The Trappist and the Rock Star, Sort Of

HudsonRobert Hudson is a recognized Bob Dylan scholar, a member of the International Thomas Merton Society, and a veteran editor. In his The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966, he documents a series of connections between the two iconic figures. Though the two never met, Hudson argues that Dylan was influential in shaping Merton’s final years.

On December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and in fear of military conscription, Thomas Merton became a Trappist monk. It was a decision reached after several years of thought and study, driven by his adult conversion to Catholicism and his desire to find silence and solitude upon what he called “this miserable, noisy, cruel earth.” When Merton took his vows at Our Lady of Gethsemani outside of Louisville, Kentucky, he committed himself to a monastic life that would both nurture and frustrate his deepest desires. Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 is about this tension.

If other biographies relay the entirety of Merton’s life and times, Hudson is focused specifically on moments when the monk’s more worldly interests ran up against his order’s consistently rigid rules. Through a series of “interludes,” Merton’s (mostly) obedient monasticism is cast against the various rebellions of the young Bob Dylan, with whom Merton became increasingly absorbed. As the book progresses, Dylan provides the free-spirited foil to Merton’s religious asceticism. Though Hudson identifies points of congruence between his subjects, these are less compelling than the general contrast.

In particular, the Merton-Dylan pairing demands some reflection on the nature of commitment. Merton’s developing interest in Dylan’s innovative work is traceable, it seems, to his own repeatedly stifled ambitions—to live alone, to travel, to write without censors, and to marry a woman. Again and again Merton makes requests that his abbot denies, in part to protect his vows and—perhaps in larger part—to retain his very lucrative pen. Though he grumbles about these rejections, Merton honors them as attendant to the promise that he freely made and to which he is eternally bound. The effect is at once impressive and a little annoying. At the time, certain of Merton’s friends wanted him to flee the suffocating monastic life and fulfill his significant potential—to rebel, in other words, like Dylan. Instead, Merton stays put, fulfilling his obligations at the expense of his desire—submitting, that is, like Merton.

Merton’s fidelity is undeniably impressive. Like marriage vows, monastic solemn vows restrict certain behaviors en route to a higher order of being. Made while young, they remain binding long after they have lost their initial charm. At that point, the vow may be broken or merely endured if it is not persistently renewed. In Merton’s case, the temptations were strong and—from the present vantage—persuasive. You only live once, we often reason, so suppressing desire is a terrible waste. Each time Merton considers leaving, it seems like a sensible thing to do. When in each case he stays, his dedication is moving.

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion.

Posted in Book Reviews, Christianity | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anglican Orthodoxy

BrittainChristopher C. Brittain is Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Andrew McKinnon is Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. In their book, The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, Brittain and McKinnon assess the controversies and challenges facing global Anglicanism in the twenty-first century.

Friendly and mild-mannered, Gene Robinson doesn’t seem like a rabble-rouser. And yet, when he was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in the summer of 2003, the ensuing controversy was fierce enough to prompt a realignment of the continental Anglican Church. Because Robinson was openly gay and in a relationship with a man, and because no Anglican Bishop had ever been both of those things at the same time before, a significant faction of theological conservatives decided to leave the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), formally establishing the rival Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) in 2009. Though Robinson retired from his post in 2013, the aftershocks of his election continue to rattle the Anglican Communion.

In The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, theologian Christopher C. Brittain and sociologist Andrew McKinnon undertake an interdisciplinary examination of Anglican dynamics in the years since the Robinson controversy. Historically rooted in the Church of England, Anglicans now comprise a sprawling global community with provinces on six continents. (The term Episcopalian has traditionally referred to Anglicans within the United States and since 2009 only to a subset of these.) Citing the vast scope and diversity of the body, Brittain and McKinnon are primarily interested in the ties that somehow manage to bind—even when stretched by controversies (and the ongoing debates over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage have been more controversial than most).

Indeed, the authors note that in recent years homosexuality has emerged as a “presenting symbol” within global Anglicanism. It is an issue that speaks to fundamental commitments within the tradition and so deepens divides between while fostering realignments among three primary factions—Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and liberals. If the first “emphasize the church’s traditions,” the second “prioritize scripture and the Reformation,” and the third “emphasize reason and adaptation to modern society.” To subscribe to any one of these is not to discount the value of the others so much as to privilege a particular source of authority when making judgments and arbitrating disputes. Not since the ordination of women have the three faced a comparable challenge, and this time the divisions are even more pronounced.

This is in part because sexual matters have historical-cultural implications that often run deeper—or at least wider—than doctrine. In the United States, official recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the church has arrived alongside the broader recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the culture at large. Since 2000, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance, and the courts have honored that shift via a series of increasingly consequential rulings. So whatever arguments may be applied to thetheologicalquestion today, the cultural context imposes itself upon the ecclesiastical proceedings. For those living outside of the United States and so beyond the limits of that social evolution, the implications are sharper still.

Read the whole thing at Reading Religion.
_
Posted in Book Reviews, Christianity | Tagged | Leave a comment

Disruptive Witness – A Conversation with Alan Noble

nobleAlan Noble is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. In his Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, Noble argues that the constant stimulation of the social media era poses a variety of challenges to evangelism. In addition to changing the way people speak, social media platforms change the way people think, feel, and (dis)believe.

ECM: What is witness, what is disruptive witness, and what does disruptive witness disrupt?

AN: I wanted to frame this book around a broader phenomenon than what is traditionally thought of as “evangelism.” When we talk about evangelism, the term often conjures an image of someone knocking on the door, leaving a tract, or going on the street and accosting people. I didn’t want to exclude actions like that, but I wanted to think much more broadly about how we as Christians bear witness to our faith. I think that includes moments when we are very explicitly and intentionally going out to share the gospel, but I also think it includes how we live so as to display the beauty and the goodness of the grace that Christ has given us—and everything in between.

