Baptized in Blood: A Roundtable on Mark Noll's Civil War as a Theological Crisis



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BY PAUL HARVEY

The new issue of Fides et Historia (vol. 37, Summer/Fall 2007, pp. 1-38) carries a symposium on Mark Noll's Civil War as a Theological Crisis, beginning with Douglas Sweeney, "Conference on Faith and History Roundtable: Mark A. Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis." From there we have:

Randall Miller, "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis: A Comment"

Beth Barton Schweiger, "Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis"

Robert Tracy McKenzie, "Reflections on Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis"

Paul Harvey, "Moneyball History: Some Thoughts on Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis"

The roundtable concludes with Mark Noll's responses. A couple of excerpts, to whet your appetite:

Beth Schweiger: Noll "demonstrates how virtually all Americans mistook a national theology for a universal one and were unwilling (or unable) to consider the Christian tradition in terms apart from the republican synthesis that Mark has described. This is ingenious, for it finds fundamental agreement between Protestants North and South, and liberal and conservative, where others have seen irreconcilable differences. All were equally culpable; even antislavery liberals hung themselves on the hook of providentialism. . . . [all] agreed on what might be termed the 'Blues Brothers' thesis: the United States was on a 'mission from God.' "

Randall Miller: Noll's canvass is wide, but "if that canvass included the writings and speeches of black religious leaders and intellectuals, it would add an important variant reading on who indeed were God's chosen and what the Bible of Moses and Jesus and Christian conscience commanded the American people and the state to do about a social evil. For blacks, 'The Word' demanded action, not mere words. . . Indeed, moving beyond the swirl of words uttered by evangelical Protestant religious leaders and intellectuals to inquire what laypeople thought and did begs the quesiton of what significance the theological crisis had for 'the people.' Noll's fine book hardly ventures from the seminary lecterns and church pulpits to enter the pews. Doing so would require taking the people on their own terms, as it also would invite considerations of the ways music, popular imagery, and folklore expressed biblical beliefs and people's use of Scripture. It also would raise questions about the extent to which religious leaders spoke for anything or anyone by themselves."

Tracy McKenzie: "Finally, though for the most part implicitly, Professor Noll is also speaking to the church. Indeed, there is a sense in which the entire book can be read as an admonition to contemporary American evangelicals. It warns us how easily cultural conventions can shape definitions of 'orthodoxy.' It cautions us that a commitment to Biblical authority and an aversion to exegetical complexity are not the same thing. It powerfullyi demonstrates the pitfalls that accompany our commitment to the 'voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture.' "

Paul Harvey: "It seems to me that one of the most – maybe the most – fundamental paradox and tension of American religious history is the fault line between religious freedom and democracy on the one hand, and religiously-sanctioned intolerance and repression on the other. Both, I think, come from American republican providentialism; that which is most honorable, and that which is most execrable, in the dominant story of American religion emerges from the same source. African-Americans (and, I would add, Native American writers and theologians such as William Apess) were quicker than others to pick up on and bring to light this deeply contradictory impulse in American religion, and in American life more generally.

Democratic politics and the rapid rise of populist Christian sects created a new context for American ideas of religio-political freedom. The ebullient expressions of popular nationalism and the expansive and millennialist visions of religious groups such as the Methodists were part of a democratic culture that was at a far remove from the more deferential and hierarchical cast of American thought and life in prior decades. During the disruptions of the Revolutionary era, evangelical Christianity was at a relative low point. In 1780, few could have predicted the explosion of democratic Christianity that so deeply imprinted American culture by the 1830s, replacing Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a secular rationalist Republic with something more akin to a Methodist millennium. From the underside of that millennium, however, American ideas of freedom promised universalist visions but delivered a Republic that was, in practice, racially exclusivist and white supremacist. That paradox lay at the heart of native and African-American religious thought and practice.

1 comments:

Christopher at: November 28, 2007 at 12:46 PM said...

Thanks for the preview. This looks great.

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