Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Review: David Schwartz’s Moral Minority

Monday, January 21st, 2013

By Phillip Gollner

David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

It did not have to be. The Falwells, the Dobsons, the Reeds, the LaHayes, all those who may well have given more contours to the term “evangelical” than any theologians – they did not have to be the embodiment of evangelical public activism that goes down in history. There was another option. Maybe there still is. One that protests abortion but also nuclear armament and imperial wars, that answers “what would Jesus do?” with “he would consume less.” One that thrives not only under the halogen lights and artificial plants of suburban churches but also under the scrutiny of Berkeley or Chicago academia. What sounds like a happy hipster fantasy from the fringes of indefinable 21st century evangelicalism is, in fact, a well-substantiated claim of David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, just out from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The 1970s were not a “Reagan Revolution-in-waiting,” he argues, but the age of a “fluid”, open-ended evangelicalism that was beginning to explore more than just one kind of electoral politics and political activism. In the end, Swartz’ narrative documents a failure. However grand the intentions of the faithful’s small movement, it was not effective enough, was torn apart by identity politics and theological disputes. During the Reagan years, evangelical political involvement eventually became equated with conservative causes. And even though this book makes one wonder at times if it hasn’t arrived ten or twenty years too early, given the fact that many of its protagonists are still around and influential, it describes a chapter in American political and religious history that is definitely closed. Yet Swartz does not provide a lament, and even hints at at signs of re-birth, despite the groans of Ron Sider, one of his main characters: “we called for social and political action, (and) we got eight years of Ronald Regan.”

Characters, anyways; this book is full of them, and they sparkle here. Swartz’s ability to combine biography and social history carries his narrative through the stories of several more or less prominent individual activists who, taken together, represent a segment of the political landscape that is barely imaginable today: there is Jim Wallis, the Post-American communitarian turned presidential confidante; Mark Hatfield, Evangelical and Republican Senator from Oregon who called the Vietnam war a “sin that scarred our national soul;” Sharon Gallagher, the enigmatic co-founder of Berkeley’s “Christian World Liberation Front” that negotiated the movement’s porous borders with both the Radical Left and fundamentalist religion. We meet Calvinists whose Kuyperian understanding of God’s total claim on all of life translated into progressive action on campus and in politics, and Anabaptists whose attempts to live, cook, and bring in the kingdom were suddenly echoed once simple living became a matter of economic urgency, not just Christian faithfulness. Or Peruvian evangelical Samuel Escobar, representing “other third-world evangelicals” and their scathing diagnosis of how American imperialist assumptions had infected evangelical theology and praxis.

Swartz’s emphasis on the contribution of ethnoreligious fringe communities to evangelical political engagement is intriguing. Why was it that the call to a different kind of public faith was echoed so loudly in Dutch, Latino, African-American or Swiss-German quarters on the vast map of American Protestantism? Was there something peculiar about growing up among a minority which could afford the luxury of emphasizing the desirable, not just the doable, and placed a premium on a healthy and functioning community that made many of Moral Minority’s characters particularly susceptible to the goal of changing an entire national community and to “a dualistic application of moralism?” Or was it, in fact, embarrassment about their own confined ethnic communities and the desire to finally being listened to by the America out there that drove their quest for relevance?

Or was the origin of the Evangelical Left located within transformations in fundamentalism, not necessarily the energy of minority communities? Swartz seems to suggest so. It is Carl F. H. Henry’s clarion call to fundamentalists to overcome their “uneasy conscience” and recover the “world changing potential of the gospel” that kicks off Moral Minority. Given Henry’s reputation as the patron saint of conservative evangelical culture-transformers, the storyline of him inspiring the likes of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider seems unlikely at first. But Swartz succeeds in telling it. He downplays the larger implications of choosing this kind of genesis, but demonstrates a significant point: despite the dividing line between right and left, both sides are best understood as fundamentally united by the desire to change the world through activism and politics. At the end of the day, it is that kind of understanding of what the church ought to be and the assumption that such a thing as “Christian responsibilities of citizenship” existed, as the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern put it, that sets it apart as the kind of neo-evangelicalism that blossomed in light of Henry. Swartz provocatively suggests another form of kinship between left and right: the Manichean worldview behind progressives’ combat against what they saw as “satanic” in the United States ultimately “modeled” to the religious right what good activism could look like. “The evangelical left hastened the arrival of the religious right,” he states.

The final third of the book is devoted to a story of decline and decreasing relevance. When workshops were finally splintered up into smaller segments, each representing a particular brand of identity politics or theological preference, a cohesive activist movement became an illusion. And though Swartz points out that many evangelical communes were more long lasting and, by many measures, more successful than their secular counterparts, they also became less and less self-consciously evangelical. Their magazines had to rely on Catholic and mainline Protestant subscribers, still tickled by the peculiarly evangelical brand of energy on their pages, and more than once does Swartz document the looming question: was the evangelical left still evangelical? His suggestion that space played a role in the movement’s decline – stuck in academic bubbles and Northern cities while the country’s political pulse moved more and more to the South and West – is equally intriguing and deserves further consideration in light of the larger historiography of 20th century political geography.

In addition, Swartz points out, the evangelical left was pushed away by secular progressives with whom they shared agreement on various policies. While the evangelical right found powerful coalition partners in rising secular neo-conservatism, the left had to deal with secular cobelligerents for whom abortion rights were non-negotiable and evangelicals an expendable force. Though Swartz doesn’t state it explicitly, one wonders if the religious left was ever taken seriously by their supposed secular allies. Too often, evangelical progressives appear as Johnny-come-latelies, frantically trying to baptize an already existing political agenda and unable to deliver large number of votes for Democratic causes (unlike the evangelical right for Republicans). Eventually, the reader is not surprised to learn that evangelicals who wanted “Jesus’ demands” taken seriously were dragged out of a meeting of the Berkeley Students for a Democratic Society.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Swartz’ narrative of decline is the enduring hold that denominational subcultures had on many progressive evangelicals. Denominational loyalties remained strong. Some activists perceived “evangelical” itself as an imperialist word conquering older, ethnic, local and peculiar subcultures. American religion, Swartz all-too-briefly suggests, cannot be as easily divided along the lines of a conservative-liberal realignment that sociologists invoke. Older boundaries still endured – or were freshly discovered: “High Church traditions … poached surprising numbers of young evangelicals.”

Swartz’ portrait of the Evangelical Left’s breakdown counters not only the thesis that political and sociocultural interests supercede denominational loyalties, but also common wisdom among many conservative evangelicals: peace’n justice speech does not necessarily spill its speakers into a quasi-secular mainstream but may as well throw them on a quest for the distinct and particular. “There is a lack of a sense of body in the evangelical community. It is fragmented.” Carl F. Henry sighed in an interview with Sojourners. After all, once the slogans got old and common enemies couldn’t be identified easily enough anymore to inspire energetic action, whose peace and what kind of justice one talks about became important again. It remains to be seen if para-denominational evangelicalism and its case for modern capitalism are strong enough of a center to prevent a similar fate for the religious right.

David Swartz has written a book of colorfully portrayed characters and credible storyline that strikes an elegant balance between politics, theology, social history and biographical narratives. Wherever he has refused to go down an avenue to explore what was, this book at least opens a new discourse. And wherever he provokes the reader to ponder what might have been, it succeeds, no doubt.

