A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Category: American Religion (page 1 of 2)

Vintage Advertising – Christmas Candy, 1910

With the holiday season in full stride, I present this lovely Christmas ad from 1910. The font is pretty illegible, but it’s an ad for Huyler’s candies, a company that operated a chain of candy and ice cream shops out of NYC at the turn of the century. I like this ad for a few reasons. First, it dispels the myth that Santa was created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s. Not true. Here is the Santa we all know and love, alive and well in 1910. Rudolph is missing from his herd and won’t show up for another 30 years, but the basics are all here. Certainly, Coke did its part in shaping the image of Santa we have today—red, fat, surrounded by toys, and cheerily drinking coke. But images of Santa long predate Coke’s iconic ad.
Second, this ad is great because it is so fiercely commercialist. Despite what Bill O’Reilly and Pat Robertson tell us, not much has changed about people’s attitudes toward Christmas in the last 100 years. Just like now, Christmas in 1910 was as much (or more) about lovers, family, gifts, and spending as it was about the birth of Jesus. Certainly, some savvy retailers played on the day’s religious significance to move more inventory—most famously, John Wanamaker of Philadelphia with his flagship store’s Christmas hymn-sings, pageants, and organ recitals. For most people, including Wanamaker, the religious significance of the day was always wrapped up with other concerns. Then as now, there was no separation between Christmas’s capacious Protestantism and its end-of-year splurging. In the case of this Huyler’s ad, Christmas is all about sex and candy. It assumes that its audience, like Santa, has gifts to give. People simply need to give a box of Huyler’s on top of everything else they give in order to make Christmas bright. The plump young lover (Mrs. Claus?) falls into Père Noël’s arms, coyly saying, “Oh! You dear!” Thanks to Huyler’s candy, it seems Santa will have a very merry Christmas after all.

A Fundamentalist Temperance Song

Homer Rodeheaver served as song leader for the famous fundamentalist revivalist Billy Sunday. “Rody,” as friends called him, was one of the first people ever to record gospel music. Believe it or not, this was once controversial behavior for a Christian musician. The Library of Congress lists his 1916 Victor recording “Molly and the Baby, Don’t You Know?” in a catalogue of temperance songs. Their description states it “is a song of a father promising not to drink for the sake of his wife and child.” Certainly, temperance crusaders like Sunday and Rodeheaver saw liquor as a threat to family stability–hence the overt message of the song. But to students of American religious history, the song’s religious undertones are unmistakable. “Molly and the baby” is a play on Mary and Jesus. Giving up liquor wasn’t just about being a responsible husband and father, but also about being a good Christian. The success of prohibition laws proved the broad appeal of fundamentalism’s unique style of religion in the 1910s and 20s.

Rise of the Nones

Teaching a class on the “rise of the nones” tomorrow. Found this great 2012 video of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about his personal attitudes toward religion. I think it nicely illustrates some of the major concerns of the nones. At the very least, it illustrates the kind of things I want my students to think about. Tyson swears he’s not an atheist, but an agnostic: “I don’t play golf. Do non-golfers gather and strategize? Do non-skiiers have a word [like ‘atheist’]? … At the end of the day, I’d rather not be any category at all.”

Jason Bivins, “Religion of Fear” (2008)

Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (2008)

Grant Wacker insists that students in his seminars learn to distinguish between what is important and what is merely interesting. Religion of Fear makes important contributions to the study of evangelicalism. At the intersection of conservative politics, evangelicalism, and American popular culture, a “religion of fear” has developed. Emerging after the 1960s, this religio-political impulse used the medium of popular culture to scare the Hell out of people—literally. The religion of fear offered readers and audiences an “interpretive template that posits demonological causes for political decline… [one that situates] readers in a historical framework and [defines] for audiences a coherent, unchanging place therein” (9). Part of Bivins’s project consists of documenting the rhetorical and affective strategies of anti-rock preaching, Hell Houses, Jack Chick’s cartoons, and the Left Behind novels. The creators of these works, he argues, act as savvy “technicians of identity,” engaging fear and horror in specific ways to create a politically charged range of acceptable religious identities (16).

Despite its claims to fixity and stability in a declining culture, Bivins declares that the religion of fear is actually animated by two instabilities: 1) the erotics of fear and 2) the demonology within. The “erotics of fear” describes the fact that fear’s discourse, though strongly condemnatory toward American culture, nonetheless displays deep fascination with what is forbidden. Evangelical teenagers compete heartily for the right to play the sexually active, unmarried couple in a Hell House play. Jack Chick’s most interesting drawings show sinners writhing in pain for their wrongdoing. The final book of the Left Behind series contains about a hundred pages of Jesus unleashing blood-drenched wrath on God’s enemies. In the religion of fear, forbidden evil goes on display. The “demonology within” describes the basic irony of using popular culture to condemn popular culture. The pure Christian self is constituted by its Others. You define yourself as a Christian teenager by not listening to Slayer—but this means that you know what Slayer is, that the demons behind the Slayer lyrics might grab hold of you at any moment.

But it’s Bivins’s approach to his subject that makes the most important contributions to the field. Far too few books explore the felt-life of evangelicalism. Emotion takes center stage in this book about political religion—“fear” isn’t some clever heuristic for explaining evangelical theology or its “relation” to governmental politics, it’s a feeling that certain religio-political popular culture artifacts engage and frequently try to produce in viewers, readers, and listeners. Bivins offers new ways of thinking about conservative evangelicalism: rather than an agglomeration of cleanly theological or political “movements,” conservative evangelicalism emerges from this text as a messy mélange of discursive strategies, techniques of identity, body practices, products of entertainment. And Bivins doesn’t shy away from criticizing this religion of fear when he thinks it warrants it. If scholars of religion abandon all claims to normativity and all forms of social critique in the name of taking our subjects “seriously,” we play the conservatives’ game: Bivins doesn’t want to play that game, and argues that scholars should counter fear with “sober political vision” instead of reactionary disavowal or willful indifference (228). Fear thrives when democratic culture atrophies. The point is not for scholars to proceed recklessly against our subjects, but rather to suggest that we scholar-citizens have a responsibility to remain politically engaged. That responsibility doesn’t disappear when we put on the mantel of scholarship. Bivins models his vision of social critique by engaging fear’s political vision seriously and carefully: “fear’s political vision should be contested in the name of politics itself, with the goal of a reaffirmation of a democratic process allowing for the pursuit of reasonable compromises of principled differences” (235).

