Constructing the Buddha

John L. Crow

Earlier this week, the news and social media lit up with claims that the Buddha may be older than already thought (examples can be found here, here, and here). I was not really surprised that so many people found the story interesting. The Buddha has always been a fascinating figure to Americans. Since 1893’s World's Parliament of Religions, the Buddha has been represented in ways that appeal to contemporary concerns and interests, not unlike the representation of Jesus. Thus at the World Parliament, figures such as Anagarika Dharmapala, and Soyen Shaku, represented the Buddha as scientific in thinking, claiming he applied the method of science, and preached the law of cause and effect. In her essay in A Museum of Faiths: Histories and Legacies of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions (1993), Tessa Bartholomeusz noted that this “packaging” allowed Buddhists at the Parliament to represent Buddhism as rational, scientific and egalitarian. This kind of representation has continued to today.

Holiday Interlude: "Wailing in a Winter Wonderland"

Monica L. Mercado

Like many of you, the combination of a busy AAR meeting, holiday travel, and Thanksgivukkah (not to mention the end of the term and the grading that comes with it) have left me pretty exhausted, so I'm taking today off and spending time with family and friends. We Mercados take our holidays pretty seriously, and before the weekend's through, we'll be decking the halls, organizing our gift exchange, and enjoying that now-classic television genre -- the very special holiday episode. So here's where I have a confession to make: I have a giant soft spot for one of the most nonsensical appearances of Catholicism in American culture, "The Flying Nun," which aired on ABC from 1967-1970. You can bet the Season One Christmas episode, "Wailing in a Winter Wonderland," will be queued up this weekend.

Report from the Field Follow-Up: Standing upon the Shoulders of Giants

Cara L. Burnidge

As many gather together with family and friends to give thanks and, perhaps, enjoy a long weekend, some appropriate writing advice popped up on my twitter feed:
Seeing yourself as a part of a creative linkage makes you feel less alone in your art.
The advice comes from Explore blog, a cross-disciplinary site edited by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings that examines what it means to be creative and encourages creative thinking in science and art. I follow it for its long running series on writers and their writing process as well as other thought-provoking insights and innovations. Today's tweet, a throwback from the original post earlier this year, is particularly fitting as my conference-filled week at the Danforth Lectures Series and the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting comes to a close. As David wrote yesterday,  AAR/SBL staged an embarrassment of riches. Between #aarsbl and #danforthlectures there is much to reflect on, particularly with respect to our "creative linkages" and our art (or is it a science?) of writing.

As I mentioned last week, the John C. Danforth Center gathered together scholars and bloggers to take part in its inaugural Distinguished Lecture Series. David Hollinger was the guest of honor, giving two lectures that provided the focus of the three-day event. In between these two lectures three invited speakers--Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen--gave a public response to Hollinger's first lecture, "The Protestant Boomerang: How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture." As L.D Burnett from the U.S. Intellectual History blog described in detail, these three responses were engaging, constructive critiques that highlighted not only the breadth and depth of their historical knowledge but also their skill at crafting and performing a scholarly debate.

AAR Group Proposal for Religion in the American West -- Plea for Help

Editor's Note: The below is a special  holiday message from our friends at Religion in the American West, who are resubmitting a proposal to form their group as a permanent part of the American Academy of Religion. Why this wasn't approved last year, I have no idea, but those of you out there who can be of help by writing a letter of support, please do so. See the information below for more, also posted at Religion in the American West

 AAR Group Proposal:

 As many of you know, Brett Hendrickson and I (Brandi Denison) unsuccessfully proposed a permanent group last year. Winds have shifted and we are being encouraged to resubmit the proposal this year.

You can help. If you wrote a letter of support last year, could you update it for this year? If you didn't write a letter last year, would you write one now?The letter is brief and would simply indicate your interest in the establishment of this as a group. It would be useful if you could talk about how the group provides you with something unique, unmatched by other groups. Additionally, it would be useful if you indicated that it makes more sense to have this group meet nationally than regionally.

 Please email this letter to The deadline for this letter is this Friday (11/29)

AAR Stages an Embarrassment of Riches

By David W. Stowe

It's hard to know where to start with the AAR/SBL annual meeting. So many people, so many sessions, so many receptions, so many "hosted" (i.e. free) beer and wine bars. Luminaries like Karen Armstrong, Wendell Berry, and Meredith Monk strode the corridors of the Baltimore Convention Center. Academic conferences I've been to before--OAH, ASA, AHA--all pale in comparison. Many readers have undoubtedly been there done that and take it all for granted. As for me, it was my first time.

I could write about the engaging and wide-ranging panel discussion of The Color of Christ, well known to readers of this blog, with authors Blum and Harvey responding to critiques from Jennifer Graber, Josh Paddison, Kathryn Gin Lum, Stephen Prothero, and an usually engaged audience.. Or the affectionate but scalpel-edged festschrift for Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular On Teaching Religion, an intriguing-sounding collection I've already ordered from the campus library. Smith's most famous utterance may be, "there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study."

It's all I can do not to write at great length about Hearing Images: Film, Music, Meaning-Making, and Lived Religion, cosponsored by the Music and Religion Group, which featured the reportedly first-ever performance of live music integrated into a panel discussion, much of it played by panelists  that included Kutter Callway, Maeve Louise Heaney, and John Lyden. Selection were drawn from the soundtracks to "Married Life," "The Scarlet Tide" from Cold Mountain, and Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," used most recently in Gravity.

