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

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

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

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter”

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter” in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, ed. Meyer and Houtman(2012).

In their concise introduction to Things, Meyer and Houtman offer a very useful overview of the state of the field in material religion. If you are curious about what people mean by the supposed “material turn” in religious studies or if you just are looking to introduce the topic to an undergrad class, this essay lights the path well.

The essay begins with a justification for the project of studying religion by studying things. Like most of those committed to materializing the study of religion, Meyer and Houtman insist that the terms “religion” and “things” need not be conceived in antagonistic terms. Though some scholars want to eschew the term “religion” altogether, Meyer and Houtman think it can still serve useful functions if properly qualified. The historically contingent term “religion” is part of our public and scholarly discourse, like it or not, and it may yet have something to teach us. For the study of religious material culture, this especially means not privileging immaterial “beliefs” in our scholarly work. By turning our attention to things, we might learn new things about how “religion” operates in public discourse, in the academy, and in people’s lives. Like “religion,” things seem to be all around us, like it or not. But far from just inserting “things” into established scholarly paradigms (e.g. throwing a few pictures into a church history book), Meyer and Houtman insist on interrogating, situating, and historicizing “things”: “rematerialization [of the study of religion] is not simply a question of bringing ‘things’ back in, but requires a critical, reflexive endeavor that rescripts the meaning of materiality itself on the basis of detailed historical and ethnographic research” (8). In other words, we ought not take for granted what “things” are, what they can/can’t do, what people can/can’t do with them, for them, to them, etc. The study of religion proves an especially rich ground for investigating things because it contains so many examples of “bad objecthood”: totem, idol, and fetish to name just a few. Such “bad objects” reveal people’s assumptions about materiality and immateriality, about the “proper” spheres and relationships between “the spiritual” and “the material.”

Review by A.T. Coates

Mircea Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane”

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. (orig. 1957, my edition 1987)

David Morgan and I recently had occasion to talk about Eliade. It was not so long ago, he recalled, that practically everybody in our discipline cited Eliade favorably. Morgan remembered hundreds of people filling Rockefeller Chapel for Eliade’s funeral in 1986. Eliade inaugurated a “comparative moment” in the study of religion, a time when people set the “essences” and “spirits” of religions against each other—ostensibly without hierarchy. Though such projects now seem hopelessly misguided, one might argue that the field of religious studies today owes more to Eliade than any other figure. Before him, the likes of Durkheim, Tylor, Müller, even Freud, took interest in the category of religion as an aspect of social, psychological, or literary life—after him, the study of religion seemed to acquire a new level of academic legitimacy in its own right. When J.Z. Smith first published his devastating critiques of Eliade, Morgan reminded me, he was an untenured newcomer. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Eliade’s title The Sacred and the Profane (originally published in German as Das Heilige und das Profane)riffs on Rudolph Otto’s Das Heilige. For Otto, the the holy is the numinous, das ganz Andere (the wholly Other). Eliade picks up the concept of The sacred and defines it as “the opposite of the profane” (10). In other words, the world is profane until the sacred makes it qualitatively otherwise. The sacred “irrupts” into the profane world with a hierophany: “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (11). This means that human beings experience two “modes of being” in the world: the sacred and the profane (14). The sacred is that of order, being, and absolute reality, the profane of chaos, non-being, and, ultimately, death. Homo religiosus, the religious person (everyone except a handful of radical moderns, according to Eliade), desires to live in the sacred at all times. Thus, the site of the hierophany becomes the fixed central point of reality, the axis mundi (37). It founds and orders the world (21-23). It structures space (32) and time (89), generating appropriate models of conduct in myths. Because humans experience both the sacred and the profane in everyday life, the liminal zones between them become especially charged. Much of Eliade’s analysis focuses on things like thresholds (between inside and outside), mountains (between earth and sky), bridges, rites of passage, etc.

