Voice, Irony, and Writing Seriously about Religion

Charles McCrary

A few weeks ago, at a dissertation defense, the discussion turned to the topic of voice. In his dissertation, as in many of his blog posts here at RiAH, Adam Park[1] wrote in a tongue-in-cheek, ironic, at times even sarcastic voice. But what does this voice imply or presume? This question exposed a central yet often under-discussed aspect of scholarly writing: Who is writing this? In Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction, Stephen Pyne defines voice as the “transtextual persona of the author” (48). What, or who, is this persona? What is your persona, scholarly writer? In this post I want to think through this question of voice, specifically ironic voice, and how it relies on readers’ and writers’ assumptions—and what this discussion might have to do with the injunction to “take religion seriously.”

Scholarly personas commonly take on ironic voices. Pyne notes, “Irony requires distancing. Literary irony results from an incongruity, a distance, between what a speaker says and what he means, a gap perceived by the reader. Historical irony involves an incongruity, or distance, between what is said (or thought, believed, or expected) and what actually happens” (48). Historians and other scholars often use this latter form of irony when discussing past events, since the writer (and, in many cases, the reader) knows how the story is going to turn out. This sort of irony is a great source of both tragedy and humor. We can write about what someone did to prevent the Civil War, or why Microsoft made the Zune, or how news media in 2015 covered reality-television-star Donald Trump’s spectacular presidential campaign.

Fundamentalism, Feminism, and Other Curse Words: Teaching Controversy with Civility

Andrea L. Turpin

Every semester I tell my history students the same bad joke: fundamentalism and feminism are actually a lot alike—they are both f-words that we hurl at our political enemies depending on which side of the spectrum we’re on. Which is to say that for the average American these words function not according to some dictionary definition but rather as a catch-all insult for someone too far to the right or the left, respectively.

In fact, my informal polls of students, friends, and random people who will answer my questions indicate that there is no widely agreed upon definition of either word in common parlance. I am one of those relatively rare Americans who runs in both blue and red circles, so while my polls aren’t scientific, they do actually capture a bit of the breadth of perspectives on these concepts. So I’ve learned that when teaching my feminist-leaning students about fundamentalism or my fundamentalist-leaning students about feminism, I first have to cut through a great deal of highly charged emotion. A few different approaches have proved fruitful.

First is simply helping students become aware of the functional definitions of these words that they are carrying around in their heads. For example, I will ask my classes for their associations with the word “feminism.” I get a lot of answers similar to the ones Kristin Kobes Du Mez enumerated in a recent blog post on common misconceptions about feminism. Most associations are negative, with “man-hating” leading the pack.

I then share with students some of the reforms that have been advocated by women and men who have identified as feminists and that I suspect students would all support—things like women’s suffrage and equal pay for equal work. (Most are shocked to learn that employers have only been required to pay men and women the same for the same work since 1963!) We talk about the fact that feminism itself is a wide spectrum encompassing many different viewpoints and attitudes. As Du Mez points out, there is as much variation among those who own the word “feminist” as among those who own the word “Christian.”

5 Questions on Catholics and Suburanization with Stephen Koeth

Shane Ulbrich

Stephen Koeth, C.S.C.
[This month's Cushwa post features an interview by Shane Ulbrich with Research Travel Grant recipient Stephen Koeth, C.S.C., about his work on the postwar suburbanization of American Catholics. Stephen, a Holy Cross priest, is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University. His writing has appeared in The Journal of Church and State and U.S. Catholic Historian.]

SU: Tell us about how your project developed. 

 SK: My dissertation explores the postwar suburbanization of American Catholicism by examining the creation and expansion of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in suburban Long Island, which throughout the 1960s was one of the fastest growing Catholic communities in the country. It describes how Catholic pastoral leaders grappled with the rapid exodus of the faithful from urban ethnic neighborhoods to newly built suburbs, and how Catholic sociologists and intellectuals assessed the effects of suburbanization in reshaping definitions of family, parish, and community. I also hope to trace how changing experiences of family and community, the economics of suburban life, and efforts to build and maintain suburban Catholic schools altered lay Catholics’ view of the state and their voting habits, thus transforming Catholicism’s role in American politics from the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution. This topic first began to take shape when I read Tom Sugrue’s contribution to Catholics in the American Century, one of the most recent volumes in the Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth-Century America series. Sugrue pointed out that “the history of Catholic suburbanization … and its implications for Catholic politics remain mostly unexamined.” And yet, Sugrue argued, suburban Catholics contributed to a “growing grassroots rebellion against taxation,” to “the erosion of support for the state,” and to “the challenge to liberalism” that reconfigured American politics through the 1960s and 70s. [1] I read Sugrue’s observation as a challenge and opportunity to bring together my long-standing interest in how Catholics have shaped their American identity with coursework in urban history I undertook as a doctoral student at Columbia University with the great historian of suburbanization, Kenneth Jackson.

The Recurrent Reinhold Niebuhr

Elesha Coffman

Apologies for the repost, but I thought that a pair of articles at Christianity Today might be of interest to readers of this blog as well. In the main piece, Steven Weitzman describes "The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict." In a companion sidebar, I offer five reasons why Reinhold Niebuhr continues to make headlines nearly 50 years after his death. Both articles feature links to other resources that take their ideas to a greater depth. Read up, and be the hit of your weekend barbecue!

Of "Of Gods And Games"

Paul Putz

There is only one rule when reviewing sport history books in a forum that is not focused primarily on sports: you must use a sports metaphor or allusion at some point. Allow me to check that box right off the bat (and no, that last phrase doesn't count): William J. Baker's Of Gods And Games: Religious Faith and Modern Sports (University of Georgia Press, 2017) is kind of like an end-of-the-season sports highlight show. Clocking in at about seventy-five pages, it provides a primer on a few of the key themes that scholars of sports and religion have explored, while at the same time offering a couple intriguing hints at what might be on the horizon next season.

