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Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment by Paul Maltby (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 133-136 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0036

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Maltby, Paul. 2013. Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. $55.00 hc. $24.50 sc. 248 pp.

Paul Maltby’s Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment describes the polarized predicament of the United States in the early twenty-first century, where the deepest beliefs and values of Christian conservatives, especially those with an evangelical or fundamentalist bent, are more or less anathema to liberal secularists, whose beliefs and values (which are often just as deeply held) derive from a basically incompatible worldview. Whereas the fundamentalist worldview remains committed to Biblical literalism, metaphysical dualism, and a conservative social agenda, the postmodern outlook derives from what some critical theorists have called anti-foundationalism, insisting on the historical contingency of all texts, including Scripture, and indeed of all persons. This “contingency principle,” Maltby hastens to add, “does not amount to a relativist, ‘anything goes’ outlook,” but it does mean that any truth claims, whether or not they appeal to an ultimate or transcendent reality, are still subject to “the provisional standpoint of the here and now” (42–43).

Maltby’s observation that the United States is polarized between religious conservatives and secular liberals is corroborated by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, who similarly argue that “Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum—the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other. The moderate religious middle is shrinking” (2012, 3). In Putnam and Campbell’s compelling account of how such polarization came about, the seismic upheaval of the 1960s, especially its sexual libertinism, “produced a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion”; especially after 1980, religion came to be increasingly associated with the Republican Party (3). Similarly, Maltby discusses the “electoral mobilization of American evangelicals” [End Page 133] beginning in the late 1970s, which “marked a new interventionist phase in the political life of the Christian Right” (2013, 3). He too argues that this development was “provoked by the countercultural insurgencies and liberal initiatives of the era” (17). Furthermore, he contends that the “resurgence of a politically active Christian fundamentalism in the 1970s . . . may be partly understood as a faith community consolidating its identity in the face of the diffusion and deepening of the ironic sensibility in postmodern culture” (84–85).

If one legacy of the dissident politics of the 1960s was a new postmodern sensibility that has gained influence and prestige ever since, perhaps the most salient result of that sensibility was not so much political as metaphysical: the development of a culture of disenchantment, which Maltby describes as “a secular ethos of unremitting and boundless critique, in which all forms of institutional authority, hegemonic norms and precepts, and ‘master narratives’ have fallen under suspicion” (11–12). Ironic, self-reflexive attitudes not only pertain to the dominant critical discourses in the humanities and social sciences; they also manifest in popular media forms such as self-parodying movies, self-aware television shows, self-mocking advertisements, and so on. Maltby argues that this culture of disenchantment produces the type of people who are cynical, skeptical, and suspicious almost to a fault, but who tend to populate “key domains of the public sphere” (12) such as higher education and the mass media, for instance; they are “often, but by no means exclusively . . . to be found within urban communities of secular liberals” (15). While the “principal practitioners” of this culture of disenchantment do not necessarily represent the “mainstream” in the United States, they nonetheless “enjoy the elite status and prestige of critical acclaim” (14). Although fundamentalists tend to share with liberals an oppositional mindset, what they oppose is precisely this culture of disenchantment; they see themselves as “adversaries” in a winner-take-all “war” against “secular values” (15). Staunch defenders of traditional family values, more deferential to authority and ostensibly more patriotic, fundamentalists also favor what Maltby calls “pastoral-sentimental” aesthetics, cultural forms that are accessible, earnest, and ennobling rather than ambiguous or ironic (30).

Focusing on the “collision between Christian conservatism and secular liberalism” (2) since the countercultural era, Maltby elucidates “the thinking of two large...