Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America

I am pleased to post the following guest review of Paula Kane's Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America by my friend and colleague Brian Clites.  Brian is currently a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Northwestern University.

At a recent conference, a senior scholar dismissed “the lived religion approach” by eloquently criticizing the ethnographic method. None of the panelists (including myself) responded by stating the obvious: the study of everyday religion is equally equipped, perhaps better so, for scholars inclined towards anthropologically-informed history. If you don’t believe me, ask David Hall, Leigh Eric Schmidt, or better yet Paula Kane, who has recently published the much anticipated Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America.  Kane explores the life of the forgotten American stigmatic Margaret Reilly (1884 – 1937) to provide the backbone of this microhistorical exploration of the oft-ignored interwar period in American Catholicism. (Reilly, in the tradition of her chosen order, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, took the name Sister Mary Crown of Thorns in 1923 when she took her final vows.  For a wonderful conversation about Thorn’s biography, tune into Art Remillard’s recent discussion with Paula Kane over on Marginalia.)

Report from the John C. Danforth Center's Beyond the Culture Wars Conference

Cara L. Burnidge

According to participants and organizers alike, the most recent conference hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, "Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in the Twentieth Century," was like a marathon.  After 11 panels and 40 prepared remarks in just over two days, we almost needed a finish line. The sports metaphor seems appropriate not only because of the intense schedule (16 papers given on the first day, including a keynote address by James Kloppenberg, and another 16 papers on the second day) or the powerhouse papers (that were, to keep up this alliteration, pre-circulated), but also because the conference was designed to bring together senior scholars, junior faculty, and graduate students, not unlike coaches and their athletes.

Organized by Darren Dochuk and the entire Danforth team, Beyond the Culture Wars featured a variety of scholars hailing from History, Political Science, American Studies, and Religious Studies departments. Senior faculty were asked to present on an idea or research they are currently considering and graduate students were asked to present their own innovative ideas for the field to consider. As a result, the title of the conferences was intended to be ambiguous so that participants could interpret how, or if, "beyond the culture wars" in a way they saw fit. The hope was that this conference would generate new questions, a new set of sources, and ultimately new ideas. (Due to its experimental nature, most #twitterstorians, myself included, respected the work-in-progress of our colleagues and refrained from live tweeting paper details. For more details on individual papers, a full conference schedule can be found here.)

Under the Radar--Interviews with Historians You Should Know

I met Felipe a couple of years ago and when you know someone is doing such significant work in a field that has really yet to gain traction, it was a thrill to read the early drafts of what eventually became this pathbreaking book on Latino/a Mennonites. Felipe is one of the up and coming academics who point to the intersections of Latino/a religious life, activism, and relationships as a way to speak to a large audience of Chicano/a historians, and American religious historians about the nature of  our lived religious lives and how they inform and shape how we live in "Occupied America."

Felipe Hinojosa is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. He received his PhD in history from the University of Houston and has published articles on race, the Chicano movement and War on Poverty in Texas, Latino/a religion, and the relationship between ethnic studies and religious studies. His teaching and research interests include Latina/o-Chicana/o studies, American religion, social movements, gender, and comparative race and ethnicity. Hinojosa’s new book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press) was released earlier this year. (see link at the end of the interview).

1) Give us the gist of the book’s argument about Latino/a Mennonites?

First, I’d like to thank you, Professor Sánchez-Walsh, for the opportunity to talk about my new book!

In Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith & Evangelical Culture I argue that the civil rights movement, from the black freedom struggle to the Chicana/o and Puerto Rican movements, played a central role in helping shape and define ethnic and religious identity for Latinas/os in the Mennonite Church. While much has been written about Latina/o religious activism, my challenge was to try and reassess the motivations, politics, and contradictions of Latina/o religious activism across a wider demographic lens and a longer time frame. I do this in two ways.

Invented Religions

John L. Crow

A couple of months ago I wrote about the recent creation of Yeezianity, the so-called religion of Kanye West. I was dubious about it, and its status as a religion. Not long after, however, I read a book that has made me reconsider my position. The book is Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith by Carole M. Cusack (Ashgate 2010). Building on the themes of this book, she has recently guest edited an issue of the journal Culture and Religion (14.4 2013). In each instance Cusack argues that not only are these invented religions real religion, but they also reveal something important about how we define religion and how religion is utilized. What is different, she points out, is that these tradition do not attempt to legitimize themselves through claims of lineage, historical continuity, or revelation. Instead these tradition are self-consciously created out of popular contexts and the creators and followers do not care about the religion’s origin.

This conscious acceptance of the invented nature of the religion is what makes this category of religion so fascinating. While acknowledging that in some form or fashion all religions are invented, Cusack claims that since the 1950s, a new forms of religiosity has emerged, ones that are “advertised as fictional from the start.” “The model of ‘invented religion’ that I have advanced emphasises the self-conscious attention to the invented – i.e. not revealed or otherwise validated – status avowed within these religions.” Cusack looks at a variety of traditions including Discorianism, the Church of All Worlds—an eco-pagan group founded on Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, The Church of the SubGenius, and more recent traditions based on movies, Jediism and Matrixism, and finally the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In each of these traditions, the founders were well aware of the fictitious circumstances in which the traditions were founded, and the followers were too.