LaHaye and Jenkins, “Left Behind” (1995)

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days (1995).

Suddenly, without explanation, people disappear en masse. Cars crash into medians, driverless. Passengers vanish from airplanes midflight. Piles of clothes suddenly replace loved ones. All the world’s children, gone. A woman in labor finds her belly suddenly deflated; she delivers only a placenta (46). Welcome to the world of Left Behind. Boasting a company of characters named like the cast list of a 1970s porno—Buck Williams, Chloe Steele, Bruce Barnes, and Dirk Burton among others—Left Behind narrates a spy-thriller version of old-fashioned dispensational end times theology. The book operates on two levels. On the one hand, it’s an entertainment novel. Pure airport fare. A band of stock characters needs to solve a mystery, but forces ranging from the paranormal to the United Nations frustrate and complicate their efforts. In the end, the conspiracy goes much bigger than they thought, one problem (why did everyone disappear?) finds resolution but reveals bigger problems to follow (the antichrist is rising, but who?).

On the other hand, Left Behind is a thoroughly, unabashedly, Christian book for a conservative Christian audience. It puts a creative spin on the old dispensationalist practice of reading current events for signs of the times. Left Behind imagines a not-too-distant future that looks and feels suspiciously like the present (c. 1995): one character (Buck) finds that “the connection to his ramp on the information superhighway was busy” (32). Another character, searching for an explanation for his wife and son’s disappearance, pops in a DVD made by his wife’s pastor—the DVD player having first appeared in, that’s right, 1995 (202). So the book’s setting is the future, but it might as well be tomorrow. This gives practically unlimited creative license when the authors to get down to the dispensationalist business. This book does not read signs of the times as dispensationalists traditionally do, but rather conjures the times. Working backwards, it drapes the prophetic future onto the form of the present rather than looking at the present for signs of the prophetic future.

Amy DeRogatis, “‘Born Again is a Sexual Term': Demons, STDs, and God’s Healing Sperm,” (JAAR, 2009)

Amy DeRogatis, “‘Born Again is a Sexual Term’: Demons, STDs, and God’s Healing Sperm,” JAAR 77.2 (June 2009): 275-302.

DeRogatis’s essay offers some of the most stimulating work on evangelicalism I’ve read in ages. The essay examines one text: Holy Sex: God’s Purpose and Plan for Our Sexuality, a sex manual slash guidebook for “deliverance” ministries. Departing with earlier evangelical sex manuals (which explained how married couples could pleasure each other), the creators of this book claim that human sexuality serves as ground zero for spiritual warfare. During immoral sexual acts, bodily fluids like blood and semen can transmit literal demons from one “infected” human body to another. Once in, they inhabit a person’s genes and can pass to her/his progeny. The demons also adhere to sexually charged objects, particularly pornography—touching these objects opens your body to the demons. Sores, warts, and other bodily marks reveal their presence. The only cure comes by repentance and conversion, accepting the Holy Spirit as God’s holy sperm: “The Holy Spirit is sexualized and masculinized to impregnate the believer who is in turn feminized. The salvific male seminal fluid acts to form a prophylactic shield by creating a state of holy pregnancy” (292). In Holy Sex, “born again” is a sexual term—once pregnant with God’s Holy Spirit (spread through the Word), the demons flee a person’s body. In short, DeRogatis traces two major themes in evangelicalism via Holy Sex: 1) the role of the sexual body in mediating evangelical spiritual warfare and 2) the adoption of scientific discourse by spiritual warfare literature.

The latter relates nicely to other conservative evangelical science issues, particularly creationism. In both instances, the use of scientific discourse argues for the place of an evangelical position in mainstream public policymaking. Holy Sex presents itself as a public health document, cutting edge material on disease transmission and safer sexual practices. Though they’d almost certainly regard Holy Sex as heretical, creationists adopt similar strategies to present their case as one relevant to mainstream educators and scientists. Both suggest that modern science confirms what’s in the Bible: one with regard to disease and genetics, the other with regard to astronomy, human origins–and usually genetics too (Tower of Babel). The more advanced the science (genetics, particle physics–not just “biology” or “physics”), the better.

Bethany Moreton, “To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise” (2009)

Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2009).

Wal-Mart Moms forged today’s America. It seems a cheap compliment to call a book smart and well-written, but this one sets a new bar for each adjective. First, the smart argument. Moreton tells a new story about the rise of conservatism after World War II. Instead of towing the party lines of economic, political, and religious history, Moreton demonstrates that neo-evangelicalism, free enterprise, and political conservatism mingled promiscuously. And they met each other in Wal-Mart. By wedding value with family values, Wal-Mart turned consumerism into a Christian duty. A responsible Christian mom became a Wal-Mart mom. By modeling the service industry on a patriarchal Christian family, Wal-Mart managed to bring the evangelical wives of Sun Belt yeomen through the doors as employees and customers; they also made it culturally acceptable for old-fashioned Sun Belt men to work in the service industry. This family business headquartered in the Ozarks helped shift the nation’s economic and political might from the unionized industrial northeast/Midwest to the freewheeling Sun Belt—and the nation shifted, so Wal-Mart’s fortunes lifted. They ran the best mom and pop store in small towns across the country, then became global missionaries of down home capitalism. In Moreton’s telling, the story of Wal-Mart’s rise does not represent manifest destiny or commonsense logic: “[Christian free enterprise] was an unstable compound, the product in part of impressive agglomerations of power and money. But it was also the progeny of pragmatic responses to real needs, of idealistic hope in redemption, and of the elevation of service from its devalued position in the broader culture” (269-270).

