Comic Books and American Religion


Matthew J. Cressler

A little over a month ago I paid a visit to the Archives of the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis.  We all have our own unexpected-archival-discovery tale - that time when we stumbled across something completely unrelated to our research but utterly exhilarating.  As I walked across the threshold of yet another musty basement archive, I was greeted by mine. 
 Cue theme music: Saint Fraaaaaancis…broooother of the universe!  Yes, believe it or not, Marvel Comics’ Francis, Brother of the Universe (Vol. 1, No. 1, 1978) is one of the legacies of Franciscan friars on the American religious landscape.  This set me thinking: how might I include comic books in a course on American religious history?  When many of us are seeking creative ways to engage our students in the digital age, one good old-fashioned paper medium might escape our attention.  (Not to fear, comics can be disseminated digitally as well!)  So, without further ado, here are my first four suggestions for including comics in American religious history. 

Author Interview with John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis

Rachel Gordan

Every once in a while, you read a book that opens up new vistas for thinking about and writing history. The Battle Hymnn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, is one of those books. It made me wonder how two historians set about exploring the past through one of America's most famous anthems.

Rachel: Your book, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, tells both the story of the song’s creation (and of its creator, Julia Ward Howe) and of the song’s long history in American culture. What came first: an interest in the song’s origin or in the song’s ubiquity in American history?

Benjamin Soskis: I can trace my interest in the “Battle Hymn” to my junior year of college, when I wrote a paper on the history of the song. I don’t remember exactly what drew me to the topic initially, but I remember being taken with the fact that the song from which the “Battle Hymn” derived—the Union marching song, “John Brown’s Body”—had originated from a joke. (Spoiler alert: the song sprang from the taunts endured by a Union officer who happened to share the same name as the radical abolitionist). There was something especially profound, I thought, about that doubleness sitting at the origins of the song, which was reflected in the way “John Brown’s Body” itself twined spiritual rebirth and corporeal decay (“John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave/ His soul’s marching on!”).  This idea stayed with me and is what fueled my initial interest in writing a “biography” of the “Battle Hymn”; an interest in the song’s ubiquity in American history came later. It was as if, in writing an account of the life of some great American, I was drawn to some small but telling anecdote of the figure’s youth and only through the research itself came to an appreciation of the fullness of the life.

John Stauffer
: Having written a lot on abolitionism and the Civil War era, my interest in doing the book started with “John Brown’s Body” (which Julia Ward Howe rewrote as “Battle Hymn”).  I had long been fascinated by how influential and powerful the ballad was for soldiers and Northerners during the war and Reconstruction.  And I was struck by the dearth of scholarship on the memory or legacy of the ballad, since I continually had come across instances of blacks, Socialists, and Wobblies who adored the song, and white Southerners who rewrote it as “I’ll Be John Browned,” turning Brown into an expletive. 

And so part of my interest in the project was to explore why “John Brown’s Body,” the ballad of a militant abolitionist, was so ubiquitous in the North during the war and Reconstruction, and how and why “Battle Hymn” became the nation’s unofficial anthem by the early twentieth century, embraced by Southerners and Northerners alike. 

"Political Catholics," Católicos Por La Raza & Remembering the Chicano Moratorium

Arlene M. Sánchez Walsh

I was around 7 years old, it was my birthday party and my first self-realization of who I was became clear as my father, never an activist type, placed a "Chicano Power" patch on my blouse. The brown raised fist was nothing I was familiar with, and nothing I had seen anyone in my family wear--so the curiosity was planted--what was this Chicano Power? and why interrupt my birthday party with such political symbolism certainly totally lost on all of us 7-year olds lining up for the piñata?                                                        Tomorrow is the 43rd anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, one of the largest anti-Vietnam war protests in Los Angeles (30,000) and at that time in the U.S. It took place literally steps away from where I grew up. The protesters had a litany of grievances--chief among them was a "moratorium" against the sending over more Latino/a draftees to Vietnam.  There were also grievances against the dual educational system that existed in Los Angeles at the time,  (and to a large extent, still does), grievances against police brutality, and among some of the organizers of the Chicano Moratorium, an insistence that the religious institution that many Chicanos called their spiritual home, the Roman Catholic church, begin to take their interests seriously.  Historian Mario T. García calls the activist coming of age among 1960s/70s Chicanos, the "Political Catholic" phase, particularly among a group of activists organized by Ricardo Cruz, leader of Católicos Por La Raza (CPLR)

Cruz was born in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles, while a college student at California State University Los Angeles, he and a group of friends founded CPLR in response to the neglect Chicanos experienced in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles under the conservative reign of Cardinal Francis McIntyre.  CPLR's demanded the Archdiocese allocate resources for parochial schools equally, for more Latino and/or Spanish-speaking priests, and for the Church to became more active on the side of those Latinos/as suffering from poverty. Perhaps the CPLR's boldest action was a prayer vigil in December 1969 at the newly opened St. Basil's church on Wilshire Blvd., built in one of the richest neighborhoods in LA. as predominately Chicano parish churches and schools were closing.  CPLR held the vigil/protest insisting that McIntyre meet with them to discuss issues relevant to the Chicano/a community. The evening did not end well, and the protesters kept. coming back until they were arrested.  CPLR held an "alternative Mass" on Christmas Eve of 1969 with activist priest Fr. Blasé Bonpane presiding--using tortillas for communion.  This mass raised the ire of the Archdiocese, who viewed Bonpane as a trouble-maker from his days as an activist priest who'd been "kicked out " of Guatemala.  

As many CPLR members were untangling themselves from legal issues stemming from their St. Basil's protest, (they were defended by legendary Chicano activist lawyer Oscar "Zeta" Acosta)--who, if you have only seen him depicted by Benicio De La Torre in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"--would lead you to believe that he was simply too drunk and drug-addled to be an effective advocate…to the contrary, Acosta was effective and all CPLR protesters were acquitted.  By 1970, Cardinal McIntyre retired, making way for a more sympathetic leader, Timothy Manning, who supported changes to allocating resources, brought in more Latino and Spanish-Speaking priests, and even helped Ricardo Cruz obtain his law license.

CPLR helped organize the Chicano Moratorium, which began in the morning at Belvedere Park, and was supposed to end peacefully later that day at another park in East Los Angeles.  There were skirmishes and police action which ended in the still controversial death of Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar.  The CLPR's activities were folded into the ongoing work of the Archdiocese to include more Latinos/as in its work--and since the U.S. Catholic church is now fully 1/3 Latino/a--well, its now a demographic certainty that the Church of McIntyre and Manning no longer exists.

