Experiential Learning: Teaching Race, Religion, and Ethnicity

By Karen Johnson. It is Palm Sunday in the heart of Chicago’s Austin community, a west-side inner-city neighborhood.  Children welcome the congregation into the gym, one dressed as Jesus riding on a donkey (for all you Color of Christ fans, Jesus, in this case, is black).  Pastor Robert Stevenson encourages the congregation to sing their praises to God, dance their praises to God, play instruments in praise to God.  Technical difficulties prevent a song from playing well from the speaker system.  The atmosphere lacks the professionalism of most suburban churches, but the praise is heartfelt.  People pass babies.  My own son makes it to the front of the church when Pastor asks the man holding him to pray over the service.  The prayer quiets the congregation, a moment of comfort for many of the visitors in the audience who are my students from a suburban liberal arts college.  For many, this is a cross-cultural experience.  The students are part of my class on the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, and they are on an experiential learning field trip.

Why a field trip – especially with all the work it requires?  The answer lies in our calling as teachers.  “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” said James Baldwin.  This semester, we have studied the history of race and ethnicity not only to learn it, but to learn how to use it.   But how do we “use” history without being presentists?  Part of the answer lies in the question of why we teach.  Teaching should not just transfer knowledge, but help students be transformed.    Experiences teach students in ways that reading and analysis cannot.   As one student commented, “a woman who had attended the church for over 20 years said, ‘Sunday’s the most segregated day of the week.’  It struck me not only that there was some truth to that statement, but that I have lived my entire life experiencing segregated Sunday church services.”   The present has a history– to understand why Sunday is so segregated, and why Rock Church was such a powerful experience for the students, they needed to know the history.

What is Social Christianity Anyway?

By Heath Carter

This question was amongst those at the heart of a vigorous roundtable exchange at the first ever joint meeting of the American Society of Church History and the Ecclesiastical History Society (UK) earlier this month.  The conference itself was well attended and a good crowd showed up to the morning session on Friday, April 4th, to participate in a dialogue with Wendy Deichmann (United Theological Seminary), Christopher Evans (Boston University), Ralph Luker (Independent Scholar), Rima Lunin Schultz (Independent Scholar), and myselfAmanda Porterfield (Florida State University) served as both chair and commentator.  A revised version of our exchange will be published as a forum in an upcoming edition of Church History, so rather than giving away all the juicy details here, I'll just highlight (below the fold) some of what I think were the most interesting questions and issues raised.

More than Hobby Lobby: My Take as a Scholar of Religious History

Charity R. Carney

Hobby Lobby was not my favorite work experience—it required long hours, ridiculous record-keeping, exposure to monotonous Christian muzak, and putting up with some creepy coworkers. It was, well, retail. Also, I worked there for all of three months. I’ve been a religious historian for far longer and thought I’d share my thoughts on the current case and the evolution of corporate Christianity in general instead of dwelling on those three months of stocking googly eyes. Huffington Post and Businessweek both interviewed me regarding the current SCOTUS case and, while they had good questions, I think that there are some points that have been missing from the discourse. Namely, how is Hobby Lobby related to larger trends? What is actually happening to evangelical religion in the United States? And why are reproductive rights/contraception at the center of this struggle?   

Much of the discourse surrounding Hobby Lobby is, necessarily, about corporate Christianity. Of course, Hobby Lobby is a great example of this particular phenomenon and contributes to a larger
narrative of the blending of the corporate and religious that has been a theme in American religious history. As our own Darren Grem pointed out, “Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time.” I’ll leave this territory to Darren and fellow business and religion scholars—it’s an exciting field and there is obviously much relevance in this work right now. From my own developing research on megachurches, however, I’m considering a slightly different perspective on current trends.

Hobby Lobby may win this case because of the pro-business and conservative nature of the Roberts Court, of course, but there’s a larger cultural phenomenon that might be influencing public and political opinion as well. The case is significant because it represents the blending of corporate and Christian—and one very visible sector of American religion that mixes the same stuff is the rapidly rising megachurch movement. The public and our leadership have been primed to consider the religious rights of corporations because of the general growth of Christian industry and that industry is manifested in tax-free organizations like megachurches. In other words, megachurches and seeker-sensitive churches, in particular, are assisting in blurring the lines between business and religion so that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Before the Flood: An Author Interview with Michael P. Kramer

Laura Arnold Leibman

I'm extremely pleased this month to interview Michael P. Kramer of Bar-Ilan University. Michael is the author  Imagining Language in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 1992) and the editor of numerous important collections, including  The Turn Around Religion in America: Literature, Culture and the Work of Sacvan Bercovitch (with Nan Goodman, 2011) and The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature (with Hana Wirth-Nesher; 2003).  He is currently translating S.Y. Agnon's And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (Forthcoming, 2014), but this interview focuses on his most recent editing project, the special issue "Before the Flood: Early Jewish American Writing" for Studies in American Literature 33.1 (2014).