Second, the sizzling writing. Moreton’s prose cooks. Practically every paragraph includes an apt metaphor, a clever turn of phrase, a spicy verb, or some kind of witty wordplay. Here is an arbitrary example: “Like postwar evangelicalism, the country music industry, or the Republican Party’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ the [Sun Belt] region’s service sector spun traditional straw into radical new gold” (50). This sentence sits mid-paragraph. Mid. Paragraph. This is how Moreton’s book works so well: she shows how ingredients as diverse as country music and Richard Nixon stewed together in the world of Wal-Mart. There’s no monocause or grand narrative here, but only ad hoc, unstable mixtures of cultural ingredients held together by superb writing. Form supports content.

Review by A.T.

Omri Elisha, “Moral Ambition,” (2011)

Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)

In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.

Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.

Todd Ochoa, “Society of the Dead” (2010)

Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (UC Press, 2010).

Armchair anthropology this ain’t. Ochoa’s book proves worth the price of admission just for its riveting first-person stories. In Society of the Dead, Ochoa narrates being ritually cut and told he swore allegiance to the devil in an initiation ceremony, holding an overnight vigil with a plastic bag containing human remains, and being reduced to a “vomiting mess” in the presence of a particularly powerful spectral entity. Ochoa not only knows how to tell a good story—one reviewer describes his work as itself a kind of sorcery, conjuring an ontology completely foreign to the western metaphysical tradition. For his part, Ochoa calls it a thoroughly empirical experiment.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Havana from the 1990s-2000s, Ochoa dives into the “immanent materiality” of Palo, a Kongo-inspired creole tradition related to Ocha/Santo (Santería). Ochoa states that Palo “is best understood as a fluid mode of engaging the dead in matter to transform fate in a flash” (8). Palo practitioners engage the dead through drumming, candles, cauldrons, singing, and animal sacrifice. But they also feel called by the dead, get pulled out of bed at night by it, feel chilled and troubled in the gut by it. What Ochoa calls the “ambient dead,” Kalunga, is a sea: constantly in flux, the dead saturates, surrounds, generates, and dissipates. It flows through matter and assumes surprising, even contradictory, aspects. The dead is not a spirit that manifests, but material that rises and falls and folds: “Kalunga is a plane of immanence from which subjects and objects emerge and into which they are lost” (34). As a craft, Palo works with the dead to help or harm the living: it involves the creation and care of prendas (also called ngangas or enquisos). Prendas are cauldrons/urns stuffed full of dirt, sticks, feathers, and nfumbe—entities constituted of human remains. The most powerful, and the most unpredictable, prendas are the prendas judías, which contain “Jewish” or “unbaptized” nfumbe. These prendas can end a human life—but they only respond to practitioners’ pleas on Good Friday, when Jesus is busy dying on the cross. And they are volatile, unpredictable things known to turn on their keepers. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Palo doesn’t want to steal Cuban children to stuff them into these cauldrons. It wants to change fate by working with the dead immanent in matter; occasionally, doing so brings the living to their limits.

Reading Ochoa’s beautifully crafted stories, it’s easy to forget that this book presents a sustained philosophical meditation on an entire metaphysical tradition. In the conclusion, Ochoa names the villain of his story: the dualistic tradition that runs from Plato through Hegel’s dialectics to Marx and Adorno. In this tradition, matter usually appears as the abject, the base, the object, the negation of truth, spirit, subject. If this metaphysical tradition concerns the living, Ochoa’s book engages theorists of the dead: Bataille, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Deleuze. Society of the Dead explodes the subject-object dialectic—it just doesn’t work with Palo. Holding up matter without shape or form, abandoning rigid conceptual schemes and clever interpretive devices, Ochoa experiments with theory’s possibilities. He looks to matter, to the dead, to change theory’s fate.

Review by A.T. Coates

Catherine Albanese, “Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion” (2008)

Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale, 2008).

Albanese’s ambitious tome attempts to establish “metaphysical religion” as a major force in American religious history. Allow me to repeat: Albanese discovers (or invents) a movement hitherto unknown to the historiography, discerns its roots and tracks development from the pre-colonial era to the present, and argues that it has exerted major influence on the evolution of American religion writ large. If you are willing to go along for the ride, this is the kind of book that can dramatically alter the way you see the field.

Four features characterize “metaphysical religion.” First, it shows a deep concern with the mind and its powers. Whether in the secret knowledge of the early freemasons or the healing powers of mind in Christian Science, Albanese argues that the tradition understand and harness the mind’s capabilities. Second, the tradition takes interest in the correspondences between worlds—between this world and the other world, the spirit world and the physical world, etc. Thus, its practices have often taken the form of “magic,” a manipulation of this world to make contact with the other. Third, the tradition focuses on movements and action. The spirits move, the dead appear and vanish, energies flow, forces pass through us, and thus the tradition is not terribly interested in rigid codification or fixity. The metaphysical tradition reveals itself through its combinative character, its networks of action. Fourth, the tradition emphasizes salvation as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing. Despite the accusations of otherworldliness others fling at it, the metaphysical tradition seeks change in embodied life—from the transformative power of positive thinking to the comfort of a séance with a lost love.

Albanese attempts to recover the grand story of religion in America from “perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history” (4). She first takes aim at the “evangelical thesis,” which locates the distinctive Americanness of American religion in the evangelical tradition. Traipsing from Edwards through Finney through Moody to Graham, this narrative finds evangelicalism’s influence present in American religious individualism, religion’s focus on the heart, and in the USA’s evangelicalized national culture (see my review of Noll). According to Albanese, this thesis received its antithesis from Jon Butler, who declared that the rise of evangelicalism only told part of the story of religion in America. Insofar as religious unity and symmetry existed in America, he contended, it confirmed the triumph of “mainstream denominationalism” modeled on the state churches of Europe over “popular occultism.” Albanese holds this “occultism” to the light. Rather than seeing occultism as lowbrow, quasi-religious doings doomed to folklorization at the hands of “mainstream” churches (à la Butler), she considers it part of a robust metaphysical tradition that reached its mature form around the time of the Civil War. To recover this tradition from the dustbins of history, she posits the “metaphysical thesis.” According to the metaphysical thesis, the distinctive Americanness of American religion developed under the influence of all three forces, often in combination with each other: evangelical, mainstream denominational, and metaphysical. More importantly, she considers the metaphysical tradition to be at least as influential as the evangelical tradition in guiding that development.

