Monday, December 19, 2016

Demon Possession in Context: Giovanni Levi's Microhistory of a Seventeenth-Century Exorcist

Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Pp. xxviii, 209.

Inheriting Power was first published in Italian in 1985. A microhistory, the book focuses on the village of Santena and the surrounding region in northwestern Italy during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, particularly the 1690s. In a real sense Giovan Battista Chiesa, the exorcist of the subtitle, is nearly incidental to the world that the author reconstructs. In fact, Levi once described his book as an exploration of “one village’s land transactions studied to discover the social rules of commercial exchange at work in a market which had yet to be de-personalized.”

Chapter 1 tells the story of how Chiesa, the suffragan priest of Santena in northwestern Italy, became a regional celebrity healer and exorcist during the warm months of 1697. For his unconventional ministry to hundreds of people, Chiesa was summoned to answer before church authorities in Turin. Apparently, under canon law, not much of a case could be made against him. If he was ever sentenced, we do not know what the penalty was. After his trial in November 1697, none of the available records so much as mention him. He practically vanishes.
We do not know his date of death, nor what became of him, nor what new ties he may have forged. His history can only be read backward, by asking who he was, where he came from, who his friends and his family were, and why he became a healer and gathered a following (19).
Nonetheless, the promise of Levi’s study is that “even though there is no correspondence here between symbolic representations and the polarized social reality, the patterns of behavior of the chief actors in this local flare-up of the ancient war against the Demon can be tied to an underlying context of passions and conflicts that took years to develop and were not riding the momentary wave of a new cult” (12). Levi’s research question asks about the political and socio-economic contexts of events that might otherwise appear to be simply unusual.

Chapter 2 explores three contemporary massari (i.e., middling) families. Levi reveals how it was that within these families, the systems of dependence and assistance extended well beyond the boundaries of the truly-modern nuclear family. “In reality, there is a sort of anachronism in considering the household as the sole unit of analysis” (60). Levi also notes how these extended families deliberately diversified their occupations and activities as a means to survival and success. His point is that this was a world where the majority of the population was fairly obsessed with the “search for security.” Thus, Levi suggests that when the people of Santena and the surrounding area turned to Giovan Battista Chiesa for divine help, they were responding to the need for greater predictability and control in an uncertain world (64-65).

In Chapter 3, Levi identifies a trio of hypotheses stemming from his study to this point:

(a) “The relative value of goods was not completely free to vary; it expresses proportions determined by conditions existing in the community, and it contributed to the persistence of such conditions.” Here, the operative word is community.

(b) “The relative value of goods did not have the same significance for all members of the community. Significance varied in relation to position on the scale of wealth and social status of the contractual parties.”

(c) “The situation in Santena at the end of the seventeenth century was in no way exceptional. It was one example of land-market mechanisms common to many other areas in Piedmont during the ancien rĂ©gime.” This was not an impersonal market world controlled by supply and demand. Rather, it was concerned with “justice” and a “just price,” a world in which “relative value was the result of concrete social situations” (80-81). Levi explains this interpretation with land-sale statistics that reveal a wide range of prices. (See his graphs on p. 90). The differences clearly depend on the identity of the buyer. Specifically, did a peasant sell part of his land to a family member, a near neighbor, or to an outsider?

Chapter 4 uses “the biography of Giovan Battista Chiesa's father to describe a highly mobile and dynamic relationship between the community and a local political leader” (100). Here, Levi shows how for many years the father of our main character accumulated and leveraged local authority as he served his community in ways that extended far beyond his official responsibilities. When he died in 1690, his son “felt his position was unassailable, and he must have considered himself invested with the same boundless power that his father seems to have exercised in the community” (122).

Chapter 5 takes the reader back to the year 1694, when our future exorcist was brought up on charges that he neglected his priestly responsibilities and, more to the point, pilfered funds and abused his clerical authority. It was no coincidence, writes Levi, that 1694 marked the height of a desperate time. During the previous four years, traveling armies trampled and pillaged the region, a terrible hail storm ruined virtually all the produce of an entire growing season, and heavy snows in late spring shortened yet another growing season. The crisis led to a number of premature deaths (125-27). Just before these events, Giovan Battista Chiesa’s father had died, and the priest dealt ruthlessly with peasants who were desperate to bury their dead, but who could not pay the price for a religious burial.

Chapter 6 resembles Chapter 3 in that it also examines extended families. But here, Levi turns from the massari of Chapter 3 to families of notables. Among these wealthier residents of Santena, in a family with several sons it was common for one of them to become a priest. Consequently, all land to which he held title would be tax-exempt. Upon the death of one of his brothers, the priest could transfer ownership of his land to the son(s) of the deceased. The sisters of these sons would be married off to respectable massari families who would provide for them well enough, but who would not expect large dowries. About this world, Levi remarks: “A strong potential for change lurked beneath established hierarchies that had become self-sustaining and rigid. Messianism and miracles often find living space in an ambiguous climate of truce and dissatisfaction, of outward peace and latent conflict, in which no equilibrium ever is definitive or stable” (157).

A brief final chapter returns the reader to the story of Giovan Battista Chiesa. The mercenary priest of 1694 became the apparently-generous healer and exorcist of 1697. What had changed? “It does not seem accurate,” writes Levi, “to say that he took up exorcism in an attempt to find a way to keep the prestige and the power that he had showed himself so incapable of maintaining after the death of this father. It is highly probable that as his preaching garnered successful cures, he himself began to believe sincerely in the new powers of healing that many saw in him” (162), a false dichotomy as I see it. The hundreds of people healed by Chiesa came from peasant, massari, and even notable backgrounds. However, all of them were “secondary personages in their respective kinship groups.” Not one of them was a first-born son or the head of a family. Apparently all of them were men and women “who felt a pressing need to find a reason for their misfortunes” (163). Many of their troubles “went back to complex problems of administration of all the many local communities in the state” as Victor Amadeus II “fought to affirm the central power of the state” (168).

Note: If you've made it this far down the page, then you know that the foregoing is a book report, a summary. For more about Inheriting Power, see the great review by Stephen Greenblatt, “Loitering in the Piazza,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in 1988.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism

Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii, 404.

Mark Stoll, Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University, begins this wide-ranging study with an important historical footnote: in 1967 Lynn White Jr. published an essay in Science magazine "claiming that Christianity had caused the environmental crisis," a notion that lingers "in the back of a lot of people's minds when they think about religion and the environment" (1).

Stoll noticed, however, that many figures in the history of American environmentalism grew up in either Congregational or Presbyterian churches, both types "in the Calvinist tradition" (2). What was the connection? Starting with questions like that, the author has written a book that "overlays American environmental history on American religious history" (6). Stoll further describes his work and identifies his thesis as follows:
Inherit the Holy Mountain uses religion as a wholly new tool for dissecting American environmental history. Historians have invoked a long list of factors to explain the motivations behind conservation and environmentalism: nationalism; monumentalism; Transcendentalism; democratic ideals; growing appreciation for wilderness; nostalgia for the disappearing frontier; alarm at disappearing game; antimodernism; fear of urban pollution, corruption, disorder, immigrants, and class conflict; automobiles and leisure time; and masculine ideals of conquest and domination. All of these factors, and more, played their roles. Yet as this book shows, a religious perspective gives the history and development of environmentalism a trajectory, unity, and power. Rather unexpectedly, even to the author, religion turns out to provide extraordinary insights into environmental movement's past--and future (9).
So what exactly are those "extraordinary insights"? For one, Stoll shows how Calvinist thought served as the foundation of American environmentalism, "from its moralism to its suspicion of humans in the landscape to its urgent evangelism" (53). All of these had everything to do with the Puritan vision established in books like John Milton's classic, Paradise Lost. Thus, when Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists recommended spending time alone in the woods or some other natural surrounding, they weren't suggesting something new. They were repeating "long-standing Calvinist advice" (41).

