REDEEMING CULTURE: American Religion in an Age of Science, 1925-1962

REDEEMING CULTURE: American Religion in an Age of Science, 1925-1962

Ken Myers

By James Gilbert. University Of Chicago Press. 390 pp. $28.95

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2m 24sec

REDEEMING CULTURE: American Religion in an Age of Science, 1925–1962. By James Gilbert. University of Chicago Press. 390 pp. $28.95

In the opening pages of this fascinating history, we see William Jennings Bryan ponying up $5 to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Several months before the eminent attorney defended fundamentalism against the teaching of Darwinian theory in Tennessee’s infamous Scopes Trial (1925), he was inspired by the spirit of populism to believe that science should belong to everyone. "The preservation of democracy," writes Gilbert, a historian at the University of Maryland, "demanded that [Bryan] oppose the establishment of any elite: corporations, banks, corrupt politicians, and now scientists, who would impose their esoteric reasons and secret purposes on the world."

The book’s final pages evoke a different scene: the Seattle Exposition of 1962, where, during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Christian Witness pavilion, a boy in a space suit joined hands with a girl in Pilgrim costume—a gesture meant to symbolize the belief that America was founded on something greater than technology and progress. Gilbert explains that "it was simply unimaginable that the federal government or scientists themselves could present a great public scientific spectacle without including religion in a prominent position."

Between these end pieces, Gilbert assembles a wealth of documentation that adds up to an implicit argument. Beginning with an account of how 20th-century science upset "the historic American tradition that science and religion were compatible," he notes that "the theory of relativity, the uncertainty principle, quantum physics, the principle of complementarity... described counterintuitive ideas. They contradicted common sense." To the question of whether religion was capable of mounting a response, he writes, "A particularly inventive religious genius, an American talent for defining new religions and revising old ones... has infused and saturated culture at all levels. In fact the period from World War II to the present has seen one of the longest sustained religious revivals in American history."

A closely related theme, again more implied than stated, is that the seemingly "distant reaches of American culture" are really quite close. For example, in 1951 Bell Telephone Laboratories invited Hollywood film director Frank Capra to produce four television films on scientific subjects. A devout Catholic as well as a graduate of the California Institute of Technology, Capra wanted to incorporate a religious perspective. The debate over whether he should do so occurred across a wide social spectrum, from professional physicists to network executives, university theologians to parish priests, journalists to ordinary viewers. By telling such tales in all their complexity, Gilbert suggests that American culture is created "not by isolated subcultures operating according to their own rules in self-styled obscurity, but by groups and individuals reacting to questions that discharge like sheet lightning across the sky."

—Ken Myers