A disruptive witness, in the context of the book, is a kind of witness that upsets popular expectations in two ways. First, it upsets expectations of what Christianity is. In the book, I’m working with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of secularism, including the idea that, within a secular age, we are hyperaware that there are always other options. We can always believe something else, and so our options become sort of flattened. I think it’s essential for Christians to present their faith in such a way that it is not just another lifestyle choice in the consumer marketplace of worldviews.

The second type of disruption involves inviting people to enter into spaces of contemplation and reflection so that the truths of the gospel can take root and prompt them to examine their lives and beliefs despite the distractions of our time.

ECM: When I was growing up in evangelicalism, I recall thinking about witness as kind of a moral or spiritual reputation. I never wanted to do anything that would compromise my witness and maybe turn people away from Christ. Does that fit here?

AN: That’s not quite how I was thinking about it, but it is related. We can imagine witness as existing on a spectrum from explicit to implicit, with overt evangelism on one end and a Christ-like lifestyle on the other. At one extreme you preach with words, while at the other you preach by living in a certain way.

So, for instance, if you cheer when children are separated from their parents at the border, that will damage your witness because it will be in direct conflict with Christianity as your neighbors understand it. But the book itself is not really about that kind of witness beyond living by Christ’s standards and therefore not bringing shame on the Church.

ECM: How central is witness to evangelical life? As a strategic matter, do individuals and churches spend a lot of time thinking about how to craft or improve their own?  

AN: I believe that evangelicals do spend quite a bit of time thinking about how they witness to the public, and I think that takes two forms. One is the very intentional sort of evangelism training that you can go through—something like Evangelism Explosion that was popular for a time and may still be. It’s the sort of program where your church signs up and you get all of these resources and reading materials about how to share your faith and your testimony and things like that.

But the much more common form comes along when, for instance, you’re on Facebook and you see someone share a Christian meme. It will probably be something like a lovely image with an uplifting Bible verse and you’ll think to yourself, “I want to share this because I’m a Christian and I want my friends on Facebook to note this.” That kind of thinking about how to craft your witness is very common, but the level of intentionality is very thin and not very discerning and its telos—its end—is what Taylor would describe as a desire for expressive individualism rather than a desire to winsomely present the gospel. It’s about you and the identity that you want to create for yourself rather than about glorifying God.

There is a similar problem at the level of churches. Most churches have unintentionally accepted an individualist concept of the church experience. It yields what Taylor calls excarnation—rather than being embodied and communal, each congregant experiences the service very much within his or her own head. This experience doesn’t really focus on the solemnity, the awesomeness, or the transcendence of God. There tends to be a lightness to it. Services are tailored to be entertaining, but not awe-some in the traditional sense.

Continue reading

Posted in Christianity, Civility, Evangelism | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Back to the Bible – A Conversation with Rachel Held Evans

EvansRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author of four books, each covering changes and developments in her Christian faith. Her most recent, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Finding the Bible Again, approaches the Bible as a collection of narrative types. Rejecting a literalism that would treat these accounts as history and science, Evans connects ancient biblical stories to those we routinely craft to make sense of our lives.

ECM: This is a book about coming back to the Bible after being alienated from it. Can you describe how your faith has developed throughout your adulthood?

RHE: I grew up a conservative evangelical, so I was pretty into the Bible. I had memorized large portions of the book of Romans before I was eleven. As I became a young adult, I started to question some of the things that I had learned within that conservative evangelical culture, including some things about how I was supposed to read the Bible.

I encountered stories in scripture that troubled me, like the ones where God commands the people of Israel to commit genocide against their enemies, stories about women that were squarely rooted in a patriarchal culture, and these weighed on my mind to the point that I started to question everything about my faith. I’ve written a lot about that—it’s been the main story that I have shared throughout different iterations in my writing career.

For this book, I wanted to focus on the Bible because I feel like it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to get back to the Bible and really to love it again—not just tolerate it or deal with a faith crisis every time I open it up. And that’s thanks to the work of some scholars that have really resonated with me and introduced me to some different perspectives. I wanted to share that with people in a way that they might find entertaining and intriguing and fun. Biblical scholarship is not everyone’s cup of tea, so I wanted to show people why it brings me so much joy.

That’s not to say that I don’t still have hang-ups, because I do. There are still stories that I haven’t made sense of and that still bother me. But I hope that this book helps people navigate that experience and be honest about it and recognize that they don’t have to check their brains or their hearts at the door when they read the Bible.

ECM: Are you still an evangelical?

RHE: No. I think that ship has sailed! There are a lot of people who want to stick around and reclaim the evangelical label, and I support them in that. But I think the election of Donald Trump was a final nail in the coffin for me. Plus, now that I attend an Episcopal church, it feels a little disingenuous for me to say that I identify as an evangelical. My views are now so far afield from the typical political—and sometimes theological—views of most evangelicals that I guess I would say I am squarely Episcopalian now.

ECM: Do you give much thought to the—invariably male—pastors and seminarians who will be on Twitter criticizing your hermeneutics or your exegesis?

RHE: What?! Do you think that will happen?

Actually they don’t criticize my hermeneutics or my exegesis. They just say, “This woman has no authority to write about the Bible.” They don’t even attempt to engage the arguments that I make, and that’s what irritates me. The other day one guy was like, “Rachel Held Evans bases her Biblical interpretation on all the feels,” which is like the most gendered criticism, it’s so obvious. So I took a picture of my endnotes, which are lengthy, and sent them to him with the note, “All the feels, page 1,” “All the feels, page 2.”

Because here’s the thing—I know I’m not a biblical scholar. I’m aware of that. I think it’s important that writers know what they don’t know. But I am a voracious reader and I cited my sources. I also had two biblical scholars look over it and give me feedback. I’ve never had a book reviewed as thoroughly as this one was before it went to press. I sent it to everybody to make sure that I was on the right track.

