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Sunday, December 5, 2004

Weekend religion round-up.

What a weekend for good reading about religion in my favorite “blue state” publications! Here’s a reading list with occasional tantalizing quotes. And, to facilitate your gift-giving, I’ve added links to books related to each article at Amazon, the Harvard Bookstore (my favorite independent bookstore), and Powells.

  • “The Rapture Debunked,” Christopher Shea, Boston Globe 12.5.04: A great story about a biblical scholar who shows why the theology of the Left Behind novels is wrong:

    The Rapture Exposed[Barbara R. Rossing, an associate professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago,] says she wrote her latest book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, which came out earlier this year, because “more and more I was talking to Lutherans and evangelicals and even Catholics who had read the [Left Behind] novels and gotten the impression this was what the Bible teaches.” In news stories on the Left Behind juggernaut, she has been quoted condemning the ethical implications of the “beam-me-up” aspect of Rapture theory, which she says “invites a selfish nonconcern for the world.” But the heart of the book is Rossing’s effort to go toe-to-toe with the Rapture theorists in Scriptural readings.

    Buy The Rapture Exposed from Amazon, Harvard Bookstore, or Powells.

  • “Ashoka the Great,” Pankaj Mishra, Boston Globe 12.5.04: A mildly hagiographic introduction to the Indian emperor who tried to apply Buddhist principles to imperial governance only thirty years after Alexander the Great. Mishra is the author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. Ashoka has some words for President Bush (and the rest of us):

    “One only notices one’s good deeds, thinking, ‘I have done good,’” he observed, “but on the other hand one does not notice one’s wicked deeds, thinking ‘I have done evil,’ or ‘This is indeed a sin.’ Now, to be aware of this is something really difficult.”

    Buy An End to Suffering from Amazon, Harvard, or Powells.

  • “God, American History, and a Fifth-Grade Class,” Dean E. Murphy, New York Times 12.5.04, reg req’d: Meet the California school teacher who has become “a folk hero among conservative Christians” because he treats every instance of God-talk in American history as evidence for his Evangelical beliefs — and who has, consequently, been asked to submit his class assignments to review by school administrators. Jeffersonian phrases like “Nature’s God” and “divine Providence” didn’t mean what 21st-century Evangelicals want them to mean, but until our culture finds better ways to talk candidly and critically about the religious dimensions of U.S. history, you can expect to see more fights like this.

  • “The Clash of Orthodoxies,” Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times Book Review, 12.5.04: Freedman gives capsule reviews of four books. He finds Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism limited by “a tone of victimology” and Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World hobbled by intellectual dishonesty about religious brutality. He finds much to praise about two other books, however, that I look forward to reading: Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History — “Wildly doubting texts can still be religious treatises,” she argues, “and the brilliant ones even shed light on belief” — and Philip Jenkins’s Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality, which really sounds interesting:

    Dream CatchersBy investigating the way American whites have appropriated elements of American Indian religion, he is trying to make larger points about culture, race and power. To do this, he has acquainted himself with the relevant historical materials and also acquainted himself with more New Age manuals, mantras and sales pitches than any human being should have to endure. This allows him to trace a striking shift in white attitudes, an exchange of one kind of willful stupidity for another. “At the start of the 20th century,” Jenkins writes, “a sizable number of Americans believed that the confrontation between Christianity and Native religions was a struggle between clearly defined good and evil. Christianity offered liberation from spiritual ignorance, from the ways of darkness and death. A hundred years later, a number of Americans believe similarly that the two traditions are far from equal, but now it is rather the Native faiths that offer liberation and healing, individual and global. The view of Native societies is utopian, while Christianity appears as a patriarchal blight.”

    Lest anyone think the American Indians themselves savor this sort of adulation, Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, shows how both well-intentioned naifs and calculating New Age entrepreneurs have whipped together swatches and strains of various Native American religious practices into a completely synthetic amalgam. This putative religion, in turn, has spawned its version of clergy, an array of bogus shamans and dubious healers working a lucrative circuit. Such abuses, Jenkins notes, led one tribe to form Cherokees Against Twinkies.

    Buy Freethinkers (Amazon, Harvard, Powells); Twilight of Atheism (Amazon, Harvard, Powells); Doubt: A History (Amazon, Harvard, Powells); and Dream Catchers (Amazon, Harvard, Powells).

  • The book I really want to read, however, is James M. Ault Jr's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. Stephen Prothero reviews it in “Say Amen, Somebody” (New York Times Book Review 12.5.04).

    Spirit and FleshFundamentalism has been scoffed at more than it has been studied, and Ault would appear to fit the scoffer's profile. A preacher’s kid (his father is a Methodist minister) who traded faith for political radicalism during his undergraduate days at Harvard in the 1960’s, Ault began studying fundamentalists during the early 1980’s in an effort to understand the sources of the conservative pro-family politics he disdained. But Ault is no scoffer. He admires the nurses, factory workers and teachers who make up the Worcester, Mass., congregation he calls Shawmut River Baptist Church. And he is captivated by the Rev. Frank Valenti, its fire-and-brimstone pastor and the book’s most compelling character. . . .