All this talk of experience and ontology got me thinking… I am admittedly weak on the finer points of existentialism (and I welcome correction), but it seems to me that it is difficult to appreciate Eliade’s text today without putting it in dialogue with thinkers like Sartre and Camus. In Eliade, humanity finds itself caught in the dilemma of existence, trapped between being and non-being. But instead of having to grasp the absurdity of his existence head-on, Eliade’s homo religiosus finds the solution to the existential crisis in religion. Even “the most elementary religion,” claims Eliade, “is, above all, an ontology” (210). Religion offers access to the sacred, the center of being, the fixed point from which the world makes sense. His comments near the end of the book read like a jab at the atheist existentialists, who refuse to recognize that, at least at the level of the (collective) unconscious, religion still operates in modern life (see 210-211). Those who deny the sacred any role in the world, Eliade contends, have simply “forgotten” it by pushing it deep into “the depths of the unconscious” (213).

Review by A.T. Coates

Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Marcel Mauss, The Gift. (1925)

Do ut des. I have to admit, Mauss’s classic study of the gift managed to surprise me, even on a re-read. Mauss upends assumptions about the gift as a category of exchange. Typically, we assume that we give gifts freely as individuals. More than that, we assume that the structure of our practice of gift giving—from one individual to another—typifies all systems of exchange. Not so, says Mauss. According to him, gifts are given, received, and reciprocated obligatorily. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and gift giving is both “constrained and self-interested” (3). More still, Mauss calls the gift a “total social phenomenon.” By this, he means that “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time [in gifts]—religious, juridical, and moral… economic ones” (3). Even a society’s aesthetics, such as dance or music, can find expression in gifts (see 79). Gifts bind individuals to societies. According to Mauss’s (troubling) understanding of social evolution, the “total social phenomenon” of gifts marks a midway point between “total services” (which bind societies to societies, clans to clans) and the purely individual contracts of a market economy (46).

Reading The Gift on the heels of Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns unintentionally drew my attention to the prevalence of religion—something vaguely like Keane’s kind of materialized religion—in this text. I’ll stop being coy: to my great surprise, the presence of things seems to trouble Mauss. Discussing Maori gifts, he notes that “the legal tie, a tie occurring through things, is one between souls, because the thing itself possesses a soul, is of the soul” (12). Religious notions of the soul connect people. The thing has its own soul, just like individuals, which binds the giver spiritually to the recipient. At this stage, he does not discuss the implications of things having souls, such as their agency or status in the community, but takes the souls for granted in order to illustrate his larger point about the “total” structure of gift exchange. Religion and exchange hang together.

When Mauss discusses the potlatch, things develop a mind of their own. In a potlatch, he observes, a “power” is thought to be present that forces the reciprocal circulation of gifts. Favorably comparing this to Roman religion, he seems surprised that North American native peoples should have “raised themselves to a level where they have personified an abstraction” (43). Despite this snide dismissal, Mauss again confronts things with presence on the very next page. There, we learn that emblazoned copper objects hold special value for the Haida and Kwakiutl—or rather that such copper objects live and move among the people. These objects have a “power of attraction” over other copper objects, and each possesses “its own name, its own individuality, its own value—in the full sense of the word—magical, economic, permanent, and perpetual” (45). Far from inert, these copper objects are thought to survive even the violent destruction to which they are sometimes subjected. “Possessing” such an object really entails something more like being in the company of a supernatural being and having it as a useful member of one’s family. Again, Mauss dismisses this understanding of things as a “survival” of a bygone phase of social evolution. But he has to explain these copper agents somehow, for their presence implies that his own society’s hard distinction between people and things is notnecessarily the natural order of the universe. Latour this isn’t, but Mauss does open the possibility that more than just the inert “property” of individuals can be exchanged in the world.

Review by A.T. Coates

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007)

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (U California, 2007)

Christian Moderns spins a beautiful, complex argument. Calvinist missionaries, Sumbanese Bible diviners, modernity’s fetishisms, subjectivities, words, things, and more weave together into an astounding work. Those interested in religion and modernity, the materiality of religions, the anthropology of Christianity, or cultural change must read this book. Below, I have struggled to summarize some of the book’s major arguments. You can find much better reviews on The Immanent Frame.

