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Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Knock, knock, knocking on Mark Oppenheimer.

A guest review of Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, by our resident doctoral student in American religious history Jeff Wilson:

OK, it's time for me to stop nipping around the edges and actually state in a semi-coherent form my objections to Oppenheimer's work on Unitarian-Universalists in Knocking on Heaven's Door. I've read his introduction and the chapter on Unitarianism and Gay Rights, as well as skimmed through the conclusion. I've also read the posts on the book by several people online, most notably Chris Walton and Kevin McCulloch at Philocrites and Keep Atlanta Beautiful. I've expressed objections about his definitions of religion and counterculture already, so now I'm going to try and really keep my attention focused on his historical work on UUism, which I find to be at times informative but overall inadequate.

First, I need to mention that I am a PhD candidate in religious studies who has been trained to study religious liberals in America. My direct training in this field comes from Thomas Tweed and Grant Wacker, both of whom were trained by the late William Hutchison, who taught liberal religious history at Harvard for many decades. With conservative evangelicals ascendant in all areas of American culture, liberal religion has become overshadowed as a field of study and thus is in some danger—many of the best and brightest choose to study other areas, resulting in an overall "brain drain" from liberal to conservative religious research subjects. This is a matter of some concern to me, so when a book comes along that pays serious attention to liberal religion (such as Unitarian-Universalism), I'm usually enthusiastic, whether or not I agree with its conclusions. At the same time, I'm wary that a general draining of the field can result in studies that do not handle liberal religion well. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that Knocking falls into this category.

My objections mainly come down to the feeling, as a historian of American religion with a particularly specialty in liberal religion, that Oppenheimer has not done good historical work and fundamentally does not understand the way that a liberal religion like Unitarian-Universalism operates. As Chris noted, Oppenheimer does not come from a religious background—his interest in the subject began at school. His training in religion did not include experts in liberal religion; on the contrary, his professors were researchers in totally other areas. In his acknowledgements he provides us with a glimpse of his training, which can be broken down as follows:

  • Jamie Mercier: someone I've never heard of, not at Yale, with no publications
  • John Ratte: an expert on Catholicism
  • Harry Stout: a top American religious scholar who focuses on early American evangelicals; also religion in the Civil War
  • Jon Butler: Oppenheimer's dissertation advisor ("Knocking" is an expanded version of his dissertation). Butler is arguably the most important scholar of American religion—his specialties are early American religion, and evangelicals in revolutionary and early Republic America
  • Jane Archibald, Curt Robison, and James Rugen: these are teachers at Loomis Chaffee, an elite boarding school in Windsor, CT. When we were growing up in central CT, the students at LC made even us middle class kids at good public high schools feel like plebes.
  • Paula Hyman: an expert on Judaism, especially women in Judaism
  • J.D. McClatchy: a poet and writer on poetry
  • Robert Stone: a fiction writer and teacher of creative writing
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff: works on Christian theology

Oppenheimer thus had no access to people trained to talk about liberal religion in a systematic, sophisticated way. The Yale education in American religious history is excellent but is also famous for its heavy emphasis on Jonathan Edwards and Puritanism. In part, I actually think this absolves Oppenheimer of some responsibility. He did not have access to resources that would have helped him write about modern American Prostants/post-Protestants in an informed, nuanced way—he's got great Americanists on his roster, but they're not specialists in liberal religion. I suspect his chapters on Catholicism and Judaism are better, since he did have experts on these subjects in his stable.

Objection number one: Oppenheimer's historical discussion is poorly presented. The major problem is that he leaps about from time period to time period with no attention to the pitfalls of using evidence anachronistically. His dissertation was explicitly only about the years 1968-1975; in his discussion of the counterculture he opens it up a little to become basically 1955-1975. But he consistently brings in evidence from later time periods to bolster arguments about historically-situated subjects. An example: in trying to characterize UUism in the 1960s, he refers repeatedly to the familiar first principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person—a principle formulated and adopted in the 1980s.

Objection number two: He makes limited use of resources. His presentations of key events are often uni-vocial. For instance, nearly all of his information on the early organizing activities (and alleged persecutions/obstacles) of Richard Nash comes a single telephone interview with Nash himself, or a handful of writings by Nash or that rely heavily on Nash's own press releases/statements. This problem crops up repeatedly and makes it difficult to establish confidence in his timelines and assertions.