Native Apostles: Review of New Book at The Junto

Paul Harvey

 The blog is a little quiet presently while so many contributors were at the AAR, returning home now, traveling, or entering holiday breaks, but this is a good time to point you to an extensive review of an important new book that we've been meaning to get to here at RiAH.

 Click here for Christopher Jones's review of Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2013), just up at The Junto.

A little excerpt:

Native ApostlesI found myself repeatedly comparing his book to Catherine Brekus’s earlier work on female preachers in 18th and 19th century America.[3] What Strangers and Pilgrims did for female preachers, Edward Andrews has done for preachers of color in the 17th and 18thcentury British Atlantic World. Not only were there many more such preachers than we previously knew of (an appendix lists nearly 300, identified by name, time, location, and denomination), but we now better understand the vital role they played in not only the spread of Protestantism but also the complex cultural exchanges between Europe, Native America, and Africa.

One footnote in the review bears mention here, too, as it usefully links to so many recent works that this new book builds upon:

Andrews’s book is part of a more recent body of work that attempts to reorient our understanding of the intersections of religion, race, and empire. His work stands alongside and builds on that of David SilvermanLinford Fisher,  Travis GlassonJohn SaillantJoanna BrooksTy ReseErik SeemanJon Sensbach, and Elizabeth Elbourne, among many others.

Seminar in Rome! Transnational Approaches to U.S. Catholic History

The following comes to us from the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism:
Time: Fri Jun 6, 2014, All Day 

Location: Rome, Italy

The Italian Studies at Notre Dame Program sponsors an annual Rome Seminar to bring together scholars from around the globe to reflect, discuss, and train on a topic related to Italian studies. This year's Seminar, American Catholicism in a World Made Small: Transnational Approaches to U.S. Catholic History, is co-sponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, and the College of Arts and Letters.

The 2014 Rome Seminar is the first to be held in the University of Notre Dame's new building on Via Ostilia in the San Giovanni neighborhood. Our meeting place is a 15-minute walk from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran and just a few blocks from the Colosseum.

The Seminar will explore the surge of interest in transnational approaches and global questions in historical scholarship as it relates to the history of Catholicism in the United States. Specifically, participants will focus on interaction between a European (and particularly Italian) institutional church and American culture. The goal is to catalyze scholarly work that places the history of Catholicism at the center for global narratives. With that in mind there will be three components to the Seminar:
  1. Prominent U.S.-based historians of Catholicism in the United States will explore how traditional questions in the field become reframed when placed in a more global key.
  2. Leading Italy-based historians of North American Catholicism will offer perspectives on transatlantic approaches to the field.
  3. Participants will attend workshops at key archives in Rome, where archivists will guide them through their inventories.
The goal of the Seminar is to develop new insights and fresh methodological perspectives from which the field at large may benefit. It is also our aim to create an environment that can foster ongoing friendship and collaboration.

Junior faculty and advanced graduate students are invited to apply. Lectures will be in English; no Italian language background is necessary.
Tuition is $1,250, a below-cost figure made possible by a University of Notre Dame subsidy. Participants are responsible for their own travel, room, and board (information on local housing options will be available). Applicants are encouraged to seek funding for tuition and travel from their home institutions. Scholarships may be available.
Email the Cushwa Center at with any questions. The application deadline is December 1, 2013.

A Great Book and the Liberal Arts Tradition


Mark Edwards

A few months ago, Loyola’s Tim Lacy blogged here about Mortimer Adler, the subject of his new
book, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History, 2013).  His Dream is due to hit bookshelves—do we still have those?—in three days.  As his subtitle suggests, Lacy uses Adler to explore one of the most controversial subjects in twentieth-century American education, the “Great Books” movement.  I think, when most of us hear the words Great Books, we think Alan Bloom and conservative culture warriors.  One of Lacy’s central and most welcome contentions is that the Great Books idea has never been the sole possession of the American right or left.  Rather, both sides have, at different times, looked to such projects of cultural cohesion to save them from a variety of perceived existential threats (check out the conversation regarding Lacy’s 2011 blog post, "Great Books Liberalism," for a nice introduction to the book).  Lacy is most concerned with, in his words, “those people, those mid-century intellectuals who promoted the great books idea, [who] shared an implicit, cosmopolitan dream of cultural democratization” (p. 6).  As he elaborates:

The meaning of this argument is revealed by examining the aspirations and actions of both promoters and reader-consumers. From the promoters’ viewpoint, democratization meant redistributing what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital.” Through ideas and knowledge contained in great books, promoters hoped to enlighten the American polis and buttress Western democratic societies against malicious political systems, such as communism and fascism.  Moving from the social to the singular, supporters held that the steady accumulation of individual intellectual progress obtained by studying great books (not to exclude other means) would create empowered, cosmopolitan citizens comfortable with freedom in a century plagued with totalitarianism. Having sound philosophical foundations, each citizen would be a true free agent in the Western marketplace of ideas.  They would raise political discourse and cast the best votes possible.  And evidence exists that readers were enthusiastic about the great books’ potential to supplement their knowledge of the world—to help them process and act on the ambiguities of modern life. Stating the thesis another way, the dream of great books enthusiasts was that all Americans, all Westerners, and all those living in democratic societies would benefit from some connection to great books (p. 6).

As Lacy makes plain, the Great Books Idea was part of a larger ongoing conversation about the resiliency and relevance of the Western liberal arts tradition.  In that light, his book could not have come at a better time for me.

Vodou in the Early Republic: More Questions Than Answers


Our guest post today is by John Davies, an adjunct assistant professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. His article, "Taking Liberties: Saint-Dominguan Slaves and Masters in Philadelphia, 1791-1805," will be appearing in Commodification, Community, and Comparison in Slave Studies, ed. Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears (under contract with Louisiana State University Press).

