New Books in Christian Studies
Summary: Discussions with Scholars of Christianity about their New Books
[Cross-posted from New Books in History] If you look up the word “secular” in just about about any English-language dictionary, you’ll find that the word denotes, among other things, something that is not religious. This “not-religious-ness” would seem to be the modern essence of the word. If a government is secular, it can’t be religious. If a court is secular, it can’t be religious. If a party is secular, it can’t be religious. But, as Todd H. Weir points out in his fascinating book Secularism and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Rise of the Fourth Confession (Cambridge University Press, 2014), the origins of what we might call “secularism”–the faith with no faith–were profoundly religious. To understand how this could be so, Weir takes us back to an age and place–the nineteenth-century German Lands–in which belonging to a church was a matter of state. The question then and there wasn’t whether you were going to adhere to a faith, but which one. Yet, in the wake of the Enlightenment, there were those who did not want to belong to one of the “established” (as in “establishment clause”) religions. They–”dissenters”–were seeking their own path to God and they petitioned the state to allow them to do so. Sometimes the lords of the land (and often heads of the church) granted this wish; sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they did, reversed themselves, and then reversed themselves again. Given the novelty of “free religion” and “free thinking,” it was hard to know what to do. In any case, the back and forth between officials and religious dissenters opened a space–narrow at first and then gradually widening–in which the faithful could be not only different but, well, not very faithful at all. Listen in.
Liberal Protestants are often dismissed as reflecting nothing more than a therapeutic culture or viewed as a measuring rod for the decline of Christian orthodoxy. Rarely have they been the subjects of anthropological inquiry. Pamela Klassen, Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto, wants to change that. Her recent book, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity (University of California Press, 2011), charts a transition in liberal Protestant self-understanding over the course of the twentieth century whereby “supernatural liberalism,” as Klassen calls it, enabled imaginative shifts between Christianity, science, and secularism. In the process, she explores how Protestants went from seeing themselves as Christians who combined medicine and evangelism to effect ‘conversions to modernity’ among others, including Native Americans and colonized people, to understanding themselves as complicit in an oftentimes racist imperialism. At the same time, they have recombined forms of healing in new ways, drawing on practices such as yoga and reiki in order to continue the search for a universalized type of wholeness – both spiritual and physical. Focusing on Canadian Protestants in the Anglican and United churches, Spirits of Protestantism combines rich historical examples and four years of ethnographic study to show how liberal Protestants have exerted a major influence in public life and even on anthropology itself.
Often when we think of missions to Native Americans or people of African descent, we think of white missionaries. In his book Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2013), Dr. Edward E. Andrews challenges this view. Through his careful research, skilled use of anecdotes, and compelling narrative. Dr. Andrews shows how it was Native Americans and people of African descent themselves who did much of the heavy lifting when it came to mission work. Moreover, Dr. Andrews not only explores the complex relationship between these diverse groups of people within the Protestant churches he studies (primarily Puritan, Anglican, and Moravian), the meeting of Protestant Christianity and indigenous religious beliefs, and the relationship between culture and religion, he also shows how white, black, and Native American missionaries cooperated (and argued with) each other. This book is a fascinating read and is highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of the Atlantic World or missions.
The death penalty is a subject that can easily inflame emotions. However, in his book, Exile & Embrace: Contemporary Religious Discourses on the Death Penalty (Northeastern University Press, 2013), Dr. Anthony Santoro does an amazing job of objectively presenting opposition to and support of the death penalty and explaining his own opposition to it. At the same time, Dr. Santoro explores, primarily through a focus on Virginia, a broad range of perspectives on the death penalty, such as official church statements, Bible studies, a gubernatorial election, and death-row chaplains. Through this religious, political, and profoundly humanistic exploration of the death penalty, Santoro argues that the death penalty is not primarily about the victim or the perpetrator, but about us. As such, this volume is both factually informative and thought provoking.