Objection number three: He is inconsistent in his usage of his own key definitional terms. This objection goes beyond my general displeasure with how he defines religion and counterculture—my concern here is that he doesn't stick to these definitions once he declares them central. For instance, on page 17 UUism is a religion; on page 34 UUism is definitely not a counterculture; on page 59 UUism is a culture, not a religion, and maybe it is a counterculture; on page 60 UUism is still not a religion, but now it is a counterculture. His sense of these terms becomes very slippery and any coherence which his original definitions offered seems to evaporate.

Objection number four: Oppenheimer fundamentally does not understand liberal religion. His model for what religion is comes from conservative religion, and he cannot quite reconcile to himself that other models are actually in fact religion—to say nothing of understanding them in a sophisticated way. For Oppenheimer religion is based on exclusion—one cannot be a Jew and a Unitarian he says (yet some are). He is confused and rather offended by Unitarianism's lack of adherence to the Bible, a fact he brings up over and over again (pp. 33, 34, 59, 222, 228 and elsewhere) as if the Bible was the main way in which a religion should define itself. He talks of "repudiation" of the Bible and says that the Bible was no longer an important source for the Unitarians, which is just plain wrong. Many UUs felt that their adherence to liberal theology was a fulfillment of the teachings of Jesus, and the Bible at all times remained the most referenced religious sourcebook for UUs—moving the Bible off-center doesn't mean that it wasn't still first among equals, and liberal exegesis is only treason if you've committed yourself to a literalist, ahistorical reading as the only correct approach to the Bible. He says that UUism was not "theologically based" (p. 34) because he is unable to see how Americans can theologize in non-fundamentalist ways—describing UU tolerance, openness, skepticism, and religious exploration he fails to see how such things can function as religious beliefs (i.e. theology) unto themselves. To Oppenheimer these are and can only be cultural, not religious values, meaning that he simply does not understand the very people he is studying. Thus he ends up hating his own subjects: "the Unitarian penchant for promiscuous toleration allowed New Age silliness to replace, in many of their churches, honored tradition and Scripture." This is so un-neutral a statement from a historian of religion as to be actually shocking to me.

Objection number five: He doesn't get congregational religion. It is hard for him to understand the importance of local culture to UU churches, so when something happens at a higher level (like GA) he assumes it is representative of the denomination as a whole. When he uses the example of ESP to prove that UUs couldn't say no to anything, his evidence is a mere twelve churches and a loose group of Psi-enthusiasts with no denominational support. Anyone who knows anything about UUism knows that small groups meeting at a dozen churches does not make a mass movement—rather, that's pretty close to the definition of a marginal movement that can't manage to acquire general denominational legitimacy. (Also, he assumes that what interest there was in Psi phenomena came from the so-called fluffy "New Age" end of the spectrum, when a more likely source is the UU commitment to science and interest in the mind—the very quote he offers shows that UUs considered it an unexplored scientific frontier, not a communion with the spheres on the astral plane. And he's wrong by a long-shot about UUism being the only possible place for openness to Psi phenomena—just as an example, during this time period the most prominent religious advocate of such things was James Pike, Episcopal Bishop of San Francisco.) On page 217 local Unitarian ministers are responsible for leading their flocks to accept gay rights, not the other way around; on page 220 we learn that GA sets Unitarian policy; on page 223 we learn that localized polity enforces Unitarian conformity. So which is it: is local control in UUism an agent of change or the status quo? Did gay rights conquer UUism because of local or national control? His story seems to shift continually. And I happen to know he's wrong with his timing. When Community Church of New York (the former church of Donald "what's next, bestiality?" Harrington) was deciding whether to become officially Welcoming in the late 1990s, there was still vocal opposition that gays would come in and prey on the Sunday School children. I know because I ended up giving an impassioned speech as a 21-year-old member of the church against those sort of views. For the record, we voted to become Welcoming.

Objection number six: He doesn't have a clue about UU Christianity. His first item on a list of possible UU objections to homosexuality is that there were still a few Christians around and we all know Christians hate gays. After all the Bible says so, and maybe some UU Christians take the Bible seriously. This is such a fundamental lack of understanding about UU Christianity (and the range of Biblical exegesis in general) that it really damages my confidence in his understanding of how religion operates in anything other than a rigidly fundamentalist Christianity.