Cruz went on to become a lawyer, whose most famous case was exposing the forced sterilization of Latinas at LA County/USC Medical Center in the 1970s. I actually kept that blouse with my torn Chicano Power patch, but eventually, like most kid's clothes--I played my way out of them.  As I wandered through high school, and eventually college--I worked my way through my undergrad years at the East Los Angeles library--putting books away and reading about the history of where I grew up.  One day, I was approached by an elderly woman who asked me if we had any materials on the Chicano Moratorium--I knew we did, so I showed her the special collections that we had--picture files, copies of La Raza--the official magazine of the Chicano movement, and assorted other materials. She told me that her son had marched, and that he'd been beaten up by the Los Angeles County Sheriffs--of which I had no doubt.  She grew wistful and asked me if I'd ever heard of the Moratorium and what happened --I told her that I knew and she seemed satisfied.  Before she walked away she remarked  "You know mija, that clinic across the street (Edward J. Roybal Health Clinic), and this library (East Los Angeles Public Library), they would not be here if it weren't for my son--this place was bought with blood." 

Office for the Cultivation of "Beautiful Flowers from the Same Garden: A Reflection on the State Department's Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

Cara Burnidge

Today's post is a revised crosspost that was originally posted to Cara's blog earlier this month.

This month two important professional events occurred: first, I graduated (thanks to everyone who flew/drove to Tallahassee to help celebrate) and second, the State Department announced a new office devoted to "faith-based organizations and religious institutions." According to the Department, the creation of this office was motivated in part by religious persecution around the world, the presence of violence (curiously disassociated with "religion"--a telling rhetorical move noted below), and the desire to spread religious freedom and expand interfaith dialogue.

As Secretary of State John Kerry explained in his remarks earlier this month, the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives stems from a working group on religion and foreign policy. Dr. Shaun Casey, Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary and leader of the working group will head the new office. Secretary Kerry has remarked that Casey is "perfect" for the job and Michael Kessler, Associate Director of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs told the Washington Post that Casey "brings a lot of gravitas to the position" because he "has an extensive religious network that he will be able to leverage." [I hope "leverage" rings in your ears for a moment.] While this may seem as a surprise to some, the creation of this office is a predictable step by the State Department, which has been openly rethinking religion and its place in international affairs for some time now. [Yes, I'm being vague about the timeline on purpose.]

As one can imagine, religion scholars are weighing in, especially after Secretary Kerry admitted that if he could go to college again he would major in comparative religions. Before we put a "W" in the Humanities column, someone should inform Kerry that the academic study of religions is not akin to Gandhi's assessment of the world's religions being "beautiful flowers from the same garden" or Reza Aslan's view that all religions are "saying the exact same things, often in exactly the same way" because they draw from the same source. Michael Altman gave it a try, disabusing his readers of this notion by noting that three major assertions of his religion class reveal the shortcomings of this office and the troubling aspects of its creation. What Altman's students will soon learn, The Immanent Frame has provided to the general public in an engaging roundtable discussion with 17 scholars offering their own insights to the creation of this office. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd challenges the assumption that the US government can "take religion seriously" at all due to its own history and the theoretical assumptions made in the formation of the office alone. Helge Arsheim, Pasquale Annicchino, and Maia Hallward, among others, point to the problematic nature of the State Department establishing an office dedicated to advancing religious freedom; Winnifred Sullivan, however, persuasively argues that the creation of this office is not in violation of any legal precedence. And, Melani McAlister rightly notes that the policy advanced mirrors a particular--and not universal--understanding of religion in the public sphere. ...which leads some, including Austin Dacy at Religion Dispatches, to ask "Why is the State Department Opening an Office of 'Religious Engagement'"?

While others are discussing the new and different aspects of this office--as well as its uncritical approach to "religion" [all worthy topics in need of discussion]--I find myself reflecting on the century-long continuities within the federal government's approach to religion and foreign policy. I've started a brief list below, but feel free to add to or challenge the list in the comments. [Quotes can be found in the transcript of Kerry's Remarks linked above] 

Traces of Early America


Christopher Jones

From our friends at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies comes what appears to be a fascinating interdisciplinary graduate student conference at the end of September. From the conference website:
Scholars encounter early America through its traces, the vestiges and fragments left behind. And in reconstructing the fleeting and ephemeral, scholars also attempt to trace early American encounters. This conference will bring together graduate students from a wide variety of disciplines to explore the various meanings of traces—as material objects, cultural representations, and academic practices. Presentations and discussions will explore how people deliberately and unwittingly left traces as they moved through space and time; what traces or remnants of the past get privileged while others are marginalized or occluded; how written, visual, and other texts are both material objects and traces of lives and experiences; and where we look for the traces of different communities and conflicts in early America. More generally, this conference seeks to address tracing as a method of historical inquiry, one that both uncovers and constitutes objects and archives, as well as the methodological traces that have reconfigured early American studies, such as Atlantic history, diaspora studies, hemispheric studies, and circum-Caribbean and Latin American studies.

Back to School

Emily Suzanne Clark

While some universities and colleges began the fall semester last week, Florida State University starts up tomorrow. The combination of this and the summer’s 50th anniversary of the Abington School District v. Schempp decision (the identification of mandatory Bible readings in public schools as unconstitutional) have put religion and school on my mind. While religion and the school system is not my area of expertise, as someone interested in history I enjoy thinking about what it would be like going back to school back in the past one hundred, two hundred years ago and how various understandings of things religious would be presented in the classroom.

If I was a child in the northeastern colonies in 1730 I would have learned reading and spelling with the New England Primer. Biblical characters and stories filled the pages, and God’s plans for humanity were part of the lessons. Tracy Fessenden’s masterful Culture and Redemption argues how a certain breed of protestant culture is entrenched in American notions of the secular, and she used the New England Primer as an example of this. She demonstrates how the book “rewrites Puritan origins as innocently untroubled by Indian conflict” and parallels the vanishing of Indians to the Primer’s conception of the nation’s maturing. The Primer also possessed a strong anti-Catholicism. Learning about the “Man of Sin, the Pope” was as important as mastering one’s letters. I would learn to view my neighbors in New France as papists who failed to understand righteousness. Growing in intellect went hand-in-hand with developing one’s Protestant faith. No wonder the Quebec Act would be listed as one of the Intolerable Acts of 1774.