Based on his fieldwork on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, Keane’s book explores the encounter between Calvinists (Dutch missionaries and their converts) and practitioners of Sumbanese ancestral religion (marapu). Keane’s study of this encounter circles around words, things, and human subjectivity. These Christians are not flashy or extravagant—they’re not even millennialists. This “ordinariness” of their everyday worlds makes them all the more interesting to Keane. For the Calvinists, the inertness of words demonstrates a speaker’s agency. The right words spoken sincerely reveal one’s beliefs about God. In traditional marapu practice, by contrast, words come in fixed forms from the ancestors. If you show “agency” while reciting these words, their efficacy became suspect. The Sumbanese and the Dutch missionaries lived in completely different kinds of representational worlds. But then there was a convert named Umbu Neka, who thought that the old words still had powers that needed to be redeployed in service of his newfound faith. His hybrid approach to words, things, and human subjectivity inspired Keane to examine how Protestant modernity affected the everyday lives of the Sumbanese. I found chapter six particularly interesting, as it examines how prayer operates in the mission encounter.

Among many other things, Keane argues that the mission encounter in Sumba reveals competing versions of “agency.” Bucking a trend in both history and anthropology to celebrate the agency of subjects blithely, Keane instead interrogates how “agency” comes to mean what it does in particular contexts. Without careful attention to our subjects’ understandings about what a subject is, what an object is, what a word is, what a thing is, what words and things can/can’t do, how to act meaningfully in the world,—in short, what he calls their “semiotic ideology”—we don’t have any idea what their “agency” might be. More than just calling for a deeper account of “the native point of view,” Keane cautions against imputing particular notions of agency to our subjects without attention to the discursive and material conditions in which their subjectivity emerges. Like ours, their self-understandings about agency appear as historically specific sets of concrete practices and “semiotic forms” (4). In brief, this means that there is nothing transcendent or abstract about agency—it takes shape as a historically conditioned set of practices, which are embedded in particular discourses, meaningful word-sounds, speech genres, habits of gesture, material cultures, etc. Even agency cannot escape the consequences of materiality. We must understand how our subjects distinguish words, things, and agents (not just what they say about how they do so) before we start celebrating their agency.

Becoming modern, becoming religious. Keane takes great interest in the modernist project of “purification.” Drawn from Latour, this refers to the desire to make hard category distinctions between things like subject and object, living and non-living, human and non-human. Purification never fully succeeds, and hybrids proliferate. Keane argues that Protestantism stands at the heart of the modernist project of purification, particularly with respect to language. Calvin turned the sacraments into signs of grace. Being nothing in themselves, the inert “elements” allowed agency to reside only with individual believers and with God: their “meaning” wholly immaterial, the material presence of bread and wine stood merely as a sign of the agentive action taken by God to save and the communicant’s sincere belief in it. Like reciting the creeds, taking communion as a Calvinist established the immateriality of meaning and the inertness of meaning’s material forms of expression. The norm of sincerity held this semiotic ideology together: only sincere believers could take communion or recite the creeds, and there were great moral consequences for treating the elements as anything more than signs of grace or thinking that the words of the creeds themselves held power. “Religion” described this province of private belief; “science” would come to describe the inert, material world. Thus, Keane sees this Protestant purification project as having a curious affinity with Saussure’s linguistics, in which the sign is a purely arbitrary vehicle for the immaterial meanings intended by an agentive subject. Modernity and Protestantism fed off each other in the Euro-American context, leading to similar projects of purification. Both attempted to preserve particular notions of agency.

Summary 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.

Hal Lindsey, “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1970)

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

Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)

Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845). Online version.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach offers eleven short critiques of Feuerbach’s dialectical materialism. In the dialectical philosophies of Feuerbach and Hegel, he argues, “materialism” appears usually as inert objects or as (objects of) contemplation. For them, real human activity happens in the mind—the material serves as mind’s dialectical opposite. But for Marx, all human activity (including subjectivity and thought) must be theorized as practical, material, and social. Even “religious sentiments” are social products according to Marx; more still, the “abstract individual” who holds “religious sentiments” emerges only under particular material and social conditions (#7). Thus, Marx rejects the idealists’ claim that the essence of human subjectivity resides in the individual mind. He insists that any theory of human society must be aware of the material conditions under which such particular notions of subjectivity emerged: “the human essence. . . . is the ensemble of social relations,” not an “abstraction inherent in each single individual” (#6).

Marx demands that theory must engage in revolutionary political activity. In the most famous thesis (#11), he writes, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real point is to change it.” This is no vague inspirational quote about “changing your world” by being a nice person or liking the right cause on Facebook. For Marx, change happens at the level of social structures and the material conditions that structure the way people think, experience, and live in the world.

-Review by A.T. Coates

Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” and “What is Iconoclash?”