By John Davies

On May 7, 1800, Calypso, a woman "aged about 30 years" from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, was baptized in [Old] St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. With her baptism, she took the name Mary Claudia Calypso.[1] Calypso was one of over 800 free and enslaved Dominguans of African descent who arrived in Pennsylvania between 1789 and 1810 during the violent social, political, and cultural transformation that we know today as the Haitian Revolution. During this period, roughly 25,000 Dominguans made their way to the United States, settling largely (though not exclusively) in port cities from New Orleans to Savannah to Boston. Of that number, perhaps 4000 were free people of African descent, and at least another 6000 arrived as slaves.

Like Calypso, many Dominguans of African descent in Philadelphia embraced the Roman Catholic faith. Nor was such activity confined to Philadelphia. A famous example would be Pierre Toussaint, who arrived in New York City in 1797 as a slave, remaining in the service of his mistress until her death in 1807, and supporting the Church through his faith and actions until his death in 1853. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church is considering Toussaint for sainthood.

But did Dominguans of African descent who remained in the United States also practice Vodou? A perceptive audience member asked me this at a 2013 SHEAR panel. Since I had argued that migrants in Philadelphia were invested in a French, Roman Catholic identity, I answered "no," a response that was met with polite skepticism. The existence of Vodou in nineteenth-century New Orleans was suggested as evidence to the contrary.

Report from the Field: The Inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture Series

Cara L. Burnidge

This week I had the pleasure of attending the Danforth Distinguished Lecture Series hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. As the invitation explained, this lecture series brought a distinguished scholar to Washington University in St. Louis to spur conversations on campus, but also among a broader community by welcoming guests who "provide added nuance to the subject and facilitate lively and informed discussion."

The three-day event centered upon "Protestant Foreign Missions and the Secularization in Modern America," highlighting David Hollinger as the distinguished guest as well as his significant body of work, especially his latest book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (drawn from his 2011 OAH presidential address, previously mentioned on RiAH here, here, and here). In addition to two thought-provoking lectures from Hollinger, the Danforth Lecture Series included a symposium with critical responses from Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen as well as discussion from approximately 20 invited guests, ranging from graduate students, doctoral candidates, professors, and bloggers (you read that right--bloggers [like me!] invited to blog by an academic institution as a contribution to scholarly inquiry and an educated citizenry...a recognition of an academic digital community that makes me wonder: have you signed up for THATcampAAR?

Since I was invited to represent RiAH, I will recap the event and draw attention to what may be of interest to RiAH readers. Fortunately for all, the Danforth Center will post videos of the lectures on its website in the coming weeks. So stay tuned to the Center's video lectures and also R&P.

What Multi-Level Marketing Scheme Would Jesus Use? The Religion of AdvoCare

Paul Putz

The following testimony probably strikes a familiar chord to those who are conversant with American evangelicalism:

"About 15 months ago, I was drug to this guys house...My friend, made me go. Ugh! I *thought* I had better things to do. I was busy trying to make ends meet and tired from the week of work that I had just put in. Exhausted and broke I agreed to go along just to appease this guy."

You know what happens next: the reluctant attendee is born again, turns his life around, and begins to spread the good news to others. And that's basically what happens here. Kind of.

"Thank God for [my friend's] influence and and belief in me! Since then, we have built an Advocare businesses/ministry that provides our family and friends with energy, hope, nutrition, and a very substantial monthly income! Maybe you are like I was 15 months ago. And maybe I can be your [friend]! I'm going to [my friend's house] today and would love to take you along. Maybe Advocare is for you... and maybe not. Either way, it's worth an hour of your life to check it out."

The excerpts above were posted by an acquaintance on Facebook (thus, the name-redaction). For those who are not familiar, AdvoCare is a twenty-year-old company that sells health and nutrition products. They claim that their scientists have formulated the life-changing energy drink, weight-loss shake, multivitamin, etc. They're kind of like GNC, except AdvoCare only hawks their own brand and they utilize a pryamid scheme multi-level marketing (MLM) strategy to get their products into consumers' hands. Basically, this entails recruiting individual distributors to buy AdvoCare products in bulk (at tiered discount levels), sell it to others, and create networks of subordinate distributors. For a select few who are especially effective at selling the product and getting their friends, family, and acquaintances to become distributors, a healthy windfall of cash is possible. For the vast majority, however, riches are not in the cards.

Segregated Sisterhoods and the Mercurial Politics of Racial Truth-Telling

Today's guest post comes from Shannen Dee Williams.  Williams is the 2013-2014 Postdoctoral Fellow in African-American studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In the fall of 2014, she will join the faculty of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville as an assistant professor of United States and African-American history.  Williams is currently revising her book manuscript, “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America after World War I.” When completed, it will be the first historical monograph on African-American Catholic sisters in the twentieth century. Her research has been supported by a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Fellowship (in Religion and Ethics) from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, an Albert J. Beveridge Grant from the American Historical Association, the Huggins-Quarles Award from the Organization of American Historians, the Drusilla Dunjee Houston Award from the Association of Black Women Historians, and the John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award from the American Catholic Historical Association. A slightly edited version of this blog post appeared on The Feminist Wire on October 24, 2013.  (Posted by Karen Johnson)

Elaine Clyburn with Sister Agnes Clare at Mt. Saint Joseph Academy’s Graduation in 1952

“Young lady, you just told my story. In 1952, I was denied admission to the Sisters of Saint Joseph [of Carondelet] in Buffalo, New York solely on the basis of race. I was one of the broken hearts that you mentioned.”

