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Molly Worthen

Ultimate Concern

What Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich had in common.

Few historians find a way inside the heads of those human beings who do not leave behind a tidy published record. Polls lie, or oversimplify. Pop culture is only the ad man's guess. It is no easy thing to tell what the vast majority of ordinary individuals listening in the pews, reading at the breakfast table, or lounging in front of the television actually think about the ideas and problems of their world. Once upon a time, the business of historical scholarship lay with the stories of great men and their big ideas. However, in the wake of the new social history that arose in the 1960s—"history from below" that celebrates the lives of the masses left faceless in older books—intellectual historians have had to grapple with the question of how those big ideas move through society. It is no longer enough to claim that élite ideas "trickle down," as if the reading, listening, and thinking public functioned like a passive barrel at the end of a rainspout.

Andrew Finstuen has made an admirable—and largely convincing—effort to trace the cultural pathways of one of the most powerful and problematic ideas in Western civilization: original sin. Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety is a revisionist study that traces its subjects' influence beyond the rarified journal, seminary classroom, or evangelistic crusade and into the lives of ordinary people that Finstuen calls "lay theologians." He grants Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich major roles in the theological revival noted by contemporaries in the late 1950s, but argues that this blossoming of religious thought was not a matter of dry debate among scholars wholly detached from tent meetings for the born-again masses. Instead, Finstuen suggests that the ideas of Niebuhr and Tillich flowed as easily into the popular bloodstream as Billy Graham's calls for repentance in Madison Square Garden, and that the two realms ...

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