Doctrine of Christian Discovery

John Turner

Laboring under the misapprehension that political bodies listen to the opinions of mainline Protestant denominations (we didn't even have a label for mainline Protestantism on this blog), the Episocopal Church recently repudiated the centuries-old belief that God gave Christian Europeans the right to wrest land away from benighted natives.

A friend forwarded me an article from Indian Country Today celebrating the resolution, which calls for the overturning of an 1823 Supreme Court decision (Johnson v. M’Intosh). That SCOTUS decision held that Indians do not possess sovereignty over their land because of the established precedent of European colonization.

This is far beyond my field of alleged expertise, but I presume that the Episcopal action is very much in accord with mainline resolutions on similar issues relating to native peoples over the past several decades. Can anyone shed any light on churches and this vaguely described “Doctrine of Discovery,” this Manifest Destiny for all of Christian Europe?

I’m also always struck by the dogged custodialism of mainline Protestantism. I once attended a PCUSA General Assembly at which the delegates passed resolutions on everything from oil drilling in Alaska to U.S. policy toward Columbia, which struck me as highly unlikely to attract attention beyond the conference center hosting the gathering and a few denominational publications. But even with their dwindling numbers and political influence, mainline Protestants take their mission of justice seriously, doggedly passing resolutions and calling on politicians and communities to take seriously their understanding of the Gospel.

Big Love's Reality Show

Paul Harvey

Here's something you don't see everyday: an FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) protest rally in Salt Lake City, reported on here, with photographs, by our friends at Juvenile Instructor, with background details on the controversy reported on in the local paper here, and further background and commentary here. As for the level of police state tension at today's protest gathering, suffice to say Chicago '68 it was not!

And since we're just a few days past Pioneer Day, here's the Pew Forum's report "A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S.," full of interesting data.

Religious Studies vs. Theological Studies

Randall Stephens

A provocative essay appeared in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher
Education. K. L. Noll offers up prickly ideas about the nature of truth and knowledge all the while distinguishing religious studies scholars from subjectivist, loopy theologians. The essay reminds me of that great piece that appeared in Lingua Franca years ago titled "Is Nothing Sacred? Casting out the Gods from Religious Studies" (Nov 1996).

Highlights from K. L. Noll's "The Ethics of Being a Theologian"

Most people do not understand what religious study really is. Professors of religion are often confused with, or assumed to be allies of, professors of theology. The reason for the confusion is no secret. All too often, even at public universities, the religion department is peopled by theologians, and many of those theologians refuse to make the distinction that I am about to make....

Theologians who do not think of themselves as unethical nevertheless sell their pew-sitting laity a bill of goods. The failure of theologians to remind the members of their churches and synagogues that the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature composed by ancient people in an ancient culture has consequences. The laity are entitled to know that any god described in a biblical text is an ancient god, a byproduct of the ancient culture that produced the text. The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence. It would be reasonable to begin every theological discussion with the disclaimer "the god described in this sacred text is fictional, and any resemblance to an actual god is purely coincidental." This is not an outsider's dismissive opinion, but the reality, and theologians have an ethical obligation to teach that truth even if they also want to believe and teach, as is their right, that a god exists.

Am I trying to imply that theology is without value? Certainly not. I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

The comments below the essay are instructive in more ways than one. Minus the few that are on the order of "You Suck!" many find holes in Noll's logic. Quite a few think he has an overly confident view of objectivity. Notice, too, how much this sounds like various atheism vs. theism debates.

Acts of Conscience, Part II: Religion in the Total Institution


Following up on yesterday's post on Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, today we feature Kip's thoughts on Steve Taylor's Acts of Conscience: World War Two, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors (Syracuse University Press).

by Kip Kosek

The first thing to say about Steven J. Taylor’s new book is that it has an absolutely brilliant title. I know it’s brilliant because it happens to be the same title that I chose for my own book. Yes, by some strange manifestation of accidental publishing telepathy, two histories of radical pacifism in America appeared this year with the title Acts of Conscience. My book has been the subject of a few posts on this site; now it’s time to say a bit about Taylor’s work, which made me realize how little we know about religion in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions.”

Taylor focuses on some World War II conscientious objectors and the alternative service they performed in mental hospitals. When those upstanding Mennonites and Methodists (among others) went to labor in the nation’s institutions for the so-called “feebleminded,” they were dumbfounded by what they saw: violence, overcrowding, disease, and an overpowering stench that permeated everything. Inmates attacked them with makeshift weapons, while hospital staffs resented the intrusion of untrained assistants with lots of ideas about how to change things.

The conscientious objectors set out to publicize the horrific conditions that they witnessed. For a few years after the war, state governments and national media picked up their stories and made the care of the mentally disabled into a national scandal. A writer in
PM compared the hospitals to concentration camps, while a 1947 exposé called Out of Sight, Out of Mind gained the endorsement of Eleanor Roosevelt. Taylor is careful not to overstate how much good the publicity did, but it seems that the pacifists’ efforts mitigated some of the worst abuses.

If pacifist religion reformed mental hospitals, so, too, did experience in the hospitals transform that religion. The objectors had to ask hard questions about what nonviolence meant amid the challenges presented by uncooperative and often violent patients. One Mennonite attendant described using a restraining hold on one of his charges: “I tried the full nelson on the man to control him, but in no way beat him or bruised him. And I do not feel that is misusing our Mennonite principles.” Nonviolence turned out to be a little ambiguous in these settings.

