American Religious History Books for Your Next Plane Trip -- from Guest Poster Edward Blum!

Ed Blum is in the house! Below is his first guest post (and may there be many more), on some of his recent reading in American religious history. Specifically, he focuses on Matt Sutton's new biography of Aimee Semple McPherson (which we've blogged about here before), and John Giggie's excellent new book on black religion in the Mississippi Delta region in the late 19th/early 20th century (I was a peer reviewer/reader for that manuscript, so already knew it was good!).

For a more formal and extensive review of Matt's book, see Darren Dochuk's review of it here on H-AMREL. Dochuk says that Sutton " offers us a first-rate scholarly model of substantive historical investigation, intellectual engagement, and stimulating writing." I agree, and see Ed's take, below.


I hate flying physically, but I love it intellectually. Away from email, google, and all sorts of other distractions, I have the opportunity to read and enjoy it. There’s little rush. It feels like I’m in the air forever with flights from San Diego to Chicago or New York or Atlanta. As my rational brain battles with my emotional uncertainty (brain says “you are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport;” emotions retort, “but I’m not in control right now and I can’t stand it.”) Diving into the wonderful world of American religious history calms my soul. It energizes my mind, and leaves me wanting more time crammed into my coach seat. This is a brief narrative of my reading journey, since how we read, how we approach texts, what we’ve eaten, what we’ve listened to, where we are – all seem to influence how we read.

On the way to and from the Southern Historical Association’s annual meeting, I had the absolute pleasure of reading two new incredible books. The first was Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, published by Harvard University Press. Many of you probably know this book already. It’s received a ton of press. It’s been reviewed in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, and a host of other newspaper and magazines. It was even the basis for the PBS documentary Sister Aimee. (on a side note, John Updike in The New Yorker claimed that Sutton’s acknowledgments were “copious.” I counted, Mr. Updike. There are three pages of acknowledgements in five paragraphs. There are fewer than one thousand words. And they come at the very end of the book. Clearly that criticism tells us more about Updike than Sutton’s work. I wonder, perhaps, what circumstances led Updike to this bizarre line).

Nothing should obscure the brilliance and importance of Sutton’s book. When the airline film came on, Hot Rod (a strange Saturday Night Life-esque comedy), I didn’t even bother to put my headphones on. I was too busy falling in love with Sister Aimee. Sutton shows the rise, fall, and resurrection of McPherson’s ministry. And more than that, he demonstrates how McPherson helped move fundamentalist Pentecostalism from the margin to the center of American culture and politics. In fact, it appears that McPherson was a crucial player in the construction of what we now call the Christian right. Her wedding of that “old-time religion” with new media tactics, Hollywood show(wo)manship, conservative politics, and American nationalism was and is powerful. It was curious to read about McPherson – a Canadian by birth – playing upon U.S. nationalism so fervently. It also seems that McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, was a brilliant businesswoman who set an impressive standard for running a financial network behind the scenes. That too may be an important element in the rise of Christian America, although Sutton makes little of it.

This is biography at its best, and I’ve thought a lot about religious biography the past several years. Sutton is critical without being condescending; sympathetic without being hagiographic. Sutton’s analysis of McPherson’s appearance, of discussions of her body and clothing, of the architecture of her Los Angeles Temple, of her work with rich and poor, white, black, and Hispanic – all of this is fascinating. Sutton is adept at analyzing myths and realities, legends and lies. And with Sister Aimee, there seem plenty to go around. Sutton is a terrific writer. The prose is as entertaining as McPherson herself. Forget the peanuts; forget the diet Pepsi or Coke or whatever the flight attendant had. I was engrossed in Sister Aimee. I teach a biography class and I plan on constructing it around this narrative now, with other biographies of Upton Sinclair, William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, Ossian Sweet, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Jane Addams following it.

Landing in Richmond, I traded my Sister Aimee hangover for one of other spirits. I had a marvelous time with some folks at the conference, ate some $5 spicy chicken and rice, and then boarded another plane to trek back home. This time, I carted with me John Giggie’s After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915. The book is so new that Oxford University Press has it listed as 2008 in the copyright. Most impressively, I paid only $11 (half off at the last day of the conference). An Oxford book that didn’t cost the same as my flight – this was truly unbelievable.

