Finding this from 1920 is what dissertation research is all about. Clarence Larkin’s Bible prophecy charts never looked so enticing. “The Greatest Book on Dispensational Truth in the World!” Now with pictures!
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).
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days (1995).
Suddenly, without explanation, people disappear en masse. Cars crash into medians, driverless. Passengers vanish from airplanes midflight. Piles of clothes suddenly replace loved ones. All the world’s children, gone. A woman in labor finds her belly suddenly deflated; she delivers only a placenta (46). Welcome to the world of Left Behind. Boasting a company of characters named like the cast list of a 1970s porno—Buck Williams, Chloe Steele, Bruce Barnes, and Dirk Burton among others—Left Behind narrates a spy-thriller version of old-fashioned dispensational end times theology. The book operates on two levels. On the one hand, it’s an entertainment novel. Pure airport fare. A band of stock characters needs to solve a mystery, but forces ranging from the paranormal to the United Nations frustrate and complicate their efforts. In the end, the conspiracy goes much bigger than they thought, one problem (why did everyone disappear?) finds resolution but reveals bigger problems to follow (the antichrist is rising, but who?).
On the other hand, Left Behind is a thoroughly, unabashedly, Christian book for a conservative Christian audience. It puts a creative spin on the old dispensationalist practice of reading current events for signs of the times. Left Behind imagines a not-too-distant future that looks and feels suspiciously like the present (c. 1995): one character (Buck) finds that “the connection to his ramp on the information superhighway was busy” (32). Another character, searching for an explanation for his wife and son’s disappearance, pops in a DVD made by his wife’s pastor—the DVD player having first appeared in, that’s right, 1995 (202). So the book’s setting is the future, but it might as well be tomorrow. This gives practically unlimited creative license when the authors to get down to the dispensationalist business. This book does not read signs of the times as dispensationalists traditionally do, but rather conjures the times. Working backwards, it drapes the prophetic future onto the form of the present rather than looking at the present for signs of the prophetic future.
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2009).
Wal-Mart Moms forged today’s America. It seems a cheap compliment to call a book smart and well-written, but this one sets a new bar for each adjective. First, the smart argument. Moreton tells a new story about the rise of conservatism after World War II. Instead of towing the party lines of economic, political, and religious history, Moreton demonstrates that neo-evangelicalism, free enterprise, and political conservatism mingled promiscuously. And they met each other in Wal-Mart. By wedding value with family values, Wal-Mart turned consumerism into a Christian duty. A responsible Christian mom became a Wal-Mart mom. By modeling the service industry on a patriarchal Christian family, Wal-Mart managed to bring the evangelical wives of Sun Belt yeomen through the doors as employees and customers; they also made it culturally acceptable for old-fashioned Sun Belt men to work in the service industry. This family business headquartered in the Ozarks helped shift the nation’s economic and political might from the unionized industrial northeast/Midwest to the freewheeling Sun Belt—and the nation shifted, so Wal-Mart’s fortunes lifted. They ran the best mom and pop store in small towns across the country, then became global missionaries of down home capitalism. In Moreton’s telling, the story of Wal-Mart’s rise does not represent manifest destiny or commonsense logic: “[Christian free enterprise] was an unstable compound, the product in part of impressive agglomerations of power and money. But it was also the progeny of pragmatic responses to real needs, of idealistic hope in redemption, and of the elevation of service from its devalued position in the broader culture” (269-270).
Second, the sizzling writing. Moreton’s prose cooks. Practically every paragraph includes an apt metaphor, a clever turn of phrase, a spicy verb, or some kind of witty wordplay. Here is an arbitrary example: “Like postwar evangelicalism, the country music industry, or the Republican Party’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ the [Sun Belt] region’s service sector spun traditional straw into radical new gold” (50). This sentence sits mid-paragraph. Mid. Paragraph. This is how Moreton’s book works so well: she shows how ingredients as diverse as country music and Richard Nixon stewed together in the world of Wal-Mart. There’s no monocause or grand narrative here, but only ad hoc, unstable mixtures of cultural ingredients held together by superb writing. Form supports content.