Religion and the Cinematic Experience, or, Thank You Brent Plate

Michael Pasquier

I’m teaching a course on religion and film with my friend and colleague Zack Godshall. Zack is a filmmaker and screenwriting professor. I am a religious studies professor. We’ve taught the course before. And we’ve produced a film together. Over the last few years, we’ve spent hundreds of hours talking about film and making a film. We know how each other thinks about the relationship between religion and film. The problem is translating our thoughts to the undergraduate classroom.

The following conversation with a former student gets to the heart of the problem:

Student: So, my roommate told me he’s taking your religion and film class.
Me: Great! Can’t wait to meet him.
Student: So what are you going to make them watch? The Passion of the Christ? The Chronicles of Narnia? What?
Me: We’re starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Student: Oh, I love that movie!
Me: And then we’re watching On the Waterfront.
Student: I don’t know that one.
Me: You’ve heard the phrase “I could have been a contender”?
Student: I think so.
Me: Well, that’s where it comes from.
Student: Hmmm… What else are you watching?
Me: [Reluctantly] Casablanca, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Virgin Spring, Nights of Cabiria, Viridiana, Vertigo, The Searchers, Apocalypse Now; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; The 400 Blows, Ivan’s Childhood, and The Tree of Life.
Student: Oh [followed by a moment of silence].

Now, this student is incredibly bright. I think he’s the most intellectually curious student that I’ve taught in my short life as a teacher. But up to this point in his college career, to say nothing of his lifelong education in popular culture and Catholic schools, he’s thinking at least two things about the above films. 1. What do Raiders of the Lost Ark and Casablanca have to do with religion? And 2. Aside from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Casablanca, I’ve never seen any of these films and I recognize the titles of only a few.

Part of me recoils at a film list like this. Accusations of cultural snobbery and elitism are not unwarranted. Have you tried to watch 400 Blows recently, for the first time or the fifth time? It’s challenging. But part of me relishes the opportunity to introduce students to the history, artistry, philosophy, and techniques behind the production and consumption of films both art-house and Hollywood.

One of the chief responsibilities for teachers of film and religion, at least as I see it, is to encourage students to watch films like they’ve never (or rarely) watched them before. Escapism is not an option, unless we’re trying to understand how filmmakers manipulate content and form in ways that facilitate our escape into another world. This is why the title of our class is “Religion and the Cinematic Experience.”

USIH Books, Scientific Democracy, and the Legacy of Liberal Protestantism

Mark Edwards

The good folks at USIH have their Book Review page up and running at full steam.  RIAH readers will be interested in a number of recent reviews, including Jon Wood's treatment of Matt Hedstrom's (now-award-winning!) Rise of Liberal Religion and a lively conversation about John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller's edited collection, Confessing History, sparked by Mark Thompson's thoughtful survey.

Speaking of USIH, I had the pleasure this summer of reading one of the premier new titles in that field, Andrew Jewett's Science, Democracy, and the American University (Cambridge, 2012).  Jewett
attempts to distinguish a tradition of "scientific democracy," of value-guided (as opposed to value-neutral) empiricism, originating in the Gilded Age quest to build the "modern" university and running into and up against New Deal and Cold War achievements in technocracy.  On the surface, Jewett's protagonists, led by John Dewey, were no friends of Christian America.  Still, for those with the eyes to see and ears to hear, the legacy of liberal Protestant engagement with the social and natural sciences is written all over Jewett's work, from scientific democrats (Richard Ely, Charles Ellwood, Gordon Allport) who never really left liberal Christian circles to Jewett's occasional references to America's persisting "Protestant-inflected" culture.  Liberal Protestants imagined the spread of a scientific century only insofar as the sciences remained tethered to traditional (Western) moral philosophy and participatory, deliberative modes of citizenship.  Some questions I've been considering since reading Jewett:

1. To what extent do the social sciences (especially with their deep roots in liberal Protestantism) represent an ongoing effort to overcome or at least to counterbalance America's evangelical culture of acquisitive individualism?  How successful have they been?

2. Is it possible to ever "reunite" the natural sciences and the humanities (we'll be having such discussions as a faculty this year as we look to make or Gen Ed program truly general)?

3.  What would a comparative history of how American liberal Protestants, evangelicals, and Catholics have thought about and practiced science and technology look like?  Does one already exist?

Spiritualism, Slavery, and Whiteness in the 1850s

Carol Faulkner

For the past few weeks, I've been reading polemics and autobiographies by leading nineteeth-century spiritualists, all published at the height of the sectional conflict. Though I'm interested in their ideas about marriage, I find myself distracted by their appropriation of slavery and articulation of their own racial identity. In the context of heated national discussions of slavery and African American rights, spiritualism provided a platform that promoted individual freedom, and, it seems, whiteness. Their use of the "slavery metaphor" won't surprise readers of this blog. In her groundbreaking Radical Spirits, Ann Braude wrote about the tension between the spiritualist and antislavery movements. Spiritualism attracted both white and black believers (also see this blog post from Emily Suzanne Clark), but, despite significant overlap in membership and ideas, activists clashed over priorities. While many white spiritualists opposed slavery, they believed their religion offered the liberation of all humanity, especially white women. And, as Braude noted, spiritualists' commitment to women's rights "could have racist overtones" (78). I think something else is going on. White spiritualists often discussed slavery and race in complex ways, but they ultimately affirmed their status as white Americans.

Coming to a Classroom Near You: Religion in Film

David W. Stowe

The good news is I'm in the process of creating a new class on Religion in Film. The really good news is that I don't even have to start teaching it next week. Beating the procrastination bug for once, I've still got a few months to pull it together. Being constitutionally averse to reinventing the wheel (also lazy these days), I remembered to flip back through RiAH postings and was glad for it: many useful tips emerged. Even a full 2008 post by Kelly Baker on teaching American religion through film, with readers' suggestions and other links.

Lots of movies have been released since then, of course, and undoubtedly many of you out there have discovered or taught films old and new. So let me reopen Kelly's invitation for suggestions, with a twist: what are some films set outside the United States that can teach us about religion? Jesus of Montreal (1989) comes to mind, or Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964).