1. What led you to decide to edit an issue on Jews in early America?

The short answer is this: Early Jewish American literature has been woefully neglected by critics. Few nowadays know anything about what Jews wrote in America before the arrival of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, before, say, Abraham Cahan published Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto in 1896. Few have even heard of Isaac Harby, Penina Moise, or Adah Isaacs Menken, let alone Antonio de Montezinos or Isaac Aboab de Fonseca. I had been arguing for some years that Jewish American literary study will not leave its provincial swaddling clothes behind, will not achieve full scholarly maturity, until it comes to terms with the field’s early history, and it occurred to me that it was time to do more than publish polemics. So I thought I would invite scholars who were interested in early Jewish American writing—there were a few—and entice some others into venturing into the mostly uncharted territory to join me in a project. Ben Schreier, the editor of Studies in Jewish American Literature, was gratifyingly open to the idea and generously agreed to devote an issue to the venture. The result was “Before the Flood.”

There’s a longer answer, too. I was trained in graduate school by Sacvan Bercovitch, one of the truly great Americanists of the last half-century. Unlike many Americanists before him—Perry Miller being the prominent exception—Bercovitch took early American writers seriously, particularly Puritan writers. I cut my scholarly milk teeth in the mid-70s on the likes of John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, Anne Bradstreet, and Cotton Mather. What fascinated me about his approach was essentially twofold. First, his interest in the Puritans was neither antiquarian nor filio-pietistic but critical. He took them seriously as writers, on their own terms, in all their otherness, not despite their Puritanism but because of it, reading their sermons, histories, personal narratives, and poetry as the literary fruits of their religio-political worldview, as extraordinarily complex cultural achievements. He took texts that others found uninteresting or impenetrable and opened their idiomatic power and wonder. Second, he believed that, for all its distinctiveness, the worldview of American Puritanism exceeded its local boundaries. Taking the long view of American literature and culture, he argued that you really couldn’t make sense of the great writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without understanding what came before, that to be a writer in America was to participate in a cultural process, in an anthropological rite of assent, that found its origins in the writings of those peculiar Puritans. He understood the America we live in—including its democratic pluralism and its growing multicultural openness, however paradoxical that might sound—to be the flowering of the New England Puritan imagination.

 So when I began to focus on Jewish American literature, I instinctively turned backward. My path had been paved by Bercovitch. I looked to the early centuries, convinced even before I started down the road—or, rather, I had a hunch, since I really didn’t know—that I would find riches. If others found the field barren, I surmised, it was because they didn’t know what to look for, or didn’t know what to make of what they’d found. I believed as well that what I discovered would help me better understand what came later. I invited some friends to come with me, and along the way I found others who had come for their own, different reasons. And the issue took shape.

2. What makes early writings by Jewish Americans different from those by later Jewish American writers?

What Do These Have in Common? Blogging as Scholarship, Last Kind Word Blues, and Major New Book on American Catholics and American Presidents 1960-2004

Paul Harvey

Since a few of our folks are taking a well-deserved break from blogging this month during a particularly busy time of the semester, I've collected a few disparate items of interest for you here just to keep your blog reading muscles exercised while you're waiting for Laura Leibman's monthly blog treat tomorrow!

First: at this year's Organization of American Historians meeting, one of the final panels addressed the topic "blogging as scholarship." Historiann was on the panel and previewed her comments here; my graduate school buddy and excellent post player in basketball (25 - 30 years ago, anyway) Mike O'Malley from George Mason posted his thoughts here; and our own John Fea, whose illustrious blogging career got its start here before he decided just to take over the world, has some reflections from the panel here. The young historian Joseph Adelman contributes further to the discussion here. For those of you interested in some extended reflections on some of the questions that Chris Cantwell posted below on his "day of Digital History," this is a good place to start.

Second, I can't recommend enough this New York Times Magazine piece from yesterday: "The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie," a piece of historical detective work on two female musicians who flashed so briefly on the scene in 1930, recorded a few classic sides for Paramount at its factory in Grafton, Wisconsin, and then seemingly vanished from history. The author writes:

There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin villege on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie's "Motherless Child Blues" and Geeshie's "Last Kind Word Blues," twin Alps of their tiny ouevre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, [and] a classical arrangment

Along the way we learn a lot about the history of record sleuthing and collecting, about a vast but inchoate archive held by the king of all researchers in this field and why that archive may never fully reveal its secrets, and about church communities which historically have gathered in an array of musicians about whose talents it can only be said, the half ain't never been told. Those of you who follow any dispatches you can from the old, weird America -- read the piece, and check out all the accompaniments online, including the Kronos Quartet's cover of Geeshie Wiley's stone-cold chiller of a tune, "Last Kind Word Blues."

And now, for something completely different!

Giving History the Johnson Treatment


Lyndon Johnson delighted in using power to accomplish his goals. He was famous for his ability to leverage any advantages he held over his opponents, whether that was a majority vote in Congress, or his 6 foot 4 inch frame. His personal efforts to control a debate or influence thinking became known as the “Johnson Treatment,” and few survived the full force of it without a shift toward Lyndon’s perspective. A current fifty-year commemoration of Johnson’s term in office demonstrates the enduring influence of his presidency, and a modern use of the Johnson Treatment to reshape his place in popular memory.

Whitney Young gets the Johnson Treatment, June, 1966

This week, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas celebrated 50 years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Civil Rights Summit, a remarkable series of public lectures and events. Speakers included President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. The program was an outstanding opportunity for reflection on the importance of the act and the challenges for civil rights today. The LBJ Library streamed the sessions, and they are available for viewing online.