Review by A.T.
Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)
In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.
Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.
Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. (U California, 2007).
Engelke examines immateriality in the Masowe weChishanu Church of Zimbabwe. Known as the “Friday apostolics,” members of this church proudly identify themselves as “Christians who don’t read the Bible.” In fact, they claim to have moved beyond the Bible to a “live and direct” faith, one that does not require the mediation of mere things like books to experience God’s presence. Conversing with the work of Webb Keane, Engelke unpacks “live and direct” as a semiotic ideology, a set of underlying assumptions about signification, representation, etc. An apostolic prophet, Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, once phrased this “live and direct” semiotic ideology in terms unthinkable to other Protestants: “What is the Bible to me?… After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have a true Bible here” (2). The thingyness, the materiality of a paper Bible makes it suspect. By contrast, the immaterial “true Bible” does not need words on the page to make its message clear, and in fact does better without them. This creates a problem for apostolics: a problem of presence. Certain objects, utterances, rituals, etc. do bring about live and direct encounters with the Holy Spirit, the true Bible, the angels—the prophet speaks, the church sings, congregants wear white robes. There is no such thing as pure immateriality, even in this tradition that prizes it. Some things are just more material than others.
Engelke’s prose sparkles. Chapter 7, “The Substance of Healing,” offered a very memorable case in point—it would work very well in a seminar on materiality. As an anthropologist, you’re bound to get sick while in the field. During one of his illnesses, church members insisted on giving Engelke “holy honey,” the most potent spiritual medicine made by apostolic elders. According to Friday principles, the therapeutic power of the honey comes only from the Holy Spirit—not from anything about the honey itself. But when Engelke drove a friend to work after church, the man, facing a long day at the office, hinted that a spoonful of the honey might really help him and sheepishly asked for one. In Engelke’s own phrasing, honey is a “sticky subject” of conversation and a “sticky object” for apostolics, since it is “the practical channel through which the apostolics articulate an exception to the rule that a Friday faith should be immaterial. . . .it represents the realization that even ‘strong’ Christians cannot divorce themselves from the material” (243). Materiality is not an either/or proposition, but rather “a matter of degree and kind” (ibid). Materiality is a sticky business indeed.
Review by A.T. Coates
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937)
Niebuhr argues that the kingdom of God stands at the center of American Christianity. He attempts “to interpret the meaning and spirit of American Christianity as a movement which finds its center in the faith in the kingdom of God” (ix). No, not all of his sentences are that bad. In fact, one sentence still echoes in our field. In an influential form of liberal Christianity, Niebuhr charges, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (193). To appreciate what this famous sentence is getting at, we have to return to the beginning. According to Niebuhr, American Christians have persistently believed in “the kingdom of God.” However, the meaning of the concept has changed over time. Americans have adapted this key gospel concept to their own needs. For the earliest Protestant colonizers of America, the kingdom of God meant “the living reality of God’s present rule, not only in human spirits but also in the world of nature and of human history” (51). Establishing this “kingdom” meant living properly under God’s sovereignty. For their evangelical descendants, the kingdom of God became the kingdom of Christ. This kingdom sought to establish itself in hearts, achieving the regeneration of society through faith and love. Later, American Christians wanted to see the kingdom come. They hoped for “its manifestation in power,” for the earthly reign of Christ in his millennial kingdom or for a Christian takeover of society (Social Gospel). For Niebuhr, the evangelicals (Edwards and co.) came the closest to getting it right. They didn’t wed their “kingdom” to social institutions but demanded social change, they understood God’s judgment and sovereignty, and they insisted on individual change through faith in Christ. Hence his criticism of liberalism.
My edition of this book contains a nice little introduction by Martin Marty. Marty reminds that Niebuhr considered himself a theologian, not a historian. He links Niebuhr’s approach to Weber’s, suggesting that both show the consequences of religious ideas for societies. He points out that this book was once revisionist. He admires Niebuhr’s insight into “the American spirit.” I’m not interested in arguing with Marty tonight.
