We build our lives on stories...the stories told to us about who we are as individual people, about our country, and our family's history. This idea...that so much of our identity and understanding is wrapped up in the stories we believe about ourselves and our origins is something that is becoming more and more interesting to me. I've always enjoyed history in the broadest sense of the word, but it's not until recent years, even months, that I've considered just how profoundly "history' affects us. So much about how we think and act can be attributed to forces and events we aren't aware of in the slightest, which always makes learning more about the past an exciting and sometimes even jarring experience.
My personal history is this: I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, my father was a pastor, and I have two older siblings. My parents were both first generation Christians, though their families later converted and had religious understanding and background in their lives.
All of this affected of course, who I became as a person and what I believed growing up. My family was church-going obviously, so I was raised to believe in God. I was raised in an evangelical family, so I always believed God was someone I could talk to, who had a personal interest in even the details of my life. I say this to explain that from a young age, I tried to communicate with God and understand what He wanted from me and my life. I have many memories of praying and reading the Bible and genuinely trying to build a relationship and also believing I had a connection with God throughout my growing up years. Additionally, I was taught to value the basic moral system in the Bible.
Christianity has been around for a long time, though. It's a faith system with a huge history, even bigger when you consider its roots in Judaism. It's one thing to grow up fully immersed in it, it's another to understand how the kind of Christianity I lived and breathed came to be. Understanding its origins, past conflicts, its history, helps me to be understand its present state, where it might go, and yes most especially to also better understand myself.
And...that's where I get to the actual review part. I was really interested in reading this book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, because there is a very long religious history in this country, my own faith history stems from it, and I know little about it. While the family focused on is the John R. Rice who was an influential fundamentalist, it begins all the way back in the very immigration to this country. This is a very comprehensive and insightful history.
I was riveted by it. I was so surprised by how much there was that I had never bothered to think about, and at the same time how much sense it all made. Himes writes in a very easy relateable way, but this is quite a dense read, which is to say there is A LOT of history to absorb. It's never dry, though, and in many ways is a page turner.
Since Himes's family was fundamentalist, he has firsthand experience of many people in the movement, and a life story of how he dealt with his own personal history. He weaves his own story into the text, beginning chapters with anecdotes and scenes from his own life and then going into more history. This is very effective, because it creates a sense of curiosity about the immediate story of Himes the man, while all along you are reading the history that was the foundation of the influences in his life.
Reading The Sword of the Lord then, with its history of fundamentalist Christianity, (including how that term went out of fashion for many evangelicals) was like turning a light on a shadowed corner of my life. Seriously, I have no way of explaining it, other than to say it was a bit like unearthing and seeing some of the roots of your life for the first time. I was fascinated by the history, by the very popular use of the Bible in extremely heated ways to support ideas on both sides of The Civil War, of the different ways faith manifested itself in the lives of people, what they valued and how that continued to shape each generation.
Himes spares no punches. Which is to say he is extremely forthright about the consequences as he sees them of the kind of faith practiced. Having said that I very much feel this book is written with a great deal of respect for the people it is about. While he may not agree with how they perceived God and what it meant to follow him, I never felt like he was condemning them either. Simply trying to paint the most accurate picture he could, a fully fleshed out messy portrait of messy humanity.
I loved The Sword of the Lord and I really feel that I recommend it to anyone at all who has an interest in the history of evangelical Christianity. I think even just history in the United States might be enough as that's a huge part of it.
Source of Book: Received from author for review
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Review: The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism In An American Family by Andrew Himes