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.