Review: Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment

Maltby sk12.inddPaul Maltby, Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013, 248 pp., £21.50/$24.50 paper. 

In Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment, Paul Maltby (Professor of English at West Chester University) offers a self-described “polemical” treatment of fundamentalist Christian literature and art, as well as fundamentalist theology and ecological theory. He does this through a Rortyian-influenced critique that is formed by postmodern critical theory and practices. The polemic is harsh and often hilarious, and Maltby is not shy about stating emphatically from the outset that his “religious target” is conservative fundamentalist theology which he finds to be belligerent and authoritarian. If one thing is clear from this book—which at times reads like a very well written, overly-academic piñata bashing of the excesses of American fundamentalism—it is that Dr. Maltby won’t be springing for the Best of the 700 Club DVD box set anytime soon. In fact, the entire book would leave Pat Robertson, well, disenchanted, to be honest.

Maltby’s explication of Schiller’s work on postmodern disenchantment, and its later application in the field of sociology by Max Weber, is outstanding. His description is easy to follow for the non-specialist, and centers on the idea that postmodernity is characterized by a way of parsing out reality in the world without reference to metaphysical language and concepts such as demons, spirits, and gods. This spiritless ethos is coupled, explains Maltby, with a relentless ‘spirit’ of critique based upon a distrust of authority structures, norms, principles and narratives. The theme of disenchantment appears throughout Maltby’s postmodern responses to fundamentalist Christian works of art. While I find Maltby’s thesis concerning the centrality of disenchantment in the postmodern worldview a useful critique, I question the validity of his subordination of re-enchantment, the idea, associated with Bauman, Ward, and McClure [8-9], which asserts that, actually, the sublime, mysterious and ecstatic are not peripheral but rather primary to the postmodern ethos.

In terms of Maltby’s critique of fundamentalism, I find it exceedingly strong in several regards. In particular, his argument against Christian Reconstructionism [21], i.e. the ideology which holds that humanity ought, on the whole, to be governed by biblical law, is convincing. Likewise, his review of dispensationalism [33-39] is fair, thorough, and entertaining.

Maltby’s work on Christian fundamentalist literature is substantial. He draws attention to the frequent, shocking, unbiblical, and violent imagery celebrated in books such as the Left Behind series in regard to God’s eagerly awaited vindictive slaughter of non-believers. Most poignant and disturbing is his take away from the eschatological praxis of these books which is lived out in actual fundamentalist communities, a praxis and ideology which, as Maltby argues, discourages peace initiatives and efforts at unity with foreign governments because these activities are viewed as works of the anti-Christ.

Also strong are Maltby’s aesthetical critiques of fundamentalist literature and art, which he generally interpreted as “irredeemably kitschy” [61] and unable to articulate humor or doubt.  Instead, he argues, they focus on conveying an immovable, authoritarian, usually male-centered, and melodramatic doctrinal message. Yet in a brilliant move of authenticity, Maltby actually concedes that despite fundamentalism’s complete disconnect from the postmodern culture of disenchantment, the spirituality which fundamentalism affords, though odious to Maltby, cannot really be found amongst postmoderns. There is, in fact, a troubling and noticeable “spiritual deficit” [89].

While the strength and importance of Maltby’s critique is undeniable, there are some crucial weaknesses in the book as well. The book is overburdened by a rhetoric which spoils its effectiveness as an academic work. When he describes fundamentalists as a “vociferous presence in public life”, “belligerent and vindictive” [4], and when he uses the loaded political terms such as “anti-abortion and “anti-gay” [27; cf. 29], and elsewhere refers to the pro-life cause as a movement which is against women’s “reproductive rights” or a war on behalf of “aborted fetuses,” Maltby proves himself to be exceedingly biased and cruel. This rhetoric appears all the more out of place within a text seeking to follow Rorty’s principles of pluralism which focus on solidarity and mutual respect.

Furthermore, while Maltby aims to avoid conflating the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist,’ he utterly fails in this regard. He continually refers to Carl Henry, the famous evangelical theologian, inaugural editor of Christianity Today magazine and leading figure in the neo-evangelical movement, as a fundamentalist [39; 70; 104]. Later he refers to Shane Claiborne as representing a newer, more socially conscious fundamentalism, an unusual slip-up to encounter within this text.

His arguments concerning evangelicals are at times equally dubious. For example, he inexplicably sets forth the idea that evangelicalism wanted to forge alliances with mainstream liberal protestants [20]. Equally poor, embarrassing, and anachronistic, is his assertion that fundamentalists are a sub-type of evangelical, whereas a historical standpoint attests the opposite. He wrongly argues that evangelicals are not political, and claims that because they didn’t adopt the Social Gospel in toto, evangelicals are not engaged in humanitarian and civil rights issues [21]. In actuality, of course, social engagement and humanitarian causes are at the heart of evangelicalism. The humanitarian works of evangelical William Wilberforce and the evangelical agency World Vision are alive and well, while Rauschenbusch’s manifestos on the social gospel collect dust in the libraries of dying mainline seminaries.

In conclusion, this is a book well worth the read if only as a primer for theological students interested in the idea of disenchantment and postmodern critical theory. Its frequent and humorous rants against the literary and artistic oddities springing from fundamentalism keep the reader engaged. The book’s theology, however, suffers from crass generalizations and a frequent ignorance of church history and the discipline of biblical studies. Finally, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around Maltby’s argument that the fundamentalist literalist interpretation of the Bible might be rendered fallible because it doesn’t take into account the “rival accounts” of the salvation of extraterrestrials, that is, space aliens. How can one be concerned about the rights of yet undiscovered space creatures while ridiculing the rights of the unborn? And so it appears that while the author unveils, through postmodern critique, that the forces at work in fundamentalist literature are often violent and ideological, “the force” is still very much with him. It must be comforting to our extraterrestrial friends to know that if “E.T. phone home” Paul Maltby got the line.

Review by John Frederick

 

 

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