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On Cephalopods, Religious Contestation, and Railroad Monopolies

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley

The ocean is in fashion. Anchors, oars, whales, maritime flags, and octopuses adorn the button-up shirts of American hipsters. Not to be outdone, academia has also adopted the marine as a central motif in the past decade, often situating the Atlantic World and its symbols as sites, metaphors, and producers of the modern self and modern capitalism. However, within the context of the United States, many marine symbols have served another purpose: to represent threats to individual and national security. I intend to take this opportunity to examine briefly the motif of the cephalopod (i.e., octopuses, squids, and fictionalized creatures with similar features) and to trace the motif’s relationship to religio-political contestation and broader concerns over power in the United States.

Of course, the creatures of the sea, whether allegedly seen by ship or washed up on a beach, have fascinated a variety of cultures around the globe for centuries, but within the American context the cephalopod became a common motif in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cartoons as oceanic symbols in general became more and more popular thanks to narratives both real and fictional (e.g., Moby-Dick [1851], Toilers of the Sea [1866], Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [1870], and, later, with a more purely metaphorical bent, The Octopus: A Story of California [1901]). Even as new technologies made the Atlantic and Pacific oceans more accessible than ever, America’s fascination with the creatures of the deep sea grew, often with a sublime and morbid tint. Furthermore, cephalopods became a useful shorthand for critiquing phenomena believed to be threatening to the existing religio-political order as understood by the historical subjects.

Mormons were the first religious group to be targeted by sensationalist American newspapers utilizing images of cephalopods.

Illustration 1 Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, Puck 14, no. 362 (February 13, 1884), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA,

In these fairly well-known illustrations, the tentacles were used to symbolize expansionism, influence, and manipulation. In Illustration 1, the octopus with Brigham Young’s face issues a multi-pronged attack on public opinion, schools, YMCA, justice, and even Ireland. In Illustration 2, which was occasioned by Reed Smoot’s election to the U.S. Senate, the octopus occupies a geographical space in the West, but stretches a tentacle to Washington D.C.

Illustration 2 Los Angeles Herald XXXI, no. 97 (January 1904), California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside,

The illustration implies that having finally established an empire far away from U.S. interference, the Mormons were now seeking to take control of the federal government. Some anti-Catholic literature, having long relied on reptilian imagery to represent the Catholic Church, also began to deploy the cephalopod in the early twentieth century.

However, the cephalopod was not only used to critique specific denominations or churches. Publications also utilized the octopus to critique, in very similar ways, American corporations, cities, and modernism itself (as produced by the Moody Bible Institute). In fact, cephalopods were first popularized through propaganda that targeted railroad monopolies in the waning decades of the nineteenth century (see Illustration 3). Other fields then incorporated the imagery in the following decades.

With this admittedly small set of data, I would like to propose some directions for scholarship interested in analyzing religious contestation. I argue that historians have much to gain by crossing or ignoring the boundaries of what is typically defined as “religious” and by examining how certain motifs have crossed a variety of modernity’s compartments—compartments that are contingently produced with certain interests in mind, yet certainly powerful in a multitude of ironic ways that go beyond individual or communal control.

From corporations, to churches, to cities (or more specifically, to cite one example, the corruptive reach of the mail-order catalogs produced therein), to twentieth-century imperial ideologies and industries, the aesthetic of the cephalopod in the past two centuries has provided a convenient shorthand for identifying a dangerous and amorphous other that is submerged until just before or when it becomes too late to react against it. At this moment the threat becomes ever-expanding and clearly present. This was one of the common threads of nineteenth-century deep-sea fictions and one of the underlying implications of these propaganda cartoons. The compelling nature of these illustrations, I believe, is based on their ability to make the invisible (under the sea) visible (landed, reaching, and unescapable).

Illustration 3 critiques San Francisco’s railroad magnates and the destruction of local farmers’ lands due to Southern Pacific acquisition. George Frederick Keller, “The Curse of California,” The Wasp 9, no. 316 (August 19, 1882), 520-521.

I argue that although we should not collapse the different political goals sought after in these productions, we can identify a nerve that cuts across typically fenced-off cultural fields (i.e., the fields of “religion” and “economics”). This nerve registers the fear of institutionalized systematicities, whose center is always elsewhere and othered, overwhelming the capacity of individuals and the local to be themselves. (However, as John Modern argues, systematicity and this type of individualism ironically developed together.) Nonetheless, the consistent re-use of octopuses and the like suggests the tenderness of this nerve, one especially vulnerable within the turn-of-the-century context of massive national expansion, radically interconnecting technologies, and the growth of corporations and the federal government (often in a reciprocal relationship).

My intention in bringing together these few illustrations is straightforward: scholarship interested in religious contestation, which is a field of interest to me, could find productive avenues by looking for similar discourses and aesthetics in archives derived from other cultural fields. Such an approach might allow us to propose new sources and frameworks for such contestation. These frameworks could incorporate the political, incorporate the economic, and blur the distinction between these and other fields. Theoretical frameworks, I assert, can become claustrophobic when based solely on the adjective “religious.” Tracing the repurposing of signposts like the cephalopod could allow us to gain some visibility in these murky waters and to map out the submerged cultural terrain that is inevitably connected in a variety of ways.

