"Influential, Pivotal, Seminal, or Otherwise Important": Recommended and Essential Reading in North American Religions

Charles McCrary

Recently the American Academy of Religion provided a list of recommended readings, compiled by the program unit chairs. Each unit has its own short list of books or articles that “someone within the broad field of religion and theology might be interested in, even if the topic is outside of his or her area of specialization.” This is a helpful resource, especially for people like me who often teach outside their specialty. Of course, the list invites plenty of scrutiny. Specialists in every area surely will find choices with which to agree or quibble. In this short post, though, I want to identify (or create), but also destabilize, a distinction between data and scholarship. When we talk about American religions (or whatever “field” this blog is about), are we talking about a set of people, things, ideas that we study—or about a particular group of people who study things? I’ll conclude on what I hope is a practical note.

The AAR’s preface to the Recommended Reading list suggests that the list is about both data and scholarship. On one hand, they suggest that “if you are interested in knowing more about a topic that you are not yet familiar with, this list may be a good place to begin.” This is how I imagine the list being most useful. If I need to write a lecture on some topic well outside my expertise, sometimes it is hard to know where to start, which monographs and scholars good and which are bad, what’s the standard view and what are the revisions or challenges to that. So, a handy list from an authoritative group indeed does seem to be a good place to start. However, the description of these works as “influential, pivotal, seminal, or otherwise important” speaks to a different—perhaps very different—set of criteria. Many of the most important and influential works in any field are, well, bad. They were influential, and people debated them for a long time, and they changed the field, and now most people think they were wrong. For the imagined consumer of this list, a scholar interested in a somewhat unfamiliar topic, is it important to know about the “seminal” works? Or is it just important to know the material? The list’s imprecise framing underscores the fact that, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued and illustrated two decades ago, “Not only can history mean either the sociohistorical process or our knowledge of that process, but the boundary between the two meanings is often quite fluid” (3). And, in some cases, the data set exists as such by virtue of being studied.

The North American Religions Section’s list suggests five books:

I’m not really interested in debating which books should or should not be on the list. Instead, I’d rather use it as a jumping off point for asking about how we think of “our field” through two other important lists: comprehensive exam lists and historiography syllabi.

Recently on this blog Jennifer Graber shared a draft of her historiography course’s syllabus. Her list is organized by topic/theme, with older “classic” works paired with newer ones on the same theme. I like this idea. But neither in the post nor in the comments did anyone directly address the question that, to my mind, should come first: What’s the point of this? The course’s title is Approaches to the Study of U.S. Religions. Is it an overview of approaches, a historicization of them, and/or a tutorial in good methods? What, exactly, are students supposed to learn about, and/or learn to do? I had to think about questions like this as I read through and wrote about my “historiography of American religions” comprehensive exam last year. What was the point of this list?

There are at least three reasons for a particular work to be included on a historiography syllabus or exam list or recommending reading list. In other words, these are three senses in which a particular work might be “important.” 1) It shaped the field. 2) It’s a model of good scholarship. 3) It covers topics pretty much everyone should know about.

Each reason is legitimate, I think, but we should be clear about which one we’re invoking, when, and why. Further, we should acknowledge that any claim to importance, based on any of the three criteria, can and should be debated. Reason 1 is necessary because graduate students are joining conversations late, so reading influential books helps them get up to speed on what people have been talking about before they joined the circle. But, like I said, some of these books aren’t good. That’s fine, of course, but in some cases I think unhelpful books hang around for no particularly good reason. Reason 2 is, of course, always up for debate. In the historiography class I took, led by Amanda Porterfield, several books were presented as important and good, but not necessarily models (to paraphrase Dr. Porterfield: “This is great, but please don’t write a dissertation like this.”) Each scholar, of course, finds books, sometimes in unexpected places, that inspire him or her to try to emulate them. But I think that graduate students still should be presented with certain books strictly because their advisors think they’re good models.

The third reason is more controversial, since it necessarily requires us to define our field in terms of content or data. Which people, places, texts, and ideas do we study? This has already been debated quite a bit, at this blog and elsewhere. Do “American religions” even exist, apart from the scholar’s study? Etc., etc. Perhaps one way to refocus and reinvigorate these discussions would be to make them concrete, to make the “rubber hit the road,” by focusing on historiography syllabi and comps lists. So, 1) which books shaped “the field”? The books you choose here indicate how you imagine the field. All syllabi are arguments. 2) If you were to give an American religions student a very short list of books and say, “do it like this,” which books would you choose? Whose work represents “our field” at its best? Why? 3) As our field constantly negotiates its borders and debates what and who counts, let’s imagine it in terms of these lists. My “American religions historiography” list contained 90-some books. Let’s call it 100 for a round number. If students have a 100-book historiography list, how many books should be about South America? Or the Caribbean? How many are about the Puritans? Or Catholics? Or Eastern religions? How many deal with colonial history? Is that colonial history primarily about English colonies, or Spanish, French, and Dutch as well? Which topics can be glossed over or ignored, except by specialists? Conversely, what are the data that we all should know?