Stoll describes the theological ethic of stewardship, accountability to God for all things. This was an old, patristic theme, but one that Calvinists, especially Puritans, revived and emphasized. A Puritan buzzword was improvement. Along this line, one should conserve soil and improve land. A good steward is the farmer who uses the best, most productive techniques, and who also ensures that the land will be productive in years to come. It was actually Huguenots, French Calvinists, who "wrote the pioneering works of modern agriculture" (72).

Moreover, in the same way that American environmentalism was not fathered by Emerson, nor was it born on the Atlantic coast somewhere near Boston and Harvard College. Rather, it was fathered by Calvinist thinkers, and was born along the Connecticut River Valley, near places like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut. The movement's alma mater was Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale Forestry School, the nation's first such postgraduate program (91).

The movement influenced not only schools, but art as well. Born to Congregationalists, famed landscape artists Thomas Cole and his protege Frederic Edwin Church inspired "the nation's leading advocates and creators of parks, forest conservation, and agricultural improvement." Indeed, with only one exception,
every one of them either like Church grew up in New England Congregationalism or was no more than one generation away. The American conservation and environmental movements were born in the elegant steepled churches rising above the greens of Connecticut Valley towns (78).
During the years that surrounded the dawn of the twentieth-century, American Presbyterians, similar to those earlier Congregationalists, built on the Reformed tradition which represented "a virtual training ground for environmental activism" (140). But whereas New England Congregationalists of the nineteenth century focused on the stewardship of the individual over his farm, "Presbyterians . . . called the nation to moral account."

Indeed, the Progressive Era belonged to Presbyterians. "Between 1885 and 1921," Stoll writes, "Presbyterians held the White House for nearly 28 out of 36 years, over three-quarters of the time" (150-51). From the 1880s through the 1940s, Presbyterians headed up the Department of Interior almost the entire time. Their leaders included, among others, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. This was the heyday of American conservation. As Stoll notes, however, Presbyterianism in the U.S. has since become liberal and ecumenical, not so confident in its righteousness, less preachy.

Stoll explains that since then environmentalism has not gone away, but has fractured into a number of unorganized impulses and movements. Even to this day, environmentally-minded people are often lapsed, "spiritual but not religious," Presbyterians of some sort. "For three decades after World War II theirs were the most prominent and effective voices for environmental causes" (174). These folks represent a sort of "second wave" of Presbyterian interest in "a proper moral relationship of humans to the natural environment" (175). They include such names as Alice Hamilton, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Annie Dillard (193). From Muir to Carson, they exhibit a great capacity for identifying and railing against evil. Yet, unlike the Puritans, they were not so good at holding up a unifying vision for how to order a society.

What has happened more recently? Stoll answers that during the last few decades an "outsider" environmentalist mode replaced the old "insider" conservation ethic. Given that change, it should come as no surprise that Henry David Thoreau's reputation rose spectacularly. During the countercultural 1960s and 1970s Thoreau "was canonized as the greatest saint in the environmentalist pantheon" (215).

Beginning around that time, some African Americans, particularly Baptists, along with Jews, Catholics, Methodists, and Episcopalians, have become involved in environmental issues. But the environmentalism they promote tends to be more about social justice, rather than about "nature, wildlife, and resources" (234). Stoll points out, for example, that unlike the old Congregationalists, contemporary Baptists tend to be much more individualistic than communal. Consequently, environmentalists who grew up Baptist, like the recent presidential candidate Al Gore, tend to preach sermons to individuals rather than to the government about what it should be doing.

Environmentalism stemming from the black church has typically been a fight against "environmental racism" (238-39). On the Roman Catholic front, in the wake of Vatican II, it appears that of all the issues Catholics disagree about (abortion, women in the church, clerical celibacy, etc.), the one thing they agree on is "the centrality of the moral principle of social justice" (243). Indeed, as Protestant environmentalists have faded even more, "Catholics along with Anglicans have fairly taken over the enterprise of environmental writing that is explicitly religious, as opposed to vaguely spiritual" (249). Jewish environmentalism tends to relate to the faith's emphasis on community, and involves human beings as part of the subject. Jewish theology associated with justice and righteousness "implies social goals and duties" (258).

The up-to-date report? "If it is not dead yet, environmentalism is certainly weak, divided, and wandering in the wilderness" (275).

In sum, Stoll makes a solid case that, in fact, religion had everything to do with the rise of American environmentalism, and that a person's formative religious outlook brings with it a controlling theology and view of the world, facets that always make a difference in the way a person thinks about nature. Our environmental crises would not improve with the disappearance of religion, but they might improve with a religious tradition that could effect systemic change for the better.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Race and Civil Rights in 20th-Century U.S. History

If you're interested in exploring how race and civil rights played out in America during the last 100 years, you could hardly find three better books than these. To follow the story chronologically, you would read Boyle, then Branch, and finally Brilliant.

Boyle tells a story from 1920s Detroit. Branch focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights movement from 1954 to 1963. Brilliant looks at civil rights in California between 1941 and 1978.
The tight monograph in the group is Brilliant. In my opinion, due to book size and literary style, the easiest to read is Boyle. Here's a taste of each one:

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

The first thing readers should know is that Taylor Branch has a serious "man crush" on Martin Luther King, Jr. His obvious bias is just fine with me mainly because (a) it's understandable and (b) it's nice when an author doesn't attempt to hide what he really thinks. The second thing to know is that this door-stop of a book is just the first of three volumes chronicling the life and times of MLK. Branch begins with the assumption that the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. "is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years" (xii). For obvious reasons, he also asserts that any biography of King must relate the story of the civil rights movement. Branch gives some attention to King's predecessors, his family of origin, and his early years. However, this lengthy, engaging narrative really takes off in 1954, when King became the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. It ends in 1963 with the March on Washington and, finally, the assassination of President Kennedy. Branch’s focus on King has drawn criticism from those who see the leadership of the civil rights movement through a much wider lens. This book won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ask any well-informed American what the 1920s were all about, and the answer will likely include flappers, speakeasies, dancing the Charleston, the Harlem Renaissance, and the growth of jazz. Arc of Justice reveals that the answer should also include the presence of deadly racism in America, even in a northern city like Detroit. Boyle sets out to tell the story of one Ossian Sweet, his family and friends, and the incident and subsequent trial that made him a significant historical figure. A fine piece of journalistic and popular history, this book does not begin with a thesis statement per se. As Boyle continues, however, it appears that he wants to drive home the point that although the saga of Ossian Sweet is a compelling story, one that should be told, of greatest significance is the story's context, an American racism that often seems to recognize no restraint or limit. In that sense, it might be possible to categorize Arc of Justice as a work of microhistory.

The main title of this book quotes the insightful lawyer and author Carey McWilliams (1905-1980), who made the observation as early as 1943. McWilliams was referring to a racial diversity in America that simply did not match up with the standard black/white binary conception of racial differences and interests. It was significant that McWilliams lived for many years in California, home to large numbers of Asian-, Mexican-, and Native Americans. Brilliant's book "examines the civil rights consequences of California's racial diversity--how America's 'racial frontier' became America's civil rights frontier" (5). Its coverage begins in 1941, the year the U.S. was dragged into the Second World War, an event that was soon followed by the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The book concludes in 1978 with the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke "reverse discrimination" case.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Religion of 16th-Century Radical Rednecks

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Take a look at any list of classic studies in Renaissance and Reformation Europe and you're bound to see this title. First published in Italian in 1976, Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms would also make any list of classic microhistories. It's that significant.