But what about films on religions other than the one starring Jesus? I've screened the All Jolson Jazz Singer (1927) in more courses than I care to remember. The one I'm developing now is offered by the department of Religious Studies, so there's no need to stick to North America or Christianity. (The not overly informative online course description: "Film representation of religions and spiritual traditions through their representations in film.") I'll ask my colleagues at MSU what they have had luck with when we finally get together next week, but any thoughts from the RiAH community are welcome. Ideally a course like this would be partially team taught, possibly with a few guest spots even the first time out.

Religion in the High School American History Classroom

Paul Putz

Prior to becoming a graduate student at Baylor, I was a high school teacher living the high life on the Nebraska taxpayers' dime. I still remember teaching a lesson on late-19th century U.S. imperialism during my first year. At some point in the lecture, I wrote the letters WASP on the board and duly began going through each letter. I knew I'd have some explaining to do on the Anglo-Saxon part, but otherwise I expected to be able to brush quickly through my explanation and move on.

To my surprise, it was the Protestant part of WASP that caused more confusion than any other. I hadn't prepared myself beforehand to explain something that I thought was so basic, and I'm sure that my attempts to describe Protestantism brought little clarity. I vaguely remember drawing a timeline on the board at some point and launching into a mini Christian history lecture, replete with mentions of the Great Schism, the Reformation, and a listing of the various churches that would be considered Protestant.

When it was all done, I remember one student raising his hand. It was a welcome sight, since I had seen nothing but blank stares for the entirety of my impromptu presentation. But then he opened his mouth. "Mr. Putz, I don't think we are allowed to talk about religion in school," he said.

That final scene, and scenes very much like it, happened each of the four years that I taught high school social studies. It's only anecdotal evidence, sure, but in my experience many high school students lacked even a basic understanding of religion, its role in U.S. history, and the legality of discussing religion in a social studies class in the first place. Despite the fact that it is perfectly legal to teach about religion, the topic is imbued with such controversy and sensitivity that many textbooks, curriculum frameworks, and teachers (although not these Kentucky teachers) tend to avoid the subject or only give it a cursory nod. I am by no means the first to recognize this. Plenty of others, such as Stephen Prothero, have pointed out our need for more religious education in public school. But what interests me here is not to "amen" Prothero's suggestion that we establish religion classes in our schools. Instead, in keeping with the nature of this blog, I would like to briefly examine how religion in addressed within American History curriculum frameworks in high schools across the country.

Turning Points in American Church History


Elesha Coffman

Many of you are likely familiar with Mark Noll's popular church history text, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Baker). Intended for one-semester college or seminary surveys, or for especially rigorous adult Sunday school classes, the book gives an overview of church history through chapters on just 14 pivotal events including the Council of Nicaea, the East-West schism, the French Revolution, and the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. According to the acknowledgements, the book originated in an attempt to condense the notes for a two-week course, to be taught to theological students in Romania, onto one 4 x 6 index card. Impressive.

Recently I've been pondering what a short list of turning points in American church history might include. It's a daunting mental exercise, for a number of reasons:

1. "Event" is a mushy category. Some of the events on Noll's list (e.g. the Diet of Worms) were short and discrete, while others (the French Revolution and Vatican II) spanned a few years. Still others (Benedict's Rule) were documents, the composition of which can be dated more precisely than their impact.

Under this generous definition, the Battle of Antietam could be a turning point in American church history, but so could the Civil War as a whole or Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. And each of the three potentially illustrates a different larger trend, including the turn toward total war (Harry Stout's focus in Upon the Altar of the Nation), a loss of faith in both Providence and the cultural authority of the Bible (Noll's argument in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis), or the development of American civil religion (highlighted by Robert Bellah and others). Too many possibilities!

Making a Way through Stories

Karen Johnson.  

While driving out of my neighborhood yesterday morning I noticed a new sign on Laramie Avenue.  Bright yellow, it proclaimed its location “safe passage,” referring to the program the city of Chicago runs that stations adults on corners before and after school so children can walk with less fear of violence, especially in neighborhoods like the vibrant, under-resourced, black inner-city community where I currently live.  I can’t help but contrast the experience of these children, who live with little security, with the upbringing of most of the children in the suburb of Wheaton (where I am moving for my new job!) who experience far less domestic violence and don’t have to worry about being shot on their way to school.  Race and class continue to divide our nation in ways not apparent for those without eyes to see.

What does this all have to do with history?  In the July 2013 Magazine of History, Lendol Calder wrote a fantastic article about the importance of bringing stories back into the history classroom.  His research suggests that his students think that history is just one damn thing after another, kind of like the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  Since they have no narrative of the past, students find little meaning in it.  Calder ends with a call to “tell stories that assign meaning to the past while allowing students to articulate and refine their own understanding of history with the help of teachers, peers, and voices from the past.”  The stakes are high: virtues like the “courage to state one’s deepest beliefs and subject them to examination, and the empathy to see the plausibility in stories not one’s own.”

Historians, I believe, do have an important role to play in bringing reconciliation to the nation.  This summer, I had the opportunity to talk with Chris Rice, the co-director of Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation.  Chris offered perspective on how American Christianity’s practice of “reconciliation” has changed in the past 30 plus years, and he also encouraged me to, as a historian, tell stories that are not only consistent with the disciplines of our guild, but that can help people see alternate ways of living that seek to break down, rather than build up, walls.

Know Your Archives: Learning to Read in Bethlehem

Today’s guest post comes from David Komline, a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame.  His dissertation, “The Common School Awakening: Education, Religion, and Reform in Transatlantic Perspective, 1800-1848,” examines the religious influences behind a movement for state-sponsored schools that stretched from Germany, through France and Britain, to America.  His base for the 2013-2014 academic year will be the University of Heidelberg.  

David Komline

After finishing my master’s degree and before beginning doctoral work I studied for a year at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where I spent many hours in the library, pouring over old newspapers and journals.  When I began, even making sense of printed German was a challenge.  But by the end of the year my language abilities had improved, so I decided to examine some manuscript sources.  I still remember my first visit to an archive in Germany.  I sat down before a folder of letters, looked at the first sheet, tried to decipher a few lines, and was baffled.  I moved to the next document.  Again, I understood almost nothing.  The third letter produced the same bewilderment.  Only after flipping almost to the end of the folder did I finally lay eyes on something that looked intelligible.  I paused, reading it through effortlessly.  After a little detective work I realized the crucial difference.  The author of this letter was an Englishman and had composed his German letter in a Latin script resembling the handwriting used by English speakers today, and by Germans who went through grade school after the 1940s.  The rest of the letters, written in the script used by Germans until then, remained illegible to me.  The style of cursive handwriting in the letter, and not the letter’s language, had prevented me from deciphering it.

