Hot off the press, my article on the fascinating Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in Religion & American Culture 23:2. I'm very excited to finally see this in print. Enjoy!
Hot off the press, my article on the fascinating Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in Religion & American Culture 23:2. I'm very excited to finally see this in print. Enjoy!
This is my review of Simeon Zahl's Pneumatology and Theology of the Cross in the Preaching of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt: The Holy Spirit Between Wittenberg and Azusa Street. It is forthcoming in Reviews in Religion and Theology.
Review of Simeon Zahl's book on Christoph Blumhardt
I had a lot of fun writing this review for Books and Culture.
Review of T.M. Luhrmann's When God Talks Back
This month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, hosted by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School is centered around a wonderful article by Yale literature professor Amy Hungerford. I was asked to give a response.
Check out the article and the responses, including mine, in the archive here.
You can download the PDF here, or you can read the review below.
Kidd, Thomas S.
The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity In Colonial America.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xix+392 pp. $35.00 (cloth)
The debatable coherence and explanatory significance of the Great Awakening is now a standard trope in the study of American religious history. Chastening revisionist accounts from such scholars as Jon Butler and Frank Lambert have reminded all historians who study the revivals to tread lightly when unpacking the use and interpretive implications of an eighteenth-century phenomenon called the “Great Awakening.” Gone is the de facto usability of Joseph Tracy’s Whitefield-centered, New England-dominated, unified movement that exploded between 1740 and 1743, “important in itself” and “universally acknowledged” in its influence on “the subsequent state of the churches” in their inclination towards Calvinistically inflected evangelical theology of the New Birth. (The Great Awakening, Boston, 1841: iii) Put bluntly, Tracy’s “Great Awakening” has been historicized and pluralized. A wide range of scholarly attention to regional distinctions, theological and ideological discontinuities between revivalists, analogous spiritual practices, as well as race, media, gender, and economic analysis in the revivals have all contributed to the undermining of a singular, simple rendering of “Great Awakening.” This pluralizing has also ended any use of the Great Awakening as an explanatory “black box”; all accounts of the causes, phenomena, and effects of the revivals must be woven into the detailed grain of their particular contexts to retain interpretive value.
Against this backdrop, the audacity of Thomas S. Kidd’s recent synthetic study is revealed. To undertake the work under review, he had not only to show the unifying characteristics of a much-contested, demonstrably diverse movement, but also to show the way that those characteristics are manifested in a plurality of contexts and communities that avoids the provincial chauvinism of many prior accounts. In order to make his case he has to restructure some crucial terms of the debate, and in doing so he makes at least three important contributions to the study of the period.
First, Kidd insists that, though there was certainly a peak of revival activity in the colonies between 1740 and 1743, there were colonial and transatlantic revivals that were fundamentally similar taking place throughout the eighteenth century. Thus, he suggests that the typical periodization of the Great Awakening is largely a historical fiction. He offers an account of evangelical revival theology, spirituality and practices that begins in the 1670s and closes at the end of the American Revolution in 1783. Kidd conceives of this movement as constituting what amounts to a “long First Great Awakening,”(xix) an era of revivalism connected by resonant ideology and practice that ran continuously, albeit piecemeal, for the better part of a century. This historical reconstruction contributes the outline of an organic tradition of eighteenth century American revivalism that is deeply influenced by, but in no way contingent upon, Whitefield and Edwards.
Secondly, for Kidd, the chief characteristic of “the long First Great Awakening” was its formulation of the roots of evangelicalism. As his subtitle suggests, he sees the two as essentially continuous. At first blush, this seems an innocuous claim, but Kidd deftly transforms it into a redefinition of evangelicalism itself. He begins his identification (of course) with David Bebbington’s vaunted quadrilateral of conversionism, crucicentrism, biblicism, and activism, all of which he finds present in the revivals. But, argues Kidd, this perennial rubric passes over a major aspect of early evangelical identity, namely a deep concern for the present work of the Holy Spirit, particularly in revival. This missing dynamic becomes an overarching theme of Kidd’s historical narrative as he shows countless examples both of the importance of the activity of the Holy Spirit for all the revivalists and the very diverse directions that such an emphasis took them. Kidd convincingly reveals the way that characteristic emphasis on the sovereign regenerating action of God led in those days to a flowering of apocalypticism, mysticism, miracle-working, and sacred historical metanarratives which do not belong to the typical portrait of New Light religion.