Those were the first words spoken to me by Elaine Marie Clyburn on March 21, 2012. I had just delivered a lecture on the history of African-American Catholic sisters at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was preparing to leave the facility when the regal 77-year old Catholic woman stopped me in my tracks. 

“Some people do not believe me when I tell them the sisters rejected me because I was black.” she continued. “But, it is the truth. I was explicitly told that I could not enter the Sisters of Saint Joseph because of my color and only because of my color.”  

Medical Missions, Conscientious Objection, and Everything In-Between: Religion and Vaccination

Elesha Coffman

In response to a meningitis outbreak, Princeton University may soon administer an emergency vaccine that is licensed in Europe and Australia but not yet approved or available in the United States. Naturally, this story reminded me of Jonathan Edwards, whose presidency at Princeton was cut very short when he died from a smallpox inoculation that he had received in an attempt to encourage the community to do likewise. In the more than 250 years since his death, religious Americans have played important roles on all sides of vaccination debates, and they are poised to do so again.

Like Edwards, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, believed in both the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the promise of vaccination. Early missionaries to Oregon Country, the Whitmans had tense relations with the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes. Those relations broke down completely in 1847, when a measles outbreak killed many Indians while largely sparing the white settler community. When Dr. Whitman failed in his attempts to inoculate against the epidemic, Indians came to believe he was actually poisoning them and murdered the couple and several other settlers. Though it's impossible to draw a direct connection from this event to the present, Washington and Oregon have broad vaccine-exemption laws and two of the highest rates of non-vaccination in the country, over 6%.

The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America

A couple of years ago on the blog we featured a review of The Gospel of the Working Class, by Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll, along with an interview with the authors. Since then scholarship in religion and labor seems to have caught fire. Below is another review of this work by a guest poster: Beth Bates, a Professor Emeritus of Africana Studies at Wayne State University and author most recently of The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford. Thanks to Professor Bates for sending along this review, which gives us a great reason to highlight this outstanding book again. And congrats as well to one of the co-authors Jarod Roll, who is about to take up a new position as Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, where he will join former blog contributor Darren Grem -- whose forthcoming work Corporate Revivals is going to get a lot of attention at the blog too! 
Beth Bates
This book – a close reconstruction and resurrection of the mission undertaken by 2 ministers, Owen Whitfield and Claude Williams, both born into dirt poor southern families, one black and one white—is not only a page turner, but just plain great history.  Whitfield and Williams used Christianity as an organizing tool to  bring ordinary men and women into the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.  The study is a model for labor historians as well as frustrated progressives, for how to look at both the past as well as the present.  Until recently, labor historians have regarded religion as a pox on the House of Labor, refusing to listen to what our subjects were trying to tell us. Gellman and Roll have a different approach, one that is useful for looking at the past. 

 Several fine historians have paved the way for Gellman and Roll's scholarship.  We have Robin Kelley's Hammer and Hoe describing communist party meetings beginning with prayers and church songs and looking to the black church in defiance of Central Committee directives in the 1930s.  Michael Honey's award-winning works also bring into focus the spiritual context within which union meetings were conducted and document the role of prayer and faith in guiding and leading union members, even at the negotiating table.  Bob Korstad, Ruth Needleman and many others acknowledge the fact that religion played an important role in the lives of black unionists.  What Gellman and Roll have done is peel another layer off the onion, dug deeper, to reveal how Christian faith was a basic, organizing force that galvanized the dispossessed to take action to remedy poverty and racism.  We see how Whitfield and Williams understood scripture and used it to reform society. 

"Now That's Scripture": The Significance of Religion in 12 Years a Slave

Charity R. Carney

I don't always have the most spiritual Sundays. But last weekend, I admit, I had one. I didn’t experience this reawakening in a sanctuary but at a small mall movie theater in Lufkin, Texas. Sitting amidst an audience that numbered about a dozen, my husband and I settled into our creaky, cushioned seats for the matinee showing of 12 Years a Slave. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 co-authored publication of his personal story as a kidnapping victim sold into slavery, the film expands on and sometimes detours from the book’s original narrative but also provides an extremely vivid and accurate portrayal of the antebellum South. It is incredible in its incorporation of so many facets of the slave system in this period—from the kidnapping itself, to the methods of enslavement, hiring out, the white class structure, the ways labor was used, life in the slave quarters. The film is a document not only of the trials of Northup and the millions of enslaved women, men, and children who lived through the horrors of bondage, but also serves as a document of where we stand as a culture today. It has taken decades, and the attempts of many actors and filmmakers, to finally arrive at this picture. This film is landmark in its holistic portrayal of the system of slavery in as an institution, culture, power structure, and moral blight. One of the things that makes the film so successful, however, is the particular emphasis it places on religion.

There are many tools that appear in the film. The whip and lash are seen throughout as a tool used by slaveholders and overseers to control the slave population. The noose is used to punish or kill runaways and those who disobey. Hands are used to pick cotton, play instruments, and soothe the wounded. Knives are used to harvest crops, craft corn-husk dolls, and threaten those who are smarter and stronger. The fiddle is a tool that reminds Northup of home and humanity, but is also an object of dehumanization through forced entertainment. But perhaps one of the most powerful tool woven into this story is religion. By the 1840s, Protestantism had wound its way into the southern states and onto plantations, where slaveholders adopted biblical justifications for slavery and used religious teachings to bolster the idea of planter paternalism.  With a compelling narrative and imagery, 12 Years a Slave effectively captures the diverse religious beliefs and superstitions of slaveholders as well as the adaptation of Christianity by enslaved African Americans.

