American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution (Discovering America)
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Christianity takes an astonishing variety of forms in America, from churches that cherish traditional modes of worship to evangelical churches and fellowships, Pentecostal churches, social-action churches, megachurches, and apocalyptic churches—congregations ministering to believers of diverse ethnicities, social classes, and sexual orientations. Nor is this diversity a recent phenomenon, despite many Americans' nostalgia for an undeviating "faith of our fathers" in the days of yore. Rather, as Stephen Cox argues in this thought-provoking book, American Christianity is a revolution that is always happening, and always needs to happen. The old-time religion always has to be made new, and that is what Americans have been doing throughout their history.
American Christianity is an engaging book, wide ranging and well informed, in touch with the living reality of America's diverse traditions and with the surprising ways in which they have developed. Radical and unpredictable change, Cox argues, is one of the few dependable features of Christianity in America. He explores how both the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches have evolved in ways that would make them seem alien to their adherents in past centuries. He traces the rise of uniquely American movements, from the Mormons to the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and brings to life the vivid personalities—Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Sunday, and many others—who have taken the gospel to the masses. He sheds new light on such issues as American Christians' intense but constantly changing political involvements, their controversial revisions in the style and substance of worship, and their chronic expectation that God is about to intervene conclusively in human life. Asserting that "a church that doesn't promise new beginnings can never prosper in America," Cox demonstrates that American Christianity must be seen not as a sociological phenomenon but as the ever-changing story of individual people seeking their own connections with God, constantly reinventing their religion, making it more volatile, more colorful, and more fascinating.
Bryan, thought that McPherson actually exempliﬁed the old-time religion. As her own publicity put it, she “belong[ed] to the new order of things,” but her ideas were “true to the ‘faith of our fathers.’”24 Ordinary people thought so too. That was quite an achievement, given her eccentricity, her early involvement in Pentecostalism (which evangelical Christians still frequently view with grave suspicion), and her “Hollywood technique,” as her enemies accurately referred to it. Almost everyone
later, American evangelicals would identify [its] rituals as part of the ‘old-time religion,’ when in fact almost every technique involved innovations.”30 Graham worked well with that sense of old-timeness, and seemed to renew it. But revivals had come a long way from the early years, when leading clergymen demanded that their colleagues “thrust the nail of terror into sleeping souls!” and Jonathan Edwards had to stop in the middle of his sermon because the congregation’s “shrieks & crys” were so
seemed very different: the hive of earnest organizations constructed by the big-church movement after evangelical fervor waned within the mainline denominations, and the evangelical fervor itself, the radical spirit of separatism that had been preserved in off-brand churches until it spread to the counter-countercultural movements of the 1970s. This is curious, and it may not last: both modern media and modern “family values” seem to militate against an emergence of the great, commanding
for their lives, a purpose that has much to do with maintaining American traditions in religion and politics but much less to do with voting Republican or even going to church. Leaders of the religious Right suffered from the same difficulty as leaders of the religious Left. As Finke and Stark have argued, people’s commitment to their religion depends in part on the religion’s critical “tension” with the social environment; a religion that lacks clear boundaries and challenges is in trouble.32
about the deep things of faith, they will continue to pursue the science of apocalypse and use it as their connection with God. 149 Cox Pages1.indd 149 1/16/14 11:08 AM 8 HIERARCHIES AND REVOLUTIONS A t Christmas season 2011, the Roman Catholic Church mounted an expensive advertising campaign. Its goal was to reach people who had been reared in the church and reclaim them as communicants. Its leading feature was a beautifully constructed television spot emphasizing the continuity of the