So then, what's this book all about and why is it so popular? Start with the main character, the "sixteenth-century miller" of the subtitle. Domenico Scandella, commonly known by his nickname, Menocchio, was born in 1532 in a small town in a region of far northeastern Italy called the Friuli. One of the most basic things we know about him is that although he seems to have been well-liked by many of his contemporaries, he spent a lot of his time spewing religious heresy. He would argue theology anytime with anyone, including (and maybe especially) priests. So, Carlo Ginzburg raises the obvious question: what were the sources of his unorthodox ideas? Was he a Lutheran? An Anabaptist? Or what?

It's strange. Although Menocchio said any number of things that might seem to point in the direction of Lutheranism or especially Anabaptism, other things he said clearly show that no self-respecting Lutheran or Anabaptist would have acknowledged him as a brother in the faith. As an alternative to those theories, Ginzburg posits that the coming of the Reformation to Menocchio's world had opened up the way for an ancient peasant radicalism to bubble up to the surface. And that's what he espoused.

As you might guess, Menocchio's heresies combined with his big mouth and combativeness got him into trouble with the religious authorities of the day. His first appearance before inquisitors came in 1584, the year he turned 52. The reason we know as much about him as we do is because the record of his interrogations has survived. And it was here that he revealed his heresy for posterity, including the part about the cheese and the worms:
I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed--just as cheese is made out of milk--and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, . . . (5-6).
Menocchio's opinion was that religion is a racket. Relics, images, the Atonement, and all of the sacraments, especially baptism and confirmation, were invented by priests and monks in order to keep the church in business. And the pope is no more than a man. God loves all people and, regardless of the religion they subscribe to, all of them can be saved in the same way: by loving one's neighbor.

So where does this come from? Again, Ginzburg argues that neither Lutheranism nor Anabaptist doctrine seem to be at the root of the strange miller's worldview: 
Provisionally, it's best to attribute [Menocchio's ideas] to a substratum of peasant beliefs perhaps centuries old, that were never wholly wiped out. . . . On the basis of this hypothesis, then, Mennochio's radical statements will not be explained by tracing them to Anabaptism or, worse yet, to a generic 'Lutheranism.' Rather, we should ask if they don't belong within the autonomous current of peasant radicalism, which the upheaval of the Reformation had helped to bring forth, but which was much older (21).
But what about Menocchio's books? It just so happened that he was quite literate, and that he owned and borrowed any number of books. Did he cobble his heresy together from them? In response to this question, Ginzburg is at pains to show that, although the miller was an avid reader for many years, he did not derive his ideas from books. It is much closer to the mark to say that he filtered all of his reading through the aforementioned "peasant radicalism" that Menocchio inherited by way of "oral tradition" (32-33).

The bulk of Ginzburg's work goes on in this way, revealing how Menocchio, in his interrogations, showed himself to be something other than a Lutheran, an Anabaptist, a dualistic Manichean, or a universalist follower of ancient church father Origen (the latter two types being what his inquisitors sometimes imagined he was). Eventually, he convinced his judges that not only was he a heretic, but a dangerous one at that. The Church had to protect innocent, ignorant people from a menace like him. They sentenced him to be compelled to reenter the Church, publicly forsake his heresies, fulfill penances, wear a penitential garment, and spend the rest of his life in prison at his children's expense (93).

After two terrible years in prison, Menocchio had had enough. With the help of a lawyer, apparently, he composed a letter begging for forgiveness and release. His request was granted, but he was confined to his village for life, and a friend had to act as a sort of bondsman who would guarantee the heretic's whereabouts and good behavior.

In time, Menocchio renewed his life in the community. He was back to work, and even held an official local position. But it seems he couldn't help himself. Soon, he was also back to his old tricks, talking with all sorts of people to whom he expressed his unorthodox, heretical views. According to reports, the same kinds of discussions he had with a man named Lunardo he also had with a Jew named Simon who stayed for a while at Mennochio's house. Clearly, he had not given up his old ideas. Nor had those two years in prison scared him into silence, at least now that he was out. As fate would have it, word made its way to the inquisitors, who had him arrested and confined in the prison at Aviano in June 1599 (103). By this point, he was 67 years old. His wife and his only devoted son had died. He was more or less without defense or help.

But was his a singular case? Ginzburg answers that it wasn't. There was, for example, a "rustic in the Lucchese countryside who hid behind the pseudonym Scolio." Like our main character, Scolio "projected onto the written page, elements taken from oral tradition" (112). For example, much like Menocchio, he was convinced that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all preached some version of the Ten Commandments. Something else that the two men shared was "a common store of traditions, myths, and aspirations handed down orally over generations" (117).

Next, Ginzburg introduces yet another peasant radical, Pighino ("the fat one"), also a miller. The author notes that sixteenth-century millers had, at best, mixed reputations. And they were well known for their radicalism. Dealing with a wide variety of people, they worked in out-of-the-way places, where folks would freely exchange ideas much as they would at "the inn and the shop" (119). These were the places where the cultures of "peasant religious radicalism" and of "peasant egalitarianism" were kept alive (123). Consequently, we should reject any assumption that "ideas originate exclusively among the dominant classes." What is required of historians is a "more complicated hypothesis about relationships in this period between the culture of the dominant classes and the culture of the subordinate classes" (126). This, as I see it, represents the most significant contribution that Ginzburg's work offers to the historiography.

Oh, and what became of Menocchio, our backsliding heretic? I've given you enough to this point. You'll have to get the book and find out.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ussama Makdisi on a Nineteenth-Century Protestant Mission to the Middle East

In 2008, Ussama Makdisi published his award-winning title, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. On one level, this book simply tells the story of American Protestant missionaries and one As’ad Shidyaq. Born in 1798, Shidyaq lived in that part of the Ottoman Empire now known as the Lebanese Republic. His life forever changed when he became the first convert to Protestant Christianity in that part of the world, and was subsequently tortured and killed. He thus became the first Protestant martyr of the American mission to the Middle East.

Roman Catholics, members of the Maronite Church, and Greek Orthodox Christians were all officially tolerated in the Empire. But in the early nineteenth century, Protestantism was something new. Makdisi sums up the encounter between American missionaries and the Ottoman Empire as follows: “One reflected a determination to refashion the world on evangelical terms at a time of ascendant Anglo-American power; the other, a violent refusal to accept these terms" (5).

Makdisi insists that the story he tells is not an example of a clash of cultures, much less a clash of civilizations. It is much more specific than that, he explains, and therefore reflects no such general “clash,” an obvious disavowal of the so-called “[Samuel] Huntington thesis.”

As interesting and significant as this story is, Makdisi has received special notice for how he tells it. In general, most historical accounts of Christian missionary work are examples of institutional, denominational history. This is only natural since those producing the historiography are members of the community of faith that conceived and conducted the mission activities they describe. Consequently, denominational historians of missionary efforts have typically ignored those materials that reflect the ideas and that chronicle the culture of the target group. In countless examples, missionary historiography is essentially Christian hagiography. Based on reports from the field and memoirs that missionaries often publish, such historiography relates the episodes of heroic evangelists who took the gospel to exotic, distant places. From the Apostle Paul to the recent past, and in most every era of the history of the Church, missionaries have been among the top candidates for canonization. As Makdisi puts it, even most of the recent historians of American religious history “have consistently reproduced, in admittedly less evangelical terms, the perspective and structure of classic missionary memorials, charting the unilinear path of missionaries from dynamic West to stagnant East, from light into darkness, from white to nonwhite, from historiographically important to less important, and thus have continued to overlook the actual histories and archives of non-Western societies” (7). Counter to this tradition, Makdisi is convinced that "[t]he only way to tell a story of a cross-cultural encounter involving Americans and Arabs is to enlarge dramatically the conventional scope of inquiry” (15).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Intellectual History of American Evangelicalism since 1945

Worthen, Molly. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years, Steven P. Miller observes that one popular motif in the academic study of American evangelicals can be labeled "give 'em a fair shake." According to Miller, this model "seeks to explain the evangelical subculture to an audience that, presumably, carries reflexive hostility or incredulity toward this Bible-bound 'other'" (Miller, p. 6). He would no doubt place in this category Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (which, incidentally, was also published in 2014, also by Oxford University Press).