Religion, Food, and Eating in North America: an interview with Benjamin E. Zeller

I'm pleased to post this interview with Benjamin Zeller of Lake Forest College. Ben is the author of Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America (New York University Press, 2010); an array of other publications on new religious movements; and co-editor along with Marie Dallam, Nora Rubel, and Reid Neilson of the newly published Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia University Press). I'm grateful that Ben took time to answer my questions about this book and the intersection of three of the favorite things of many contributors to this blog.

How would you summarize the book, and what central themes or questions tie the individual chapters together?

This is one of the few books where the title (Religion, Food, and Eating in North America) says exactly what the book covers! But religion, food, and eating in North America is a big topic, and we couldn’t cover everything, so we decided to focus on a few key themes: analyses of theological approaches to food, the relation of food to religious identities, food as means of negotiating religion and culture, and food as a method of social and religious activism. There are many more themes we might have covered, and there is overlap between the themes we did chose, but these four approaches allowed us to highlight some great new work in the study of religion in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean.

The book contains fifteen chapters overall, each one containing a case study of food and eating within one or two traditions. The book isn’t a reference book that looks at every religious tradition over time in North America, so there are some holes in what we cover. There’s nothing on Hinduism, for example, but that is because we couldn’t find anyone who was researching Hinduism and food in America. But we have chapters on Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Native Americans, Muslims, and several new religions. We also decided to focus on the near contemporary time period, though several chapters do consider earlier material.

Overall, the book argues for taking the study of food seriously within the academic study of religion, and for taking religion seriously among those involved in food studies. Looking at food and eating lets us think about both high theology and vernacular religion; both daily practice and liturgy; and both religious work done in kitchens as well as in houses of worship.

How did this book originate? 

Ben Zeller
There are four co-editors, so I can only give my own perspective. But for me it started in the classroom when I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on religion & food. I spent a summer trawling libraries, databases, and anthologies looking for accessible and engaging readings. I found a lot to work with, but there was no single textbook that really did what I wanted.

I talked to some colleagues about creating a seminar unit of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) to create just such a book. These colleagues—Marie Dallam, Nora Rubel, and Reid Neilson—immediately signed on. I knew Marie from our work together at Temple University, and Nora and Reid from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All had interests in religion and food, and together we formed the steering committee for the “Religion, Food, and Eating” AAR seminar program unit. For the next four years we solicited papers and oversaw yearly meetings at the AAR where contributors presented their works in progress.

The book really benefits from its origin in the seminar. All the chapters but one were presented in that venue (and even that chapter was presented in a different AAR program unit), and they received careful critical readings from the dozens of other scholars who attended. Our meetings literally packed the rooms we were assigned, and we always went over our time limit in our discussions. Contributors, including myself, really benefited from all this feedback. It made our job as editors easier too, since the authors already had many opportunities to consider feedback and make revisions by the time we submitted chapters for peer review.

How did you become interested in the intersections of religion and food?

The Age of Evangelicalism: An Interview with Steven P. Miller


The following is an interview with friend of the blog Steven P. Miller about his groundbreaking new book, The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years (Oxford, May 2014).  Miller is also author of the critically acclaimed Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Penn, 2009).  If you backmask this post, a surprising revelation will appear: The Philadelphia Eagles will win the Super Bowl in 2015.

1. How does The Age of Evangelicalism relate to your first book on Billy Graham?  Do you see it as a natural outgrowth or a new direction?

In most respects, the two books are quite different.  After completing the second one, though, I do have a greater appreciation for how Billy Graham was simply the opening chapter of a larger evangelical renaissance.  My emphasis is on the diffuse nature of that renaissance by the late 1970s.  People like Harold Lindsell were trying to define theological moderates out of evangelicalism, while someone like Jerry Falwell was trying to reassert the label fundamentalist.  Yet no one person or institution could control a discourse about evangelicalism and fundamentalism that also involved Larry Flynt, Ruth Carter Stapleton, and even Ayatollah Khomeini.  Such were the terms of influence, as I argue.

As for how I go about evaluating that influence, there are definitely some similarities between the two books.  My approach has been to weigh the categories that my subjects delineated (“religion” here, “politics” there) against the inevitable “lived worldliness” (as I have elsewhere put it) that came with being an important historical actor.  The resulting tension is not an indicator of hypocrisy, but rather a gauge of significance.  Historical empathy, for me, means respecting the ideas of my subjects enough to state them clearly.  Historical analysis requires connecting those ideas with related phenomena.  Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman tapped profoundly into the needs of her audience, including many non-evangelicals.  Her book would have been a best-seller even had the Equal Rights Amendment or abortion remained marginal issues.  Yet to describe her in terms of “therapeutic antifeminism,” as I do, is not to impose a secular category.  Rather, it is to explain why she made the cover of Time magazine.  Likewise, it is not unfair to call Jim Wallis a member of the “religious left,” even if he has tried to reject that label.  Wallis was precisely the kind of politically progressive Christian whom Democrats sought out in the mid-2000s as they obsessed about the electoral “God gap”—and he reciprocated.  One of the most underappreciated aspects of evangelical entrepreneurship is the use of strategically self-limiting language.  But Morgan sold millions of books, and Wallis helped to make the Obama brand possible.  They were not bit players.

2. Could you talk a bit about your thesis by way of explaining the title of your introduction: “An Age, Not a Subculture?”