Finally, I have one question to pose: how might we explain the amelioration of the octopus today after such a history of malignancy?

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

New Books: Andrew Stern’s Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross

Monday, September 29th, 2014

by Andrew Stern

While completing my book Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross, I lived in a small town called Ocracoke on the coast of North Carolina. Religious life in this town was a fitting setting in which to write on Catholic-Protestant cooperation. The town had two churches – United Methodist and Assemblies of God – yet perhaps the largest religious community was the Catholic, composed primarily of recently-arrived immigrants from Mexico. The Catholics had no church building of their own, and so whenever a priest visited from a nearby town they met in the fellowship hall of the Methodist church. For special occasions such as quinceaneras or Christmas Eve celebrations they used the sanctuary. So accustomed were the residents of Ocracoke to this arrangement that no one thought it remarkable that a group of young Catholic children should receive their First Communion in a Methodist church.

One rarely hears about such cases of inter-religious cooperation. There is a tendency in much of our public discourse to highlight incidents of violence and intolerance, especially when it comes to religion. The media fixates on them and gives disproportionate attention to the most extreme voices in any debate. A single pastor of a small church who threatens to burn a Qur’an can dominate the news cycle for days, while peaceful coexistence goes unnoticed. In addition, many nonprofits and offices within academia justify their existence and increase their budgets by emphasizing how far American society still needs to go in interfaith understanding. In terms of religious history specifically, narratives of persecution are central to many faiths. Often, it seems that historians construct their stories around the same key events. Haun’s Mill, the murder of Joseph Smith, and the “Mormon War” dominate Mormon history. University quotas, the lynching of Leo Frank, and “The International Jew” invariably figure prominently in American Jewish historiography. And histories of American Catholicism invariably highlight the burning of the Charlestown convent, the Know-Nothings, and the failed campaign of Al Smith. These incidents are all worthy of historians’ attention, just like incidents of intolerance today demand redress, yet at times our attention to them might blind us to another, equally if not more important side of the story.

To some extent, historians of American religion simply go where the sources lead them. The most prominent records are of events that grab observers’ attention, and a lynching or a convent burning is far more attention-grabbing than people of different faiths quietly and peacefully living their daily lives. Yet such overt instances of bigotry and violence are anomalous, so the question arises, how can historians resurrect the everyday occurrences that may seem mundane but that are much more indicative of how people in the past actually lived? How can historians uncover and analyze cases of cooperation that, like the sharing of a church in a small town in North Carolina, seem so natural that no one bothers remarking on them?

Tracing inter-religious cooperation can take on some of the qualities of midrash. It requires interpreting the silences as well as accessing the more obscure sources that reveal the lived religions of the past. This book is my modest attempt to do precisely that. In my research, I was surprised to discover that in fact there are many sources in which Catholics and Protestants commented on the ways in which they supported each other. But typically, these were asides, tangential to the main theme of the journal, letter, or newspaper article and thus easily overlooked. The Diurnal of the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., Bishop John England, the source that first led me to this topic, is an excellent example. England described his travels across his vast diocese. He listed each town through which he passed and the sermons that he preached, often in Protestant churches. As remarkable as the fact that Protestants invited this Catholic prelate into their churches is the fact that England did not seem to find such assistance remarkable at all. Because commentators generally took such hospitality for granted, a large part of my task was to try to interpret and explain it. Readers will have to judge whether or not my argument is persuasive.

The question remains whether Catholic-Protestant cooperation in the Old South was anomalous, a product of that particular culture. I suspect it was not. Bits of evidence from regions outside the scope of my work suggest this and indicate that what historians often identify as religious animosity was often rooted in class divisions more than in religion. Questions also remain about how attraction and repulsion can be so intimately intertwined, and how cooperation can so quickly yield to violence, and vice versa.

When historians tell the story of religion in America in the early twenty-first century, they will no doubt mention the controversy over the Islamic Center near ground zero, the shooting at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple, and other signs of religious intolerance, as well they should. I hope, however, that they find ways to include incidents like the Methodists of Ocracoke opening their church to Catholic worship as well. We need both types of stories in order to begin to understand the full complexity of religious experience in America.

Andrew Stern is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Wesleyan University. His first book, Southern Crucifix, Southern Crosswas published by the University of Alabama Press in 2012.

“To suffer for doing what is right”: The Social Functions of Martyrological Language

Friday, September 26th, 2014

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

When I teach sections on Christianity in my Introduction to World Religions course, I spend a good amount of time on getting my students to think about martyrdom. I do this not only for my own research interests, but because martyrological language plays a large role in the cultural history of Christianity. Oftentimes, the students get caught up in the blood-and-guts portion of the stories; however, my goal in having them look at such stories is to get them to think about how language works. More specifically, though, I want them to see how language serves particular functions, such as how labels are used by groups in order to legitimate their position, for example, or how those used by so-called outsiders (scholars, other groups, etc.) might serve to determine whether the group is (or is not) a “true” example of a particular tradition.

