Original Sin and Everyday Protestants


I'm happy to announce our newest contributor on our permanent rolls: Steven Miller. Steven is no stranger to the blog, having posted here before (more recently on the Billy Graham/Richard Nixon tapes), and we've discussed his excellent book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South in a number of posts. For his first post as contributor, Steven assesses a new book by Andrew Finstuen. Welcome to Steven!

Short Review of Andrew S. Finstuen, Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

The Age of Original Sin; Or, Listening to The Hour of Decision while Reading Christianity and Crisis And Summoning The Courage to Be

By Steven P. Miller

In the postwar United States, the word “crisis” appeared at least as often as “spin” and “network” do today. The early Cold War was a period of brooding about anxieties abroad and at home. American social critics lamented, collectively, an affluent society of organization men and status seekers wearing gray flannel suits and living in ticky-tacky houses. Through the lens of religious history, historian Andrew Finstuen offers a fresh perspective on the postwar crisis. For Finstuen, the postwar years were a golden age of public theology, a period when “lay theologians” took seriously the great Protestant questions of faith, grace, and most importantly, original sin (6). They listened to Billy Graham, to be sure, but many of them also read Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. While Finstuen acknowledges the obvious differences within what he aptly terms this “curious trinity,” he argues that Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich “shared a common theological principle: behind every sinful act was the indisputable, universal condition of individual sin” (47). The popular resonance of that shared principle, Finstuen argues, contradicts caricatures of 1945-1965 as a period of conformity. Rather it was an “original sin moment” reflective of “the sincerity and sophistication of religious thought and devotion at midcentury” (2; 186).

Regardless of how one responds to Finstuen’s thesis (I find it compelling), his book is notable for its blend of intellectual history and what the author, in an important move, calls “popular lived theology” (191). In a memorable opening chapter, Finstuen (drawing from postwar theologian John Bennett) identifies not one, but two postwar religious revivals: the “captive revival” of Dial-A-Prayer, the American Way of Life, and The Power of Positive Thinking; and the “theological revival” of Tillich, Niebuhr, and—Finstuen argues—Graham (13-46). Finstuen has read widely in Life, Look, Newsweek, and other contemporary periodicals, which served as surprising forums for the theological revival. Even more strikingly, he has delved into a treasure trove of unpublished letters to his curious trinity, uncovering an American moment when an Alabama high school valedictorian asked Niebuhr for commencement speech ideas, a Virginia homemaker wrote to Tillich about the “essential and the existential,” and seemingly everyone unburdened their souls to Graham (166). Finstuen thus is able to offer a fresh perspective on familiar figures. From the vantage point of lay theologians, Niebuhr emerges as “less a realpolitik political philosopher than a prophet-pastor”; Graham as “less a theatrical revivalist . . . than a genuine evangelist communicating both the severity of sin and the power of Jesus Christ to conquer sin”; and Tillich as “less a liberal, abstruse theological experimenter . . . than a translator of the classic doctrine of original sin for a modern age” (190). Finstuen’s largely affirming treatments of all three are rich, nuanced, and deserving of close study.

I cannot avoid quibbling with a few of Finstuen’s arguments and suggestions. His efforts to refute popular and academic criticism of his subjects—especially Graham—make the book unnecessarily defensive at times. In a way, liberals—theological, political, and otherwise—are easier historiographical targets these days than evangelicals. By the close of Finstuen’s original sin moment, liberal theology seems a god that failed. Yet it was viable enough to soon serve as a foil for postliberal theology, among other things. The labels “prophet” or “prophetic,” which Finstuen employs to describe Niebuhr and (occasionally) Graham, remain tricky. When applied to American society as a whole, they can suggest a degree of activism that, to cite but one example, both Niebuhr and Graham lacked on the issue of civil rights. Some readers will take issue with characterizing Graham as part of the theological, rather than the captive, revival. However, Finstuen should be commended for taking the evangelist’s jeremiads seriously.

Finstuen’s book transports readers to a time when big questions mattered—and when nearly everyone posed them. It is a period well suited for his methodology. The best works of intellectual history make unexpected, yet insightful connections using a comparative framework. The best works in the lived religion tradition demonstrate the limits of employing conventional categories of theological analysis. Finstuen succeeds on both fronts in this creative and thought-provoking study.


Randall at: December 2, 2009 at 11:50 AM said...

Steven: Enjoyed the review. Makes me want to get the book.

I wonder if what Finstuen writes about popular authors is connected to larger mid-century intellectual trends. Time magazine once put "great thinkers" on its covers. Midwestern businessmen read Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills, and David Riesman. (I know, this is like a Madmen caricature of Don Draper reading Erich Fromm!) Still, hard to imagine that today.

Did the avalanche of secular and religious self-help lit kill that trend? Did the charismatic explosion throw much out the window? Did the 70s mark a change?

Steven P. Miller at: December 2, 2009 at 12:07 PM said...

Good questions, Randall. What did kill the Time-friendly public intellectual? The Vietnam War? Radical chic? Tougher tenure requirements?

Randall at: December 2, 2009 at 12:24 PM said...

The conservative Yale computer science prof and polymath David Gelernter has a bone to pick about this

Here he is in the Chronicle shooting at everyone around him: "Stop any person on the street and ask them to name a living poet, a living painter, or a living composer. There will be complete silence," Gelernter says. "When I was a child, artists were heroes. Everyday people knew Robert Frost's poems, and not only people like me, a respected Yale professor. Classical music was moving closer to the middle class, Leonard Bernstein concerts were broadcast on television. It was a marvelous thing to have poets, novelists, painters, and musicians representing the middle and working classes and giving them greater and greater artistic depth. All of this," he says, sweeping his arm through the air, "was killed or at least dealt a very serious blow by the encroachment of the universities."


Phil at: December 2, 2009 at 3:24 PM said...

Welcome aboard, Steven. Enjoyed the BG study, and look forward to your next project.

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