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: 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).
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.
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.
This generation will probably witness the end of the world.
My used copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth boasts almost 3.8 million copies of the book exist in print. It’s from 1974. One figure I saw claimed that, by 1990, 28 million copies lined American shelves. Frankly, the book contains nothing but standard dispensationalist fare: biblical prophecy refers to events in the future, our current age is coming to a rapid end, Jesus will return soon to rapture the church, everyone should expect to be duped by the charismatic antichrist, Gog and Magog are on the move against Israel. If you don’t spend your days and nights thinking about dispensational premillennialism, this probably seems like a bunch of gibberish—in fact, I can usually end a conversation just by uttering the word “dispensationalism”—but Lindsey offers no particularly innovative content. Clarence Larkin’s Dispensational Truth, William Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming, The Scofield Reference Bible, even the Left Behind novels use very similar concepts and terms. To be fair, Lindsey never describes his project as “dispensationalist.” But he probably wouldn’t protest the label. Like Blackstone’s and Scofield’s before it, this derivative dispensationalist book sold copies in the millions. Answering why could fill a whole book…
Lindsey reads contemporary global events as fulfillments of biblical prophecies. The establishment of the Israeli state and the Six Day War loom large in his text. So do the USSR and Mao’s “Red China.” World War III will happen soon, when the Soviet Union lands amphibious troops at Haifa. If America thinks it has a special role to play, it needs to think again: only widespread spiritual revival will save the nation from becoming a nuclear crater when the antichrist takes over as global dictator. The Vietnam War flies mostly under the radar. Lindsey’s book waves the banner of anti-communism and largely avoids American domestic politics. It’s much more interested in Middle Eastern and global affairs.
Lindsey makes dispensationalism culturally relevant and accessible for his contemporaries. Though he deploys the technical term “rapture,” he carefully explains its meaning clearly and puts it in a chapter called “The Ultimate Trip.” He presents dispensationalism as an alternative to a youth culture of experimentation with drugs and various kinds of spirituality: to those who yearned for a fulfilling, mind-expanding, and just-a-little mystical spirituality, Lindsey suggests poring over newspapers for Signs of the Times instead of dropping acid or chanting with the Hare Krishnas. After explaining why biblical prophets can predict minute details of the future (80), he discusses the “Great Tribulation,” “yellow peril,” and “Millennial Kingdom.” He describes what Christians’ “eternal bodies” are like (141). Mystical stuff, man. But this book isn’t entirely at home in its culture. In ways I find particularly interesting, technology both entices and troubles Lindsey. He revels in the gory details of the nuclear war he’s almost sure will come by the 80s: “Imagine cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—obliterated! John says that the Eastern force alone will wipe out a third of the earth’s population (Rev 9:15-18)” (166). Flash. It’s over. The bomb fuels Lindsey’s spiritual imagination.
But Lindsey also thinks we shouldn’t trust technology, especially computers. The digitization of records, the computerized calculations, the credit cards, all revealed the antichrist’s clever plans: “In our computerized society, where we are all ‘numbered’ from birth to death, it seems completely plausible that some day in the near future the numbers racket will consolidate and we will have just one number for all our business, money, and credit transactions. Leading members of the business community are now planning that all money matters will be handled electronically” (113). Though he’s no Luddite, clearly Lindsey doesn’t sing the praises of the digital world emerging around him. Though he relies on a network of information and images to piece together his coherent picture of our situation in these Last Days, he sees a computerized society as one waiting only for the right dictator to seize its information. Given our current love affair with networks as academics, Lindsey’s book serves as a useful reminder that networks produce fissures as well as connections, apprehension as well as applause.
Surely, the end is nigh.
- Review by A.T. Coates
Joel Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (2004)
Review by A.T. Coates
Robbins’s Becoming Sinners explores the concept of cultural change through the lens of morality. Based on his fieldwork with the Urapmin, a group of about 400 people in western Papua New Guinea, Robbins seeks to understand the cultural changes effected by the group’s conversion to charismatic Christianity. Though he describes the Urapmin’s Christian culture using the term “hybridity,” Robbins wants to go a step further: rather than seeing this “hybridity” as simple mixing or blending, he seeks a more robust theoretical account of the interaction between the constituent parts of hybrid cultures. According to Robbins, when the Urapmin adopted Christianity they became inhabitants of two opposing cultural systems. Unlike in other postcolonial settings, the Urapmin’s traditional bases of life (family, gardening, hunting, etc.) remained unchanged before and after conversion, as did the culture that structured them. Rather than assimilating Christianity into their existing cultural categories or having Christianity transform the structural relationships between their cultural categories, the Urapmin held their traditional culture alongside their Christian culture (7-10). But the largely individualist demands of the new Christian culture conflicted with the largely relational demands governing traditional Urapmin society. As a result, the Urapmin found themselves in a perpetual state they called “sin”: the regular interactions of social life caused them to be sinful, so the Urapmin constantly had to perform Christian rituals to rid themselves of sin. Living in two cultures left the Urapmin “troubled” (314).