This semester, I created a writing assignment that would get at this very issue: students had to analyze texts that are written in favor of as well as against a specific group. One of the groups that they could choose to write about is the Army of God, an anti-abortion activist group that advocates the killing of doctors in order to prevent them from performing abortions. The pro-Army of God text I selected is a letter from Paul Hill, a loosely affiliated member who was executed in Florida for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett. In the letter, Hill does not explicitly use certain labels to characterize the Army of God (in fact, he does not even mention the group); instead, he alludes to ideas like martyrdom with statements indicating that “[i]t is a great privilege to suffer for doing what is right.” Hill is not the only anti-abortion activist to draw on this notion of martyrdom; in fact, the allusion to martyrdom is prevalent in the anti-abortion movements of the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that these allusions are best seen in the rhetoric and literature coming from Randall Terry and his group known as Operation Rescue.

Operation Rescue emerged in 1986 in a stated attempt to get “the church” involved in the anti-abortion movement. Doing so, according to Randall Terry, would make Christians realize their sin of bloodguiltiness, which had been committed through their lack of response to the issue of “abortion-on-demand.” Addressing the guilt Christians had because of their indifference was of the utmost importance, for if Operation Rescue were to accomplish its goal of abolishing abortion, Christians would have to be willing to redeem themselves. In a 1989 recruitment video, Terry stresses this point when speaking to protesters: “We are not going down there as the heroes. We are going down there in a spirit of repentance. We are guilty; the blood is on our hands. We’re fifteen years late … We are more guilty than the police when they take us away because the police are not called to be the salt of the earth. We are.” In Terry’s mind, Christians had to come together on this issue, as “only those with warriors’ hearts c[ould] turn the nation around.” These warriors, according to Terry, would be “disciplined, willing to sacrifice, and ready to die.”

The choice of thinking of themselves as warriors who are ready and willing to die, i.e., the use of martyrological language, serves to legitimate Operation Rescue (as well as the Army of God and Paul Hill) in terms of their identities. This martyrological language functions to position them in a much larger formation of civil disobedience and Christian martyrdom. This is done explicitly by Terry in Operation Rescue’s 1988 “handbook” when he draws on the martyrdom of Polycarp, the second-century bishop from Smyrna who was killed for his refusal to renounce Christ and swear to the Roman emperor. More importantly, not only does he reach back to this story from antiquity, but the source he cites from is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, by recounting numerous martyrdoms, constructs a trajectory of Christian martyrdom that spans from the early church period to Protestant martyrs in the sixteenth century.

Elizabeth Castelli’s work on martyrdom and memory in antiquity is useful for thinking about Operation Rescue because, as she argues, “the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making.” Christian identity became “indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.” In this same vein, then, groups like Operation Rescue use this social memory of early martyrdom to their advantage by arguing that one’s willingness to die lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the world. This language also “implies a broader narrative that invokes notions of justice and the right ordering of the cosmos.” Castelli’s point here regarding the “right ordering” of things situates martyrdom in antiquity as a series of conflicts over order between the subjugated (Christians) and the powerful (Roman authorities). Thinking about the function of martyrological language as a way for a group to contest the current order of the world–as fellow CH blogger Jenny Collins-Elliott did earlier this week–is appropriate for thinking about Operation Rescue, as their acts of “martyrdom” sought to overturn the current state that the world was in, namely, the legalization of abortion. Although modern Christian groups are not the minorities they once were, the use of martyrological language attempts to create ties to the past so that the present can be portrayed as being part of a continuous historical narrative.

Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy. She can be contacted at tbaldrickmorrone at fsu dot edu and on Twitter.

* Image courtesy Religion News Service.

Blase Cupich and the Language of the Culture Wars

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

By Jeffrey Wheatley

I have looked on with interest these last few days as a series of buzzes, beeps, and red dots have pushed me to read the latest updates on Pope Francis’s selection of Blase Cupich to be the next Archbishop of Chicago. The Archdiocese of Chicago is the third-largest in the nation. Historically, its archbishops have been major players in the national hierarchy. Because of the importance of this office, the media has been building up anticipation regarding the replacement of Cardinal Francis George, who is suffering from bladder cancer.

Blase Cupich (Image courtesy Diocese of Spokane)

The appointment of Cupich has provided ample opportunities for various news outlets to comment on the politics of the American Catholic Church. At first glance the language is not surprising. Most liberal American news outlets applauded the selection of Cupich, who has urged for civil language regarding issues of marriage and abortion and who has supported immigration reform. The Chicago Tribune’s article “New Archbishop Brings ‘Francis Factor’ to Chicago” described Cupich as having “embraced a moderate agenda that stands in contrast to Cardinal Francis George’s unyielding loyalty to Catholic doctrine.” The National Catholic Reporter, taking it a step further, remarked that few bishops are “more allergic to the culture war model.” ThinkProgress echoed this sentiment: Cupich’s appointment could usher in an “era of American Catholic leadership that spends less time fighting culture wars and more time echoing the populist leadership of Pope Francis.”