Objection number seven: Here I must rebuke him for the most egregious oversight of all: he does not seem to understand basic aspects of religion itself. He says that none of the religions in his study changed theologically, only in form, in aesthetics. This is a terribly embarrassing thing for a scholar of religion to be caught saying. I would gently correct such a statement if it came from one of my undergraduates; from a doctor of religious studies it is really troubling. How can he possibly assert, for instance, that allowing women to become ordained is anything less than a tectonic shift in theology? Only by defining theology so narrowly as to say it is purely beliefs about the nature of God could he make such a statement, which shows a clear naiveté about religion. Ordaining women into a historically male supremacist religion is as big a shift in religious thinking and conceptualization as deciding that God is One, not Three, or that hell is fictional, not real, or that Jesus really is the messiah. Separating thought and practice so totally is methodologically out of touch with modern religious studies.

I could go on, but that's more than enough. To his credit, there are useful parts of this book and some decent observations. For instance, Oppenheimer makes the cogent point that there was apparently never any UU denominational discussion about whether gays should be ordained, unlike the titanic struggles in many other denominations. And while I am not able to trust that he has given us a full portrait of the UU movement for gay rights (and especially not of its opposition), he has given us access to some very interesting voices and documented at least one important side of the story. Future historians could use his work as a springboard for additional research. And anytime someone tries to study Unitarians, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in the recent times I have to give them a nod of thanks. I'm afraid I don't have the time for a proper book review—in an academic forum I would bolster my assertions with considerably more direct citations from the book, but really I've already spent too much time away from my actual academic responsibilities of this week. My thanks to Chris for bringing the book to my attention and to everyone else for the interesting discussion.

[Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Wilson]

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 5 April 2006 at 7:13 AM

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Jason Pitzl-Waters:

April 5, 2006 09:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff, I like the cut of your jib.


April 5, 2006 10:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff, I haven't read Oppenheimer's book, but there is one issue in your argumentation that keeps me intrigued. You say: "It is hard for him to understand the importance of local culture to UU churches, so when something happens at a higher level (like GA) he assumes it is representative of the denomination as a whole." So, this is the problem of analyzing UUism. How can we possibly do that? There is always a chance that somebody will raise a hand saying that the criteria are not representative. If you study GA resolutions, then somebody replies with keeping in mind congregational culture. If we talk about general trends, then somebody reminds us that we should always say "many UUs" or "there are UUs who...(whatever comes later)". If we refer to congregations, somebody will say that we have to remember that the East is very different from the West and we cannot compare New England and Texas. If we mean affiliate bodies such as UUCF or CUUPS, somebody will say that most UUs are not members of them. If we talk about individuals, then somebody says that that's a limited and/or biased sample. You say that EPS workshops were not representative because the common UU mindset was on the scientific side. But then if you say the same thing about Neopaganism, and that Humanism is still the majority, then somebody will say that you are marginalizing Earth-centered spirituality and slamming diversity. We will need to reach some kind of consensus so that we agree upon what is truly representative of UUism, if we ever want to be able to study it.

Kevin M:

April 5, 2006 11:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

That's a strong and interesting list of objections, Jeff, and there's much merit in what you say. I appreciated reading them.

At the same time, I feel like your objections are somewhat beside the point. As I've said before, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others. The reason for this is simple: Oppenheimer gets enough right in his discussion of UUism, religion, and the larger culture that his account feels familiar to a lifelong UU like myself, and his observations and conclusions got me thinking about important issues in our religious life together.

I'm a reader with an interest in scholarly things, not a scholar. I care that what I read is coherent and basically correct, but I'm not particularly invested in the state of liberal religious scholarship. When you list the scholars he trained with, or claim that something is "a terribly embarrassing thing for a scholar of religion to be caught saying," I sense a professional agenda on your part that doesn't concern me. As a scholar, you're deeply invested in methodology: you feel that there's a right and a wrong way to go about doing things. As a general reader, I have an entirely different set of concerns: Was it an enjoyable read? Did it help me to shape my thoughts on a subject that concerns me? Will it spark some good blogging?

