That Old Time Religion Explained

Pentecostalism in America

By R. G. Robins

Faith healing (deliverance), speaking in tongues (glossolalia), end time predictions (Revelation), God working full-time on the planet, what is this stuff and who are these people who embrace these, and more, as pure gospel? They are believers who pretty much, with variations, accept Jesus Christ as Savior, as Baptizer in partnership with the Holy Spirit; that Christ is healer and that He is returning as King. They have produced interesting, colorful, and to more rational minds, outrageous preachers and leaders, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and many others whose names aren’t nearly as well known, as least not to the population at large. Additionally, they comprise a substantial group in their various iterations, approaching 15 million in number. And while historically concentrating their efforts on spiritual and salvationist affairs, since the 1960s, they have and are asserting themselves in the secular social, economic, and political world. Reasons enough to become familiar with their history and belief systems.

Robins makes some cogent observations regarding this throughout, but non clearer of what is happening currently than this in the latter portion of the study: “Americans of more liberal persuasion … welcomed the sweep of post-civil rights changes as the arc of progress, a vital widening of participatory democracy, personal liberty, and social justice. But conservatives responded with outrage and alarm. Taken together, these trends introduced a new source of conservation solidarity: the conviction that an unholy alliance subsumed under the general heading of secular humanism has laid siege to Christian America, placing the spiritual and political foundation of the nation, indeed, the very fabric of society, at risk.”

In this monograph, Robins, himself raised among what some used to call (perhaps still do in certain quarters) shouters, introduces readers to Pentecostal origins, beliefs, branching, organizations, and entry into secular society as warriors against the humanistic ideas of modernity. In other words, worthwhile reading for “nonbelievers.” As an extra inducement, Robins prefaces the study with a personal introduction that recounts his young years most will find unexpected and entertaining. w/c

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Understanding Today’s Religious Right

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

By Frances Fitzgerald

Readers who are not evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, who are not religious at all, or who merely pay lip service to the idea, will learn a lot from Frances Fitzgerald’s new, and at times numbingly detailed, history of these two groups, as well as their many splinters.

Perhaps the most intriguing and, when considered carefully in the light of reality, is the thorough infusion of religious mysticism into the world, as if God and the eternal were palpable participants in our physical world, or something like a parallel dimension separated by a most porous, frequently traversed membrane. Writing a sentence like the preceding, however, does little to capture how disturbing (yet also insightful) many will find the manifestations of an overarching, other worldly belief system, because whether or not you believe, it impacts your life. Fitzgerald illustrates how when she reaches “Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority” (just short of halfway) and proceeds through most of the high points of recent history, with particular concentration and insight into the theologizing, philosophizing, and politicizing not visible to non, marginal, and true believers. For this reason, for its practical value, many will find this an invaluable history and resource.

While readers will find it tempting, given the length and density of this history, to sprint or just leap to current times, spending time with the first half of the history will help you frame current times. After all, the belief systems, some of which feel simplistic, spring from some deep thinking, particularly in the era when religion dominated the landscape. Thus, Fitzgerald takes readers through the First (1730-40s) and Second (1800 through the 1830s) Great Awakenings, the days of Calvinist Jonathan Edwards and the personalization of the religious experience, and Charles Finney’s “burnt-over district,” a period marked by the rise of revivalism and the jettisoning of rationalism in favor of emotion. Then follows the Civil War and wrapped around it from antebellum to post reconstruction the splintering over slavery and other issues related to the experience of religion. Finally, in the run up to current days, readers walk through the preaching of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, from Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday, until they reach the days of the influential Falwell, the scandalous Jim and Tammy and Jimmy Swaggart, the monumentally influential Billy Graham, and, regardless of what you think of him, the immense influencer, the game changer extraordinaire, Pat Robertson.

The ground Fitzgerald tills here is a truck farm of religion, politics, business; of larger than life personalities; of theologies and philosophies that will strike nonbelievers as bizarre. You’ll learn much that may surprise you, too, such as the fact that before our days of politicalized religion, Protestants in their various manifestations agreed in steering clear of politics. How things have changed, indeed. w/c

Cheating with Christ

Today Will Be Different

By Maria Semple

The midlife crisis, isn’t wonderful fodder for screenwriters and novelists? Treatment can be hilarious or serious, or, as in Maria Semple’s new outing, a blending of both. Eleanor Flood Wallace is about to turn 50. She’s enjoyed a career as an animation director on a successful television show. She’s a woman of many opinions all of which come at the reader regularly, usually coated in humor.

She also has a very precocious little boy named Timby (credit autocorrect for it); he may be the funniest character in the novel. She has a wacky toy pooch, Yo-Yo (which describes Eleanor quite nicely). And she’s married to a very successful hand surgeon, Joe, who, among other things, is on contract with the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s a saint. And, oh yes, she lives in Seattle. Sounds ideal, but there wouldn’t be much of a novel if it were.