On the flip side, the conservative political advocacy organization CatholicVote took liberals to task for distorting the appointment for their own purposes. “Cupich to Chicago: What it Actually Means” remarks that despite the language of “civility,” Cupich has been firmly against same-sex marriage, abortion, and the HHS mandate. The article notes that Cupich “told the New York Times ‘Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues’.” The CatholicVote article then asks, “but do liberals ever stop and realize that cuts both ways?” Liberals, and specifically liberal Catholics, the author argues, “are hoping we greet Bishop Cupich with the knives out. That would be a disaster and an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.” The liberal media, the author asserts, is baiting conservative Catholics.

There are a lot of different things we can gain by examining these varied responses as a whole. For the purposes of this post, I argue that these responses provide us with an opportunity to slice into our religio-political environment and, specifically, to learn something about how the language of the culture wars functions today.

As Daniel T. Rodgers has argued in his book Age of Fracture, we should analyze the past four decades of American history not by accepting the socio-political divisions as presented by the period’s politicians, intellectuals, and journalists, but by attending to the “contagion of metaphors” that have flourished (10). Examining the way that Americans have adapted and re-deployed these metaphors provides us the best opportunity to understand an age of fracture while also acknowledging the increased interconnectedness and shared conceptual blocks of American society.

For Rodgers, the “market” has been the dominant metaphor of our age, but I want to examine how the contagious metaphor of the “culture wars” has been deployed. Early on the language of the culture wars was often used in the affirmative. In 1991 James Davison Hunter published his sociological study Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, which brought the phrase back into use after decades of neglect. A year later Pat Buchanan claimed at the Republican National Convention that the election was a “cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.” The metaphor was attractive not only as a descriptive term, but as a phrase useful for mobilizing intellectual and political resources. It served to create (a call to war) what it described (the war itself as already occurring).

However, there is another way that this language has been deployed, and the few responses to Cupich’s appointment that I have highlighted suggest a shift in emphasis. Beyond a language for mobilizing for intellectual and political war, Americans have also used the language of the culture wars to identify who is warring and who is not. In contrast to Buchanan, the responses to Cupich’s appointment on both the right and the left situate their preferred politics—emblematized in Cupich—outside of the warzone. To efficaciously use the metaphor you must present yourself as operating outside of the trenches. Conversely, you must present your political opponents as operating within them and seeking to draw you in.

As for Cupich’s own feelings about his new job: “Labels,” he said in response to questions about being a moderate, “are hard for anybody to live up to one way or another. I just try to be myself and I try to learn from great people.” “I don’t come,” he also noted, “with any intentionality.” The latter was an especially popular quote.

And so I am suggesting that some of the original intentions behind the language of the culture wars—to identify political enemies, to mobilize support against them, and to justify divisive and potentially violent rhetoric—have, to an admittedly limited extent, exhausted themselves. This, of course, does not mean that the age of political division is over or that militaristic metaphors in the service of politics will recede from public use. Far from it. But there are new uses for the metaphor. Americans have become culture war-weary, it seems.

Yet I wonder if the shift in emphasis that I have tried to identify in this post actually signals an intensification of the original logic. In a remarkable instance of rhetorical exhaustion, we have perhaps reached a stage in which the public has to reject the culture wars metaphor and its corollary labels in order to extend their original purposes.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

From Coliseum to Classroom: the Face of Modern Christian Martyrdom

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

by Jenny Collins-Elliott

“You don’t have to commit intellectual suicide to believe in a Creator.” – Josh Wheaton

While Christian and faith-based movies are not new, there has been in recent years a renewed interest and effort put into these films. Thanks to production companies like Pure Flix Entertainment, modern Christian movies have become high-quality productions that increasingly draw known actors as their stars. With a budget of just $2 million, one such film, “God’s Not Dead” (released March 21, 2014), has earned over $60,000,000 in gross domestic box office sales. As a point of comparison, 2013’s summer blockbuster “After Earth,” starring Will and Jaden Smith, earned the same box office numbers stateside with a budget of $130,000,000. While Smith’s movie was a flop, “God’s Not Dead” has been a resounding success. So, why this recent investment in Christian-produced and –oriented films? What are these films doing, and how has this translated into success at the box office?

“God’s Not Dead” stars Kevin Sorbo as Dr. Radisson, a bitter philosophy professor bent on pushing his atheist agenda in his Philosophy 150 class. The protagonist, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), signs up for Dr. Radisson’s class, but only after an ominous warning from the registrar after he sees that Josh is wearing a cross necklace. Josh suggests that the professor can’t be that bad, and the registrar replies, “Think Roman coliseum. Lions. People cheering for your death.” Josh enrolls anyway and on the first day of class, Dr. Radisson requires that all students write on a piece of paper “God is dead” and then sign that paper if they want to pass the class. This is done in order to avoid futile philosophical debates on the existence of God. All of the students do as they’re told, without hesitation, except for our protagonist. When Dr. Radisson approaches Josh, he says, “I can’t do what you want—I’m a Christian.” After some arguing, Dr. Radisson informs Josh that if he won’t sign the paper, then he’ll have to give three twenty minute presentations meant to prove that God is not dead, with his classmates serving as the jury. When Josh tells his girlfriend, she is displeased and tells him to drop the class, lest to put his law school plans at risk, along with their shared future. Josh, still undecided, finds the encouragement he needs from a local minister, and thus decides to take the professor’s challenge. The majority of the film is spend showing Josh presenting his three lectures, interspersed with a half-dozen subplots. During Josh’s third presentation, he outs the professor as a man angry with God for his mother’s death from cancer. The professor’s exclamation that he hates God is used by Josh as proof that God is not dead, since Dr. Radisson is affirming God’s existence through his hatred and belief that God was cruel to his Christian mother. The lecture ends with each of the students standing up and proclaiming “God’s not dead.”