Niebuhr outlines three of interesting “convictions” about American Christianity. First, he sees his work as a first step to something larger. He wants nothing less than to inspire a future Jonathan Edwards or “American Augustine” who will change people’s understanding of the relationship between faith and society. Theological claims like this make me queasy, but one has to admire his lofty ambitions. Second, he insists that Christianity cannot be adequately understood as only otherworldly or this-worldly. While he elaborates some dense theological points about the dialectical movement by which the church progresses toward its ultimate union with God, his main concern is that historians recognize their own partiality. Rather than chastising our predecessors for being too much of this or that, Niebuhr demands that we take them as interlocutors with whom we can argue fruitfully. Finally, Niebuhr studies American Christianity as a “movement,” not “an institution or series of institutions” (xxiii-xxiv). Again, Niebuhr’s theology motivates this “conviction.” But it does seem an interesting accident of history that most of us now write about movements, not particular institutions. Would any of the big university presses even consider publishing a denominational history of the Presbyterian Church of America? Almost certainly not. The times may be a changin’ in our guild, but we still live with Niebuhr’s legacy…
Review by A.T. Coates
David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (InterVarsity, 2005)
Image: Charles Haddon Spurgeon preaching at the Music Hall in the Royal Surrey Gardens, 1856.
Bebbington delivers a very readable introduction to evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, it would work well in an undergraduate survey of evangelicalism or in a graduate class on approaches to the study of evangelicalism. Most famously, this book presents a succinct definition of evangelicalism—one that has become standard in the field. Bebbington identifies four defining emphases of “evangelicalism”: 1) crucicentrism, emphasis on the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, 2) conversionism, emphasis on individual faith and conversion experience, 3) biblicism, emphasis on the Bible as the revealed Word of God, 4) activism, emphasis on spreading the gospel. Given its wide audience, the book focuses more on surveying the landscape than offering a controversial argument: Bebbington’s thesis claims that nineteenth century evangelicalism, carrying forward the “vigor” it inherited from the awakening of the eighteenth century, assumed a “dominant” role in the churches and cultures of the English-speaking world (see 252). Evangelicals stood at the vanguard of innovative church practice, set the trends in theology and in popular spirituality, and led all other churches in numerical growth. More than that, evangelicalism exerted major influence on cultural debates about sentimentalism, science, public education, sports/recreation, temperance, and women’s suffrage.
There’s much to praise about this book. Bebbington treats evangelicalism as a network that spanned the English-speaking world. Though most of the book’s action takes place in Great Britain and the United States, Bebbington traces evangelical connections around the globe—Canada, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand play their parts. More importantly, he stresses that evangelicals themselves thought of their movement in global terms. That said, Bebbington is also careful enough to draw attention to the “diversity” of this global movement. While historians have tended to slice the evangelical pie nation by nation, Bebbington suggests that theological, social (esp. race and class), and denominational differences mattered more to evangelicals themselves. Canadian, American, Australian, and African Presbyterians probably shared more resources, styles of worship or devotion, and feelings of connection than most white American Presbyterians shared with black American Methodists. Despite such deep fissures, Bebbington insists that these were “internal contrasts… less important than the unity of the evangelical movement” (81, emphasis added).
As my regular readers will probably suspect (the few, the proud, the bored), I have some concerns with the centrality of “belief” in Bebbington’s definition. Though he calls them the evangelical movement’s “enduring priorities” (23), his crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism are all abstract ideas to which individuals, or aggregates of like-minded individuals, can assent. They are “beliefs” of a very particular kind, though we hear nothing about their making. This set of intellectualized “priorities” floats through history like a ghost, manifesting and appearing in different expressions here, now there, now then. This ghost generates an “essence” of late nineteenth-century evangelicalism, one that gets embodied in Spurgeon and Moody (267). As far as I’m concerned, “belief” needs to remain under constant interrogation. We need to ask how “belief” gets assembled and reassembled in particular contexts. This certainly means examining the self-understandings of individuals if and when they assert them, but it also means attending to the objects, images, discourses, body disciplines, subjectivities, and social formations that constitute “belief” in a given case. The category of “belief” constantly gets made and remade, so whenever we invoke the category, we need to trace the associations that make it.