As someone who works on a tradition usually linked to the “evangelical” thesis, I’m excited by the possibilities this book opens. Albanese demonstrates the value of the odd combinations, the evanescent networks, the loose associations of religion in America. As a youngster, I remember being terrified when I first saw a Ouija board in a toy store. I had always been told that demons pushed the planchette in that particular game, and I couldn’t imagine why such an item sat so innocently on a shelf near Hungry Hungry Hippos. The plural of anecdote isn’t evidence, but Albanese’s thesis looms large over such seemingly trivial, everyday happenings. At the very least, it seems probable that the metaphysical tradition exerted some influence over 20th-century fundamentalism. But even if one wants to deny the existence of the “metaphysical tradition” altogether (which I don’t), Albanese challenges us to see the connections between religious practices, institutions, and individuals. We have to explain why Ouija boards even registered on conservative evangelical radar, why both stoned teenagers and fastidious pastors would assert the spiritual powers of a board game. Albanese shakes up the comfortable, respectable portraits we have created of what counts as “religion” in America.  

Review by A.T. Coates

H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Kingdom of God in America” (1937)

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937)

Niebuhr argues that the kingdom of God stands at the center of American Christianity. He attempts “to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which finds its center in the faith in the kingdom of God” (ix). No, not all of his sentences are that bad. In fact, one sentence still echoes in our field. In an influential form of liberal Christianity, Niebuhr charges, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (193). To appreciate what this famous sentence is getting at, we have to return to the beginning. According to Niebuhr, American Christians have persistently believed in “the kingdom of God.” However, the meaning of the concept has changed over time. Americans have adapted this key gospel concept to their own needs. For the earliest Protestant colonizers of America, the kingdom of God meant “the living reality of God’s present rule, not only in human spirits but also in the world of nature and of human history” (51). Establishing this “kingdom” meant living properly under God’s sovereignty. For their evangelical descendants, the kingdom of God became the kingdom of Christ. This kingdom sought to establish itself in hearts, achieving the regeneration of society through faith and love. Later, American Christians wanted to see the kingdom come. They hoped for “its manifestation in power,” for the earthly reign of Christ in his millennial kingdom or for a Christian takeover of society (Social Gospel). For Niebuhr, the evangelicals (Edwards and co.) came the closest to getting it right. They didn’t wed their “kingdom” to social institutions but demanded social change, they understood God’s judgment and sovereignty, and they insisted on individual change through faith in Christ. Hence his criticism of liberalism.

My edition of this book contains a nice little introduction by Martin Marty. Marty reminds that Niebuhr considered himself a theologian, not a historian. He links Niebuhr’s approach to Weber’s, suggesting that both show the consequences of religious ideas for societies. He points out that this book was once revisionist. He admires Niebuhr’s insight into “the American spirit.” I’m not interested in arguing with Marty tonight.

Niebuhr outlines three of interesting “convictions” about American Christianity. First, he sees his work as a first step to something larger. He wants nothing less than to inspire a future Jonathan Edwards or “American Augustine” who will change people’s understanding of the relationship between faith and society. Theological claims like this make me queasy, but one has to admire his lofty ambitions. Second, he insists that Christianity cannot be adequately understood as only otherworldly or this-worldly. While he elaborates some dense theological points about the dialectical movement by which the church progresses toward its ultimate union with God, his main concern is that historians recognize their own partiality. Rather than chastising our predecessors for being too much of this or that, Niebuhr demands that we take them as interlocutors with whom we can argue fruitfully. Finally, Niebuhr studies American Christianity as a “movement,” not “an institution or series of institutions” (xxiii-xxiv). Again, Niebuhr’s theology motivates this “conviction.” But it does seem an interesting accident of history that most of us now write about movements, not particular institutions. Would any of the big university presses even consider publishing a denominational history of the Presbyterian Church of America? Almost certainly not. The times may be a changin’ in our guild, but we still live with Niebuhr’s legacy…

Review by A.T. Coates

David Bebbington, “The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody” (2005)

David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (InterVarsity, 2005)

Image: Charles Haddon Spurgeon preaching at the Music Hall in the Royal Surrey Gardens, 1856.

Bebbington delivers a very readable introduction to evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, it would work well in an undergraduate survey of evangelicalism or in a graduate class on approaches to the study of evangelicalism. Most famously, this book presents a succinct definition of evangelicalism—one that has become standard in the field. Bebbington identifies four defining emphases of “evangelicalism”: 1) crucicentrism, emphasis on the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, 2) conversionism, emphasis on individual faith and conversion experience, 3) biblicism, emphasis on the Bible as the revealed Word of God, 4) activism, emphasis on spreading the gospel. Given its wide audience, the book focuses more on surveying the landscape than offering a controversial argument: Bebbington’s thesis claims that nineteenth century evangelicalism, carrying forward the “vigor” it inherited from the awakening of the eighteenth century, assumed a “dominant” role in the churches and cultures of the English-speaking world (see 252). Evangelicals stood at the vanguard of innovative church practice, set the trends in theology and in popular spirituality, and led all other churches in numerical growth. More than that, evangelicalism exerted major influence on cultural debates about sentimentalism, science, public education, sports/recreation, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

There’s much to praise about this book. Bebbington treats evangelicalism as a network that spanned the English-speaking world. Though most of the book’s action takes place in Great Britain and the United States, Bebbington traces evangelical connections around the globe—Canada, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand play their parts. More importantly, he stresses that evangelicals themselves thought of their movement in global terms. That said, Bebbington is also careful enough to draw attention to the “diversity” of this global movement. While historians have tended to slice the evangelical pie nation by nation, Bebbington suggests that theological, social (esp. race and class), and denominational differences mattered more to evangelicals themselves. Canadian, American, Australian, and African Presbyterians probably shared more resources, styles of worship or devotion, and feelings of connection than most white American Presbyterians shared with black American Methodists. Despite such deep fissures, Bebbington insists that these were “internal contrasts… less important than the unity of the evangelical movement” (81, emphasis added).