Philipp Gollner, Doctoral Student in History and Presidential Fellow, University of Notre Dame

Understanding The Activist Impulse: A Review Essay

Monday, August 20th, 2012

by Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas

Samuel Frey Wolgemuth (1914-2002) was born and raised among the necktie-eschewing, bonnet-wearing, peace-practicing “plain people” of the Brethren in Christ Church, a then-small, sectarian denomination similar to the Mennonite Church. By 1939, Wolgemuth was an ordained minister, shepherding a revival among a once-dwindling congregation in southwestern Pennsylvania. Within a decade, he’d been elected to the bishopric—no small feat for a man not yet 40 years old.

Then, in 1952, Wolgemuth resigned his denominational post to pursue full-time employment with Youth for Christ (YFC), a parachurch ministry aimed at evangelizing young people. He initially served as YFC’s representative to Japan and as organizer of the eighth-annual World Congress on Evangelism in Tokyo. In 1957 he became vice president of YFC’s Overseas Program, and by 1965 had ascended to the presidency of Youth for Christ International, a post he held until his retirement in 1973. All the while, he maintained connections to his natal denomination, serving on many of its boards and continuing to promote its distinctive doctrines, like nonresistance.1

How do we make sense of someone like Samuel Wolgemuth—someone whose theological identity lies deep within traditions as seemingly divergent as Anabaptism and evangelicalism?

Historian Jared S. Burkholder and theologian David Cramer provide one answer to this question in their recent edited volume, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Wipf and Stock, 2012). As their title indicates, Burkholder and Cramer see evangelicalism and Anabaptism as linked by a shared “activist impulse,” a desire to “engage American society” and to make “vigorous efforts . . . in support of Christian ideals” (p. 2). This shared “impulse,” though understood and operationalized differently in each tradition, has created a space for myriad “intersections,” both historical and theological, between these two movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By focusing on these intersections rather than the obvious departures, argue Burkholder and Cramer, church historians and theologians might gain more nuanced insights into Anabaptist-evangelical relations.

Such an approach directly challenges the dominant historiography of Anabaptist-evangelical relations. As developed by a previous generation of scholars (mostly historians) like Rodney J. Sawatsky and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, this historiography has emphasized declension, arguing that as evangelical influence increases, Anabaptist distinctives decrease and, ultimately, vanish.2 Burkholder and Cramer want to move beyond such dichotomistic thinking. “While such arguments still carry some weight, and some Anabaptists continue to resent the appeal of popular evangelicalism,” they admit, “others see plenty of opportunity for integrating the two traditions” (p. 3).

Burkholder’s and Cramer’s assembled band of collaborators flesh out this integrative approach in a series of fourteen thought-provoking essays. The opener, a brilliant survey of Anabaptist-evangelical intersections across American and Canadian history by Mennonite historian Steven M. Nolt, lays a fine foundation for subsequent entries. Nolt chooses the guiding metaphor of conversation, suggesting that at various points Anabaptists and evangelicals have engaged in spirited debate, at times tentatively and at times vigorously. On occasion, the conversation has been conflicted: Nolt notes that evangelicals have long felt suspicious of evangelicals’ uncritical devotion to the nation-state and to consumer culture, while evangelicals have expressed concern over Anabaptists’ insufficient concern with “stewarding” politics, culture, and the arts. On the other hand, evangelicals and Anabaptists have often had much to agree upon.

Some evangelicals have warmly embraced Anabaptism’s “long-standing witness of discipleship” as a critique of the “cultural status-quo,” while some Anabaptists have used evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal religious faith to “distinguish theological convictions from ethnic conventions” or to “move past embarrassing particularities” and into the religious mainstream (pp. 37-38). Importantly, he concludes that the future of Anabaptist-evangelical relations will center not on North America but on the global south, where both Anabaptist and evangelical churches are gaining new members at unprecedented rates.

Building on Nolt’s survey are two sections of historical case studies. These studies profile a variety of Anabaptist-related communities—including Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, Grace Brethren, and others—and their intersections with American evangelicalism. The first section, “Anabaptism and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy,” examines Anabaptist efforts to navigate the murky theological and cultural waters of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American Protestantism. Two essays stand out. The most convincing, by University of Notre Dame doctoral student Benjamin Wetzel, describes how some Mennonites—including prominent Bishop Daniel Kauffman—endeavored to carve out a “third way” between fundamentalism and modernism: one that confronted the perceived dangers of a rapidly changing society while endeavoring to preserve Mennonite distinctives like nonresistance and nonconformity.

A similar study from Burkholder, examining anti-modernist activism among eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, argues for a “distinctly Mennonite version” of fundamentalism that “was both an internal response to modernity and . . . that simultaneously opposed the broader, non-Mennonite fundamentalism that was gaining momentum in America during the same period” (p. 187). Burkholder’s theory seeks rightly to counter the dominant “‘infiltration’ theses” in Anabaptist historiography, which situate Mennonites as the agency-less victims of fundamentalist influence. Nevertheless, his invention of a “Mennonite fundamentalism” seems less convincing than Wetzel’s “third way,” especially in light of recent scholarly critiques of “comparative fundamentalisms.” [PDF]

Like “Muslim fundamentalist” or “Hindu fundamentalist” in other contexts, “Mennonite fundamentalist” may fail to capture what Burkholder is trying to describe in his essay, given the historical rootedness of the broader category. Indeed, if “Mennonite fundamentalism” offered a critique of both the liberals and the conservatives, why employ the term “fundamentalism” at all?

In the second section of case studies, “Intersecting Concerns: Anabaptist and Evangelical Public Witness,” a handful of diverse scholars push the conversation on Anabaptist-evangelical intersections in interesting new directions. First, Felipe Hinojosa complicates preceding studies by showing how Hispanic Mennonites in the American Southwest “forged an evangelical and Anabaptist identity that was unique to their communities—one that better reflected their own cultural and ethnic context” (p. 239). His discussion of becoming evangélico—which, as he notes, carries meaning beyond the English-language “evangelical”—is particularly fascinating.

Asbury University professor David Swartz’s essay similarly re-directs the discourse by showing how evangelicals have been influenced by Anabaptists. For thousands of progressive evangelicals, Anabaptist icons like John Howard Yoder, Ronald J. Sider, and Doris Longacre (author of the bestselling More With Less cookbook) provided the ideologies and practical theologies necessary to provoke action on issues like global poverty, pacifism, and simple living. Years before Jerry Falwell’s Religious Right became the de facto public face of evangelical politics, these Anabaptist-inspired evangelicals forged a left-of-center movement that left a significant mark on the 1970s public sphere.

The book also contains a section of theological essays, exploring “intersecting trajectories” as diverse as atonement theory, pacifism, and biblical authority.

One of the collection’s most unique contributions comes from John Fea, a professor of history at the Brethren in Christ-related Messiah College. Departing from the historical narratives and theological treatises that comprise the majority of The Activist Impulse, Fea’s essay offers a historiographical excavation of the ways in which the activist impulses of both Anabaptism and evangelicalism are driven by oversimplified, ideologically charged readings of American history. Among Anabaptists (especially Yoderian neo-Anabaptists), Fea identifies an attempt to use the past to critique America’s moral failings (slavery, war, economic oppression, etc.) and to envision a more just, peaceful future.