Johnson’s family and former staffers have been active in promoting the civil rights acts and Great Society initiatives as the proper way to celebrate the legacy of Johnson’s term in office. These are monumental historic achievements that warrant commemoration. The Vietnam War is more difficult. The burden of that war took the strength of a political animal who rose to power in Texas and Washington by outmaneuvering and bullying his opponents. The revised look at Lyndon Johnson presents him as a great idealistic leader who chose to reform society but had the Vietnam War thrust upon him. One of the most fascinating ways that Lyndon Johnson is being celebrated is through the Broadway play “All the Way” starring Bryan Cranston, most famous for his role as Walter White in Breaking Bad. The play has received mostly positive reviews, and Cranston’s LBJ reinterprets Johnson as earnest and determined to accomplish “big things” with initiatives on civil rights, the Great Society, and the Vietnam War.

Reflect on Reflections of Amma

If you are near Riverside, California, or just want to get away, join Professor Amanda Lucia for a discussion on her new book Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Thursday, April 17, 3:40-5:30 in some building called "INTN" room 3043. Jennifer Scheper Hughes will be there (author of the must-read Biography of a Mexican Crucifix). See you there!

P.S. the book is phenomenal!
P.P.S. vote Pedro

Day of DH 2014

By Chris Cantwell

My post for today has less to do with American religious history and more to do with an American religious history blog. As some of you may know, today is the Sixth Annual "Day of DH." Run out of Michigan State University's MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, the event is "an open community publication project that will bring together scholars interested in the digital humanities from around the world to document what they do on one day." Participants have all registered for blogs at the Day of DH site and on the specified day everyone will live-blog their workday to give the world a sense of the immense diversity and creativity of digital scholarship today.

Well it just so happens that today, April 8, is Day of DH 2014 and I am participating. To mark the event I've decided to repost my first Day of DH post here which is, as you'll see, relevant to our little corner of the web. As I suggest below, I am becoming increasingly interested in impact new media is having upon scholars and readers who don't explicitly self-identify as digital humanists. And so I'd like to ask our readers: What has this blog meant to you? Why do you read it? How have you used it? How has it changed the work that you do? Please sound off in the comments below. Your thoughts will not only contribute to a larger conversation about digital scholarship, but could also serve as a nice marker on how great this blog is as it approaches its seventh year.

My Day of DH begins before the Day of DH even begins.

Religion in California: Conference April 24-25

Today's guest post comes from Blaine Hamilton of Rice University, who informs us about the upcoming Religion in California conference to be held at the Graduate Theological Union, a spectacular location sitting right above the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, and providing a panoramic view of the Bay Area. 

Later this month I am privileged to be participating in the Religion in California conference at the University of California-Berkeley.  This focused event was organized by our own Ed Blum, along with Lynne Gerber and Jason Sexton, and it has been graciously funded by the California American Studies Association, Berkeley’s Religion, Politics, and Globalization Program, the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture Project, the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, and the Graduate Theological Union. Details below after the jump. 

The Crisis of Biblical Authority in Early America

Jonathan Den Hartog

In my post last month, I raised the problem of religious authority in American history. Rather than being a recent development, this has been an on-going struggle in the American context. I also previewed my desire to post further about Michael J. Lee's new book The Erosion of Biblical Certainty.

The Erosion of Biblical Certainty - Michael J. LeeLee's book, released late last fall, takes up the topic of how Christians in the late colonial era and then the early republic wrestled with understanding, interpreting, and defending the Bible. It thus touches on apologetics, historical criticism, and hermeneutics. In fact, one way of reading the book is as a description of the early phases of biblical and textual criticism in America.

Lee, an assistant professor at Eastern University, traces the move away from a Puritan and uncritical reading of Scripture. Through chapters that capture moments of transition, Lee chronicles how American Christians decided to answer the rationalist critiques of the eighteenth century: to use the same methods against their opponents. Cotton Mather early on suggested capturing the "cannons" of biblical critics and turning them against those challengers. Following Mather, Jonathan Edwards and John Dickinson argued that reason and history could provide high probability of biblical authority, although faith was still necessary. This tension was lost as lecturers who participated in the Dudleian Lectures at Harvard increasingly emphasized the rational and empirical bases of Christianity, rather than any supernatural character.

This process seemed to be successful for a time, and the story might even have been viewed as a triumph if the clock could have been stopped on the eve of the American Revolution. Tracing the narrative into the early nineteenth century, though, makes it appear a tragedy.

In the second half of the book, Lee shows how German Historical and Textual-Critical thought blindsided America's rationalizing Protestants. The Historicist mindset undermined confidence in first the text of the Bible and then its transhistorical authority. Although the Unitarian Andrews Norton and the Trinitarian Moses Stuart both tried to hold the tension together--the Bible as historical yet not totally subject to historicization--they proved unable to defend biblical authority or restore it to its previous position.

In Lee's telling, this tragedy is ironic. Like James Turner, Lee sees the problems for American Protestants as originating within their own tradition. By choosing to defend the Bible on a rationalistic basis, they opened themselves up for a sudden shift should external standards of rationality and history shift.

As I was reading Lee, I was simultaneously sampling from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Taylor describes an important component of secular modernity as the loss of "naive" faith. By this, Taylor means that all belief is now colored by the knowledge of the possibility of unbelief, of the contested nature of any faith claims. Lee's book traces this move clearly in the eighteenth century. Taking critics seriously, American Christians worked to defend the Bible. In their rationalist justifications, though, they ironically lowered the authority of biblical revelation.

