Saturday, 19 March 2011

Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science

Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science
James Gilbert | 1998-11-01 00:00:00 | University Of Chicago Press | 418 | 20th Century
In this intriguing new work, James Gilbert examines the historical confrontation between modern science and religion as these disparate, sometimes hostile modes of thought have clashed in the arena of American culture. Beginning in 1925 with the infamous Scopes trial, Gilbert traces nearly forty years of competing American attitudes toward science and religion. From Harvard intellectuals to Hollywood, from UFOs to the USAF, from sci-fi thrillers to the nightly news, from liberal religion to Fundamentalism - American culture became a proving ground where the boundaries between science and religion were polemicized, propagandized, and contested. Ultimately, Gilbert argues, Catholics and Jews as well as Protestants were able to use the language of democracy to check the growing authority of science. They did this by appealing to American tolerance for contending views and by presenting a populist counterweight to what they portrayed as elitist claims to specialized knowledge. In the end, a kind of cultural paradox emerged in which conflicting systems of explanation were accepted, respected, and even encouraged. In Redeeming Culture, Gilbert has managed to convey not only the persistent ambiguities in American approaches to science and religion, but likewise the means by which these ambiguities continually reshape and invigorate our evolving experience.
Often scholarly boundary work on scripture and science has a unmistakable aftertaste of partiality. Books that should hold to impartial prose and neutral description instead somehow become investigations into their authors' own inappropriate appetites for atheism or some other equally unsavory "smarter-than-God" criticism than an expected, appropriate, straight-forward cultural observation. Such a distasteful undertone of praise-and-punish schoolmarm-ishness spread all too thick can be detected in the work of Ronald L. Numbers' Science and Christianity in Pulpit and Pew, for example.

This book, however, sweetly succeeds where others like Numbers' caustically falter. Chapter seven, for example, stands as a well-chosen course that tastefully investigates the early efforts of the American Scientific Affiliation. Chapter four, which deals with the Jewish Theological Seminary's efforts in the 1940's, is another surprisingly tasteful look at the relations of faith and science. The rest of the book is similarly palatable, deftly covering the exclusion of John Dewy, going over the ambiguity of military chaplains, and giving off an appetizing aroma now and then into the existence of Time magazine's (June 18, 1951) atomic deacon: William G. Pollard (see Physicist & Christian).

Gilbert argues that conflicts between science and religion caused remarkable episodes where American culture was "assembled and integrated." His historical analysis, which begins with the Scopes antievolution trial of 1925 and ends with the construction of the Sermons from Science pavilion in the Seattle World's Fair of 1962, concludes that these episodes affected Americans "across class, professional, regional, and religious boundaries." He believes that the most important were the Scopes trial, which shattered a nineteenth-Century compromise between mainstream Protestantism and a populist science of common sense, and postwar realization of the perils of the atomic age, which led to political, religious, and intellectual critiques of professionalized science.

Gilbert, a professor of history, eschews the fine details of historical scholarship in favor of a pleasingly broad view. His dramatis personae includes not only scores of scientists, religous leaders, theologians, and politicians, but also filmmakers, popular authors, and public intellectuals of nearly every stripe. Gilbert is chiefly concerned with these peoples' connections with organizations and institutions, for example the American Association of the Advancement of Science, the Moody Bible Institute, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Religious Research Association, the Committee on Cultural Freedom. He also discusses a similarly wide range of scientific, religious, and popular periodicals, books, and movies such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Astounding Science Fiction, Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision, and the Moody Institute's documentary (produced for the U.S. Air Force!) God of the Atom.

Gilbert's book succeeds rather well, for it provides the reader with the joy of discovering how all these come together in a surprisingly beautiful web of lives struggling with the deepest questions about our world and our place in it.

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