Latour seems to be having a moment in religious studies right now. It is easy to see why: for Latour, religion constitutes a central element of modernity. Fetish… factish. Scientific “facts” behave suspiciously like the “fetishes” of so-called primitive religion—the truth inhabits the scientist’s microscope like the god speaks through the shaman’s mask. Latour takes the modern anthropological tools that have limned the boundaries of “religion” and turns them back on modernity itself. We accuse others of merely “believing” in gods they have made with their own hands, and yet insist that scientific facts descend unmediated into our minds, that they inhabit our apparatuses, that things must either be products of human labor (thus artificial) or completely untouched by human hands (thus true/genuine). “A Modern,” writes Latour, “is someone who believes that others believe” (42). The notion of “belief” allows Moderns to distinguish between those who are naïve and don’t know the god they believe in has been fabricated; those who are manipulative, who don’t themselves believe but convince others to do so; and those who are cynical, who know the god is made, and yet believe. Moderns don’t believe in scientific facts—they know them. Facts must be true and unmade, like the holy icon that descends from heaven

Iconoclash. When the Portuguese arrived on the Gold Coast of Africa carrying holy images of the Virgin, they invented the term “fetishism” to describe the amulets worn by the Africans. The fetishes were fabricated by people, then worshipped—such idolatry had to go. The images of the Madonna were acheiropoiete, not made by any human hand—the true, holy image. In this instance, we do not encounter iconoclast vs. iconophile, but iconophile vs. iconophile. One image gets destroyed and another is put in its place. “Iconoclasm” describes the relatively transparent act of breaking an image for the express purpose of its destruction. “Iconoclash” describes the much more complex moment where an image gets broken, but we can’t be sure why, where the act of breaking might just destroy, or it might construct something new. Latour being Latour, he swirls three kinds of image destruction together: religion, science, contemporary art. The religious reformer destroys the old idols, the scientist debunks the old model, the artist breaks down the conventions of “art.” But, as should be clear, not one of these acts of destruction dispenses with images altogether. The scientist posits a new model, the artist who hates “art” creates more art, and the Portuguese install shrines to the Virgin where the old gods once lived. Denying the power of the idols, they break them and install new icons not made by human hands, new art that breaks the conventions of art, new unmediated facts.

Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash?” from Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (2002)
AND
Bruno Latour, “Fetish-Factish” in Material Religion 7.1 (2011): 42-49.

Review by A.T. Coates

 

Joel Robbins, “Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society” (2004).

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.

Lawrence, “Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age” (1989)

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)

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.

J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923)

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923)

Machen delivers the classic text of bowtie fundamentalism. As the title suggests, he argues that liberalism (aka. modernism) belongs to a completely different category of religion than Christianity. Liberalism doesn’t even deserve the name of heresy; it’s simply a different religion altogether. For Machen, this is what makes liberalism so pernicious: it’s another religion, but it dishonestly uses Christian symbols and language. Though painstakingly dull by modern standards, Machen’s work clearly aims at a broad audience. He seeks to eliminate confusion about liberalism among Christian ministers, thoughtful laypeople, and theologians alike. Though he deals with standard topics in systematic theology, Machen never uses terms like “soteriology” or “ecclesiology.” Instead, he contrasts Christian and liberal understandings of “doctrine,” “God and man,” “the Bible,” “Christ,” “salvation,” and “the church.” The spokesman for bowtie fundamentalism remains deeply concerned about fighting liberalism at the grassroots level.

Machen’s (slight) ecumenism stood out to me. It’s quite easy to imagine fundamentalism as an exclusivist club, forming boundaries to exclude its opponents from Heaven and justify extreme actions (as I criticized Marty and Appleby for doing). But, for all of Machen’s bald assertions that liberalism isn’t Christianity, Machen reminds us that early fundamentalism often transgressed denominational boundaries. Liberals want to erase differences to create a naturalistic religion, Machen contends, but Christianity acknowledges differences of opinion while remaining firm on certain key doctrines. Machen’s Christianity simply wishes to differentiate between essential and non-essential differences. Machen believes that premillennialism is a grave error (yes, he was a postmillennial fundamentalist!). But he insists that the premillennial/postmillennial debate is merely “a difference of opinion which can subsist in the midst of Christian fellowship” (50). For Machen, identifying the sine qua non of Christianity in a few “fundamentals” enabled partnerships between Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and perhaps even—but probably not—Catholics (see 160ff).