None of your objections really touch these concerns. I take it for granted that most of what I read is flawed in one way or another, so a review that says "this book is full of flaws" doesn't tell me much about whether I should read it. I'm skeptical of the attitude that, to be useful, a book must be an airtight fortress of facts and assertions, and that you can bring the whole thing tumbling down by pointing out gaps in the fortifications.

The question your review raises for me is this: you say that this study does not handle liberal religion well, but if it did, how would it be different, apart from satisfying your professional standards for methodology and avoiding all of the little mistakes that you list?


April 5, 2006 12:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oppenheimer thus had no access to people trained to talk about liberal religion in a systematic, sophisticated way. The Yale education in American religious history is excellent but is also famous for its heavy emphasis on Jonathan Edwards and Puritanism.

Are there no successors to Sydney Ahlstrom and Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale these days?

When I was there in the 1970's, yes, Jonathan Edwards was (appropriately, IMHO) foundational, and the standard response to any question to which one did not know the answer was "I am but a vile worm". However, Ahlstrom in his survey course of American religious history spent at least as much time (if not more) on the Chauncy-Mayhew-Channing-Parker-Emerson-Frothingham-Rauschenbusch-Fosdick thread of American religious thought as on any other. Two of my most cherished books still are Ahlstrom's "Religious History of the American People" and Pelikan's "World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought". I believe Jonathan Carey, who co-edited with Ahlstrom "An American Reformation", a compilation of original Unitarian Christian source material, was one of his grad students.

Christine Robinson:

April 5, 2006 01:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the review that so well organized my nervousness about what I was reading!

Just two points. First of all "The Inherent Worth and Dignigy" phrase was in the bylaws that predated the current Purposes and Principles and so was in operation during the target years of this book.

Secondly, and this illustrates your point that the author doesn't understand congregational polity, the discussion about Gay Rights happenened IN CONGREGATIONS, as a part of the Welcoming Congregation Program. It wasn't all pretty, either. There was at least some opposition to welcoming sexual minorities in overt ways in nearly every congregation and enough to scuttle the program in more than a few. None the less, over the years, this view has prevailed. (the author would probably say that since all this happened after his target years it doesn't count, but I would say that what happened in the target years doesn't really count much..that was my disappointment with that chapter.

Jeff Wilson:

April 6, 2006 10:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

Howdy y'all, many thanks for some great comments. I am heading out of town on a research trip shortly and may be offline until Monday. So I figured I'd better make a reply now before time gets away from me.

Jason: Thank you, matey. All those years as a Barbary Coast pirate prepared me to cut a fine jib.

Jamue: A couple of things. First of all, someone will ALWAYS raise a hand and say your study is unrepresentative. That's the nature of academic discourse, plus we've got famously opinionated UUism thrown into the mix. Anytime you put yourself out there you're going to get critics, no matter how well you do your study. Some of it is legitimate, some of it is the inevitable cranks. I hope my comments here aren't the latter! But nonetheless you have to do your best job and push through the inevitable criticisms (if you're really good, you'll learn to listen to them and incorporate the parts that are reasonable and help you write better history). It is my contention that in this particular case relating to his particular time period and subject material, Oppenheimer has not adequately thought through the complexities of Unitarian-Universalism. I'm only saying that I--who, perhaps despite appearances, am quite possible to satisfy--am not satisfied in this case.

The best way to escape the traps you're describing is to be very clear, very specific about precisely what and where you are studying, to directly confront the complexities of congregational, creedless religion in your text, and to use plenty of those qualifying phrases that you mentioned. Oppenheimer sometimes does so, but overall didn't satisfy me as a historian. Once or twice, without providing substantial evidence, he says that UU churches in the Midwest and South were more reluctant to accept gay rights. But he doesn't contextualize this at all, leaving us to assume that he assumes it is because these areas are home to more conservative religion and that therefore UUism in these regions is more conservative. But someone who really knows the UU materials would bring in more nuance, pointing out for instance that these regions are further from the New England UU homeland and thus have a different relationship to the national denomination, and furthermore that in many cases these churches are actually looser and less Christian than New England ones because they are relatively newer, lack nostalgia for a venerable Puritan heritage, attract lots of bitter ex-Bible Belters, and don't have the peer pressure of lots of other UU churches in their own backyard. So as a historian, when he says that the Midwest and the South were slower he needs to a) prove it and b) historically account for why that is in a more textured way than assuming that such UUs are naturally conservative.