There was no singular form of Protestant Christianity in the slave South—not among slaveholders or slaves, whites or blacks. The variety of interpretations of the Christian message and Bible is threaded throughout the film. One of the initial glimpses of paternalistic religion is with Solomon’s first master, Ford. In a scene taken right out of classic southern history texts (Wyatt-Brown, Genovese, Burton), Ford stands before his white family and slave “family” to preach a message on Sunday morning, reading the Scripture "I am the God of Abraham" to the plantation household. The tranquil scene is disturbed, however, with an overlay of the vocals of Ford’s white overseer/carpenter singing about catching and hanging a runaway. The juxtaposition highlights the fragile nature of Ford’s hold on his slaves as well as the role religion plays in promoting a precarious paternalism. Ford is a “good” master, protecting Northup from the murderous overseer, but his faith does nothing when it comes to intervening in Solomon’s condition or that of any other slave on the plantation. In another, similar scene that demonstrates the bizarre paternalism of the plantation, Ford preaches on God’s love for His children while Eliza (his slave) weeps for the children who have been ripped from her by her "generous" master.

Unlike Ford, Northup’s second master, Edwin Epps, demonstrates an abject cruelty towards his slaves. However, in keeping with what we know about the antebellum South, he also uses religion to undergird his authority on the plantation. For Epps, Christianity is both the solution as well as the threat. Scripture supports the institution of slavery and he is eager to share passages from the Bible that justify his holding human property. Every lash of the whip is his by heavenly right, according to Epps’ reading of the Word--"Sin? There is no sin," he proclaims as he brutally whips Patsy, who he has singled out for both his favor and wrath. The film depicts the violent side of Christianity in a slave society, but it also contrasts that brutality with the paranoia that belief bred amongst many slaveholders. Epps sends 
his slaves away at one point because he believes that they are bringing about a biblical plague that is affecting his cotton crops. He speaks of prayer and “clean living” but he is also guilty of raping his slaves, depriving them of basic needs, and other unspeakable acts that he justifies by dehumanizing the men and women who live on his plantation. Epps so perfectly depicts the notion that many slaveholders were suspicious of both their slaves and their God. These kinds of superstitions and fears lasted in to the Civil War, when some white southerners believed God was punishing them for the sin of slavery. The retribution of the war is portended by Bass, a Canadian hired hand who declares that the day of reckoning is upon the South. Bass also shames Epps by asking "in the eyes of God, what is the difference" between black and white (to which Epps replies a la George Fitzhugh that is like comparing a man with a baboon).

Slaves, too, held their faith close and many turned to their Christian faith as a symbol of community and shared suffering. While there are fewer instances of slave religion in the film, the moments are poignant and extremely moving. After a member of their community dies, men and women gather around his grave and join in a chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Religion is depicted as a comfort, an act of defiance, and as an expression of a common experience. This scene is also the first time where we see Solomon Northup participate in the singing of a spiritual and it seems to mark his emotional connection with the enslaved community of which he has become a member. There are no hush arbors or ring shouts in the film to further illustrate the many ways that slaves crafted their own beliefs to resist their bondage, but even this one, well-placed and meaningful chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” sung in unison provides insight into the appropriation of Christianity by enslaved African Americans. (And this spiritual offers necessary contrast to the earlier singing of “Run, Nigger, Run” by the merciless overseer. While Northup and the enslaved community on the plantation do not physically run, they are mentally and spiritually fleeing the dehumanization of their bondage.)

When you go to see 12 Years a Slave, certainly you will be struck by the heartbreaking acts of cruelty endured by Northup and other slaves as they are ripped from their families, stripped and sold to the highest bidder, lashed for possessing a simple sliver of soap. And you will most likely be in awe of the determination and resilience of Northup and the many enslaved individuals that he encounters. One of the most necessary and important aspects of the film is its realistic portrayal of slave agency as they pushed back against the everyday problems they encountered on the plantation (from helping fellow slaves escape punishment to obtaining a piece of paper and improvised ink). But woven throughout this compelling story is an omnipresent religious narrative that speaks to the power of belief in a society in the balance. There were as many interpretations of the Christian religion in the South as there were slave owners and slave communities. This film accomplishes the difficult task of conveying that diversity while also portraying religion as one of the most valuable and dangerous tools in the slave South. 

Soul Gender, Transmigration, and Embodied Resurrection (Part 2)

Male, female, and "indeterminate"
option on German forms. [*]
Image from
Laura Leibman

Two months ago, I pointed out that recent legislation in Germany and the U.S. that allowed for flexibility of gender assignment had caused some concern among certain Protestant groups about gender, the soul, and the afterlife.[*]  At least one theologian (Joel Furches) argued that “a person’s gender as an essential quality of their very nature,” was inextricably tied to their soul, and hence could not be changed ("Gender Identity and the Resurrection from the Dead"). Soul gendering also appears in American Judaism, but traditional Jewish versions of the afterlife complicates the story of “mind/body unity” told by Furches.  Last time, I looked at a few early examples of the gendering of the soul and resurrection.

In this month's post, I address how the Jewish concept of transmigration differs from the picture of soul gender put forth by Furches by reviewing recent Jewish American writings about soul gender and souls that have moved across the gender divide.  Of the theologians, theorists, and activists I address in this post, all appear to agree that in the Jewish tradition, the gender of one's body and soul need not match, though the thinkers vary widely on what this disparity means and why it occurs.  While I address both print and digital formulations of soul gender in Judaism, I am particularly interested in how religious groups use the Internet either as a Utopian site of "ongoing transformation" or--alternatively--for setting limits to changes in our understanding of the intersection of gender and religion.

