A Book or Two I’m Pumped about for This Fall Semester

John Schmalzbauer

John Schmalzbauer

Vadim Putzu

Vadim Putzu

This fall I will be taking North American Religions with John Schmalzbauer and Jewish Mysticism with Vadim Putzu. Schmalzbauer is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies with research interests in religion and American culture, evangelicalism, Ozarks religion, popular culture and religion, and campus ministry/religion in higher education. Putzu came to Missouri State last year. He is ABD from Hebrew Union College with research interests in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and science fiction and religion.

Here are some of the required readings I’m really pumped about…and you should be, too…if you were me. As they come up this fall, I will be including my thoughts on them here on the blog.

1. The Democratization of American Christianity

Hatch- DemocratizationThis book is on reading lists everywhere for religion in America. Nathan Hatch wrote it twenty-four years ago, and it still calls for careful reading if you want to specialize in religion in America (which I do).

It discusses the rise of new Christian movements in the early United States that gained rapid influence because of their populism: the Christian movement, Baptists, Methodists, Black churches, and Mormonism.

Chapters include topics on democratic revolution in the late-eighteenth century, a crisis of authority in pop culture, the spread of sectarianism, and preaching, print, and music.

2. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

Sutton- American ApocalypseHaving grown up in Pentecostalism/Evangelicalism, it’s interesting to read about the movements in the scholarly literature. People sometimes miss things when they are living and breathing something and not outside observers, or just aren’t historians.

Historians, such as Matthew Avery Sutton in this work, help frame how current movements/institutions came about, what they reacted against, how they gained popularity, and what struggles they had (within and without). Chapters include topics such as millennialism, fundamentalism, Christian nationalism, the culture wars, the Religious Right, and American exceptionalism.

3. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life

Ammerman- Sacred Stories, Spiritual TribesThis is a new book by Nancy Tatom Ammerman on the relatively young specialty in religious studies called “lived religion.” Lived religion doesn’t focus so much on doctrines or institutions so much as practices of everyday religionists in everyday life. For example, when is baking a cake more than baking a cake or selling flowers more than mere commerce for some people?

Chapters cover topics of the relationship of spirituality and religion (are they the same or different?), religion at home, religion in the public square, religion at work, and religion and health.

4. Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (American Beginnings, 1500-1900)

Porterfield- Conceived in DoubtAmanda Porterfield in Conceived in Doubt discusses the rampant mistrust in old institutions (including religion) at the dawn of the nineteenth century. She argues that the optimism concerning religious independence (read=no state church) had waned by the early 1800s and that Evangelical ministers spread the message that biblical authority was the solution to a new American identity.

I’m intrigued by this book because I really don’t know where she’s going with it yet. By “religious skepticism,” does she mean agnosticism? Cynicism? Free-thought? Stay tuned to find out.

5. Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations

BERGER PBK(216x138)filmsI’ve always been fascinated by the differences between Europe and the United States. They’re each part of “the West,” and yet they differ significantly when it comes to religion.

Peter Berger and others cover topics relating Europe and the United States like issues regarding constitutionalism, the Enlightenments (the book description only mentions it as if it were one thing, not taking into account the vast differences between British, French, and American secularisms [see link under #3 on my post “Link Wednesday 6“]), law systems, education, gender, class, and generation.

6. Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities

Sherkat- Changing FaithDarren Sherkat covers shifting religious identity in the United States. I’m still not sure if the “change in faith” covers a demographic shift, conversion, or includes both. Pluralism has been an interest of mine for a little while now, particularly as it relates to how different religions relate to political discourse, and I think this work will give me a lot of empirical data to chew on.

7. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Wilson- Dixie DharmaMy interest in this book is framed by an introduction to material culture and history of religion I encountered in courses last year with Martha Finch and Jack Llewellyn. One insight that stuck with me is that while religion influences other societal structures, it is just as much influenced by those societal structures. This is why one religious tradition looks so different between different times and places, notwithstanding ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other differences.

Jeff Wilson’s Dixie Dharma covers how region influences religious expression. How does Buddhism in the Northeast and west coast differ from that in Wilson’s coverage on a temple in Virginia? How does it differ from Indian and East Asian expression?

8. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

Orsi- BetweenRobert Orsi discusses Italian-American Catholic experiences with saints in this book, but also theoretical issues in studying religious communities. One of those issues includes the difficulty of insider/outsider perspective: does the religionist or the scholar drive the research? I’m interested to see what he has to say, because he and Russell McCutcheon have had scholarly sparring matches over theory. It will be neat to play them against each other.

9. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism

Matt- Essential KabbalahI really don’t know what Kabbalah is about other than that it’s a (the?) mystical tradition of Judaism and some celebrities have dabbled in it. It will be fun to have an entire semester to find out what it is. I had a similar experience going into my Tantra seminar last semester. All I knew of it was its American iteration where people lauded it as a way to have powerful, extended orgasms. There was a touch more to it than that.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my Reading Rainbowesque flyby of some of my readings this fall. I wanted to include another treat for you if you’ve made it this far. Yesterday, I began following Suzanna Krivulskaya (@suzzzanna) on Twitter. She has an amazing resource page on her blog covering gender and nineteenth-century/general history of America. The vast majority of the resources are free.

Link Wednesday 5: SCOTUS Ruled; Now What?

It’s amazing what a few days away from the office can do to clear your mind. I just got back from Wisconsin this Sunday after visiting family. Wow did a lot happen since I wrote last. SCOTUS delivered their big decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. There was much despair. And there was much rejoicing.

In Evangelicalism, conversations moved to what needs to happen in its community regarding the decision. Amidst this background, I came across two very interesting sets of questions from very different points of view. They arise from the same tradition and use the same text.

Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition issued “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” Here are some of the questions he asked:

  • “3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?”
  • “7. When Jesus spoke against porneia* what sins do you think he was forbidding?”
  • “11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?”
  • “12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?”

Matthew Vines, founder of The Reformation Project, issued a rejoinder, similarly titled: “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.” He asked such questions as:

  • “3. How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?”
  • “12. Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?”
  • “17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?”
  • “18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?”

Each set of questions demarcates communities. I won’t comment on the virtues and vices of either. I assume my readers are educated. I will reiterate something, though: one faith, one text, very different questions.

Amanullah De SondyAfter I read these, I was listening to a podcast with Amanullah De Sondy. He was discussing his book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, on the New Books Network. There he made some keen observations about religious communities.

One of these has to do with the appropriation of texts. He asked what a text looked like outside the perspective of hegemony. In other words, if you are not part of a dominant class—whatever social marker that is—how does that affect how you envision a text or sayings? Both DeYoung and Vines are speaking from a place that may or may not be wrong. Which is in a more privileged position? Does privilege vary from situation to situation? If texts had as stable of meanings as we might like them to, there probably wouldn’t be as many interpretive traditions (=denominations, sects, religions) as we have today.

De Sondy’s comments had me thinking how much theology and legal reasoning try to make sense of native ambiguity in texts: ambiguity they recognize and wish to elide or naturalize into a preferred reading for their community. This ambiguity, however, is what I find so inviting and exciting about religious studies.

To illustrate interpretation outside hegemony, my friend and classmate, Samantha Nichols, wrote a post about the 4th of July. She included a speech by Frederick Douglass (delivered in 1852, before the Civil War) on the discourse surrounding the holiday:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

What I am highlighting is that you cannot escape your life circumstance and how that colors your interaction with texts (among other things). Sometimes my circumstances prompt me to ask certain questions that people with other social markers ignore, and vice versa. Part of your life circumstances is the groups to which you belong and the groups you reject (for more on this, see my post on community).

I ask this to my reader: how do you arbitrate between two people who understand themselves as faithful to the same tradition, but have different life circumstances informing their interaction with the tradition? I conjecture that it’s probably whatever person’s views most closely align with your own. These debates, while ostensibly about who is most faithful to an original text, at least lend themselves to drawing battle lines: these sets of questions allow persons and communities to identify and align themselves with these two men to achieve certain aims.

*porneia is a Greek word. While this could simply be regarded as a rhetorical move to dismiss the opinions of people who do not know the language in which the New Testament was written, the fact that the New Testament was written in a language other than English seems to invite attention to what is happening in the original language. However, you could also just as easily say that the vast majority of people do not live out their religion by any reference to exegetical and theological tools like Greek—I think it worthwhile to mention that you would need to decide how much that religion is defined by official/institutional means and how much of it is defined on the ground by living, breathing believers.