As my regular readers will probably suspect (the few, the proud, the bored), I have some concerns with the centrality of “belief” in Bebbington’s definition. Though he calls them the evangelical movement’s “enduring priorities” (23), his crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism are all abstract ideas to which individuals, or aggregates of like-minded individuals, can assent. They are “beliefs” of a very particular kind, though we hear nothing about their making. This set of intellectualized “priorities” floats through history like a ghost, manifesting and appearing in different expressions here, now there, now then. This ghost generates an “essence” of late nineteenth-century evangelicalism, one that gets embodied in Spurgeon and Moody (267). As far as I’m concerned, “belief” needs to remain under constant interrogation. We need to ask how “belief” gets assembled and reassembled in particular contexts. This certainly means examining the self-understandings of individuals if and when they assert them, but it also means attending to the objects, images, discourses, body disciplines, subjectivities, and social formations that constitute “belief” in a given case. The category of “belief” constantly gets made and remade, so whenever we invoke the category, we need to trace the associations that make it.

Review by A.T. Coates

Francis Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto” (1981)

Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 1981.

At one point in A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer laments the low turnout for his anti-abortion seminars in the early 1970s (67-68). He blames evangelical leaders who held an incorrect view of Christianity, who limited its sphere of influence. Whatever the reason for their absence, it’s the absence itself that sticks out now—anti-abortion activism, or at least anti-abortion sentiment, seems part and parcel of evangelicalism itself. Clearly, it wasn’t always so. Lest we forget, Schaeffer served as an important intellectual architect of what we have come to call “conservative evangelicalism.” His book and video series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? helped turn opposition to abortion from a “Catholic issue” into a broadly conservative issue. More than that, he helped to popularize the view that Christian America was under siege by a competing “world view” called “humanism.” This book serves as nothing less than a call to arms for an emerging culture war.

It’s more than a catchy title: A Christian Manifesto. On a flyleaf, Schaeffer names his book’s predecessors to mark his as a Christian political document: “The Communist Manifesto, 1848/ Humanist Manifesto I, 1933/ Humanist Manifesto II, 1973.” Keeping in mind that this book came out in 1981, it’s clear that this move serves two purposes: 1) it places Schaeffer’s book both in the tradition of and in opposition to these other manifestos, and 2) it posits a genealogical connection between communism and humanism—even in the capitalist world, Schaeffer implies, “humanism” springs from Marxism. For Schaeffer, Christianity and “humanism” are mutually incompatible “world views.” A “world view” describes “the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole” (17). According to Schaeffer, humanism considers ultimate reality to be a random flux of energy and matter, our world to be nothing but the result of pure chance. In the period from 1933-1973, this world view took over American culture, which was founded on “Judeo-Christian” values (55). Worse still, says Schaeffer, many Christians have been complicit in this humanist takeover of their culture (he specifically names Martin Marty as an offender in this regard on p.22, though my beloved professor Yaakov Ariel insists Marty is one of the tzadikim nistarim). Schaeffer calls Christian America to wake up and do something to save their culture.

This book offers rich primary material for historians of conservative evangelicalism because it brings a number of issues to the fore. 1) Schaeffer shows deep concern about the legalization of abortion, but it actually seems to be a symptom of his deeper concern for American youth. References to school, education, and students occur frequently in this book (e.g. 83-86). Whether through abortion or the lack of prayer in public schools, the key concern remains the same: Schaeffer believes America’s future is at stake, society’s most vulnerable members under attack. 2) Schaeffer insists on treating “humanism” as a coherent, singular entity. More specifically, he treats it as a religion. By drawing his definition of “humanism” from the Humanist Manifestos, Schaeffer provides a clear, “religious” origin for the cultural changes that rocked America from the 1940s-70s (see 54). As he sees it, the First Amendment has hijacked by a particular religion opposed to the Judeo-Christian democratic principles of America’s founders. Rulings concerning prayer in public schools, public displays of the Ten Commandments, and abortion reveal how this religion has used the courts more effectively than Christians. 3) Somewhat surprisingly, Schaeffer flatly rejects the circumscription of religion usually associated with the rise of evangelicalism in the early republic. He laments that “spirituality has… been shut up to a very narrow area”—namely, individual belief in the supernatural, which he calls “platonic, overly spiritualized” Christianity (63). He insists that Christian truth applies to all of life on earth—and that Christian truth is the only firm basis for a just, harmonious society, the only fixed point from which to measure the external world scientifically. For Schaeffer, Christian spirituality extends completely into the material realm. At the very least, we can say that this complicates our usual scholarly understandings of evangelicalism, which focus heavily on individual beliefs. Even in a book by Francis Schaeffer, an intellectualized product of “fundamentalist” evangelicalism if ever there was one, “belief” happens materially.

Review by A.T. Coates

Ernest Sandeen, “The Roots of Fundamentalism” (1970)

Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. (U Chicago, 1970).

Sandeen isolates millenarianism as the lifeblood of American fundamentalism. In his appraisal, fundamentalism marks just one important phase in the larger history of millenarian theology. Instead of looking to the infamous “five fundamentals” (inerrancy, virgin birth, atonement of Christ, bodily resurrection, miracle-working power of Christ) as time-honored Christian principles upheld by old-fashioned believers, Sandeen treats them as theological innovations that emerged from the millenarian tradition. Though Americans had developed indigenous strains of millenarianism in the Millerite and Mormon movements of the early 19th century, the variety that led to fundamentalism came as a British import. In general, British millenarianism gave the American version four characteristics: i) zeal for interpreting biblical prophecies, ii) special interest in Jews and Zionism iii) the doctrine of the premillennial advent, and iv) a futurist stance toward the book of Revelation (8-9, 12, 36-37). In particular, John Nelson Darby’s dispensational premillennialism that won the States. With its doctrine of the secret rapture and its division of the New Testament into “Jewish” and “churchly” texts, dispensationalism became the dominant form of millenarianism in America by the 1870s.