Initiative for Religion in the American West: AAR Kickoff Saturday, November 23, 10-12:30

The following comes from Quincy Newell, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming. She wants to call your attention to a new Initiative for Religion in the American West which  will kick off at this year's AAR in Baltimore, and feature the kind of thing everyone always says we should do at academic conferences but few actually do: precirculate papers and then focus the conference session on a discussion of the papers.  Read all about it below, and of course at the Religion in the American West blog. 

Exciting New Initiative!

If you’ve browsed through your AAR program book, you may have noticed an “Additional Meeting” on Saturday morning.  In previous years, there was an official AAR program unit, the Seminar on Religion in the American West, where you could get your American West fix.  You may know that seminar members submitted a proposal to turn the seminar into a group; unfortunately the program committee rejected the idea, so the seminar finished its five-year run and left the AAR without a programmatic home for discussion of religion in the American West.

As a temporary solution to this sad state of affairs, a group of former RAW Seminar folks have put together the exciting new Initiative for Religion in the American West (IfRAW).  Sponsored this year by the Religious Studies Department of the University of Wyoming, IfRAW will hold its first meeting on Saturday, November 23, from 10-12:30.  (This gives you a chance to sleep in.  You’re welcome.)  There are three papers, ready for you to read NOW, that the group will discuss.  Then there will be a business meeting and decide on a strategy for the immediate future—ways to place sessions at other meetings, when and how (and if) to propose a program unit to the AAR again, and how to shape the call for papers for the Initiative’s next annual meeting at the AAR.

What can you do? 

I'm Dreaming of a Not-So-White Thanksgivukkah

We're pleased to guest host today this fun post from Jodi Eichler-Levine, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and author of the (almost) brand-new Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature.

Jodi Eichler-Levine

In just fourteen more shopping days, American Jews will get to celebrate a “once in 70,000 years” occasion: Thanksgivukkah. Yes, our annual United States ode to gluttony and football will fall on the first full day of Hanukkah, a minor Jewish festival that commemorates a military victory over the Seleucid Greeks—and some other Judeans-- in the 160s BCE.

These two holidays live large our mythic imagination. Both celebrate the birth of “freedom” by hearkening back to moments that were not precisely free. Both show how we—Americans of all and no religious stripes—portray our forebears as those who sacrificed for freedom. Thanksgiving provides a striking litmus test for inclusion into the pantheon of American civic heroes. Hanukkah has long endowed Jews with a strong entrance into American winter consumerism and the multicultural sharing of feel-good difference. It seems to be a shidduch—quite a match, one might say.  As marketing professional Deborah Gittell told the Los Angeles Daily News, “Both stories are about the right to practice one’s religion and be free… That’s something to really rally around.” But what complex moves of identity are happening underneath those rally caps—and are they new?

Karl Marx as a Radical Protestant Infidel?

Janine Giordano Drake

Most of us know Karl Marx as a fiery atheist. He was, after all, the one who told the world that religion is a hasty balm over the revolution-inducing feelings of alienation, and religious divisions are an obstacle to class solidarity. Many of his followers took this rejection of religion very seriously and strongly advocated that religion be officially rejected from socialist and communist party platforms. Others, however, took Marx's economic analysis as an insight into the building of Christian civilization. In his new biography of the nineteenth century intellectual, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, Jonathan Sperber affirms that Marx was an atheist of Jewish descent, but suggests that we take seriously the radical Protestant world which Karl Marx was immersed in as a young person, and from which he gained his footing.

Sperber argues that this Protestant influence is two-fold. First, Marx's father, Heinrich Marx, converted to Protestantism in 1819 in order to escape the prohibition of Jews from government positions within Germany. Sperber argues that if all he wanted was an opportunity to get appointed to a legal office, Heinrich could have become Catholic. He writes, "Going from Judaism to Protestantism in deeply Catholic Trier meant exchanging one form of minority existence for another." Marx, he argues, was the son of a man who appreciated the radical Protestant tradition for its rejection of the close ties of the Roman Catholic church with the Prussian government. He appreciated the  French Revolution's Enlightenment and Deist ideals, saw these democratic impulses more aligned with Protestantism than the ancient Roman Church. After his father died, a librarian found in Heinrich's library a copy of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. 

At the same time, Sperber argues, Marx also defended minority Catholics around the world against a Protestant Prussian government. While he personally rejected religion as a Young Hegelian, he did not support the "Society of Free Men," a group which asked all members to cut ties with Christian churches. He called this attitude "revolutionary romanticism, their addiction to their own genius, their dubious seeking of fame." Marx did not object to private faith as much as he did to dogmatic religious institutions. He was not a lifestyle radical, either--he strove for a traditional nineteenth century marriage and a middle class upbringing for his kids, and did not call for others to reject these visions of the good life. Rather, argues Sperber, Marx was a political radical who sought to "move toward a criticism of the social and political circumstances that encouraged and enforced [religious institutions'] orthodoxy." As Sperber said in a seminar on his book at the Newberry library this past Saturday, "People want to think of Marx as a Jewish folk hero." Rather, he was a nineteenth century Hegelian losing his footing in the middle class, and interested in freeing religious minorities and newly poor people from the political domination of Czarist Russia.