By contrast, Fea argues, evangelicals seek “to discern the hand of God in American history” (p. 83) and to emphasize American’s providential status as a “Christian nation.” “Both approaches,” Fea contends, “allow political, religious, and cultural agendas to be their lens for understanding the past, rather than letting the past stand on its own terms” (p. 83). He concludes with an invitation for both Anabaptists and evangelicals to cultivate a less ideological view of the past, one that sees historical actors not in Manichean terms but as fallible humans shaped by their contexts: “An encounter with the past in all its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives” (p. 91).

There are, of course, problems with the The Activist Impulse. In the main, it contains too few voices of women. Given that women have long dominated the membership rolls of both evangelical and Anabaptist churches, their stories undoubtedly shed substantial light on the question of these “intersections.” Yet outside of Swartz’s discussion of evangelical feminism and its Anabaptist encouragers, few women are allowed to demonstrate their “activist impulse.” In the same vein, youth—such as might have flocked to the trendy Youth for Christ rallies of the 1950s, participated in the 1-W alternate service programs of the 1960s, or listened to the popular evangelical rock music of the 1970s—are also strangely absent from the collection.

What’s more, the book doesn’t deal adequately enough with the definitional problems associated with the terms “evangelicalism” and “Anabaptism.” Both have a rather contested genealogy–a fact mentioned in only a handful of the contributions. For instance, scholars like Sawatsky and Perry Bush have offered excellent readings of the evolution of “Anabaptism” from the sixteenth-century to the present, showing that it has been repeatedly re-interpreted to address presentist concerns and to meet specific needs. (Fea gets this; others do not.) And while the editors address specifically the definitional quandary associated with “evangelicalism,” they nevertheless allow each contributor define the concept on his or her own terms, with the result of a rather disjointed overall approach to the topic.

As theologian Ted Grimsrud noted in his blog review, the “rather benign,” David Bebbington-inspired definition favored by most contributors ignores the fact that evangelicalism is (at least with regard to the dominant historiography) a “post-fundamentalist” movement. That is, evangelicalism emphasizes not just the “authority of the Bible” but its plenary inspiration and inerrancy; it emphasizes not only “Christ’s atoning death on the cross” but substitutionary atonement. Both of these, Grimsrud rightly concludes, are areas in which some Anabaptists (especially more liberal Mennonites) would take exception to evangelicalism.

Of course, defining evangelicalism as “post-fundamentalist” negates the influence of holiness and Pentecostal traditions, both of which were often more appealing to Mennonites than fundamentalism and both of which existed on the margins of fundamentalist evangelicalism and therefore did not wholly embrace either inerrancy or substitutionary atonement. Thus, the question of adequate definitions remains.

Definitional issues aside, The Activist Impulse unquestionably demonstrates the vital intersections between these movements. From Swartz’s discussion of Anabaptist-inspired evangelical leftists, to Wetzel’s determined excavation of Mennonites’ “third way” between fundamentalism and liberalism, the volume catalogs numerous instances in which Anabaptists and evangelicals have cooperated and commingled—though not without conflict.

Such is undoubtedly the case with Samuel Wolgemuth. Clearly, Wolgemuth saw his primary “activism” as evangelism, a fact he made clear during countless rallies, preaching engagements, and lecture series. And yet, at least among his natal denomination, his revivalist rhetoric rang with a distinctly Anabaptist timbre. Consider a 1978 sermon delivered to the Brethren in Christ General Conference, on the importance of world missions. “Our history as a church calls us, as does the Word of God, to identify with those who set out long ago to turn their world upside down,” delcared Wolgemuth. “Their obedience to the Holy Spirit set them apart from the crowd with an initiative that no one could stop. . . . The church of today is heir to the revolutionary [missionary] forces [that] changed the face of the world.”3

Unlike the majority of his evangelical colleagues, Wolgemuth viewed the preaching of the Gospel as a distinctly counter-cultural act. If that’s not an evangelical-Anabaptist intersection, I don’t know what is.

[1] For more on Wolgemuth, consult s.v. “Wolgemuth, Samuel Frey,” in Randall Balmer, Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2003); Joan Giangrasse Kates, Obituary of Samuel Frey Wolgemuth, Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2002.

[2] Monographs advancing such a thesis include Hostetler, American Mennonites and Protestant Movements (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1987), and Theron Schlabach, Gospel vs. Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944 (Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1980). Other similar studies include Rodney J. Sawatsky, “Fundamentalism, Liberalism, and Anabaptism: Mennonite Choices in the 1920s and 1930s,” unpublished paper, December 4, 1978, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa., and Luke L. Keefer, Jr., “The Three Streams in Our Heritage: Separate or Parts of a Whole?” Brethren in Christ History and Life 19, no. 1 (April 1996), pp. 26-63. Burkholder and Cramer are explicitly critical of a 1979 collection of essays, Mission and the Peace Witness: The Gospel and Christian Discipleship (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press), edited by Robert L. Ramseyer.

[3] Samuel Wolgemuth, “‘An Open Door — No Man Can Shut It’ (Revelation 3:8),” Brethren in Christ History and Life 1, no. 2 (December 1978), p. 71.

Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas (M.A., Temple University) is a public historian and archivist. He is currently working on an article-length biography of Samuel Wolgemuth that seeks to shed further light on twentieth-century intersections of Anabaptism and evangelicalism. Professionally, he serves as assistant editor of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

Review: The African Memory of Mark

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

by Natalie Barrett

Downer's Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 279 pp. $22.00In his persuasive work, The African Memory of Mark, author Thomas C. Oden compels the reader to reconsider Mark’s African origin and influence, going against the grain of traditional Western perspective; a mindset that prematurely rules out the traditional sources of early African Christianity before it has had a chance to be told (53). Though the West has been comfortable negating any semblance of apostolic succession outside their own, African Christians have held fast to their ancient Christian identity, “constrained by the weight of time-honored ancient social memories that arise distinctly out of Africa (33).”

The author states that the purpose of the book is to “reassess the value of tradition with respect to Mark as Gospel writer, interpreter of Peter and evangelist to Africa (14).” By first exploring Mark’s family tree, a plausible stance for Mark’s African origin is set, followed by examination of ancient documents that verify Mark’s ministerial presence in Africa.

The author references four classic texts that attest to the narrative of Mark. These are the Coptic liturgy, Martyrium Marci, Sawirus bin al-Muqaffa of al-Ashmunein, and Anba Shenouda III (current patriarch of Alexandria), (61). The Synaxaries, accounts of Saints and/or martyrs, of the Coptic liturgy particularly maintain the distinction that Mark was the first in Africa; “as with Peter in Rome, it gives Mark the foremost place among apostolic figures for Africa (61).” Further, Synaxaries from various locations and varying dialects agree, affirming the ecumenical nature of the texts (62).

The next phase of argument reconstructs Marks identity supported in the Gospel accounts and from the perspective of African memory. Suggesting plausible friend and familial relationships, the author exposes the African viewpoint which sees Mark in a more prominent role than is traditionally perceived (82ff), culminating in the African mosaic of the Lord’s Supper and Pentecost according to Mark (90ff).

Similarly, the African memory of Mark “has not hesitated to speculate that Mark was deeply involved, along with Peter, at some undefined points in this immense transition of paleo-Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond (123),” and sharing the Gospel with the Greeks (125). According to the prescribed standards of Euro-American historicity, of course, “these nuances should be ignored for lack of hard evidence. But from an African perspective they are viewed as providential and confirming (93).”