History matters to Machen—but he thinks about history very differently than I do. For Machen, Christianity is rooted in an event. “From the beginning,” he writes, “the Christian gospel, as indeed the name ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened” (27). Doctrines about Jesus, says Machen, mean nothing unless “joined in an absolutely indissoluble union” with history (ibid). In other words, supernatural events—like the resurrection, virgin birth, etc.—occur throughout history, and Christian doctrine simply explains the meaning of those events. Machen identifies this position as a key differentiator between Christianity and liberalism: “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative” (47). In Machen’s understanding, then, major supernatural disruptions have happened throughout history—but between such supernatural events, history hangs limp. When it comes to the gospel, Machen sees no major difference between the first century and the twentieth. To me, such claims offer an interesting point of connection with anthropological studies of Christianity like Joel Robbins’s Becoming Sinners, which identifies “rupture” as a major theme of Christian history (we were sinners, now we’re Christians—then is incomparable to now). Machen’s history seems both flat and ruptured.

Selections from Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism Project”

Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, “Introduction” and “Conclusion” in Fundamentalisms Observed (1991) and Marty, “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 42.2 (1988): 15-29.

Marty’s understanding of fundamentalism is the water I swim in. The Fundamentalism Project, true to its aim, now holds the status of an encyclopedia. I suspect if you asked a group of well-informed undergraduates, they would produce a definition of fundamentalism something like Marty’s. It’s a testament to the intellectual force of his comparative approach. It’s also a strong incentive to innovate.

For Marty, the term “fundamentalism” captures the family resemblances in a global array of religious phenomena. Acknowledging that the term “fundamentalism” isn’t going away anytime soon, he uses it to designate “fundamentalism-like movements” rather than any particular substantive thing. This is a key part of Marty’s argument: unlike earlier substantive definitions (such as James Barr’s equation of Protestant fundamentalism with biblical inerrancy), Marty isolates similarities among fundamentalisms across many religious traditions. First, he identifies what “fundamentalism” is not: 1) it is not conservatism, classicism, or orthodoxy, 2) it is not a vestigial remnant of earlier times, 3) it is not synonymous with certain substantive elements, doctrines, or particular tenets of a faith (e.g. inerrancy), 4) it is not the only kind of opposition to “secular rationalism,” 5) it is not just anti-science or anti-rationalist in perspective, 6) it is not opposed to modern technology or media, 7) it is not in decline or likely to fade away, 8) it is not always composed of activists, militants, terrorists, or belligerents, 9) it is not a way of compensating for economic or intellectual deprivation. Next, Marty suggests the traits fundamentalist-like movements share: 1) they are always reactive against “modernity,” 2) they are selective in choosing “fundamentals,” 3) they are “scandalous,” meaning they cause offense to groups outside themselves, 4) they are always exclusive and separatist, 5) they are always oppositional, 6) they are absolutist, 7) they are anti-developmental and anti-evolutionary, 8) they are anti-relativistic and anti-hermeneutical, 9) they consider themselves “agents of the sacred power, person or force which gives life to their group,” and 10) they are teleological. In short, fundamentalism is “a tendency, a habit of mind, found within religious communities and paradigmatically embodied in certain representative individuals and movements, which manifests itself as a strategy or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group” (Conclusion 835).

George Marsden famously defined fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.” To play Marsden against Marty a little, one might say that Marty considers fundamentalism “militantly anti-modernist” religion. For Marsden, the “modernism” against which early Protestant fundamentalism militantly rebelled was a very specific set of theological positions and changes in American culture. Marty’s fundamentalists hostile to modernity itself, opposing a varied set of political, cultural, and intellectual conditions wherever they can assume the name of “modernity.” Militancy unites Marty’s fundamentalists in their oppositions to various modernities around the world. They are “religious idealists” who coalesce around a personal and collective identity, then fight back, fight for, fight with, fight against, and fight under (Intro ix-x). This is not to say that Marty caricatures fundamentalists as terrorists. Rather, it is to observe that he categorizes fundamentalism as an internal disposition, “a tendency, a habit of mind… which manifests itself as a strategy, or set of strategies… to preserve… identity” (835).