I’m not suggesting that an evangelical subculture doesn’t exist (far from it).  Rather, I would contend that the evangelical subculture is just one part of a larger story about evangelicalism and its impact on recent American history.  In other words, I am interested in writing a history in which evangelicals (whether one defines them using a loose Gallup-style formula or a tight Barna-style one) were not the only protagonists in evangelical history.  People for the American Way, the new atheists, and the West Memphis Three were part of the story, too.  I run into Christians all the time whose religious identity is very much linked with not being evangelical.  That dynamic, in and of itself, could be a chapter in the history of evangelicalism.

3. You write that "the recent history of American evangelicalism looks different . . . when it is not solely about evangelicals themselves" (pp. 7-8).  Would you consider your book a kind of reception history--of how once-subcultural ideas and practices were mainstreamed?  How did you navigate the tension between broad descriptive survey and proving what we might call your evangelicalization thesis?

I am not sure if “reception history” is quite what I was writing, although perhaps I am just parsing phrases.  I see my book as a story of how the public presence and awareness of born-again Christianity (which, in the vast majority of uses, was synonymous with “evangelicalism”) shaped how Americans understood and evaluated their times.  Sometimes, specific evangelical arguments were very influential in their own right.  Other times, they served as foils.  Either way, millions of Americans came to understand themselves in relation to evangelical phenomena.  The “satanic panic” tapped into deep anxieties about American popular culture and equally deep cynicism about media culture.  Megachurches informed debates about civil society.  The “public square” and the “culture wars” became the dominant metaphors for how Americans talked about the public status of religion.  And on and on.
I am drawn to writing in a manner that is both chronological and thematic.  This can be a tricky scheme.  Decades are handier for chapters than for big arguments.  Still, a chronological approach can offer readers a sense of how similar ideas were voiced in very different contexts and how specific actors popped in and out of certain stories.  Forty-plus years of American history is a good chunk of time, although it seems easier to keep this in mind when comparing 1930 and 1970, as opposed to 1970 and 2010.  I do not include Barack Obama in the same chapter as Jimmy Carter, even though Obama sought to recover the kind of evangelical politics that seemingly disappeared when Carter left office.  I made a similar decision to divide my discussions of the evangelical left.  The evangelical left’s influence on American politics was most striking in two very different contexts: in the early 1970s, when it helped to foster a new evangelical salience amid the fallout from Watergate; and in the mid-2000s, when it demonstrated that the Christian Right was not the only story about evangelical politics.  There was a rich, rich history in between, as David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway have shown us.

4. You open the book with a quotation from Alan Wolfe about how "we are all evangelicals now."  And yet your study in some ways appears to be an autopsy of an Age which, you suggest, died in 2012 (pp. 162-63).  Have we now passed through evangelicalism's middle ages into its memorial service?  Or, do you imagine something like the liberal Protestant "cultural victory" argument (Demerath, Hollinger, Hedstrom) now passing to the evangelicals—i e., evangelical numbers and institutions will shrink even as their beliefs and values become normalized among the general population? 

My epilogue is not an autopsy.  It is an invitation to take stock of a moment in recent American history.  I was very intentional about using the expression “winding down,” rather than the more concrete “ending.”  The Alan Wolfe line points to the recognition of evangelical ubiquity, which was a going concern during the period I consider.  For the moment, evangelicalism retains its spectacle quality.  I have secular, politically liberal friends who love Duck Dynasty (or at least they did before that Esquire piece).  At the same time, it is a bit weird how so many popular articles about evangelical phenomena read like they might have been written in 1976, which George Gallup, Jr., famously declared the “Year of the Evangelical.”  What I would say, then—as I suggested earlier—is that we need to appreciate that a lot of things happened after Gallup made his pronouncement.  Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell are not yesterday’s news; they are a generation ago’s news.

5.  Where do you see your own work fitting among recent studies in evangelicalism?  Where do you see the field going? 

               There have been so many great works in recent years, and there are more to come.  As I state in my Introduction, we can now clearly connect evangelicalism with any number of huge demographic, economic, and political shifts since the mid-twentieth century.  My book owes a tremendous debt to the historians who drew those connections, as well as to the journalists who tried to make sense of evangelical phenomena that seemingly came out of nowhere.  I should note, too, that I do not intend my book as a corrective to these newer works, even if my approach is (I think) different than most.  I have no idea whether anyone will run with the idea of a more expansive historical use of evangelicalism.  Looking ahead, an exciting angle is the global turn, and there are a number of studies in the works along those lines.  The political narrative is far from exhausted (and the cultural angle is inexhaustible, one supposes).  We have so much more to learn about the anti-abortion movement, for example, as well as about policy in general.  The influence of theology is so obvious that it has actually been understudied.  A number of recent and forthcoming works refreshingly treat theology as the stuff of intellectual history.  There are so many fantastic scholars who deserve a shout-out—too many to attempt to name in one place. 
               I’m no Hal Lindsey, but I will offer a closing prediction: In the coming years, fewer and fewer historians of evangelicalism will have a childhood or existing connection to evangelical faith.
               Ok, here is one more: The historiography of recent American evangelicalism will become livelier—which is to say, more contentious.

