A former fundamentalist examines the world of his youth

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“From my earliest days growing up across the river from my grandparents, I was raised to wait upon the rapture of the saints. Apocalypse was a distant cloud always on the horizon.”

With a keen eye for detail, Brett Grainger plunges readers into the Brethren community of his youth. Like other Christian fundamentalists, the group believed in the “Five Fundamentals of the Christian faith”: Biblical inerrancy, Jesus’ virgin birth, the belief Jesus died for our sins, the resurrection of his body, and a doctrine of his miracles.

Drawing on these beliefs – and the practices they inspired – Grainger paints an intricate picture of fundamentalist Christian life. His grandmother “stuffed her purse with Bible tracts, and pressed them on strangers like breath mints. At the edge of her property she put up a massive green sign that said, ‘What think ye of Christ?’” Grainger’s grandfather, an itinerant preacher, waited one Sunday for the Rapture. As he sat in a recliner, expecting to be subsumed into Heaven, “his long legs suspended in midair, he appeared to already have taken leave of the Earth.”

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Getting saved was most important, Grainger writes. The idea that “the longer you waited … the more painful and dramatic the procedure,” prompted his own conversion experience at age 13.
In In the World but Not of It: One Family’s Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America, Grainger uses his childhood experiences and interviews with other Christian fundamentalists as lenses through which he traces the development of American fundamentalism.

Grainger, who attained a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, sought out a variety of adherents, including a “freelance fundamentalist” who fought digital-imaging databases, actors in a fundamentalist Halloween “hell house,” and others whose lives allow him to explore the tradition’s diversity. But Grainger’s insider status also enables him to dig into sacredly held positions with authority, specificity, and compassion.

In so doing, Grainger makes a convincing case that though loosely organized, today’s fundamentalists can trace rebellious attitudes back to Martin Luther’s 16th-century “Sola scriptura” rallying cry, and have been waging “mini-revolutions” in America since the five fundamentals were established at the Niagara Bible Conference movement of 1878-1897. Earlier glimpses of American fundamentalism could be found with the Puritans, he writes.

In 1920, Baptist newspaperman Curtis Lee Laws said fundamentalists were willing to do “battle royal” for their faith. But with no central authority to unite them – just the overarching belief that all can interpret the Bible – diverse battles arose. Adherence to biblical literalism adopted at Niagara became one of the longest-enduring battles.

For some fundamentalists, the Niagara nod to literalism wasn’t a negation of the challenge science was posing to religion, but an acknowledgment of it – a means of adapting to modernity. In his most interesting argument, Grainger posits such adaptations have encouraged fundamentalists to find an “alternate way of being modern.”

A visit with the founders of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., provides an example. Dedicated to “young earth creationism” (the belief that the Genesis story is literally true and the world was created in six days some 6,000 years ago), the museum employs young-earth astrophysicists and geologists who argue that the Bible is correct and science can prove its veracity. Noah’s flood – not thousands of years of Earth’s evolution – deposited the rocks around the globe, they insist.

The stance represents a break from pre-1960s fundamentalists, who negated a scientific approach to Earth’s origins.

“Fundamentalists such as [the museum founders] are employing a post-modern strategy in their 150-year contest with Charles Darwin…. Creationists hope to sow enough confusion in the minds of the undecided to provoke a stalemate,” Grainger writes. More than 400,000 visitors have viewed the museum’s animatronic dinosaurs and biblical characters since the museum’s May 2007 opening.

Grainger eventually left the Brethren and found a home in Anglicanism. He presents little joy in the fundamentalist tradition and readers may question whether that tells us something about fundamentalism or simply Grainger’s particular experience of those beliefs.

But “In the World but Not of It” does succeed in showing us how fundamentalists remain relevant and a force to be reckoned. Anyone desiring an understanding of fundamentalist life beyond what can be gleaned from TV clips of 1980s televangelists will appreciate the bird’s-eye view Grainger shares.

Sarah More McCann is an intern at the Monitor.

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