Obviously, such a perspective takes little interest in objects, practices, bodies, media, or materiality. The conclusion essay gapes in wonder at “fundamentalism’s seemingly innate understanding of, and effortless manipulation of, modern mass media of communication (and propaganda)” (832). Fittingly for its internalized understanding of fundamentalism, this presents media as something fundamentalists understand innately and manipulate effortlessly. In this understanding, internal fundamentalism spreads by using inert media instrumentally. As the parenthetical remark about propaganda suggests, this model emphasizes content and the meaning-making activities of religious agents. Fundamentalists qua agents use media to deliver their militant mental habits to as many people as possible. They do so with quasi-magic effortlessness, innate understanding. In my future dissertation, I want turn the tables. I want to ask what kinds of mediation made Protestant fundamentalism possible. I want to examine the articulations of power, techniques of the body, networks of objects, and technologies of mediation that made it possible for something called “fundamentalism” to emerge in early 20th-century America. 

Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People (2000)

Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000. (2000)

Yaakov Ariel’s Evangelizing the Chosen People dances through a minefield. Examining missions to Jewish people in (and from) American Christians, Ariel sensitively renders both sides of a history more accustomed to harsh polemics. On the one side, he examines the institutional histories and theological motivations of Christian missions to the Jews. On the other, he attends to the Jewish responses to those missions—which were far more varied than many people might like to admit. Ariel’s book advances two important theses: 1) dispensational premillennialism provided the fuel in the engine for American evangelical missions to the Jews, 2) in surprising ways, missions have shaped Jewish-Christian relations in America. In Ariel’s estimation, dispensational premillennialism was the primary motivator of American missions to the Jews: it offered frameworks for Christian understandings of Judaism and Jewish people, and instilled in many Christians an urge to convert “Israel.” In dispensational theology, the Jewish nation has an important role to play in earth’s Last Days: those who remain alive after the Great Tribulation will convert en masse to Christianity and usher in Christ’s millennial kingdom. Thus, Jews hold an ambiguous place in dispensationalism: they need to convert to Christianity, but they are fundamentally different from all other people and have a special role to play in God’s future plans. This twin emphasis on specialness and difference, Ariel argues, has created a number of paradoxes in Jewish-Christian relations. The Christians who worked the hardest to convert Jews often became ardent supporters of Zionism and nationalist projects in Israel. Because they thought Israel had a special past and future, missionaries learned much about Jewish life and became ambassadors to other Christians on behalf of Jewish culture and religion. Such missions have made it possible for Christian groups like Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism to emerge and to be welcomed into the evangelical fold. Because of the dispensationalist character of missions to the Jews, Ariel argues, today in America there are Christian congregations who celebrate Jewish ethnic heritage, churches where teenagers read the New Testament at their bar mitzvahs.

This book is heavy going. Ariel builds his case by carefully tracing the histories of many important missionary institutions, moments in mission history, Jewish responses to Christian missions, and twists in the story of Jewish-Christian relations. Most non-specialists will probably have a hard time appreciating the significance of this work—some sections seemed repetitive and dull, piling detail after detail about dispensationalist missionary organizations. But for those willing to move at Ariel’s pace, the book proves rewarding. Careful and sensitive, this book takes its subjects very seriously even as Ariel’s sense of humor shines through: “If the association between evangelical missionaries and Jewish Orthodox scholars was amazing, the encounter between the Southern Baptist missionaries and the Canaanites was almost in the realm of the unthinkable” (151). This encounter “in the realm of the unthinkable” connected a conservative Southern Baptist missionary with the hippest edge of the Israeli avant-garde on the issue of the separation of synagogue and state. Though his interactions with Israel’s cultural elite, that missionary helped to forge a new language for Christianity: converts started calling themselves meshichi (“messianic”) instead of the more familiar term notzri (“Christian”) (155). Later in the book, Ariel carefully shows how this language became central to the self-understandings of Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism in America. Though he calls them “new religious movements” (222), Ariel notes that adherents think of themselves as “ur-Christians,” having special affinity with Jesus and his disciples. Reversing a long history of responses to missions, these groups see conversion to Christianity as a way of connecting with their Jewish roots, of finding “authentic” Judaism and Christianity (198). The chapters on Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism would make for great discussion in an upper-level undergraduate class.