My thinking is that reading and engaging the Bible is not left to the scholars. As a writer, I’m going to approach the text with a different set of questions than a scholar would ask, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m asking, for instance, in an early house church, what would they be eating? What would the floor be made of? What would they be sitting on? Who would be there? What would it smell like? These are the questions that I’m asking that scholars might not think to ask.

But every page of this book was significantly informed by the work of biblical scholars. People like Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright, of course, and significant portions were informed by womanist scholars. When I wrote about Hagar, I was influenced by Delores Williams and Wil Gafney, black women who read the story of Hagar in a way that I would never think to read it. Also some feminist theology, some liberation theology—I did my research for this book and I stand by it.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , ,

American Christian – A Conversation with Matthew Bowman

ChristianMatthew Bowman is Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University. In his new book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, he documents a few of the many forms that Christianity has assumed over the past 150 years. Beginning just after the Civil War and working forward to the rise of Donald Trump, Bowman demonstrates how the faith has lent itself to a fascinating array of campaigns and causes, always revising itself along the way.

ECM: What is a Christian in America?

MB: I argue that there is no single definition of that word. Instead, Christianity can be understood as an essentially contested concept—an abstract notion like justice or art that is by its very nature disputed because there is no single authority to render a definitive judgment.

Throughout American history, Christianity has been endlessly disputed and, by virtue of that disputation, has injected a great deal of dynamism into American politics and society. Paradoxically, by lending itself to so much appropriation and contestation, it has helped inspire religious, social, and political pluralism in the United States—which is not the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about the role of Christianity in their society.

ECM: What is Christian republicanism?

MB: Christian republicanism refers to one way in which Americans have defined what Christianity is and what implications it has for American politics and society. It derives from American Protestantism and associates Christianity with two essential elements.

The first of these elements is individual liberty. Protestants have long stressed individual autonomy and the importance of an individual encounter with God and Jesus Christ for salvation. In the American context particularly, that notion has influenced Americans’ political emphasis on autonomy and personal liberty.

It’s tempered, though, by the second element, which is the emphasis on virtue. This is owed in part to the traditional Protestant understanding of what it means to be a Christian, but it’s also derived from the early American admiration for classical societies like the Greeks and the Romans. The Roman writers that the American founders were reading emphasized that a self-governing society requires a virtuous citizenry. Christianity provided an effective means for promoting civic virtue because of its particularly Protestant emphasis on character and moral behavior.

This way of thinking about Christianity has been common—though not uncontested—throughout American history. It has taken different forms at different times in different places and been spoken of in a variety of different ways, but the presumed relationship between Christianity and American democratic government has been widely present since the founding.

ECM: The Christian republicanism that you document is very white and very Western—it arises in Europe and culminates in the triumph of “Western Civilization.” How have African American Christians responded to this standard Christian story?

MB: At points, many African Americans have seized upon Christian republican ideology, asserted their faith in it, and then used it to attack white Americans’ complicity in and complacency with slavery, segregation, and racism. These African Americans have argued that, for Americans to live up to the ideals of Christian republicanism—including liberty, autonomy, and virtue—slavery and racism and injustice must be rejected.

But there have also been African Americans who have rejected this notion and have argued that the ideology of Christian republicanism has wedded Christianity to the West and to whiteness, and that this is both a corruption and a limitation of Christianity. Instead, according to these Christians, true Christian values are found elsewhere—often in Africa. During the 1950s and 1960s, many African Americans argued that true Christian civilization was in South Africa, in the struggle against Apartheid, or in Ghana, where people of color overthrew white colonists.

So, at times African Americans embraced Christian republicanism, and at other times they rejected it, which I think is a nice microcosm of the contested nature of Christianity in the United States.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Politics | Tagged , ,

On Religious Freedom – A Conversation with Heath Brown

coverThough The Rhetoric of Religious Freedom in the United States is arguably not new, and quite arguably not political science, it was featured this week on the New Books in Political Science podcast. In this episode, host Heath Brown and I chat about the first amendment, issue framing, liberal language, same-sex marriage, and a little bit about Donald Trump. Our conversation is relatively brief (23 min), ideal for the average American commute. Listen to it here.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged ,

Art of Gratitude – A Conversation with Jeremy David Engels

EngelsJeremy David Engels is Sherwin Early Career Professor in the Rock Ethics Institute and Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University. (In the not too distant past, he served on my dissertation committee!) In his new book, The Art of Gratitude, Engels traces the genealogy of the concept back to Greek antiquity before following it forward through Rome, Christianity, and the contemporary self-help literature.

ECM: After your last book, The Politics of Resentment, I was expecting The Art of Gratitude to be really uplifting. But it’s not, exactly. What’s the problem with gratitude?

JDE: Initially, I hoped to pivot away from negative emotions like fear and resentment and focus instead on a more positive emotion, gratitude. I hoped to write a book in the tradition of the affirmative philosophy that I associate with Emerson, Whitman, and William James, who argue that our writing should be about inspiration rather than condemnation or critique.

But as I dug into the gratitude literature, I found a persistent theme of indebtedness. For many authors, gratitude is not about thanksgiving, but instead about calculating what we owe in return for the things we are given. And I was alarmed to see how this sense of gratitude as debt was leveraged politically to articulate positions that, to me, stand contrary to the aims of a democracy that seeks to ensure that everyone, not just the well off and well connected, is able to live and live well.

In a nutshell, I think the problem with the contemporary literature is how closely it ties gratitude to debt. Recognizing this, my book shifted pretty radically during the literature review stage, because to write an uplifting book I first needed to wrestle with a long history of power and exclusion.

ECM: You write that, historically, gratitude has functioned as a tool of social control. How?

