January 11, 2005

Amish Society

John A. Hostetler | Fourth Edition 1993 | Amazon

I've always been interested in the Amish, and my developing interest in Quakerism led me to take a closer look at some of the other peace churches. There are as many differences as similarities, but the Amish are also fascinating for their sheer perseverance. Most other sects have accepted modern ways, but they've taken a much slower path, picking and choosing along the way.

The entire book was interesting, but the opening and conclusion were particularly interesting for looking at how the Amish maintain their community, and how that community is different from those surrounding it. Sectarian foundations, taking the Sermon on the Mount and the New Testament as a guide for living, combine with a small scale, an insistence on being a distinctive community, and with an enormous set of traditions to keep the Amish going. Despite not evangelizing and losing about 22% of any given generation, the Old Order groups have grown substantially in size over the past century.

While many people seem to find the Amish strange, either weird throwbacks to an earlier age or angelic exiles in a world that lost their values, Hostetler does an excellent job of looking at the Amish from a perspective that takes their community seriously. Hostetler also looks seriously at the mechanisms they use to maintain their community, notably excommunication and shunning. He periodically notes his own youth among the Amish:

The difference in these two views [of how shunning applies] can become very important in case of excommunication. Social avoidance is implied in the former but not in the latter. As a young man considering baptism in the Amish church, I remember the above two opposing views being expressed by two ministers. I did not want to take a vow I could not keep, nor take a vow that implied social avoidance in case I could not live by Amish standards. Consequently, on the day my chums began their instruction for baptism, I drove my horse and buggy to the nearby Mennonite church.

I expect I'll keep this book on my shelf for ready reference for years to come, and I'm also interested in another Hostetler book on the Anabaptists, Hutterite Society.

Posted by simonstl at 08:16 PM

January 04, 2005

Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform

William G. McLoughlin | First published 1978 | Amazon

I ordered this because I wanted to know more about the dynamics of earlier revival moments - the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. I definitely got that, as McLoughlin traced how these bursts of faith reflected changes in the underlying society. A bonus was McLoughlin's discussion of how the "peculiar institution" of slavery affected religious perspectives in the American South:

If demography and environment helped to make the difference between the awakening experience and church life North and South, it also goes far to explain the failure of southern revivalism to eventuate in political reform. What the southern churchgoer came to consider social reform (the only kind of reform appropriate to the Christian qua Christian) was the personal moral reform that brought order to the community by restraining violence, strengthening self-discipline, and encouraging familial and neighborly responsibilities for good behavior. Beyond personal behavior lay politics, and according to the southern definition of the separation of church and state, the church was not to concern itself with politics. Among the Methodists the doctrines of perfectionism were especially strong in inculcating this emphasis on personal morality as the measure of Christian virtue, but Baptist church discipline also emphasized the need to subdue the unruly nature of self-assertion. (133)...

The reason why southern revivalism failed to produce the same kind of political reform and institutional restructuring that occurred among "romantic perfectionists" in the North lies in the problem of slavery. Even a major prophet like Peter Cartwright dared not touch on the issue of slavery after 1830, and when he tried other ways to oppose that institution, he was finally forced to give up preaching in the South. He was not afraid to say that slavery was "a domestic, political, and moral evil," but southern folk were unwilling to hear it. This mixing of social reform and spiritual affairs cut too deeply into the traditional fabric of the southern way of life. It threatened rather than consolidated communities; it promised violence when the function of religion was to curtail violence. The kind of perfectionism the Methodists and other denominations sought was inward and personal holiness, and southern preachers could find nothing in the Bible that told them to declare the institution of slavery was a sin. In fact, taken literally, the Bible seemed much more clearly to accept slavery as a sad but necessary condition for some people....

Christianizing the social order in the South, as among the more intense holiness groups in the North, meant converting every individual to the basic moral pattern of rural middle-class virtue. The awakening challenged southern culture - or was allowed to - only in terms of private self-control. In a land with little real poverty, no urban slums or factory towns, minimal culture conflicts with Roman Catholic immigrants, with Indians removed to the West and the blacks considered childlike beneficiaries of civilization, the white southerner felt that his region was closer to millenial perfection than any other part of the country....