Modernity and religion have often been seen as fundamentally at odds. However, the articles in Encountering Modernity: Christianity in East Asia and Asian America (University of Hawaii Press, 2014 ), edited by Albert L. Park and David K. Yoo, argue that Protestant Christianity has played an important role in how East Asians understood and adapted to the modern world. In particular, these articles focus on locating Christianity within East Asian political, economic, and social contexts and analyzing how Protestantism interacted with these different spheres of human activity. Articles in this anthology cover China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as Americans who claim descent from these nations, from the late nineteenth century to the present day, covering such diverse topics as Korean megachurches, Christianity and nationalism in wartime Japan, and social networks in south China. As such, this volume offers a great deal not only those who study Christianity, but to anyone interested in learning more about East Asian history.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Religion] Expressions of religious belief through popular media are a regular occurrence in our contemporary age. But the circulation and negotiation of religious identities in public contexts has a fairly long history in America culture. Matthew Hedstrom, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, looks beyond the church to determine how religious liberalism was popularized through mainstream book culture. In The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2012) he examines mid-century middlebrow society at the intersection of protestant liberalism, therapeutic culture, and American consumerism. Through an examination of resources such as book clubs, reading programs, key authors, bestsellers, and new publishing initiatives in religion, he argues that American spiritual life during the mid-twentieth century happens through religious commodities. In our conversation we discussed social practices of reading, William James, publishing companies, effects of the World Wars, mysticism, psychology, consumerism, Jewish and Catholic voices, a turn to the East, and the intersecting religious trajectories of the early twentieth century.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and Society] David N. Livingstone’s new book traces the processes by which communities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that shared the same Scottish Calvinist heritage engaged with Darwin and Darwinians in different local contexts. Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) locates evolutionary debates in particular sites and situations as a way of understanding the history of science in terms of “geographies of reading” and “speech spaces.” The chapters introduce episodes that bring us into specific localities of reading and talking about Darwin, from Edinburgh in the 1870s, to Belfast during the “Winter of Discontent” following John Tyndall’s “Belfast Address,” to Toronto, to South Carolina, and finally to Princeton, NJ. These episodes collectively move readers away from understanding Darwin and his histories in terms of “isms,” instead looking carefully at the roles of three interrelated factors in shaping public encounters with Darwin’s ideas: place, politics, and rhetoric. The book concludes with a look at the ways that these factors continue to be pervasive in more recent dealings with Darwin. With its vibrant language, careful research, and compelling argument, Dealing with Darwin will be a must-read for historians of science, especially those interested in evolution, religion, Darwin, and/or locality.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Intellectual History] In 1873, the German scientist Rudolf Virchow declared in Parliament that liberals were locked in a Kulturkampf, a “culture war” with the forces of Catholicism, which he viewed as the chief hindrance to progress and modernity. Over the past two decades, historians have appropriated the term “culture war,” liberated it from its German origin and applied it as a generic expression for secular-catholic conflicts across nineteenth-century Europe. Intellectual and cultural historians have discovered in anti-catholicism a discourse and practice through which liberal ideas of subjectivity, sociability, and nation were constructed. Catholicism was, in short, the Other of a modernity understood to be rational, scientific and possibly Protestant. But what of those other religious Others of European modernity — the Jews? How did Jews relate to, contribute to, or perhaps oppose liberal anti-catholicism? What light do the polemics of Jewish anticlericals throw on one of the key topics of contemporary political philosophy, namely the theory of secularism? These are the questions explored in The Modernity of Others: Jewish Anti-Catholicism in Germany and France (Stanford University Press 2014), an ambitious work that takes the reader from the late Enlightenment to the twentieth century and across many disciplinary boundaries. Join us in this interview with the author, Ari Joskowicz, assistant professor of Jewish Studies and European Studies at Vanderbilt University.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and Society] Craig Martin’s new book carefully traces religious arguments for and against Aristotelianism from the eleventh through the eighteenth centuries. Based on a close reading of a staggering array of primary sources, Subverting Aristotle: Religion, History, and Philosophy in Early Modern Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) in turn subverts several assumptions about the connection between Aristotelian thought and the emergence of the new sciences in early modernity. The book argues that we ought to understand the seventeenth century decline of Aristotle and Aristotelians as an authority in natural philosophy in its relation to the contemporaneous religious readings of Aristotelian texts. In a series of chapters that each look carefully at a particular temporal and philosophical context of debate over the readings of Aristotle, Averroes, and their interlocutors by various religious communities, Martin’s book offers a compelling and deeply textured account of arguments over the piety, language, translation, and other aspects of the Aristotelian corpus. This is a book that beautifully shows the interrelationships of the histories of science and religion, while taking readings on a journey through the philosophical corpora of some of the most foundational thinkers on the nature of the cosmos and the soul; through transformations in the craft of historical analysis; and through an important period when translation (and debates about it) helped shape the intellectual histories of the medieval and early modern worlds. It is a fascinating book, and an especially important study for anyone interested in the history of early modern science and/or the relationships between the early histories of science and religion.