Taylor’s book made me think more generally about religion in “total institutions”: prisons, asylums, military barracks, and other spaces separated from the larger society where individuals face constant surveillance and discipline (no, universities do not count). Most of us write these off as secular realms, rocky ground where faith is unlikely to flourish or even survive. After all, Michel Foucault does not generally inspire reflection on the spiritual dimensions of existence.

Nonetheless, we know that religion happens in these constrained environments. Simply recall the spiritual dread in Ernest Hemingway’s World War I story “Now I Lay Me” or the prison conversion in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These literary accounts offer far more insight than almost anything historians have produced. One reason may be that relatively few academics have firsthand experience of “total institutions” – and we like it that way.

A few religion scholars, though, have ventured into this treacherous terrain. Jonathan Ebel’s recent article in
Church History, based on research for his forthcoming book, thoughtfully examines the “muscular Christianity” of the American soldier in the First World War (get the abstract here). In GI Jews, Deborah Dash Moore interviewed American Jewish veterans of World War II to discover the heroic improvisations that they made to keep their religious traditions alive at the front.

Prisons are less well-studied. I have high hopes for Winnifred Sullivan’s
Prison Religion (which I haven’t yet read) and for Tanya Erzen’s work-in-progress on prison evangelicalism (get an article citation here). I don’t know what kind of institution you’d call New Hope, the ex-gay residential ministry that Erzen examined in Straight to Jesus, but she depicted it with a sensitivity that made that book one of the best recent ethnographies of American spiritual life.

The study of religion in prisons, asylums, and barracks seems unlikely to produce the uplifting stories of popular spiritual creativity that both academic and general audiences seem to prefer. Yet over one million Americans are currently on active duty and over two million are in prison. Added to all the other participants in our “total institutions,” past and present, this is a huge group of people that historians of religion have mostly left out of sight, out of mind.

Acts of Conscience, Part I


Paul Harvey

Following up on our introduction to our
Acts of Conscience series, today I'll finish up some thoughts on Kip Kosek's work. Later we'll have Kip's thoughts on Steve Taylor's Acts of Conscience, and I'll follow up later with more on other works on religiously inspired nonviolence and 20th century American history, including the new work by Patricia Applebaum.

First, I'll reprint my initial post; and then move on to further thoughts. A few months ago I introduced the book (which I had just started) with the following:

[from previous post]: With all that in mind [referring to a discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian "realism"), perhaps it's a good time to take a cold bath and feel a little uncomfortable chill from all this necessary but sometimes impoverishing realism. I felt a little bit of that chill yesterday evening as I was just cracking open Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, which I just mentioned here at the blog a couple of days ago. I'm no further than the introduction, but the author grabbed my attention immediately with this passage:

". . . the tough liberals of the mid-twentieth century [ignored] the Christian nonviolent tradition's most profound insight. The problem of the twentieth century, the pacifists contended, was the problem of violence. . . . It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness. . . Pacifists certainly failed to solve the problem of 'permanent war,' but the uncomfortable truth is that everyone else failed, too, even the liberal realists. Recent estimates put the total number of people killed by oranized violence in the twentieth century between 167 million and 188 million, which works out to some five thousand lives unnaturally ended every single day for a hundred years. Of course, the deaths came not at regular intervals, but rather in concentrated spasms unprecedented in their destructive power. . . We should take radical Christian pactifists seriously not because they were always right, but because they force us, as they forced their contemporaries, to confront these terrible truths. They insisted more emphatically, more sanely, than Niebuhr and the realists that the elimination of violence was not mere tilting at windmills but the most urgent modern project. "

Kosek focuses his book on the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group with which Niebuhr was intimately involved during his time at Union Seminary. In researching Freedom's Coming, I encountered Niebuhr as an inspirational professor who sent a remarkable number of idealists on projects (I was focusing on civil rights) that must have seemed quixotic at the time. Discovering the inspiration for the likes of Howard Kester, James Dombrowski, Myles Horton, and others was exhilarating, and Niebuhr was central to the expansive dreams of this lot. The liberal realists of that era had no answer to American apartheid; the dreamers did.

Later, Niebuhr moved out of the religious left of the day and into a vision of liberal realism;that's the Niebuhr primarily that is celebrated today. Kosek has a less celebratory take: "the decline of the Fellowship's strain of radical Christianity has not led to enlightened secularism, but rather to an impoverishment of political discourse about violence."

Now, further reflections after completing the text. First, Nathan Schneider has a thoughtful review of the book at Commonweal -- you'll have to subscribe or find a copy in the library, but here's a clip from his website which captures what is probably the single most important point:

Above all, Kosek’s book reveals the ongoing tension and resonance between democracy and the tradition of nonviolent resistance. The civil-rights movement, above all, has been adopted as one of the great triumphs of American politics. Yet Kosek shows that the convictions and strategies which helped fuel the movement come out of a pacifist tradition that remains virtually unacknowledged in the popular narrative.