When she discovers that Joe’s staff thinks the family is off on vacation, she wonders if Joe’s throwing her over for another woman. Roll out the self-deprecation. Her search for an answer serves as the propulsive drive of the novel, mean to get you from A to B in a zig zag line that wends you through her life. Turns out it was an eventful one, filled with bad parenting, a stage mother, a beautiful sister whom she has a falling out with over the sister’s controlling socialite New Orleans husband, and her own feelings of insecurity and her general daffiness.

All this entertains for the first hundred pages or so, until it turns to tedium and Eleanor’s humorous wackiness disintegrates into something you want to escape. Really, you get tired of her. You think, Good for Joe. Who could deal with this daily?

If you persevere, however, you stagger into a clever ending, for dear Joe is having an affair, of sorts. But it’s with someone and a philosophy both rejected in their youth, and which is one shared thing among many differences. That’s got to, and does, hurt, just like getting there does. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

The Terrified Spiritualist

Nightmare Alley (1946)

By William Lindsay Gresham

There isn’t much that is truly unique, especially within genre fiction, and usually that’s the way readers like it, since they approach these books with certain expectations. William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley most assuredly fulfills those expectations by creating a dark world and populating with people who live in the shadows. Then Gresham goes beyond what you expect, deep into carney life, deeper into spiritualism, and deeper still into the scarred human psyche. His novel teems with double crosses, murder, sex (even touching the edges of SM), and the willful and cruelest twisting of people’s beliefs and grief for personal profit.

Stan is a haunted young man when readers first meet him in a traveling Ten-in-One (a sideshow usually with ten acts in a row, some involving “freaks,” for one admission). He has plenty of ghosts in his past, all issuing from psychologically trying childhood. Imagine the worst things a boy can see and you’ll have foresight into Stan’s motivations. He learns much about carney life, including what a geek is, an alcoholic who will do anything for a bottle, even bite the heads off live chickens to amuse the yokels. He also meets Zeena, a mentalist, from whom he learns the tricks of the trade and with whom he carries on an affair. Her husband, while not a geek, is an alcoholic who comes to what most assume an accidental end. Stan steps into the act, and why not, as he’s already been in the man’s bed.

At the Ten-in-One, he meets sweet, young Molly, the electric girl. He carries on with her while perfecting his skills as a mentalist and also delving into the world of spiritualism (basically, the belief that the soul exists after death, with the added feature that the dead wish and try to communicate with the living). Stan harbors and cultivates the vision of hooking a big fish and taking him or her for a bundle. He even goes so far as to gain ordination in the spiritualist church. Stan’s quite the smart fellow, well versed in mentalism, electricity and devices, religion, and most important of all, the human desire to believe. It’s this entire span of the novel, the Act 2, if you will, that really elevates it and sets it apart from the general run of American noir. Tossed into this is psychology, particularly after Stan, haunted even more by his past, visits psychologist Lilith Ritter. If Stan defines blackguard then Lilith is the scoundrel who sets off his petard. It is she who supplies him the mark he’s hungered for. And it nearly all works out for Stan, if only he had been able to surmount his nightmares.

Everything, then, devolves in the last act, wherein Stan finds himself older, sicker, addicted, and sliding into his past, to where he began, only now as the freak. Really, though, will you be able to muster even a dollop of sympathy for him?

Noir writers of the period tended to live hard lives and few were unfamiliar with the bottle. Gresham, who committed suicide at 53, partially blind and suffering with cancer, led a particularly eventful life that included folk singing in Greenwich Village cafes, jobs in journalism and advertising, more than a year as a medic with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Later his first wife, Joy Davidman, and he became enamored of C.S. Lewis and said’s return to and advocacy of christianity. Joy Davidman, after her marriage to Gresham dissolved, married Lewis.  Gresham went on to explore other spiritual interests, among them occultism and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. In other words, a most interesting fellow. w/c

What was an Anchoress?

The Anchoress

By Robyn Cadwallader

Anchoress: a woman in religious seclusion; a female anchorite, or hermit; for the purpose of leading an intensely religious life of prayer and contemplation apart from the world.

Anchorite life became more common in the middle Medieval age and in England, both the time and setting for Cadwallader’s generally interesting and sometimes compelling novelistic exploration of the phenomena. However, the author focuses mostly on the temporal aspects of her anchorite, Sarah, and not nearly as much on the mystical quest of the one dead to the world seeking spiritual rebirth. In Sarah’s case, her motivations for the anchorite life seem skewed to bad experiences in her young life, more of a way to escape into the protective arms of Christ than a purely spiritual reawakening. For this reason, some may approach the novel expecting more than it delivers.

At seventeen, Sarah, who has lived the religious life for a time, enters her anchorhold. While she has her Rules (for more on their composition, see the Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses). She soon discovers that her seclusion is anything but, as the world, in the form of her maids, lord, priest, and villagers intrude upon her devotions. To intensify her experience, she engages in extreme forms of self-discipline, weakening herself and setting off a period of hallucinating. As her story progresses, we readers learn more about her motivations for seeking a secluded life. These make up the driving force of the plot and are best left for readers to discover on their own. Suffice it to say, these are all temporal.