JDE: In Politics of Resentment, I argued that resentment is a natural and often completely justifiable democratic emotion. Anytime you have a stratified society in which there is a strong divide between elites and masses or between rich and poor, those who find themselves in a disadvantaged position naturally feel resentment. That resentment can be a powerful tool of democratic social change, but it can also be a tool of oppression—depending on where the emotion is directed.

Historically, resentment has been the emotion that elites feared the most—because it inspired the masses to rise up and demand whatever they were lacking. In the twentieth century, however, many elites found that they could wield it themselves. Resentful people are always desirous of targets for their resentment, so by shifting targets, elites could pit the masses against each other, creating a vertical divide between the people in place of a horizontal divide between the classes. That’s how it stops being a democratizing force and starts to insulate the status quo.

Gratitude operates in a similar way, with similar potentials. When we find ourselves in a position of owing—and people in a democratic society always owe something to other people—we may become vulnerable to control. Certain Roman figures, like Cicero and Seneca, recognized the power of gratitude to maintain social stability. Cicero argued that, when we accept a gift from someone else, we enter into a contractual arrangement whereby we owe something in return—a reciprocal gift—but we also owe a feeling of thankfulness. That feeling allows us to become more comfortable in the position of owing.

Since wealthy Romans were always providing something to the poor, whether it was grain or protection or some other resource, the debt of gratitude owed from poor to rich had the power to stall their resentments and keep them contented. That’s how gratitude can counteract the positive potential of resentment as a democratic emotion.

ECM: At a couple of points in the book, you describe Christianity as “beautiful and dangerous and democratic” because of its emphasis on forgiving our debts and debtors. Should this faith be understood as a response to the Roman conception of gratitude?

JDE: It’s difficult to talk about Christianity since there are so many Christianities. I recognize that, and I would love for someone to write a detailed history of Christian visions of gratitude. My book is not that.

But when I began this project, I took the time to the read the New Testament in full, in a few different translations, with attention to the original Greek text as well. One of the things that I found to be really beautiful and dangerous—and here I mean dangerous to the status quo—is the radical rhetoric of equality and debt forgiveness that Christ espouses. I was shocked, then, to see how his words were reinterpreted later, especially in the Middle Ages, to defend the debt of gratitude.

So, yes, I understand Christianity to respond to Roman discourses concerning gratitude as debt. And I am persistently vexed when contemporary Christians invert this message and argue the opposite, ignoring Christ’s message that debts should be cancelled and instead arguing that, in various ways, Christianity means learning to be comfortable living in debt.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Civility, Philosophy, Politics | Tagged ,

Believing Donald Trump – A Conversation with John Fea

FeaJohn Fea is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Messiah College. In his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, Fea draws upon four centuries of Christian history to diagnose the troubling persistence of conservative evangelical Trump support. Among other insights, he observes that modern evangelicalism is primarily driven by fear, nostalgia, and the will to worldly power, a trio of decidedly unChristian qualities.

ECM: Why do evangelicals believe Donald Trump?

JF: Donald Trump drew upon a political playbook that conservative evangelicals have been employing since the 1970s. Jerry Falwell Sr. drafted it when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979, and it responds to a variety of familiar social and cultural issues—the “wall of separation” between church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the desegregation of evangelical academies in the south, Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, new immigration patterns, and a host of others.

Trump has learned to speak this political language with fluency, and so was able to convince a strong majority of white evangelicals that he would deliver on these issues. He’s a unique character, certainly, but he positioned himself as the rightful heir of this historical legacy. So as surprising as his victory was, we shouldn’t be too surprised that he rallied evangelicals to achieve it.

ECM: If evangelicalism is supposed to be rooted in faith, hope, and love, you note that it’s now primarily driven by fear, nostalgia, and a will to power. Has this always been true, or has the movement been corrupted?

JF: American evangelicals have been fearful, nostalgic, and desirous of political power to varying degrees since the 17thcentury. In a chapter titled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” I try to show that fear of social, cultural, and demographic change has been present throughout the nation’s history and, whenever these changes have occurred, they’ve been followed by backlash in the form of nativism, racism, isolationism, etc. Historically, evangelicals have always been at the forefront—often leading that backlash. They have always been nostalgic for what they imagine to be better, holier times, relying on declension narratives to chart America’s fall from grace. And there have been various moments during which evangelicals have pursued political power rather than self-sacrificial love.

I do think that the 1970s and 80s (which were largely a response to the 1960s) represent an important moment. Prior to this, evangelicals felt much more comfortable in the culture. We can debate whether or not America is a “Christian nation” in a legal or Constitutional sense, but it has certainly been culturally Christian since the founding. Once these bedrock Christian social and cultural beliefs and practices—traditional marriage, prayer in schools, the celebration of Christmas as the only legitimate holiday in the month of December, to name a few—lose their privileged position, many evangelicals turn to politics to save them.

ECM: In Trump’s speech, these appeals often have racial dimensions. Why are white evangelicals comfortable with this?  

JF: I am hesitant to say that all evangelicals are comfortable with this, but many of them are.

One way to look at this is to observe that evangelicals have always prioritized certain social issues over others, and race has never been one of their priorities. Abortion, they would argue, transcends race. People of all races have abortions and “kill babies.” Traditional marriage, similarly, is an institution that transcends race. I think such a view goes back to one of the defining beliefs of American evangelicalism—that all humans, of all races and ethnicities, can be saved by the gospel. Abortion and marriage are universal, race is particular. This is how many evangelicals see it. Many of them may be uncomfortable with Trump’s racist remarks, but they are willing to look the other way because Trump has the right policies on the issues they deem to be more important.

