Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family

I first heard about Andrew Himes while reading a guest blog post by Stephen Lamb on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog Jesus Needs New PR. Stephen is Andrew’s nephew and they both share an incredible story. They are both related to the legendary fundamentalist Christian, John R. Rice. Andrew is the grandson of Dr. Rice and Stephen is Dr. Rice's great grandson. In the blog Stephen highlights his uncle’s book, "The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family". The blog post immediately captured my attention because John R. Rice was a hero to me and my family. I gave just over 20 years of my life to the fundamentalist movement – specifically to the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) denomination.  I was a member of one of the world’s most prominent IFB churches. I ultimately served full-time in the same church for a number of years after training in an IFB college. You could not and cannot go anywhere within IFB circles without knowing intimately about Dr. Rice and his impact on the fundamentalist movement in America. He was the face of fundamentalism for decades. I can recall handing out hundreds of his Gospel tracts as a teenager, and reading dozens of his books and listening to many audio tapes of his messages. I also devoured each weekly edition of the Sword of the Lord – the historic fundamentalist newspaper that Dr. Rice started decades ago. As a teenager I went nearly every summer to the Bill Rice Ranch in Murfreesboro, TN with my church youth group. So when I read that Andrew had written this book and Stephen presented the opportunity to read an advanced copy and write a review about it, I did not hesitate to submit for this opportunity. I am so grateful that I did and that I was allowed to do so. I confess when I received the book I wasn’t quite sure what I would be reading. I understood that he was going to be telling a family history of fundamentalism, being related so closely to Dr. Rice. But I also understood that fundamentalist Christianity can be an extremely controversial topic. It would be easy to write from an extreme position for or against the movement, which continues today. But as I began to read the book I was blown away by a number of things which I will chronicle further below as my review.

When I read a book there are several things that I look for that are extremely important to me:

Is it compelling? I look for a compelling reason to read it – something that speaks to me and draws me in – giving me a reason to give my time to it. 
Does it have clarity? I look for clarity – which to me is about the quality of communication or the writing style of the author. I have a fairly short attention span so it needs to arrest my attention from word one.
What is the content? I look for content – is it a fluff piece or does it have substance - something significant that needs to be said?
What is the character of the book? Is it heavy-handed or uneven in its approach? Is it one-sided? Is it vitriolic and acidic toward another point of view (which can be an easy thing to do on the subject of fundamentalism)? Or is it fair, balanced, and kind?
What is the conclusion of the book? What is the point the author is trying to get across to me?

First, is this book compelling? As you may have gathered by my introduction, the book was extremely compelling to me because of my history with fundamentalism and my intimate knowledge of Dr. John R. Rice. However, whether you are currently in the movement or have been in the movement you will want to read this book. If you’re considering being a part of the movement as it exists today you will want to read this book. If you are only vaguely familiar with fundamentalism or the IFB denomination, whether through 20/20 segments on TV or you have a neighbor or a relative in the movement you will want to read this book. Simply put, fundamentalism has touched almost all of our lives – in good ways and in bad ways. It’s a very real aspect to American history and to our society today and there is much to learn from Andrew in this book. As much as I knew about the movement from first-hand experience I learned an incredible amount of new information that I simply did not know before – about Dr. Rice and the Rice family going back generations and about fundamentalism throughout the course of our nation’s history. Saying that the book is a compelling read is an understatement.

Second, does the book have clarity? As a writer, this is an extremely important point to consider. Someone can have a lot to write about, but if they are not able to do so in a way that is engaging and readily accessible to the reader then it becomes tedious and monotonous and the book is in danger of becoming a door stop or a donation to Goodwill. This book was extremely easy to read. It is full of facts and figures and steeped in history and I found it hard to put down. It was not laborious to read at all. On the contrary it was enjoyable and articulate and a great tribute to Andrew’s writing abilities. There are very few authors I would say that I would buy and read anything that they write, but I happily add Andrew to that short list of authors for me.

