A Conversation with David Nilsen - The Screaming Kettle

David Nilsen -- In early May I read and reviewed Andrew Himes‚Äò excellent new book The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. Andrew is the grandson of John R. Rice, a prominent leader within the Fundamentalist movement until his passing in 1980. In the book Andrew discusses the influence, both good and bad, Fundamentalism had on his own life and much of American church culture. I recently had the privilege of corresponding with Andrew and asking him some questions about the book.

David Nilsen -- In your book you mention the thirty year period between writing down the first notes of what eventually became your book and actually completing it. Can you describe the process of deciding to write the book and at what point you knew it was going to be a book project and more than just personal research?

Andrew Himes ‚Äì It‚Äôs always been a book project in my mind, and not just personal research. I just didn‚Äôt know what kind of book it would be. My first notes ‚Äì in 1980 ‚Äì were for a kind of novelized version of the life of John R. Rice, and later I thought about writing a history of fundamentalism. Even later ‚Äì in the 1980s and 1990s ‚Äì I wrote several drafts of a novelized autobiography. When I finally set out in 2005 to work every day I thought I was only working on a memoir. By 2008 I realized I was writing two separate books. This first one ‚Äì The Sword of the Lord ‚Äì is mainly history combined with a personal and family narrative. My second book will be purely a memoir, and I hope to have it finished by the end of 2011.

David Nilsen -- During the writing of this book have you had much interaction with individuals in the Fundamentalist movement (current or former) besides your family members, and if so what has their response to you been?

Andrew ‚Äì My main interactions were with my own family members, most of whom are conservative evangelicals and/or fundamentalists. My several aunts and uncles, plus my brother, my three sisters, and various nephews, nieces, and cousins all read the book and gave me critical feedback. I was looking for serious criticism designed to help me create an honest, accurate, and balanced portrait of fundamentalism and my family. And they gave me lots of help! Beyond my family, I attended lots of evangelical as well as mainline protestant and even Catholic churches, and sought out many hours of conversation and reflection with other Christians, as well as a range of others, including  Muslims, secular humanists,
Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus. I really wanted to understand fundamentalism from the point of view both of fundamentalists and outsiders. Starting with my family, the response of everybody was universally positive and helpful.

David Nilsen --For good reason the Fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century is often looked at as a negative part of the modern church‚Äôs past, despite the good intentions of its leaders and members. Looking back at the movement, what would you say are some of the positive results to come out of it?

Andrew ‚Äì It‚Äôs easier for me to describe the positive impact of my fundamentalist family on my own life. From my fundamentalist family, I learned the importance of standing up for what you believe to be right, no matter how hard it is or even whether anyone else is willing to stand with you. I learned that it‚Äôs OK for other people to think I am slightly nutty when I don‚Äôt easily fit in with other people‚Äôs expectations. I learned the importance of high moral expectations and solid ethical principles. I learned it‚Äôs important to tell the truth. I learned that Jesus‚Äô commandment to love my neighbor as myself should guide all my
actions. I learned that fundamentalism is not an unmixed blessing, but neither is it inherently evil. Fundamentalism is simply a human, and therefore flawed, philosophy. The impulse of the original fundamentalists after World War I was to identify a set of core beliefs that were at the heart of the Christian profession of faith. That was a healthy impulse, even if their proposed  list of fundamental beliefs was far too limited.

David Nilsen --I noticed through the internet the Sword of the Lord newspaper is still alive and kicking. What (if any) has been the response from staff and editors of the organization?

Andrew ‚Äì Early this year I sent a copy of the book to Shelton Smith, the current editor of The Sword of the Lord. He wrote me a very kind note saying he could not endorse the book, but he appreciated what I had set out to do and would be happy to meet me. In March I was visiting my family in Chattanooga, and Dr. Smith met me at Hardee‚Äôs restaurant there on his way through town. We had an interesting conversation for two hours, just getting to know each other, before he went on his way. We didn‚Äôt say much about my book, but I was happy to hear his reflections about leading The Sword of the Lord over the past decade and a half, and hearing about his family.

David Nilsen --You discuss some at the end of the book how you went from being bitter and estranged from the faith at the time of your grandfather‚Äôs passing to slowly working through the process of reestablishing your faith over the next decade. Can you share a little about how your faith has evolved in the two decades since that time?

Andrew  ‚Äì For me, reestablishing my faith means reconnecting with myself, and with the core understanding of God and the world I had as a child. When I was in Sunday School, I had two favorite songs. One was ‚ÄúThis Little Light of Mine,‚Äù and the other was ‚ÄúJesus Loves the Little Children.‚Äù Growing up as I did in a profoundly segregated society, the lyrics of the latter song were powerful: ‚ÄúRed and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.‚Äù In that song, the love of Jesus was linked to justice. All children, and by implication all humans, are loved equally, and all are equal in the sight of God, no matter where they live or what color they are or what language they speak, whether their parents are rich or poor. That‚Äôs a truly revolutionary image. Remembering that song from my childhood completes the circle for me. If you love that song, you have to live it out in your life, in your attitude toward others.

David Nilsen --Finally, if you could have readers take one truth away from this book, what would it be?

Andrew ‚Äì We all ought to be fundamentalists, if it means following what Jesus said are the true fundamentals ‚Äì loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Perhaps it‚Äôs time we redefine our terms: true fundamentalism is focused on living out compassion toward others. I‚Äôm an ambassador for the Charter for Compassion, and I‚Äôd like to see millions of people sign the charter and conspire to help it come to life.

David Nilsen --Thanks for giving us some of your time, Andrew! For those of you who haven‚Äôt yet read Andrew‚Äôs book, please check it out. I found it to be an insightful, informative and compelling look at the history of faith in America.