But, even with Darbyite dispensationalism on the scene, American millenarianism wasn’t yet fundamentalism. Fundamentalism of the “five fundamentals” variety emerged only when British-style millenarianism formed a sort of informal alliance with “Princeton theology.” Developed by figures like B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, Princeton Theology stood out for its commonsense, rationalistic approach to the authority of the Bible. These thinkers insisted that a) the inspiration of scripture extends to the words of the text themselves, b) the Bible is not only reliable, but claims to be inerrant, and c) the inerrant verbal inspiration of the Bible only applies to the “original autographs” penned by the biblical writers (125-127). Sandeen argues that around the 1890s, when this theological approach met dispensationalism at Moody’s prophecy conferences, fundamentalism proper was born (172).

Coming of age intellectually in the post-Marsden age, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Sandeen’s work was in 1970. Obviously, the book shows its age—I cringe at the mere thought of someone writing today about fundamentalist history only by looking at the theology of its “great (white) men.” Cultural or social history this ain’t. Nonetheless, the book still holds an important place in the historiography for several reasons. First, Sandeen saw himself as one of the only historians to take fundamentalist theology seriously. There’s very little condescension in these pages, and Sandeen makes a tremendous effort to treat fundamentalism as a movement with significant theological depth. Relatedly, Sandeen insisted that fundamentalism made measurable contributions to the development of American theology. That is, fundamentalism wasn’t just a relic of some bygone age doomed to die a slow death, but a living theological tradition. Third, Sandeen corrected the misconception, probably started by H.L. Mencken, that fundamentalism thrived only in the rural South. Quite contrarily, in Sandeen’s story, fundamentalism emerges as a sophisticated intellectual movement located primarily in the major cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Forty years after I publish my book, I’ll be well pleased if some smartass PhD student still finds any value in what I’ve written…

Review by A.T. Coates

Hoover and Kaneva, “Fundamentalisms and the Media” (2009)

Essays from: Stewart Hoover and Nadia Kaneva, eds. Fundamentalisms and the Media. (Continuum, 2009).

  • R. Scott Appleby, “What Can Peacebuilders Learn from Fundamentalists?”
  • Susan A. Maurer, “A Historical Overview of American Christian Fundamentalism in the Twentieth Century.”
  • Robert Glenn Howard, “The Vernacular Ideology of Christian Fundamentalism on the World Wide Web.”
  • J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “African Traditional Religion, Pentecostalism, and the Clash of Spiritualities in Ghana.”
  • Jin Kyu Park, “Discursive Construction of Shamanism and Christian Fundamentalism in Korean Popular Culture.”
  • Pradip N. Thomas, “Christian Fundamentalism and the Media in India.”

Pulling together a broad range of scholarship, this path-breaking collection of essays insists that it is impossible to understand fundamentalisms “without reference to the media” (3). Taking the Protestant fundamentalism of the 1920s as the prototypical case of fundamentalism, the editors declare that all fundamentalisms emerged in the age of mass media. More than that, media have been essential in shaping and reshaping fundamentalisms over time, intricately bound up with the evolution of these modern religious movements. Fundamentalists have proven experts at using media to disseminate their messages, but media themselves have also helped to found and shape fundamentalisms. Among other things, media can “represent, define, construct, and symbolize” fundamentalisms (5). Media offer tools for creating and disseminating meaning, and they are also contexts “within which competing sets of symbols are proposed, promoted, circulated, and consumed” (13). Influenced by the theories of Foucault and Bourdieu, the editors suggest that scholarship must look beyond instrumentalist models of media, taking seriously how various practices of media interact with fundamentalisms. When defining “media,” they argue we must keep five issues in mind: a) reflexivity, i.e. the self-consciousness and autonomy of today’s social actors; b) the eroding boundary between public and private in our media age; c) the proliferation of media producers and the move away from passive audiences; d) the largely visual and symbolic character of “the media,” which many see as particularly amenable to fundamentalist aims; e) media construct an autonomous social and political sphere of authority, which erodes traditional religious authorities (14-15). Focusing on such questions, this collection makes a valuable contribution to an emerging field.

But reading this collection after spending yesterday with Latour may have spoiled my appreciation of it. Given the lofty—indeed, often admirable—theoretical aims outlined in the introduction, the essays themselves surprised me in several ways. The good surprises. The essays I found most helpful all stood under the “Locations” heading and concerned “fundamentalisms” in non-western contexts. Asamoah-Gyadu, Park, and Thomas each pushed the usual boundaries of conversations about fundamentalism in useful ways, examining traditional Ghanaian religions, Korean shamanism, and Indian Protestantism respectively. Thomas, for example, demonstrates how a “fundamentalist” style of Protestantism gets circulated and constructed in India through people’s interactions with audio recordings, videos, posters, consumer goods, and urban space in Chennai. Though not flawless—many betray anti-fundamentalist leanings—these essays challenge common assumptions about what fundamentalism can be, where it can happen, and how it works.

Now to the disappointing surprises. I won’t say anything here about my problems with the project of comparing fundamentalisms, because I’ve already posted on that. I have another beef. Frequently, contributors refer to “the media”—as in the title. This term lent itself to a slippage between singular and plural, where “the media” sometimes required is and sometimes are in the same essay. In the introduction, I found this formulation somewhat clever, but elsewhere it was just confusing. Referring to “the media” in the plural invites readers to consider the distinct roles of particular media in particular fundamentalisms; referring to “the media” in the singular invokes a spectral force, one usually thought to be comprised of network television news, daily newspapers, and most Hollywood movies. For someone like Jerry Falwell, “the media” was precisely this sort of singular, spiritual entity—it corrupts, leads youth astray, causes sin, etc. Since he clearly offers a critique of Falwellian fundamentalism, I found it odd that Appleby’s essay used the term in roughly the same way, without comment—though presumably stripped of all its force as a spiritual agent (see 33). I’m splitting hairs, but I think they’re important ones that signal our scholarly approaches. If we’re going to talk about “the media” as an entity (or an actor), we had best explain how “it” lives in a particular community, what “it” can/can’t do, how people treat “it,” etc. If we’re going to talk about media as plural, we had better slow down and trace their each one’s functions, operations, actions, possibilities in a particular community. In the 1930s, daily newspapers and Hollywood films had very different roles, effects, powers, and possibilities in many American Protestant fundamentalist circles. We can’t gloss over those differences with a term like “the media.”

