Author Confronts Religious Stereotypes in New Book A new book offers a fresh perspective on Christian fundamentalism, arguing against the common stereotypes of being rigid and unapologetically dogmatic. Author Brett Grainger discusses, In The World But Not of It: One Family's Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America.
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Author Confronts Religious Stereotypes in New Book

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Author Confronts Religious Stereotypes in New Book

Author Confronts Religious Stereotypes in New Book

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I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, the barbershop guys on politics, and what else? Sports. But first, each week we explore issues of spirituality in our segment, Faith Matters. Today, we want to talk about fundamentalism, specifically, Christian fundamentalism. I think it is fair to say that many of us think we know who and what a fundamentalist is. Militant and uncompromising, somebody who brooks no argument, but to Brett Grainger, fundamentalists are none of that and all of that. He captures the complexities in his new his new book, "In the World, But Not of It - One Family's Militant Faith and A History of Fundamentalism in America." In it, he tells the story of his family and of others throughout the U.S. who have chosen to live their lives following the ardent word of God. Brett Grainger joins me now from member station WGBH in Boston. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. BRETT GRAINGER (Author, "In the World but Not of It - One Family's Militant Faith and History of Fundamentalism in America"): Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: In your book, you start out calling fundamentalism the f-word, which is not what most of us think of as the f-word. What are you getting at here?

Mr. GRAINGER: You know, fundamentalists themselves have a very interesting relationship with fundamentalism. When the word was first coined in the '20s by a Baptist minister named Curtis Lee Laws. He meant it in a very positive sense. Fundamentalist was someone willing to fight for the faith. So, basically what I'm charting in this course, is a shift away from fundamentalism as a word itself. Those initial positive connotations became identified after '25 with belligerence, intolerance, all kinds of backwardness and so on, and so eventually you get to the '50s and '60s where Evangelists such as Billy Graham got rid of the word altogether. He didn't really stop being a fundamentalist in terms of what he believed, but he wanted to get along with American culture. He wanted to basically focus on saving souls, and so he lost that, sort of, tone that we identify with fundamentalists in the '70s.

MARTIN: Why are you bringing it back? Why are you...

Mr. GRAINGER: Why am I bringing it back? My point in trying to continue to use it, is that I think we call anybody an Evangelical, we lose a certain amount of descriptive power. I think it is fair to say that all fundamentalists are Evangelicals, but not all Evangelicals are fundamentalists.

MARTIN: That is well said. You've mentioned - obviously you have a Masters in Divinity, right? So, you've studied fundamentalists in a global context, but in the Christian context, are there core beliefs that define fundamentalism in U.S.?

Mr. GRAINGER: I think you can still say that the original five fundamentals of faith, that were hammered out in the late 19th century still hold today. But I actually feel that the doctrinal stuff is less important than the, kind of, approach they take to being in the world, but not of it. George Marsden put it very well when he said, you know, a fundamentalist is an evangelical with an attitude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And when you say, attitude, you mean like a 'tude?

Mr. GRAINGER: Exactly. They're angry. They're upset. They've got something to say. I think when you think of Billy Graham, you don't think of someone who is angry at America, you know. He wants to spread the Gospel and to do that you'd think he'd tone down the 'tude, and that is how he reached so many people.

MARTIN: What do you think is the biggest misconception that many people have about fundamentalists in the U.S.? Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.?

Mr. GRAINGER: I think there is this assumption that they all agree, you know, within themselves. I think that is a great misconception. The fundamentalists that I grew up with, they weren't interested in world domination. They just wanted to be left alone. They didn't even vote, you know. To vote was to be complicit in the world. It was to be, sort of, contaminated by the things of the world.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with author Brett Grainger about his new book, "In the World, But Not of It." It's a memoir and a history of fundamentalism in the U.S. Tell me about your family.

Mr. GRAINGER: Oh, my family, well my family on both sides were members of the Plymouth Brethren, which is this very small, militant group of fundamentalists that were founded in the 19th century. I sort of had a unique experience, in that while, you know, I swam in a sea of fundamentalist faith, on the other hand I kind of emerged from it relatively untouched. And part of the reason for that, I think, is because both my parents were, sort of, black sheep in their families. And so by the time I was coming up, you know, participation was mandatory, but I didn't get the kind of, you know, guilt from my parents that a lot of my friends did. So, in some ways, I was kind of in the Brethren, but not of them. I definitely imbibed the world view, but when it came time for me to leave, I, you know, I didn't feel burned by the tradition. It felt - I felt very much like I was taking away the, you know, the pluses and sort of escaping the restricting aspects of the faith

MARTIN: You write a wonderful section about your grandparents waiting for the Rapture. Which I have to say, I found hilarious and touching at the same time, but for - explain, first of all what the Rapture is and why they are waiting for it, and I think I may have you read a section about that too, but set it up for us. Explain, what's the Rapture?


MARTIN: Why were they waiting for it?

Mr. GRAINGER: So, the Rapture is this belief that Jesus will return imminently, in secret, for all the true believers. So, you know, obviously the Second Coming in a very old Christian doctrine, but what is special about the Rapture, is that it kind of breaks up the Second Coming into two events. So, what you've got this first Second Coming, when Jesus returns and secretly, kind of, gathers up all the believers and you know, they'll leave behind all their little piles of clothes and glasses and stuff, and then there is the Second Coming, seven years after that, when he comes back, real, kind of, public, and carrying a big stick and he beats up all the bad guys.

MARTIN: He swaggers into town.

Mr. GRAINGER: Exactly. That's high noon.

MARTIN: So the trick here is that they had actually identified the day.