In establishing the role of Mark as a pivotal in the establishment of Christianity, the author utilizes the language of the Coptic Synaxarion to demonstrate that Mark’s house was: the first Christian church, where the Passover meal was served, where the disciples hid after the death of Christ, and where the birth of the Church occurred at Pentecost (94). Affirmed by the author are the significant implications for African Christianity if such formational Christian events truly have a direct African heritage provided in the family of Mark.

Such implications, however, are more readily accepted as implied in African memory than by the more suspicious Western counterpart. However, the author strives to combine the African memory with traditional Western approaches to Mark’s Gospel sequence ultimately by not disregarding either perspective (123).

The African memory of Mark relies heavily on the relationship between Peter and Mark, and therefore establishing the connection between the church established in Rome with the church established in Alexandria (134). With the churches in Rome and Alexandria being founded nearly simultaneously (174), African memory holds to a general acceptance of the Gospel message being proclaimed worldwide; “the same good news was proclaimed in Africa on the premise that it was not ‘another gospel’ but the identical gospel that had been preached by the apostles in Roman Asia and Europe … The unity of European and African Christianity is embodied in the close relation of Peter and Mark (134).” Considering the size and prominence of North Africa in the first century AD, the Gospel message could not avoid being carried to such a prominent continent in the known world (137).

Regarding the early presence of Christianity in Africa, the author clarifies further that, “the previous narratives of the flight of the Holy Family, Simon of Cyrene, the Ethiopian eunuch and Apollos show early signs of Christianity on the African continent. Mark’s arrival, however, signaled the beginning of the apostolic mission in Africa (143).”

Like Peter and Paul, African memory remembers Mark’s evangelical efforts as intertwined with the placement of successive leaders, thereby preserving apostolic leadership of the community of faith under threat (150). As conditions for Christians became increasingly unstable and violent in North Africa, Mark began to be viewed as a threat, provoking rage from within the Alexandrian populace. Though martyrdom was a persistent reality for early Christians, the apostles, including Mark, considered the appointment of apostolic leadership of foremost priority. The idea of martyrdom was not pursued out of intentionality, but with the view that “life is not undervalued in martyrdom if the witness of martyrdom is the only way open to preserve the continuing life of the worshipping community (151).” This idea is reinforced by Tertullian when he said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Mark’s violent death was preceded by torture, all the while Mark “gave thanks to the Lord and glorified him (157),” in order to encourage the continued growth of the Church.

The narrative account of Mark’s death in the ancient source Sawirus, describes a scene in which Mark’s tattered body is to be burned as a saint; but the body was rescued by angels of God and believers moved his body to a secret burial site. These two locations are now designated with churches built upon them, growing up from the blood of their martyr, Mark. The author affirms that several burial sites in Alexandria align with the time of Mark’s ministry and martyrdom, suggesting at least potential accuracy purported by Sawirus. “The locations of the remains of the earliest known Christian sites in Alexandria correspond closely with literary recollections found in the accounts of Mark’s martyrdom.

It seems plausible to infer that the location of the events created the location of the churches (161).” Reasonable evidence that affirms the presence of such churches in early Alexandria is directly proportional to the presence of Mark in Africa, according to the author; an interpretation that is not unreasonable based on corroborating evidence (162ff).

In attempting to navigate between Western historical criteria and the African narrative, the author asks: “What would explain that there would be so many martyrial locations dedicated to Mark in Alexandria if Mark had never been to Alexandria (167)?” Though a reasonable question to ask, the Western tradition may continue to doubt the historicity on lack of proof. If thoroughly authenticated, however, the traditional dating of the Gospel of Mark would likely need to be reconsidered for the placement of Mark in Egypt at a much earlier date which would corroborate with the Coptic chronology.

The author is persuaded that the ecumenical consensus up until the nineteenth century affirmed the African memory of Mark to the extent that “it was remembered in virtually the same way by both great Sees of Rome and Alexandria (173).” The nineteenth century reductionist philosophers are blamed for the disappearance of the saints within the universities, though the author supplies no explanation for what would motivate such digression from supposed traditional ecumenism (173). Further, what would motivate a ploy to negate the physical evidence of Mark in Alexandria, which is equally as compelling as Peter in Rome? The author argues that “both arguments are based on large accumulations of circumstantial evidence (174).”

After the bulk of the work which supplies reasons for the plausibility of the accuracy of the African memory of Mark, the author finally closes in on the more interesting, in my opinion, implications surrounding the issue, though not in substantial detail. Why would the African memory be suppressed and what are the repercussions for the largely Western tradition which has infiltrated the whole of Christianity?

The author first qualifies the prevailing authenticity of Peter’s story over Mark’s as his hunch that it is a “Eurocentric predisposition that wishes to be regarded as valid scientific evidence (174).” However, earlier in the work, the author makes a more convincing argument stemming from a racial prejudice, though more complex. According to the author, the numerous causes “have to do with silent cultural conceits and prejudicial assumptions in which racial prejudice may play a part but hardly the whole. They arise out of cultural egocentricism and nativism that are so common as to be almost endemic to the human condition of every race and latitude (137).” Explanations such as these may be argued, though sociological, circumstantial, and inferential evidence may be surprisingly supportive of the African perspective. If these arguments can be validated to any extent, it would seem that the Church’s ecumenical integrity has been compromised.

The author’s final remarks again become persuasive, imploring the reader to consider the plausibility of his thesis. Avoiding explanations of personal views on hagiography and historicity, the author’s view is limited to the plausibility of Mark’s presence in Africa as the initiator of African apostolic succession. Though perhaps at some point some consideration of historical criticism regarding comparative African and Western methods should be broached, the author does provide evidence enough for a plausible scenario for truth in the African memory, eliciting a challenge to the dominating Western perspective. “The evidence is stronger than is generally accredited by the older school of Euro-American historical interpreters and is ripe for a careful review (232).” The African memory must be considered in light of its own methods for historical criticism, rather than forcing it to bend to the Western approach. For African historicity, “the metaphor of ancestors points to the apostolic witnesses as continued by the ancient Christian writers (237).” The Western demand for empirical evidence threatens to destroy the vitality of the African memory which depends on the stories of the saints.

In Africa, the story of Mark perpetuates the remembering of the entirety of African Christian identity. Digressing from the discussion of historical methodology, the author wisely states that in a hypothetical situation which was able to prove the African memory of Mark entirely wrong, that nevertheless has the African memory shaped their Christian belief in its entirety. There is undeniable truth in this reasoning which begs not to be disregarded “in the fog of academic ideological warfare (238).” However, the authenticity of the African memory should not quickly be dismissed as a verifiable historical account.

The African Church remains steadfast in its belief in its apostolic heritage. Not only because Mark is regarded as their founding apostle, but because he: ordained bishops, priests and deacons to maintain the continuity of apostolic ministry, because he was martyred and buried on African soil, and because his successors have been viewed as an unbroken chain of witnesses since the apostolic age. “In this direct way the African church preserves the apostolic teaching throughout her life, spirituality, liturgy, and dogmas (245).”

In his concluding remarks, the author acknowledges the easy objections that may be aroused based on the abundance of hypotheticals (253). He maintains, though, that there exists enough plausible evidence in favor of the truth demonstrated in the African memory of Mark. Reminding the readers of his objective, the author says, “my purpose in this book has been to show the greater plausibility of the African memory of Mark than of its modern mythic alternatives (256).” Indeed, I would agree the author has successfully achieved his objective.

