Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mencken and Machen

Today I started reading Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. Not the most pithy title in the world, but this is a book that's been on my "to read" list for a while. It's going to be a good read and I'll probably be blogging about it more. Author D.G. Hart introduces his subject by setting out some of the anomalies that make Machen such a fascinating and worthwhile figure to study, and that set him apart from the other fundamentalists whose cause he led in the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s and 30s.

For instance -- Machen was an articulate defender of the historical reliability of the New Testament while not afraid to use the methods of modern biblical scholarship. He opposed the secularization of life in America yet didn't oppose the teaching of evolution. He was an advocate for private Christian schools, but he didn't join his fellow fundamentalists in pushing for Bible reading and prayer in the public schools. He also didn't share their liking for Prohibition.

In some respects, Hart argues, Machen shared much in common with ardent secularists of the 1920s such as Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken. Both Machen and the secularists shared a deep antipathy to the vapid Protestant liberalism that had begun to characterize the mainline churches, and I might add, continues to reach higher and higher heights of vapidity in those same churches today. Mencken and Lippmann were impressed by the intellectual rigor and cogency of Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923. Hart writes about their reactions to that great book:

There he [Machen] argued that by denying the supernatural character of Christianity liberal Protestants had actually created an entirely new religion. It was precisely this argument that Lippmann praised in A Preface to Morals for its "acumen," "saliency," and "wit." For Lippmann, Machen had provided a "cool and stringent" defense of traditional Protestantism, "the best popular argument" produced by either fundamentalists or liberals in a decade of religious turmoil. Mencken was no less impressed. To readers of the American Mercury he introduced the person he would later dub "Doctor Fundamentalis" as "a man of great learning and dignity—a former student at European universities, the author of various valuable books, . . . and a member of several societies of savants." (p. 3)

What's surprising is that Mencken wasn't here being sarcastic or ironic. Though Mencken made a career of mocking proponents of traditional religion, in Machen he saw a formidable advocate of orthodox Christianity. Mencken judged Machen's arguments "completely impregnable."

"If he is wrong," Mencken wrote, "then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing." (p. 4)

When Machen died at the relatively young age of 55 Mencken penned an admiring obituary about his fellow Baltimorean (both men are buried in the city). We can only hope that the Sage of Baltimore put his trust in the crucified and risen Savior who that other son of Baltimore so faithfully and articulately defended.

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