For understanding the Bible in American life as well as the contours of American thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Lee's book is an outstanding contribution.

"One Way!": The Jesus People and Countercultural Engagement


Trevor Burrows

If you haven’t yet checked out Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America, you should move it to the top of your “to read” list right away. Beyond being beautifully written, the history (or histories) of the Jesus People it narrates should provoke some interesting questions for anyone interested in religion, culture, and politics in the twentieth century. For one of the main takeaways from Eskridge’s book is that the movement was built upon any number of tensions: was it a ministry to hippies, junkies, and counterculture refugees, or was it a grassroots movement comprised of those figures? Did it take on the trappings of the late ‘60s in order to save souls only, or did it use countercultural aesthetics and practices as “authentic” symbols of a different conception of Christian practice? And what was the relationship between the movement’s scattered leadership, its establishment backers, and the participants it attracted? These questions hover around the larger issue concerning the movement’s relationship to evangelical culture on the one hand, and to non-evangelical (counter)cultures on the other.

Rather than review Eskridge’s book here - it has been well-reviewed elsewhere - I want to use it to consider the significance of the movement in the history of modern evangelicalism, and to perhaps suggest a slightly more critical angle on the movement’s relationship to American culture and politics. For what has followed me since finishing the book is the Jesus People’s largely apolitical character. Of all the groups that Eskridge profiles, only one - the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), an answer to Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front - seemed to engage the growing number of social and political issues that were debated at the time. Indeed, when Billy Graham tried to enlist the movement in support of Nixon in ‘72, the turnout was minimal. “For the overwhelming majority of Jesus People,” Eskridge writes, “[...] turning out for some sort of political cause was simply unappealing because it skirted the “real” issue: how would this effort glorify the Lord or lead the people to Jesus?” There is a parallel worth mentioning here in the recruitment and evangelization strategies of some of the movement’s leaders. When Tim Wise, a co-founder of one of the early outposts of the movement in the Haight-Ashbury area, is asked by a muckraking evangelist whether they encouraged hippies to clean up their act by purging their lives of drugs, promiscuous sex, and inappropriate fashion choices, Wise responds coolly: we talk about Jesus, and what happens from there is between the individual and God.

David King Offers Historical and International Perspectives on World Vision and Recent Controversies Over Its Marriage Policies

Brantley Gasaway

No doubt many readers of this blog have followed the recent controversy surrounding World Vision, the global Christian relief, development and advocacy organization best known for its child sponsorship programs. For those of you who missed it, the American branch of World Vision initially stated that Christians in same-sex marriages would become eligible for employment before reversing this decision two days later after backlash from many supporters and prominent conservative evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, Al Mohler, and John Piper. For details, see the coverage by Christianity Today (here) and the New York Times (here).

David King
Over at his regularly engaging blog, The Pietist SchoolmanBethel University's Chris Gehrz beat me to the punch by hosting a two-part interview with David King that offers historical perspective on World Vision and a better understanding of this imbroglio. David, who is leaving Memphis Theological Seminary this summer to become assistant professor of Philanthropic and Religious Studies at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (IUPUI) and the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, is completing a book project entitled Seeking to Save the World: the Evolution of World Vision, American Evangelicalism, and Global Humanitarianism

I'd encourage you to read all of the interview--part one (here) and part two (here)--for Chris's questions and David's answers cover a wide range of issues that include the development of evangelical humanitarianism; how the controversy illuminates debates about definitions of "evangelicalism;" and the place of American evangelicals within the global movement. At the conclusion of the interview, for example, David reflects on the international consequences of the controversy:

W(orld) V(ision) US’ policy last week also created publicity headaches for other World Vision offices. A number of other World Vision offices – particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. all released statements distancing themselves from WVUS’ policy…Canada and Australia, for instance, have laws that do not allow discrimination in terms of religious commitment or sexual orientation. WV Australia went on record to be clear they do not ask questions about sexual orientation or marriage status in interviews. While they remain Christian organizations, the way they see their Christian identity shaping their work and their office culture may be quite different. Again, this question of how religious identity shapes an organization is a fascinating question that looks quite different in various contexts.

In this case, World Vision U.S. serves as the exception among other western countries, and its strong evangelical U.S. donor base plays an important role, but WVUS may also find important allies among other World Vision offices in Africa, for instance, in contrast to fellow western countries. To me, World Vision International serves as a microcosm in many ways of the shifts in the global church that world Christianity scholars like Lamin Sanneh and Philip Jenkins have been describing to us for decades now.

World Vision is a highly influential organization that gives us insight into how Christians engage global need. Particularly among American evangelicals, it is at the leading edge of shaping popular culture and professional practice of religiously-based relief and development. Last week’s episode demonstrates that evangelical fault lines remain deep, but World Vision points to a number of other shifting dynamics as well.

Thanks to David and Chris for providing more light than heat on World Vision U.S.'s recent controversial policy decisions.

A New Look and Three New Interviews for Marginalia


Art Remillard

Marginalia has a spiffy new logo and a modified URL, both the result of MRB becoming a partner publication of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Details on what precisely this means are trickling out at present. But it's safe to assume that our audience has widened. And hopefully as this widening continues, new listeners will tune in to our radio show and hear our latest three episodes, starting with Chad Seales who talks about his fine new book, The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town.