What is missing, in my inquisitive opinion, is more attention to the “why” and “what now.” There must be more explanation behind the generic Western egocentrism that would lead to a two-thousand year deviation from an ecumenical identity and elicit an assessment of “bad historical method” (256) for the West. More so, the potentiality of truth held in these allegations of the West suppressing an equally sound apostolic see suggests there must be repercussions for ecumenism since the birth of Christianity.

As a Church history nerd through and through, who would enjoy reading more on the implications derived from the author’s arguments, I must ask: A sequel, Dr. Oden?

Review: Sojourner Truth’s America

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

by Amy Voorhees

Sojourner Truth’s America. By Margaret Washington. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paper, 2011; cloth, 2009. 520 pages. $25.00.

This is an excellent biography. It paints a sensitive portrait of Truth’s multifaceted religiosity that sheds new light on her entire nineteenth-century reform context. Washington argues that Truth, like many of her reform colleagues, was guided by “adherence to a beloved community, faith in primitive Christianity, and faith in American republicanism” (4). She presents Truth as a deeply unifying figure whose faith and shrewd wit enabled her to address a trenchant anti-slavery message to both white and black Americans, all of whom embraced her for it. There are some issues with the last element in this presentation, which I return to later, but overall this is a historically grounded and very careful book.

Washington is particularly good at fleshing out Truth’s experience as a mother (which is deeply affecting) and her place in the nineteenth-century reform milieu as it connected to her religious sensibility. She calls Truth a “‘whole hog reformer” whose causes included “nonresistance, temperance, anti-Sabbatarianism, anti-capital punishment, woman’s rights, health reform, water cure, and a deeply intense Spiritualism” (216). The book portrays Truth’s participation in these causes as an outgrowth of her religious commitments.

In describing Truth’s religiosity, Washington makes two moves previous biographers have not. First, she shows a development from syncretism to an exclusive, though not narrow, Christian orientation. Second, she portrays the overall development of Truth’s Christianity in terms of a first and second blessing, a salvation experience followed by sanctification.

Truth, Washington writes, initially mixed ecstatic Christian millennialism with indigenous African traditions. In claiming her right to retrieve her boy Peter, sold south, Truth (then Isabella) “was connected to a messianic tradition older than Christianity, reaching back to traditional African antecedents” (62). Other examples include Truth’s river altar, naming conventions, and especially her cursing (to apparently startling effect) of the family that harmed Peter. Washington places this within the harming tradition of West African religions, but Truth’s specific words are ambiguous and I would argue that there is evidence of what might correspond somewhat to a harming or cursing tradition within Protestantism as well. Patricia Schechter notes a similar event in Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s life and presents the curse in thoroughly biblical terms; see her Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930, 27.)

Whatever the case, Washington portrays the fulfillment of Truth’s curse as the event that sobered her and turned her from a merging of African and Christian traditions to solely following Christianity (which, it should be noted, does not here equate with “European” religiosity). After that, “Christianity guided her spiritually.” She jettisoned hatred and was guided by a spirit of love, forgiveness, and limitless possibilities in God’s name. She “still claimed a mystical power beyond the white man’s authority,” but it seems to have been a power whites could theoretical share on equal ground, were they righteous enough (80).

In charting the development of Truth’s Christianity from salvation to sanctification, Washington casts her decision to return to enslavement after a year of freedom as an instance of backsliding. Isabella’s longing for “the world of the flesh” familiar to her in slavery drove her to “jeopardize her newly-acquired, God-granted freedom,” writes Washington. “Both Isabella and the ungrateful Hebrews desecrated God’s favor. In both instances, the glory of God was revealed” (73). For the Hebrews, manna appeared on the ground and water came from a rock. For Isabella, she was “saved.” During an all-encompassing vision of God’s love and allness, the enslaver who had come to collect her literally disappeared; when she became sensible to her surroundings again, he was gone, and apparently so were the fleshly longings that had misguided her. Later, after a particularly trying series of events, Truth noted that her “‘ancient’ faith had been shaken.” Washington equates this with a loss of faith in the denominationalism and “dogma of patriarchal Protestantism” and all the white men who had failed her (126). Washington argues that Truth then became more independent and relied on her own scriptural exegesis. This second development, roughly akin to being “sanctified” with a second blessing, fits with Truth’s later embrace of Spiritualism (146, 216) and even her presence at Free Thought conventions (251-252).

The religious detail in this book is significant. Until the mid-1990s most work on Truth sidelined her religion altogether, and since then her association with millennialist religious groups has largely been characterized as an effect of her poverty. This interpretation is in line with Robert M. Anderson’s 1979 Vision of the Disinherited (which casts pentecostalism as a movement of the socially and economically disadvantaged, the “disinherited,” whom Anderson defines as “dependent,” “suggestible,” “neurotic,” and so on). Washington’s interpretation is more in line with Grant Wacker’s 2001 Heaven Below, which casts pentecostalism as a combination of “primitivism” (a yearning to experience God first-hand) and “pragmatism” (a thisworldly realism that is at once practical and shrewd and simply gets things done). Truth’s millennialism predated pentecostalism, a not unimportant point. Taken broadly, however, Wacker’s definition resonates closely with Washington’s Truth, who exercised her millennialism in a variety of ways that always combined charismatic piety with pragmatic practice.

The book makes several other helpful contributions to Truth’s historiography. I will mention three. First, most biographers of Truth have focused much on the circumstances and content of the speech in which she is supposed to have famously offered the rhetorical challenge, “Ar’n’t I a woman?” Recent debates have centered on whether those words belonged to Truth or to Matilda Joslyn Gage, who produced a widely read account of Truth’s speech. Washington suggests that it is essentially beside the point whether Truth actually uttered the phrase. Vetting existing documents, she concludes that Truth reasonably may have said the phrase, though she may not have, and that although Gage took liberties when she produced her account of Truth’s speech, she also captured its content with a general reliability. She decides that Gage “assuming control of Sojourner Truth’s discourse” and assigning her a southern dialect she did not possess—“minstrelizing her language”—seems, in the end, “more significant than whether or not [Truth] said, ‘Ar’n’t I a woman?’” (228) (Truth never lived in the south and spoke only Dutch until age nine.) Washington asserts that the focus of the debate should be on what Truth did conclusively say:rather than asking a question, she “boldly asserted, ‘I am a woman’” (229). But again, contends Washington, the exact words matter far less than Truth’s deeds and legacy. This is in keeping with Truth’s insistence that words printed on a page (which she could not read) mattered little in comparison to the substance of a person’s message, seen in their actions.

Second, Washington clarifies aspects of Truth’s early biography that have caused considerable speculation, notably allegations of sexual abuse by Sally Dumont, the wife of her enslaver John Dumont. Washington shows conclusively that this could not have been the case; Sally died before John purchased Truth (then called Bell). John then married Sally’s sister Elizabeth. Washington persuasively argues for a liaison between John Dumont and Bell, one that stoked Elizabeth’s rage and animosity. The book’s physical description of the overfull Dumont home, based on site visits and historical descriptions of the antebellum New York Dutch environment, makes clear that social and labor divisions could have afforded John and Bell privacy in fields and at raucous celebrations reserved only for men and servants.