Third, part and parcel with this emphasis on the Holy Spirit and its variegated manifestations, Kidd shows that the contest over the revivals cannot fit into the standard trope of Old Lights vs. New Lights, but must rather be viewed on a fluid continuum between antirevivalists, moderate revivalists, and radical revivalists. Much of the historical wealth in this book is a exposition of the dramatic implications of the great plurality of revivalist views among the evangelicals who supported the revival.
Kidd establishes these three major contributions by undertaking the herculean task of synthesizing vast quantities of primary source data from all of the colonies throughout the eighteenth century. He presents a compelling, clear narrative, oriented in the service of his interlocking rubrics of “the Long Great Awakening,” the importance of the Holy Spirit, and the diversity among evangelical revivalists. In so doing, he reveals a single resonant tradition that does not oversimplify their difference but refuses to let them be unduly atomized by their diversity. Kidd devotes chapters to revivals in the Carolinas and Georgia, as well as among African-Americans and Native Americans in which this synthetic method is especially valuable.
One might quarrel with Kidd’s suggestion, given the wide range of radical revivalism that he so deftly portrays, that moderate Jonathan Edwards continues to occupy pride of place as the chief intellectual exponent of the revivals. If Edwards’ interpretation remains the evangelical gold-standard, are the radical revivalists who often constitute the majority report in Kidd’s account unjustly destined to occupy an imagined margin?
crucial revisionists like Lambert and Butler are acknowledged positively in the
book, it is sometimes disappointing that Kidd is not more directly engaged in theoretical
argument with them in the text, given that they are his presumptive
historiographical interlocutors. Disappointing as it may be, Kidd’s lack of
engagement is clearly in service of his synthetic goal. Rather than defending a
methodological argument for the “long Great Awakening” against those who would
dismiss the notion of an ideologically coherent mass movement among American
evangelical revivalists, he avoids theorizing, attempting instead to absorb the
force of their critiques and then outnarrate them. He succeeds dramatically.
The pursuit of a more integrated account of nature and the supernatural has become increasingly important to me over the course of my life. The deadly Scylla and Charybdis on either side of this pursuit are a magical account of the supernatural and a materialist account of the natural. The wrong kind of supernaturalist is a world-denying, ahistorical gnostic, and the wrong kind of naturalist is a utilitarian or pragmatist who believes that the correlation of unusual brain chemistry to visionary genius is enough to explain its causation.
One person who has thought long and well about this matter is Leon Kass.
If I could claim at all that Leon Kass was a mentor of mine, it would only be at a distance, through imitation and awe. I was certainly in his orbit as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying in the Kass-designed Fundamentals: Issues and Texts program. He was a member of the Committee on Social Thought, a collection of scholars that appeared in my youthful estimation to exist in the unsullied empyrean of pure thought, in endless rigorous reflection on the good, true, and beautiful. I have since, ruefully, learned better about the character of some of the Committee, but Mr. Kass has never disappointed. If anything, Kass existed in my world as something of a demigod, a hero, an archetype whose outlines could be approximated but never truly imitated, much less exceeded. In retrospect this is of course utterly embarrassing, but nonetheless true.
I learned three things in his class on the Nicomachean Ethics, but only one had anything to do with Aristotle. The first was how to recognize gravitas. When a boisterous, misguided undergrad burst through the door, loudly demanding to know the number of the classroom while we were in midst of trying to pummel some significant dialectical point out of our cloudy minds, Mr. Kass regarded the boy, and with unmalicious but entirely impatient intensity he expelled the phrase, "Sir. Please!" The molecules in the air ceased their motion. There was no choice in the matter. The undergraduate returned to his proper station, in search of his classroom, silently, outside of ours.