To avoid this predicament when I return to Germany in September, I enrolled this summer in a two-week German script course at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Instruction began with the alphabet.  Along the way we learned how to write, even practicing with quill pens.  By the end, classes ran as I would imagine a doctoral seminar in medieval paleography would.  Sixteen students gathered around tables in a large rectangular formation, heads bent over high-quality reproductions of manuscripts, ably deciphering them under the guidance of two teachers.  Participants came from diverse backgrounds: an undergraduate exploring a German major; a nurse interested in genealogy; several graduate students, librarians, and professors.  Four of the academics were Americanists of some kind, five of them focused on religion, and two were beginning projects on the Moravians.

“Grande Passion”: Thoughts on Starbucks and Evangelical Culture


Charity R. Carney

I always order a Venti passion myself. But Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion isn’t about frappuccinos or fancy Tazo-something lemonades with just one pump of sugar (not two—that’s crazy talk). In his book (2007, WaterBrook Press), Sweet talks about churches adopting the advertising model of Starbucks in order to reach more people. One thing that Starbucks does best, he contends, is provide powerful images and symbols that strike a chord with consumers and pull them into the store and coffee-shop culture. His suggestion is that if churches did this, too, (and many megachurches sure as heck try) we’d have a stronger evangelical base.

It’s not surprising that Sweet chose Starbucks as the subject of his book. Starbucks has drawn both the ire and awe of evangelicals in the United States. It is a significant part of Christian consumer culture, which is why it may cause more consternation than other corporations for evangelicals who do not approve of its official stances on certain issues.

More Award Winners

US religious history books just keep winning awards. We all know Matthew Hedstrom recently took home The Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize from the ASCH. And Jacob Dorman's Chosen People: The American Rise of Black Israelite Religions (which Lincoln wrote about several months ago) won the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Prize for the best published in a two year window who lives in Kansas. Way to go team US religious history. Soon they'll be testing us for performance enhancers.

What are Marriage Contracts for?

Please welcome to the blog our newest contributor, Laura Arnold Leibman. She is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College, and the author of a book that we discussed at the blog a while back: Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life. I am very excited to have Professor Leibman on board, as she brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise on subjects that our blog has been a little . . . (cough cough) weak on in the past. Welcome aboard, Laura! -- Paul

Laura Arnold Leibman

Neve Shalom Synagogue (Paramaribo)
In 1796 David Abraham de Vries of Suriname Congregation Neve Shalom did something relatively unexpected: he married Marianna Levij, his mixed-race partner of eleven years and the mother of his three sons.  Although legally Jewish, the marriage was unusual in several ways, and it potentially pointed to changing sensibilities. First, while European Jewish men in the Caribbean certainly had sexual and romantic relationships with women of color, during the eighteenth century they rarely formalized those relationships with marriage.  Second, unlike most of the women of color who cohabitated with Jewish men in other colonies, Marianna was herself Jewish, even though as a mixed-race Jew she held a second-class congregante status in the Synagogue.  The Jewish community’s response to the marriage was more typical, at least as of 1772 when situations like this had begun to arise: David Abraham de Vries lost his rights as a (white) yachid and became a congregante like his wife, “the same class as a mulatto.”  By 1802 such demotions would have less meaning, as some of the differences between congregantes and yachidim were eliminated.  Too late for David, however, who died shortly after his marriage and would have to be buried in a second-rate ceremony and congregante section of the cemetery. [1]

Prince Edward County Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Town Kneel-Ins

J. Michael Utzinger

Several of you know that I have served many years on board of the Robert Russa Moton Museum, the only civil rights museum in the state of Virginia.  I had the honor to participate in an event sponsored by the museum to commemorate the kneel-ins that took place in Farmville, Virginia in 1963.

Prince Edward County abolished public education in the county between 1959-1964 to circumvent school desegregation.  Most of the local white churches housed grades for an all-white academy.  Some African American students went to live with relatives; others were placed by the American Friends Services Committee with families around the country.  A few managed to attend school in the surrounding counties.  Most African American children, however, were left with few, if any, educational opportunities during that time.

By 1963 the situation had become critical.  The events in Farmville that year were bookended by the Birmingham protests and Danville riots on one side and the March on Washington (in which Prince Edward students participated) and the Birmingham bombings on the other.  The legal case spearheaded by the NAACP to open the county schools seemed to be moving at a glacially slow pace, while new tactics like sit-ins began to change the face the civil rights movement, especially as promoted by student activists.  Prince Edward students used these same tactics to protest their intolerable educational situation.  The weekend of July 26th students began protesting businesses and shops in downtown Farmville, and on July 28th groups of black students attempted kneel-ins in local white churches.   The students began at First Baptist Church (the largest African American Church in town) with a rally of around 400 worshippers.  

Worlds of Billy Graham Conference

Seth Dowland

On the heels of Randall's interview with Larry Eskridge, I thought I'd use today's post to promote the ISAE conference Larry mentioned near the end of the interview: "The Worlds of Billy Graham." From September 26-28, about a dozen scholars will be giving talks on Graham in Wheaton. You can see the entire schedule here.

When conference organizers invited me to write a paper for this conference, I must admit to some doubt about whether such a well-covered figure like Graham merited a major scholarly conference and another anthology. What more is there to say? Steven Miller's excellent biography covers Graham's entire public career, and it's only four years old. Grant Wacker published a thoughtful precis of his forthcoming Graham biography in Church History, and Wacker has given a number of major presentations on Graham in recent years. Andrew Finstuen creatively compared Graham with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Graham figured heavily into Darren Dochuk's book on southern California. I could go on.

But as I began reading the abstracts for conference papers in preparation for a pre-conference colloquium, I realized how valuable this conference could be. Graham's public career spans seven decades, and he has figured into an amazing number of events and trends in American religious history. Allowing several voices to comment on Graham highlights both the through-lines in his career and the understudied and unexpected stories of his life. For instance, David King is working on a fascinating paper about Graham's connection to evangelical humanitarianism, while Dochuk sheds light on the relationships Graham built with conservative black businessmen. Anne Blue Wills's research on Ruth Bell Graham recovers an overlooked figure and offers a powerful statement about the negotiation of gender roles within evangelicalism. By allowing individual scholars to focus on these and other stories, the conference will open up new perspectives on Graham.