Next, here's another irony of American history. The principle intellectual proponent and apostle of nonviolent resistance in twentieth-century American history, Richard Gregg (author of the seminal text The Power of Nonviolence), was born in Colorado Springs in 1885. I can only imagine what Richard Gregg would think of the city now, as he would survey a local economy completely dominated by, and dependent on, the military-industrial complex. (I’m fully complicit in that -- without the military, my university wouldn’t exist, and besides “Professional Golf Management,” a big growth industry for the university presently is in “Homeland Security Studies,” in which we offer a Ph.D. What would Richard Gregg do?). But in 1885 Colorado Springs was a utopian community, founded by a Quaker. It was powered by coal, and ultimately that would introduce the violent class conflict that the city's founder sought to avert/ignore, but the Civil War general who founded the town not long before Gregg's birth hoped to create a place of permanent peace and order.

It’s fascinating in the text to watch Christian nonviolence, with very definite roots in the Christians (such as Sherwood Eddy) who populate the early part of this book and easily talked to students both about Jesus and about labor relations and “the Negro question,” transform into something more universalist, and ultimately humanist, and then in a sense become re-Christianized in the era of the civil rights movement. Partly this came through the vast influence of Gandhi, whom the Fellowship of Reconciliation activists worshipped. Early FOR members called Gandhi “one of the greatest Christians of all times,” and “the Christ of our age,” basically turning him into an ideal liberal Protestant. Later, Gandhi came packaged more in his own terms. Moreover, as black humanists such as James Farmer and the Japanese YMCA member who confronted the government’s internment policy in the Supreme Court, Gordon Hirabayashi, moved into FOR, racial equality sometimes trumped a purist or absolutist Christian pacifism.

The savviest of the individuals in this book understood that a principle could become a spectacle, and indeed that it must become a spectacle if it was to draw sufficient public attention to make a difference. It was all well and good to tie in nonviolence with challenges to “capitalism, imperialism, racism, and war”; it was another, and something more effective to make Christian nonviolence a complex strategy as well as a religious conviction.” (50) Long before the kinds of people covered in recent texts, the radicals in this book understood race in global rather than national terms, and understood racial violence as a sub-species of the problem of violence more generally. The racial problem was, for them, “contiguous with the problem of violence.”

A key moment in this book comes when Richard Gregg sailed to India in 1925. He had discovered, through his work with the National Labor Relations Board during World War One and in the strikes of the early 1920s, that “neither the rational methods of legal professionalism nor the fearsome power of violent action had done much to solve the problems of modern society” (92-93).

Richard Gregg’s classic 1934 text Power of Nonviolence enunciated his philosophy. Reinhold Niebuhr, already moving away from the Fellowship of Reconciliation even though he had been instrumental in its early days, critiqued it in 1934. “He maintained that no clear line separated violence from nonviolence. By entering into politics, pacifists had to relinquish their allegiance to absolute values. . . . Modern pacifism was a ‘religious absolutism’ that led its proponents into a preference for tyranny’ over war.” (151). Gregg was not the same as the sectarian perfectionists of past who practiced non-resistance but disavowed politics. Returning the fire, the radical Christian pacifists charged that Niebuhr and the postwar realists”had failed to reckon with the costs of establishing war as an institution in American life” (157).

The radical pacifists in this book really had no answer to the dilemmas confronting western democracies during World War Two; they tended instead during those years to focus on honing nonviolence in issues such as the internment policy and the conjunction of racism and violence in America. By this time, Bayard Rustin had joined the “Union 8” in jail during the war. In one key incident understood to be emblematic for those (including a white Texan named Glenn Smiley, who later became instrumental in the early days of the civil rights struggle) who were around to witness it, a white prisoner began beating Rustin, who was conducting lectures on nonviolent resistance. Other conscientious objectors began protecting Rustin, but he ordered them to stop, and he absorbed the blows without resisting. “The man soon ceased his assault, and Rustin’s friends considered the incident a victory for nonviolent resistance” (169).

After the war, the power of nonviolence soon became evident. Glenn Smiley and others from CORE and FOR infused the Montgomery boycott with moral and Christian imagery, even while understanding that it was “dependent on the creation and manipulation of mass mediated spectacles, images, and illusions” -- what King later called “moral dramatizations.” By this point, Kosek points out, Glenn Smiley and his comrades exercised a lot more direct influence on King than Niebuhr did. At a number of points, Kosek argues strongly that Niebuhr has been overrated as an influence on the civil rights movement. As if to prove that point, King authored a preface to the new 1959 edition of The Power of Nonviolence, pleasing Richard Gregg, who began to see history moving in his direction at last.

Gregg’s ideas extended far beyond moral dramatizations and spectacles, for he still thought a complete restructuring of the labor system would be necessary for the moral foundations of nonviolence to be complete. He was a true Gandhian in that sense.

King wasn’t buying that, at least not yet. For King and others, “the power of authentic labor proved less efficacious than the power of representation.” Kosek ends the main part of the text with some powerful sentences on nonviolence as a philosophy and as a spectacle:

Christian nonviolence succeeded by developing sophisticated public spectacles in the service of ambitious moral demands. . . . The Journey of Reconciliation, the sociodramas, the King-Smiley bus ride--all were feats of existential courage, all were religious rituals, and all were shrewd attempts to gain political power by securing the sympathy of spectators. To focus solely on the act of personal religious faith is to succumb to a sentimental belief in individual saintliness. To focus solely on the spectacular act performed for media audiences is to turn a tin ear to the real power of religious belief in the modern world. Christian nonviolent acts were . . . simultaneously spiritual and strategic.