Review by A.T. Coates

Mark Noll, “America’s God” (2002)

Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford, 2002).

In his weighty volume America’s God, Noll tells how evangelical religion, republican politics, and commonsense moral reasoning wound together in the early American republic. His story describes the ways that evangelicals, particularly theologians, transformed public discourse in America and in the process produced a unique variety of Christian nationalism. But more than that, for Noll, “the process by which evangelical Protestantism came to be aligned with republican convictions and commonsense moral reasoning was also the process that gave a distinctively American shape to Christian theology by the time of the Civil War” (10). With thoroughgoing rigor, Noll follows evangelical theology from the “Puritan canopy” that birthed it, through the First Great Awakening, past the surge in the early nineteenth century, right up to the evangelical consensus that had emerged by the eve of the Civil War. In some ways, this book is a triumph of erudition—anyone interested in how evangelical theology became American, or how civil religion may have developed, would do well to consult this book.

A decade after its publication, Noll’s approach to evangelicalism has become something like consensus in the field. This is testifies to its thoroughness, clarity, insight, and careful argumentation, but also curses it, making America’s God the dragon young scholars of evangelicalism must—or at least think they must—slay. In Secularism in Antebellum America, John Modern offers a much more compelling critique than I will offer here (see my review of Modern or read Modern’s essay version here). Modern takes up the issue of agency and the public sphere, asking about the kinds of mediation, discipline, and discourse that enabled the evangelical self-understandings Noll so carefully examines. I won’t try to compete with him there…

Review by A.T. Coates

Kelly J. Baker, “Gospel According to the Klan” (2011)

Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. (U Kansas P, 2011).

Like most significant historical works, this one makes important contributions in two ways: historical and theoretical. Baker not only sheds new light on the history of religion in 20th-century America, she also offers a compelling new model for scholarship in the field. Not bad for a dissertation book.

First, the history. Baker’s bold thesis declares that we can’t understand the KKK “revival” of the 1920s without understanding the movement’s Protestantism. That is, the KKK of the 20s was a thoroughly Protestant movement. Mainstream, “normal” Protestantism motivated and fuelled the Klan’s nativism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, gendered ideology, and white supremacy. The KKK didn’t “twist” or “distort” Protestantism for its own ends, but created an Invisible Empire of white knights as the last “manly” defenders of an imperiled Christian nation. And in the 20s, millions welcomed these protectors and their “twin messages of nation and faith” (6). Drawing on the Klan’s print culture and, to some extent, their material culture, Baker employs an ethnographic method to unpack the movement’s presentation of Protestantism, nationalism, white masculinity, white femininity, racial purity, and anti-Catholicism. As just one fascinating example, she discusses how the Klan’s iconic white robes and conical “hoods” functioned as part of its racial ideology. Klan photographs tended to show large groups in which everyone appears in white robes. The robes thus magnified whiteness and showed the racial homogeneity of the group. But the hoods also gave anonymity, protecting members from those who would persecute them for supporting the cause of the white race (189). In the eyes of members, the robes did not inspire fear (with their ghostlike appearance) or to make it easier to conduct violence anonymously. The white robe bolstered particular ideas about the persecution of white America, and encouraged concerned men to step behind it in order to protect their race.

Now, the theory. The Gospel According to the Klan also presents a new model of “engaged scholarship” (see 30). Like the best topics in our field, the 1920s Klan sits at the intersection of several important theoretical debates and enlarges our understanding of each. Baker attempts to “see with” the Klansmen and Klanswomen of the 1920s, to “take seriously” their perspective on the world. In this respect, Baker’s project resembles many other ethnographic works that use thick description to generate sympathy with their subjects. But, for Christ’s sake, this is a book about the KKK—and Baker never lets readers forget that. In some respects, this group doesn’t warrant sympathy, and certainly Baker does not want to create uncritical sympathy for their positions on race, gender, or nationalism. Rather, she insists that it is possible to be a careful ethnographic historian without resorting to mere description: “Seeing with the Klan does not mean that we have to like its rhetoric, agendas, or politics, nor does it mean that we need to avoid criticism and analysis” (240). In short, it’s possible to take our subjects “seriously” without pandering to their white supremacy, for example. More still, Baker demonstrates that we don’t need to check our politics at the door to write our histories effectively. Avoiding facile comparisons with the contemporary political right, Baker nonetheless shows how conservatism’s self-image as defenders of an embattled (white) Christian America resonates deeply with the perspective of the Klan. More than that, she argues that the 1920s Klan forms the historical bridge between nineteenth-century nativism and twentieth-century political conservatism. The point here is not to create straw villains out of her political enemies, but to show that ordinary people, even Christian people, can “commit heinous acts without evil intentions and …can promote a worldview founded on intolerance even as they describe its tolerance” (238).

Review by A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Press, 1999).

Review by A.T. Coates

Gutjahr’s groundbreaking work An American Bible examines the Bible’s history as an American book. That is, Gutjahr illuminates the Bible’s changing role in 19th-century American print culture by focusing on its qualities qua book—especially how its changing contents and packaging changed its role in American life. While once the good book stood at the center of American print culture, by the 1880s Americans had become a people of the good books. The mass-production of cheap scriptures, proliferating “accurate” translations, ornately illustrated commoditized Bibles, “life of Jesus” adaptations, and non-biblical school textbooks dislodged the Bible from its once-dominant position. The Bible’s cultural role changed as its material qualities as a book changed.