I'm not sure we actually need to reach a consensus on what is representative of UUism. For one, we would need to conclude that something really is representative of UUism, and while tolerance etc are pretty clear overall values, there really is considerable diversity and regionalism. I sometimes wonder if the search for UU consensus is essentially theological in intent. If so, that's OK, but it isn't my project. As a historian, my job is to deal with the facts as I receive them and try to represent them in the most accurate (and hopefully interesting) manner possible. I don't assume there is any consensus or representation, to me that is an open historical question that I and others must pursue without agenda. Keeping it open allows for more creative projects in a way. Just because I'm getting on Oppenheimer's case doesn't mean his study lacks merit, and he's certainly stimulated discussion. What we need to do is learn to respect a lack of consensus, so that when we disagree with the parameters of one another's studies we can do so in a constructive way that doesn't automatically derail projects or obscure their better sides. My concerns are grave enough about this particular study that I've voiced them strongly, but again my post was specifically meant to be about criticisms (since people kept asking me here and off-blog about what they were). In an actual book review I'd have some laudatory things to say as well.

Kevin: Thank you for your kind words.

This quasi-review was a historian talking about a historian's historical book, so naturally it comes off as concerned with matters of history! That said, of course there's no reason you need to look at things from the same angle. As a lifelong UU I was disgruntled by the patchwork job he does in places, but if as a lifelong UU you found it nonetheless accurate on the whole, then by all means enjoy it and recommend it. That's great.

The thing which makes the academy different from other arenas of publishing is that we are self-policing. Our books are supposed to be reviewed by peers before publication (I don't see any evidence that Oppenheimer showed his manuscript to major scholars of liberal religion), they come out from presses trained to handle such materials, and they are rigorously reviewed in academic journals--my comments here are tame compared to what one commonly sees in such venues. Together, we push one another to write the very best, most informed, most accurate, most contextual works possible (and, sometimes, we bash each other with our over-inflated petty egos). I'm genuinely put off by some parts of Oppenheimer's work. But if he and I were in dialogue with one another, I think we'd find a way to be constructive and goad one another toward expanding our thinking. It's not like I'm 100% right and he's 100% wrong--I'm sure we could each learn from the other.

How would I ask Oppenheimer to handle liberal better? Well, first I'd say that professional standards of methodology aren't a minor thing, they're extremely important. Our training is a key component of what makes a scholarly book scholarly, and we need to bring those specialized tools to the table when we are trying to represent others from previous time periods. As an example, I myself wrote a book when I was in my early 20s, before I became a grad student. It is a good book, mostly accurate, which served its purpose. But I didn't have the tools available to me then that I do now. I went to school largely in order to acquire those methodological tools, because I understood that they would help me write stronger, better, more reliable studies of the religious phenomena which interest me.

Second, I would say that Oppenheimer needed to check his prejudices at the door. His model for religion is conservative American Christianity. That model does not work well for studying liberal religion. When your model doesn't work well, you need to find another model, not make constant snide comments about how your subjects aren't living up to the model which you decided to impose on them. Liberal religion requires a definition of religion that doesn't assume particularly and exclusion, that acknowledges change, individualism, freedom, and multiplicity as sources of religiousity rather than threats to it. And it requires far more footwork than conservative religion, because it is more protean. You need to do twice as much (maybe more) work and draw on three times as many sources, because you're dealing with something inherently less homogenous. Liberal religion is harder work to study than conservative religion, and if you're going to wade into that pool you need to be prepared to spend considerable time swimming in the deep end.

I'm afraid I don't have time to provide a comprehensive agenda for liberal religious studies here, Kevin. But I'll keep the issue in mind and maybe return to it later if I have a chance. Thanks for your comments.

Fausto: You're right that Yale has had great liberal religious historians like Ahlstrom in the past, and no, there's nobody in the Religious Studies Dept now working actively in this area that I'm aware of.