[Cross-posted from New Books in History] There is a lot of nasty mythology about Jews, but surely the most heinous and ridiculous is the bizarre notion that “they” (as if Jews were all the same) have long been in the habit of murdering Christian children, draining them of blood, and mixing said blood into Passover matzo. We know when and where the notion of “Blood Libel,” as this myth is conventionally called, appeared (12th-century England), but we don’t know why. Indeed, given the utter absurdity of the charge (Jews, of course, are forbidden to eat, drink, or consume blood in any way, shape, or form), it may be impossible for a rational mind to grasp. Even the Christian Church was vexed and, therefore, repeatedly condemned Blood Libels over the centuries that followed its appearance. Official religious disapproval–together with what might generically called “Enlightenment”–had some effect. By the late nineteenth century at the latest, clerical and civil authorities–not to mention “right-thinking people” everywhere–understood Blood Libel to be nothing but a sick fantasy. For reasons that are not entirely clear, however, Blood Libel enjoyed a kind of renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in the Russian Empire. And it was here that the most infamous and egregious Blood Libel of modern times occurred, the “Beilis case.” In his fascinating (and terrifying) book A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel (Schocken, 2014), Edmund Levin takes us into the complicated, contradictory world of late imperial Russia. He introduces us to radical anti-semites, Russian nationalists, inveterate criminals, well-meaning investigators, corrupt police officers, unscrupulous reporters, sycophantic courtiers, underhanded politicians, drunk ‘witnesses,’ pseudo-scientists, delusional quacks, and, of course, poor Mendel Beilis and his family. As Levins shows, the Beilis case was a farce from the beginning and everyone involved knew it. But it went on nonetheless. How, one wonders, could this have happened in a putatively “modern” state? Listen in to our fascinating discussion.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Islamic Studies] In the current political climate it might be easy to assume that Muslims in the ‘West’ have always been viewed in a negative light. However, when we examine the historical relationship between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors we find a much more complicated picture. In Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c.1050-1614 (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Brian A. Catlos, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, offers the first comprehensive overview of Muslim minorities in Latin Christian lands during the Middle Ages. The book provides a narrative history of regional Muslim subjects in the Latin west, including Islamic Sicily, Al-Andalus, expansion in the Near East, the Muslim communities of Medieval Hungary, and portraits of travelers, merchants, and slaves in Western Europe. Here we find that Muslims often had great deal of agency in structuring the subject/ruler relationship due to the material and economic contributions they made to local communities. The second half of the book explores thematic issues that were shared across Muslims communities of the Mediterranean world. Catlos surveys ideological, administrative, and practical matters, including Muslim concern about legitimacy and assimilation, legal culture, and everyday social life in these multi-confessional communities. In our conversation we discussed the reign of Christian Spains, Norman rule, the adoption of Arabo-Islamic culture, Morisco hybridity, Islam in Christian imagination, the role of Muslim women, and everyday public religious life.
[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Luke E. Harlow, Religion, Race and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880 (Cambridge University Press, 2014) examines the role of religion, and more specifically, conservative evangelical Protestant theology, in the struggle over slavery and abolition in a crucial period of American history. The book makes an impressive case that we cannot really understand that struggle or the war that grew out of it without fully appreciating the political, cultural, and intellectual history of conservative evangelical theology. Harlow describes a profoundly religious period in American history, where people claimed religious motives for all kinds of political positions, in a slave-holding border state that remained part of the Union. Kentucky was home to a diverse theological climate that nonetheless seemed always to break toward finding a Biblical warrant for slavery. Politically, however, gradualist emancipationists and pro-slavery advocates were often far apart. When the Civil War came, thousands of black Kentuckians joined Union ranks, profoundly shaping how their emancipation unfolded. Former gradualists, in response, fled to the pro-slavery side. While white Kentuckians had not overwhelmingly embraced the Confederate cause in the war, after it ended, they did so – fully and vigorously. The result, as Harlow shows, was that Kentucky arguably became the least reconstructed former slave state, and that development held profound implications for the shape of the society the Civil War made.