“God’s Not Dead” adopts (consciously or not) many themes from late antique Christian martyr stories, but Josh’s story reminded me particularly of two such tales: that of Perpetua in the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (early 3rd century CE) and of Thecla in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (mid-late 2nd century CE). Josh, like Perpetua, is discouraged by those closest to him. Josh’s girlfriend wants him to either sign the paper or drop the class and preserve their future together; Perpetua’s father wants her to make sacrifices to the emperors in exchange for her freedom, for the sake of himself and her newborn son. When both Josh and Perpetua are offered a chance to forgo their respective persecutions (Josh: embarrassment in front of his classmates, a failing grade, an uncertain future; Perpetua: death in the arena), they each respond the same way: “I am a Christian.” Thecla, on the other hand, is tested by a near-burning, a near-rape, and a near-animal mauling, but survives each and goes on to live out the rest of her life preaching. Josh likewise undergoes a number of trials, such as his three lectures in front of his philosophy class and professor. Additionally, Thecla and Josh win-over at least some members of their audience in the process of their martyrdom. Notably, both Thecla and Josh survive each test, and yet they are called martyrs. Though Perpetua dies in her martyrdom process, death is not required, but is one outcome of martyrdom. Our word “martyr” comes from the Ancient Greek word mártys, which means “witness.” Perpetua, Thecla, and Josh each “witness” to the Gospel in their own ways, and in-keeping with Christian martyrdom texts historically, each was made to suffer for it. Also critical to the Christian martyr tale is the presence of an audience and the subversion of expectation. For early Christian martyrs, this was played out in public spaces such as theater and game arenas. In this context, the function of martyrdom (real or imagined) was for the Romans to break the spirits of Christians by torturing and killing, in front of an audience, those who refused to make sacrifices to the emperor or Roman gods. The martyr’s affirmation of faith, suffering, and death becomes a reenactment of Jesus’ own unjust crucifixion, a demonstration of Jesus’ victory over death, and the martyr’s steadfast belief in the promise of eternal life. So while the audience is meant to be discouraged from mimicking the martyr’s actions, the martyr’s death is actually witnessing the Gospel message to the on-lookers, who have now become an audience of potential converts. The martyr’s sacrifice is transformed from a deterrent into a recruiting device.

Kevin Sorbo and Shane Harper in “God’s Not Dead”

But the witnessing doesn’t end with Josh’s classroom victory, nor with Perpetua’s death or Thecla’s exit from the arena. The late ancient martyrdom texts lived on to witness to many more people than those seated in the arena. Like a chain letter, the film concludes by encouraging the characters, and by extension the viewing audience, to text all their friends, saying “God’s not dead.” Thus by the end, both Josh and the film itself have been through a process of what I call “intellectual martyrdom.” Josh witnessed to his classmates not by physical torture or endurance, but by intellectual challenges. Many people warned Josh that he was being set up, that the odds were in the professor’s favor, but, like the martyrs of old, he subverted Dr. Radisson’s intentions and used them for his own gain. Just as early Christian martyr stories were meant to inspire steadfastness and religious zeal in their already-Christian consumers, so too “God’s Not Dead.” This isn’t a film meant, necessarily, to persuade non-Christians into belief. Rather, it seems to be a tool for reminding modern American Christians that while there may be little threat of death, they are nevertheless a persecuted people who are living, studying, and working in the secular world, and thus should be encouraged to live out their own periods of intellectual martyrdom in order to witness to the world that “God’s Not Dead.”

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

Between “Bring Out Your Dead” and “I’m Not Dead Yet”

