Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood
Little Jon Sweeney was a most earnest boy, one might say a Baptist mystic, reenacting Gospel scenes with GI Joes. "My own imagination thrived in an environment where God was always watching….For me, there were angels in the trees. The birds sang me songs in my walks to and from school….Clouds followed me and God was in them."
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 on September 1, 2005