The interview opens with Seales describing how southern secularism is like a "greasy pig"; but, he quickly adds, it is not like David Duke. Trust me, this will make sense once you've heard his explanation. Since reading the book and recording the interview, I'm starting to think that The Secular Spectacle will do for the study of secularism what The Madonna of 115th Street has done for lived religion. Both dig a deep well into a local culture in order to bring to the surface a myriad of methodological insights, all the while telling a compelling story based on ethnographic and historical sources. And just as Robert Orsi has inspired many scholars to dig their own wells in the land of lived religion, I expect that Seales will likewise attract pilgrims to his intellectual territory.

So prepare yourself to hear much, much more about The Secular Spectacle. But first, listen to this interview.

"Much Love for the Children of Abraham Through His Son Ishmael:" The Mystery of My Book of Mormon

By Michael J. Altman

I don't really know where the copy of the Book of Mormon that sits on my bookshelf came from. As one moves through academic life, books attach themselves to you like barnacles on the bow of a fishing boat. I remember that this particular Book of Mormon, a 1981 paperback missionary edition, once sat on the built-in bookshelf in my living room in Atlanta during graduate school. I remember it was shelved next to Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures and a Qur'an. When I moved to my current position at the University of Alabama that shelf of books ended up in my new office. Then, a couple weeks ago, I pulled it down so I could pass it around the room during my lecture on Mormonism in my American religious history class. When I opened it up I found this on the inside of the covers:

Geoge Mason University Signs Free Agent Lincoln Mullen to play Digital Humanities Point Guard Position

Editorial note: The 1st of every month is "Lincoln Mullen" day at the blog, where he usually dazzles us with some digital humanities wizardry. However, for the next few months Lincoln will be on hiatus, as he races to the finish line to complete his dissertation and accepts his new post in the Department of History at George Mason University! Congratulations to Lincoln for the new gig, and we'll look forward to his blogging again starting next fall. In the meantime, here is an announcement about his new position, posted at his own blog

Joining George Mason University

 I am pleased—and grateful—to say that this fall I’ll be joining the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University as an assistant professor. I’ll be teaching half my classes on digital history and half on American religious history. In the fall I’ll teach an undergraduate course on church and state in America and a graduate course on computer programming for historians. Over the past few years I’ve been able to get to know some of the people in the department and at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and there are many more great people whom I met during my visit and am looking forward to getting to know. I feel fortunate to be joining them as a colleague.

Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America

I am pleased to post the following guest review of Paula Kane's Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America by my friend and colleague Brian Clites.  Brian is currently a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Northwestern University.

At a recent conference, a senior scholar dismissed “the lived religion approach” by eloquently criticizing the ethnographic method. None of the panelists (including myself) responded by stating the obvious: the study of everyday religion is equally equipped, perhaps better so, for scholars inclined towards anthropologically-informed history. If you don’t believe me, ask David Hall, Leigh Eric Schmidt, or better yet Paula Kane, who has recently published the much anticipated Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America.  Kane explores the life of the forgotten American stigmatic Margaret Reilly (1884 – 1937) to provide the backbone of this microhistorical exploration of the oft-ignored interwar period in American Catholicism. (Reilly, in the tradition of her chosen order, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, took the name Sister Mary Crown of Thorns in 1923 when she took her final vows.  For a wonderful conversation about Thorn’s biography, tune into Art Remillard’s recent discussion with Paula Kane over on Marginalia.)

Report from the John C. Danforth Center's Beyond the Culture Wars Conference

Cara L. Burnidge

According to participants and organizers alike, the most recent conference hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, "Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in the Twentieth Century," was like a marathon.  After 11 panels and 40 prepared remarks in just over two days, we almost needed a finish line. The sports metaphor seems appropriate not only because of the intense schedule (16 papers given on the first day, including a keynote address by James Kloppenberg, and another 16 papers on the second day) or the powerhouse papers (that were, to keep up this alliteration, pre-circulated), but also because the conference was designed to bring together senior scholars, junior faculty, and graduate students, not unlike coaches and their athletes.

Organized by Darren Dochuk and the entire Danforth team, Beyond the Culture Wars featured a variety of scholars hailing from History, Political Science, American Studies, and Religious Studies departments. Senior faculty were asked to present on an idea or research they are currently considering and graduate students were asked to present their own innovative ideas for the field to consider. As a result, the title of the conferences was intended to be ambiguous so that participants could interpret how, or if, "beyond the culture wars" in a way they saw fit. The hope was that this conference would generate new questions, a new set of sources, and ultimately new ideas. (Due to its experimental nature, most #twitterstorians, myself included, respected the work-in-progress of our colleagues and refrained from live tweeting paper details. For more details on individual papers, a full conference schedule can be found here.)

Under the Radar--Interviews with Historians You Should Know

I met Felipe a couple of years ago and when you know someone is doing such significant work in a field that has really yet to gain traction, it was a thrill to read the early drafts of what eventually became this pathbreaking book on Latino/a Mennonites. Felipe is one of the up and coming academics who point to the intersections of Latino/a religious life, activism, and relationships as a way to speak to a large audience of Chicano/a historians, and American religious historians about the nature of  our lived religious lives and how they inform and shape how we live in "Occupied America."

Felipe Hinojosa is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. He received his PhD in history from the University of Houston and has published articles on race, the Chicano movement and War on Poverty in Texas, Latino/a religion, and the relationship between ethnic studies and religious studies. His teaching and research interests include Latina/o-Chicana/o studies, American religion, social movements, gender, and comparative race and ethnicity. Hinojosa’s new book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press) was released earlier this year. (see link at the end of the interview).