A shorter version of some of the ideas in Kip's text may be found in Joseph Kip Kosek,"Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence," Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1318-1348, available here (JSTOR access required). His summary of Richard Gregg's influence, from the article:

More than any other single figure, Gregg taught American pacifists and social reformers that nonviolence was more than an ethical or religious principle; it was also a self-conscious method of social action with its own logic and strategy. Specifically, he argued that the method, particularly when it involved suffering, became a dramatic performance that would elicit guilt and shame from opponents and sympathy from onlookers. Gregg's theories were the result of an unprecedented transnational exchange. In the 1920s he took up residence in India, where he befriended Gandhi and became the first American to make an extensive study of the Indian independence movement. He believed that Gandhi was developing a comprehensive counter-modernity, a more humane alternative to Western civilization that would use modern scientific knowledge to create a simplified, decentralized, peaceful, and ecologically balanced culture. But Gregg's lasting and original contribution to American politics and intellectual life was his explication and modification of the Indian leader's nonviolent techniques. For Gregg, as for generations of pacifists before him, the rejection of violence was a fundamental religious imperative. Yet the "power of non-violence" drew on more than divine mandate; it also depended on the insights of modern psychology, the influence of mass media, and the experience of mass spectatorship. In his fusion of principle and spectacle, he hoped to rescue and revitalize democratic practice. That King was the person who came closest to fulfilling that goal was only one of the surprises in Gregg's unlikely career.

Tomorrow, I'll put up Kip's post about Steve Taylor's
Acts of Conscience.

Acting on Conscience: The Prequel


Paul Harvey

We’ve got a big week for acting on conscience (while procrastinating our own work!) here at the blog. We’ll begin today a series of posts on recent studies of Christian nonviolence, pacifism, and war in twentieth-century America. Today is the prequel; tomorrow the main show; then there will be at least one sequel post, and probably a "son of" posting down the road. Your cost for all this entertainment: free!

Tomorrow I’ll post my own reflections on Kip Kosek’s Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy. Followers of this blog will recognize this text, as I’ve blogged about it previously here and here, and Kip has a short summary of some of his major points here in his post at the Columbia Press website.

Just a bit down the road, I’m pleased that Professor Kosek will post his own reflections on another book entitled (oddly enough) Acts of Conscience, this time with the subtitle World War Two, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors, authored by Steven Taylor. The topics are related, but different, so I hope the contrasting posts will be of interest. Scroll down for more information on that.

Before dealing with Kip Kosek’s excellent book, I want to set his work in the context of two other recently published books. The first is the other Acts of Conscience, by Steve Taylor, and I’ll let Kip give that work a fuller analysis. Here’s another, which looks like a nice companion to Kip’s book: Patricia Applebaum, Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era. I have yet to see this text, but here’s a preview from UNC Press:

American religious pacifism is usually explained in terms of its practitioners' ethical and philosophical commitments. Patricia Appelbaum argues that Protestant pacifism, which constituted the religious center of the large-scale peace movement in the United States after World War I, is best understood as a culture that developed dynamically in the broader context of American religious, historical, and social currents.

Exploring piety, practice, and material religion, Appelbaum describes a surprisingly complex culture of Protestant pacifism expressed through social networks, iconography, vernacular theology, individual spiritual practice, storytelling, identity rituals, and cooperative living. Between World War I and the Vietnam War, she contends, a paradigm shift took place in the Protestant pacifist movement. Pacifism moved from a mainstream position to a sectarian and marginal one, from an embrace of modernity to skepticism about it, and from a Christian center to a purely pacifist one, with an informal, flexible theology.

The book begins and ends with biographical profiles of two very different pacifists, Harold Gray and Marjorie Swann. Their stories distill the changing religious culture of American pacifism revealed in Kingdom to Commune.

While the subject is related, these books -- Kosek’s and Applebaum’s -- look very different (I’m guessing here). Kip’s is more an intellectual history combined with short biographies; Applebaum’s appears to draw in some different characters and source materials (Swann does not appear in Kosek’s index, for example).

The second concurrent text here is Acts of Conscience: World War Two, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors, by Steven J. Taylor. As mentioned, Kip Kosek will give us his reflections on this text soon here on the blog. In the meantime, here’s a description of the book:

In the mid- to late 1940s, a group of young men rattled the psychiatric establishment by beaming a public spotlight on the squalid conditions and brutality in our nation’s mental hospitals and training schools for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Bringing the abuses to the attention of newspapers and magazines across the country, they led a reform effort to change public attitudes and to improve the training and status of institutional staff. Prominent Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, author Pearl S. Buck, actress Helen Hayes, and African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune, supported the efforts of the young men.

These young men were among the 12,000 World War II conscientious objectors who chose to perform civilian public service as an alternative to fighting in what is widely regarded as America’s "good war." Three thousand of these men volunteered to work at state institutions, where they found conditions appalling. Acting on conscience a second time, they challenged America’s treatment of its citizens with severe disabilities. Acts of Conscience brings to light the extraordinary efforts of these courageous men, drawing upon extensive archival research, interviews, and personal correspondence.