As it turns out, the Urapmin are not only charismatic Baptists—they are also dispensational premillennialists. This, argues Robbins, gives them particular outlooks with regard to their place in time and space. The Urapmin explain their history in episodic terms, episodes characterized by radical disjunction. Discussing the group’s conversion, people like to say, “Now is God’s time… Now is now, and before is before.” (164). Living in constant expectation of the coming Millennium, the Urapmin experience “a sloping temporal order in which people are forever pitched forward, placing their best attention on the future and their best energy on their efforts to be ready for that future” (164). Drawing on dispensationalism, the Urapmin also conceive of space in millennial terms. They map the world according to racial categories of “black” and “white”: the Urapmin see themselves and Papua New Guinea as “black” and most of the rest of the world as “white” Christian countries. “Blacks” like themselves, the Urapmin say, have very little self-control, act more immorally than whites, and are not good at getting things done. Dispensationalism plays a complex role in this racial system. The Urapmin see Christianity as a “white” religion—Robbins himself frequently heard that Jesus was white like him, and the Urapmin felt that most “white” countries were Christian. But they also see themselves as participants in a transnational Christian community. Jesus is white, but he “came for the sinners” like the Urapmin: unlike other whites, Jesus is willing to befriend and work with them despite their insufficiencies. When they attend church on Sunday, they see themselves as participants in a worldwide white community. More, the Urapmin believe they will finally be able to overcome their racial deficiencies when Jesus returns. Thus, they spend most of their lives preparing themselves for a future change.
Robbins’s chapter “Contemporary Urapmin in Millennial Time and Space” should be required reading for any course on fundamentalism/dispensationalism in America. The chapter provides much insight into cultures of dispensationalism. Obviously, not everything about the Urapmin case holds for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. But Robbins’s anthropological approach challenges us to consider how historical American dispensational premillennialism operated at the cultural level. Robbins demands that we think about what, say, dispensationalism did to people’s experiences of the present/past/future, how it fostered transnational identities, how it interacted with cultural conceptions of space, how it related to issues of race, etc. In other words, this book has the power to do what anthropologists do best: it makes strange the familiar. Robbins challenges scholars of American history to engage and theorize Christianities as cultures, to reimagine how dispensationalism works through the case of the Urapmin.
Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (1989)
Review by A.T. Coates
Lawrence’s Defenders of God argues fundamentalism needs to be understood comparatively. Writing at a time when many wanted to proclaim the death of fundamentalism, Lawrence insisted that fundamentalism was alive and well around the world. For Lawrence, fundamentalism is a religious ideology, one modern to the core. He writes, “Fundamentalists do not deny or disregard modernity; they protest as moderns against the heresies of the modern age” (ix). As he says over and over again, fundamentalists are moderns—but not modernists. Emerging from the context of modernity, they protest against the totalizing ideology of modernism, declaring that some things can’t be systematized, counted, or subsumed under the authority of the nation-state. They love modern technology, but hate the ideological claim that science can unlock all truth about the world. With painstaking precision, Lawrence spells out precisely what he thinks modernity is, what it means for fundamentalism to be a religious ideology, and how his comparative categories yield insight into movements as diverse as Protestant fundamentalism, Khomeini’s Iran, and the Haredim in Israel.
In its day, Lawrence’s text shifted the register of scholarly conversations about fundamentalism. He insists that modernity provides the essential ingredient for the emergence of fundamentalism. Without modernity, fundamentalism cannot exist. This observation still has the potential to yield important insight. As the lively AAR panels about John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America and Jeremy Stolow’s edited volume Deus in Machina revealed, we still have a lot to learn about the blurred edges and spaces between modernity, technology, consumption, religion.