Your patriarchal line of liberal descent is telling of what the problems are with this area of study: we've got all the big boys in there, but it ends with Fosdick, who died at a ripe old age in 1969, just as Oppenheimer's study kicks into gear. The study of liberal religion is stuck in the early centuries, with inadequate coverage of the middle 20th century and very little at all for the last quarter or so. This is why Oppenheimer seemed like such a beacon of hope. But when I read his chapter, I feel that he hasn't moved beyond a 19th century mindset at all. He's judging UUs by who they were in Channing's time. In NO religion can you make a valid historical argument with such a poor sense of natural change, and especially not in UUism, which is more mutable than most. When you read his citations for UUism, they're virtually all studies that stop pre-merger (!), or at best go only part-way into his time period. That's a real problem. Faced with such a vacuum of information, he needed to do a lot more legwork in order to get a sense for what UUism was during the 1970s, rather than assuming that it continues the (Unitarian) story forward without complication; or assuming that what one sees today can be projected backward several decades without complication. I think it is telling that he virtually always uses Unitarian as his term--he's really just not interested in the Universalists and how they may have contributed to the conversation over gay rights. That's another real problem when you're dealing with a demonination made of two, not one, historic streams.

By the way, I'm not knocking the Yale education. I was trained in the historical method by a Yalie (who, true to form, specializes in evangelical religion of the early Republic). But at this particular moment it doesn't seem to provide all the tools needed for this specific element of Oppenheimer's project.

One of my open projects is a textbook on liberal religious traditions in America. It will go right up to the present. If I get a good academic appointment in a year then I'll probably start working on it daily, there's a gap that needs to be filled.

Christine: Thanks for the clarification about the "inherent" phrase, I actually suspected it was present earlier but Oppenheimer doesn't cite his source for it and I doubt he read those bylaws (I could be wrong). Nonetheless, I don't think it really penetrated UU consciousness as a self-identifier and determinant until the Principles were formulated.

I used my own anecdote to speak right to the point you're making about where the real debate took place--on the ground, in individual churches, and that it is in fact still ongoing. Many churches still refuse to sign on to the Welcoming program. Oppenheimer's story isn't over by a long-shot.

OK, I'm headed for the road, y'all have a pleasant weekend.


April 7, 2006 11:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff, let me ask a couple of provocative questions without presupposing any answer:

Is the "Yale attitude" toward liberal religion wrong when it ends the list of broadly influential liberal religious voices with Fosdick? Liberal religion did not end with Fosdick, but who since has enjoyed such broad popular influence?

Is the "Yale attitude" wrong in linking the eclipse of liberal religion, and particularly its affirmation of inherent human worth and perfectibility and the nobility of human endeavor and experience, to WWII's exposure of the darkness that resides at the center of the human soul?

Is there any valid correlation to be drawn between the receding membership and influence of all the mainline Protestant denoms since WWII and the "Yale view" of liberal religion as a spent force?


April 7, 2006 12:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

The study of liberal religion is stuck in the early centuries, with inadequate coverage of the middle 20th century and very little at all for the last quarter or so.

That may be so. But be careful what you wish for. Might not a scrupulously honest history of liberal religion since Fosdick, if one were to appear, document a period of drift, weakness and dissipation rather than one of sustained strength and progress?


April 7, 2006 12:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

A scrupulously honest history is exactly what I want. How else can we hope to identify trends that need to be confronted directly?

Gary Dorrien's upcoming final volume on the history of American liberal theology will at least help us understand the history of ideas for the post-war period — but as he pointed out at the AAR in Philadelphia, it's a period in which liberal theology moved increasingly into the academy and grew detached from churches and denominations. I'm not aware of a solid history of liberal religion in the period; William Hutchison's last book — which he was working on when I took a seminar with him at HDS — was focused on religious pluralism, not on recent liberal religious history, unfortunately.

Mark Oppenheimer:

April 16, 2006 11:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

May I weigh in? First, let me say that Mr. Wilson's review is thoughtful; he certainly engaged my book seriously, and for that I am grateful. But if I may defend myself a little...

I'm not sure what to say about Wilson's attempt to drum me out of the history guild. I left out many footnotes, it's true. I didn't refer to a theoretical matrix. I tried to wear my learning lightly, not boastfully. In short, I didn't want it to read like a scholar's study, but rather like an accessible but accurate history. My model was, perhaps, Edmund Morgan's "The Puritan Dilemma," or Harry Stout's biography of George Whitefield: short, simple, profound books. Now, I'm not as good an historian as either of those men, but I try. And I thought my scholarly apparatus--my footnotes--were comprehensive enough to back up much of what I was trying to say. But yes, I tried to err on the side of underplaying the extent to which this book is in conversation with the rest of the historians' guild.