But we also must remember that American evangelicalism has always been a very white version of Christianity. Evangelicals have always been fearful of African Americans and the threat they are perceived to pose to a white Christian America. For example, much of the Southern evangelical approach to reading the Bible was forged in the context of their defenses of slavery. So there is a long tradition of racism in white evangelicalism, just as there is a long tradition of racism among white Americans writ large. Yet evangelicals claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, a set of moral principles that should motivate them to fight racism.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Fundamentalist U – A Conversation with Adam Laats

LaatsAdam Laats is Professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Educational Leadership at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In his new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, Laats documents the challenges and opportunities confronting evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities dating back to the early twentieth century.

ECM: How have the challenges faced by evangelical and fundamentalist colleges in the last century compared with those faced by secular institutions?

AL: Evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities have had all the same challenges of their secular counterparts. These days, for example, smaller non-evangelical colleges often struggle to keep their enrollments up and their bottom lines secure. They face a continual existential threat. And evangelical schools are in the same position. Some, such as Cedarville and Liberty, are doing very well and expanding rapidly, meaning that smaller schools are being squeezed out of the market. This is the sort of concern that has always confronted institutions across the spectrum.

The difference is that evangelical and fundamentalist schools have the additional challenge of keeping a promise—not an implied, but a specific promise—to stay true to an essentially indefinable sense of religious purity. So, in addition to all the other challenges facing higher education, evangelical and fundamentalist institutions have to make the changes that are necessary without changing a central mission that is supposed to be unchanging. It is supposed to deliver an eternal religious truth to young people. 

ECM: What have fundamentalist schools had to do in order to qualify as “real” colleges?

AL: The concern about “real colleges” cuts right to the heart of the book. Fundamentalist and evangelical schools have always had to maintain their status, not just as “real” colleges and universities, but as real Christian colleges and universities. Neither of those is an easily definable concept.

In the 1920s, for example, when the fundamentalist movement got its start and began to establish a network of fundamentalist institutions, the meaning of a “real” college was very different from what it would later become. Back then, real colleges were elite colleges. Evangelical and fundamentalist schools worked hard to negotiate the fact that they were religiously on a non-elite mission—a revival and missionary mission that was intended to reach every single human—while also establishing themselves as real colleges on par with more prestigious secular schools. Schools in that era worked hard to cultivate a sense of prestige. This was true even at the Bible institutes.

At Moody Bible Institute, for example, the student dress code was not intended simply to influence morals, but also to keep up appearances. Male students had to wear the coat-and-tie and women had to wear skirts and dresses because that formality was understood as a way to establish both Christian and academic bona fides. 

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , ,

Christian Rock – A Conversation with Randall J. Stephens

StephensRandall J. Stephens is Reader and Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Northumbria University in northeast England. In his most recent book, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll, Stephens documents the turbulent relationship between conservative Christianity and popular music in twentieth century America, a relationship that features opposition, acquiescence, and ultimately, embrace.

ECM: How did Christians inspire rock ‘n’ roll?

RJS: I focus quite a bit on Pentecostalism; especially in chapter one, which focuses on the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. I argue that, in part, the music and the worship styles of Pentecostal churches proved instrumental in inspiring the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians. In particular, you have Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, James Brown, B.B. King, and others who grew up in Pentecostal churches or attended Pentecostal worship services throughout their formative years. Fortunately, we have good documentation of them speaking about their youth in these churches and about how influential it was for them.

Elvis, for instance, grew up in the congregation of Memphis First Assembly of God, and he talked often about his admiration for the gospel quartets who came through, including the white Statesmen Quartet and the Stamps Quartet, along with African-American groups like the Golden Gate Quartet. Asked by a reporter about why he moved the way he did on stage, Elvis replied simply, “I just sing like they do back home.” And continued: “When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.

Ray Charles, too, was famous for retooling spirituals and black gospel music into love songs and releasing them as secular mega hits.

ECM: Why then, were Christians so quick to demonize—and racialize—rock?

RJS: Well, they demonized it, in many cases, because of what they saw as a sort of sinful appropriation. Black and white Christians accused Ray Charles of blasphemy because of how he was secularizing sacred music. Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy certainly believed Charles had gone too far. A former pastor in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Broonzy claimed that Charles had “got the blues,” but “he’s cryin’ sanctified. He’s mixing the blues with the spirituals.” Or, as the critic Hollie West said about Aretha Franklin, whereas she “once said Jesus, she now cries baby. She hums and moans with the transfixed ecstasy of a church sister who’s experiencing the Holy Ghost.”

There were some white Pentecostals who thought that rock and rollers were thieving from church music. One of these, the Pentecostal youth pastor and author of the Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson, called it “Satan’s Pentecost” and portrayed rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a kind of inverted Pentecostal worship, with demonic speaking in tongues. A lot of this was in the vivid imagination of believers, of course, but it shows that, for many of these observers, there was a thin but important line that was being crossed. In the 1950s, white and black conservative Christians worried that even their church music was becoming too “worldly” or too vulgar.

On the race end of things, because I focus largely on the American South, I looked at the white Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Presbyterians, and Southern Pentecostals, and found that their reaction to rock was almost uniformly negative and very often racialized. They attacked rock as “jungle music,” “congo rhythms,” and “savagery.”

In some cases this is ironic because these are some of the very things that Pentecostals were criticized for themselves—for race mixing and having “debased” music in their services, whether that be Hillbilly, boogie-woogie, or some kind of hybrid black and white styles. So there were all of these interesting, and specific, interconnections that I thought deserved more attention. 

ECM: Is this racist impulse inherent to evangelicalism? Or southern evangelicalism? Or was it just a sign of the times? 

RJS: It’s indicative of the times, in a way, because that kind of racist rhetoric about rock and roll also appeared in national newspapers and magazines. But what I found in the case of the American South was that there was often this funny discourse about the missionary enterprise of these organizations—the experiences that their missionaries had had in the field—and how these experiences were supposedly applicable to the music. They referenced the “caterwauling” and the driving tribal drums that they had heard in the jungles of the southern hemisphere, and noted how this had a parallel in the music now blasting out of the mean streets and teenage hangouts of American cities.

