Modernity and Religion -- Sightings

In this week's issue of Sightings, the venerable historian of religion and Christianity and observer of things religious and not so religious -- Martin Marty -- reflects on the embrace of modernity by those who once rejected it -- conservatives/fundamentalists.    I'm going to just invite you to read and respond!!


Sightings 4/11/2011

Modernity and Religion
-- Martin E. Marty

Beyond religion-in-the-news stories about Japan, Libya, Washington, and other crisis points, “religion in public life” continues to be a topic which deserves notice. This week in a conversation two sociologists who are turning attention to religious phenomena asked a provocative question: “What would you make the focus of your research and writing if you were we, knowing our interests as you do.”

My answer was vague and sprawling, but clear in my own mind, as I’d long been pondering this question along with other puzzlers. I offer it free of charge also to others who engage in sighting the roles of religions in public life: Why do religious communities which for a long time strenuously resisted the new, the modern, the contemporary, now most successfully adapt their expressions and employ or even exploit the manifestations of “the modern” which they once opposed?

The immediate prompt for my question was a paragraph in a review by the awesomely learned historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, who was reviewing five books dealing with the 400-year history of the “King James Bible” in the London Review of Books. “Ironically, among many conservative evangelicals in the US, the KJB has lost its hegemony over the last half-century, as a welter of new translations has appeared reflecting the diverging agendas of an American evangelical Protestantism which was once given a certain unity by the cadences of 1611.” He quotes author Paul Gutjahr, “who tours us round Bibles rewritten for ‘busy moms’, ‘extreme teens’, or any special interest groups looking for spiritual guidance to suit itself, without the fatigue of having to listen to any of the Bible’s multitude of alternative voices.” MacCulloch relishes “the prospect of some day opening a Celebrate Recovery Bible. . .”

Many instances parallel to the KJV about-face come to mind. What is a better symbol of the modern than mass media of communications? In every religion, from non-Christian to Protestant, the fundamentalists outpace moderates or liberals in their embrace of media: radio, then television, and now the internet are virtually theirs. Two generations ago, the beat of rock was music of the devil to these anti-modernists, though earlier a few riffs of jazz in the sanctuaries of liberals got them dismissed as blasphemers. Today those liberals cherish pipe organs and cantatas, while Christian rock—with the same old once-sinful beat—beats out many secular rock expressions. “The love of money is the root of all evil!” was the biblical quote thundered in conservative churches. Today it is the putatively “conservative” wing of Christianity that forgets old restraints and promotes “enterprise,” the “market,” and all the rest as part of God’s plan.

Is it “wrong” or “bad” for Christian anti-modernists now to turn into accommodating “moderns?” They can cite the apostle Paul, who would be “all things to all people.” They do carry on their mission more efficiently and prosperously than do the “moderates” who are cautious about many such accommodations. Some think through the meaning of their radical adaptations; others simply coast. That and how and why they so blithely and even enthusiastically made 180-degree turns should keep more than two sociologists of religion busy. And those who changed might be a bit cautious, recalling philosopher Ernest Gellner’s word that there is nothing more dated than the modernism of the previous generation. At least let’s grant the point that we are better off than when the King James Version fans burned mildly revised versions as “Stalin’s Bibles.”


Paul C. Gutjahr, “From monarchy to democracy: the dethroning of the King James Bible in the United States,” The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences. Edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Diarmaid MacCulloch, “How Good is it?” London Review of Books, February 3, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


In his famous work, The Golden Bough, James Frazer (1854-1941) noted, "The custom of physically marrying men and women to trees is still practiced in India and other parts of the East. Why should it not have obtained in ancient Latium?" Drawing in part upon her own experiences as a field researcher in Nepal, Anne Mocko (University of Chicago) discusses the interpretive problems of Frazer's approach to the rituals of others in this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum; she also analyzes several rituals involving the fact that Frazer got correct: that, "in India and Nepal, men and women do physically marry themselves to trees--or to plants, fruits, statues, and animals." With invited responses by Wendy Doniger (University of Chicago), Reid Locklin (University of Toronto), and Benjamin Schonthal (University of Chicago).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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