Review by A.T. Coates
Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 1981.
At one point in A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer laments the low turnout for his anti-abortion seminars in the early 1970s (67-68). He blames evangelical leaders who held an incorrect view of Christianity, who limited its sphere of influence. Whatever the reason for their absence, it’s the absence itself that sticks out now—anti-abortion activism, or at least anti-abortion sentiment, seems part and parcel of evangelicalism itself. Clearly, it wasn’t always so. Lest we forget, Schaeffer served as an important intellectual architect of what we have come to call “conservative evangelicalism.” His book and video series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? helped turn opposition to abortion from a “Catholic issue” into a broadly conservative issue. More than that, he helped to popularize the view that Christian America was under siege by a competing “world view” called “humanism.” This book serves as nothing less than a call to arms for an emerging culture war.
It’s more than a catchy title: A Christian Manifesto. On a flyleaf, Schaeffer names his book’s predecessors to mark his as a Christian political document: “The Communist Manifesto, 1848/ Humanist Manifesto I, 1933/ Humanist Manifesto II, 1973.” Keeping in mind that this book came out in 1981, it’s clear that this move serves two purposes: 1) it places Schaeffer’s book both in the tradition of and in opposition to these other manifestos, and 2) it posits a genealogical connection between communism and humanism—even in the capitalist world, Schaeffer implies, “humanism” springs from Marxism. For Schaeffer, Christianity and “humanism” are mutually incompatible “world views.” A “world view” describes “the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole” (17). According to Schaeffer, humanism considers ultimate reality to be a random flux of energy and matter, our world to be nothing but the result of pure chance. In the period from 1933-1973, this world view took over American culture, which was founded on “Judeo-Christian” values (55). Worse still, says Schaeffer, many Christians have been complicit in this humanist takeover of their culture (he specifically names Martin Marty as an offender in this regard on p.22, though my beloved professor Yaakov Ariel insists Marty is one of the tzadikim nistarim). Schaeffer calls Christian America to wake up and do something to save their culture.
This book offers rich primary material for historians of conservative evangelicalism because it brings a number of issues to the fore. 1) Schaeffer shows deep concern about the legalization of abortion, but it actually seems to be a symptom of his deeper concern for American youth. References to school, education, and students occur frequently in this book (e.g. 83-86). Whether through abortion or the lack of prayer in public schools, the key concern remains the same: Schaeffer believes America’s future is at stake, society’s most vulnerable members under attack. 2) Schaeffer insists on treating “humanism” as a coherent, singular entity. More specifically, he treats it as a religion. By drawing his definition of “humanism” from the Humanist Manifestos, Schaeffer provides a clear, “religious” origin for the cultural changes that rocked America from the 1940s-70s (see 54). As he sees it, the First Amendment has hijacked by a particular religion opposed to the Judeo-Christian democratic principles of America’s founders. Rulings concerning prayer in public schools, public displays of the Ten Commandments, and abortion reveal how this religion has used the courts more effectively than Christians. 3) Somewhat surprisingly, Schaeffer flatly rejects the circumscription of religion usually associated with the rise of evangelicalism in the early republic. He laments that “spirituality has… been shut up to a very narrow area”—namely, individual belief in the supernatural, which he calls “platonic, overly spiritualized” Christianity (63). He insists that Christian truth applies to all of life on earth—and that Christian truth is the only firm basis for a just, harmonious society, the only fixed point from which to measure the external world scientifically. For Schaeffer, Christian spirituality extends completely into the material realm. At the very least, we can say that this complicates our usual scholarly understandings of evangelicalism, which focus heavily on individual beliefs. Even in a book by Francis Schaeffer, an intellectualized product of “fundamentalist” evangelicalism if ever there was one, “belief” happens materially.
Review by A.T. Coates
Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: 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
Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford, 2002).
