Jason Bivins, “Religion of Fear” (2008)

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

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

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

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

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1966)

Douglas’s classic anthropological study offers an extended meditation on the concepts of dirt and contagion. As a structuralist, Douglas insists that social categories pervade all levels of experience—from the arrangement of homes to understandings of the body. Lest society descend into chaos, these categories require constant policing and maintenance. Ambiguous and anomalous things must be incorporated into some category or another—or banished from society altogether. Certain things must remain taboo or off-limits to define and solidify the boundaries of a community. Pollution spreads without intent or moral wrongdoing: mere contact with the forbidden is enough, since the real issue is transgression of the social order. Unlike earlier anthropologists, Douglas insists that all societies remain similarly vigilant against disorder. This applies not just to the “primitive” societies imagined by earlier anthropologists, but modern Euro-American societies as well. For Douglas, symbolic actions of taming disorder—rituals of purification, strategies for managing danger—provide a strong base for the comparative study of religion, since they reveal the deep structures of societies. She rejects Tylor’s definition of religion, “belief in spiritual beings,” demanding instead that scholars of religion compare “peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe” (35). Rejecting hard-and-fast distinctions between the sacred and the secular, Douglas studies the social construction of religion via bodily practice, symbolic action, and ritual. In short, she uses cultural analysis as a way of approaching how religions work, rather than identifying religion as any particular thing in the world.

Douglas’s chapter “Secular Defilement” could prove very useful in a religion 101 class—particularly if the class dealt with a topic like zombies, vampires, ghosts, spirituality, etc. In this chapter, Douglas examines our own society’s notions of dirt and cleanliness. While we like to believe that we clean for medically sound reasons, Douglas shows that this simply isn’t true. Everyone in our society stores their kitchen cleaning supplies in the same place: under the sink. If you met someone who kept the Mr. Clean next to the mugs, you would probably run away scared. But why? It’s dirty. The clean bottle of cleaning fluid and the clean mugs together become dirty. For Douglas, the explanation for such behavior reveals the systems of classification operative in our society: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (44). Later, she explains that “dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained,” it is “matter out of place” (50). In other words, “dirtiness” applies to things that just don’t fit into our cultural system’s normal categories.

But there’s the rub—for Douglas, everything has to fit into the system somehow, even if only as “dirt.” This makes her book a good conversation partner for later works on materiality. In particular, I think it would make an interesting intro to Todd Ochoa’s Society of the Dead, where the question is precisely how thinking matter, especially unbounded matter, can upset our usual categories of analysis. “Dirt” may just have a mind of its own. It may not want to remain the castoff of a neat cultural system. It likes to mess us up.

Review by A.T.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by A.T. Coates

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

Latour, selections from “Reassembling the Social.”

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. (Oxford, 2005).

Officially, my reading list calls for “selections from” Reassembling the Social. That turned into me reading almost all of it very, very slowly (hence the delay in posting). Reassembling the Social offers some of the most accessible Latour, but nonetheless provocative, I’ve ever encountered. The theory is profound, but slippery. The book is less about what actor-network theory is and more about what it does—but, even more, it’s about what actor-network theory doesn’t do. It offers exciting new possibilities for how we might conduct our work as historians of religion. But trying to explain it succinctly feels like THIS

Latour first carefully disassembles the concept of “the social.” Note that I didn’t say he “deconstructs” it. For too long, Latour insists, theorists have approached the social as “a kind of material or a domain,” one usually invoked to provide an explanation for some other state of affairs (1). Religion, for example, is said to operate according to its own logic most of the time, but “social context” or “social forces” pop into scholarly accounts to explain some of the erratic behavior of practitioners. To take an example from a book I just read, this understanding of the social says evangelicalism in America looks different than evangelicalism in Canada because of the social context—or even better, the socio-cultural context—in which it “manifested.” “The social” thus stalks behind, or floats above, practitioners and their practices, ready to offer a “social explanation” at any moment. For Latour, this conception of “the social” as a domain, a realm, a kind of thing, blinds us to the associations that actors actually have with each other. Those associations change constantly, as groups are formed, dismantled, and reformed (29). Instead of positing a particular thing or domain as “the social,” Latour asks what kinds of peculiar assemblages might reveal themselves if we carefully trace the associations between actors, if we allow actors to show us what “the social” describes at a particular moment. The term “social,” Latour insists, describes “the name of a movement, a displacement, a transformation, a translation, an enrollment… an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social… except during the brief moment when they are shuffled together” (64-65). For actor-network theory, tracing those movements, displacements, transformations, and enrollments, becomes paramount.

ANT brings mediation and materiality to the foreground. In Latour’s actor-networks, actors look very different from what we usually see. Actors need not be human, nor “animate” in the sense we’re accustomed to. Gasp. Latour considers an “actor” to be “not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46). Actors are those made to act. He uses the example of a pilgrim who claims, “I came to this monastery because the Virgin called me.” The Virgin makes the pilgrim an actor (the actor who travels), but the pilgrim also makes the Virgin an actor (the actor who calls others to action). We should take the pilgrim’s word for what’s happening when she says the Virgin called her: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (55).

This goes further than the kind of uncritical pandering to actors’ claims that we’re accustomed to in religious studies. Rather, as hinted above, Latour wants to understand how social worlds get constructed. So, for example, a Protestant says she believes the bread and wine in communion are mere “symbols” of commemoration, but then fears supernatural retribution for taking communion in an unfit spiritual state. An ANT would try to trace the complex connections between actors natural and supernatural, subjects and objects, persons and spirits, bread and sinners, that such a statement invokes. It’s a painstaking process, but one that pays big dividends for students of materiality because it pays attention to the kinds of agency afforded to things. Latour argues that, rather than insisting on a neat divide between agentive subjects and inert objects, we ought to explore how the relationships between subjects and objects, agents and mediators, get construed. He suggests a metaphysical openness on the question of cause and effect, an attention to how “things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (72, emphasis added). I’m not explaining it well, but tracing an actor-network in religious studies would never permit us to say, for example, that a certain object or image “manifests” religious beliefs. Instead, ANT would demand that we pay careful attention to ways people interact with things, the ways things interact with people, the ways supernatural and natural beings can use things, the ways causality gets described, the ways things can reveal or proclaim or mask or subvert or remind. Latour offers a negative method, in which we don’t take anything for granted about social worlds but instead wait to see what emerges…

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

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

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

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

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

Review by A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

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

Review by A.T. Coates

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

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

 

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

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.