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Born Again and Again:
Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood

by Jon M. Sweeney
Paraclete Press, 2005

review by John Tintera

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.

But 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.

Right 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.

As 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.” He writes,

We 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.

Not 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.

Still, 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.

But by the end of Sweeney’s first year at Moody, he had begun to question his spiritual heritage. He writes,

I 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 it fit.

That 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.

Despite 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 mind.

Although 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.

From 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.

Rather 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 cultural—and spiritual—treasures.

©2006 John Tintera

To read explorefaith columns written by Jon Sweeney, visit In the News and On Our Minds.

Born Again and Again
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