So for white fundamentalists and conservatives it took on this different kind of religious dimension. There was also a lot of talk about witchcraft and demon possession—I even remember hearing some of this as a kid in the 1970s and 80s in the Church of the Nazarene. Some of that rhetoric persisted for decades after the 50s.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged , ,

The Protestant Way – A Conversation with Alec Ryrie

RyrieAlec Ryrie is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in northeast England, and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. His most recent book, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, seeks to to survey the history and assess the significance of a Protestant tradition that now extends back over five centuries.

ECM: The subtitle of your book states that Protestants “made the modern world.” How? 

AR: The Protestant Reformation is a huge event in the history of the modern world. You can find its fingerprints almost everywhere. But I’m not just saying that this is a really big thing that is woven deeply into the story. I’m saying that there are some specific parts of modern life that derive directly from the Protestant Reformation. We couldn’t have these features if it hadn’t happened. In the book, I pick out three in particular.

The first is free inquiry. It’s not quite the idea of freedom of speech, but it is the idea that nobody can compel anyone else to think something. In the end, no intellectual authority can force you to think that you are wrong. There’s nobody who stands authoritatively between you as a human being and God. That’s Martin Luther’s great insight, and that refusal to accept human authority over other people’s minds is something that he established—despite himself. He was not out to create an age of intellectual freedom, but nonetheless, that’s what he produced.

The second is what I would call—and I use this term warily—democracy. Not that Luther or the early Protestant reformers were democrats in any sense. They would have been horrified by the notion. But the idea that the individual believer has a right—even a responsibility—to stand up against a tyrannical or an anti-Christian ruler is implicit in Protestantism from the beginning. It led Protestants who really wanted nothing more than to live in peace into a series of religious wars and revolutions against leaders with whom they could not live on religious terms. They developed new political theories, and carved out a theory of defiance against anti-Christian secular authority, as well as an insistence that they should be able to legitimate and even create appropriate government. You can see how that might have led to theocracies, and there are times—famously in Puritan New England—when Protestantism seemed to be moving in that direction. But in practice it tends to go another way.

Which brings me to the third feature, which is the notion of limited government. It’s the idea that a ruler, no matter how legitimate, has jurisdiction only over outward things, over practicalities, over people’s bodies but not their souls. There are certain spheres where the authority of the government simply does not apply. And it creates a sense that even the godliest government should be strictly limited in the amount of authority that it can exercise over people.

That combination of free inquiry, democracy, and limited government is pretty much what makes up liberal, market democracies. It runs the modern world. And though it seems obvious to us that liberty and equality should go together, it is not at all an obvious combination. It is that distinct heritage of Protestantism in holding those models together that is its most significant contribution to the modern world. 

ECM: When Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Church, he—perhaps unwittingly—inaugurated a tradition of challenges to authority. How has that rebelliousness shaped the faith? 

AR: It was definitely unwitting. Luther didn’t want people to be free to believe what they wanted; he wanted them to be free to believe the truth. He assumed that truth would be self-evident to everyone who picked up the Bible to read it. But he discovered very early on, to his horror, that people were reading the Bible in wildly different ways, sometimes discovering messages that were much more socially and politically radical than he anticipated. It inaugurated this tradition of using the spiritual insights you gained from a direct encounter with God, through the words of the Bible, to stand up against human authority. It goes right back to the beginning.

The most obvious example concerns one of the great crises in Luther’s life. In the years 1524-1525, seven or eight years after his first emergence as a public figure, the so-called “Peasants War” broke out in Germany. This was the biggest mass rebellion in European history prior to the French Revolution. It was largely tied up with all the standard issues that peasants would sometimes rise in rebellion about—land holding and tenancy and that sort of thing. But what really held it together, unifying what might otherwise have been a series of isolated incidents into a continent-spanning mass rebellion, was the religious glue that Luther provided. He made it possible for peasants to reflect that, as Christians, they should be free, but the conditions that defined their lives were not freedom. And although that rebellion was suppressed—with Luther’s assistance—that notion that spiritual freedom has to have political consequences is one that recurs right through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on into our own day.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Politics, Reading | Tagged ,

Conservative Liberals – A Conversation with Andrew R. Lewis

LewisAndrew R. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, was published last fall by Cambridge University Press. In it, he argues that the anti-abortion activism of the 1980s and 90s inaugurated a shift toward liberal language on the Christian Right.

ECM: Your book argues that anti-abortion activism has prompted the Christian Right to embrace liberal discourse. How so?

ARL: The primary argument is that the politics of abortion have taught conservative Christians about the value of public arguments grounded in the language of rights, as rights are one of the most accessible forms of American political discourse. This is particularly true as American culture has become more secular and less apt to embrace calls for public morality.

Going back to the early days of the pro-life movement in the 1960s, there was a strong liberal, human rights element to anti-abortion activists, seeking to defend the right-to-life of the unborn. Much of this came from Catholics. As evangelicals and the Christian Right joined the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often more rhetorical focus on the immorality of abortion than the rights of the unborn. This reflected the politics of the “Moral Majority.”

A rights-based stream within the pro-life movement persisted, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right-to-life rhetoric triumphed for both the elite activists and the rank-and-file. Importantly, this right-to-life-based framework has allowed for opposition to abortion to compete with the liberal right-to-privacy based argument, serving as a quality public counter-argument. Even more, as conservative Christians have increasingly become a cultural minority in the past two decades, they have begun embracing rights-based rhetoric first learned and used in the pro-life movement in a whole host of other areas of public life, specifically free speech and religious liberty politics. 

ECM: The minority angle is interesting since many scholars have traced the founding of the Christian Right back to desegregation, rather than abortion. Does racial politics factor into your argument?