In his weighty volume America’s God, Noll tells how evangelical religion, republican politics, and commonsense moral reasoning wound together in the early American republic. His story describes the ways that evangelicals, particularly theologians, transformed public discourse in America and in the process produced a unique variety of Christian nationalism. But more than that, for Noll, “the process by which evangelical Protestantism came to be aligned with republican convictions and commonsense moral reasoning was also the process that gave a distinctively American shape to Christian theology by the time of the Civil War” (10). With thoroughgoing rigor, Noll follows evangelical theology from the “Puritan canopy” that birthed it, through the First Great Awakening, past the surge in the early nineteenth century, right up to the evangelical consensus that had emerged by the eve of the Civil War. In some ways, this book is a triumph of erudition—anyone interested in how evangelical theology became American, or how civil religion may have developed, would do well to consult this book.
A decade after its publication, Noll’s approach to evangelicalism has become something like consensus in the field. This is testifies to its thoroughness, clarity, insight, and careful argumentation, but also curses it, making America’s God the dragon young scholars of evangelicalism must—or at least think they must—slay. In Secularism in Antebellum America, John Modern offers a much more compelling critique than I will offer here (see my review of Modern or read Modern’s essay version here). Modern takes up the issue of agency and the public sphere, asking about the kinds of mediation, discipline, and discourse that enabled the evangelical self-understandings Noll so carefully examines. I won’t try to compete with him there…
Review by A.T. Coates
Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. (U Kansas P, 2011).
Like most significant historical works, this one makes important contributions in two ways: historical and theoretical. Baker not only sheds new light on the history of religion in 20th-century America, she also offers a compelling new model for scholarship in the field. Not bad for a dissertation book.
First, the history. Baker’s bold thesis declares that we can’t understand the KKK “revival” of the 1920s without understanding the movement’s Protestantism. That is, the KKK of the 20s was a thoroughly Protestant movement. Mainstream, “normal” Protestantism motivated and fuelled the Klan’s nativism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, gendered ideology, and white supremacy. The KKK didn’t “twist” or “distort” Protestantism for its own ends, but created an Invisible Empire of white knights as the last “manly” defenders of an imperiled Christian nation. And in the 20s, millions welcomed these protectors and their “twin messages of nation and faith” (6). Drawing on the Klan’s print culture and, to some extent, their material culture, Baker employs an ethnographic method to unpack the movement’s presentation of Protestantism, nationalism, white masculinity, white femininity, racial purity, and anti-Catholicism. As just one fascinating example, she discusses how the Klan’s iconic white robes and conical “hoods” functioned as part of its racial ideology. Klan photographs tended to show large groups in which everyone appears in white robes. The robes thus magnified whiteness and showed the racial homogeneity of the group. But the hoods also gave anonymity, protecting members from those who would persecute them for supporting the cause of the white race (189). In the eyes of members, the robes did not inspire fear (with their ghostlike appearance) or to make it easier to conduct violence anonymously. The white robe bolstered particular ideas about the persecution of white America, and encouraged concerned men to step behind it in order to protect their race.
Now, the theory. The Gospel According to the Klan also presents a new model of “engaged scholarship” (see 30). Like the best topics in our field, the 1920s Klan sits at the intersection of several important theoretical debates and enlarges our understanding of each. Baker attempts to “see with” the Klansmen and Klanswomen of the 1920s, to “take seriously” their perspective on the world. In this respect, Baker’s project resembles many other ethnographic works that use thick description to generate sympathy with their subjects. But, for Christ’s sake, this is a book about the KKK—and Baker never lets readers forget that. In some respects, this group doesn’t warrant sympathy, and certainly Baker does not want to create uncritical sympathy for their positions on race, gender, or nationalism. Rather, she insists that it is possible to be a careful ethnographic historian without resorting to mere description: “Seeing with the Klan does not mean that we have to like its rhetoric, agendas, or politics, nor does it mean that we need to avoid criticism and analysis” (240). In short, it’s possible to take our subjects “seriously” without pandering to their white supremacy, for example. More still, Baker demonstrates that we don’t need to check our politics at the door to write our histories effectively. Avoiding facile comparisons with the contemporary political right, Baker nonetheless shows how conservatism’s self-image as defenders of an embattled (white) Christian America resonates deeply with the perspective of the Klan. More than that, she argues that the 1920s Klan forms the historical bridge between nineteenth-century nativism and twentieth-century political conservatism. The point here is not to create straw villains out of her political enemies, but to show that ordinary people, even Christian people, can “commit heinous acts without evil intentions and …can promote a worldview founded on intolerance even as they describe its tolerance” (238).