Worthen, who currently teaches at the University of North Carolina, presents a history of "conservative white Protestantism" in America from the end of the Second World War to the early years of the twenty-first century. She does not deal with African-American Protestants, who tend to think of evangelicalism "as a white word." Nor does she tell the stories of "Latinos, Asian evangelicals, and other new immigrants" (5).

She defends her intellectual-history approach by pointing out that while not all thoughts and thinkers "are equally good," scholars must take into account "that all people think, and that material forces alone cannot explain human experience" (9). Though not herself an evangelical, Worthen evinces a real appreciation for her subjects and what she calls their Crisis of Authority.

So what does she believe is the crisis? In order to hear Worthen's answer we must first understand her idea that the identity of American evangelicals is revealed not so much by their beliefs, but by their struggles. She insists that what unites modern evangelicals is not their doctrinal conformity--which they have never been able to achieve--but their shared questions "borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era" (7). In other words, if we want to comprehend who evangelicals are, we should listen not to their confident affirmations, but to those doubts with which they constantly wrestle.

Worthen asserts that three types of questions stand at the center of the American-evangelical crisis. These questions ask about "how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge; how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God; and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square" (4). Put another way, evangelicals deal with questions about the relationships between "reason and revelation, heart and head, private piety and the public square" (2). Worthen suggests that neither Roman Catholics nor liberal Protestants are troubled in this way because both groups have an agreed-upon, extra-biblical arbiter: Roman Catholics look to the Pope and the magisterium, while liberal Protestants allow the goddess of reason to rule. By contrast, evangelicals confidently claim the Bible alone as their guide. But because they have no single complementary authority, it seems impossible for evangelicals to achieve and maintain harmony. As Worthen writes, "it is no secret that the challenge of determining what the Bible actually means finds it ultimate caricature in their schisming and squabbling" (7).

With Worthen as their guide, readers meet and hear the thought leaders of post-war American evangelicalism, men like Carl F. H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today magazine, Harold Lindsell, author of the immensely popular 1976 book, The Battle for the Bible, which defended the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and Francis Schaeffer, evangelicalism's highly-influential cultural prophet. She concludes that American evangelicalism represents "a discernible family of intellectual traditions . . . yielding the religious landscape we know today" (9).

One of the great strengths of Worthen's treatment is her close acquaintance with her subject. She set out to understand who evangelicals are and largely succeeded. One downside of this book relates to its intense focus on American evangelicalism as a tradition that has always paid close attention to ideas. Because it is a tightly-focused intellectual history, Apostles of Reason usually fails to register what all the fuss was about. Why did millions of Americans convert to some brand of conservative Protestantism during the post-war era? To get more answers to that question, read the Miller book too.

You can see a BookTV interview with Molly Worthen discussing Apostles of Reason here.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

U.S. Presidents of the Twentieth Century

Interested in U.S. Presidents of the Twentieth Century? This list of seven books includes some of the better works that I have sampled so far. Any one of these would be a good pick. Happy reading!

Brands, H. W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

Brands presents a full-scale biography of Roosevelt, a son of privilege who became a “traitor to his class” by appealing to and serving the interests of the American masses. The book argues that while FDR was not himself a radical, his presidency radically altered the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens, and the role of the U.S. in the world. Brands suggests that FDR’s political aspirations forever changed when a fifth cousin, Theodore, became the U.S. President, and later when FDR married Theodore’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom the President “gave away” at the wedding. From that time forward, FDR modeled himself after "Uncle Ted." Brands frequently quotes the letters and diaries of the main characters.

Dallek, Robert. Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dallek explored hundreds of manuscript and oral history collections before writing this 600-page biography of LBJ to the time he became U.S. Vice President. The author notes that former presidents eventually have a moderate legacy. Early disapproval is followed by a more-generous retrospective. Yet, as late as 1990, Johnson was still considered a complete failure, painted by the likes of Robert Caro as the megalomaniac who dragged America through Vietnam, and who initiated the far-from-great Great Society. With this book, Dallek set out to initiate a more-balanced portrait of LBJ as a flawed but truly representative figure of mid-twentieth century America.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Unlike previous biographers of JFK, Dallek has produced a study that fully exploits "written contemporary documents, telephone and Oval Office tapes, . . . and oral histories" (ix). Above all, the author gained access to the big majority of Kennedy's medical records, which were then deciphered with the help of a physician. The records reveal that JFK as the picture of health was an incredible illusion, one that disguised serious problems and chronic pain. Dallek devotes many pages to the Kennedy family, to JFK's formative years, his experiences during World War II, and his political campaigns. Yet, the 1,033 days of JFK's presidency take up more than half of this massive book. Throughout, the author appears to be aiming for a rational, balanced interpretation of his subject.

Flippen, J. Brooks. Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

This book explores the significance of the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Flippen observes that President Carter took for granted that he could retain the loyalty of fellow religious conservatives, while courting support from the left. Carter gave his blessing to initiatives related to the growth of feminism, the legalization of abortion, and equal rights for homosexuals. All along, such issues were becoming more partisan, with each side becoming more deeply entrenched. Flippen concludes that because each issue bore a religious dimension, the Carter Administration served as a catalyst for the rise of the Religious Right.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954.

Link sought "to comprehend and re-create the political and diplomatic history" of the U.S." from the beginning of the disruption of the Republican party" to America's entrance into the First World War (xv). His treatment includes major sections on sweeping reform legislation enacted by Congress from 1913 to 1917, and the process by which the U.S. was drawn into the war. Link wrote only after he spent several years working through manuscript archives and periodical literature from the Wilson years. As the author put it, his book is based "almost exclusively upon research in the sources" (xv). A categorized 30-page "Essay on Sources" appears at the end.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Truman is a celebratory, full-scale biography of the 33rd U.S President. It runs to nearly 1,000 pages. Over the span of a decade, McCullough interviewed hundreds of associates and friends of Truman, and read almost everything previously written about him. The author concluded that Truman’s early experiences of struggle—as a farmer in Missouri and artillery officer during World War I—forged an upright character and legendary toughness that served him well. McCullough, a master storyteller, demonstrates the potential of history written for a popular audience. With this book, he single-handedly improved the image and increased the public stature of Harry S. Truman.

Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Wills wrote this book in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like a political observer trained in family psychology, the author attempts to explain the unique privileges, burdens--and now failures-- of the youngest Kennedy son. He depicts it all as the result of the family’s development and abuse of power over many decades reaching back to the patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. This book presents an almost completely negative view of the Kennedy family and the presidency of JFK. Even his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for which President Kennedy usually receives high marks, is criticized. This book was intended for a general, non-academic audience. It contains no documentation.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Two Classic Articles by Historian E. P. Thompson

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

With apologies to Stephen Hawking, this article is sort of a brief history of time. Thompson observes that almost all people have had some way of keeping track of time and of measuring it. In pre-industrial societies, time was reckoned by the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and was measured by comparison to a task, often one associated with something like farming or cooking.