ARL: My book is not specifically about the causes of the Christian Right or the shifting of partisan alignments in the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, though I do think my work has some implications for these arguments.

I point readers to those debates, particularly about the role of race versus abortion in the launching of the Christian Right. But I am particularly interested in how conservative Christian politics have been transformed after partisan realignment has occurred—after the conservative Christians have been largely integrated into Republican politics. It is the later period, from the mid-1990s to the present, when the politics of rights have emerged as a dominant force in Christian Right politics. Some of the most thorough quantitative analysis suggests that racial politics were more responsible for partisan change prior to 1990, but after 1990 abortion and other cultural issues played an important role. And so I think I can say with confidence that abortion politics were particularly important in this period.

That said, I do think my book provides a challenge to the historical narrative that minimizes the importance of the politics of abortion in evangelical and Christian Right politics. My book shows how central this issue has been to a host of conservative Christian issues over time, both in elite and mass politics. Abortion is central to conservative Christian politics because it is what political scientists call an “easy issue”—an issue on which people may develop strong, stable opinions. Therefore, it can be used to expand the scope of political conflict into new arenas, and over the past few decades it has been used to teach conservative Christians about the value of rights.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged ,

Why Donald Trump – A Conversation with Stephen Mansfield

TrumpStephen Mansfield is a historian, speaker, and best-selling author of books about George Whitefield, Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, among others. His latest book, Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him, seeks to explain why so many devoutly religious voters cast their ballots for such a famously immoral candidate.

ECM: Just over a year ago, 81 percent of white, evangelical Christian voters supported a presidential candidate who could be the perfect avatar for everything they claim to oppose. Why?

SM: They did it mainly because they felt traumatized in the wake of the Obama years and terrified by the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency. You have to realize that, if you were a religious conservative in America, coming out of the Obama years you felt like the administration had bombarded your faith. There was a strident LGBT agenda, a strident pro-choice agenda, lawsuits against—for instance—the Green family of Hobby Lobby for not wanting to fund abortifacients in their employee insurance, and even small orders of nuns were sued.* In the culture of conservative evangelicalism, there was a feeling that there had been a war declared upon their tradition. And Clinton would be more of the same.

So there was a very strong sense of fear and shared anger that turned people toward Donald Trump. We should remember, though, that he did not have the majority of the evangelical vote in the primaries, but as it became clear that Clinton would be waiting in the general election, I think it became obvious to a lot of religious conservatives that there was only one candidate who was—call it what you will—crass enough, harsh enough, bombastic enough, or strong enough to defeat her, and so they put their hopes in him.

As I say in the book, I think they vastly overdid it. They let their fear and their anger drive them to a virtual religious re-branding of Donald Trump, and I think it will have serious blowback for religious conservatives in America. But that’s what they attempted, and that’s why I think there was such broad acceptance of Trump among religious conservatives.

ECM: Your presentation of the white evangelical case against Obama is generous. But as I read this familiar list of complaints—about contraception, same-sex marriage, Planned Parenthood—it still seems to me that they are claiming the “religious freedom” to strip away other people’s freedoms, and that they feel embittered when they can’t. Having presented their case, are you sympathetic to it?

SM: Well, I’m a Christian and a right of center conservative—not extreme right, but right of center—so I do understand some of that case. I do think that the Obama administration was overly strident against certain forms of traditional religion. But I take a different view on some issues. To put it bluntly, I am free of the fear about the future that many of my fellow Christians seem to feel, and I take a more libertarian attitude toward the acceptance of views other than my own in a healthy democracy.

I think the average religious conservative in America is afraid because they feel their America slipping away, that they’ve lost their position—their “privilege” if you want to call it that—and certainly their liberties. They feel like there is a fight for an America that once was and no longer is. Because I am a historian, but also because I think differently about the issues, I don’t share that same sense of paradise lost. I think we are stepping into a new world and a new order, and that evangelicals are going to have to learn to live within it rather than always raging against it.

ECM: You seem amenable to the idea that a lot of white evangelicals were so angry about Obama and the last eight years that they were willing to support just about anyone to get the Democrats out of the White House. So, as the saying goes, they “held their noses” and voted Trump. But political scientists have investigated this claim and found that “Evangelicals who voted for Trump felt the same level of warmth for him as did other Trump voters.” Have they been claiming a reluctance that they didn’t actually feel?

SM: I think there is a capacity for American voters to convince themselves that they are voting for the best of candidates in the worst of worlds. Many of them, when they leave the polls, will say yes, this is someone that I am enthusiastic about. But the speed with which Trump has lost popularity among evangelicals since taking office makes me wonder if they weren’t simply convincing themselves that he was the best option at the time and that, somehow, their vote was a “righteous” vote.

He’s had about a 10-15 percent drop-off in support from the evangelical community since taking office. So while there may be a sort of exaggerated self-reporting around the time when an evangelical casts a vote, there is some indication that there was never really that depth of devotion. I don’t think their support was ever very deep, and it seems to be weakening quickly.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Culture War, Politics | Tagged ,

America the Gullible – A Conversation with Kurt Andersen

andersenKurt Andersen is a distinguished author, editor, and social critic. A former editor of New York magazine and founder of Spy, Andersen is the co-founder and host of Studio 360 from Public Radio International. His writing has appeared in Time, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others. His new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, offers a sweeping, 500-year history of the oddly American propensity to believe the unbelievable. 

ECM: Compared to people from other nations, are Americans uniquely credulous?

KA: The short answer is yes. Now, credulity is not unique to the United States, and one person’s credulity is another person’s deep faith, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I would make two points:

First, the great historian Daniel Boorstin—who I quote in the book—has said that, at the very beginning, Americans self-selected for their belief in advertising. The “New World” was this empty slate being advertised to English settlers, and the people who came over in those first few decades were people who believed the promises when, in fact, there was nothing here. Does that count as credulity? It certainly counts as a wishful pre-disposition to believe.