The World War II conscientious objectors were not the first to expose public institutions, and they would not be the last. What distinguishes them from reformers of other eras is that their activities have faded from professional and popular memory. Steven J. Taylor’s moving account is an indispensable contribution to the historical record.

With this prequel out of the way, tomorrow we'll move on to more on Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, then hopefully soon we'll have Kip's take on Steven Taylor's Acts of Conscience, and I'll follow up with more on Patricia Applebaum's complementary text as soon as I can get a look at it.

Kami Tidak Takut -- We Are Not Afraid

Paul Harvey

Just a quick shout out to my friends in Indonesia and especially Jakarta. Here's a clip from IndonesiaUnite, a response to the recent bombings, and a rebuke to intolerance and hatred everywhere. The first part is in English, and explains the rest. Learn more about Kami Tidak Takut and IndonesiaUnite here and here.

On the Trail with Latter Day Saints

Randall Stephens

In the New York Times Matt Jenkins reports on living history in Utah at This is the Place Heritage Park, a sort of Mormon Old Sturbridge Village. The park

commemorates the pioneer history of the Mormons. Chased out of Nauvoo, Ill., by vigilantes and fired with a vision of a divine kingdom on earth, Brigham Young and 147 members of his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endured a 1,300-mile, canvas-topped, hardtack-fueled, cholera-racked test of faith to reach the Wasatch Front in 1847. . . .

Living history season at the park, when re-enactors inhabit a spit-shined facsimile of frontier Utah that is practically a stone’s throw from the high-rise towers downtown, runs from mid-May through September. In the Cedar City tithing office two girls stand ready to accept the suggested 10 percent from the 19th-century faithful, while nearby a schoolmistress explains the Deseret Alphabet, Brigham Young’s stab at enlightened lexicography that has since passed into extreme obscurity.

Jenkins also offers suggestions for where to go, what to see, and what to eat. The Mormon Trails Association site is a good place to start.

For this weekend, the 24th-25th, This is the Place Heritage Park announces:

Pioneer Heritage Days

Celebrate with the pioneers. Pie eating contest, watermelon eating contest, candy cannon, kids’ parade, foot races, crafts, games, music, flag raising ceremony. This is the place and time to teach another generation about their family’s heritage and have fun doing it. Whether your family arrived in a covered wagon or a wide-bodied jet, we all came from somewhere else. Renew those family ties here where history lives.

Where There Is Death, There Is Religion


Two recent publications—Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (HUP 2008) and Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (UNCP 2009)—pay close attention to the relationship between death and religion in the history of the Americas. Taking a cue from anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s claim that “Death is the quintessential cosmic issue,” Brown shows in terrible detail how death dictated life for Africans of Jamaica, the island at the heart of British colonial slavery during the seventeenth century. Wood advances to the twentieth century in her portrayal of the cultural practices associated with the spectacle of lynching in the United States and the ritual performances that resulted in thousands of deaths.

Whether in colonial Jamaica or the Jim Crow South, the connections between death and religion seem so pervasive, so obvious, so quotidian, that Brown and Wood hardly labor to unite the two experiences. Making sense of death, at least in these two cases, required rites and practices that rarely occurred in the institutional confines of churches or fell under clearly defined categories of denomination. As Wood demonstrates, the “symbolic power” of lynching was a consequence of the “deliberately performative and ritualized” actions of white mobs and “their sensational representations in narratives, photographs, and films.” Similarly, Brown tracks how “intense disputes about custom, authority, and religion play out within final rites of passage,” while at the same time capturing how “mortuary politics mediated group cohesion, property relations, struggles to give public influence a sacred dimension, contests over the colonial moral order, and efforts to politicize local geography and history.”

While illuminating much about the relationship between death and religion, Brown and Wood also demonstrate the interdisciplinary effectiveness of combining history and anthropology to make sense of the past. Wood puts the two methodologies to outstanding use in her chapter entitled “A Hell of Fire Upon Earth: Religion,” wherein she confounds the traditional distinction between the sacred and the profane in her description of the 1885 lynching of Harris Tunstal behind the Methodist Episcopal Church of Oxford, Mississippi. With comparable effect, Brown’s prologue begins with the story of a group of black women singing a song to Europeans arriving for the first time at Jamaica. The song went, “New-come Buckra/He get sick/He tak fever/He be die/He be die.” “Buckra,” it should be noted, meant both “master” and “demon” in West African usage. I could go on, or you can just read more for yourself. Suffice it to say that The Reaper’s Garden and Lynching and Spectacle capture both the ordinary and extraordinary dimensions of death in ways that blur definitions of religion and academic discipline.

Side note:
Check out these links for more on the history of lynching in America, many of which can be put to use in the classroom.

Amy Louise Wood, “They Never Witnessed Such a Melodrama,” Southern Spaces (Apr. 2009).

Mississippi Quarterly’s special issue on lynching and American culture, edited by Amy Louise Wood and Susan Donaldson (Winter-Spring 2008).

Donald Mathews, “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice,” Journal of Southern Religion (2000).

“Without Sanctuary,” an online gallery adapted from the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America edited by James Allen, Jon Lewis, Leon Litwack, and Hilton Als, and reported about on NPR in 2004.