1) Give us the gist of the book’s argument about Latino/a Mennonites?

First, I’d like to thank you, Professor Sánchez-Walsh, for the opportunity to talk about my new book!

In Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith & Evangelical Culture I argue that the civil rights movement, from the black freedom struggle to the Chicana/o and Puerto Rican movements, played a central role in helping shape and define ethnic and religious identity for Latinas/os in the Mennonite Church. While much has been written about Latina/o religious activism, my challenge was to try and reassess the motivations, politics, and contradictions of Latina/o religious activism across a wider demographic lens and a longer time frame. I do this in two ways.

Invented Religions

John L. Crow

A couple of months ago I wrote about the recent creation of Yeezianity, the so-called religion of Kanye West. I was dubious about it, and its status as a religion. Not long after, however, I read a book that has made me reconsider my position. The book is Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith by Carole M. Cusack (Ashgate 2010). Building on the themes of this book, she has recently guest edited an issue of the journal Culture and Religion (14.4 2013). In each instance Cusack argues that not only are these invented religions real religion, but they also reveal something important about how we define religion and how religion is utilized. What is different, she points out, is that these tradition do not attempt to legitimize themselves through claims of lineage, historical continuity, or revelation. Instead these tradition are self-consciously created out of popular contexts and the creators and followers do not care about the religion’s origin.

This conscious acceptance of the invented nature of the religion is what makes this category of religion so fascinating. While acknowledging that in some form or fashion all religions are invented, Cusack claims that since the 1950s, a new forms of religiosity has emerged, ones that are “advertised as fictional from the start.” “The model of ‘invented religion’ that I have advanced emphasises the self-conscious attention to the invented – i.e. not revealed or otherwise validated – status avowed within these religions.” Cusack looks at a variety of traditions including Discorianism, the Church of All Worlds—an eco-pagan group founded on Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, The Church of the SubGenius, and more recent traditions based on movies, Jediism and Matrixism, and finally the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In each of these traditions, the founders were well aware of the fictitious circumstances in which the traditions were founded, and the followers were too.

Religion, Food, and Eating in North America: an interview with Benjamin E. Zeller

I'm pleased to post this interview with Benjamin Zeller of Lake Forest College. Ben is the author of Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America (New York University Press, 2010); an array of other publications on new religious movements; and co-editor along with Marie Dallam, Nora Rubel, and Reid Neilson of the newly published Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia University Press). I'm grateful that Ben took time to answer my questions about this book and the intersection of three of the favorite things of many contributors to this blog.

How would you summarize the book, and what central themes or questions tie the individual chapters together?

This is one of the few books where the title (Religion, Food, and Eating in North America) says exactly what the book covers! But religion, food, and eating in North America is a big topic, and we couldn’t cover everything, so we decided to focus on a few key themes: analyses of theological approaches to food, the relation of food to religious identities, food as means of negotiating religion and culture, and food as a method of social and religious activism. There are many more themes we might have covered, and there is overlap between the themes we did chose, but these four approaches allowed us to highlight some great new work in the study of religion in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean.

The book contains fifteen chapters overall, each one containing a case study of food and eating within one or two traditions. The book isn’t a reference book that looks at every religious tradition over time in North America, so there are some holes in what we cover. There’s nothing on Hinduism, for example, but that is because we couldn’t find anyone who was researching Hinduism and food in America. But we have chapters on Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Native Americans, Muslims, and several new religions. We also decided to focus on the near contemporary time period, though several chapters do consider earlier material.

Overall, the book argues for taking the study of food seriously within the academic study of religion, and for taking religion seriously among those involved in food studies. Looking at food and eating lets us think about both high theology and vernacular religion; both daily practice and liturgy; and both religious work done in kitchens as well as in houses of worship.

How did this book originate? 

Ben Zeller
There are four co-editors, so I can only give my own perspective. But for me it started in the classroom when I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on religion & food. I spent a summer trawling libraries, databases, and anthologies looking for accessible and engaging readings. I found a lot to work with, but there was no single textbook that really did what I wanted.

I talked to some colleagues about creating a seminar unit of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) to create just such a book. These colleagues—Marie Dallam, Nora Rubel, and Reid Neilson—immediately signed on. I knew Marie from our work together at Temple University, and Nora and Reid from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All had interests in religion and food, and together we formed the steering committee for the “Religion, Food, and Eating” AAR seminar program unit. For the next four years we solicited papers and oversaw yearly meetings at the AAR where contributors presented their works in progress.

The book really benefits from its origin in the seminar. All the chapters but one were presented in that venue (and even that chapter was presented in a different AAR program unit), and they received careful critical readings from the dozens of other scholars who attended. Our meetings literally packed the rooms we were assigned, and we always went over our time limit in our discussions. Contributors, including myself, really benefited from all this feedback. It made our job as editors easier too, since the authors already had many opportunities to consider feedback and make revisions by the time we submitted chapters for peer review.

How did you become interested in the intersections of religion and food?

The Age of Evangelicalism: An Interview with Steven P. Miller


The following is an interview with friend of the blog Steven P. Miller about his groundbreaking new book, The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years (Oxford, May 2014).  Miller is also author of the critically acclaimed Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Penn, 2009).  If you backmask this post, a surprising revelation will appear: The Philadelphia Eagles will win the Super Bowl in 2015.