Conversely, it is hard to imagine how the matron of the house might carve out the time, privacy, and even physical ability to sexually abuse a girl who was twelve or thirteen at the time of her sale into the home, unusually strong and tall, and always surrounded by the children she nursed (most of whom were born to Elizabeth, who was constantly pregnant). Washington suggests, quite convincingly, that Bell’s daughter Diana was John Dumont’s child. This section of the book is notable not only for clarifying this episode but for its generally rich view into the social, archaeological, and geographical setting of Truth’s early life.

Finally, Washington calls out an “African female culture” that named aesthetic and practical beauty “domesticity” (42). This included artful self-presentation and fastidiousness combined with know-how in such areas as healing, child care, and ethics. This is an interesting and innovative interpretive move. Rather than seeking to conform to a European-American type of domesticity so thoroughly explored by scholars in recent years, Washington finds Truth adhering to a standard in the African American tradition.

She also provides examples of how Truth both upset and leveraged predominant expectations regarding womanhood on her own behalf. In the aftermath of a communitarian scandal early in her career, for example, Truth and her publicist were able to rehabilitate her image by mounting a defense that both subverted and reified existing categories of virtue, vice, and “true womanhood,” shrewdly redefining them without a major backlash. The reversal of public opinion that ensued is truly jaw-dropping in its rarity (120-125) (as was Truth’s earlier ability to take her freedom and to recover her child by suing, especially when viewed retroactively through the lens of the later Dred Scott decision). Truth enacted this type of defense over and over in her life and career.

The last line in Washington’s book quotes a newspaper obituary, which reads that Truth was “loved by all, black and white” (379). This captures Washington’s view of Truth: a mediating, mitigating figure who united all with a Spirit-filled doctrine of pragmatic love (see 276). This minimalizes those unsympathetic to her radical message, and I wonder about a woman “loved by all” whose daughters were allowed to die in the poorhouse. Washington invokes the “beloved community” of Martin Luther King, Jr., in describing Truth, suggesting she was an antecedent to King; if so, surely the violent opposition to King’s message had a central place in Truth’s life, too.

At the same time, Truth did seem able to almost transcend politics-as-usual with her spiritually driven vision for a new America, at least within her particular milieu. She stumped for the two competing arms of the women’s suffrage movement, the AWSA and the NWSA; she both challenged and supported Frederick Douglass; she made her testimony as a female ex-slave matter to whites without apologizing for or referring to her sexual history (in contrast to Harriet Jacobs’ strategy). Her discourse was driven by a religious vision that seems to have been difficult to argue with.

Truth does, in fact seem to have been an unusually unifying and rather transcendent figure. The risk in presenting her that way is reifying the stereotype of the unassailable black woman transcending every hardship in order to inspire others. Washington seems mindful of this problem, and she probes the complexities and circumstances of Truth’s life to give us a persona that is not mythic, but both fully remarkable and fully human.

This book is nuanced, runs both deep and broad, and is full of convincing readings based on exhaustive archival and field work. It sheds new light not only on Truth’s life, but on the nineteenth century, the history of American reform, and the range of religious options Americans have developed and enacted. It is a landmark volume, and I highly recommend it.

Middle Ground: Reflections on the Historiography of David D. Hall

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

by E. Brooks Holifield

David Hall, recently retired from the Harvard Divinity School, has done as much as any historian of the past three decades to shape the direction and hone the methodology of both American religious history and the history of the book and of reading. We have much to learn by looking at his career — his career so far — and I would like to examine his style of historical thinking by noting a series of metaphors that began to appear in his books and articles in the 1970s. The metaphors assumed different shadings of meaning, but they exhibit a consistent habit of mind, a way of thinking historically that will influence us for a long time.

The central image is “middle ground,” or the “middle way,” or “middle space,” or “middling spaces.” And it attracts other related metaphors: negotiation, adaptation, appropriation, mediations, mediating contexts, reciprocities, tangled reciprocities. These metaphors, in turn, attract a related set of conceptions: ambivalence, paradox, overlapping contradictions, ambiguity, and dialectic.

Those metaphors and concepts have carried the weight of David Hall’s consistent opposition to binary constructions, sharp polarities between orality and literacy, piety and indifference, tradition and the market, clergy and lay, misogynist patriarchs and insurgent women, literate and illiterate, theocrats and democrats, purity and declension, formality and ecstasy, the people and the elite, dominating and dominated, communal and individualist, local and metropolitan, genteel and common, and European and American.

He has always acknowledged differentiations, but he has also relativized them, situated them in historical settings in which one finds both oppositions and mediations. He has been a critic of “stark extremities” and simple dichotomies. When he has looked at the past, he has found conflicts but also subtle negotiations.

He has written about educated elites, but he has uncovered their intimate linkage to “the people.” He has insisted that we look at both social history and intellectual systems, at both behavior and language, at both the liminal and the ordinary, at both the conserving and the radical, and the ways in which they are entangled with each other.

His position has been hard-earned, grounded in prodigious research in the primary sources and a mastery of the secondary literature that few can equal. When Hall published his study of the New England clergy in 1972 — The Faithful Shepherd — a growing array of colonial social historians were ready to say that the clergy were largely irrelevant to understanding early America, even the New England colonies. And intellectual history and the history of ideas were largely irrelevant to understanding almost everything about the past.

The opponent of choice for the social historians of colonial America was Perry Miller, whom they accused of overstating the power of “elite ideas,” and they published a variety of local studies that ignored religion, and especially religious leaders and their ideas, built a wall between high and popular culture, and accented the vast distance between the collective mentality of folk belief and the rarified and isolated mental world of the literate. Intellectual history seemed “irretrievably displaced by numbers-driven social history.” [“Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation,” 281] There was always, he wrote later, both conflict and negotiation, and so unpredictability and uncertainty, in the hunt for witches. He urged the necessity for a vision of mediation in the historiography of witch-hunting.

By 1989, when he published Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, he had become an incisive critic of the Americanization thesis (with its pronounced contrast between Europe and America). He also called into question notions of decline from supposedly pristine orthodoxies and over-precise distinctions between the people and their leaders. And he had found imaginative ways to get inside the heads of ordinary people who lived in both an enchanted universe and a Protestant world.

The 1990s brought a shift of interest in his scholarship in at least four ways: (1) First, he began to publish the results of his research on the history of reading and the book. Second, an assignment to edit one of the volumes of the Yale Edwards edition cast him into the manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards. (3) Third, he moved deeper into social history by exploring the dynamics of the colonial family and of women in New England religion. (4) And fourth, he began to develop his concept of “lived religion” as an alternative to the binary “popular” and “elite.” In all these endeavors, he exemplified a resistance to simple binaries.

In Cultures of Print (1996) and A History of the Book in America, Vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (2000), with Hugh Amory, he emphasized again the ambiguities and overlaps. Had there really been a revolutionary transition from intensive reading in colonial America to extensive reading in the nineteenth century? Did the polarity of domination and resistance really clarify the role of gender in reading? Should we distinguish high and low with as much confidence as we sometimes do? Was there really a vast gulf between local and metropolitan readers? The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World —rich in detail— will be, for our lifetimes and beyond, the classic, comprehensive study of the book in early America.

His work on Edwards led him to look closely at the institutional settings and the family dynamics in the background of Edwards’s ideas about the church. In fact, Hall’s study of the family helped him explain the ways in which the desires of women to protect their children helped define both seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritanism as a continuing “negotiation between extremes,” a multilayered system out of which both clergy and laity selected motifs and symbols that sometimes overlapped and sometimes did not. [“Introduction,” Jonathan Edwards: Ecclesiastical Writings, 82]

Finally, his concept of lived religion — a concept that has deeply influenced recent directions of American religious history — enabled him to look at how religions and cultures embodied overlapping tensions and even contradictions in early America.

