The Glory and the Power

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Religion, the pundits had been patiently explaining for decades, was gradually withering away as a force in public life, surrendering to the inexorable advance of modernity. As late as the 1960’s, this dogma went almost unchallenged in the social sciences. But millions of people neglected to read the script. What happened? What do Jerry Falwell, Rabbi Moshe Levinger (of the radical Israelimovement Gush Emunim), and Ayatollah Khomeini and their followers have in common? How is their appeal linked to the surge of revivalist movements in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions throughout the world?

Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby are codirectors of the Fundamentalist Project, an interdisciplinary group of scholars who, over the past several years, have been exploring these questions. Their findings are available in a series of volumes published by or forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press (see for example FUNDAMENTALISMS OBSERVED, 1991). In contrast to these scholarly volumes, THE GLORY AND THE POWER is an introductory overview.

Viewing fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity (especially modernity’s threat to traditional sources of religious authority and to the patriarchal family structure), Marty and Appleby suggest that fundamentalists are distinguished from nonfundamentalist religious believers by their embattled stance. Defining themselves in opposition to their enemies, fundamentalists “want to reclaim a place they feel has been taken from them.” Their appeal depends not only on the simple certainties of their message but also on their willingness to employ modern technology in the battle against modernity.

As an exploratory survey of global fundamentalisms, THE GLORY AND THE POWER is richly stimulating. It is a frustrating book, too, for it fails to address some of the most significant questions it raises. For example, many of the characteristics which the authors attribute to fundamentalist Christians are in fact in the mainstream of historical Christian orthodoxy (see especially Marty and Appleby’s discussion of the fundamentalists’ stress on “the physical resurrection of Jesus”). Are fundamentalists, then, the only modern-day Christians whom a time-traveling Martin Luther would recognize as fellow believers, or is there something fundamentally skewed in this picture of contemporary religious belief and practice?