Fessenden Responds

Paul Harvey

Recently Kelly posted "Religion, Literature, and Race," which included Finbarr Curtis's review on H-AMSTDY of Tracy Fessenden's Culture and Redemption. Tracy responded to the review in the comments section, and has consented to have her comments guest-posted here, for those who might not read it in the comments. So, here is Tracy's response; both the review and the response address fundamentally important issues in the field.

Tracy Fessenden Responds to Finbarr Curtis's review of Culture and Redemption

Thanks so much for linking to these reviews, Kelly. Sylvester Johnson's review of Colin Kidd makes me eager to return to Johnson's The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), which, as readers of this blog probably know, won the AAR's First Book Award in the History of Religions a few years back. At the risk of appearing ungratefully to focus on the criticisms in Finbarr Curtis's extraordinarily generous and perceptive review of my book, I'd like to respond here, in ascending order, to a few points he makes in his last paragraph. With any luck I'll have more up at Religion Dispatches in the next few days.

1. "An excellent book by a secular liberal for secular liberals": Well, okay, if the other boxes I might have checked are serpent handler, dervish, and Albanian virgin, call me a secular liberal. But to peg this as a book by a secular liberal for other secular liberals seems to be playing fast and loose with the category that Curtis seems just as keen to hold up for scrutiny as I am. And to decide that I'm writing for secular liberals is to shortchange some of my best readers.

2. "I think it is an open question whether an excess of secularity or liberalism is really the best way to describe the sources of the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay." I would say that the question is pretty much closed, actually, and that an excess of secularity or liberalism is not the best way to describe the sources of the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay. But somewhere among the conditions of their possibility surely lies not an excess of secular liberalism but rather a failure of secular liberals of the Christopher Hitchens variety (e.g. Sam Harris, Ayan Hirsi Ali) to question the long view to which these and other abuses are given as necessities in the short term, or to wonder that their renderings of "Islam" as the type of all religious affronts to freedom so nearly match those of the rapture Christians who await the final defeat of Babylon, and with whom Bush reportedly continues to consult.

3. "What is the status of the old-fashioned sense of secularism as unbelief?" Unbelief in what? Here I'd return Curtis to his elegant point that "the problem with head counts of the religious versus the nonreligious is that the line between religiosity and secularity is itself part of the rhetorical game." Among the reasons I resist identifying as a good old-fashioned unbeliever is that to do so, in my view, is to defer unduly to "belief," to accede to the point both that belief (and not practice, affect, attachments, etc.) determines one's status as religious or secular, and that the content and objects of the "belief" one may affirm or reject are no more than self-evident.

4. "Her interpretation of the secular runs a whole bunch of stuff together": Guilty as charged.