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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

General impressions of 'Knocking on Heaven's Door.'

We jumped to a heady start with our book discussion, largely dismissing Mark Oppenheimer's definition of religion (which I don't think he really relies on much anyway). But before we get to what he means by "counterculture," I'd love to know what you thought of the book as a whole. Have you enjoyed reading it? Did you learn anything important?

The parts of the book that really made me sit up and take notice came in the final two chapters, much of the same material that Kevin writes about. (I'll say more about Oppenheimer's conclusions later.) It's also quite possible that I have a somewhat quirky appreciation for writers who take us seriously but also don't give us the benefit of the doubt. I suppose I find criticism more engaging than adulation.

Oppenheimer, who's even younger than I am, expanded the book out of an undergraduate paper he wrote about Unitarians and gay clergy (aha! says Jeff). He told a group of Yale students, "When I came to Yale as a freshman, I had never been religious"; he came to appreciate religion by meeting "religious" classmates and studying religious history with Harry Stout. He acknowledged criticism that he is "too denigrating of liberal religion." It has often been my impression that nonreligious scholars often find highly demanding or rigorously orthodox religions more interesting — more exotic — than moderate or liberal ones, which may be a factor in Oppenheimer's book overall, even though his own viewpoint seems liberally inclined. (He's the editor of the New Haven Advocate, writes about religion for Slate, and has written a new book about the American bar mitzvah.)

Let's treat this post as an opportunity to be chatty about the book; we can get back to heavy lifting later. Was is it a good read?

Also, perhaps only for my own reference, here are some other reviews of the book: "Experimental decade," Maurice Timothy Reidy, America [Roman Catholic] 5.10.04; "That old time religion," Jeff Sharlet, Killing the Buddha n.d.; "Kyrie eleison plus Kumbaya," Stephen J. Whitfield, Sh'ma: An Online Journal of Jewish Responsibility 2004?; "How the counterculture went to church," Alan Wolfe, Books and Culture 11.1.03, sub req'd; reviews not online but available to academic readers: Michael Alexander, "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (review)," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35: 2 (Autumn 2004): 324-325; J. Shawn Landres, "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (review), " American Jewish History 91: 2 (June 2003): 328-331.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 29 March 2006 at 8:11 AM

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March 29, 2006 10:22 AM | Permalink for this comment

For someone who wasn't around at the time, I feel a lot more informed about American religious life in the 60s-70s. I think the concept of looking at specific issues within specific denominations served me well, because most of what I knew of religion in America during this period was of a generalized nature.

Ron Robinson:

March 30, 2006 01:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Just sliding a foot in the door here with a question, as one who hasn't read the book (yet) but responding to the comment about the Yale connection. What you say Chris about the critique of liberal religion seems somewhat consistent with the overall "Yale" approach, don't you think?
The home for the post-liberal movement. Again not having, yet, read the book, but would you place Oppenheimer in that stream or see its influence in him? I speak as one drawn strongly to the Yale critique of liberal religion though not enough to call it home. And apologies for interrupting the flow of the book discussion; don't let this question derail it.

Kevin McCulloch:

March 31, 2006 07:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

I enjoyed it quite a lot, and said so on my blog. Maybe the pertinent question now is: who else has actually read it, or intends to and actually will? So far we've got Philocrites, me, Ethan and Jason, yes? Others?

Ron's comment is interesting; what is the "Yale approach"? Are there widely recognized schools of academic criticism when it comes to religious studies?

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

April 1, 2006 07:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wrote my general feelings of the book up on my blog (as Philocrites posted on a previous thread). I'll pop in now and again when I feel I have something to say.


April 14, 2006 12:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

If you want a much more direct glimpse of Oppenheimer's personal sympathies, read his Slate eulogy for William Sloane Coffin. It also appears that Oppenheimer has left the New Haven Advocate and is now reviewing fiction for The Forward.

("For God, for Country: Remembering the radical chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr.," Mark Oppenheimer, Slate 4.14.06)

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