Sunday, July 7, 2013

Five Great (Recent) Books on American Religious History

I recently decided to look back and reflect on the books I've read in the past year. Since I'm a habitual list-maker, I ended up taking my stray thoughts and turning them into categories and rankings until eventually I ended up with this: my five favorite books dealing with American religious history that have been released in the past calendar year (yep, I imposed a completely arbitrary chronological boundary for my list). For those who might also have an interest in American religious history, but aren't quite sure what recent books to read, perhaps this list can be a starting point into the excellent recent work that has been published in the field




In Moral Minority, David Swartz traces the development of the evangelical left as a political force in the United States, focusing especially on the 1960s through the 1980s. Given the attention that the religious right receives from the media and academic world, it is refreshing to see a comprehensive treatment given to Jim Wallis, Mark Hatfield, Ron Sider, John Alexander, and their evangelical compatriots on the other side of the political aisle. Swartz reminds us that it was not inevitable that evangelicals would become politically mobilized as part of the Republican base. In fact, evangelical social engagement associated with the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s was first pioneered by the evangelical left in the 1960s and 1970s. The book does not read like a stodgy academic treatment (although with 84 pages of footnotes, it is a thoroughly researched and well-sourced academic study). Instead, Swartz has created an immensely readable book. He frames his narrative around specific individuals, allowing their personal stories to breathe life into the larger historical points that he makes. Thankfully, Swartz incorporates a global viewpoint into his work by featuring evangelicals like Peruvian Samuel Escobar within the narrative, reminding the reader that United States evangelicalism does not exist on island unaffected and unshaped by the rest of the world. 


In The Color of Christ, historians Ed Blum and Paul Harvey ask "How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era ran so explosively into the American obsession with race that his image has been used to justify the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as inspire the most heroic of civil rights crusades?" They then launch into a wide-ranging whirlwind tour of United States history focusing on how physical (and racially-influenced) portrayals of Jesus have shaped and been shaped by the developing cultural, racial, and political landscape of the United States. From the suspicions Puritans had about representing Jesus in any physical form up to the present-day usage of Jesus in South Park, they leave no stone unturned. As a result, there are a number of fascinating insights in this book. For example, they trace the importance of a fraudulent Medieval letter (known as the Publius Lentulus letter), which strongly influenced 19th-century depictions of Jesus only to be forgotten in the next century. I certainly cannot do this riveting book justice with only a few sentences...you'll have to go read for yourself. And I can promise that you'll never look at a picture or portrayal of Jesus the same way again.


I've already written about Linford Fisher's The Indian Great Awakening on this blog, so you can go there for more extensive thoughts. To summarize what I mention in that post: Fisher's book traces the religious interaction between Native Americans (mainly in New England) and European colonists (mainly English) in 18th century North America. He argues that our typical understanding of conversion should be rethought in light of the way that Indians in New England "affiliated" with certain aspects of European Christianity while also retaining many of their own religious understandings and practices. His narrative is rich with insights into the way that Indians, particularly in regards to religion, carefully navigated European power and coercion by procuring the benefits that Christian affiliation provided (such as education) while still attempting to preserve their own spiritual autonomy and cultural identity. Fisher does a wonderful job of helping the reader, as much as possible, mentally recreate and enter into the religious world of 18th century New England Indians.


David Burns' The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus focuses on the politicized "working-class" Jesus of the American free-thoughtists, anarchists, and socialists of the late-19th and early-20th century. Rejecting organized religion, figures such as Robert Ingersoll, George Herron, Bouck White, and Eugene Debs nevertheless held their vision of a "proletarian Jesus" in high esteem. Burns argues that their conceptualization of Jesus was particularly inspired by French scholar Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (1863), a work that mingled fact with fiction to bring out the humanity in Jesus. The "radical religionists" mentioned above took refuge in the idea of a secularized Christ who preached a humanitarian vision of liberty, equality, and freedom from oppression. They used this concept of Jesus to criticize organized Christianity and to point out the hypocrisy of pastors and wealthy lay-Christians who (in the eyes of the radicals) seemed to be on the side of the oppressive capitalist system while millions of their fellow citizens suffered from the harsh consequences and glaring inequalities of the industrial-capitalism of the Gilded Age. Although Burns describes his subjects of study as radical, he suggests that they were, in fact, pursuing a middle ground "illuminated by the thoughts and actions of Jesus" that resulted in a“measured outlook that struck a balance between the demands of reason and the doctrines of religion.” (Side note: I plan on offering more extensive thoughts on David Burns' book over at the Religion in American History blog later this month)


Using The Christian Century, which was (and is) the leading Christian periodical of the so-called "Protestant Mainline," Coffman analyzes the development of the ecumenical Protestant establishment from the early-20th century up through the 1950s. By writing a history of the influential magazine, Coffman is able to add new insights and details into the historical narrative of 20th century American Protestantism. For example, Coffman, for the first time, figures out how we ever came to use the word "mainline." She also highlights the rivalries between leading Protestant personalities at the time, including the broken friendship of Charles Clayton Morrison (editor of The Christian Century) and former contributor and leading American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who launched a rival magazine, Christianity and Crisis). She draws parallels between the magazine itself and the Protestant mainline at large. For example, she writes that both of "their successes were measured in prestige rather than popularity, conferred by other cultural elites rather than by the masses. Their shared weakness was a lack of broad support." That lack of broad appeal became apparent when the upstart evangelical magazine Christianity Today was launched in the 1950s, quickly gaining more subscribers than the more established Century. To summarize the essentials of Coffman's narrative argument, here are her own words:
"A history of the mainline as a cultural argument would look a lot like this history of the Century. It won its earliest and deepest support in divinity schools. It especially appealed to the Christian intelligentsia who attended those schools and went on to careers in churches, the academy, and ecumenical organizations. It was more successful at gaining a hearing than in amassing adherents. Internal arguments about theology, politics, and structure proceeded without derailing the larger argument about the country’s need for a center-left, consensus Protestantism. That larger argument swelled to a crescendo in the decade after World War II before dramatically changing key."