Matt Sutton Strikes Again; and More on Religion Dispatches and Texas History Textbook Shenanigans

Paul Harvey

Our contributing editors are busy at work in the blogosphere. At Religion Dispatches, Matt Sutton is having too much fun in his amusing and insightful post Is Obama the AntiChrist: Why Armageddon Stands between the President and the Evangelical Vote, based in part on research for his book American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse. Matt's conclusion:

So what can we do? Pray for the rapture. If evangelicals vanish, the rest of us might finally get better medical care, a healthier environment, a more just international community, and full civil rights for gays and lesbians. But short of this miracle, we can at least begin to understand that before Obama is able to penetrate the evangelical heart, evangelicals themselves will need to do some serious soul-searching. Rick Warren and Joel Osteen’s shallow, positive-thinking, feel-good sermonizing is not going to help them do this. Instead, it is up to the younger evangelicals to engage in serious intellectual debate and a rigorous rethinking of the theology at the root of their politics. Anything less and the doomsayers will turn fears of Obama-as-Antichrist into big business. But hell, maybe that’s just the spark the economy needs.

Jesse Lava takes some issue with Matt's views here.

And speaking of those evangelicals in D.C., see the group free-for-all on Jeff Sharlet's The Family also at Religion Dispatches -- an online group conversation betweeen Sharlet and Randall Balmer, Anthea Butler, and Diane Winston. Sharlet had the great good fortune of having his book come out just as the Mark Sanford and Jon Ensign scandals broke -- both conservative Republicans associated with The Family while in D.C.

Finally, our contributor John Fea is going through the Texas history school text controversy line by line, analyzing David Barton's views and countering those with his own, in a multipart series on his blog -- start here and follow down from there. I still have no idea why Barton (and even more so Peter Marshall) would be on any state textbook committee for any state for any reason. But they are, so good to have some more detailed analysis from someone who has more patience and less snark than I do. Next time, maybe Texans will think to ask John or some other thoughtful and knowledgeable Christian scholar to work through their history standards; that would be a change for the better.

Contemporary American Judaism

Paul Harvey

Just a brief note on a new book and a forthcoming attraction. Dana Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal, is just out with Columbia University Press. It's a thoughtful and user-friendly guide to the evolution of American Judaism, which bears many parallels to the evolution of a variety of religious traditions and institutions.

We'll have our own interview up with the author a bit down the road. In the meantime, Columbia has an interview with the author and more information about the book here and here. A summary of the book, from the book's webpage:

No longer controlled by a handful of institutional leaders based in remote headquarters and rabbinical seminaries, American Judaism is being transformed by the spiritual decisions of tens of thousands of Jews living in all corners of the United States. A pulpit rabbi and himself an American Jew, Dana Evan Kaplan follows this religious individualism from its postwar suburban roots to the hippie revolution of the 1960s and the multiple postmodern identities of today.

From Hebrew tattooing to Jewish Buddhist meditation, Kaplan describes the remaking of historical tradition in ways that channel multiple ethnic and national identities. While pessimists worry about the vanishing American Jew, Kaplan focuses on the creative responses to contemporary spiritual trends that have made a Jewish religious renaissance possible. He believes that the reorientation of American Judaism has been a "bottom up" process, resisted by elites who have only reluctantly responded to the demands of the "spiritual marketplace." The American Jewish denominational structure is therefore weakening at the same time that religious experimentation is rising, leading to innovative approaches that are supplanting existing institutions. The result, as Kaplan makes clear, is an exciting transformation of what it means to be a religious Jew in twenty-first century America.

The Parables Will be Televised


Paul Harvey

I've been spending a fair chunk of the summer powering through seasons of television shows -- it's why God invented Netflix and 40 inch flat screens in man caves. Most recently, I'm going through Season Two of Mad Men, which includes some wonderful scenes of a Catholic parish from the early 1960s, an idealistic guitar-strumming father trying to reach out to youth, and a very skeptical Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss, just nominated for an Emmy for the role), a character trying to make her way up in the world of her sexist Rat Pack office and go through just enough religious ritual to keep her mother happy (while also hiding the secret of her baby). In similar fashion, The Sopranos, Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Saving Grace, and many other shows aren't "about" religion, but feature religious themes and parables centrally in the scripts, and sometimes make serious efforts to feature in dramatic forms the lives of pastors and priests. At their best, they explore human conflict and moral quandaries in ways that we want out of stories and parables.

I've been wondering if this is a golden age of religion in televised drama -- but my media analysis skills seem too amateurish and ill-formed to make any pronouncements. Thus, it was nice to hear yesterday's Speaking of Faith, featuring the religion and media scholar Diane Winston speaking (with her usual insight) with host Krista Tippett on "TV and the Parables of Our Time." The conversation turned often to Winston's class at USC, "Religion, Media, and Hollywood: Faith in TV." Director Ron Moore's appearances in the classroom are clipped here. The theme throughout is the power of television drama to present modern parables, often derived from or inspired by older religious stories but presented in nuanced and complicated contexts, whether the gritty world of Baltimore, the stylized world of early 1960s Madison Avenue, or some sci-fi future world. I was lost during their discussion of Lost, but afficionados of the show (I'm not one) will appreciate that part.