Chapter 2, which traces the history of Bible illustration, offers the most interesting arguments for students of visual or material culture. As the century progressed, publishers seemed to add more and more detailed illustrations to larger and larger Bibles. Commercial concerns mingled with sentimentalist education strategies, the Common Sense philosophical impulse to verify the Bible’s stories led publishers to include maps, charts, and detailed (even fanciful) pictures that would bring interpretive insight. Publishers claimed that their illustrations helped readers interpret the Bible more accurately, which brought the convenient side effect of higher sales.

 

Geertz, Asad, and American Religious History

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System” and “Thick Description.”

Talal Asad, “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz” aka. “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category.”

BONUS: Ronald G. Walters, “Signs of the Times: Clifford Geertz and Historians,” Social Research 47.3 (Aug 1980).

Review by A.T. Coates

Though rarely acknowledged, Clifford Geertz has exerted enormous influence on the field of American religious history for at least the last 25 years. Geertz encourages scholars to attend carefully to the cultural “webs of significance” from which meaning emerges. He demands that we look closely at the winks of culture, its feigned winks, and its parodies of feigned winks, to ferret out the intentions of religious actors as they make meaning in those “webs.” He finds religion producing “moods and motivations” and offering unique varieties of experience. He theorizes how religion connects the dots of individual and social life, providing a coherent worldview. Most importantly as far as religious historians have been concerned, he sees religion as a universal cultural phenomenon, one irreducible to its social or psychological functions. His famous definition states that “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90). Religion occurs in the realm of symbol and meaning, generates special kinds of experiences, and presents a compelling worldview.

For at least one generation of American religious historians, Geertz offered a way out of the secularization and social control theses. His theory put religion on equal footing with other “meaning-making” cultural activities like science and aesthetics, suggesting that religion still held an important place in the modern era. Geertz permitted historians to take their subjects’ ideas and intentions “seriously,” since religion dealt in the “really real,” not in false consciousness. His method of close reading encouraged detachment but not skepticism, nicely aligning with the liberally Christian interests of major university seminaries. Under Geertz’s theory, a seemingly endless array of traditions and actors took their place in the constellation of American religion, each earning its own thick description. Celebrating creative agency became the name of the game. To historians influenced by Geertz, religious actors of all genders, social classes, racial groups, and (less often) sexual orientations proved themselves free, creative agents as they expressed intention and made meaning in particular symbol systems. Because they demonstrated agency, they were above criticism.

Historians of American religion seem to have loved Geertz’s work for all the reasons Asad criticizes it. Asad takes little interest in what “religion” is in any abstract or universal sense. Drawing on examples from medieval and early modern Christian history, he attends carefully to how power creates and shapes the category called “religion.” For Asad, “there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (Construction 29). Asad considers Geertz’s definition of religion’s essence an oddly double-edged sword wrought by a particular modern, western, Christian history. On the one hand, Geertz’s project confines religion in ways unthinkable before the modern era’s division of politics, law, science, and religion. On the other hand, it defends religion by giving it an unassailable place in modern life, locating it squarely within the free minds of individuals. Rather than endlessly documenting the sphere of the religious, Asad demands that scholars attend to the material and social conditions—the “authorizing discourses”—that make certain conceptions/articulations of religion possible. Nearly three decades after he published his reflections on Geertz, we seem to have barely begun heeding his call: “Instead of approaching religion with questions about the social meaning of doctrines and practices… let us begin by asking what are the historical conditions… necessary for the existence of particular religious practices and discourses” (Conceptions 252).

Joel Osteen, “Your Best Life Now” (2004)

Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner Faith, 2004)
Review by A.T. Coates

Osteen’s Your Best Life Now! exudes positive thinking, affirming words, supernatural victory, and a can-do perspective on Christian life. Relentlessly. To a sarcastic person like me, it proved almost unbearable. Your Best Life Now is a performative text, in which the “smiling preacher” Osteen speaks affirming “words of faith” into your life in order to transform you supernaturally. The book bubbles with one-liners that a reader could easily memorize and recite as mantras: “If one dream dies, dream another dream” (85), “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner” (191), “Sow a seed in your time of need” (259). Positive thoughts, positive attitude, and positive speech produce tangible, positive results. Written in a conversational tone (and frequently in the second person), the book leads you through the seven steps to living your best life now: 1) enlarge your vision, 2) develop a healthy self-image, 3) discover the power of your thoughts and words, 4) let go of the past, 5) find strength through adversity, 6) live to give, 7) choose to be happy.

Kate Bowler’s forthcoming book, Blessed, identifies four key markers of the prosperity gospel that fit Osteen’s book neatly: faith, health, wealth, and victory. Supernatural faith. Divine healing. Financial blessing. Christian victory. Using jokes, urban legends, split infinitives, and countless anecdotes about his beloved “Daddy,” Osteen performs this classic prosperity message with relatively little jargon. Packaged for easy consumption and practically made for Wal-Mart’s book section, Osteen’s text seems more like a self-help book than a work of esoteric theology. Everyone deserves the “best life.” To have it, readers need only experience the right way to think, speak, and act.

Your Best Life Now joyfully celebrates the creative agency of individual subjects. This is its most pernicious element. Though almost never mentioned by name, the social forces of race, class, and gender stand as the foils of Osteen’s positive faith. If your parents were poor, and your grandparents were poor, and their grandparents were poor, that doesn’t mean that you have to be poor: “God is a progressive God. He wants you to go further than your parents ever went” (24). For Osteen, multigenerational cycles of poverty are simply illusions that faith can overcome. Gendered oppression shouldn’t stand in your way of positive-thinking your way into a promotion—nothing can constrain the power of God, who showers blessings on those who speak and act in faith. Osteen frequently warns against adopting a “victim mentality,” writing, “There is no such thing as the wrong side of the tracks with our God” (109). Such statements strongly imply that structural racism and other forms of social oppression do not exist. The individual, as a creative agent, must choose to think positively despite circumstances and rely on God to effect change. Those who remain oppressed have only themselves to blame.

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