Jeff Sharlet has produced a classic in the genre of politicized pseudo-scholarship. The Family tells the story of the International Christian Leadership. Rebranded as the Fellowship Foundation in the 1960s, they became an established religious presence in the Washington beltway in the early Cold War. In the media the book has traveled an interesting path. At first it went largely forgotten. Mainline and evangelical Protestant mags like Christian Century and Books and Culture mocked the book for making false historical connections and allusions—such as pointing to Jonathan Edwards as the creator of “American Fundamentalism.” Randall Balmer savaged the book in WaPo. The book seemed headed for the B&N discount section. But then a few interesting things happened. Scholar Jason Bivins gave the book a positive review in the prestigious Journal of American History (although it should be noted that Bivins is the author of “Religion of Fear”), Democracy Now and other organizations to the left delved into the book's conspiratorial aspects, and when three evangelical politicians connected to the Fellowship got into trouble for their sexual sins, Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow jumped on the bandwagon, leading the book to the top of the NYT nonfiction list. Ironically, Sharlet’s book, with all of its problems, is starting to have an interesting impact in the evangelical public sphere. World Magazine—notable for being more conservative than Christianity Today—just this week critiqued the Fellowship for its dismissal of the organized church and secrecy. While the philosophy of the Family—of bringing men of leadership together for accountability—makes a certain bit of sense as a form lived religion, the organization itself had little accountability which led to all sorts of epic hubris. It seems to me that discipleship is best left to the church, not a para-church organization that too often served American Empire above transnational Christianity.
Ben,Thanks for this fascinating account of how Sharlet's book reached the ny times bestseller list. Am glad to hear that Balmer ripped it apart for its historical inaccuracies. I flipped through the index on amazon and noticed the page entries on edwards corresponded to those on marsden and had wondered what was said. sounds like another case of wrongly interpreting the past through contemporary lenses.Andy
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