The second was that there are times in a person's life when, for whatever reason, he or she literally cannot understand a given line of philosophical inquiry. In my case, it had to do with a kind of intellectual immaturity with which Kass unwittingly forced me to come to grips. This is in part, I suppose, a more literate riff on George Bernard Shaw's aphorism that "youth is wasted on the young." When I sat in Mr. Kass's legendary Aristotle seminar, and pored over my Loeb translation at night, week in and week out, it gradually dawned upon me that I didn't have a clue what I was reading. I was bewildered, befuddled, resentful, incredulous. Surely Aristotle didn't believe that mediocrity (which was, youthfully, how I was understanding the famous "golden mean") was the most virtuous road to human flourishing. Surely he was wrong to suggest that courage was anything other than the self-abnegating sacrifice of total surrender to the needs of others, without regard for one's own interests or telos. I was not Christian enough at the time to see the psychological naiveté of this stance that I had imputed to the character of Jesus Christ. And so on and so on.
So I had a problem. My inability to read Aristotle slowly, carefully, on his own terms, without condescending interruptions from the vast annals of my just-post-adolescent life experience, caused me to be unable to complete my writing assignments for the class. One day, I went to see Mr. Kass, to express my frustrations at my predicament, and some of my incredulity at the things that Aristotle seemed to be try to teach us. When I say that I "went to see Mr. Kass," I didn't just go, I went in fear and trembling. Even though I thought Aristotle was a barking madman, Mr. Kass was on the Committee on Social Thought! My palms were sweating, my stomach had butterflies, but what could I do? I was unable to complete my assignments and I needed help.
Help I received, but not in the form I expected. When I entered Mr. Kass's office, pushing harder than I wanted to on the vast hundred-year-old oak door, I was greeted not only by his familiar, sober visage, but also by a print hanging on the wall behind him which seemed to have been hung there with the explicit purpose of breaking me. It was a World War Two era image of Winston Churchill in a bowtie pointing at the viewer, and under it was written the phrase "Deserve Victory!" Suddenly I began to feel alienated from myself, as some people say that they do when they have a brush with death. My reasoning soul began to come loose from my body and flee, outgunned, leaving me stranded under the bicameral laser gaze of Kass and Churchill. I began to sweat more, and then, internally, I utterly crumbled. I did not deserve victory. I did not even deserve to be in the room. I forgot all of my arguments against Aristotle, and why Jesus was better, and all of the reasons why I couldn't seem to complete the assignments. I am sure that I asked some questions, received some gracious help like "Just start writing..." or "Find a quotation and begin there..." but I was just counting seconds till I could hit the doorhandle and have my paltry, unrenewed nous back. Too many more minutes in there, and I might have been doomed for good. For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Kass (who it turns out is a kindly advocate) and everything to do with the way that God helps a person to grow up and become wiser, I felt like Isaiah in the sixth chapter, beholding the glory of the Lord. I was totally undone. I did not have what it took.
Which leads me to the third thing that I learned from Leon Kass's class on the Nicomachean Ethics, the shocking value of compassion in the classroom. Just a couple of weeks after the encounter with the Churchill poster, I realized that I was not going to be able to develop my capacities sufficiently quickly to be able to undertake the challenges that the course required by term's end. I needed to drop the class. However, there was no way that I was going to face Churchill a second time and, naturally, Mr. Kass did not "do" email. So I called Mr. Kass's office, to leave a message that "I very much appreciated the chance to take this class, but circumstances were such that I would need to drop it, thank you so much, etc. etc." To my horror, Mr. Kass answered the phone, and I was thus forced to stammer out my explanation in person. As is my wont, I revealed more than I intended and basically told him that I couldn't figure out how to read Aristotle so I had to drop the class.
I will never forget his response. He said that he was grateful that I had enrolled, that I had shown courage in facing these circumstances, and that I should feel absolutely no shame whatsoever about this decision. That word, spoken to a student who would eventually figure out how to read Aristotle but for the time being was doing much better with Dostoevsky and Bernard of Clairvaux, was a staggering event of pedagogical mentoring. I saw, and have continued to see on more mature reflection, that the goal of teaching Great Books is not merely the explication of canonical tradition of reflection on life and death, but rather the maieutic process in which the teacher stands both with and above the student, helping him or her in the struggle to bear out from within and express in the necessary ways those things that are most fundamentally human. Kindness, mercy, dignity, charity are not at odds with intellectual midwifery or its fruits, but rather part and parcel of them.The goal, in the end, is the realization and celebration of a human being.
This much-longer-than-intended reflection is simply an introduction to a wonderful excerpt of Leon Kass's 2009 Jefferson Lecture which I read last night. In it, Kass gives a fine interpretation of some of the crucial dynamics what would amount to more humanizing account of nature and the supernatural, the material and the spiritual, the body and the soul with which I began this essay. As I read the piece, I realized how many of my instincts, how much of what I take to be intellectually crucial in this moment I have learned from him.