    “Spirit and Flesh” takes its readers into the Bible studies, prayer breakfasts and schoolrooms of Valenti’s parishioners, but it focuses on their moral lives — how they use the Bible as a handbook for dealing with divorce, teenage pregnancy and alcohol addiction.

    The stereotype, of course, is that fundamentalists are Manichaean moralists. And the ethical rules they follow certainly seem to be black and white. In the application of these moral absolutes, however, Ault finds plenty of gray. Shawmut River functions like a close-knit family, he argues, and the brothers and sisters in that kinship network demonstrate a “situation-specific flexibility” in morality that is difficult to distinguish in practice from the situation ethics they so vehemently decry. Divorce, for example, is prohibited, and Valenti tries to talk his parishioners out of it. Yet when they call a marriage quits, he is the first to let bygones be bygones. “While fundamentalists’ timeless, God-given absolutes may appear rigid from the outside,” Ault writes, “within the organism of a close-knit community where much is known in common about persons and situations, they can be surprisingly supple and flexible.”

    Ault also takes on stereotypes about the subjugation of women in fundamentalist circles, and finds, to his surprise, that women in many respects rule the roost at Shawmut River. They make up the majority of the congregation (as they do in virtually every other American religious group). And though they adhere, at least in theory, to a stark division between the sexes, they use those sharp distinctions to their advantage. If the husband is, as St. Paul said, the head of the wife, the wife is, as Valenti’s spouse, Sharon, puts it, “the neck that turns the head.”

    Fundamentalists are people, too, Prothero moralizes — but the story of how a lefty found his own faith in a fundamentalist church sounds a lot more interesting than the moral Prothero attaches to it.

    Buy Spirit and Flesh (Amazon, Harvard, or Powells).

  • And, although it's not on-line, I highly recommend picking up the December 6 issue of the New Yorker for Burkhard Bilger’s “God Doesn’t Need Ole Anthony” (pp.70-81). Why? Here’s the story’s second paragraph:

    Anthony is the founder and president of the Trinity Foundation, a religious community in East Dallas that functions variously as a soup kitchen, a rehab center, a Christian publishing house, and a private detective firm. Trinity’s fifty or so active members (supported by some four hundred other donors) live in a row of creaky two-story bungalows with deep, shaded porches, along a dead-end street in a neighborhood known as Little Mexico. They take most of their meals in a communal dining hall and meet three times a week for Bible studies that have been closer in spirit, at times, to barroom brawls. The problem with the modern church, Anthony believes, is the church itself. So he has patterned Trinity on the underground Christian communities of the first century, before the denominations or cathedrals or the strict separation of Christian and Jew: a church before churches existed.

    Anthony’s private detective work is focused almost exclusively on the fraudulence of televangelists. Bilger’s article is an example of outstanding religion reporting — something the New Yorker has been doing quite well recently.

    Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 5 December 2004 at 5:14 PM

    Previous: Hymns in the news.
    Next: Jesus' controversial 'message of inclusive love.'

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    December 6, 2004 11:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

    Let me also put in a good word for Bartholomew's Notes on Religion, the best religion blog I've recently discovered. Here's a great new post about differences between Evangelical and neo-Pentecostal Christians — and the sort of connections "moderate" Evangelicals have to far-right Israelis.


    December 8, 2004 10:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

    Also, Anthony's group puts out the wonderful religious satire magazine, The Door (formerly The Wittenberg Door). Absolutely fabulous poking fun at everyone.


    January 2, 2005 04:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

    Worth noting: Last week's New York Times Book Review included letters from an editor upset at Samuel Freedman's brief review of Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers and from James M. Ault Jr, author of Spirit and Flesh, who says Stephen Prothero misrepresented him and his book. Although the passages I quoted from Prothero's essay aren't among the ones Ault objected to, it's worth adding Ault's own description of his project:

    Prothero goes on to say that I find my way ''back to faith of a sort'' and that, as a former New Left activist, have become, believe it or not, ''something of a fundamentalist.'' Two things here: My return to faith (and to praying) came two years after my regular contacts with this Baptist congregation had ended (through circumstances the book recounts). It came after our film portraying the congregation, ''Born Again,'' was broadcast nationally.

    Second, I do not see how anyone reading ''Spirit and Flesh'' would consider me a fundamentalist of any kind. What I do say in the book is that the sociological perspectives that helped me understand this Jerry Falwell-styled congregation's politics and theology ''enabled me to appreciate the truths of their faith apart from their traditionalism or conservatism, neither of which I felt compelled to accept.'' But, coming to understand the sense and meaning of their conservatism by seeing it in the context of how their lives worked — quite differently from the life I share with liberal friends and colleagues — I write that it would be both ''unjust'' and ''imprudent'' to dismiss their politics out of hand, a lesson our recent elections have yet again taught. These perspectives now help me listen to both my fundamentalist and my progressive friends, in stereo, perhaps — a distinctly American stereo sound. These are the important lessons of ''Spirit and Flesh,'' I believe, not matters of my own spiritual journey. I'll let readers decide for themselves what ''faith of a sort'' actually means in this story.

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