But here's the thing: there actually ain't much of an historians' guild of 1960s religion. There are isolated memoirs and some general histories, but if you want to know about the Episcopal church in the past 50 years, or countercultural Judaism, the literature is pretty thin--at least by comparison to the literature on, say, World War II, which wasn't SO long before. I was sailing into a lot of uncharted waters. Heck, I wish that hadn't been the case. But it was. So with regard to Unitarians, for example, I did a couple dozen interviews, read a lot of denominational literature, became the first scholar ever (so far as I could tell) to delve into the archives of the gay caucus--I did my best. It's my hope--yes, my sincere hope--that others will come along and improve on my work. But I sense in Wilson's review some insinuation that my book is in bad faith, or too little researched, and that stings a little.

As to whether or not I got UUs right (for nobody seemed to complain that I got Jews wrong, or Episcopal women), I can only say that I think most UUs would say that I got the vibe right. We can quarrel over meanings of "theology," but I know a lot of UU preachers, and far more laity, and I think most would happily say that "theology" is not among the words they'd use to describe what drew them to the UU tradition. They'd be far more likely to talk about the inherent worth and dignity... which, yes, is an expression at least 40 years old. As to UU all my travels, I have hardly ever met one. Yes, there are some, and yes, they are concentrated in the Midwest and South. But they are pretty scarce. Nothing wrong with that, but to deny it seems a bit foolish.

And, I must say, never has a review dragged my schools or my teachers through the mud so much. Yale has plenty of people around who know liberal theology and Protestant history. Skip Stout is, after all, a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA)--that is William Sloane Coffin's old church. So he may do his work more on evangelicals, but that doesn't mean he is ignorant of other stuff. I'm not going to take a lot of time defending Jon Butler and Nick Wolterstorff, great men who need no defending. Rather, I'll just say that I'd rather be charged with my own errors--I had plenty of fine scholars offering critiques, and a school library of 10 million volumes besides. If I screwed up, let me own my mistakes.

Finally, Wilson seems not to get how acknowledgments work. I showed my manuscript to lots of people who didn't get in the acknowledgments--and, conversely, many of those in the acknowledgments are there for being friends and may not have read the book. Wilson dissects the names in my acknowledgments: "Jamie Mercier: someone I've never heard of, not at Yale, with no publications" Alas, it's true she has no publications--she was my junior high debate coach, and I haven't seen her for almost 20 years. I just put her name in because she was a very kind woman who helped me through a tough time. "John Ratte: an expert on Catholicism"--true, but more important he was my high school headmaster. I never read his work on Catholicism, which dealt with early 20 century modernist theologians in France. "Jane Archibald, Curt Robison, and James Rugen: these are teachers at Loomis Chaffee, an elite boarding school in Windsor, CT. When we were growing up in central CT, the students at LC made even us middle class kids at good public high schools feel like plebes." Well, sorry to have made you feel like plebes. I was a day student from working-class Springfield, Massachusetts, and drove 1/2 hour every day to get to school. A lot of the rich boarding students from Greenwich made me feel like a plebe, too. "J.D. McClatchy: a poet and writer on poetry. Robert Stone: a fiction writer and teacher of creative writing. Nicholas Wolterstorff: works on Christian theology." These guys were just great teachers. I doubt Robert Stone remembers me. As for McClatchy, he published an essay of mine in Yale Review, an essay about lefty summer camps. If he's read my religion book, I'll eat my shorts.

Then again, he doesn't have to read it. He's a friend, and that counts for a lot.

Thanks for the review, and I'm glad so many of you have taken the time to read my book. It was a labor of love.

Best wishes,

Mark Oppenheimer
New Haven CT

Mark Oppenheimer:

April 17, 2006 12:01 AM | Permalink for this comment

OK, not to be a pest, but let me add one more thing. When Wilson says I "don't understand religion"--a charge that seems to subsume a lot of his other charges, HE seems not to understand that I was being "normative," not descriptive. In other words, I was defining religion in a particular way that I found useful. I realize, of course, that other people describe it differently. And that's okay. But there's a difference between my not understanding it and my choosing to define it in a particular way (which of course we all do).

Also, I have no idea why I am charged with using evangelicalism or conservative Christianity as a template. Not only does my book hardly touch on those phenomena, not only do I have little affinity with those phenomena, but there is nothing about my understanding of religion that is particular to those phenomena.