The author relates how, coming into the modern era, England as well as other parts of Europe began to develop more-accurate clocks and watches. The proliferation of these time pieces, each version more accurate than the one before, matched up with the British Industrial Revolution’s demand “for a greater synchronization of labour” (69). Of course, some tasks have never been very time sensitive. And, some work, like harvesting a crop, occurs only at a certain time of year, and then only when the weather is conducive. Still, even before 1700 at least some work places in England were governed by a “disciplined industrial capitalism, with the time-sheet, the time-keeper, the informers and the fines” (82). This development was accompanied by a Puritan and, later, Methodist emphasis on the Christian’s stewardship of and responsibility for time. Yet, as people like Ben Franklin illustrate, this culture encompassed more than radical Protestantism.

Thompson notes that this endemic aspect of modern, industrialized societies naturally generates a sense of superiority when compared to “undeveloped” nations. But he wonders if “developed” societies have lost as well as gained some things in the transition. He asks if sometime in the future the pendulum might swing back in the other direction. Finally, he ends on the wistful note that certain things, like poetry, simply cannot be manufactured.

Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present 50 (February 1971): 76-136.

The title of this article might have been, “From the Moral Economy of the English Crowd to the Amoral Economy of the English Capitalists.” Thompson laments that an old, traditional economic system in England, one that worked relatively well, was crushed by a new system powered by capital and industry. He identifies the end of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the nineteenth as the historic moment of transition.

His secondary claim, with which he begins, is that the historiography of the earlier period routinely speaks of “riots” in response to food shortages. This view treats “the mob” as though they were a bunch of reptiles who mindlessly lashed out whenever they became extremely hungry. But as Thompson relates, the pre-industrial crowd’s age-old routine of forcibly “setting the price” of grain was hardly ever like a riot. The aforementioned changeover of the system is closely related to why it is that modern historians have so misinterpreted “the mob” and their “riots.” That is to say, modern historians have assumed and asserted that such developments have relieved western societies of "the mob."

These two articles clearly exhibit a Marxist theoretical perspective. It is also clear that Thompson himself sympathizes with the often-overlooked characters featured in his history “from below.” As one might expect, he typically ignores any good that has resulted from the developments he dislikes. He is a romantic, passionate Marxist, one who can be quite persuasive as well as entertaining.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Production or Consumption: Which Comes First?

Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jan de Vries says that this book “is a study in economic history,” one that addresses “consumer aspirations rather than productive activities,” and that focuses “on the household unit rather than the individual” (ix). He asserts that in the history of consumer behavior, demand does not simply follow supply. Instead, demand interacts with supply. A second part of his argument is that consumer demand is represented not by the tastes of individuals, but rather by the desires of family units. Consumer demand that stems from households, and a willingness to work more in order to meet that demand, is what de Vries means by the term industrious revolution (ix-x).

Most of the book deals with “northwestern Europe: England, the Low Countries, and parts of France and Germany” and also British North America during the so-called long eighteenth century, 1650-1850 (x). In short, de Vries says that the industrious revolution both preceded and helped to generate the industrial revolution. Along the way, he provides some answers to a few basic questions about the history of consumption. For example, is consumption guided more by consumer agency, or by structural and institutional forces like manufacturers, merchants, and cultural traditions? The author notes that most theorists have operated on the premise that supply precedes demand. He argues, by contrast, that the relationship between supply and demand is much more interactive. His thesis illustrates the idea of reciprocity:
[M]y historical claim is that northwestern Europe and British North America experienced an “industrious revolution” during the long eighteenth century, roughly 1650-1850, in which a growing number of households acted to reallocate their productive resources (which are chiefly the time of their members) in ways that increased both the supply of market-oriented, money-earning activities and the demand for goods offered in the marketplace (10).
Naturally, a simultaneous increase in both demand and supply, one that moves a society from poverty to relative prosperity, assumes a coordinated and increasingly-efficient system of labor and consumption. According to de Vries, that is exactly what happened in “significant parts of western Europe (and colonial North America)” over “the course of the long eighteenth century" (72).

I thoroughly enjoyed learning what I did from this book. Among other things, The Industrious Revolution corroborated and added to some things I have gained from a couple of my other recent books. In Chapter 3, a subsection titled “The Working Year” compares medieval and early modern Europe to what at least some parts of Europe became with the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Effectively, almost all of the many holy days were deleted from the annual cycle. As de Vries points out, the Reformation permitted people to work, at least, about 20% more each year (87-92). This part resonates with Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton, 2013), in which the author describes the effect that the Reformation had on the cult of the saints. The significant increase in available working days that came with the Reformation makes me wonder: which came first, assent to Protestant teachings, or a desire for more work for the sake of more consumption?

Also in Chapter 3, under “Agricultural Specialization,” de Vries notes that American historians have sometimes imagined that there were, at one time, many Jeffersonian, landed, and self-sufficient gentlemen. Afterward, beginning sometime around 1830, a Jacksonian market revolution changed everything in America. But the fact is, says de Vries, in the Jeffersonian period Americans were feverishly trading the natural resources of North America for consumer goods from abroad, especially England. In other words, long before the Jacksonian Era, Americans were neck-deep in the trans-Atlantic market (95-96). This observation completely matches the evidence presented by Kariann Yokota in her book, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (Yale, 2011).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Seeing Through Fifteenth-Century Eyes

Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Baxandall begins his contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history" (Preface). In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, in addition to documents, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal" (153). In order to show how this works in connection with fifteenth-century painting in Italy, he presents his case in three parts.

In Part I, "Conditions of Trade," Baxandall identifies a fundamental point of departure: "Money is very important in the history of art" (1). Artists have to put food on the table. Consequently, art is among other things a business. In fifteenth-century Italy, a painting was the result of a contractual relationship between an artist and his wealthy client. Baxandall quotes extensively from intriguing letters that reveal this relationship. He notes that as the fifteenth century progressed a change unfolded. Early in the century, clients were most interested in the quality of the painter's materials. They especially valued shiny gold and silver, and a blue color known as ultramarine, which came in several grades of varying cost. Later in the century, the emphasis shifted from the quality of materials to the quality of the painting itself. In other words, clients no longer cared so much about the value of the materials. Instead, they cared about the skill of the artist. The author concludes Part I by raising the question of how people determined the relative skill of a painter and quality of a painting. Upon what basis did people make such distinctions?

Masaccio (1401-1428), St. Peter Distributing Alms
In Part II, "The Period Eye," Baxandall identifies how painters and public "attended to visual experience" in ways that were distinct to fifteenth-century Italy, and "how the quality of this attention became a part of their pictorial style" (27). He notes that, above all, painters cared about the opinions of the people who cared the most about art and who took the greatest pleasure in it, "the patronizing classes" (38). So, then, how were the assumptions and cognitive skills of these viewers related to what painters actually did? In other words, how did expectations about what viewers knew, and might want, make a difference in how painters did their work? (40). In reply, Baxandall points out that we moderns simply cannot have the same kinds of experiences with fifteenth-century paintings that people at that time surely had. Why? Because the artists knew and shared what people of their own time would bring to a painting--their experiences, knowledge, skill sets--and painters did their work in conscious relationship to them (48). For example, because people in fifteenth-century Italy grew up in a Christianized society and had heard the sermons of popular preachers, painters could be certain that everyone would recognize a biblical story. Painters could also include distinct hand gestures that people of the time would instantly recognize.

Other commonplaces of the culture were also factors. The author describes, for example, the relationship between fifteenth-century painters and dramatic productions of the day. Some characters or narrators in contemporary drama never left the stage. They merely sat until it was time for them to speak again. Not surprisingly, such characters appear in contemporary paintings as well. Too, some painters depicted subjects performing certain dances that were well-known at the time. To provide yet another example, Baxandall explains that Italian school boys learned a very practical mathematics they would use throughout life. At the time, no staple items came packaged in a standardized quantity. Consequently, it was important to be able to figure the surface or the volume of something being considered for purchase or trade. Unique barrels and jars meant that one needed to be able to take a measurement or two and, using geometry and mathematics, quantify the volume or surface of an object. This became second nature to most men. Baxandall suggests that painters appealed to their viewers by displaying hats, bodies, columns, etc. in ways that would provoke this sort of calculating on the part of viewers and, thus, draw them in.