Review by A.T. Coates
Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: 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
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.
Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992)
It’s hard to imagine myself back to the time when someone needed to write this book. But when it first appeared, Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More mapped academic terra incognita. In 1992, neither Google nor Amazon existed and relatively few people had heard of the internet, some retailers did not accept credit cards, the Wall had just come down, and Left Behind hadn’t even been published yet. Into that context, Boyer’s book appeared, insisting that many Americans believed Jesus would return during their lifetimes. He argued that a) the belief that the world was rapidly approaching its end—particularly premillennialism—formed a major current in American Christian history and b) prophecy beliefs were alive and well during the postwar and Cold War eras, shaping public opinion on matters like economic policy and foreign affairs. Boyer offers careful readings of a massive body of material—and peppers his history with funny, fascinating tidbits. For example, he explains how a Canadian $1000 bill from 1954 got pulled from circulation after some citizens observed a smiling devil in Queen Elizabeth’s hair. This, of course, meant that the country had aligned itself with the antichrist to conduct trade during the Last Days (283). Though occasionally sarcastic, at its best this book offers sensitive explanations for the “grassroots appeal” of dispensational premillennialism’s esoteric eschatological schemes. “Meschech” kind of sounds like “Moscow,” and Moscow is directly north of Jerusalem on a map, so it’s easy to see why Americans might have interpreted Russia as the northern invader of Israel named “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel 38 (see 155-156).
Though a little stale in its theoretical outlook, most of this book seemed surprisingly fresh 20 years after its publication. Boyer himself suggests that readers skip the first 112 snooze-inducing pages, which offer a sweeping overview of the apocalyptic genre, apocalyptic beliefs throughout premodern Christian history, and the emergence of premillennialism in America. The real meat of this book comes in its analyses of popular texts since 1945. The five chapters of part II point to themes we still grapple with as scholars of conservative Christianity: one big one being the ambiguous status of Judaism. As Boyer notes, dispensationalists were willing to grant Jews “a glorious past and future,” but they did not know how to fit the present into their eschatological schemes (219). At least abstractly, conservative Christianity afforded Israel and essentialized “Judaism” important roles in the past and in the End Times. But dispensationalists simply didn’t know what to do with living, unconverted Jews. Remarks Boyer, “at the heart of dispensationalism lies the assumption that Jews are essentially and eternally different” (220). Being trained by two experts in Christian Zionism—Yaakov Ariel and Shalom Goldman—has probably overdetermined my interest in this subject, but I think we still have a long way to go in unpacking conservative Christianity’s interest in Israel and its ideas about Judaism’s “biblical authenticity.” I still can’t figure out why so many evangelicals love Seder suppers and Marc Chagall’s paintings, but still insist that Jews need to convert to Christianity. But I digress.
A person could still assign chapters of When Time Shall Be No More for an undergrad course on Christianity post-1945. As I hinted above, this book has grown only a little musty with time. It completely disregards images, occasionally makes snide judgments about the quality of the material it examines, and—worst of all—focuses unrelentingly on prophecy beliefs. But it still holds tremendous value for scholars of postwar conservative Christianity… and it offers a wealth of primary sources for the future dissertation writer.
Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98.4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.
Matt Sutton’s recent article “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?” breaks important ground in the study of conservative Christian antiliberalism. Though they agreed that FDR probably wasn’t the anti-Christ himself, many fundamentalists interpreted his New Deal policies in apocalyptic terms. With the Bolshevik revolution, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the reconstituted Roman Empire under Mussolini, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel (after the British capture of Jerusalem in 1917), fundamentalists knew the Last Days were near at hand. Says Sutton, “Premillennialism served as the filter through which the faithful understood American politics” (1061). They saw the expanding powers of the US federal government under FDR as a sure sign that the anti-Christ was about to appear on earth. If Roosevelt wasn’t personally the antichrist, he surely wanted to usher in the kind of world where the antichrist would feel at home. Fundamentalists would not stand for it.