[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian Studies] In Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea (University of California Press, 2013), Nicholas Harkness explores the human voice as an instrument, and object, and an emblem in a rich ethnography of songak in Christian South Korea. In Songs of Seoul, the voice is deeply embodied. It is also shaped by an aesthetics of progress, as songak singers cultivate a “clean” voice that becomes an emblem for that progress in terms of Christian and national advancement. Part 1 of the book introduces readers to the vocal practices enacted by songak singers to cultivate clean voices, situating these practices in the histories and spaces from which they emerge and considering the relationship between singing and evangelism in modern Korea. Part 2 considers the voice as a nexus of social relations, considering how singers navigate between church and university, home and abroad, peers and superiors. It analyzes the (simultaneously public and intimate) ritual performances of songak singing, paying special attention to the role of singing in creating affective bonds among members of Christian Korean communities. Harkness’s book is an inspiring, thoughtful ethnography that contributes to a wide range of fields, and will be of special interest to anyone who enjoys reading about modern Korea, sound studies, music history, religion, and performance studies.
[Cross-posted from New Books in History] I’ve never been in a confessional box, but I’ve seen a lot of them in films. And if the depiction of them in films is in any way a reflection of popular attitudes toward confession, then I can say with some confidence that the act has a rather poor reputation. Confessional boxes are–in my imagination, at least–dark places where dark things are admitted and, sometimes, even darker things are done. Is it a surprise that fewer and fewer Catholics confess their sins in the box? John Cornwell doesn’t think so. In this provocative book–half history and half religious commentary–The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (Basic Books, 2014), Cornwell traces the history of confession and the confessional box. The origins of confession–or at least its scriptural basis–can be found, of course, in the New Testament. But the sacrament’s form has changed quite a bit over the centuries. Regular, weekly confessions were a medieval innovation. The box itself was a product of the Counter-Reformation. Even more recent reforms included dropping the age of first confession to seven years, something that, according to Cornwell, put priests into rather too close contact with what were essentially impressionable children. Just as important, according to Cornwell, were things the Catholic Church didn’t do: its refusal to amend its stance on artificial birth control essentially drove even relatively devout, married Catholics out of the box. They could not, after all, promise they would do their best not to use birth control when they knew they would use it again. Cornwell makes a persuasive case that confession is good for the body, mind and soul. He calls for the Church to renew the rite, to adapt it to modern mores. Perhaps, he says, Catholics will come back to the box if it is made less dark.
[Cross-posted from New Books in Religion] Nathan Schneider‘s monograph, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet (University of California Press, 2013), explores the timeless challenge of how to explain God. Are such explanations rational? Why are some attempts more popular than others? Indeed, can one really “prove” God? Isn’t it called “faith” for a reason? And what does Star Trek have to do with all of this? In addressing these questions, and many more, Schneider guides the reader through a rich land of storytelling, autobiographical reflections, and clever drawings. As the author submits in the book from its onset, don’t expect to discover which proof is right or why atheists are wrong. It turns out, in any case, that “proof” doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it means. Although proof can mean unimpeachable evidence, a proof can also be a work in progress (e.g., the proof of a text); or it can mean to tackle a challenge (e.g., to prove oneself). As Schneider convincingly argues, moreover, proofs for God have scarcely focused on mitigating doubt. They have been works of devotion and profoundly personal revelations. These proofs have also remained tied intimately to particular socio-historical contexts, but Schneider points out that despite this, the world of proofs is also a world of relationships and shared ideas in which Muslims, Jews, Christians, philosophers, and many others draw upon the ideas of one another. Schneider’s combined background in journalism and academia helps in rendering his complex and sometimes mind-boggling subject digestible to both general and scholarly audiences with polyvalent interests and beliefs about God.