Steven P. Miller, for the Religion in American History blog
22 January 2014

Poetry and the 20th Century Religious Experience

Carol Faulkner

I begin with a disclaimer: I know almost nothing about poetry. I read A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov by Donna Krolik Hollenberg after reading a provocative review in the Women's Review of Books. Kate Daniels' review offers a mostly positive evaluation of  two new biographies of Levertov, but criticizes the poet as a woman and a feminist.* Here is a brief excerpt of the review:

Neither biographer takes a very analytical look at the role of gender in the poet’s life; neither is particularly psychologically minded; and both acquiesce too often to Levertov’s unreliable self-interpretations (taken from her journals) of some of the most troublesome aspects of her life as a woman of achievement in the twentieth century.  Both inadequately address the poet’s myopia about her male-inscribed consciousness, her difficulties with other women, and her homophobia.  

My personal reason for reading the Hollenberg biography is that she interviewed a friend who knew Levertov. Is there a better reason for reading a book? I knew little about Levertov except that she was a well-known poet. After reading Hollenberg's book, I learned that Levertov's religious biography is as fascinating as her literary biography.

Religion, Food, Eating: These (in reverse order) Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Paul Harvey

It's mid-semester, I'm on administrative overload, books and papers are piling up, my bracket is already broken, busted, and flat, and baby is in the corner hungry, desperate, crying (that's Omar the cat -- reminding me it's time for his treat); it's grim.

But what should brighten my day but the unexpected arrival of this beauty: Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, eds. Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Noral L. Rubel. Merci beaucoup, Columbia University Press! (Same goes for the editors).

I've only had the chance to dip in and sample a couple of the delicacies here, but in brief: the volume is divided into four sections. One is theological foodways, featuring essays on Christian dietary abstinence, Father and Mother Divine's theologies of food, and "Christian raw foods." Next comes "Identity Foodways," with Rachel Gross writing about Jewish food in the 1950s, Derek Hicks on "Gumbo and the Complex Brew of Black REligion," our own Samira Mehta about foodways in Christian/Jewish Blended Families, and Suzanne O'Brien on "Salmon as Sacrament" in the Pacific Northwest. We then move to "Negotiated Foodways," with four more fresh essays, including one on American Buddhist "Mindful Eating." Last comes "Activist Foodways," with essays on food at Koinonia farm, a halal meat eco-food cooperative in Chicago, and contemporary vegetarianism.

Let's eat.

Here's more, from the book's website:

The way in which religious people eat reflects not only their understanding of food and religious practice but also their conception of society and their place within it. This anthology considers theological foodways, identity foodways, negotiated foodways, and activist foodways in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Original essays explore the role of food and eating in defining theologies and belief structures, creating personal and collective identities, establishing and challenging boundaries and borders, and helping to negotiate issues of community, religion, race, and nationality.

Contributors consider food practices and beliefs among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, as well as members of new religious movements, Afro-Carribean religions, interfaith families, and individuals who consider food itself a religion. They traverse a range of geographic regions, from the Southern Appalachian Mountains to North America’s urban centers, and span historical periods from the colonial era to the present. These essays contain a variety of methodological and theoretical perspectives, emphasizing the embeddedness of food and eating practices within specific religions and the embeddedness of religion within society and culture. The volume makes an excellent resource for scholars hoping to add greater depth to their research and for instructors seeking a thematically rich, vivid, and relevant tool for the classroom.

The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (Review)

Paul Putz

Those of us interested in the study of American religion in the Progressive Era and early twentieth century have had some fantastic reading material in the past year. I've previously covered two examples in new books from David Burns and Priscilla Pope-Levison. Now I get to turn to Matthew Bowman's The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2014), a book derived from a dissertation completed under Michael Kazin at Georgetown.

The subtitle seems to indicate that this book will be primarily about liberal evangelicals, and Bowman does indeed have much to say about that group. However, the fundamentalist antagonists loom large in the text as well. This may as well have been subtitled "the fate of evangelicalism."

Bowman argues that the fracturing of evangelicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is best understood as a response to the crisis of the city. That sounds familiar enough on the surface. But Bowman's Orsi-inspired approach is unique. For him, evangelicalism should be seen as a religious style, a "set of behavioral expectations and methods of practice" rather than a "coherent theological proposition" (p. 10).  Bowman zeroes in on three elements that united evangelicals in the nineteenth century: conversion (although there were competing notions about this process), a desire to interact with God through language, and an emphasis on the preached sermon and the read Bible as the means towards that end.

Cosmos and Christian History

Elesha Coffman

As I watched the first episode of the new Cosmos series March 9, I wondered a number of things in succession: Wait, who's this Bruno guy? How are the show's writers going to play the science-and-religion thing? More important, with so much science to explain--and to illustrate with nifty special effects--why are they playing the science-and-religion thing at all?

The all-knowing Internet was able to help me with the first question right away. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was one of several early modern thinkers who combined what we'd now call theology, science, math, literature, and magic into a speculative body of work that eventually got him killed by religious authorities. His abrasive personality and the myriad tensions of 16th-century Europe didn't help. A fantastic exchange on a Discover magazine blog has since filled in my sketchy knowledge of Bruno and his contributions.

What struck me about the portrayal of science versus religion was the twist on the familiar scientific martyrology. Many cliches were repeated, as the lone truth-seeker chafed against limits on academic freedom and was ultimately slain merely for teaching ideas that were ahead of his time. (The Discover blog deconstructs these cliches as well.) But the money line was cartoon-Bruno's plea to his examiners, "Your God is too small!" I took this as an argument that religion, rightly understood, is not threatened by, nor does it pose a threat to, scientific inquiry. Of course, it's more than a little presumptuous for a popular science show to define the right understanding of religion, but the argument is basically what I was taught as an undergrad at Wheaton College, and a far cry from the sneering hostility of Andrew Dickson White or Inherit the Wind.

