Moving religion from anti-modern to modern

By Martin E. Marty
May 3, 2011

Beyond religion-in-the-news stories about Japan, Libya, Washington, and other crisis points, 'religion in public life' continues to be a topic which deserves notice per se.

In a recent conversation, two sociologists who are turning attention to religious phenomena asked a provocative question: “What would you make the focus of your research and writing if you were we, knowing our interests as you do.”

My answer was vague and sprawling, but clear in my own mind, as I had long been pondering this question along with other puzzlers. I offer it free of charge also to others who engage in sighting the roles of religions in public life: Why do religious communities which for a long time strenuously resisted the new, the modern, the contemporary, now most successfully adapt their expressions and employ or even exploit the manifestations of 'the modern' which they once opposed?

The immediate prompt for my question was a paragraph in an article by the awesomely learned historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, who was reviewing five books dealing with the 400-year history of the King James Bible in the London Review of Books.

He wrote: “Ironically, among many conservative evangelicals in the US, the KJB has lost its hegemony over the last half-century, as a welter of new translations has appeared reflecting the diverging agendas of an American evangelical Protestantism which was once given a certain unity by the cadences of 1611.”

MacCulloch quotes author Paul Gutjahr, “who tours us round Bibles rewritten for ‘busy moms’, ‘extreme teens’, or any special interest groups looking for spiritual guidance to suit itself, without the fatigue of having to listen to any of the Bible’s multitude of alternative voices.” MacCulloch relishes “the prospect of some day opening a Celebrate Recovery Bible..."

Many instances parallel to the KJV about-face come to mind. What is a better symbol of the modern than mass media of communications? In every religion, from non-Christian to Protestant, the fundamentalists outpace 'moderates' or 'liberals' in their embrace of media: radio, then television, and now the internet are virtually theirs.

Two generations ago, the beat of rock was music of the devil to these anti-modernists, though earlier a few riffs of jazz in the sanctuaries of liberals got them dismissed as blasphemers. Today those liberals cherish pipe organs and cantatas, while Christian rock—with the same old once-sinful beat—beats out many secular rock expressions.

“The love of money is the root of all evil!” was the biblical quote thundered in conservative churches. Today it is the putatively 'conservative' wing of Christianity that forgets old restraints and promotes 'enterprise', the 'market', and all the rest as part of God’s plan.

Is it 'wrong' or 'bad' for Christian anti-modernists now to turn into accommodating 'moderns'? They can cite the apostle Paul, who would be “all things to all people.” They do carry on their mission more efficiently and prosperously than do the 'moderates' who are cautious about many such accommodations.

Some think through the meaning of their radical adaptations; others simply coast. That, and how and why they so blithely and even enthusiastically made 180-degree turns, should keep more than two sociologists of religion busy. And those who changed might be a bit cautious, recalling philosopher Ernest Gellner’s word that there is nothing more dated than the modernism of the previous generation. At least let’s grant the point that we are better off than when the King James Version fans burned mildly revised versions as “Stalin’s Bibles.”


Paul C. Gutjahr, “From monarchy to democracy: the dethroning of the King James Bible in the United States,” The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences. Edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Diarmaid MacCulloch, “How Good is it?” London Review of Books, 3 February, 2011.


© Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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