MARTIN: When this was going to happen.

Mr. GRAINGER: The reason my grandfather got wrapped up in this was because he had read a pamphlet by Edward Weisenen (ph), who was a former NASA engineer who had gotten into, you know, the Bible and had done some number crunching and come up with a date for the Rapture, which he pinpointed in 1988. So, my grandfather got - who is a lay Evangelist, got very involved in spreading this within the Brethren and he, you know, there was a day in October that he actually spent, you know, sitting in the living room with my grandmother, waiting for this to happen.

MARTIN: And this was so controversial that members of his congregation literally asked him not to come to church that day because they didn't want to hear about all this. They thought, you know, lets just keep this under wraps, buddy, and you know. But, can I ask you to read this section. A little section from the book, where they're waiting.

Mr. GRAINGER: Sure. So, I'll just set this up. This is my grandfather, in the living room, on the day when he's waiting for the Lord to return.

Mr. GRAINGER: (Reading) He read to comfort himself, then he prayed. He prayed for his six children and for their families. For the grandchildren who were still dead in their sins, that the spirit would strive with them, roiling the waters of the heart until they acknowledged their utter depravity and professed their faith in the cross of Jesus Christ and the bloodshed at Calvary. He prayed for the Lord's glorious appearing, for the Rapture of the saints, for the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. My grandmother played a hymn at the organ, then felling restless, took up her knitting. An old clock ticked away the countdown. She paused in mid-stitch, displeased to realize that she would be leaving a work half finished. Setting aside her needles, she resolved to make some last minute phone calls to loved ones. One of the calls was to my mother. My grandmother told her that we should help ourselves to her homemade preserves and ginger cookies. We won't be needing them, she said gaily. This upset my mother. As she later pointed out, it insinuated that our family would be stuck with last summer's chutney, while the saints feasted in glory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Needless to say - perhaps not needless to say, the Rapture did not come that day. Was this a crisis for the family?

Mr. GRAINGER: It - you know, it was more a social crisis than a crisis of faith. I don't think my grandfather ever once doubted his faith, even after this, you know, this calamity, but certainly in terms of the community we were part of, it was a tiny little community, and certainly it was very difficult for us to show our faces at church for some time.

MARTIN: One of the things I like about the book is that you don't shy away from the fact that for some people, what is obvious and true and possible, to others, suggests mental illness, you know, visions. And I'd like to ask, how you, as you became an adult, grappled with the fact that for some, you know, for some people real possibilities, the real possibility of heaven on earth, of being restored to glory and so, for some people it really is a sign that there is something wrong. And for some people it's just a very deep belief. Do you know what I mean? Could you talk about that?

Mr. GRAINGER: There's all kinds of things that we do that don't make any sense. You can find someone who doesn't believe in God, but avoids, you know, stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. That's just as irrational to me to believe that some guy 2,000 years ago who died and was buried, and resurrected just because fundamentalists wait for Jesus to come again doesn't mean that they're working out some mass cultural neurosis or mental illness.

MARTIN: Well, it is interesting because I think it is an 18th century Enlightenment conceit that if we are presented with the same facts that we will all come to the same conclusion. And that is clearly not the case. But what do you make of the face that fundamentalism persists in a modern technologically-rich world? Where we don't have the isolation of geographic boundaries, of sort of minimal communication tools and things of that sort. What do you make of it?

Mr. GRAINGER: For one it says something about the enduring appeal of strong militant faith. I think the fact that these are the churches that continue to grow while the liberal mainline churches continue to shrink, I think there are obviously something that these communities are offering people that they're finding, that they're not finding in the liberal mainline denominations.

MARTIN: One of the other questions I have, particularly because you were a student of fundamentalist movements around the world, is that many Americans have this notion that fundamentalism thrives overseas in countries that are poor and frustrating. In which particularly, the young people have a difficult time advancing and this provides them with an outlet for their desire for meaning. But that isn't the case. The U.S. is a rich country. There are people in this country who are not, you know, well off, but in global terms we are very well off. Again, another question about why you think - is it just that we're so wrong about the rest of the world or there is something that we're just not getting about the meaning, the riches, the attraction of fundamentalism?

Mr. GRAINGER: I think this is a very comfortable liberal explanation for fundamentalism to say, oh, you know these poor people are down on their luck. The world is not going their way and this is the only option they have to turn to this faith. That's kind of patronizing to me. I think there are good reasons often why people choose to become fundamentalists, and it behooves us to listen to some of those before we pass judgment.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask about you and your own struggle to find your place in the world spiritually. You talk about the fact that you were always questioning. Your parents had been sort of questioners you questioned and that by your teens you had fallen away from the Plymouth Brethren, but as an adult there was a void. Would you talk about that and how you reconciled the worlds in which you have one foot in both?

Mr. GRAINGER: I didn't have a hard time leaving the Brethren, but what I discovered was the Brethren had a hard time leaving me. I think one thing I had difficulty shedding was this idea that in evangelical circles that you're sort of called out of the world. And all I wanted to do in high school was be in the world and to belong. And after a while I guess I sort of discovered that belonging wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I still feel very much like there are these parts of myself, in one part, I'm this kind of modern person who believes in evolution and believes that the world runs a certain way. And in another part of me, I believe all kinds of other things that don't make a lot of sense as a modern rational western person. And I don't expect to work that out, I'm happy to live with the contradictions and to try and live in the space between them.

MARTIN: Brett Grainger is the author of "In The World But Not of It: One Family's Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America." He joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Brett Grainger, thank you so much for talking to us.

Mr. GRAINGER: It was my pleasure.

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