Reviews from 30,000 Feet

"A Mission from God"

When the Blues Brothers explained that they were: “on a mission from God,” they provided American religious historians about 10 years of cultural reference. From 1980 to about 1990, I imagine, scholars could mention the line and at least get one head nod (can you imagine Martin Marty doing this? I kinda can). But as we all know, most of our “please don’t think I’m a huge loser” cultural references last for only so long. It was a sad day for me when my students no longer recognized The Simpson’s references. So I watched South Park, and those worked for a while. Mean Girls has had some staying power, and Family Guy allusions (as hard and as crazy as they are to include) get some smiles of recognition. But alas, how quickly cultural icons bubble up and flame out makes it difficult to relate. I guess my students see more quickly the truth: their professor is a loser after all.

My recent reading at 30,000 feet, though, has me revisiting the Blues Brothers and their claim to be “on a mission.” This semester, I’m pairing the “old” with the “new”, and since I’m on another kind of mission, I thought it would be fun to begin with an old and a new book in studies of American missionaries. The old was (thanks to recommendation from Matt Hedstrom) William R. Hutchison’s Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions. The new came from UNC press’s new catalogue page for a book that really caught my attention: Sarah E.Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture After World War II.

I had skimmed through Hutchison’s book years ago, but only after re-checking it out did I see his play off Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness. My immediate question was why “to” in the title, rather than “into”? Was Professor Hutchison subtly making a point about presence and place? Miller’s Puritans went “into” the wilderness, while Hutchison’s missionaries seem to keep a distance from “the world.” But that question is probably just from the failed poet in me.

In a short space, Hutchison ranges from the colonial age to the middle of the twentieth century to study explore “the changing relations between missionary ideology (“body of ideas”) and several pertinent and well-known themes in American thought’s work.” He makes the very important point that while scholars debate whether missionaries were agents of contact and improvement or shock troops in imperialism, they insisted that their primary identity was as Christians. While national prerogatives or cultural sensibilities influenced many missionaries and their supporters at various times, their encounters with other people, places, and structures were complicated profoundly by their religious, denominational, and theological perspectives. I especially found Hutchison’s discussion of what missionaries should do after they have had success fascinating. Should they remain and direct or should they recede and move on? This is, obviously, a question we have politically and militarily as well.

From something old to something new, Sarah E. Ruble’s book is a welcome new addition to the study of late 20th century US religion. We’ve all been quite enamored (for good reason) with new works by Darren Dochuk, Randall Balmer, Daniel K. Williams, Susan Friend Harding, Andrew Preston, and Raymond Haberski that show the potency of religious cultures and concepts in the making of American power after WWII and particularly conservatism. Ruble adds a nice layer of contestation and debate over the meaning of missions and missionaries in the seemingly short-lived “American century.”

Ruble reminds us that missionaries were always part of thoughts about the role of religion and religious organizations in American culture. She does an excellent job weaving together national discussions with local, denominational conversations, about the meaning and importance of missionaries. She finds that through discussions about missionaries, Americans linked their rhetorical emphasis on freedom for all with their practical actions of power for themselves. In this way, her work reminded me of Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s book on the Peace Corps, titled All You Need Is Love. Hoffman suggests that when foreign policy scholars consider American “imperialism” after WWII, they also note the benevolent arm of the movement in the Peace Corps.

And now back to the brothers my students no longer remember. Hutchinson and Ruble reminded me of how powerful those “missions from God” can be – not just for those who participate in them, but from the societies that send them, pay their bills, and then try to protect them when they get into tough situations. If you are looking for a good read at 30,000 feet, both books have a lot to offer.

P.S. to recent friends who have wondered why most of my blog 'reviews' are so cheery and that it appears that I heart everyone and everything, I wanted to mention that this is a non-vetted forum where we can present new books, articles, and ideas. Sure, I hate some books. Sure, I attack some vigorously in print. But to me, one reason RiAH is so great is because we can simply say "X is really neat and here's what it is about."


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for pointing out these books, Ed. I just recommended Ruble to a student ewho is writing an essay on Daniel Fleming, a prominent liberal missionary and missions theorist from the interwar years. His larger project concerns similarities between old liberal missionary attention to cultural pluralism and recent evangelical writings on missions. I'm sure Hutchison would be happy to know that evangelicals are stealing once again from the theological liberal playbook!
Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks for noting the Ruble text - it had escaped my attention. It seems to me that scholarship on missions has yet to significantly break past WWI (with some exceptions of course), so any work that helps to fill that gap is certainly welcome.
Tom Van Dyke said…
From Ed Feser, philosophy prof at Pasadena CC:

Student 1: You make such obscure references!

Feser: Sorry. Guess I’m the Dennis Miller of philosophy.

Student 2: Who’s Dennis Miller?

Feser: See what I mean?

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