Some of my feeling "left out" in discussions of religion and the media and popular culture, that feeling like the slightly nerdy kid in the corner of the classroom, not entirely sure what the conversation is about, comes from a particular cultural background in rural Oklahoma -- not that much was forbidden in some religious sense, but we were just too isolated and far away from everything to have much of a clue beyond what was rerun on Gilligan's Island and whatever pop hits played from the little radio station in Liberal, Kansas, that we were stuck with in the daytime.

Partly for this reason, I've been drawn to the memoir observations of my old friend Shirley Showalter. As former president of Goshen College, and before that my senior mentor in the Lilly Fellows program, and long before that a Mennonite farm girl, Shirley lived in but not of much of American culture while younger, and has blogged recently on what that feels like. On her blog, which is about the practice of reading/writing memoirs, Shirley has recently reflected on her experience of going to her first rock concert (the recent Dylan-Willie Nelson-Mellencamp fest) and the experience of longing for a television when younger, in part so she could be in the know of her contemporaries' conversations, but even more so because it seemed like television was magic (and also her thankfulness at being compelled to experience other worlds while those contemporaries were staring at the screen).

Some girls want ponies. Some want Barbies. Some are generous enough to think of others first, asking for world peace or food for the hungry. Others go straight for a million dollars. I would not have asked for any of those.

The thing I longed for was magic. All the other kids seemed to have it. At the first recess of the day lots of conversations began with “Did you see. . . .?” And everyone else jumped in to share their impressions of what they saw the night before.

On the radio program, Winston suggested that we need these stories from television shows to help us process bewildering contemporary events; straight media coverage just doesn't suffice, and the urge to narrate and dramatize helps us think through what otherwise seems too baffling or enraging.

Any suggestions for what to use in a classroom presentation on this subject?

Long Before WWJD Bracelets

Randall Stephens

The Boston Globe reports on an exhibition of some wonderful artifacts from the distant past. Two 17th-century Indian belts shed light on the complex interrelationship of native faith and Catholicism. These wampum belts are on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Chartres and displayed at the fabulous Shelburne Museum. (My wife and I made a trip up to Vermont to the Shelburne a few years back. What a fantastic outdoor, interactive museum. I don't know where else one can see 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and 20th- century homes, a shaker-style barn, a Methodist church from the 1840s, a lighthouse, a luxury train circa. 1890, a massive early-20th century steamboat all in one place?)

"Who Knew? Wampum Belts of Faith"
Michael Paulson, Boston Globe, July 18, 2009

Two 17th century beaded wampum belts made by Native Americans in New England for French Jesuit missionaries as expressions of Catholic faith have been shipped from a cathedral in France to a museum in Vermont where they are now on display. Alexis Berthier, the spokeswoman for the Consulate General of France in Boston said the belts were given to the missionaries "as a sign of friendship" and that "they also signaled the conversion of some of these Native American people."

The belts, on display at the Shelburne from July 2-31, are on view "In honor of the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial." This exhibition:

celebrates the shared history between the indigenous peoples of the region and French and English cultures. The exhibit features two masterpieces of Native American art and culture from the Treasury of Chartres Cathedral in France on view for the first time in the United States.

The two belts on view at Shelburne were made in the 17th century. The Huron belt was made in 1678 and the Abenaki belt was made in 1691 or earlier. Noting the conversion to Catholicism by some of the native peoples, the belts were given to the French Jesuit order. The belts were taken to France and placed in the Cathedral Treasury of Chartres in acknowledgment of their importance. The wampum belts are among the most important works from the cathedral treasury.

The Doubt, the Faith, and the Satanic Origins of Harry Potter (Egads!)


As a follow-up to Phil Sinitiere's posting last week about novels in history classrooms and related heresies, here's the beginning of a pre-press book review in Literature and Theology from RIAH's real literature scholar, Everett Hamner. The book in question is Conversations with American Writers: The Doubt, the Faith, the In-Between, by Dale Brown, published last year by Eerdmans.

by Everett Hamner

ABOUT A decade ago, I walked into my local Family Christian Store®. This US chain’s website claims to represent ‘the largest brand in the Christian retailing market,’ and I was curious about its literary wares. After a half an hour in the fiction section—in which themes of apocalypse, sexual purity and political insularity figured heavily—I carried a book entitled something like
The Satanic Origins of Harry Potter to the front desk. Upon politely inquiring as to criteria by which books were selected, I was told with equal politeness, ‘whatever sells’.

Herein lies the apparent dilemma for US novelists like many featured in Dale Brown’s most recent book of interviews, Conversations with American Writers—which might just as well be subtitled, The Inseparability of Faith and Doubt. In pursuing wide audiences for stories with theological elements, how does one reach both (i) the dominantly secular and liberal market catered to by most US booksellers and (ii) the dominantly religious and conservative market served by ‘Christian’ suppliers? Some might immediately reply that this is an impossible or even unworthy goal; an author may choose (i) or (ii), but not both. However, Brown’s book may be most valuable for the way it deconstructs the binary itself. Again and again, we hear from authors who cross such perceived boundaries without hesitation. If categories were necessary, most of Brown’s interviewees would be more easily filed as religious liberals or secular conservatives than as straightforward fundamentalists or atheists, and many of them are managing to straddle the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ markets described above.

