Dissertations on Dudeness, the Historical Profession, and Francis Asbury

Paul Harvey

Just following up on some of previously posted-about topics.

First, "Dissertations on His Dudeness," NY Times, December 30, has more on religion/philosophy, cult movies, and The Big Lebowski, which we had posted about here previously.

Secondly, over at Immanent Frame is more on "Religion and the Historical Profession," including several scholars weighing in on an uptick of interest in religion in the historical profession, as discussed in a recent AHA study and reported on by Inside Higher Ed; we blogged about it previously here (with links to all of the above). From the perspective of a Europeanist, Jonathan Sheehan of UC Berkeley points out that many of the great studies of the Reformation (to cite one of many examples) occurred during the alleged low period for study of religion a generation ago. He continues:

So what seems most interesting about these findings is not that we are attending to religion with renewed zeal. Rather, it is the eagerness of historians (myself included) to hitch ourselves to the religion train, to declare ourselves historians of religion, rather than historians who happen to study religious events, people, or phenomena.

Sheehan then goes on to reflect further on some of the dangers of according religion a field of autonomy that is often not so readily granted to other phenomenon: Whether it is 9/11 or modern evangelical politics, world circumstances lure us into believing in belief. They lure us into believing that, beyond the social, political, and cultural, there is a certain something, an area of faith, that stands apart. But of course, this is exactly what religions have always said about themselves. If historians don’t want do the work of religion, then I think we have to reserve judgment on the thesis of religious autonomy.

David Hollinger, the renowned intellectual historian at UC Berkeley, reflects on the necessary and healthy disconnection among some between religious faith and religion as a field of study. He writes:

Religion is too important to be left in the hands of people who believe in it. Finally, historians are coming to grips with this simple truth. Why this has happened and with what effects may differ from period to period, continent to continent, and religion to religion.

Here, I will comment on this transformation as visible in the field I know the best, 20th century United States history.The careful and sustained study of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in this particular field has been carried out primarily by scholars who profess some version of the faith they study. This has produced some wonderful work, and I am not suggesting that belief is a barrier to successful scholarship. But this religious demography of scholarship does narrow the inventory of perspectives brought to the field, and once in place it is self-reinforcing: it can create the impression that religious history belongs mostly to the religious, and that historians of a more secular orientation will compromise their secularity by getting involved at all. The current increase of interest in religion on the part of scholars in this field follows in large part from the breaking of the connection between belief and the object of study. Just as we have lots of studies of Nazis by people who have no sympathy for Nazism—to use an extreme example to make the point—so, too, can we have studies of Presbyterians by people who have no commitment to Presbyterianism and may indeed find its influence on American life to be more pernicious than not.

Finally, more one someone who most certainly didn't think that Methodism was "more pernicious than not" -- Francis Asbury, subject of a recent biography by John Wigger, which
we'll have further and more extensive discussions about up sometime in the next few months; we previously blogged about the book here. Wigger is interviewed about his huge new biography here and also here. Here's a little excerpt from the 2nd:

One of the things I hope this book does is raise questions for readers about the meaning of religious leadership in America. To some extent, we’ve misunderstood religious leadership. We’ve tended to focus on individuals who were great communicators, great preachers. But, if you look at the country’s largest religious movements—Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics—most Americans today can’t name a single figure who put these religious movements together in this country. Most Americans today don’t know who Francis Asbury is. I wanted to go back and find out what was it about Asbury that allowed him to do this with Methodism. The first thing I found was that he was never a great preacher.

Finally, I would just add that our contributor John Fea has more about all this (including a good short summary of the Immanent Frame contributions) on his own blog, so check that out too.