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« Hammett and the Roots of Film Noir | Main | A Hazard of New York »

New York and The Fundamentalist Controversy

Nathanael West's sadistically dark if brilliant 1933 novel (novella?, novelette?) MISS LONELYHEARTS is set in a bare but menacing New York City:

[Miss Lonelyhearts] went back to his desk and finished his column, then started for the park. He sat on a bench near the obelisk to wait for Mrs. Doyle. Still thinking of tents, he examined the sky and saw that it was canvas-colored and ill-stretched. He examined it like a stupid detective who is searching for a clue to his own exhaustion. When he found nothing, he turned his trained eye on the skyscrapers that menaced the little park from all sides. In their tons of forced rock and tortured steel, he discovered what he thought was a clue.

Americans have dissipated their energy in an orgy of stone breaking. In their few years they have broken more stones that did centuries of Egyptians. And they have done their work hysterically, desperately, almost as if they knew that the stones would some day break them.

As with most of West's writing, every sentence contains clear-sightedness, misdirection, truth, and folly: "canvas-colored and ill-stretched," "menaced the little park," "forced," tortured," "orgy," "hysterically," and "desperately."

The book as a whole is hardly a flattering picture of the city. New York is a place of hyper-religious consciousness and alienation. The denizens of this landscape are obsessed with Jesus, almost (maybe all the way) to blasphemy.

It doesn't seem like the New York most of us know: a fairly liberal place where religion has been sidelined for most of its citizens. But the city in the '30s was the site of some of the most intense religious controversies of that day: the fundamentalist/modernist struggles, mostly held within the Presbyterian church, but eventually extended out into every other Protestant demonimation in the U. S., and arguably into the Catholic church as well.

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878 - 1969)It all began in 1922 when the liberal Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick (soon to be the minister at the Riverside Church) was invited to give a guest sermon at the First Presbyterian Church down on Fifth Avenue at the edge of Greenwich Village. Fosdick was troubled by the growing strength of a rather rigid orthodoxy in Protestant seminaries. It was a pernicious stripe of righteousness that demanded all who disagreed be banished as reprobates, heretics, or just "the unsaved."

Fosdick's sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?," was actually a rather tedious, academic piece that outlined the differences between liberal and conservative strains of American Christianity. But it was also gasoline on dry timber. The Fundamentalists, aligning themselves with the "man in the pew," bridled at Fosdick's perceived elitism. As a response, a series of well-attended and crowd-pleasing debates were instituted across New York City; they almost always ended with the learned liberal minister brought low by the fervent, God-on-our-side preachers. The city was rocked by revivalist tent meetings, right among the buildings. The liberals retreated inside their churches. Eventually, the Presbyterian church split, professors were ousted from seminaries (particularly at Princeton where the fundamentalists came into full control), churches were broken up, and William Jennings Bryan (never one to shy from a carnival when he smelled the greasepaint) jumped out as the movement's political spokesperson. From this controversy came the Scopes Monkey Trial, the modern American missionary movement (and thus the likes of Pearl Buck), and the rise of unconnected, evangelical "Bible Churches."

We in America live among the shards of this conflict. This was the start of the rift between what we now know as mainline, liberal Protestantism and evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity. The on-going debates eventually split the Lutheran church into its liberal and conservative wings. It also led to the purging of moderates and liberals from Baptist seminaries in the 1970s with the re-emergence of the Southern Baptist Church as a leading force among the Fundamentalists. (During the early '70s, although hard to imagine today, Baptist seminaries were drifting to much more liberal positions.)

1922 Presbyterian cartoon, showing the descent of the modernistsBeyond Fosdick's sermon and the circus-like debates in New York City, the controversy had intellectual underpinnings among certain nineteenth-century German textural scholars, the "Higher Critics" (as they called themselves), who attempted to discover the "true" authors of Biblical texts. They rejected the notion that Moses, for example, wrote the first five books of the Bible and instead began to comb through the texts in an attempt to put together "original" voices. They ultimately decided that the various names for God--Yahweh, Elohim, and others--indicated the sources of various texts. So they began to pull apart the Old Testament to find the "real" message of the original documents: Yahweh as a jealous war lord god, Elohim as an omnipotent and transcendent sky god, and others. They even undertook the task of finding the "historical" Jesus outside the Biblical texts (or perhaps only within certain pieces of those texts).

The Fundamentalists reacted in outrage. The family Bible was being pulled apart! The stalwart text of the American pioneering spirit was being tampered with. How could you call yourself a Christian if you didn't believe the Bible?

The New York City synod of the Presbyterian church led the way. It adopted the five "fundamentals," the things you must believe to call yourself a Christian: the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the redemptive atonement of Christ's death, the bodily resurrection of Christ (and the believers sometime in the future), and the historical reality of Christ's miracles. If you doubted any one of these, you were out. And many, many lost their pulpits, their academic positions, and their livelihoods.

Lyman Stewart (1840 - 1923)Lyman Stewart, the founder of Union Oil, originally backed the Fundamentalists financially in New York City. But many other captains of industry of the day jumped aboard. Eventually, with millions at their disposal, the leaders of the Fundamentalists produced their own annotated Bible (the Scofield Reference Bible--still the best-selling Bible in the United States today), founded their own schools (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, Biola College, and hundreds more), and further adapted their message with increasingly apocalyptic overtones, bringing "new" French studies of the New Testament to this country for the first time. (These French studies emphasized the Rapture of the saved and the Second Coming of Christ, predicted by seven historical epochs through which humans have passed). The Fundamentalists were quickly turning Adventists, eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus and the end of the world.

In such territory we find ourselves today--not only in our own culture, but also in West's MISS LONELYHEARTS. This is a book born among these controversies. It tries--and fails--to understand how Christ (and by extension Christianity) operates in a newly minted world, a world of open love and open misery, a world in the throes of the Great Depression when all American promises seemed broken, a world becoming increasingly unhinged by modernity in art, politics, culture, and life. Andrew Sullivan has claimed that today's zealots on the Christian right have been driven mad by modernity. I simply call your attention to MISS LONELYHEARTS.

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