The notion of lived religion was an effort to move beyond an undifferentiated notion of popular religion and to see both the continuities and the discontinuities between the religion of the people and official religion. For example, his essay on Samuel Sewall in Worlds of Wonder — a small masterpiece — showed through imaginative detailed reading of the diaries the ways in which this seventeenth-century Puritan layman partook both of Protestant tradition and popular sensibilities in his quest for protection in a frightening world of harsh contrasts and unpredictable forces.

Now, simply to trace a few continuities — a few motifs — in David Hall’s historical writing is to miss, of course, the textured complexity of his work. He has not written history that admits of simply summary. He has immersed himself in the detail — and unearthed both the spoken and the unspoken in early America. He has taken us into the stubborn recalcitrance of a history that is sometimes messy, rarely malleable and submissive to our simplifying categories, and always engaging of our serious attention.

Christian Dominance, Christian Diversity

Friday, February 24th, 2012

by Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin

How has Christianity shaped American culture?

This is one of the questions that we try to answer in our recent book, American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity. Featuring 22 essays written by a distinguished group of scholars, the book explores both the powerful influence of Christianity on American culture and the multiple forms of Christian expression in the United States. By focusing on the plurality of American “Christianities,” we hope to show that the diversity of American Christianities and the power of the Christian presence in American history are factors that need to be considered together. Even though American Christians have disagreed sharply over both theology and practice, there is hardly a feature of American life—including politics, foreign policy, literature, science, sexuality, gender, race, violence, pacifism, warfare, the media, and capitalism—that has not been influenced by some aspect of the Christian tradition.

At first blush, diversity of belief and collective social influence might not seem to go together. One might more readily suppose that a single, unified message would have greater social influence than a diverse, frequently contentious argument. But, a half-century ago, the American cultural historian R. W. B. Lewis explained how diversity and debate can powerfully shape a culture. Every culture, Lewis proposed, seems gradually “to produce its own determining debate over the ideas that preoccupy it: salvation, the order of nature, money, power, sex, the machine, and the like.”[i] From Lewis’s perspective, a culture achieved its characteristic form not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through debate about the meaning of these preoccupying ideas. American Christians have never been completely unified in their opinions, but their debates have revolved around a set of common issues that have never lost their potency: for example, the possibility of moral progress and the meaning of America’s claim to be a “city on a hill.”

Christians have infused American society with an extensive repertoire of stories, symbols, and ethical ideals that have been among the defining terms of American cultural debate. Over time, Americans have drawn selectively from this repertoire, combined its themes with economic and political values, and mobilized (or resisted) social reforms around the potency of its symbols. For centuries, for example, Americans have debated over whether the story of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden means that women should be subordinate to men, and they have debated just as fiercely about what it means to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Many contested issues and questions in American politics—including freedom of conscience, the limits of institutional authority, and the sanctity of human life—have drawn their energy from longstanding controversies within the Christian tradition.

Despite their disagreements, American Christians have created informal coalitions with one another that have deeply influenced the nation’s identity. In the nineteenth century, for example, Protestant denominations put aside their theological differences in order to support Sunday laws and Prohibition, and more recently, Mormons, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants have been willing to overlook longstanding antipathies in order to join forces against abortion and same-sex marriage. Even if Christians have been too occupied with their own internal debates to recognize it, they have always occupied a privileged place in the nation, and they have often used their collective power to create or to resist change.

Dominance and diversity—these are not words that are usually associated, but in the case of American Christianity they belong together. A Christian accent frequently inflects American political debate, advocacy for social reform, and proposals for the renewal of public education, even when that accent is unrecognized or unacknowledged. As a result, the sizeable diversity of Christianity in America is not neatly contained under the steeples of its churches or the governing bodies of its denominations but has, in addition, extended out into other sectors of society. If Americans do not always recognize the Christian influence on their culture, it is because its omnipresence has made it virtually invisible.

This essay is adapted from the Introduction to American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), ed. Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin.


[1] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 1-2.

The “Great Emergence,” Periodization, and the Moment

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

by Richard Kieckhefer

We historians have a love-hate relationship with periodization. We roll our eyes at times. We take it lightly. Still, we have to do it: our books have to have chapters, our classes have to get organized into units, and we need to make sense somehow of the chronological flow, so even if we don’t take the periods all too seriously we have to periodize. Our books have “in the Late Middle Ages” or the like in their subtitles. We may argue about where the breaking points lie: we may deny that 1492 or 1517 is a crucially important date, and indeed it is currently fashionable to argue for a period that somehow merges the Later Middle Ages with the Early Modern Era. Still, one way or other we periodize.

There are different ways of periodizing, however, and they are not all equal. Some schemas are event-driven, while others are phase-driven. An event-driven system looks mainly at the great turning-points and insists that they were somehow revolutionary. We may be unclear about exactly what came after the upheavals, or in between, or what the revolutions produced, but we can see the fireworks and we are sure something big must have happened. A phase-driven looks at a long block of time and sees characterizing features that distinguish it from earlier and later phases, with or without precise moments of transition.

Joachim of Fiore’s view of history is a classic case of a phase-driven schema. The key to history for Joachim was the succession of eras correlated with persons of the Trinity: the era of the Father had passed, that of the Son was passing, and that of the Holy Spirit was around the corner. Of course Joachim paid attention to the transitions as well, the periods of overlap between the eras, each featuring prophets and charismatic leaders. Still, the transitions were not the main point. It was the eras that drove Joachim’s scheme of things. The link with a person of the Trinity brought with it characteristics of the era that were lasting and all-important. The era of the Spirit would be contemplative, and dominated by monastics. Joachim’s vision was mainly of how things had been, were, and would be.

Classic secular schemes of periodization–Auguste Comte’s, Hegel’s, Marx’s–have also been phase-driven, however much or however little they have attended also to the circumstances of transition. With periodization of this sort it doesn’t matter so much when one era ends and the next begins; gradual transition is usually presupposed. What is important is the succession of forces operative in history, and the vision of historical process implied by that succession.

A phase-driven schema can be powerful because of its clarity. It tells you what the visionary finds important in history, and it suggests that something new is coming that will have staying power because it is important, perhaps inevitable and irresistible. It may give a vision of a new earth to live in, an earth that may be refreshed by waters crashing down from the crystal sea. Who would not wish to live in such a new era? A phase-driven system may also be lacrymose, if it begins with a golden age and sees humankind bumping its way downward toward leaden bottom. In either event, a phase-driven schema brings clarity of vision, positive or negative. Whether we agree with them or not, phase-driven schemas can be intellectually interesting and heuristically fruitful, as event-driven schemas rarely are.

The first problem with event-driven periodization is that it tends to be so arbitrary. It often emphasizes and perhaps exaggerates some recent development, giving it epoch-making significance. In the 1960s we were told the Second Vatican Council was such an event. But those with historical consciousness have pointed out that the Council was preceded by decades of reform, that it took some time for its effects to be worked out, and that there were competing events that could just as well claim to be epoch-making. Why not the foundation of the World Council of Churches, which signaled a broader shift among Christian denominations? Perhaps the Second Vatican Council was in some key respects an exercise in catching up.