As Sperber shows us, many people want to think of Karl Marx as Jewish in twenty-first century terms--self-conscious about the embattled history of his people, and ready to defend them to the end. But, Sperber urges us to think of Marx was a stateless, bourgeois atheist of the nineteenth century of Jewish lineage. "He often denounced individual Jews as greedy and grasping," and used anti-Semitic phrases in accusation. He had little loyalty to the whole group. After all, Marx was critical of the power in all nation-states and all ethnic and national identities.

The more I read on the socialist world of the nineteenth century, the more ties I find between radical Protestants of the early nineteenth century and socialist radicals of the late nineteenth century. We might need to take seriously Paul Buhle's  Radical Jesus and start our lectures on the rise of Marxism with Jacobins, Anabaptists, and other so-called "Protestant Infidels" of their time.

Authors Meet Critics Session on Color of Christ at the AAR: Monday, November 25, 9 - 11:30 a.m.

Paul Harvey

Hoping to see lots of blog friends, readers, and followers at the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore coming up in less than two weeks. There's more stuff to do there in American religious history than one could possibly fairly summarize in a post (you may fine one helpful selective list of sessions here), but here just want to call your attention to the "Authors Meet Critics" session on Edward J. Blum's The Color of Christ, to be held Monday, November 25, 9 - 11:30 a.m., in Convention Center 310. The session is co-sponsored by the North American Religious History Section, and the Afro-American Religious History Group. There is a great lineup of respondents, noted below, and one can only hope that noted Amazon reviewer "Soda Pop Sal" and others will also be able to make it, just to enliven the conversation. Live tweeters are welcome too!
  • Books under Discussion
North American Religions Section and Afro-American Religious History Group
Theme: Authors Meet Critics: The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Paul Harvey and Edward Blum (University of North Carolina Press, 2012)
Stephen Prothero, Boston University, Presiding
Monday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-310
From Protestant rejections of religious iconography to the messianic mythologies of American original religions like Mormonism to the poetry of Langston Hughes to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, Jesus Christ has been a “shape-shifting totem” of religious and racial meanings. Exploring such various verbal and visual representations of Jesus Christ in The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey tell the story of “the holy face of race in America.” This round table consisting of responses to the book from scholars in various disciplines will evaluate Blum and Harvey’s explanation of “how a land settled, in part, by Puritan iconoclasts from England became one of the most abundant producers and consumers of diverse Jesus imagery.”
Joshua Paddison, Wittenberg University
Kathryn Gin Lum, Stanford University
J. Kameron Carter, Duke University
Edward Blum, San Diego State University
Paul W. Harvey, University of Colorado
Jennifer Graber, University of Texas

Costly Irony: What Flannery O'Connor Can Teach the Hipster Generation

Michael Hammond

Irony is everywhere. Or so we would be led to believe by advertisements, clothing, trendy foods, music, and every part of our culture. This defining ethos of the 21st century requires a cheap version of irony that is really cynicism at its core…and there is a difference between the two. What we often term irony is really a self-defensive cynicism.

In the past few weeks, two of my friends—both United States historians with research interests in religion—sent me links to a new collection of art featuring the quaint country cottages of Thomas Kinkade under attack by Star Wars battleships and Stormtroopers. These pictures by artist Jeff Bennett started with the finished canvas of original Kinkade paintings such as “Moonlight Lane” and “Sweetheart Cottage III” and brought the full fury of the Sith Lord’s Empire on them.

These pictures reminded me of many lively conversations with my students on Christian marketing and religious products, which often end with recognition of their ironic attitudes toward this subculture. This common citing of irony is often attributed to hipster culture, which has been described in articles that were critical, investigative, confused, meta-critical, welcoming, or defensive. A good example is “How to Live Without Irony,” published just about one year ago in The New York Times by Princeton professor Christy Wampole.

Tumblr-ing into Restored Jesuit History

I'm excited to share yet another guest post from Kyle Roberts, Assistant Professor of Public History and New Media at Loyola University in Chicago. Two months back Kyle shared about his class's innovative digital efforts that analyze's Loyola's history and place within nineteenth century American Catholicism. Here, Kyle situates his digital project in Loyola University's larger efforts to promote new research on Jesuit activity in America in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Jesuit Restoration. Below are recaps of the talks, exhibits, a call for papers, and even a link to a Restored Jesuit Tumblr blog! 

In his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits (2008), editor Thomas Worcester realized he needed to address an imbalance in the volume: fourth-fifths of the essays addressed the history of Jesuits before their suppression in 1773.  “[T]here are relatively few good studies of the Jesuits since 1814 – in any part of the world – at least compared with the abundance of excellent work done on the history of the ‘old’ Society and its ‘corporate’ culture,” Worcester explained. “In general, the Society of Jesus, for much of the century and a half from its restoration until Vatican II, was conservative and even reactionary.” (7-8)

Just one year earlier, John McGreevy, made the point even stronger in America magazine.  Reviewing Gerald McKevitt’s Brokers of Culture: Italian Jesuits in the American West, 1848-1919 (Stanford, 2006), McGreevy wrote: “[T]he 19th-century Jesuits – fervently ultramontane, devoted to the Sacred Heart, fierce defenders of Pope Pius IX and the 1870 definition of papal infallibility and suspicious of liberalism in all its varieties and the public schools that seemed to inculcate it – surely seemed unlikely role models for Jesuits and non-Jesuit scholars in the immediate postconciliar era.”

It might be difficult to identify with men whose worldview was shaped as much by the 1773-1814 suppression as by the European liberal revolutions that forced them into exile (once again) to all corners of the globe a generation later. And yet, to ignore the post-1814 Jesuits is to miss a crucial aspect of Catholic history over the last two centuries.