Sutton draws two arguments out of fundamentalist responses to FDR. First, he concludes that fundamentalist antistatism did not emerge in the NAE of 1942 nor the Moral Majority of 1979, but instead “developed among fundamentalists during the 1930s, parallel to and corresponding with the birth of modern liberalism” (1053). Second, he suggests that international politics and global events importantly shaped fundamentalist theology and politics in America. No navel-gazing isolationists, fundamentalists understood their faith in global terms and looked to international events for evidence that the rapture was coming soon. Premillennialist political critiques at home arose as fundamentalists carefully scanned the globe for signs of the times.
Sutton’s argument about fundamentalist interest in international affairs corrects a glaring oversight in the field. Sometimes, we scholars lose sight of the fact that fundamentalists were referring to real events, real places, and real people when they talked about “wars and rumors of wars,” Gog, Magog, and the Beast. With his characteristic artistry, Sutton beautifully depicts an encounter between two fundamentalist missionaries and Mussolini that illustrates this point: “by the time the Nortons had finished with Mussolini, he apparently believed—and maybe even hoped—that he was the long-awaited world dictator, the antichrist, prophesied in the book of Daniel” (1059). The story reads as a kind of humorous aside in the article, but it stands on the tip of an iceberg. The very fact that American fundamentalists could have detailed knowledge of Mussolini’s activities, travel to visit him, and read reports of such encounters soon after they happened speaks volumes about the cultural world in which fundamentalism thrived. As Sutton’s title suggests, this was indeed a global age, one in which industrial presses churned out international headlines around the clock, Lindbergh flew an airplane to France, and people’s home radios plucked world news right out of the air.
This article left me wanting more. I felt especially unsatisfied by the one-paragraph treatment of the late 1920s. From about 1925-1932, fundamentalist premillennialists went from supporting “big government” initiatives like prohibition and anti-evolution to vehemently opposing FDR. This essay simply skims over these crucial years, attributing the premillennial critique of the New Deal to a renewed interest in eschatology prompted by the nation’s economic collapse. In his book on this topic, I hope Sutton will spend more time in these crucial years—I think there’s an interesting story to tell there.
Steam engines. Conversions. Inmates. Tracts. Networks. Vibrations. A white whale. Modern’s exciting book on antebellum secularism wends through Moby-Dick, evangelical print culture, spiritualism, phrenology, anthropology, prison reform, and concludes with a brief discussion of “fucking machines.” Secularism in Antebellum America examines the conditions under which certain ideas about “true religion” emerged in America. In keeping with recent developments, this book does not treat secularism as religion’s opposite. Modern primarily uses the term “secularism” to describe a social context, a discourse that connected a diverse array of “religious” activities in the antebellum period. He uses the term to denote “that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense” (7). In this book, secularism is the soil from which particular ideas about religion sprouted, “supplying both the ground and ingredients of the freedoms enacted in the name of true religion” (9). Secularism acts as a “connective tissue” of shared metaphysics, epistemology, and politics that produced good democratic citizens and subjects who thought of themselves as capable of making free religious choices (282). Secularism describes “those formations—social, conceptual, and technical—that enabled a broad Protestant majority, circa 1851, to convince themselves that they were religious” (45). In brief, a specter called secularism haunted religion in antebellum America. Like a ghostly presence, Modern writes, secularism “exceeds our capacity to name it” (10). Secularism united the American Tract Society’s colporteurs with mediums conducting séances, statements about the marvels of steam power with phrenological maps, the disestablished churches of the new republic with the crew of the Pequod. Avoiding systematic argumentation, Modern impressionistically renders a shade.