Still, why go there at all?

Then & Now Turns One, Adds an Illustrious Co-Editor, and More

Heath Carter

If Then & Now is not yet in your regular digital reading rotation, it should be.  This Christian Century blog, founded by RiAH's very own Edward Blum, features weekly contributions from a variety of leading religious historians "who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans."  In an inaugural post, Blum described the rationale for the site this way: "To use history poorly is to abuse it and the people who still suffer from its burdens.  It is also to remain in a darkness of one's own choosing and making.  But history can be helpful.  Approached from an effort to honor life and to transform ourselves for the better, history can be a dear friend and informative ally.  The point of these weekly entries will be to understand the historical roots of contemporary problems, the roads taken or the avenue neglected in the past, and how thinking responsibly about the past can provide us better information for our spiritual lives today."

Then & Now recently marked its first birthday and there was ample reason to celebrate.  The blog generated lots of traffic and it's little wonder as to why.  Even just a small sampling of the 13 most read posts of 2013 underscores the quality of the content:

1) Molly Worthen on Billy Graham and the fracture of American evangelicalism

2) Kate Bowler on the American megachurch and the Christmas prosperity gospel

3) Randall Balmer on Exodus international and times when evangelicals change with the culture

4) Scott Poole on Satan in the Bible

5) Martin Marty on the mainline and moving from declinism to discovery

2014 is already off to a great start and there are some exciting new developments just around the corner (more on that below the fold)

Meyer, White, and Women of the Prosperity Gospel

Charity Carney
This is an idea that I am playing with for my manuscript on megachurches. Any comments/suggestions/ideas are, of course, welcome.

It is time for the truth to be told and for people to realize the attack on women is actually from Satan himself.” Joyce Meyer makes this provocative proclamation in her 2006 book The Confident Woman, in which the celebrity preacher argues that women are equal in God’s eyes and must fight for their rights within the church and society. In fact, often men’s “egos” prevent women from fulfilling their calling to minister or teach. “Historically, women have often been allowed to do a lot, if not most, of the praying and servant-type work in the church,” she points out, “Meanwhile, the same men who refused to let them preach or teach stay home and rest.” This dichotomy is unacceptable for Meyer who believes that churches rely on women to fill certain “feminine” roles while preventing them from realizing their full potential. She contends that men abuse the Scriptures (like Paul’s writings in II Timothy) to hem women in, when those teachings were written within a certain cultural context—women today should not be punished for the unique circumstances of the past. 

This focus on women’s rights and empowerment, however, is blurred with other passages that detract from Meyer’s seemingly feminist perspective. The bold female pastor also makes note that women bless the world by being “creative, comforting, sensitive.” They can also follow the model of the woman described in Proverbs through creative cooking. “I fed my family hamburger 1,001 different ways,” Meyer recalls, “I must admit I wasn’t too creative… our lady in Proverbs challenges us to go the extra mile and make things as good as possible.” And even when women feel called to church leadership, they still should allow men to become the spiritual head of the home, without opposition. The Confident Woman reveals the curious contradictions inherent in female prosperity preaching as embodied by Meyer and fellow female evangelists like Paula White. This kind of rhetoric raised some questions for me as I dug deeper into the messages and histories of these women. Are Meyer and White models of postfeminist preachers? Does the prosperity gospel actually help ameliorate the contractions that these postfeminist preachers present in their sermons and writings? This potential connection (between postfeminism and prosperity teachings) is one dichotomy that I’m toying with in my current manuscript about megachurch culture. 

Why I Go to Academic Conferences

by Laura Arnold Leibman

It’s that time of the year when spring break looms like a sunbeam of hope, and calls for conference papers and panels start piling up in my in box.  It is also the time of the year when local and specialty conferences will soon be upon us. As the child of academics, one of my early memories is of “family vacations” spent in conference hotels and of learning not to fidget during presentations. Why do we go to academic conferences? What do we hope to gain? Sometimes colleagues tell me that they have given up on conferences altogether because they “just don’t have the time.” In this post I argue for the benefits of conferences and suggest ways to present and attend conferences to help you work towards your goals not against them. I usually attend around two conferences a year and here is why I go:

  1. I Go to Conferences to Learn. Sometimes I go to conferences when I am not presenting just to learn new methods, to explore a related field, or to keep up with my own field. For example although none of my degrees are in history, for many years I went to the conference of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture so I could keep up with the trends in the field of early American studies. Even when I go to a conference to present, I make sure to leave each conference having learned something new. To accomplish this I usually attend at least 1-2 panels that are clearly out of my area of specialization but interest me somehow. Many times these panels have the largest long-term impact on my thinking and teaching.  