The price was almost as good as the book. I was exhausted when I started Giggie’s book. The night before I had watched Constantine, a fun sci-fi thriller with my favorite Keanu Reeves (and I’m not joking about that; I love Reeves). I hadn’t slept well, although I did enjoy a nice waffle at the Quality Inn before running to the airport. Before diving into Giggie, I re-read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. I needed a little reminder about the importance of thinking about writing. Then I started Giggie. I had about an hour before we boarded. Just when I finished the introduction, my pen ran out of ink. I couldn’t read and not take notes and I was so engrossed in Giggie’s suggestions about the power of faith in the Delta that I rushed over to an airport shop. I found only one type of pen for sale: “Virginia is for Lovers” it read on the side; maybe so. Four dollars later I had my pen. And my wife had her gift from my trip.

After Redemption will revolutionize how we think about the Great Migration. Usually, we see the movement from South to North, from rural to urban, as a distinctive break. But Giggie shows that in the Deep South Delta, African Americans had already been struggling over issues of modernity, urbanism, material culture, and theology. Battles between holiness Pentecostals and other African American religious folk had already started. Many of the parameters of battle that would take place in northern cities had already been set.

But this book does much more. Giggie is most at home in discussing the influence of the market on black religion. He has great chapters about how African Americans interacted with consumer capitalism, with railroads and imagery, and with changes in the home and the church. His discussion of black church architecture reminded me of Jeanne Kilde’s wonderful When Church Became Theater, a book that should be read much more broadly (too bad Oxford hasn’t put it out in paper yet). Thank goodness that I finished After Redemption before the airline film came on. This time it was Evening with Claire Danes, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, and Toni Collette. By the end of the movie, I was just about in tears. It too was a story of redemption, in some ways, of a dying mother remembering romance in her life as her daughters tried to make sense of their own lives and grieve over their mother’s demise. Would I have enjoyed After Redemption as much being misty-eyed? I think so. I think I would have been impressed by the various ways embattled southern African Americans found life and spirit in the midst of such pain.

Half way through After Redemption, I noticed the woman to my left was reading Jesus Camp. We began talking religion and race when she noticed the book I had. I asked if she liked her book, she said yes. She asked me the same, I said “Oh God, yes. This is incredible.” She wanted to know if it would make good plane reading for a non-academic. I stopped. I paused. Probably not. I was struck by how what I enjoyed was so different from the everyday reader. After Redemption would be good for a class on American religious history or on African American studies. Instead, I grabbed Sutton’s book on McPherson from my bag and started to tell her the story. I turned it over to show her the picture of McPherson on the back – “beautiful, huh?” I quipped. “Yes,” she responded transfixed. She wrote the book title in the margin of Jesus Camp; “oh that sounds good,” she said. Then she told me about the ham that she was carting home from Virginia and I remembered that I was starving. Where were those peanuts or crackers or cookies or whatever?


Phil said…
Thanks for the winsome reviews, Ed. It is as if we were all on the flight with you. I second your praise of Sutton's book; I used some of it in class this summer and students loved the book and Sister Aimee. I'll have to check out Giggie's work.

I wonder what the reading list is for Houston?
Anonymous said…
If anyone has some good tips for my trips, please let me know. I'm always all ears (and eyes) and the works don't have to be new. - Ed
Phil said…
If you haven't read this yet, I'd check out Amy L. Koehlinger, _The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s_ (Harvard UP, 2007) is just fabulous.
John Fea said…
Ed: I wish I could echo your sentiments about reading and flying. At 6'8" the "physical" dimensions of flying always overwhelm the "intellectual"! Thanks for the reviews.
Kelly said…
I would second the recommendation of Amy's work. I read it on a plane coming back from a research trip at Notre Dame (I found this quite fitting), and I was surprised at how quickly the time passed by.

I recently picked up Ann Burlein's _Lift the Cross High: Where White Supremacy and the Christian Right Converge_ (Duke 2002). This is a less recent book, but her claims are quite controversial and thought provoking. I am not sure I agree with her thesis, but I hope to post on this soon.
Ed, Having reviewed Sutton's book for the Progressive Christian I add my support to your comments about the book. It is an excellent look at one of America's most ingenious relgious leaders. Even if he doesn't completely connect Aimee to the contemporary
Religious Right, she does se the stage for the use of media. In many ways Aimee outshines all of her successors -- and Matt does a good job of introducing us to Aimee. But read this together with Mark David Epstein's earlier bio.