Second, the United States has always been far more religious than its peer nations, with a far more fervent belief in prayer, in divine intervention, in faith healing, and all the rest. On these points, we in the United States are outliers among the developed world.

So, all that to say—yes, I think we are more credulous than other people. Not uniquely credulous, but more so and in more ways than most other people, and it defines us in a way that it does not define other people.

ECM: At various points, you cite an anti-establishment streak in the American temperament. Would you say that Americans are generally too quick to disbelieve official accounts and too quick to believe alternative theories?

KA: Yes, I think that is precisely correct, and I think it is in large measure a result of the nation having been born of the Enlightenment and of fervent Christianity. These are flipsides, too. This extreme credulity and extreme skepticism are yin and yang, or flipsides of the same coin—the operative word being extreme. Skepticism is fine, and good, and necessary. Belief, too, is fine, and good, and necessary. But when either of them gets extreme, it becomes problematic. And when you combine the two into this American hybrid—as we have in recent decades—they become very problematic.

ECM: Since you mention the founding influence of Christianity, how much of this is traceable to forces in American religious history?

KA: Well, I haven’t quantified it, but a good chunk! As you know, I talk about American religious history at great length because I think it is the most powerful driver—it’s not exclusive, and may not even account for the majority of the explanation, but certainly a strong plurality. And to be clear, I am not referring simply to church-going or nominal Christianity, but what has become, especially in the last half-century, the sort of extravagant and flamboyant Christian belief and practice that is virtually unique to this country.

I would also note that, in the last couple of decades, one of our major political parties has become explicitly and aggressively Christian in this unique sense. Many of its members believe more and more empirically insupportable things about supernatural interventions in contemporary life, and that then bleeds over into believing things that are untrue outside of the religious realm, as with the claim that climate change is a hoax, for example.

Just in the last 15 years, it has become Republican orthodoxy to disbelieve in evolution and to challenge evolution instruction in the public schools. This is a uniquely American phenomenon, and it is a product of a religious tradition that, starting about a half a century ago, decided to make that stand in favor of creationism.

So religion is important, but it is not the only thing. It’s in the mix with other forces, such as our over-amped Enlightenment skepticism, our extreme individualism, and even our knack for show business fantasies and our obsession with entertainment. And there are others. Religious belief is a major driver of this tendency, but it is synergistic with these other factors.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

Posted in Christianity, Politics | Tagged ,

Another Orientalism – A Conversation with Michael J. Altman

AltmanMichael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, was published in August by Oxford University Press. In it, Altman documents almost two centuries of  speech and writing about the subcontinent, noting the various ways that American Christians fashioned their own self-concept against that of an imagined India.

ECM: Your book is less about “heathen,” “Hindoo,” and “Hindu” than it is about the American people who used those terms to describe Indian people. Can you give us some of that background?

MA: It’s funny because, when I first started this project, I thought its contribution was going to be finding Hinduism in American history earlier than we thought, based on some of the sources I was digging through. But the more I worked on it the more I realized that the story wasn’t really about Hinduism at all—it was a way of thinking about how Americans thought about religion and religious difference and others, and the way that they used these representations of Hindus to argue about what it meant to be an American in a variety of ways.

So there was a real transition in the project in which the punch line went from something like “Hey, there were Hindus here earlier than you think,” to a broader theoretical argument about American identity and the role of outsiders in the formation of American identity.

ECM: You document these representations across a variety of outlets and venues, but they are almost always used by white, Protestant Americans in ways that advantage white, Protestant Americans. What exactly is the function of this language?

MA: I was just joking the other day that I’ve written a book about Hindus that is actually about Protestants. The language functions in lots of ways. This was the nineteenth century, the period of Protestant ascendency, when a lot of the mainstream Protestant culture arose, before the split that divided Protestants between modernists and fundamentalists in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so, for white American Protestants this was a time to solidify their cultural establishment. All of their descriptions of others were connecting American identity to Protestant identity. In the minds of almost all of the individuals I discuss in the book, to be American is to be Protestant. This is at the height, in various ways, of American anti-Catholicism, and there is a firm sense of unity between American identity and Protestantism.

The flipside is the racial side, since it is very much a white Protestant identity. So Hindus, as non-white, as “heathens” or “Hindoos,” are always there on the outside of Protestantism, even in what we think of as the more positive encounters, as in the case of the Transcendentalists.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, read a lot of Sanskrit texts and translations and developed a reputation for appreciating Indian thought and literature, but to his mind India, and Asia more generally, was essentially contemplative and essentially mystical in contrast to the active and industrious West. So even those characterizations that we are tempted to see as positive are based on a vision of India as outside of or other than American identity.

ECM: It seems that, at this time, a lot of what was commonly known about India came from letters written by missionaries who were serving there. How central were these missionary dispatches to this discourse?

MA: Missionaries had an important role early on in communicating what contemporary Indian culture was like through their eyes. For the missionaries, it was always about what they were seeing around them day-to-day and their interpretation and representation of that in letters to their boards back home. There was always a disconnect between the missionaries—whether it was American missionaries beginning in 1812-13, or British missionaries before that—and the folks who were more interested in ancient India or ancient Sanskrit texts. And it carried through all the way through the century. The missionaries constructed images of what on-the-ground “Hindooism” or “heathenism,” or whatever they chose to call it, looked like through their eyes.

There were kind of two rails of thought about India in the period. The missionaries were the ones who brought the popular contemporary image, not just to other Christians and Protestants or even missionary magazines, but to the entire public when that image was reproduced in school books and national periodicals. And that was a big contrast from other Americans who were mostly interested in ancient India, whether it was ancient Indian texts or ancient Indian philosophy.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

Posted in Christianity, Convo | Tagged , , ,