1. How does The Age of Evangelicalism relate to your first book on Billy Graham?  Do you see it as a natural outgrowth or a new direction?

In most respects, the two books are quite different.  After completing the second one, though, I do have a greater appreciation for how Billy Graham was simply the opening chapter of a larger evangelical renaissance.  My emphasis is on the diffuse nature of that renaissance by the late 1970s.  People like Harold Lindsell were trying to define theological moderates out of evangelicalism, while someone like Jerry Falwell was trying to reassert the label fundamentalist.  Yet no one person or institution could control a discourse about evangelicalism and fundamentalism that also involved Larry Flynt, Ruth Carter Stapleton, and even Ayatollah Khomeini.  Such were the terms of influence, as I argue.

As for how I go about evaluating that influence, there are definitely some similarities between the two books.  My approach has been to weigh the categories that my subjects delineated (“religion” here, “politics” there) against the inevitable “lived worldliness” (as I have elsewhere put it) that came with being an important historical actor.  The resulting tension is not an indicator of hypocrisy, but rather a gauge of significance.  Historical empathy, for me, means respecting the ideas of my subjects enough to state them clearly.  Historical analysis requires connecting those ideas with related phenomena.  Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman tapped profoundly into the needs of her audience, including many non-evangelicals.  Her book would have been a best-seller even had the Equal Rights Amendment or abortion remained marginal issues.  Yet to describe her in terms of “therapeutic antifeminism,” as I do, is not to impose a secular category.  Rather, it is to explain why she made the cover of Time magazine.  Likewise, it is not unfair to call Jim Wallis a member of the “religious left,” even if he has tried to reject that label.  Wallis was precisely the kind of politically progressive Christian whom Democrats sought out in the mid-2000s as they obsessed about the electoral “God gap”—and he reciprocated.  One of the most underappreciated aspects of evangelical entrepreneurship is the use of strategically self-limiting language.  But Morgan sold millions of books, and Wallis helped to make the Obama brand possible.  They were not bit players.

2. Could you talk a bit about your thesis by way of explaining the title of your introduction: “An Age, Not a Subculture?”

I’m not suggesting that an evangelical subculture doesn’t exist (far from it).  Rather, I would contend that the evangelical subculture is just one part of a larger story about evangelicalism and its impact on recent American history.  In other words, I am interested in writing a history in which evangelicals (whether one defines them using a loose Gallup-style formula or a tight Barna-style one) were not the only protagonists in evangelical history.  People for the American Way, the new atheists, and the West Memphis Three were part of the story, too.  I run into Christians all the time whose religious identity is very much linked with not being evangelical.  That dynamic, in and of itself, could be a chapter in the history of evangelicalism.

3. You write that "the recent history of American evangelicalism looks different . . . when it is not solely about evangelicals themselves" (pp. 7-8).  Would you consider your book a kind of reception history--of how once-subcultural ideas and practices were mainstreamed?  How did you navigate the tension between broad descriptive survey and proving what we might call your evangelicalization thesis?

I am not sure if “reception history” is quite what I was writing, although perhaps I am just parsing phrases.  I see my book as a story of how the public presence and awareness of born-again Christianity (which, in the vast majority of uses, was synonymous with “evangelicalism”) shaped how Americans understood and evaluated their times.  Sometimes, specific evangelical arguments were very influential in their own right.  Other times, they served as foils.  Either way, millions of Americans came to understand themselves in relation to evangelical phenomena.  The “satanic panic” tapped into deep anxieties about American popular culture and equally deep cynicism about media culture.  Megachurches informed debates about civil society.  The “public square” and the “culture wars” became the dominant metaphors for how Americans talked about the public status of religion.  And on and on.
I am drawn to writing in a manner that is both chronological and thematic.  This can be a tricky scheme.  Decades are handier for chapters than for big arguments.  Still, a chronological approach can offer readers a sense of how similar ideas were voiced in very different contexts and how specific actors popped in and out of certain stories.  Forty-plus years of American history is a good chunk of time, although it seems easier to keep this in mind when comparing 1930 and 1970, as opposed to 1970 and 2010.  I do not include Barack Obama in the same chapter as Jimmy Carter, even though Obama sought to recover the kind of evangelical politics that seemingly disappeared when Carter left office.  I made a similar decision to divide my discussions of the evangelical left.  The evangelical left’s influence on American politics was most striking in two very different contexts: in the early 1970s, when it helped to foster a new evangelical salience amid the fallout from Watergate; and in the mid-2000s, when it demonstrated that the Christian Right was not the only story about evangelical politics.  There was a rich, rich history in between, as David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway have shown us.

4. You open the book with a quotation from Alan Wolfe about how "we are all evangelicals now."  And yet your study in some ways appears to be an autopsy of an Age which, you suggest, died in 2012 (pp. 162-63).  Have we now passed through evangelicalism's middle ages into its memorial service?  Or, do you imagine something like the liberal Protestant "cultural victory" argument (Demerath, Hollinger, Hedstrom) now passing to the evangelicals—i e., evangelical numbers and institutions will shrink even as their beliefs and values become normalized among the general population? 

