Again and Again:
Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood
by Jon M. Sweeney
Paraclete Press, 2005
Toward the end of his lovely new memoir, Jon
Sweeney writes that you cannot be fully alive in your religion
until you learn to question the faith of your childhood. When both
of your grandfathers are independent Baptist preachers and your
father is employed by The Moody Bible Institute, that can mean a
lot heart-wrenching soul searching.
unlike a lot of people who have come of age in strict religious
households, Sweeney does not see himself as a victim of Fundamentalism.
Rather, he has wisely used his adult years to reflect on the gifts
imparted by the religion of his childhood. The results, as the book’s
subtitle suggests, are pleasantly surprising.
from the Introduction we learn that Sweeney is no longer a Fundamentalist
Christian. He is not even a Postmodern Fundamentalist—
he is a former Fundamentalist.
he guides us through the highlights of his faith journey, we learn
of his decision at age five to accept Jesus as his personal savior,
which is the sine qua non of Fundamentalist faith, and of his decision
at age nine to become a foreign missionary.
Sweeney writes affectionately about the ways in which Evangelicalism
shaped his relationship with God, inscribing faith so deeply in
his being that he cannot imagine giving it up. The
culture of Fundamentalism also imparted to Sweeney the habits of
thought and belief associated with what Harold Bloom has called
“The American Religion,” and Sweeney simply calls “mysticism.”
believed that God was active inside of us—
listening, speaking, guiding—creating what we called a
sanctified individual conscience and will. This mystical new
identity was the only safe guide to correct understanding and
reliable decision making.
surprisingly, Fundamentalism also gave the young Sweeney a clear
and tangible set of role models—from his grandfather preachers
to the host of itinerant gospel singers, missionaries, and evangelists
that often passed through his home church in suburban Chicago. As
we later learn, if it were not for his natural sensitivities and
questioning spirit (like so many of us, Sweeney learned to put the
protest into Protestantism), then he surely would have found his
destiny following in the footsteps of one of these mentors.
these guiding lights were influential enough to carry Sweeney into
Moody Bible Institute after high school graduation—the seminary
where both his grandfathers were nurtured in their vocation and
where his father worked as a publisher.
by the end of Sweeney’s first year at Moody, he had begun
to question his spiritual heritage. He writes,
found myself in an unusual predicament, as I struggled with
feelings of wanting to step outside of all that I knew. I
knew that where I was, and who I was trying to be, somehow was
not my identity. The faith of my fathers no longer felt like
crisis of identity along with a confusing stint as a summer missionary
in the Philippines drove Sweeney to leave Moody after two years
and begin his search for adult faith.
now making his spiritual home in the Episcopal Church, Sweeney is
able to write without rancor about aspects of Fundamentalism from
which he has distanced himself emotionally and spiritually. As he
admits, the journey toward Anglicanism was based more on heart than
bedrock concepts of American Fundamentalism such as Dispensationalism
and the Atonement now give him pause, Sweeney tells us that it was
not so much a turning away from those things that spurred him as
the attractiveness of other modes of Christian expression. For example,
Sweeney last year released a beautifully
written book about devotion to the saints, a practice he picked
up from his frequent (and bold, considering his background) visits
to Catholic monasteries.
the sexual scandals in the Catholic Church to the crude statements
made by certain prominent Evangelicals after 9/11, religion has
been often in the spotlight during these early decades of the 21st
Century—usually with a negative news angle. By contrast, Jon
Sweeney has given us a moving and evocative rendering of what it
was like to grow up in our nation’s dominant religion.
than seeing it as a handicap, Sweeney illustrates that growing up
Fundamentalist can be a rich and positive experience, preparing
a young person for full engagement with our country’s mainstream
political, cultural, and religious environment. Sweeney’s
memoir puts out a clear reminder to us non-Evangelicals that the
tradition of Charles Spurgeon, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham is
not something to be scoffed at but revered as among our greatest
To read explorefaith columns written by Jon Sweeney, visit In
the News and On Our Minds.
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AGAIN AND AGAIN,
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