I am deeply grateful.
from Leon Kass's 2009 Jefferson Lecture, "Looking for an honest man: Reflections of an unlicensed humanist."
(Read the whole lecture here.)
Finding a “more natural science” would serve two important goals. First, by doing justice to life as lived, it would correct the slander perpetrated upon all of living nature, and upon human nature in particular, in treating the glorious activities of life as mere epiphenomena of changes in the underlying matter or as mere devices for the replication of DNA. Second, and more positively, by offering a richer account of human nature faithful both to our animality and to the human difference, it might provide pointers toward how we might best live and flourish. Toward both goals, a “more natural science” examines directly the primary activities of life as we creatures experience them; and it revisits certain neglected notions, once thought indispensable for understanding the being and doing of all higher animals.Against the materialists who believe that all vital activities can be fully understood by describing the electrochemical changes in the underlying matter, I saw the necessity of appreciating the activities of life in their own terms, and as known from the inside: what it means to hunger, feel, see, imagine, think, desire, seek, suffer, enjoy. At the same time, against those humanists, who, conceding prematurely to mechanistic science all truths about our bodies, locate our humanity solely in consciousness or will or reason, I saw the necessity of appreciating the profound meaning of our distinctive embodiment. So, for example, I learned from Erwin Straus the humanizing significance of the upright posture: how our standing-in-the-world, gained only through conscious effort against the pull of gravity, prefigures all our artful efforts to overcome nature’s indifference to human aspiration; how our arms, supremely mobile in our personalized action space, fit us for the socializing activities of embracing, cradling, pointing, caressing, and holding hands, no less than for the selfish activities of grasping, fighting, and getting food to mouth; how our eyes, no longer looking down a snout to find what is edible, are lifted instead to the horizon, enabling us to take in an entire vista and to conceive an enduring world beyond the ephemeral here and now; how our refashioned mammalian mouth (and respiratory system) equips us for the possibility of speech—and kissing; and how our expressive face is fit to meet, greet, and sometimes love the faces that we meet, face-to-face, side-by-side, and arm-in-arm. From Adolf Portmann, I discovered the deeper meaning of the looks of animals, whose intricate surface beauty, not fully explained by its contributions to protective coloration or sexual selection, serves also to communicate inward states to fellow creatures and to announce, in the language of visibility, each animal’s unique species dignity and individual identity. I even found evidence for natural teleology in, of all places, The Origin of Species, in which Darwin makes clear that evolution by natural selection requires, and takes as biologically given, the purposive drives of all organisms for self-preservation and for reproduction—drives the existence of which is a mystery unexplainable by natural selection.
I have reviewed Paul Alexander's book Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism Is The World's Fastest Growing Faith for Pneuma, the journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It will appear in the forthcoming issue, but is available online now.
You can download the PDF here. Or, you can read the review below...
Paul Alexander, Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). xiv + 175 pp. $24.95 cloth.
With the publication of Philip Jenkins’ academic blockbuster, The Next Christendom (2002), Pentecostalism became the undisputed “Next Big Thing” in the study of Christianity. Jenkins’ work was perceptive and synthetic, standing atop an ever-growing tower of scholarly research into the persistence of global Christianity in the wake of the moribund “secularization thesis.” Most members of this society were probably not surprised by Jenkins’ conclusion that global Pentecostalism (and its genealogical relations) represents the majority future of Christianity. The Pentecostal future has been taken as a fact for decades by those with “eyes to see.” Jenkins’ book, arriving as it did among the urgency of post-9/11 debates about religion and America’s global position, simply served to make the point loudly and clearly to the average New York Times reader.
But once awakened, surprised and alarmed, to the widespread beliefs and practices of Pentecostalism, the average New York Times reader still did not know why this movement was growing at such a rate all over the world. This is the question Paul Alexander attempts to answer in his recent book, Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith. Complete with larger than average print, a winsome, anecdotal writing style, and the rare imprimatur of a glowing foreword from Martin Marty, Alexander takes on the role of a self-disclosing tour guide who wants to show the curious reader, from a comfortable distance, what the appeal of Pentecostalism is.