Father Renaulf is her confessor. He’s none to pleased for the task. He is more interested in his work as a scribe and in building a first-class scriptorium at his monastery. Over time, though, he develops a relationship with Sarah based on respect for her while doing everything in his power to help her resolve issues tormenting her.

Cadwallader does a good job of recreating an era that will seem completely alien to the modern mind. Two things will strike readers immediately, these being the lowly state of women who find it almost impossible to control nearly any part of their lives and the power of feudal authority to direct every element of peasant existence, though these particular peasants appear to find a way to resist their odious overlord, the thoroughly unlikeable Sir Thomas, he being a fellow who could have benefited greatly from a modern course on cultivating his interpersonal skills.

In a novel of this sort, you might expect flowery, somewhat refined language and a bit of lost peasant vernacular, something more along the lines of what you’ll find in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, as in his terrific adventure, Ivanhoe (highly recommended). Alas, Cadwallader elects a simpler modern approach, so the dialogue sounds more like what you encounter in typical popular novels of today.

In sum, then, while an interesting subject, it could have been better, which is not to say that many will, nonetheless, enjoy it. w/c

Challenge Your Beliefs

Wise Blood

By Flannery O’Connor

In her letter (O’Connor was a prolific letter writer) responding to reader Ben Griffith (3/54), O’Connor remarked halfway through about Wise Blood this way: “…it is entirely Redemption-centered in thought….perhaps it is hard to see because H. Motes is such an admirable nihilist.” And, indeed, it would seem redemption is the theme, as in the end Motes does come back as a corpse to his landlady Mrs. Flood, who sums things up succinctly: “Well, Mr. Motes, I see you’ve come home!” Of course, as readers discover after a bit of consideration, there’s more to see here in addition to and mostly in support of the redemption idea.

For Motes’ return concludes a rough journey that turns on the conflict of free will vs. determinism, but which also allows O’Connor to address other concerns, among them the question of what constitutes truth, blind faith vs. empiricism, humankind’s spiritual aspiration vs. animalism, human isolation even in a crowded world, and violence.

Some of these strike the reader immediately and on nearly every page of the novella, most particularly the conflict between free will and determinism. For example, Motes is in full rebellion against religion in which he had been inculcated since boyhood. Returning home from war a wounded vet, he rejects religion and even tries establishing and proselytizing his own anti-religion, the Church Without Christ. To no avail, though, as to everybody who sees him, he appears marked as a preacher. The suit and hat certainly don’t help much, nor his constant ranting about Truth. He cannot seem, no matter how hard he tries, to escape his fate; it has been ordained for him. The Truth he espouses is the empirical: what we see, feel, and experience in our temporal world. This doesn’t allow for religious trappings, like a soul, redemption, or salvation, The Truth to the vast majority, including O’Connor.

O’Connor paints a pretty bleak picture of Taulkinham, barren lands, dirty streets, confining rooms, and a preponderance of pigs roaming the landscape, not to mention a citizenry that often feels alien in its grotesqueness. Among these folks are Asa Hawks (the ersatz blind preacher), Sabbath Lily Hawks (the 15-year-old daughter who sets about to seduce Motes, providing a sin for redemption), Onnie Jay Holy (the charlatan preacher who steals and corrupts Motes’ church and Motes’ concept of Truth, prompting another sin by Motes), Mrs. Flood (the landlady), and Enoch Emery, the 18-old-boy in search of human companionship.

Enoch lives up to his name in his dedication to Motes, in spite of Motes constantly ignoring and outrightly rejecting him. More, though, Enoch aspires to one thing: friendship. Pitched out as a child and shunned by Taulkinham, he bemoans the town as thoroughly unfriendly. Warm companionship is purely aspirational for Enoch, for his Wise Blood, his instinctual driver, forces him to do things quite alienating, like peeping on women at the local swimming pool, indulging in sweets (his animal desires), regularly insulting people, and the like. He also holds a fascination for animals (the animal nature of humans) and works at the zoo. In the end, his aspiration for friendship falls away and he finds himself in a kind of hell; that is, in an ape costume spurned by humankind.

Further on this concept of baseness, Mrs. Flood exhibits distrustfulness. It’s interesting that Motes comes to spend a version of eternity with her in his little hermit’s nest, for she has been suspicious throughout the story that Motes is trying to put something over on her. She can’t figure out what it is but she knows it’s there. (This, as an aside, is a trait Othello would have benefited from regarding Iago.)

As for the other concerns of the novel, isolation and violence, you’ll find ample examples scattered throughout, not the least of which is Motes’ withdrawal from the world, characterized by his self-blinding and tiny room, and the brutal treatment of children and the murders committed by the key characters.

In short, while Wise Blood may appear simple, and certainly is short, O’Connor crowds and layers its pages with a lot of weighty contemplation on the salvation of humankind, thought provoking ideas that force readers to slow down and dig deeper into the text and themselves. w/c