  2. I Go to Conferences to Get my Ideas out There and Get Feedback on Them. One of the glories of being on panels comprised of individual papers or made up through larger calls for papers is that they place your work in dialogue with unexpected scholars and ideas. This dramatically increases the change that more than several people in the audience will be attending the panel who didn’t come to hear you or your paper. That is a good thing and an important opportunity. I spend a lot of time and effort preparing conference papers, and I practice them repeatedly before I present. In part I spend the time on the papers because I believe doing so helps me achieve my long-term goals (see numbers 5 and 6 below). I also spend the time because first impressions matter. I want people who listen to my paper to want to read other things I’ve written, and if I am disorganized or muddled that is less likely to happen. I also value the feedback I get at conferences and incorporate that feedback when I revise. If people didn’t understand my argument, that feedback will be less insightful. Moreover, since Q&A is often at the end of all of the presentations, I am competing for reflection time with everyone else on the panel. I want my work to be memorable and engaging. I know I have truly achieved this end when someone in the audience requests a version of my conference paper for a forthcoming issue of a journal (example: my article on sacred space in early America). If I present poorly, I miss these important opportunities.

Teaching Religious Autobiography

Michael Utzinger 

 Several months ago I wrote a review about Eboo Patel's autobiographical work, Acts of Faith.  I noted in my post that my intent was to teach a new course (for me) on religious autobiography.  The course ended last Fall, and, I am taking a little time to think about the readings and structure of the course for next Fall.  I had a wonderfully sized group of seventeen students.  Hampden-Sydney is a college for men, so there was no gender diversity in the classroom (i.e. all the students were men) but there was ethnic and religious diversity.  I decided that a key element in the class would be students learning the practice of writing autobiographically about religion, as much as reading and contextualizing it.

So, while the students would learn how to be critical about the genre they would also learn by doing.  Each student wrote five short essays of around 1000-1200 words.  The five topics were: "This I believe" (in the NPR tradition); an Aha! moment; a religious experience or experience of religion with a point; religious origins; and a critical essay on one of the texts we read.  I allowed the students to write the essays in any order they wished.  The students also had a final project in which they had to create video using one of the essay they wrote during the semester. 

I appreciated Trevor Burrows post on the use of autobiography on this blog.  So, here are some of my "take-aways" that I had from teaching the course for the first time. I would really love to hear more of your experiences or thoughts as I begin to plan for next year, especially form you veterans who teach or use autobiographies. 

The New Evangelical Social Engagement, Part 2

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Similar to Seth Dowland’s response, reading The New Evangelical Social Engagement left me perplexed, but in a good way. What is it that we mean by the term evangelicalism, with its historical baggage, political connotations, and multiple expressions? Yet there it is, still: evangelicalism. It is here, present (and past), in the form of self-identifying evangelicals or self-identifying evangelical institutions; but then it is, again, elusive, a social and political construct or frame deployed over time and used to advance legislative objectives or cultural arguments. In the midst of these questions, discussions, and arguments, the editors and essayists in The New Evangelical Social Engagement leave us perplexed in a good way by providing much about which to ponder, reflect, analyze, and of course engage in future scholarship.

While Seth’s insightful summary provided much to consider in terms of new evangelical political opinion, the history of evangelical politics, environmental activism, and social outreach, for me the volume highlighted the multiple methodologies and numerous disciplinary perspectives currently used to analyze the undefinable, but identifiable, evangelicalism. While Seth was particularly enthusiastic about the way that chapters on politics and activism open new doors for future analysis—an excitement I share and look forward to in the form of his own forthcoming work on new evangelical politics—my enthusiasm centers on how particular chapters offer what ethnography and sociology (and for that matter psychology, with T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back in mind) will continue to reveal about evangelical identity and its fascinating lived, expressed dimensions.

Four Questions with Judith Weisenfeld

Randall Stephens

The latest to take part in our Four Questions with series is Judith Weisenfeld, professor of religion at Princeton University.  Judith’s work focuses on urban religion, religion in film and popular culture, religion and constructions of race, and women's religious history. Founder and editor the North Star Journal (1997-2005), she is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (University of California Press, 2007) and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1998). At the moment she is completing a project titled Apostles of Race: Religion and Black Racial Identity in the Urban North, 1920-1950.  She received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for this project.

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

Judith Weisenfeld: I became interested in the study of American religion while an undergraduate at Barnard College in the mid-1980s.  I was involved with the student movement calling on universities to withdraw investments from apartheid South Africa when Robert Baum, a specialist in West African religious history now at Dartmouth, arrived as a visiting faculty member.  The coincidence of participation in the anti-apartheid movement and the availability of a new set of courses at my institution on the religious history of people of African descent turned my attention as a Religion major from early Christianity to religion, race, and global politics.  As the result of an undergraduate course with Bob on religion and racial stratification in the U.S. and South Africa (in which I read Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion and Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis), a course with Randy Balmer on American religious history, and senior thesis research on Black Theology in South Africa, I found myself increasingly drawn to African-American religious history.  In graduate school I had the good fortune to study with Al Raboteau and John F. Wilson, both of whom helped me to locate African-American religious history in a variety of broader contexts and histories including African diaspora studies and American religious history.

The New Evangelical Social Engagement

By Seth Dowland

This is Part 1 in a two-part review of The New Evangelical Social Engagement, edited by Brian Steensland and Philip Goff (OUP, 2014). Phil Sinitiere will post Part 2 on March 13. 