If you'll be in the Chicago area at the end of September, I encourage you to considering attending (registration information here). I'll try to post some follow-up thoughts in October, as well. Ultimately, we're hoping to publish conference papers in an anthology. As long as self-promotion is still a major theme of this blog, you can bet you'll read about that here, too!

A History of the Jesus People: An Interview with Larry Eskridge

Randall Stephens

Life magazine, June 30, 1972
Larry Eskridge is Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and editor of the Evangelical Studies Bulletin at Wheaton College.  With Mark Noll, he was co-editor of More Money, More Ministry: Evangelicals and Money in Recent North American History (Eerdmans, 2000). 

Eskridge has also written the definitive account of one of the most significant mass religious movements of the last century.  His
God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013) examines the fusion of the hippie counterculture and evangelical Christianity that burst onto the scene in the late 1960s. I recently caught up with Larry to ask him about the project, his research, and more.

Randall Stephens: What first got you interested in the topic of the Jesus People?

Larry Eskridge:
I found the Jesus People an interesting topic at several levels.  At the most basic was the fact that I came of age during that period and had been personally involved in the Jesus movement in my local area in northern Illinois.  So, if doing history often serves as something of an exercise in self-biography, I stand guilty as charged by dint of being curious about the overall movement and the reasons for its success and eventual disappearance.

At a larger level I’ve long been interested in the way that evangelical religion intertwines with mass media and popular culture and the Jesus People offered plenty to study at that level as they were the subject of a great deal of media coverage as well as replicating various aspects of the counterculture and youth culture in a comfort with pop culture and music that was, traditionally, very unusual within the overarching evangelical subculture.

U.S. Intellectual History Conference November 1-3

Paul Harvey

By popular demand, just a quick post to alert you to the great program put together for the S-USIH (Society for U.S. Intellectual History) conference at UC Irvine, November 1-3 this fall. Lots of interest there generally, but for religious history folks who frequent this blog, there are some excellent panels. So click on over there, scroll down, and check out the offerings.

And the Winner Is...

Edward J. Blum

Lots of wonderful books winning fantastic awards these days (congratulations Matt Hedstrom for the well-deserved Brewer Prize!). And here is an announcement from the new Journal of Africana Religions:

African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina LowcountryJournal of Africana Religions Announces “Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize” Winner

Monday, August 5, 2013

Evanston, IL – The Journal of Africana Religions announced today that Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge University Press, 2012) has been selected to receive the 2013 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.

This award is given each year to an academic book that exemplifies the ethos and mission of the Journal of Africana Religions, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes scholarship on African and African diasporic religious traditions. Albert J. Raboteau, for whom the prize is named, is author of the classic Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, a book that has made a lasting impact in the field of Africana religions. To become eligible for the award, books must be nominated by an academic publisher, and a prestigious five-member committee is responsible for assessing these nominations and determining a winner. The selection, thus, is international in scope and highly competitive.

Brown’s book examines perceptions of the natural world revealed by the religious ideas and practices of Africa's Kongo region and among African-descended communities in South Carolina from the colonial period into the twentieth century. Brown is an Associate Professor in the History department and the Africana Studies department at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale. African-Atlantic Cultures is his first book.

The Journal's founding co-editors, Edward E. Curtis IV and Sylvester A. Johnson, were quite positive about the book prize. “We are very excited to learn of the committee's decision. They described Brown's book as a model of erudition,” said Curtis and Johnson. “Most religious studies scholarship still devotes too little attention to Africana religions. So, we think it is especially important to recognize outstanding work in this field." Curtis teaches at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis; Johnson is at Northwestern University.

Reflecting on Professor Raboteau’s work, in whose honor the prize was named, they both emphasized that a range of pioneering scholars aspired more than a half-century ago to produce scholarship and train professional researchers in the intellectual study of religion among African and African-descended peoples. "Professor Brown’s book certainly advances this aim," they agreed. Of added significance for Professor Brown is the fact that the 2013 award, which recognizes a book published in 2012, is the inaugural book prize. "Professor Brown should take special note of the committee’s assessment that his scholarship is an especially keen contribution to this larger enterprise of studying Africana religions."

The journal receives support from the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts-Indianapolis and Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. It is housed at Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies.

Angels Among Us

Rachel Lindsey

By now you have probably heard or seen something--on the news, a tweet, on Facebook--about the horrific traffic accident in eastern Missouri that nearly claimed the life of a young woman and the extraordinary circumstances of her rescue. On Sunday morning, nineteen year-old Katie Lentz was driving from her parents' home in Quincy, Illinois, to Jefferson City, Missouri, where she held a summer internship. On a stretch of rural highway outside of New London, Missouri, tragedy struck. Lentz's vehicle collided with another car and the accident left her trapped inside her crumpled car. When first responders arrived, they began the task of removing Lentz from her vehicle while carefully monitoring her vital signs, which were steadily deteriorating. To this point, the story is tragically familiar, a reflection of countless others that play out on American highways each year. What happened next, though, has made the accident a national story rather than a local tragedy. According to New London's fire chief Raymond Reed, Katie Lentz received a miracle. And her miracle had a body.

In the days since USA TODAY's Melanie Eversley first reported the story, dozens of media outlets and blogsters across the country have picked it up. The basic plot line is that when Lentz's situation seemed dire and the rescuers were becoming less optimistic about her survival, she asked if someone would pray for her and, according to Eversley, "a voice said, 'I will.'" To whom did this voice belong? Not to Reed or the other rescuers on the scene but to a "mystery priest" who appeared out of nowhere on the cordoned-off highway.  This "silver haired priest" came equipped not only with a prayer but also with "a bottle of anointing oil" that he "sprinkled" on Lentz and, according to another responder, Reed. Almost immediately the rescue efforts improved and Lentz was transported to a medical helicopter and then off to a regional hospital for emergency treatment. When Reed and other responders then turned to thank the priest, he was gone. 