Friday, September 19th, 2014

by Andy McKee

Samuel G. Morton (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In the first half of the nineteenth century, naturalist Samuel G. Morton created a massive database of human skulls in a scientific attempt to categorize and catalog the world. Ann Fabian’s Skull Collectors, is probably my favorite read on the process that took the deaths of displaced peoples (Native Americans, Africans, slaves, criminals, the poor) and re-purposed their bodies so that in death, they became a central feature of how human existence could be measured, divided, marked, and then re-stitched back together. She argues, “To begin with these encounters over dead bodies gives us a new point of entry into mid-century America, weaving together histories and stories that have been told separately.” In my post for today, I want to think about these encounters and the different ways of viewing all the dead bodies strew across the North American continent came to take part in overlapping systems of knowledge of what it looked like to be and become an “average American.” How we read these “colonial statistics” within the framework of Empire, Manifest Destiny, and histories of the Atlantic World can help inform how we write religious histories of the Americas and further, can help show how certain memories of the dead are never quite settled, and instead inform a constant negotiation of what it means to belong to a certain place, and how that certainness is determined.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States government had taken an interest in logging the dead of the Civil War, and usurped control over the cataloging the dead from phrenologists like Morton. In 1862, the National Museum of Health and Medicine was created to help manage the dead of the Civil War, and to create memories of the great loss of human life that was ongoing. The first curator of the museum, John Hill Brinton, writing in September of 1863 recalled that when the museum began, he was to leave the “ghoul-like work” he had done in order to retrieve the bodies of soldiers from the trenches where they had been buried. By January of 1863, he published a small catalogue of the Army Museum showing a collection of some 1,400 objects, and that number was rapidly growing.

Once bodies, and individual body parts were obtained, recorded, and archived, however, they were not laid to rest. Instead, Brinton noted that, “The public came to see the bones, attracted by a new sensation.” But it did not stop there either. Soldiers, especially those missing limbs because of field amputation, would often come to look up their missing parts. Brinton recalled on “florid-looking office” closely examining a leg bone, and after sometime called to a young woman named Julia, “here it is! my leg, No. ____, and nicely fixed up, too.” Another time, a private, with the help of the Assistant Curator, found his limb on display, and demanded it be returned. Apparently “deaf to reason” the curator asked how long the solider was enlisted and after hearing an answer of “for the war” responded that the private should return then, “and you can have the rest of you.” Until the war’s end however, the soldier’s limb was the property of the United State Government, no matter its condition.

As scholars have noted, “the Enlightenment never succeeds entirely in exorcising its own ghosts.” This on-going work of exorcism is perhaps best seen on various frontiers of nineteenth century American life, as settlers worked to catalog and represent peoples in various literary and scientific narratives. If a “discourse of the dead” pervades competing ways of knowing and being in which Natives, Soldiers, and citizens competed over ideas of belonging, then it becomes clear that the process of defining a particular version of American nationhood was not a one directional path.

Instead, as Ann Stoler argues about European colonizing practices, “From an earlier focus on how colonizers have viewed the indigenous Other, more work is beginning to sort out how Europeans in the colonies imagined themselves and constructed communities built on asymmetries of race, class, and gender – entities at odds with the European models on which they were drawn.” What she is getting at, I think, are the ways in which the colonial politics of regulation that were secured through various forms of control, often worked backwards in a system in which colonialism created both the colonizer and the colonized. While this process of who had the authority to do the archiving is always shifting hands, by thinking about a missing head here, or a missing limb there, we can come to see reproduced bodies that were being stitched and pieced together like a Frankenstein. Instead of these bodies being dead and buried, the missing (or cataloged) pieces allowed us to trace the particular ways of knowing in which American history was consciously constructed through many changing criteria. In this conquest of flesh and pen, biological markers become a central feature of American empire building. If American church history can bring a focus to looking at the linkages between material culture and these undead histories, we can see how “an American way of death” developed against the backdrop of a shifting religious and imperial landscape.

Andy McKee is a doctoral student at Florida State University. He researches American religious history via labor movements, indigenous religions, and empire. He can be contacted at or on Twitter.


Upon Further Review: Interdisciplinarity and the Edited Volume

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

by Charles McCrary

Kathryn Gin Lum’s review of John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel’s edited collection From Jeremiad to Jihad (in the June 2014 issue of Church History) offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of disciplinarity and genre in scholarship. Lum’s reaction to the book is similar to mine when I read it. It’s a somewhat cumbersome and disjointed book, and the tone and angle varies significantly from essay to essay. (As a side point, I should say that Lum’s review is a good model for how to review an edited collection, which is very difficult—especially when it has fifteen essays.) The book’s unevenness is valuable because it helps the reviewer and reader to focus on the organizing tropes of the book. What threads run throughout? One theme Lum highlights is what she calls the “moral undertones” of the volume. The essays, she writes, “are united in their refusal to essentialize religion as inherently violent and refusal to find violence in ‘every corner of American history and culture’…Despite the heavy subject, an undercurrent of hope pervades the volume as a whole…” It’s worth asking, about this book and about edited collections in general, if a volume’s “undercurrent” is a product of the likemindedness of individual authors or of their organization by the editors. How might the book be read differently, for instance, if the final five essays, on ethics, instead were the first five? Again, this is another peculiarity of the genre edited collection.

