Ed Blum's Airplane Reading, Part III (Plus A Discourse on Donkey Kong)
Book Teasers for Your Next Flights
by Ed Blum
I’ll be so happy when we’re past November. Then, we’ll be able to think, talk, and write (oftentimes not necessarily in that order) about issues other than the upcoming presidential election. I wondered what the main topics of conversation would be in the post-election world; will Tom Cruise reprise his role in Top Gun? will the United States initiate new wars in the Middle East or elsewhere? will Paul Harvey win another blog award? What will be the major conversations among American religious historians? These were the questions I asked as a boarded a plane for Houston and then Indianapolis last week. It was the official end of my book tour and then the second Young Scholars in American Religion meeting. After discussing links between lynching, crucifixion, religion, theology, and politics at the University of Houston, I was jetting off to Indy to play some football, critique proposals on everything from Puritans in colonial Virginia (or is it “puritans” in Virginia) to links between evangelicals and technology, from notions of religious liberty to the brutalities of religious studies. All of it, combined with Paul Harvey’s less-than-amazing athletic abilities (think Eli Manning, only just exactly the opposite), made for an incredible trip (I’ll forget the horrible night I spent stuck at the Dallas airport).
On the various plane trips, I had two manuscripts (well, actually one full manuscript and the introduction to another). The first was Charles Irons’s The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia and the second was Katherine Carté Engel’s Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Thankfully, neither book was about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain. Neither book claimed to tell us who would win, how they would win, or how they would lose. Neither Irons nor Engel is interested in the arts of divination. These were historical works written by insightful, exacting historians. Praise God!
Irons shows how colonial and antebellum religion in the United States South – at least Virginia – was the fruit of interracial interaction. Particularly, southern proslavery Christianity spun out of white action and black reaction, black action and white reaction, interracial conflict, cooperation, understanding, misunderstanding, exchange, and outrage. Taking his cue from recent work on the abolitionist movements in the North, Irons reveals convincingly how African Americans – from unnamed farmhands to revolutionaries like Nat Turner – drastically altered the terrain of southern evangelicalism. The Origins of Proslavery Christianity is exactly the kind of history called for by Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter. In Writing Across the Color Line, Painter urged historians to stop reifying segregation as if white and black worlds were ever truly separated. She urged scholars to defy notions of Jim Crow by showing the dynamic interactions between white and black voices, characters, aspirations, and imaginations. Charles Irons does this, and he does it … masterfully (oops, is that an acceptable word when writing about slavery?) The University of North Carolina Press has treated Professor Irons well, and for good reason. The book is available immediately in paperback and would be terrific for classes on the American South, antebellum America, and religion in American history.
After reading Irons’s work, I started to think about the long trajectory of white-African American religious interactions, how so often whites have based their politics, beliefs, and thoughts in relationship to African American religion. There are the messianic black leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and his “I Have a Dream” speech; then there are the maligned prophetic figures, like Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Whether the antebellum world or the twenty-first century one, white and black religion seem to play games of tag, of cat and mouse, and of hide and seek. Then it dawned on me… I’m thinking about the present again; I’m thinking about politics. Even Charles Irons’s work, which his history at its best, forces me to think about now.
Closing up Irons’s manuscript at the airport in Dallas, I decided to take a break and play some video games. (I’m a sucker for a good game from the 1980s when video games weren’t about beating up police officers or honing military skill in WWII combat). Even in the realm of games, however, I could not escape the presidential election. I fed my quarters into Donkey Kong. Then I wondered – where was the donkey? I kept on playing, looking for a Democratic Donkey to flash across the screen, perhaps save me from turmoil, perhaps stop the evil Kong above from his relentless attacks. But I have news to the Democratic faithful; there was no donkey. He never came. My little plumber character died. I lost interest, and perhaps a part of my political soul.
I had to get out of the present; I had to get far away. And so I turned to the introduction of Katherine Carté Engel’s Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Like Irons, Katherine Carte Engel has written a story of exchange and interchange and of cooperation and conflict. Hers is in the form of markets and missions and centered on the Moravians of the middle colonies. The introduction took me away to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I was back in the eighteenth century, chopping down trees and bringing the Moravian gospel to Native Americans.
I was looking with Engel’s characters across the Atlantic to England and Germany, to the arrivals and departures of missionaries on the same boats with raw materials and manufactured goods. Engel would not allow me to escape the present, though, any more than my playing of Donkey Kong. Her work forced me to wonder about the moral implications of individualist capitalism, and the market consequences of missionary activity.
And, of course, then I thought of how often current United States foreign interventions are connected to missionary efforts (religious freedom for Protestants) and market consideration (who doesn’t want cheap oil). Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America should be out by the end of the year. It promises to be another great book of American religious history from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
I’m so grateful to Engel and Irons for writing with brisk prose, for attuning closely to local details and historical nuance. If only I could stop thinking about the present, about presidential elections, and about wars that could go on for one hundred years. Who knows what my next historical escape will be; alas, it will probably just teach me as much about the present as it does the past – like the fantastic works of Engel and Irons.