For one thing, the story of the Jesuits in America, is a story of the Restored Society.  All but one of the twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States today – and all of the secondary schools – were founded by Restored Jesuits.

But the story of the Restored Jesuits is far broader: they were a globalizing force in the “long nineteenth century,” the age reframed by C.A. Bayly, as The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Blackwell, 2004).

The Journal of Southern Religion: 6 Feet High and Rising

Paul Harvey

The Journal of
Southern Religion

A hearty congratulations to our blog contributors Michael Pasquier, Luke Harlow, and Art Remillard, the outgoing editors of the Journal of Southern Religion, for leaving us as their swan song Vol. 15 (2013), now up and available. As before, Emily Clark provided invaluable editorial assistance, and Lincoln Mullen with technical assistance. The journal will soon be in other hands, and long may it live, but we all owe the current editorial staff a huge debt of thanks for the vitality and excellence of the journal under their watch.

The newest issue of the Journal  features the usual variety of articles, podcasts, and reviews for which it has become known. Elna Green writes about Lily Hammond and the southern social gospel; Christopher Graham explores Evangelicals and Domestic Felicity among plain folk of the antebellum South; Roberto Treviño reflects on his book The Church in the Barrio; and reviews galore cover everything from the Society of Friends in 18th-century Northern Virginia, to the black temperance movement in Atlanta, to The New Mind of the South. I was particularly pleased to get to review the latter book, in which the author remembers prayer in public schools in early1960s Georgia that mimics very similar memories I have of schools in small-town Oklahoma from just a few years later (we prayed that our Senators would make the "correct" decision about school busing -- to oppose it. How the farm kids would make it to school with no buses was a great mystery to me in 3rd grade). And while you're at it, don't forget to check out the fantastic library of podcasts that Art has recorded with all manner of folks over the last couple of years.

Also, of course, if you've missed any back issues, they are one click away. The last issue in 2012, for example, featured an excellent forum review (and response) section on Edward J. Blum's The Color of Christ, as well as an invaluable series of essays on religion in the early South. 

Revisiting Thanksgiving


Jonathan Den Hartog

Back in March, on this blog, Mark Edwards offered a review of the collection Confessing History, edited by Fea, Green, and Miller. That post received some great feed-back through an extended conversation in the comments section. The book also received sustained attention over at the US Intellectual History blog.

In Confessing History, Wheaton College professor R. Tracy McKenzie offered a chapter that I very much appreciated entitled "Don't Forget the Church." McKenzie argued that Christian historians needed to prioritize reaching out to the faithful of their own denominations and movements. Thus, academic historians needed not only to be in conversation with other academics, but in local churches and venues that would communicate to fellow believers. For McKenzie, those in the pews were as necessary an audience as those in the seminar room. A real value could come as scholars shared their historical insights with the believing public.

The First ThanksgivingAs with many such agenda-setting articles, the challenge that usually returns is "What does this look like in practice?" McKenzie has not waited long to demonstrate the fruits of his approach, with his recent book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, published by IVP Academic (2013).

The book offers a very fruitful way of communicating about American history, American religious history, and historical thinking for a general audience. And, since it's early November, there's still time to brush up on the actual facts of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving before the 4th Thursday rolls around.

On one level, the book works to retell the story of the Pilgrims, their development as a Separatist congregation, their journey to New England, and the "first" Thanksgiving. The celebration of the 1621 Pilgrim Thanksgiving has generated so many popular memories and myths that it's fairly easy to poke holes in them. For that matter, I've given a couple of demythologizing talks about Thanksgiving myself. McKenzie definitely hits those notes (no pumpkin pie! eels, geese, and ducks, but probably no turkey!) to show that what most people think they know about the Pilgrims' thanksgiving is largely imagined, but he does so with generosity and good humor. By presenting what early Americanists actually know about the event, McKenzie gives the reader a more solid and--"thankfully"--a more complex picture of what happened in the fall of 1621. For the specific details, you could flip ahead to chapter 6 on "Discarding False Memories" to get his narration of the celebration.

McKenzie also does a quick overview of the development of Thanksgiving as first a regional and then a national holiday. Again, this has been covered before, but McKenzie treats these developments briskly. He describes how New England did develop a tradition of annual Thanksgivings that New Englanders tried to export to other regions of the country. These thanksgivings, though, had no genetic connection to what the Pilgrims had done in the early 1620s. Although (perhaps because it was) established as a national holiday in the Civil War, Thanksgiving remained politically charged. Not until the turn of the twentieth century did it become a truly national holiday. Even by that time, though, it had begun its movement out of the churches to a privatized, feminized celebration tied to recreation, consumption, and public sporting events. In this section, I thought McKenzie might have brought a little more jeremiad-like criticism, perhaps mixing in a few declension-motivated critiques. Keeping with the rest of the book, however, he maintained a generous tone, even as he documented these problematic developments.

The amusements of Thanksgiving overshadow the church steeple in this 1912 print by Udo Keppler. Source:

On a second level, McKenzie uses the Thanksgiving story as a case-study for understanding how historians work and what solid historical understanding is all about. Each chapter illustrates one component of the historical enterprise through the grist of trying to understand the Pilgrims. Thus, chapter 1 considers the evidence the Pilgrims left about their Thanksgiving celebrations (please remind your friends how strikingly little we have), the next chapter considers context, another warns about ignoring the alien character of the Pilgrims' outlook, and still another examines the concept that interpretations of the Pilgrims has changed over time. This approach seems to work very well, and I could see it making sense to people who haven't thought much about what historians actually do (apart from gathering "facts").

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