The book and Lum’s review call our attention to discipline and the potential and promise of interdisciplinary scholarship. For an interdisciplinary—or, perhaps, antidisciplinary—approach to be most effective, the theme or topic must be clearly and defensibly defined. Lum gestures toward this point in her review, though she does not address it head-on. She identifies an undercurrent that links the essays, but there is also a topic, and object of study. That object—data set, if you will—is religious violence in America. For all fifteen authors and the two editors to agree on the meaning of any one of these three words would be an unlikely feat. How, then, to organize a set of essays from multiple disciplines around a contested and malleable topic without it collapsing into a babble of confusion? One way would be to engage in an interrogation of the organizing categories themselves: religious, violence, America. And the volume, as Lum indicates, does this to some degree. Another way would be to define very clearly what each author means by these terms, which most essays do not do explicitly. We can be more specific here. Is “religious violence in America” a sufficient trope around which to organize essays written by historians, ethicists, political scientists More bluntly, what do reflections on religious responses to the Virginia Tech shooting, a historical examination of uses of the trope of the Amalekite, and a debate about the justness of war have to do with each other? That’s a lot of work for such a short unclear phrase, “religious violence in America,” to do. As Lum writes, the essays do share undertones. A mood, a disposition. Is that enough to organize a body of scholarship?

Charles McCrary is a Ph.D. Student in American Religious History at Florida State University. You can find him on Twitter.

The Imagined Atheist in Colonial America

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

by Paul Putz

Arthur Scherr’s recent Church History article (“Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife”) has already elicited numerous responses at this blog, and I do not wish to add to them. However, I would like to use one of Scherr’s major themes as a jumping off point: his analysis of Jefferson’s attitude towards atheism.

Although Scherr deals mainly with Jefferson’s uniquely positive views on atheism expressed in his post-Revolution writings, it is the concept of atheism as it developed in colonial America that particularly intrigues me. This is because (to quote James Turner’s classic Without God, Without Creed), “America does not seem to have harbored a single individual before the nineteenth century who disbelieved God.” If that’s the case then why did the colonists – from as early as the settlement of Jamestown – seem to have no problem discovering atheists in their midst?

Nearly thirty years ago in an article for Church History Winton Solberg briefly addressed that question, arguing (with Hobbes and Descartes in mind) that in early-eighteenth-century America, “the new science created anxieties that expressed themselves as a fear of atheism, which took many forms at the time.” But even without anxiety about enlightenment thought, colonists could readily find atheists. What we typically mean when we say “atheist” — one who believes and proclaims that God does not exist — was considered by most colonists to be merely one type of atheist: the speculative or professed atheist. This type was exceedingly rare. For example, on a voyage to America in 1740, the sight of a pilot fish caused George Whitefield to reflect that “[t]his single Sight (one would think) is sufficient to confute any Atheist, if there be such a Fool as a speculative Atheist in the World.” But atheism of the heart, or practical atheism – living and behaving as if God did not exist? As Increase Mather put it in 1716, “The World is swarming full of Practical Atheists.”

The concept of atheism of the heart was easy for the colonists to articulate because it had biblical precedent in Psalm 14:1: “the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” Just because one did not verbally express his/her atheism did not mean she/he was not an atheist. One’s words and works, if not in accordance with the community’s standards of Christian morality, could reveal the atheistic state of one’s heart. It should be no surprise, then, that young wits with their unbridled, scoffing tongues – often frequenting coffee houses and taverns – were typically associated with atheism.

But regardless of why colonists so easily found atheists in their midst and regardless of how their definition of an atheist might differ from ours, the most important point is that any discourse about atheism or the atheist in colonial America – at least any published and public discourse – was a one-sided affair. As far as we know, there were no individuals claiming the atheist label for themselves (atheism was, after all, illegal in most colonies). And even when deists like Thomas Young, Ethan Allen, or Thomas Paine eventually published pamphlets expressing their deistic views, they made sure to distance themselves from the label of atheism (in Paine’s case hurling the label right back at his Christian opponents).

Given this reality, it seems to me that exploring popular-level discourse related to the atheist would be a useful enterprise. I’m thinking here especially of the imagined caricature of the atheist. Certainly warring pamphleteers often accused their theological or political opponents of encouraging the spread of atheism. And scholars have rightly pointed out that atheism was often conflated with various forms of subversive or skeptical beliefs. But it would be more interesting, in my view, to look at the character traits that were associated specifically with the atheist when he (and from what I’ve seen it was usually a “he”) was imagined in sermons, pamphlets, and newspapers.

One example of a popular depiction of an atheist came from The Second Spira, a morality tale that became a publishing sensation in England in 1693 and was subsequently published in America several times between 1693 and 1777. The Second Spira (yes, there was a first Spira – he was a Catholic apostate) told the “true” story of a young man, the pride of his family, who left home to study law. He soon fell into bad company, consorting with impious friends. What began with “bare Laughter, or a ridiculous Grin” advanced into more serious arguments. For example, his new friends claimed “That Mahomet has more Votaries than Christ…That the wild Indians dare bravely dye for their Religion” and consequently, “its not the Excellency of any one Religion…’tis the Habit and Custome of Education that creates the formidable Notions of Conscience, Heaven, Hell, Futurity and the Immortality of the Soul, all which are but the politick inventions of Priests and cunning Magistrates to enrich themselves.”