The New Evangelical Social Engagement is confusing, in the best possible way. The essays in this book provide thoughtful treatments of a host of initiatives that have emerged among contemporary evangelicals, including environmentalism, international development, new monasticism, progressive pro-life activism, and interracial community-building. While the chapters share a focus on mostly young evangelicals who resist the conservative politics of the religious right, their internal diversity makes “new evangelical social engagement” a hard movement to characterize.  Furthermore, the authors approach their subjects from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, sociology, political science, ethics, and religious studies. After reading each chapter, I grew increasingly despondent about my ability to frame the book’s main points in a review short enough to post on the blog! But each chapter explored a story that complicated and deepened my understanding of contemporary evangelicalism. And so I’m confused—about what evangelicalism is, or where it’s heading, or what its adherents share—but in the best possible way.

Even so, I will highlight a few issues these essays raised. The introduction by Steensland and Goff, along with a strong reflective essay by Joel Carpenter, suggests that the new evangelical social engagement marks a departure from the immediate past and also shows continuity with the longer history of evangelicalism. Since the eighteenth century, restless evangelicals have been agitating for change. As Carpenter puts it, “old traits are forever creating new evangelicalisms.” New evangelicals have rejected the suburban megachurches that were themselves the products of a rethinking of how evangelicalism would spread. Even when evangelicals are making radical departures from the social conventions, politics, and church structures of their parents, they are acting in line with a long tradition of innovation that characterized their spiritual ancestors.

That innovation is proceeding in multiple and occasionally contradictory directions. This tension appeared most notably as I read the successive chapters by Daniel Williams and David Swartz, authors of important recent books on the Christian right and the evangelical left. Williams describes the tenuous political position of prolife progressive evangelicals, who are at once frustrated by the inconsistent prolife ethic of conservative evangelicals, who promote war and defend capital punishment, and disappointed by their normal political allies in the secular left, who seem content to describe abortion solely in the language of “women’s choice.” Lefty evangelicals’ prolife posture does not have a political home in contemporary America. In the next chapter, Swartz shows how some of the same impulses that drive progressive prolifers have caused evangelicals to take up the cause of human rights around the globe. The campaign for human rights and social justice has won support from both American political parties and has crossed longstanding divides separating conservative and liberal evangelicals. If Williams’ prolife progressives are political nomads, Swartz’s social justice crusaders have won wide support.

Other chapters point to the varying levels to which new evangelicals resist American cultural norms. Will Samson’s excellent chapter on the new monasticism shows how groups of radical Christians are cropping up around the country, dedicated to living together in “abandoned places of empire.” These new monastics shun megachurch culture, opting for ancient contemplative practices instead. They find in these ancient practices both deep rootedness and a source for social justice activism. Some of the people who found their way to these new monastic communities might have had their interest in social justice piqued by participation in evangelical college fellowships like Intervarsity, an organization that has increasingly tied the gospel to human rights. John Schmalzbauer’s superb study of IV demonstrates how the group’s triennial Urbana missions conference has raised evangelical students’ awareness of injustice and spurred many into action. A highlight of Urbana 2006 occurred when U2’s Bono appeared live via satellite to urge attendees in their Godly fight against injustice. The following speaker asked attendees to text their support for Bono’s ONE Campaign; Schmalzbauer reports that “cell phones lit up” in the holy sanctuary of the Edward Jones Dome. One can hardly imagine a less ancient practice than texting support for social justice.

Oh, The Humanities!


“Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing, or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history.”
-President Barack Obama, Waukesha, Wisconsin, January 30, 2014

When I meet people and they find out that I am a history professor, often I hear how much they enjoy a particular history story, or that someone in their family has read a book on a certain World War II general or Civil War battle. Sometimes, I learn how much they enjoy watching the History Channel, which leaves me unsure whether they are thinking of the Hitler documentaries, the backwoods reality shows, or the ridealongs with antique hunters. Curious folks—or those who have college-bound kids—often ask, “what does someone *do* with a history degree, anyway?” That question is a tough one, because as most scholars in the humanities know, there is not one clear answer. While it is a simple enough question, it evokes a dramatic answer on the grand scale.

The humanities, when pursued and practiced well, grant a richer sense of what it means to be human. The humanities ask the grand questions of life and grant a diligent student the reward of forming their own answers to those questions. Yet, many college humanities department websites suggest: “With a degree in history, you can be an archivist, a museum curator, a librarian, an archeologist, a history professor” and so forth. Even the American Historical Association settles for a list of career choices drawn from an out of print pamphlet from 1989. These lists fall far short of the idealism that motivates many of us to work in the humanities. Rather than cast such an ambitious vision of our academic discipline, we settle for a reductionist answer that attempts to make the humanities into a vocational training degree. The purpose of the humanities—and the liberal arts—is not to give students raw basic skills that prepare them for a singular task in life, but rather to expand their thinking and grant them the ability to interpret, analyze, and articulate ideas. The best humanities graduates shape the culture and anticipate the challenges of the future.

Looking for a Better Movie

Emily Suzanne Johnson

Today's guest post is by Emily Suzanne Johnson. Emily is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University, currently in residence as a Dissertation Fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her dissertation, "Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women's Leadership in the New Christian Right,"examines the careers of nationally prominent evangelical women who contributed to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s. 

"Looking for a good movie? (or at least a better one?)" This is the question that prominently greets visitors to Focus on the Family's movie review website, Plugged In. The site seeks to be a resource for conservative Christians who want to consume mainstream popular culture, but who want to do so safely, with limited exposure to the vulgarities that lurk therein. As such it is also a extraordinarily rich resource for anyone who wants to better understand contemporary conservative Christians' complicated relationship with American mass media.