This distance does not mean Alexander is cold to Pentecostalism. On the contrary, he challenges his reader to maintain a generous, open mind, with such comments as “For who knows, maybe miracles really do happen” (p. 18), or “Tongues issue from the depths of the human experience and open up new ways of living, being and doing” (p. 58). For Alexander, this tour is personal. One of the great merits of the book is that he is open about his own experiences with phenomena associated with Pentecostalism.
However, though he has had many experiences that he names “Pentecostal,” Alexander is ambivalent about the application of the category Pentecostal to himself. He writes, “I went from being an arrogant Pentecostal to an embarrassed and shame-ridden Pentecostal to a non-Pentecostal to an anti-Pentecostal—and now I’m just trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus who also prays in tongues sometimes” (p. 98). This categorical evasion is illustrative of the strategy Alexander employs throughout the book. He plays on a distinction between historical Pentecostalism and Pentecostal experiences. Alexander spends no time developing either a historical or a theological definition of Pentecostalism. Rather, he offers a description of Pentecostalism that is entirely rooted in the embrace of particular phenomena. Each of his eight chapters (miracles, music, tongues, prosperity, testimony, angels and demons, prophetic experience, and emotional hope) deals with the particular appeal of a certain type of experience that Alexander classes as typically Pentecostal. Thus, in his hands, the category “Pentecostal” has little necessarily to do with particular history, theology, or culture, and far more to do with a presentized set of spiritual experiences typically associated with historic Pentecostalism but which, through “mere” participation, can leave Pentecostal fingerprints on a wide variety of faith traditions.
As such, the best and most explanatory parts of the book are his stories about Pentecostal experience. The pages are redolent with real-life stories of miracles, demons, prophecy, and healing. Alexander says he has no interest in proving their reliability but rather in showing their attraction, that is, the attraction of having a life full of practical hope for God’s intervention in the face of struggle. Such stories are, he believes, ultimately why Pentecostalism is exploding because they are, in some significant way, what Pentecostalism is. Alexander rehearses the contested chestnut that modernity (and, by extension, most evangelicalism) has advanced a practically disenchanted worldview that forecloses on such experiences. But, according to his sociological sources, disenchantment fits with neither a biblical outlook nor the outlook of an average Global Southerner nor even the average American. Thus Pentecostal practices are, in his view, already resonant with the outlook of most people in the world, though they run counter to the worldview of those Alexander calls “American Evangelicals,” bound as they are by modernity (113-4).
My response to
this approach is mixed. I have little doubt that Alexander would admit that the
twentieth century Pentecostal expression of these phenomena can be thoroughly historicized, located in
a tradition that reinforces their validity through theologies and practices. I
have even less doubt that the explosive growth of historic Pentecostalism has
significantly contributed to the fact that the phenomena Alexander describes
have become commonplace in a wide variety of “non-Pentecostal” denominational
traditions, e.g., his story of the shy Baptist who speaks in tongues. However,
I question the validity of explaining Pentecostalism simply by it’s
characteristically emphasized experiences, particularly given that those
experiences have been variously shared by Christians throughout the history of
the church, even “American Evangelicals.” It seems that there is a far more
complicated story to be told than Alexander’s conclusion that Pentecostalism has
grown because it offers emotional freedom, dynamic spiritual experiences, and
equality before a provider God. These are among the stated offerings of a wide
variety of religious communities, but for some reason, Pentecostalism has been particularly apt to grow. As to why that
is, Alexander does not offer a compelling answer. He cites a Pentecostal pastor
saying that “people are tired of dry religion. They are looking for a
relationship” (p. 133). This could have been said by any evangelical, and has
little explanatory power. One wants deeper explorations of the dynamics of
race, class, nationalism, the rising stock of the therapeutic, Western primacy
in globalizing culture, the spiritual cosmologies of the Global South, and so
on. Perhaps those are the cultural concerns of a historian, and perhaps this is
not the book that Alexander has set out to write. Nonetheless they are issues
crucial to adequately answering the question posed by his title.
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Isambard Kingdom Brunel has one of the best names ever given in the English language. He was also an incredibly interesting and accomplished person, a genius innovator of the first order. And he looked pretty cool doing it. If Bob Dylan was an engineer, he'd be Isambard Kingdom Brunel.