The slippery slope to damnation continued, and soon the young man and his friends had formed a secret atheistic club, where they committed various wicked acts. However, as often happens with atheists when they are written about in Christian morality tales, tragedy struck. The young man became deathly ill, so ill that he asked a minister to visit him. In the process of the visit the minister (using Locke and Descartes combined with the Bible) ably refuted the young man’s atheistic philosophical notions. The young man sadly proclaimed: “Oh unhappy Time, when first I imbib’d these Atheistical Principles! When first I exchanged the Christian Faith for the Creed of Spinoza and the Leviathan! When first I relinquish’d all reveal’d Religion for the natural one, and the last for none at all.” Then, he writhed about in hellish agony – vividly described, which helps to explain why the pamphlet was so popular. Finally, after crying out “Oh the insufferable Pangs of Hell and Damnation,” the young man died.

Even if there were no “true” atheists (by modern standards) around at the time, depictions of atheists like that in the The Second Spira (or another one of my colonial favorites, a poem titled “The Atheist and the Acorn”) can help us better understand the fears and ideas of the creators and consumers of the imagined atheist. And perhaps they might also offer insight into the long history of negative stereotypes and attitudes about atheists in America, attitudes that linger even today.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter @p_emory.

Money and the Heresy of Joel Osteen

Monday, September 8th, 2014

By Thomas J. Whitley

Make no mistake, Joel Osteen is a heretic. This according to Matt Walsh (popular blogger) and Albert Mohler (President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Cries of heresy are neither new nor particularly unique, though it seems that the word is bandied about less frequently today than it was for much of church history. Such prominent early writers as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Augustine, Epiphanius, and John of Damascus all openly wrote against heretics. These early writers understood it as their responsibility to keep the church theologically “pure” and to cast as outsiders those with whom they disagreed. Walsh and Mohler have chosen to carry the same banner for modern conservative American evangelicalism.

Albert Mohler writes of the “Prosperity Gospel” that the Osteen’s preach as an “American heresy.” Matt Walsh is much less subdued and comes right out of the gate calling the Osteens heretics in the title of his post and speaks of the “rather heretical things” they have said to their “congregation” (Walsh puts congregation in quotes to portray his view that Lakewood is not a church. He also puts church in quotes for the same reason. Both are very deliberate classificatory moves). The identity formation angle is easy to see and hardly needs pointing out. Mohler and Walsh can quickly and effortlessly draw a line between the faithful and true Christians and everyone else by employing this one word.

Both take issue with recent comments made by Victoria Osteen in which she said,

Do good for your own self. Do it because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really -you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.

Walsh uses these comments as a jumping off point to rebut the Osteen preaching that God wants to bless God’s followers by blessing them materially. The push back against the Prosperity Gospel is interesting to watch for a multitude of reasons, but one of the most interesting is the way in which suffering and a lack of material goods is equated with godliness, just as was the case with the ascetic and monastic movements in the 4th and 5th centuries. In response to a quote from Osteen that God will make one prosperous if they will but “declare words of victory,” Walsh says:

This is an interesting perspective, to be sure, especially considering that Americans live in relative wealth and luxury even though we are from from the most Biblically faithful people on the planet. In the Middle East there are millions of Christians who believe deeply and, rather than wealth and health, they are rewarded with torture and decapitation.

Thus, according to Walsh, those Christians who live in poverty in the Middle East are classified as “the most Biblically faithful people on the planet,” apparently because they believe and suffer, as opposed to American Christians who believe and do not suffer economic difficulties or persecution. No other reason for classifying these Christians as “Biblically faithful” is given or can reasonably be implied from Walsh’s comment. There is an unspoken assumption that the poorer a believer is and the more a believer suffers on account of their beliefs, the more pure and faithful that believer is. I am reminded of Candida Moss’ The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (2010), of the writings of Jerome, and of the Pachomian Rules.

Though Mohler and Walsh are not preaching the same ascetic message and are not outright suggesting martyrdom as the only true way to follow Christ, hints of such a time in the church’s past can be seen in their critiques of the Osteens. Asceticism, at least as an ideal, has found its way to modern conservative American evangelicalism. It is not simply that one should not expect to be rewarded for their belief, but that those who have not been rewarded in this life are those who truly believe. We can, once again, determine one’s commitment to Christ by observing their suffering for Christ.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Image courtesy flickr user cliff1066

Conference Announcement: “How Do We Study Religion and Emotion?”

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Readers of the blog may be interested in the following conference announcement:

How Do We Study Religion and Emotion?
A Conference at the National Humanities Center
February 19-20, 2015

The surge of interest in the study of religion and emotion is part of a broader “affective turn” currently taking place across the humanities. This conference will gather an international group of scholars to discuss ways of studying emotion in religion and to debate how our querying the very terms that we use to define our endeavors – emotion, affect, feeling, passion, desire, sentiment, and other terms – is crucial to effective deployment of them in investigating religion. The conference is co-sponsored by the American Academy of Religion and Florida State University. For more information contact:

Keynote Address
John Corrigan (Florida State University), “How Do We Study Religion and Emotion?”

Diana Fritz Cates (University of Iowa)
Anna Gade (University of Wisconsin at Madison)
M. Gail Hamner (Syracuse)
June McDaniel (College of Charleston)
David Morgan (Duke)
Sarah Ross (Universität Bern)
Donovan Schaefer (Oxford)
Mark Wynn (University of Leeds)

For more information, please click here.