Taken as a whole, Brown’s book of conversations offers what could be a startlingly diverse collage of perspectives on US Christendom—particularly its more evangelical regions—and on lived experiences of the faith–doubt dynamic.

Continue the review here, including its engagement with such tantalizing subjects as epistemology, literary mysticism, Jan Karon, and David James Duncan (whose The Brothers K, despite its length, really should be added to the many comment-recommendations affixed to Phil's post).

The Vatican and American Catholic Sisters


We're pleased to present today Kathleen Cummings' analysis of recent moves by the Vatican to investigate Catholic women's orders in the United States. Kathleen's post had been featured at the home page of Notre Dame University, where it drew the attention of the Cardinal Newman Society, which described it as a "radical feminist commentary" which showed "disdain for Catholic male leaders." Oh my! My fellow former Lilly fellow and current director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of Amercan Catholicism (a well-known haven for terribly dangerous radicals who sponsor conferences such as "The Word of God and Latino Catholics") is tearing it up there in northern Indiana! Better keep her out of Texas!

The Vatican and American Catholic Sisters
by Kathleen Sprows Cummings

As Laurie Goodstein recently reported in the
New York Times, the Vatican has ordered an “apostolic visitation” of American congregations of active religious women. Mother Mary Clare Millea, Superior-General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who was appointed to head the investigation, will prepare a confidential report to the Vatican on the state of each of about 340 qualified congregations of nuns in the United States.

As Goodstein and others have pointed out, the visitation has provoked anxiety among many nuns who fear they are the” target of a doctrinal inquisition.” Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that there is much more behind the Vatican’s apostolic visitation than a spirit of friendly and open-minded inquiry. Cardinal Franc Rodé, the prefect in Rome who ordered the investigation, observed last year that “all is not well with religious life in America” and more recently criticized nuns who “have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church.” Rodé’s statements, coupled with the Vatican’s warning to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that sisters are not doing enough to promote church teaching on controversial issues, signal that punitive measures may indeed be on the way for women religious who are not living a “traditional” religious life—i.e., those who do not wear habits, do not live in convents, and do not engage in established ministries such as teaching or nursing. Though it is too soon to tell exactly what the outcome of the visitation will be, it is highly probable that part of it will include an affirmation of congregations who have retained the traditional hallmarks of religious life and a rebuke to those who have left them behind.

Should this happen, it will hardly surprise anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of women in Catholic history. The institutional church has never quite known what to do with women who step out of traditionally female roles, and there is no question that by becoming collectively more professional, more educated, and more likely to challenge those in positions of power in both church and state, the majority of sisters in this country have grown progressively less “feminine” over the past four decades. Though they are often accused of moving away from the Church, sisters who have chosen this version of religious life actually believe that it represents a more authentic one: In choosing to stand with those on the margins of society, and in witnessing to Christianity at its most radical, they understand themselves to be returning to the founding charisms of their congregations as mandated by the Second Vatican Council.

We can expect that the eventual report will make much of statistics that show that congregations whose members wear habits, live in convents, and engage in conventional ministries are presently attracting more members than their non-traditional counterparts. Many commentators have already recommended that American congregations revert to traditional practices as a remedy for their rapidly declining membership. Time, however, may well prove this presumption wrong. It is far too soon to tell if this trend will be sustained, or whether those who have entered over the past decade will stay permanently.

Historical perspective also demonstrates the flaws in this line of reasoning. Even the fastest-growing congregations today receive far fewer new members annually than most women’s religious communities did a century ago. There are two often-overlooked reasons why religious life proved so attractive to American Catholic women for most of this country’s history, and, conversely, why it represents a far less appealing option today. The first involves the perspective of sisters themselves. From the early 19th century until the late 1960s, religious life offered thousands of Catholic women—most of whom hailed from immigrant, working-class communities-- opportunities for education, leadership, and meaningful lives far beyond what they were offered in American society at large. But if U.S. Catholic women once saw more possibilities within church structures than outside of them, since the late 1960s quite the opposite has been true. Because transformations for women in American society have far outpaced those for women in the church, religious life no longer represents the only option for gifted and faithful Catholic women called to live their vocations in the modern world.

The second reason concerns the nature of the services American sisters provided. Throughout the golden age of vocations, church leaders very consciously advertised religious life to young Catholic women through sermons, pamphlets, and personal invitations. Let’s assume that in doing so they were primarily inspired by genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of their flock; until Vatican II, Catholics understood religious life as a higher and holier calling than life “in the world,” and entering a convent would therefore give a young girl a head start on the path to sanctification. But intermingled with more altruistic motives were other considerations. In encouraging more girls to become nuns, church leaders were also intentionally creating a vast underpaid work force to sustain and expand Catholic institutions, most especially parochial schools. American clergy and hierarchy are less successful in selling religious life today because most Catholic women today are less willing to dedicate their entire lives to subsidizing the church’s infrastructure. It is true that the precipitous decline of women religious—not to mention their median age--suggests that the numbers will never rebound to what they once were. But a smaller population of American sisters is hardly too high a price to pay for two very positive developments: the acknowledgement that religious women are far more valuable to the Church as witnesses than they are as workhorses, and the recognition that all Catholics are called to place their talents and energy in the service of a vibrant Catholic life in this country.
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