Half Foucauldian discourse analysis, half Derridean hauntology, and half revisionist religious history (trust me, those numbers add up for this book), Secularism in Antebellum America brings a fresh perspective to a burned-over region in the historiographical record. Contrary to a prevailing narrative about the flowering of “democratized” religious diversity during this period, Modern argues that secularism lurked in everyone’s garden. Secularism offered the attitudes toward technology, structures of affect, and constructions of the subject under which evangelicalism—like spiritualism and phrenology—could emerge. At the same time, secularism itself took shape through evangelical faith in the steam press, the “feedback” of colporteur reports about the population, and the cultivation of particular kinds of reading/voting/converting subjects.
For the disaffected children of the American religious history curriculum, Modern’s book reads like a manifesto. As a title in my doctoral exam list, this book offers a welcome counterpoint to a generation of Geertz-influenced religious historians who trumpeted the agency of religious actors from every hilltop. When people in antebellum America thought they made free religious choices as autonomous agents, Modern contends, secularism had always already conditioned the range of choices, the choosers qua choosers, the choosers’ ideas about what choice meant, the technologies through which choice was thought to operate, etc. Modern’s blistering critique of Mark Noll in the chapter on evangelical secularism stood out in particular. In Noll’s America’s God, Modern charges,
“The play of ideas happens independently from the bodies and contexts those ideas inhabit, that is, from the conditions that mediate those ideas. Noll’s argument, then, is a reception history of evangelical ideals with no critical discussion of reception; a chronicle of the desire for epistemological and political immediacy with no sustained attention to how this desire was mediated; and finally, a rendition of the antebellum public sphere that leaves unquestioned the historical conditions of its possibility.” (73-74)
Amen, amen, my heart feels strangely warmed. Modern’s book invites scholars of evangelical media to move beyond models that focus solely on the self-understandings of religious actors, that scrutinize the winks and feigned-winks and parodied feigned winks of religious media. It encourages imaginative engagement with the kinds of social worlds evangelical media generated and operated within. It begs that we think about the subjective, discursive, affective possibilities new media created and the historical conditions under which particular mediations of religion became possible.
Like most books worth reading, this one has its flaws. Michael Warner recently wrote a beautiful and thorough critique for The Immanent Frame. With the surgically precise analytical rigor folks like me can only hope to possess someday, Warner dissects Modern’s spectral “secularism.” He identifies three kinds of secularism that blur together in Modern’s analysis: 1) secularism as the underlying social/cultural/political conditions that structure religion in modernity identified by Charles Taylor, which he prefers to call “secularity;” 2) secularism as a localized political position, such as the states’ varied interpretations of the disestablishment clause; 3) secularism as an ethical orientation to the world. By failing to distinguish carefully between these, he suggests, Modern’s book creates two major problems. First, it ignores the ways that antagonism and conflict shaped the religious landscape during the antebellum period, instead focusing on shared metaphysics. Second, it folds many—sometimes competing—varieties of secular projects into background secularity, doing particular injustice to the kinds of secularism that are “localizable as projects of governance, ethics, or struggle.” Worse still, says Warner, Modern insists that the secular idea of “disenchantment” was the biggest enchantment of all, but leaves this claim frozen in paradox. Treated as a Derridean ghost, secularism escapes critique and historicization. Warner writes, “When the object of critique is generalized and removed from the space of antagonism, critique itself seems powerless against it; or rather, critique projects from its own powerlessness a problem that cannot be addressed, and before which one can only stand in a vaguely radical appreciation of the tragic.” Stalking ghosts is fun, but it abstracts the object of study to a place beyond critique.
Despite its problems, this is an important book. I suspect that Warner’s forthcoming title will produce a more compelling argument about the contours of secularism in antebellum America, since his work is analytically rigorous and perfectly legible in ways Modern’s text occasionally is not. But I did not read Secularism in Antebellum America just to learn about secularism in antebellum America. This book does something else. Along with the recent work of young scholars like Jason Bivins, Kelly Baker, and Katie Lofton, Modern’s project pries open the fissures in a dominant disciplinary paradigm. It changes the kinds of conversations we can have–will have–in the field of American religious history.