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Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood Hardcover – September 1, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
It is refreshing to read a book by an ex-fundamentalist who is not bitter. Sweeney, associate publisher of Paraclete Press, writes fondly of his parents' faith with its emphasis on personal experience, scripture, right doctrine, mission and the power of words. Even in religiously charged Wheaton, Ill., he must have been an unusually devout youngster. "Sunday afternoons I would close my door and strip my action figures naked, leaving Batman, Aquaman, and G.I. Joe to hang on crosses of my own design, easy to create with Lincoln Logs.... I would sit quietly gazing at them, thinking on Jesus and his sacrifice, praying with as deep a sorrow as I could muster." In his teens, experiencing other cultures and other approaches to God, the budding mystic felt at odds with fundamentalism's certainties; by his mid-20s he no longer identified with his childhood subculture. And yet he still acknowledges its "surprising gifts": "Fundamentalism taught me that it is possible to stir the soul, to rouse our affections, conscience, emotions, will, and intellect by an earnest approach to matters of faith." Fundamentalists and those who love them will appreciate Sweeney's abiding affection for the faith he left, while those who fear the religious right may be relieved to discover that it has a gentle side. (Sept.)
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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..
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.
Wait a moment. Take a pen and cross out the word "fundamentalist" in Jon Sweeney's subtitle. In its place, write "evangelical." Now we can begin.
Born in 1967, raised in Wheaton, Illinois, and educated at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, Sweeney might have been specially treated to represent the changing face of American evangelicalism, evolving from the fundamentalist faith of his grandfathers-both of whom were Independent Baptist preachers-to the expansive movement whose most prominent spokesman was Billy Graham. In his growing-up years, Sweeney seems to have experienced almost every distinctive of evangelical culture, including the ritual destruction of some of his favorite cassette tapes (the Eagles) after a visiting speaker explained that they contained subliminal satanic messages. It figures that by the time he was at Wheaton College, Sweeney and some of his fellow students were checking out a church that didn't look like a church, a place called Willow Creek.
But Sweeney's evolution didn't end there, and while he still defines himself as a Christian, he has departed on many points from the teachings of his childhood. His memoir-remarkably free of bitterness-will be particularly valuable to readers who have traveled part of the way with him (in their changing attitudes toward Roman Catholicism, for instance), but who remain evangelical, as an invitation to clarify their own convictions.
Christianity Today January 1, 2006
Born Again and Again: The Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood by Jon Sweeney explores aspects of Christian fundamentalism not usually seen: the mysticism of God indwelling the body, religious certainty and its positive and negative effects; powerful experiences of worship, community and trust, and the importance of struggling with matters of faith until they are one's own.
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Both of his grandfathers were independent Baptist preachers. His father was an executive at Moody Press in Chicago, the flagship publisher of fundamentalist books. Little Jon was a paid model, smiling for photographs that served to advertise church-family products. From childhood, he sensed he would walk in their footsteps, modeling a public and active faith. "God intended me to lead, I was told; that much was clear, and the world out there needs more leaders. Until I was about twenty years old there was nothing else in my life that I so clearly understood: there was a spiritual need and I would meet that need."
Yes, Little Jon was devout. And in this memoir Big Jon gives an excellent description of "the spiritual feelings and ideas" of such a boy "growing up in the American suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s in a distinctive brand of Christianity" that thought of itself as the only authentic brand. Sweeney progresses from reflections of childhood to teen and college years, where he, again earnestly, more formally learned the rational basis for Christian faith --- apologetics --- and techniques for witnessing.
Some of Sweeney's most interesting material is the juxtaposition of a fundamentalist faith that is both highly emotive and subjective even as it is very rational and carefully reasoned by stalwarts such as C. I. (Cyrus Ingerson!) Scofield, Charles Ryrie, and Josh McDowell.
In college, on an extended overseas mission trip with the goal of converting Catholics to Christianity, Sweeney came to grips with these two aspects of his faith. Even as he helped these Catholics "experience the God of the Bible for the first time," they introduced him to a love for God that was "lively, mutable, and intimate." They opened his eyes to what Carl Sandburg called a " 'fresh and beautiful' side of Jesus."
Sweeney ultimately was swayed by the relational and mystical aspects of his spiritual legacy. "The sensuous, more than the dogma, binds me, like a slip knot, loosely but decisively to my religious place." In his 20s he discovered the Catholic mystics and Benedictine monasticism, even seriously considering entering Thomas Merton's community in Gethsemani, Kentucky.
But instead he married, moved to New England, and...the particulars of his adult life are a bit vague. He works in the publishing field. He is an Episcopalian. He is not a fundamentalist, though it seems he can't quite identify who he would be if it hadn't been for the best of what he learned in that childhood environment.
Readers who consider themselves fundamentalists will gulp at Sweeney's conclusions. Midway through the book he writes, "We all need saving --- again and again --- from greed, hate, selfishness, and all of the other vices that consume us, keeping us far from experiencing and understanding the love of God. But, we also need wider hearts and wider experiences of new life, new birth, and the love of God. The formula was not as simple as I was led to believe."
For other readers who may be skeptical of fundamentalism, the book delivers what the subtitle promises: "surprising gifts of a fundamentalist childhood."
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
Sweeney does a great job of explaining without judgeing. It is nice to read someone communicate his experience without attempting to score cheap points. I would love to have had a bit more on where exactly Sweeney landed theologically and why, but otherwise it is a tender and insightful look at an important cultural group and moment. If you are interested in what it is like to grow up in a fundamentalist community and to find our own place in the faith, this is a great place to start.
As I read his story of why he chose to go a different way from what he was taught, there was a lot of 'because I can't accept that part'.
From what I read in the Bible, God gave us a spiritual component we call the image of God. As genes are transmitted from generation to generation, this spiritual component is also transmitted. When the original Man sinned, this spiritual component got damaged as it now had a sinful component to it. So essentially, this spiritual component is not reliable. God is a God who is Holy - which means, no sin. So we are effectively separated from Him. The questions after that are 3 things: (1) is there a cure? (2) what does God feel about it? (3) will He do anything about it? In the Old Testament, with the prophecies and the institution of the lamb sacrifice and the choosing of one among many peoples, we start getting an inkling of the answers. When Jesus came and died, the answers became clear. The cure was: Jesus had to die for our sins (that's why he's called the Lamb of God) and we had to 'believe in Him'. How God felt about it was that God loves us so much. Because of this love, He was willing to pay the ultimate cost which He asked from the father of faith - Abraham - He sacrificed his one and only Son Jesus. In the New Testament, there's a clear choice being presented to us and the choice is: Jesus as Lord or somebody else as Lord? Among the other choices is our self.
There are so many things I want that are different from what God wants. But I expect that - God is Holy and knows more than I do. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed "Father, I really, really, really do not want to drink this cup, but even though I do not want, I will drink it because that's what You want." After that, He then surrendered to die on the Cross. It was essentially a prayer of 'I can trust You more than I can trust me'. I commend the author for listening to what his spirit is saying, but it seems to be at the expense of what God (and Jesus) is saying.