Finally, in Part III, "Pictures and Categories," Baxandall addresses the question of just how well his idealized fifteenth-century Italian man represents historical reality. He implies that, in fact, many people of the time possessed the essential "equipment for looking at Quattrocento paintings" (111). In 1480, Cristoforo Landino provided a summary of this "equipment" when he set out to write an overview of the paintings of his time. A paragraph from Landino's text includes sixteen terms he used to describe four Florentine painters. These sixteen terms provide the outline for Baxandall's discussion. Throughout, he identifies the links between these terms and their contemporary cultural values.

As he concludes, Baxandall circles back to the beginning of his book. He started "by emphasizing that the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances." Now, he ends the book "by reversing the equation--to suggest that the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society" (151). So much of history depends upon texts, words. But as every historian can attest, these do not often reveal the past as well as we would like. Baxandall concludes that because "visual sense is the main organ of experience," pictures certainly can and should be considered "documents as valid as any charter or parish roll." In this particular case, "they offer an insight into what it was like, intellectually and sensibly, to be a Quattrocento person" (152).

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Vietnam War: Three Important Titles

Interested in the Vietnam War? Here's a short list of books you might try. Considering that they are only three books, these represent a fairly wide array of style and interpretation. When it comes to viewpoint, the outlier is Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken. Moyar is a leading voice among so-called revisionist historians of the U.S. in Vietnam. Milam was the only one of the three authors to actually fight in Vietnam. Sheehan's book has the distinction of winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Milam, Ron. Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Milam was a U.S. Army Infantry junior officer who served in Vietnam. Attempting to remain objective, he brings to his work an interest in defending the reputations of almost all of his fellow platoon leaders. Because Vietnam was a catastrophe for the U.S., finger pointing was inevitable. Much of the criticism was written by “angry colonels” who faulted junior officers. This trend was made all the more easy because of the reputation of the infamous William Laws Calley, Jr. Milam turns the tables, citing a number of poor decisions that were handed down to lieutenants in the field. These mistakes, combined with the ingenious, dirty tactics of the enemy, and other factors made Vietnam something other than “a gentleman’s war.”

Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

This is the first book in a proposed two-volume interpretive survey of the Vietnam War. The dividing line between this and a proposed second book comes at July 28, 1965, when President Johnson announced there would be a huge military build up in Vietnam. The author explains that his approach is an example of what has come to be known as the revisionist position, which stands opposed to the majority orthodox position. Like other revisionists, Moyar attempts to show that the war was not "wrongheaded and unjust." Instead, it was "a noble but improperly executed enterprise" (xi). His over-the-top, demonizing characterizations of certain leaders in his story come across as tendentious. The great value of this book is that it forcefully advances a contested interpretation of the Vietnam War.

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1989.

As the subtitle suggests, this is something like two books in one. But far from presenting a biography of Army Lieutenant Colonel Vann spliced together with a history of the Vietnam War, Sheehan's work is something far more subtle and creative: a complex narrative that features a huge cast of characters and that assumes the microcosm of Vann's hopeful but tragic life is a revealing lens through which to see the macrocosm of America in Vietnam. An incredible achievement written by a journalist who was there, A Bright Shining Lie won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

From the Last Days of David to the Beginning of Exile: A Simple Introduction to the Book(s) of Kings

1 and 2 Kings in modern editions of the Bible originally formed a single book in the Hebrew Bible. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Kings was divided into two books. This pattern was followed in Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation, and made its way into Christian editions of the Bible. In this study, I'm treating 1 and 2 Kings as a single book because that was its original form, the way it was packaged at first. Maybe the best way to introduce this book is by answering some basic questions:

What is the Book of Kings about?  What's in it?

Kings is an account of (what else?) kingship in ancient Israel. It includes the history of the monarchy from its high point in a mostly unified kingdom to its low point in the Babylonian Exile. One simple way of outlining the book presents it in three parts:

A.  The reign of Solomon (1 Ki. 1-11): his accession (chapters l-2), his successes (3-10), his failures (11).

B.  The divided kingdom (1 Ki. 12 through 2 Ki. 17): Judah under Rehoboam, and the majority of the northern tribes under Jeroboam who retain the title "Israel," separate from each other.  Israel comes under considerable pagan influence from the beginning and experiences many bloody coups before finally being exiled. Judah is less paganized, though only preserved because of God's faithfulness to his promise to David.  The prophets Elijah and Elisha are heavily involved, especially in the story of Israel, the northern kingdom.

C.  The kingdom of Judah (2 Ki. 18-25): despite the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, the paganizing policy of Manasseh finally bears fruit in the fall of Judah too.  But the conclusion of the book sounds a possible note of hope (25:27-30).

Where did the Book of Kings come from? Who wrote it and when?

This is one of those questions on which we have much less information than we would like to have. The last event to which Kings refers is the exiled king Jehoiachin’s release from prison in Babylon in 561 B.C. (2 Ki. 25:27). Clearly, the book in its final form comes from after this time. We do not know the name of the author(s) of Kings.

What sort of book is this? How does it "work"?

Kings proceeds as a reign-by-reign treatment of the history. During the period of the divided kingdom, the accounts of northern and southern kings are allowed to interweave. Each king is described and evaluated according to a consistent pattern, which can be seen by looking at the short accounts of the reign of Jehoshaphat (1 Ki. 22:41-50) or Amon (2 Ki. 21:19-26). But sometimes, this "description and evaluation" is the framework which is filled in by, and surrounded by, other material.  Sometimes the opening and closing statements are separated by several chapters. For example, the accounts of Solomon, Rehoboam, Ahab, Jehoram, Jehu and Joash, include a lot of material focused on various aspects of Israelite politics. Other sections focus on prophets, especially Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah.

Why was Kings written? What's the message?

First, the purpose of Kings is to review the history which led up to the Exile, and to explain why the Exile happened. The Book also serves as a kind of extended national confession. The confession is that God had every reason to judge Israel and to send his chosen nation into exile.

Second, Kings also delivers a message of hope. For example, the end of the book seems to say, "Maybe God’s commitment to David still holds." It may be that the release of Jehoiachin--related in the final paragraph of Kings-- is there to keep Israel's hope alive. Although the Temple has been pillaged and burnt, prayer is still possible in the Temple (or towards it on the part of people who are cut off from it), and God has decided to hear such prayer. Although judgment has come in keeping with the warnings of the covenant, the same covenant allows for the possibility of repentance and restoration after judgment (see 1 Ki. 8:46-53 and compare Deuteronomy 30). Although the prophetic words which Israel ignored are another reason for her punishment, the fact that those prophetic words of judgment have come true may encourage hope: the prophetic promises of restoration will also come true.

Third, the Book of Kings pictures God’s involvement in political life, and warns against under-valuing the significance of political structures, and against over-emphasizing them. Kings reveals how God brings judgment on any kingdom. The book also displays the interplay of the free determination of human beings (who in various political situations makes their decisions and put their policies into effect) and the free decision of a sovereign God (who nevertheless effects his will through, or in spite of, human actions). To get a handle on this paradox, we might ask: Are individuals the masters of their own destinies? Or does God finally determine every outcome? The answer seems to be "Both." In fact, in Kings, any attempt to make it absolutely one or the other runs into problems. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the confidence that God works out a purpose in history in spite of what people, even his people, might do.