As the story of this highway miracle and the mystery priest spreads throughout American media and goes viral on social networks a seemingly endless torrent of commentary has squared the episode into a gridlocked either/or, true/false scenario: either the miracle is true or it is false. Tweets range from "Oh please. Really?" to "if you have any doubts God exists, read this and i promise it'll change your mind." Either Katie Lentz's faith healed her broken body or this is just another scrap of holy hucksterism from the Midwest. Either we should believe events transpired as they have been recalled and reported or we should not. Either or. Should shouldn't. True. False.

"Hallelujah I'm a Bum": Contesting Who Will End Poverty

Janine Giordano Drake

About six years ago, while leaning over a large table with tabloid-sized musty newspapers from the 1900s, I met some text I was neither personally nor historically prepared to grapple with.

In the faded "Letters to the Editor" section of a socialist newspaper, the Appeal to Reason, I met people who did not believe that God ultimately "met the financial needs" of the poorest people. Many discussed this conviction as people who still did not dismiss the presence of God. One spoke of a home in New Thought, and another of Theosophy. One mentioned being a member of a Protestant denomination, and another said she did not attend church anymore but still considered herself a believer. The ringing theme of the letters was not an easy dismissal of Christianity, but the suggestion that the oft-quoted verses in the Book of Matthew--that God would always provide for the poor as he fed and clothed the lilies of the field--were ultimately misappropriated.

Sometimes, the Editor and many readers argued, the people of God did go hungry and without clothing. The people needed to take back their faith and insist on action in this world.

In the years since, I have encountered many more texts with these sentiments. Christian and socialist novelist Upton Sinclair castigated preachers who insisted that there will blessings for undercompensated hard work only in the "New Jerusalem," and when one dies. In his beautifully concise parody, "Bootstrapping," in the preface to The Profits of Religion, Sinclair pokes fun at the insanity of insisting that hard work is a spiritual practice which instantly grants material peace.

This theme runs across the rich and very extensive musical culture of the Industrial Workers of the World as well. I will share two of the most well-known examples. The song, "The Preacher and the Slave," was written as a parody of the hymn, "In the Sweet By-and-By." In the Protestant hymn, believers sing of the justice which God will mete out among individuals, in "a land that is fairer than day." In the IWW parody, revivalists redirect workers' real hunger to a spiritual hunger, and thereby distract them from the problems of the day.  Here are the lyrics to the Protestant hymn. And, here are the lyrics to the IWW hymn.

Proceedings for #RAAC2013 Released

Chris Cantwell

As followers of the blog likely know, last June Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis's Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture held its Third Biennial conference. A smaller crowd held in a more intimate venue (we even sit in a circle like in camp!), the every-other-year gathering has quickly become one of the field's most enjoyable and rewarding. Fellow RiAH blogger Emily Clark shared her own thoughts on the blog here.

Well for those of you who couldn't make this year's gathering, the Center has just released the conference's proceedings. They include brief synopses of the conference's panels followed by every paper from the gathering. And as a conference attendee, I can tell you there is some material in here that is well worth your time. The whole proceedings are worth a read, but I'd like to particularly call your attention to the final set of papers on "The Future of the Study of American Religion." It was unlike any "future of the field" conversation I've heard before. Where other panels or conferences have pondered the unconsidered topics or neglected methodologies in the study of religion, nearly every paper at #RAAC2013's panel claimed in some manner that the future of the study of American religion lay in more robust forms of public engagement. To be sure, there were some historiographical gems. Nancy Ammerman, for example, made my week when she claimed that that the future of the study of American religion lay in the study of social class. But from David K. Yoo's call for instruction that connects with the concerns of the communities in which we teach to Kathryn Lofton's remarkably incisive claim that there is no future study of American religion that does not include a consideration of the interrelated economic, political, and fiscal crises that are affecting both scholars of religion and the communities they study, the panel collectively suggested that the future of the study of religion lay outside the hallowed halls of the academy. This sense of urgency and engagement seems to be gaining momentum throughout the academy and very well may be the future of the humanities.

Either way, add the R&AC's Proceedings to your reading list, and make sure to mark your calendars for the fourth biennial gathering in 2015.

Jeff Sharlet on faith and faithlessness in America, a repost

This post originally appeared in December 2011, but I thought I might repost it today as I highly recommend Jeff Sharlet's Sweet Heaven When I Die to anyone looking for a great read on religion/irreligion in contemporary American culture. The comments from the previous post are definitely worth reading, and they can be found here.

Kelly Baker

Beefsteaks when I'm hungry
Something tall and cool when I'm dry
Give me greenbacks when the times are hard
Sweet heaven when I die--Blue Dogs, "Sweet Heaven When I Die"

While reading and re-reading Jeff Sharlet'sSweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between, a couple of songs replayed over and over in my head. His lovely and haunting collections of essays made my thinking musical. Perhaps, it is the beauty of his language, the lyrical quality of his descriptions, that direct me to hymns and pop songs (which is on my taste, not Sharlet's). Perhaps, it is because his reflections on religion, trauma, belief, unbelief, practice and loss feel like poetry. I cannot read his book without music, so songs emerged as the beginnings of my analysis. Every time I started to review this book, the music came to me first. Music evoked spaces I once inhabited as well as spaces in which I currently reside. Thus, I cannot review his book without referring to the accompaniment of music (and please note that John D. Boy at the Immanent Frame also feels this way). Hopefully, Sharlet will not mind since music appears in his work from Cornel West as "blues man" to a club named "the Church" to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Dock Boggs' "Down South Blues" to the songs playing at Sweet Fanny Adams, the motel and bar. Maybe the music even puzzles him a bit too.

The first song starts playing as soon as I see the title, Sweet Heaven When I Die, which my brain somehow translates into "When I die, Hallelujah, by and by" from the Christian hymn, "I'll Fly Away." I misread his title every time I puzzle over the image on the cover. Somehow humming this tune seemed to fit with Sharlet's explorations and excavations of the religious lives of Americans from his college sweetheart's continual return to the Bible to make meaning to the martyrdom of an anarchist to militarization of Christian youth in BattleCry to worship with German evangelicals and the construction of purity. Sharlet, as Brent Plate puts it, catalogs "weird religion." Sharlet's approach both deeply personal and documentary showcases individuals trying to make sense of their lives, their traumas, as well as attempts to create meaning out of chaos. His interlocutors try to find justice, try to heal themselves and others and try to navigate expected and unexpected losses.