Third, what is the content of the book? This may seem an odd question considering the name of the book, "The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family". Obviously it’s about Andrew’s family history – specifically as it pertains to fundamentalism, going back generations even to his family’s Scots-Irish heritage and migration to America. Obviously it focuses rather intently and comprehensively on the fundamentalist Christian movement in America from the very beginning. But there is so much more than that. There is his story – which is compelling enough on its own. I love to hear anyone’s story. The very fabric of our stories has an intimate quality to it that can touch anyone anywhere. Our stories are real life and everyone has a story and they are all worth telling and reading. I learned so much from Andrew’s personal journey. But there is also an incredible amount of history on a variety of topics: the Civil War, the Lost Cause, the Southern Reconstruction era, the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Trail of Tears, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and so much more. There is a wealth of well-researched historical material in this book that is so intertwined with the religious history of America. If you love history in general or historical perspectives on any of the topics mentioned in this paragraph, you will not be disappointed.

Fourth, what is the character of the book? As much as I have written positively in the preceding three paragraphs concerning Andrew’s book, it is these last two paragraphs that mean the most to me. I was humbled and honored to read a book with potentially controversial subject matter that was written with such passion and compassion. Andrew never side-steps any controversy, but in his address of any issue of disagreement that he wrote about concerning the movement and his families involvement in the movement he does so with kindness while clinging to his beliefs. That is a very difficult thing to do when something is so personal to you and has marked your life at times in profoundly negative and disappointing ways. I have had to learn this in my own life from many of my own experiences with fundamentalism. And lest it appear from this paragraph that there is a lot of negativity about the movement in the book, I assure you there is not. There is balance. He is quick to note and applaud much good that he has seen in the movement and in his family’s involvement with it. My hat is off to him for helping to reinforce to me the need to be kind even while speaking the honest truth. 

Fifth, what is the conclusion of the book? What is the point? In my words I would say the book caused me to consider the following for myself: Do I love my theological framework and those who espouse it more than I do the two great commandments? If my theology isn't an outflow of my love for God and if it doesn't cause me to love my neighbor then it is nothing more than knowledge that lacks the heartbeat of God.  Tim Keller puts it this way, “When the world sees us doing evangelism, they just see us recruiting. When they see us doing justice, they see God's glory.” There was a point and time where I would have disagreed with such statements – “we must win souls at any cost!”, but thankfully those days are behind me. Not that the Gospel means any less to me. Rather, the Gospel means so much more to me. The Gospel must have a holistic approach – soul, heart, mind, body, and spirit. But the best way I could write about the conclusions I took from this book would be to quote Andrew Himes. The ending of his book summed it up so well for me. I will quote a portion now (spoiler alert!). "Following Jesus...requires much more than orthodoxy or platitudes about love. It requires orthopraxy: placing Christ's incarnation of love and justice at the center of your life and Christian practice..." Amen! He also writes, " is what I have learned from my post-fundamentalist family: Honor truth. Love well. Live your faith..." Indeed. And now he is passing that on and may God use this book in the lives of so many people for their good and God’s glory. 

When I first requested an advanced copy of the book to read and review, I was asked to write the reasons why I wanted to do so. Unintentionally I wrote at length about my reasons, which flowed from a deep place in my heart and which centered heavily on my own past experiences from within fundamentalism. He was very kind in his reply, stating he shared much of my thinking and that he looked forward to hearing my reflections with much interest. Well, Andrew, this is my review, and I’m privileged to say in return – I share much of your thinking as well. And hopefully others will as a result of this tremendous book. Well done and God bless. 

Now, reader, please go and buy this book. In fact, buy two and give one away as a gift. It is well worth it. You may do so by visiting today. And one final word for all you bloggers out there, Andrew has asked for me to pass along that you can apply for a free review copy of his book by visiting here.

Grace and Peace,
      Lance Brewer