Fourth, a basic teaching of the Torah, especially the Book of Deuteronomy, is that God blesses those who are faithful to him but brings trouble to those who disobey him (see, for example, Deuteronomy 28-30). This is a major theme in Kings. Thus the material concerning Solomon’s reign is arranged so that Solomon’s setbacks are understood as consequences of his association with foreign women (1 Ki. 11). On the other hand, Kings recognizes that God's justice does not work out this way in every case. The wicked Manasseh enjoys a long reign, and his apostasy only brings its fruit decades later (2 Ki. 21; 24:3-4). Josiah is responsive to God’s word, but dies a premature and tragic death (2 Ki. 23:29).

As I see the Book of Kings, these seem to be the basic messages.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Classic Cultural History of Antebellum America

Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

So which is it? A cultural history (which the author distinguishes from a social history), Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women might be considered as a study of the tension between those two pieces of proverbial wisdom in antebellum America.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the forces that gave rise to a social problem. What generated the specter of the "confidence man" and the "painted woman," people who preyed upon young men of the period? Halttunen points to the tremendous urbanization of the time. What has been dubbed by historian Charles Sellers "the Market Revolution" had a downside: the growing antebellum city led to anonymity and increasing social disorientation.

In Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the book, Halttunen describes "the cultural effort to resolve the problem of hypocrisy with the sentimental ideal of sincerity" (xvi). Writers of conduct manuals waged a cultural battle on the fronts of genteel codes for women's dress (chapter 3), social etiquette (chapter 4), and mourning rituals (chapter 5).

But eventually, the custodians of American culture came to realize that their plans could be, and were being, subverted. Halttunen reiterates her conclusion: "Those archetypal parlor hypocrites, the confidence man and the painted woman, were masters of the false art of etiquette: their artificial manners were assumed merely to dazzle and deceive an ingenuous audience. Sentimental critics of middle-class culture feared that etiquette, like fashion, was poisoning American society with hypocrisy" (92). In other words, the signs of gentility, signs meant to identify respectable middle-class status, could be faked by any proficient confidence man or painted woman.

Chapter 6, along with the book's conclusion and epilogue, explores the decline and derision after mid-century of the standards upheld by the early, popular conduct manuals. This part of the book also examines the image of the confidence man as it extended into the twentieth century. This is a deeply-researched and well-written book. A third of a century after it was first published, it holds up quite well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Five Purposes of the Book of Acts

An acquaintance on Facebook recently posted this: I'm preparing to introduce our new class on the book of Acts. So I ask, "What is the book about?" Or put another way, "Why was it written? What does the author intend for his readers to get out of this work?" This is a great question. It challenged me to come up with the following. The Book of Acts was written . . .

1. To present a selective history of the earliest Christian movement, which purports to be an extension of the life of Jesus himself (1:1). According to this perspective, the Gospel of Luke, volume one of Luke's two-part work, reports what Jesus had merely begun to do and to teach.

2. To identify this movement, the Way (9:2), as the long-awaited restoration of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (for example, 3:24-25).

3. To show that Christ Jesus the Lord remains present with his people by means of the Holy Spirit (1:1-8; 5:32; 16:6-10).

4. To showcase Christian teaching and preaching. The Book of Acts contains a high percentage of public discussions and sermons. One scholar determined that compared to other historical works written in classical antiquity, Acts contains a concentration of speech material five times greater than the average. Luke seems to be saying, "If you're responding to questions about the faith, and preaching the gospel, here's how it's done."

5.  To present a standard view of how to become a Christian, and what it means to be a Christian. A believing response to the preached message includes repentance and baptism into Christ, which bring the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit (2:38). For repentance as the demand, see 17:30. For baptism as the expected response, see passages like 8:12 and 18:8.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 4 of 4)

This post is my fourth and final installment in a series designed to size up what modern historians have said about the English Reformation. It's been a long while since I last posted about any of this. So here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In 1992, Eamon Duffy published The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580, a bombshell of a book that quickly established itself as one of the most substantial and significant works produced by any of the revisionists. [1] The first of two main parts of The Stripping of the Altars describes in great detail the relative glories of England’s traditional religion during the century leading up to the reign of King Henry VIII. Duffy attempts to demonstrate “that late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and the loyalty of the people up to the very moment of the Reformation.” [2] In the second part of his book, Duffy details what he portrays as the disruptive reforms that took place during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. He argues that the short reign of Mary with its restoration of tradition was a success welcomed by the large majority of the laity. Duffy cites a wide array of primary sources, including wills, church-wardens’ accounts, primers, and parish records. In addition, he includes several impressive images of paintings, monuments, sepulchers, stained-glass church windows, and carvings, all of which he uses to underscore his principle contention: “into the 1530s the vigour, richness, and creativity of late medieval religion was undiminished, and continued to hold the imagination and elicit the loyalty of the majority of the population.” [3]

Since he first published his seminal work, Duffy has taken on the task of reinforcing his basic thesis. In a 2001 book, Voices of Morebath: Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village, Duffy provides a case study that illustrates the general claims of his magnum opus. The book is about “a sixteenth-century country priest,” Sir Christopher Trychay, who served the people of Morebath, a village of Devon twenty-five miles north of Exeter. Two things about Trychay stand out. First, he was vicar of Morebath for over a half century, “from 1520 until his death in 1574.” Second, he “wrote everything down.” Consequently, Trychay’s accounts “offer a unique window into a rural world in crisis, as the progress of the Reformation inexorably dismantled the structures of Morebath’s corporate life, and pillaged its assets.” Duffy acknowledges that if someone wrote a similar book with Essex or Suffolk as its setting, that book “would look very different.” He seems content simply to offer an engaging example of how it was that in some parts of England compliance and conformity were not the rule. In Morebath, Sir Christopher publicly opposed the Reformation and thanked God for the reign and reforms of Queen Mary. Members of his congregation died in the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549. Duffy disavows that his book supports any thesis. But in view of his previous work, that sort of disclaimer sounds odd. [4]

If Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars has been the revisionists’ most significant book, Christopher Haigh has been their strongest, most engaging, and perhaps most judicious champion. In his 1993 book, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors, Haigh set out to demonstrate that England's pre-Reformation religious tradition was both popular and strong. At the same time, he committed himself to acknowledging and accounting for the genuine diversity of religious life in pre-Reformation England. “We need a version of religious conflict and transformation which includes both sides of the fence—and those who sat on the fence, those who could not find, it, and those who did not see why there was such a fuss about the fence.” [5] Much like Scarisbrick and Duffy, Haigh argues that “it was the break with Rome which was to cause the decline of Catholicism, not the decline of Catholicism which led to the break with Rome.” [6] As a result of its enforced Reformation, England was populated by “parish Anglicans” who were “de-catholicized but un-protestantized." [7]

Sometime after the basic thesis associated with the names A. G. Dickens and G. R. Elton was seriously challenged, if not demolished, by the likes of Haigh, Scarisbrick, and Duffy, a few scholars began to wonder what might be next. The revisionist program had succeeded in what seems to have been a mission of correction. So then what was the next step? If the thesis of the Whig-Protestants had been effectively contradicted by the antithesis put forward by the revisionists, what might be a satisfying synthesis? Of course, that question assumes that a synthesis might be needed. Since sometime near the beginning of the twenty-first century, many scholars have agreed that one is needed. Why? It is because of something that Patrick Collinson in 2003 referred to “the riddle of compliance.” By way of explanation he wrote, “We may be forced to construct the following syllogism: a religious change so drastic and so unwelcome cannot have happened: but it did happen; ergo, it cannot have been all that drastic and unwelcome.” At that point, Collinson referred to the then-emerging, post-revisionist historiography of the English Reformation: "Among those who believe that there was a great change, there is a consensus that it must be understood in terms of interplay of what have been called 'from above' and 'from below' factors and forces. Neither top-down nor bottom-up explanations will work on their own. [8]

