…just some basic and mostly random thoughts…for whatever they are worth.

So, the first of hopefully many…

    Reforming Fundamentalism by George Marsden

The lowdown: Marsden is a professor of history at Notre Dame, and has written extensively on church history, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, the 19th and 20th century american church, etc.  As the subtitle for this book alludes, Reforming Fundamentalism is about “Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.”  Basically, Marsden’s is arguing that there was a significant shift in evangelical thinking (what was called “New Evangelicalism”) that broke from traditional fundamenlist thinking, and the events and people surrounding the founding and first 30-40 years of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA serve as a microcosm of what was happening throughout the country, in churches and institutions of higher learning.

Why I read it: I was recommended to this book by several doctoral students (Thanks Jim and Tim) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Knowing I was headed to Fuller for grad school, I was interested in learning whatever I could about the founding and history of the seminary.  I also realized that I don’t have a lot of knowledge about what got the American church to the point that it is currently at, and this book seemed like a good first stab at figuring that out. 

What I got out of it: At the simplest level, it’s really nice to be able to walk around Fuller’s campus and know a little bit of the history of the campus, the area, the surrounding churches, and why certain buildings are named what they are. 

But, there is a lot of history in this book that fascinated me.  Throughout the book there is a constant struggle between Fuller and mainline demoninations (specifically the Presbyterian Church).  Fuller was founded as an institution that would attempt to bridge some of the gap that had grown between separatists/fundamentalists and the mainline denominations.  For a long period in the earlier years, the Presbyterian Church (along with Methodists and several other denominations) actually ‘blacklisted’ Fuller and it’s graduates, arguing that Fuller was “divisive” and “schismatic.”  Coming from a non-denominational background, I’m just starting to get a grasp on the different denominations and doctrinal differences, so this continuing ‘battle’ was intruiging to me.  It’s also interesting that nowadays Fuller is more widely accepted by mainline denominations, and in some sense ‘blacklisted’ by more conservative denominations for being too “liberal” and “mainline.”  Funny how history cycles and shifts and switches place.

There is no lack of conflict in this book or Fuller’s history.  Intenal faculty conflicts are everywhere, external conflicts with the American church as a whole, and internal personal conflicts abound for many of the individual faculty members of Fuller.  One professor, Bela Vassady, who only taught at Fuller for a short time because of the conflict with the Presbyterian Church (he was refused admission into the LA Presbytery because of his connection with Fuller, despite being an internationally renowned theologian from the Hungarian Reformed tradition, which had connections with the Presbyterian Church in America), commented that he “had never experienced a seminary so evangelical in doctine and so un-evangelical in practice” (114).  It’s so interesting to see the inner-workings of how this school started, and how difficult it was to get “off the ground” amidst tension and problems both inside and outside of the inner core of Fuller. 

The book actually reminded me a lot of the current debate surrounding Emergent, especially in terms of how nasty us Christians can be to each other because of the potential that we or they or you might be heretics and apostates.  When a new Fuller president gave his inaugural address speaking of the need to focus on love and tolerance (keep in mind this was 1955 tolerance…not today’s tolerance…to be tolerant in 1955 meant to not excommunicate someone for having hair past their ears).  The speech was considered a huge blemish on Fuller, and was withheld from publications.  Marsden explains the reaction, commenting that “When Christian leaders start talking about love or the limits of our knowledge, heresy cannot be far behind” (148). 

So…I think there’s a ton to learn from the debates of a half-century ago, and a tremendous value to understanding the history, both good and bad, of a school like Fuller.  Christianity and evangelicalism have come a long way, but definitely have a lot further to go. 

Should you read this book?: The first one or two hundred pages were extremely dry…recounting a lot of conversations that led up to the founding of the seminary.  I was overwhelmed by the number of names being thrown out there that I had never heard of, and found it difficult to follow along with.  After being told that it “read like a novel”, I was a bit thrown by the lack of plot at first…but I continued on, and just as I was about to send a nastygram to one of the guys who recommended it to me, it all of a sudden got really good and I found it hard to put down.  If I read it again, I would probably enjoy the beginning a lot more, having an understanding of the characters and the role they all played in the saga.

I recommend this book for people who are interested in Fuller and it’s history.  There’s a lot of great insight into evangelicalism in this book, but unless you’re really interested or can easily wade through a lot of names/dates/places, it might be a bit dry. 

Next up: Good to Great by Jim Collins

Wow…that is really wordy and long…congrats and apologies if you’ve made it to the end!


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