OK, time for bed.

--Mark Oppenheimer

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

April 17, 2006 12:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

"I was defining religion in a particular way that I found useful. I realize, of course, that other people describe it differently. And that's okay. But there's a difference between my not understanding it and my choosing to define it in a particular way (which of course we all do)."

It isn't that you simply define religion in a different way, it is that your "way" knowingly excludes other valid faith groups in the name of simplicity (I'm assuming simplicity and not outright bias). Your treatment of modern (or "neo") Paganism in the introduction was insulting.

It made me wonder if you did any real study into the demographics and spread of modern Paganism in the 60s and 70s. Did you contact some of the historians and scholars working in this area?

If you wanted to leave modern Paganism out of your book, fine, but to twist the definition of "religon" to justify it is lame.

Jeff Wilson:

April 17, 2006 01:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mark, I'm delighted you've weighed in here--in fact, I'd rather hoped that a critique might flush you out to give us a few details about your book and process. I hope the posts here, mine in particular, don't come off too hostile--the intent here was to provide a _critique_, NOT a review, and isn't the sort of thing I'd subject anyone to in an academic journal. A more rounded review would have discussed the many good points I found in the sections of the book I read and, despite the number of outright nasty reviews I've read(!), sought a more moderate tone.

Let me start my comments by apologizing for the sting you felt, I'm dealing with these very issues as I trudge through my never-ending dissertation work, and it's easy to vent too much venom at a passing target online. I wasn't out to make you feel bad and I'm sorry if I crossed the line. Please forgive my rudeness, I sincerely apologize.

In particular I hope you're joking about feeling like I'm trying to drub you out of the historian's guild--quite the opposite, I'm trying to get a handle on how we continually build the guild as we navigate between the Scylla of endlessly footnoted academic studies that only a handful will read, and the Charybdis of popular writing that makes it difficult for a scholar from the outside to really tell if all the footwork has been done or not. If you have any insights to share from your experience with Yale University Press, I know I (and probably others) would like to hear them.

I haven't read the sections on Jews or Episcopalians, so I can't say how accurately you portrayed those communities. I was only asked to read and reflect on your first chapter. I am surprised that you've encountered so few UU Christians. Might it be that some UU Christians chose not to identify themselves as such to you for some reason? I myself have found them in many corners of the denomination in my travels, and they seem well represented in the Unitarian-Universalist literature of the time period and online these days (I could suggest some resources if this is still an open project). This is an issue I deal with in my own fieldwork--are consultants holding back opinions that they feel might not be understood/taken sypathetically? Do the ways in which I ask questions cause them to give me answers that obscure certain information even as they reveal other data? This is a source of frequent fear and frustration for me as a researcher, especially since I concentrate on minority religions in America.

Didn't mean to drag Yale through the mud--I was just there yesterday, as a matter of fact, and being from CT I usually take pains to defend the honor of our state's most famous school (though I am myself a rabid Huskies fan). As I said, I myself was trained by a Yale alum, to whom I'm much indebted. But it still seems to me that, due to hiring choices, Yale lacks a professor who concentrates on liberal religion in America. That can be a problem for students seeking to specialize in this area. I in no way mean to impugn the gentlemen you listed, who are the cream of the crop and show up with regularity on my syllabi. But they aren't specialists on Unitarianism or Universalism, just as they aren't specialists on Judaism or Islam. Of course, there really aren't many specialists on Unitarianism these days. . .

If you have time, Mark, I'm interested in hearing a little more about your decision to define religion in the way you did in the introduction. It's clear that you choose to do so in the way you did because you believed it would be helpful in the subsequent arguments you laid out. But as much as I re-read the intro and chapter one, I just can't seem to grasp what sort of work you think this particular definition does for you in relation to _liberal_ religion. I'll concede that it makes considerable more sense in relation to the other traditions examined in the rest of the book, chapters that, once again, I didn't read and wasn't asked to discuss. Since you put the group that most problematizes your definition right in chapter one, and since I believe you when you say that you've thought the issues through, could be tell a little more about what you thought you got out of this definition? I can fully believe that I'm missing something, but I can't find that thing without some help here.

Thanks again for the rebuttal, and I hope you'll choose to enlighten us further if time permits.

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