Defenders is a book of a particular generation. The preface and introduction would still work in an undergraduate classroom setting, but much of the book proceeds meticulously through the histories of arguments on the use of particular categories: so-and-so said this about ideology, which was rebutted by someone else who said such-and-such, to which still another replied with something else, etc. In defending its comparative perspective against the prevailing attitudes of its day, the book focuses quite heavily on the fundamentalist protest against modernity. Wanting to avoid the positive theological definition of Sandeen (fundamentalism is millenarianism), it carefully lays out a case for the kind of modern protest against modernism that fundamentalism enacts. But in this scheme, much like in Marty’s fundamentalism project, fundamentalism remains locked in oppositionalism. Anti-modernism makes the “religious ideologies” of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalism comparable. Family resemblances unite fundamentalisms in their opposition to modernism. Fundamentalists are 1. “advocates of a pure minority viewpoint against a sullied majority;” 2. fundamentalists are “oppositiona;” 3. fundamentalists are almost always secondary-level male elites who appeal to the unmediated authority of scripture; 4. fundamentalists are speakers of a specialized language that unites them against outsiders, 5. fundamentalists have “no ideological precursors,” emerging only as ideological opponents of modernism, whenever it happens to appear in a particular context (100-101).
Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) by A.T. Coates
Katie Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon is one of the most exciting recent works in American religious history. As I said of the “secularism” in John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, I see this book as far more than just a text “about” Oprah. Though it certainly brings insight into its subject, it presents something much more important: Lofton, along with a cohort of young scholars, has inaugurated a new way of doing scholarship in this discipline. The book doesn’t just drape theory over its subject, but advances new theoretical models for the study of culture/religion. It doesn’t stand in admiration of the creative agency of its subject, but critiques a politics and theory that would celebrate the agentive subject. It’s difficult to avoid performing this book while reviewing it. Lofton’s book reminds me of the babysitter I had who used to come over wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, ripped jeans, and redolent of cigarettes: idiosyncratic and confident, casually nonconformist, supremely knowledgeable and world wise, and way, way cooler than me…
This book tears down the wall between religion and culture. Oprah is a celebrity and an icon, a brand and a philosophy, a CEO and spiritual leader. She has a weight problem and an anxious bench, a multimedia corporate empire and a plan of salvation. By discerning the deep religious roots of Oprah’s language, rituals, and practices, Lofton tells a much bigger story about the relationship between religion and culture in modern America. In Oprah’s realm, consumption transforms—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or none besides, if you buy the dress that flatters your figure and feel fabulous about yourself, you practice Oprah’s spirituality. If you come up to the couch and share your awakening story—whether you realize that you’re too fat, that you have been abused, that you’re gay, that you need a new hairstyle—you can transform, receive the gifts of O, and begin to experience your best life, now. Writes Lofton, “Oprah… emerges as the exemplar of… the combined categorical freight of religion, spirituality, commodity, and corporatism. To study modern religion—to study the modern American economy—requires thinking of these categories as conjoined, and not distinct” (10). In this supposedly secular modern age, Oprah reveals just how blurry the boundaries between religious freedom and consumer choice have always been.
In analytical terms, Oprah: Gospel of an Icon doesn’t always satisfy. Though Lofton offers an extended meditation on the iconic O of Oprah’s empire, we hear very little about what an icon might be, what makes this an icon and not that, how this O becomes special. On a similar analytic note, some of the deep religious resonances Lofton identifies in Oprah don’t sit easy with me: why, for example, should readers believe that Oprah’s Book Club shares more with the Chautauqua circuit than with, say, a Christian Science reading room? Why, as a revival preacher, is she more Finney than Moody? The only halfway satisfying answer I’ve come up with is that this book says so, I believe it, that’s good enough for me, and this book is too important to be bogged down with such quibbling. Often, I got the feeling that I was being swept along by this book and just had to accept its unusual sources and claims for the sake of its larger argument. Lofton cites omnivorously, from Jorge-Luis Borges to Candy Gunther Brown, from David Chidester to a University of Chicago BD thesis from 1922. In terms of sources and historical precedents, the book just seems a little too selective, its tone just a little too dynamic and not quite precise enough.
But this book’s significance far outweighs my petty objections. Like the babysitter who taught me what grunge was, it puts something new on our scholarly horizons. Lofton argues that we don’t need to fawn over our subjects to take them “seriously.” She insists that we stop upholding the imaginary divide between religion and culture. She demonstrates that our critical posture and practical agnosticism do not mean we have to remain politically disengaged, merely observing the American religious landscape with wonder. She dares to suggest that religious studies has something important to teach others about what it means to live in a modern, consumerist, “secular” age.