Much earlier there was the Fourth Lateran Council, also seen as epoch-making, and again the council itself became shorthand for a broad and diffuse series of reforms that had begun earlier and extended beyond its closing session. Long before that there was the Nicene Council, mother of all ecumenical councils, and surely that was epoch-making, was it not? Or was it rather the conversion of Constantine, which preceded Nicaea and made it possible, that was the real turning-point? Or perhaps the reign of Theodosius I, which went well beyond that of Constantine in making Christianity the official religion of the Empire? Or was it the formation of Benedictine monks, which helped spread the conversion out into the countryside and into newly Christianized countries? Or perhaps the moment when those Benedictines were first commissioned as missionaries, when they were sent to convert England? When we are defining our chronology by epoch-making events, there will always be a certain arbitrariness about the events we choose.

Indeed, event-driven schema are seldom clear either in their chronology or in their vision of the future. They tend to ignore alternative claimants that may be just as epoch-making as the ones they highlight. They exaggerate high-profile events at the expense of all that has led up to them or flows from them–or, for that matter, around them. They claim a new era has begun, even if its character is still seen through a glass quite darkly. They rarely have the boldness and clarity of vision seen in phase-driven schemas. They represent history as a jerking progression from one crisis to the next. Rarely do they give deep insight into the workings of historical process. Seldom do they produce clear and convincing visions of enduring values. They can thus be at the same time both sloppy and timid.

What, then, about Phyllis Tickle’s focus on a “great emergence” ? Does it exaggerate the sense of a moment–our moment, the time when something is emerging–at the expense of clarity about what we are to hope for? Does it play fast and loose with its chronology? Does it have all the shortcomings we might expect of an event-driven schema of periodization?

The “Great Emergence” and the Church’s Giant Rummage Sales

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

by Barbara Newman

A slender but hugely ambitious book called The Great Emergence:  How Christianity is Changing and Why (BakerBooks, 2008), has been taking congregations by storm.  Its subject, the “emerging church,” has neither vestries nor vestments, clergy nor canon law.  This freeform movement or network or simply “conversation,” as the book calls it, so far involves Christians who are mostly young, mostly American.  It is harder than mercury to grasp, but just as mesmerizing to watch.  It may represent the death throes of denominationalism, the first stirrings of a Great Awakening, or the twenty-first-century sequel to Harvey Cox’s secular city.  It may be the Christian faith reinvented by a generation that grew up “spiritual but not religious.”  Or it may be equal parts Holy Spirit and media hype.

Author Phyllis Tickle loves to quote the Anglican bishop Mark Dyer’s witticism: “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  My first response was, fabulous!  Being all too familiar with sales of the usual sort, how I would love to shop at these!  Instead of distressed jeans and sweaters past their prime, the clothing racks feature embroidered chasubles and dalmatics in every hue—pentecostal red, Marian blue, Lenten purple, glittering paschal gold.  Nuns’ habits from long-forgotten orders come complete with wimples and aerodynamic coifs.  Reformed tastes can find a frayed black preaching gown from Geneva or a charming seventeenth-century ruff.  There on the discount rack—could that be a tie-dyed stole from the Sixties?

On the book table, those shreds of papyrus don’t look like much, but they’re the oldest scraps of Scripture we have.  Beside them, a weathered scroll from Nag Hammadi preserves the gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene.  That enormous folio volume is a medieval glossed Vulgate, its postage-stamp of Scripture surrounded by a penumbra of commentary, and over there is Luther’s Bible in its thick black Fraktur.  For bargain-hunters, pamphlets of the Nicene Creed go for fifty cents apiece.  Feeling plush?  If your living room needs a conversation piece, why not splurge on a rococo monstrance?  Gold is always a good investment.  But wait—what’s that funny-looking thing in the corner, next to the mission magazines?  A used hair shirt!  Buy two and we’ll throw in a flagellum at no extra charge, authentic blood stains included.

But alas, Tickle’s rummage sales are only metaphorical.  Her candidates for these quincentennial affairs are the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604), the Great Schism of 1054, the “Great Reformation” of 1517, and the Great Emergence—choices that owe more to her Five-Hundred-Year Plan than to any sober assessment.  Gregory the Great was an important pope, but since his reign falls a century too late, he must figure chiefly for the epithet attached to his name.  Tickle makes him symbolize the fall of the Roman Empire, the Council of Chalcedon (confused with Ephesus in 431), and the rise of monasticism.  Gregory was in fact the first monk to be elected pope, as well as the author of St. Benedict’s Life.  But why not choose Benedict himself, whose Rule is still observed and whose dates better fit the 500-Year-Plan?  The only answer seems to be that he was never christened “Benedict the Great.”  Monasticism itself, of course, dates back to the third century and flourished in the fourth.

If an epochal reign must mark the first rummage sale, I would propose Constantine’s (he even has a “Great” attached to his moniker).  The first emperor to fight and conquer in the name of Christ, he made Christianity a licit religion, then an official one; presided over Nicea in 325, giving Christendom its first universal creed; and founded Constantinople, its cultural and political capital for centuries to come.  Five hundred more years bring us to Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”) who, as the first emperor crowned by a pope, inaugurated a new era in papal/imperial relations and organized a top-down movement to standardize Christian worship.  But a 500-Year-Plan beginning with these figures would run only to 1800, two centuries short.  So it could not validate the world-historical importance of the present, which is the real purpose of Tickle’s scheme.

Her next rummage sale falls in 1054—a sad year of schism between Rome and Byzantium.  But the churches of east and west, already divided by language and culture, had ceased to have much significant contact long before this exchange of anathemas.  The schism of 1054 became “great” only because no one ever bothered to mend it; few Christians, other than the hierarchs involved, took much notice at the time.  For most church historians, the “Great Schism” took place from 1378-1417, the calamitous era when two and then three rival popes claimed jurisdiction, weakening the papacy beyond repair.  Brian McGuire has made a case for the conciliar movement of that age as “the last medieval reformation,” whose failure made the sixteenth-century one inevitable.  Tickle, by her insistence on slapping a “Great” before the reformation launched by Luther, raises the question of earlier and later ones—such as the “reformation of the twelfth century” (Giles Constable), the “premature reformation” of the Lollards (Anne Hudson), and the Catholic Reformation of Trent.

In short, cherry-picking dates from church history cannot prove, by some Marxian iron law, that we now stand at an epoch-making turn.  Curiously, though, Tickle’s scheme of periodization bears an uncanny resemblance to a much older one.  According to the twelfth-century prophet Joachim of Fiore, just as the Age of God the Father gave way to that of the Son, a glorious Age of the Holy Spirit would supersede the latter.  And when would that golden age begin?  Very soon—it was already, so to speak, emerging.  Joachim’s dates, like Tickle’s, combined an appearance of precision with pragmatic flexibility, so that his followers could shift them whenever the prophesied events failed to materialize.  This intoxicating blend of prophecy and history made his views irresistible to some of the keenest reformers of the age.  Sadly, many were condemned for heresy and paid with their lives.

Our own day, like every other, is an age of crisis and a time of transition.  So I have no bone to pick with the emerging church, whatever it is or may become.  Whether it really has the importance Tickle claims for it, only time will tell—or rather, the historians of the future, for  prophets make poor historians and vice versa.  We mortals, it seems, can at best view either past or future with clear eyes—seldom if ever both.