There. The painful part is done. No more forced sports comparisons, I promise.

For historians doing the sport and religion thing, Baker is impossible to ignore. His 2007 book Playing With God: Religion and Modern Sport (Harvard University Press) stands as the single best volume on the history of sport and religion in the United States. It stands out in part because of Baker's historical methodology and narrative presentation, a marked contrast from much of the published scholarship on religion and sports that focuses on questions like "Is sport a religion?" or (when written by Christian insiders, as it often is) "Does sport corrupt 'true' or 'good' Christian theology?"

Teaching _The First Thanksgiving_

Jonathan Den Hartog

The semester is winding down--there's just a stack of blue books in front of me, along with a few random essays and an independent study project. I almost begin to believe there is a summer break within reach.

At this time of the semester, then, further reflection on recent teaching experience seems appropriate.

Several years ago, I pointed to R. Tracy McKenzie's book The First Thanksgiving. At the time, I voiced appreciation for the book--it's excellent--but I wondered how I could work it into my teaching.

This semester, I gave it a try.

In the Spring Semester, I teach our History Methods class for majors and minors--usually freshmen and sophomores but an occasional upperclassman slips in, too.

After spending the class talking about the issues of historical thinking, sources, and historiography, I deployed The First Thanksgiving as a way of "wrapping up" the course. For me, the book tied together all those themes.

The value of the book for teaching comes from the fact that it is explicit in its methods. It not only provides a narrative about the First Thanksgiving, it is clear in describing for non-specialists how and why the ideas are put together. Separate chapters emphasize evidence, historical context, taking the Pilgrims on their own terms, the foreignness of the past vs. contemporary uses of the past, and changing interpretations. McKenzie has done a great job in demonstrating historical thinking applied to an easily-recognized event.

One additional topic that could prove worth discussing in many classes would be McKenzie's writing from a confessional perspective. McKenzie is up-front in his identity as an evangelical Protestant, and in fact he consciously shapes the entire book out of those presuppositions. Additionally, a burden from the book is to address McKenzie's own faith community and how it handles "saints" from the past.

To handle the book, I blocked out several class periods. I guided the discussion and found that the best way to organize student reflection was to un-weave three strands in the book. So, we built our discussion around what the book helps us learn about the Pilgrims themselves, the methods McKenzie uses and discusses, and the pieces of contemporary moral and religious reflection he offers.

Students reflected on all three, although I was a bit surprised at how invested they were in the narrative. This is perhaps a credit to McKenzie's writing style. Getting to method and moral concerns took more prodding. Still, the conversation was valuable.

Before I use the book again, I'll have to address two issues. First, I will have to reexamine class pacing. Student comments indicated they felt handling the book was rushed. I will have to see if I can clear more space in the syllabus to let student understanding percolate. Second, I'm still not sure if it makes sense to use the book as a "wrap up" or to deploy it throughout the course on each of the issues we touch on. My one worry is that students would get sick of the Pilgrims by Week 8 and miss the larger points McKenzie is trying to make and which he traces across chapters.

So, I hope to use the book again, but I will need to refine my approach. Fortunately, that's one more use for the summer.

I'll close with questions: what other books have readers found work well for teaching a Methods class or making methodology clear? And, if you've used McKenzie's book, what has been your experience?

The Reformation as a Psychological Event: Celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation with Erich Fromm


Peter Cajka

The new release tables at Hodges Figgis – a three-story bookstore in downtown Dublin – greet frequent shoppers like me with a spate of fresh books on Luther, Reformation historiography, Calvin, and the Counter Reformation. As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it may be useful to consider how the event gets interpreted by thinkers unconstrained by the rules of academic history. Modern thinkers, for or against, Protestant or Catholic, have never shied away from discerning the Reformation’s deeper meanings. A guest at a dinner party I attended a few months ago (we wondered briefly into a conversation on religion) called the Reformation “the first human rights movement in history.”

Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst with ties to the Frankfurt School, pursues a much bleaker interpretation of the Reformation in Escape from Freedom, a book he published in 1941. The Renaissance and the rise of the market economy broke down the medieval world, began his argument, liberating men and women from social ties. “The individual was left alone and isolated,” Fromm wrote, “he was free.” Freshly aware of their individuality, Fromm argued that Luther and Calvin offered millions of people (in the middle and lower classes) an escape from this freedom. Calvin and Luther, consciously and unconsciously, encouraged followers to relinquish the self to a completely sovereign God. “Protestantism was the answer to the human needs of the frightened, uprooted, and isolated individual who had to orient and to relate himself to a new world,” Fromm grimly concludes.

New Books in American Religious History: 2017 Year in Preview, Part Two (May-August)

Paul Putz

It's time for part two of the 2017 book preview list! This one will cover books published from May through August. (If you missed part one check it out here). Shout out to Hunter Hampton, who culled through the university press catalogs to help me put this list together.

The usual preface: I've listed the books in roughly chronological order based on the month of their tentative release date. Although I've tried to include as many relevant and interesting titles as I could find, I'm sure that I left out some deserving books. Sometimes this is because publishers don't have updated information on their websites, and sometimes it's because I just missed it. Please feel free to use the comments to add to this list and I can update the post as needed.

As for how I define what is "American" in American religion (to say nothing of what is "religion" in American religion), for the purposes of these lists I mostly follow Kathryn Gin Lum's response in this IUPUI RAAC forum. There, she articulated an understanding of "America" as the region that eventually became known as the United States. That definition does have problems, of course, which is why your contributions to this list -- contributions which envision "America" differently -- are more than welcome.

Now, on to the books! (after this collage to add some color to any social media links)

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