My epilogue is not an autopsy.  It is an invitation to take stock of a moment in recent American history.  I was very intentional about using the expression “winding down,” rather than the more concrete “ending.”  The Alan Wolfe line points to the recognition of evangelical ubiquity, which was a going concern during the period I consider.  For the moment, evangelicalism retains its spectacle quality.  I have secular, politically liberal friends who love Duck Dynasty (or at least they did before that Esquire piece).  At the same time, it is a bit weird how so many popular articles about evangelical phenomena read like they might have been written in 1976, which George Gallup, Jr., famously declared the “Year of the Evangelical.”  What I would say, then—as I suggested earlier—is that we need to appreciate that a lot of things happened after Gallup made his pronouncement.  Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell are not yesterday’s news; they are a generation ago’s news.

5.  Where do you see your own work fitting among recent studies in evangelicalism?  Where do you see the field going? 

               There have been so many great works in recent years, and there are more to come.  As I state in my Introduction, we can now clearly connect evangelicalism with any number of huge demographic, economic, and political shifts since the mid-twentieth century.  My book owes a tremendous debt to the historians who drew those connections, as well as to the journalists who tried to make sense of evangelical phenomena that seemingly came out of nowhere.  I should note, too, that I do not intend my book as a corrective to these newer works, even if my approach is (I think) different than most.  I have no idea whether anyone will run with the idea of a more expansive historical use of evangelicalism.  Looking ahead, an exciting angle is the global turn, and there are a number of studies in the works along those lines.  The political narrative is far from exhausted (and the cultural angle is inexhaustible, one supposes).  We have so much more to learn about the anti-abortion movement, for example, as well as about policy in general.  The influence of theology is so obvious that it has actually been understudied.  A number of recent and forthcoming works refreshingly treat theology as the stuff of intellectual history.  There are so many fantastic scholars who deserve a shout-out—too many to attempt to name in one place. 
               I’m no Hal Lindsey, but I will offer a closing prediction: In the coming years, fewer and fewer historians of evangelicalism will have a childhood or existing connection to evangelical faith.
               Ok, here is one more: The historiography of recent American evangelicalism will become livelier—which is to say, more contentious.

Steven P. Miller, for the Religion in American History blog
22 January 2014

Poetry and the 20th Century Religious Experience

Carol Faulkner

I begin with a disclaimer: I know almost nothing about poetry. I read A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov by Donna Krolik Hollenberg after reading a provocative review in the Women's Review of Books. Kate Daniels' review offers a mostly positive evaluation of  two new biographies of Levertov, but criticizes the poet as a woman and a feminist.* Here is a brief excerpt of the review:

Neither biographer takes a very analytical look at the role of gender in the poet’s life; neither is particularly psychologically minded; and both acquiesce too often to Levertov’s unreliable self-interpretations (taken from her journals) of some of the most troublesome aspects of her life as a woman of achievement in the twentieth century.  Both inadequately address the poet’s myopia about her male-inscribed consciousness, her difficulties with other women, and her homophobia.  

My personal reason for reading the Hollenberg biography is that she interviewed a friend who knew Levertov. Is there a better reason for reading a book? I knew little about Levertov except that she was a well-known poet. After reading Hollenberg's book, I learned that Levertov's religious biography is as fascinating as her literary biography.

Religion, Food, Eating: These (in reverse order) Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Paul Harvey

It's mid-semester, I'm on administrative overload, books and papers are piling up, my bracket is already broken, busted, and flat, and baby is in the corner hungry, desperate, crying (that's Omar the cat -- reminding me it's time for his treat); it's grim.

But what should brighten my day but the unexpected arrival of this beauty: Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, eds. Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Noral L. Rubel. Merci beaucoup, Columbia University Press! (Same goes for the editors).

I've only had the chance to dip in and sample a couple of the delicacies here, but in brief: the volume is divided into four sections. One is theological foodways, featuring essays on Christian dietary abstinence, Father and Mother Divine's theologies of food, and "Christian raw foods." Next comes "Identity Foodways," with Rachel Gross writing about Jewish food in the 1950s, Derek Hicks on "Gumbo and the Complex Brew of Black REligion," our own Samira Mehta about foodways in Christian/Jewish Blended Families, and Suzanne O'Brien on "Salmon as Sacrament" in the Pacific Northwest. We then move to "Negotiated Foodways," with four more fresh essays, including one on American Buddhist "Mindful Eating." Last comes "Activist Foodways," with essays on food at Koinonia farm, a halal meat eco-food cooperative in Chicago, and contemporary vegetarianism.

Let's eat.

Here's more, from the book's website:

The way in which religious people eat reflects not only their understanding of food and religious practice but also their conception of society and their place within it. This anthology considers theological foodways, identity foodways, negotiated foodways, and activist foodways in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Original essays explore the role of food and eating in defining theologies and belief structures, creating personal and collective identities, establishing and challenging boundaries and borders, and helping to negotiate issues of community, religion, race, and nationality.

Contributors consider food practices and beliefs among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, as well as members of new religious movements, Afro-Carribean religions, interfaith families, and individuals who consider food itself a religion. They traverse a range of geographic regions, from the Southern Appalachian Mountains to North America’s urban centers, and span historical periods from the colonial era to the present. These essays contain a variety of methodological and theoretical perspectives, emphasizing the embeddedness of food and eating practices within specific religions and the embeddedness of religion within society and culture. The volume makes an excellent resource for scholars hoping to add greater depth to their research and for instructors seeking a thematically rich, vivid, and relevant tool for the classroom.
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