Ethan H. Shagan’s 2003 book, Popular Politics and the English Reformation provides a good example of the post-revisionism of which Collinson spoke. Shagan actually begins with the riddle of compliance, the contradiction that begs to be solved. English society in the early modern period was conservative. Consequently, that society would likely resist a radical changeover from Roman Catholicism to beliefs and religious practices that were in line with principles of reform. So then, how did the English Reformation take root as quickly as it apparently did? Or as Shagan puts it, “Why would a revolution have been accepted or embraced by a population so heavily invested in the very belief system that the revolutionaries sought to disturb?” [9] He responds by suggesting that “an analysis of popular politics allows us to understand the English Reformation—and, mutatis mutandis, the European Reformation more generally—in fundamentally new and more satisfying ways.” Though revisionists were right to identify strong popular resistance to the English Reformation, their version of the story left unexplained “the remarkable penetration of England’s ‘Reformation from above.’ ” In other words, revisionist accounts of the English Reformation never explained how that episode could leave behind what Christopher Haigh so memorably described as “a Protestant nation, but not a nation of Protestants.” [10]

Shagan points out that, unlike Saul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo, no society, especially not English society in the early modern period, experiences religious conversion in a single moment. Societies do not have religious conversions like individuals do. Yet, that was something like the story told by Whig-Protestant historians. Then came revisionism, officially beginning in the 1970s. By any measure, a simple comparison would have to conclude that revisionism won, and rightly so. Yet, says Shagan, “for all its benefits, the revisionist model remains no less imprisoned than its predecessor in a paradigm defined by the phantasmagoric goal of ‘national conversion’.” Was the English Reformation essentially about the religious conversions of individuals? Shagan insists that “the whole meta-narrative of conversion which historians have used to conceptualise the Reformation has impeded our ability to ask a different set of questions, to see the Reformation not in globalizing terms but as a more piecemeal process in which politics and spiritual change were irrevocably intertwined.” Thus, his analysis “concentrates on the majority who neither wholly accepted nor wholly opposed the Reformation.” It argues that “the amphibiousness and ambidexterity of new religious ideas is exactly what allowed them to penetrate English culture, seeping into the myriad crevices in the dominant belief system where ideas and practices were not fully aligned.” [11] But what exactly constituted resistance to and collaboration with the English Reformation? For one thing, Shagan says, there were instances where individuals, out of personal animosity, turned in a neighbor who was suspected of practicing an illegal religion. Interestingly, he compares England during the Reformation to Nazi-occupied countries in Europe and to those socialist republics that were dominated by the Soviet Union. He points out that even in a monarchy, government requires a measure of consent from the governed. [12] In sum, Popular Politics and the English Reformation is “an analysis of how ordinary English subjects received, interpreted, debated and influenced the process of religious change in the first quarter century of the English Reformation.” [13]

Responding to the questions created by the new era and sizing up the field of inquiry was the apparent goal of a 2009 article by scholar Peter Marshall titled, “(Re)defining the English Reformation.” Marshall noted that due to the arguments forcefully advanced by the revisionists, “most scholars now accept that the Reformation in England was a thorny and protracted process and by no means straightforwardly unidirectional.” Notwithstanding the success of the revisionist project, however, “the study of the Reformation has now discernibly passed into a post-revisionist phase.” [14] Indeed, Marshall even cites the revisionists themselves as they have recently claimed to be post-revisionists. In a review published in 2000, Haigh made the suggestion that “we are (almost) all post-revisionists now.” And, in a survey article published in 2006, “The English Reformation after Revisionism,” Duffy said much the same for himself. [15] Marshall observes that now that such ambiguity has been so firmly established, students should not have been surprised when a collection of presentations, edited by Nicholas Tyacke and published in 1998, should appear under a title like England's Long Reformation, 1500-1800. [16] Having dispensed with the notion that the English Reformation occurred in a matter of decades, scholars now seem unable to name the century when it came to a close. Yet, the year 1640 appears to be the “workaday consensus” that has emerged. Either way, Marshall still wants to know, “What, then, is the sensible way forward?” [17]

However one might answer that question, there does seem to be some continuity among the post-revisionists. A title published in 2014, Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590, by Karl Gunther, provides an example of this. As noted above, the author’s mentor, Ethan Shagan, chose to focus on the first twenty-five years of the English Reformation. And, again, the volume edited by Tyacke lengthens the episode at both ends, using the dates 1500-1800. In a way that appears to match that trend, Gunther makes an argument about the beginnings of radical Protestantism in England. He observes that in the context of our subject, traditionally the word radicalism has been reserved to speak first of Puritanism. Thus, radicalism emerged roughly a half century after England was first introduced to Reformation ideas. As the author notes, radical religious impulses have been “typically treated as later developments in the course of the English Reformation.” [18] Citing a few manuscripts and a large number of printed works from the period, Gunther sets out to show that from earliest times in the English Reformation, at least some proponents advocated the restructuring of church polity and leadership, for example, according to the teaching of the Scriptures. As Gunther puts it, those calls did not wait for “the coming of the Presbyterians in the 1570s.” In fact, “they had been issued by evangelicals in the late 1520 and 1530s.” [19] Thus, according to Gunther, when various Puritan teachings emerged in the 1570s, we may be more accurate to describe that action as a re-emergence. In short, as a result of what post-revisionists have taught us so far, the English Reformation seems longer and more complex than was once imagined.

My survey of some important titles in the recent historiography of the English Reformation leaves me with at least two very general observations. First, if we simply trace the history of various schools of interpretation, we might come away with a mental picture of thick, high walls standing between the different positions. However, when reading the acknowledgements and noting the personal connections among many of the authors cited above, I did not imagine high walls, but something more like a portrait of a large extended family. In other words, while historiographical surveys tend to highlight differences and discontinuity, actually reading the books and articles reveals connections and fitting admiration. Those connections relate not only to academic tutelage and personal experiences, they also relate to the level of ideas. For example, when reading historiographical outlines of the topic, one might never guess that A. G. Dickens paid attention to social as well as to institutional contours of the English Reformation. Moreover, one can easily detect in Dickens an appreciation for the real complexity of the story he attempts to relate. In that sense, his work and the work of others in his generation does not appear to be so much the foil, but more like the foundation of later interpretations.

Second, in regard to Roger B. Manning’s categories of official, theological, and popular aspects of the English Reformation, scholars almost always focus on some aspect found within just one of those three areas, especially when writing articles and monographs. That is to be expected. Yet, I cannot help noticing that the religious and theological history of the English Reformation seems to have been relegated mostly to scholars who teach in divinity schools and seminaries. Why does so much of the historiography on this topic refer so little to the Bible and contemporary theological debate? Is it mere coincidence that Karl Gunther has identified very early radicalism in the English Reformation while paying attention to people like William Tyndale, to issues like adiaphora, and to books like an old commentary on Haggai? If not, then it might be time to move the divinity school down the hill and place it in the same building that houses the history department.

[1] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 479.

[4] Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in An English Village (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), xiii-xv.

[5] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 335.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 290.

[8] Collinson, The Reformation: A History, 129.

[9] Ethan H. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

[10] Ibid., 2. Shagan cites Haigh, English Reformations, 279-281.

[11] Shagan, Popular Politics, 3-7.

[12] Ibid., 12-20.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Peter Marshall, “(Re)defining the English Reformation,” Journal of British Studies 48 (July 2009), 565.

[15] Ibid., 565, n. 7.

[16] Ibid. See Nicholas Tyacke, ed. England’s Long Reformation, 1500-1800 (London: Taylor and Francis, 1998).

[17] Marshall, “(Re)defining the English Reformation,” 568.

[18] Karl Gunther, Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 6.

[19] Ibid., 254.