Reviewing Schlereth's An Age of Infidels


Jonathan Den Hartog

Back in June on this blog, the incomparable Lincoln Mullen asked "Where are the Histories of American Irreligion?" Not only was the post outstanding, but it generated some great discussion (check out the comments thread!). Recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Eric Schlereth's An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States offers a significant answer to Lincoln's query. An Age of Infidels has been part of my summertime academic reading, and it well deserves a review on this blog.

An Age of InfidelsSchlereth's work fits within a percolating academic study of unbelief in American history, even--perhaps especially--in early American history. The topic was really opened up with James Turner's Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. In the past decade, several scholars have begun to explore this area in detail. J. Rixey Ruffin's A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic traced how rationalism might alter belief even among clergy. Christopher Grasso's "Deist Monster" article in the Journal of American History, which looked at the perceived threat of deism in the 1780s, has quickly become an oft-cited piece on this topic. Further, other scholars such as Kirsten Fischer have been doing significant research into this area. Thus, Schlereth's contribution is both timely and significant.

In defining infidelity, Schlereth notes that by the later 18th century, the concept of infidelity expanded out of an attack on deism to conflate it "with all forms of religious disbelief, doubt and anti-Christian sentiment." (5) Infidelity became shorthand for its opponents, while the religious skeptics admitted to being deists or claimed such mantles as "Theophilanthropists" or "Free Enquirers." They stressed their Rationalist credentials and questioned received religious truths.

Chronologically, the book stretches from 1770 to 1840, although the bulk of the text is devoted to two periods of especially intense debate over religious infidelity--the 1790s and the 1820s-1830s. In passing, I have to say I appreciated this chronological scope, since it demonstrated that debates over unbelief in American public life were of long standing and possessed sustained urgency. 

Early on, Schlereth introduces two concepts to describe his approaches to infidelity: "ambient infidelity" and "lived deism." The first, "ambient infidelity," references the attitude to infidelity deployed by the Christians who opposed its growth in the early republic. The presence of infidelity seemed dangerous as both a theological error and a threat to social order. To their opponents, infidels lacked the beliefs that could inculcate the morality and virtue upon which the republic depended, and indeed, their professed beliefs undermined those public virtues.The perceived threat of ambient infidelity thus propelled the public religious controversies over unbelief.

The Barbarous Years

History meets nostalgia at Colonial Williamsburg, VA, and hats ensue.
Kate Bowler

Living history museums. It was one of my first American addictions after it dawned on me that a) I was not returning to Canada anytime soon and b) that if I were going to truly accept American religious history as my profession that I should begin to enjoy America-na. And so began the nightmare for amateur actors at living history museums around the country, forced to tolerate my endless questions about wig construction, building materials, or whether the fire alarm should carry the additional prefix "Ye Olde."

It was there that I began to learn the true power of American nostalgia, that gauzy lens that filters the historical light. Suddenly the Moravian cookies at Old Salem seemed sweeter and the doilies of Colonial Williamsburg more necessary. (Incidentally, Williamsburg is where I bought a Robert E. Lee action figure whose goofy grin granted him the military seriousness of Colonel Sanders.) 
The latest tome from Bernard Bailyn--the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and famed Harvard historian--would joyfully put living history museums out of business or, at the very least, ask site managers to consider additional reenactments of starvation, constant insurrection, and, only occasionally, cannibalism.
(If you colonialists might permit this scholar of modern evangelicalism some scattered thoughts about your expertise,) The Barbarous Years returns to a project he began in The Peopling of British North America (1986) and continued in Voyagers to the West (1987) with a prequel of sorts. It follows the first 75 years of settlement in the New World, following a diverse lot of European settlers, from the high to the low born, that ran the gamut of Christian loyalties.

His densely researched and delicately spun accounts, particularly of Chesapeake settlers, New England colonies, and Dutch experiments, chronicle the lightly-veiled chaos of wave after wave of immigrant hopefuls, poorly led and meagerly supplied, battling against encroaching dangers from within and without. Their efforts to stabilize their lives would find little purchase in these long years of "fear and paranoia." (502)

The New Mind of the South, and Novel Thoughts about Southern Evangelicals

Art Remillard

On the surface, the last two Journal of Southern Religion podcasts seem rather, well... conventional. But dig down a bit, and you might find that they are, well... edgy. That is, both podcasts bring attention to books that carve new meaning into some seemingly established conversations.    

For starters, I talked with Tracy Thompson about her book, The New Mind of the South. While obviously playing off of Wilbur J. Cash's 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, Thompson offers an updated, nuanced, and necessarily complex view of what it means to be a "southerner" in the 21st century. In his forthcoming JSR review of the book, our own Paul Harvey exclaims, "Here's a perfect non-fiction summer reading for those of you wanting to settle on your porch in the evening hours, beverage (adult or otherwise) on hand, and just be entertained and instructed by an author whose reflections on and travelogue about the contemporary South is one of the better ones I've ever read."

I couldn't agree more. Additionally, if you teach a course on southern culture and religion, consider adding The New Mind of the South to your syllabus. Thompson's writing is especially accessible (get a preview at her blog the Blockhead Chronicles). And the topics that she addresses will lead to plenty of classroom discussions.

Speaking of additions to your syllabus (and great porch reading), pick up a copy of Elaine Neil Orr's debut novel, A Different Sun.

On the Death of Robert Bellah: "I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one."

Michael J. Altman

Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah passed away this week at the age of 86 from complications following surgery. Among Americanists, Bellah is best known for his article "Civil Religion in America" and his 1985 book Habits of the Heart. Bellah's most recent work is Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard, 2011). For more on that book check out this interview from the Immanent Frame. Or the audio and video below.

I haven't turned to Bellah's work much in my short academic career, mostly because I've been so immersed in the 19th century. But I might not have ever gotten into this whole religious studies gig had it not been for him. My junior year of college I took my capstone seminar in religious studies, "Religion and Politics After 9/11." It was the spring semester of 2005 (pardon my youth) and we read Bellah's essay on civil religion the week of President Bush's second inauguration.

Watching President Bush take the oath of office I saw the "elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America." As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq plodded forward, Bellah's essay from the midst of the Vietnam era rang in my ears. "Is this our fourth trial?" I wondered. I read and re-read the final paragraphs of the essay, trying to figure out what they meant for my generation and our wars.

Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.
It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight. 
It does not make any decisions for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being, in Lincoln's fine phrase, an "almost chosen people." But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.
At the end of that semester, I started planning my applications for graduate school.
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