Historicizing Liberals (on their own terms)

Janine Giordano Drake

I've written for years about the Social Gospel movement, but I've always very carefully avoided the term "liberal" because it seemed to mean too many things all at once, and hence nothing at all.

Of course I knew that some historians use the term to refer to anyone who has challenged traditional norms in the realm of race, gender, and sexuality. In this definition, "liberals" are the mainline Protestants and other middle class whites who supported the early Civil Rights Movement. They're the Billy Grahams, the Virginia Durrs, the YWCA, and then, of course, the feminist and anti-racist, often middle-class, counterculture of the 1960s to the present-day.

I knew others, of course, use the term to emphasize its association of the word with its other definition: generous, and even sometimes over-generous. That is, folks refer to "liberals" as the FDR democrats who supported unions as a part of economic recovery, those who have been  comfortable with federal deficit spending, government work programs, price and wage controls, and employee protections.

I used to wonder why historians chose to use a term with two different meanings, especially when they only seemed to converge within a few key groups, at a few key moments in history. The people I knew, living and dead, always seemed to be a mix of political liberals and social conservatives, social liberals and political conservatives, and the like. For example, the Social Gospel leaders I studied (leaders in the Federal Council of Churches) were mostly supportive of unions, price and wage controls, and workplace protections. Yet, were also advocates of prohibition, vehemently in favor of film censorship, and major advocates of limiting premarital sexuality. No matter how much they advocated for fair wages, I would never call them liberals.

I realize now that I just never took the time to learn the history of liberals and liberalism, per se. My training in social history taught me to focus on the radicals and the Left, except of course for the occasional radicals of the Right. The folks who leaned Left but weren't quite radical enough to join, say, the Industrial Workers of the World or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were usually assumed to be on a spectrum of sell-outs who ultimately sold short the hope for true social and economic equity. Whether it was middle class feminism of the 1970s or the coalition between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, theirs was something that strove for a semblance of social justice but did so at somebody else's expense. In the subfield of labor and working class history, "liberal" often means turncoat, and they never quite earned the right to be understood on their own terms.

Crowdsourcing the Collections: Introducing the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project

I'm thrilled to host another guest post from two scholars at Loyola University working at the intersection of religious history, public history, and digital history. Kyle Roberts, Assistant Professor of Public History and New Media at Loyola University Chicago is the Project Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project and the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project. He's shared with us the progress of his efforts to recreate the bibliographic world Catholic higher education. This time, he's joined by Joshua Arens, a master’s candidate in Public History at Loyola, who is the Project Coordinator for the new Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project.

Kyle Roberts and Joshua Arens

Over the course of the fall semester, sixteen graduate students in the Digital Humanities, History, and Public History Programs at Loyola University Chicago created a virtual library system out of the original (c.1878) manuscript library catalogue for St Ignatius College (Loyola’s precursor). (For more on the Jesuit Libraries Project, see this RIAH blog post from last September).  Researching and reconstructing the 5200+ titles in the library catalogue raised fascinating questions about the intellectual and spiritual life of the young Jesuit college.  (To learn more about the students’ preliminary answers to these questions, check out the videos of their final presentations).  The students’ work also revealed that an impressive number of original library books still survive in the university libraries’ collections.

Frankly, no one had any idea at the start of the Jesuit Libraries Project how many original library books might survive.  The question was frequently asked, but there were too many other tasks to complete and no time to come up with an informed estimate.  The question came to the fore once again in late September as the students quickly realized when harvesting MARC records that the more surviving books they found in Loyola’s online library catalogue the less guesswork they would have to do on Worldcat.  As students shared the results of their first passes at researching their segment of the catalogue it became apparent that a substantial number had survived.  By the end of the semester we realized that perhaps over a third (1750/5200) of the original books might still survive in the university libraries’ collections today.  Why is this surprising? Primarily because the reconstruction of the catalogue revealed that the vast majority of the books that the Jesuits collected were inexpensive mid-nineteenth-century books – i.e. books mass-produced on that highly acidic, and now brittle paper familiar to all who work on the period. After 140 years of hard use, many should have been lost of disintegrated.

A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses: A Pedagogical Meditation


Samira K. Mehta

When I requested a copy of S. Brent Plate’s forthcoming A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses from Beacon Press, I envisioned writing, and indeed promised to write, a traditional book review. As I read, however, I was irresistibly drawn to thinking about the text in my own current classroom context. At the moment, I am charged with teaching a course that serves as both an introduction to religious studies and to multiple world traditions. My students, the vast majority from Christian backgrounds, find it almost impossible to think about religion outside of the context of belief. Indeed, as I take them on a whirlwind tour of method and content, it is hard to pause and dig deeply enough into any one context so they can think about and consider how it is that a ritual, for instance, might have import beyond the explicit meanings given it by believers or scholars.  

A History of Religion in 5½ Objects, available on March 11th, would provide a useful intervention for my belief-oriented students. Plate draws his title from Plato’s Symposium, which suggests that humans are incomplete and that the experience of love is falling in love with one’s “other half” in order to become complete.  Plate accepts this idea of the incomplete human but suggests that a connection to the sacred, not the love of another human, makes a person whole. Rather than locating that knowledge of the sacred in belief, Plate finds in materially, sensually rooted experience. In his text, then, he traces the role of five objects: stones, incense, drums, crosses, and bread, in the human search for a materially grounded spirituality.
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