In the North, the Second Great Awakening challenged the older way of life at every turn, producing endless schisms and theological debates. In the South, after some initial denominational turmoil in the first decade of the century, this awakening confirmed the prevalent lifestyle, increased religious homogeneity, and made the Methodists and Baptists so dominant that other sects were an almost invisible minority. Southern white Christians were not averse to benevolent reform if that meant encouraging personal temperance and helping the orphan or widow, the deaf, the dumb, the blind, and the insane. But if it meant rearranging the social order, tampering with slavery, interfering with state sovereignty, defending the Indians' right to remain on good farm and cotton land, then benevolent reform was totally misguided. It was in fact un-Christian, since it created political tests for spiritual organizations. Whether a man held slaves or not was irrelevant to his right to join a church. (136-7)

McLoughlin's bias throughout the book seems pretty clearly toward such benevolent reform, misguided or not. As the book continues, it becomes clearer and clearer that he prefers reformers who want to apply Christ's teachings more broadly. At the end of the book, after an interesting look at how beatniks and hippies fit into American religious patterns, this leads him into a serious misprojection of where the "Fourth Great Awakening" he sees starting after World War II will lead the country, though:

By giving total attention to whether one's own or one's neighbor's heart is right with God, neo-Evangelicalism justifies turning one's back on worldly affairs so complex that only God can cope with them. It argues that we can change the world only when God has changed the hearts of everyone in it.

The internalization of values is a crucial process in any awakening... but too much of the old political and economic conservatism of the Fundamentalist ideology is implicit in neo-Evangelicalism. Too much narrow-minded authoritarianism and obscurantism is heard from its leading church spokesmen to enable it in its current foundations to offer "new light" for the future. Somewhere within it, among those unattached to any denominational institution and unwedded to ritualized behavior and escapism, may well lie the seeds of this awakening's new light. But this light has yet to become distinct and evocative. Soul-winning neo-evangelicalism is a divisive, not a unifying, force in a pluralistic world.

At some point in the future, early in the 1990s at best, a consensus will emerge that will thrust into political leadership a president with a platform committed to the kinds of fundamental restructuring that have followed our previous awakenings - in 1776, in 1830, and in 1932. Prior to this institutional restructuring must come an ideological reorientation. Such a reorientation will most likely include a new sense of the mystical unity of all mankind and of the vital power of harmony between man and nature. The godhead will be defined in less dualistic terms, and its power will be understood less in terms of an absolutist, sin-hating, death-dealing "Almighty Father in Heaven" and more in terms of a life-supporting, nurturing, empathetic, easygoing parental (Motherly as well as Fatherly) image. The nourishing spirit of morther earch, not the wrath of an angry father above, will dominate religious thought, (though different faiths and denominations will communicate this ideal in different ways). Sacrifice of self will replace self-aggrandizement as a definition of virtue; helping others will replace competitiveness as a virtue; institutions will be organized for the fulfillment of individual needs by means of cooperative communal efforts rather than through the isolated nuclear family.

While I share McLoughlin's biases to a substantial degree, and wish the present looked more like that vision than its present state, it seems pretty clear that things have turned out very differently from what he predicted in 1978. The "conservatism of the Fundamentalist ideology" is presently triumphant in politics, and seems to be reaching a larger and larger number of people. The focus on the politics of personal behavior seems to have annihilated hopes for a broader "benevolent reform" and left a lot of people on all sides cynical.

Posted by simonstl at 12:10 PM

January 01, 2005

Freethinkers

Susan Jacoby | First published 2004 | Amazon

I wanted to like this book more than I wound up able to like it. There's a lot of excellent material here, especially in the 19th century coverage, and Robert Ingersoll comes to life in a way I hadn't seen before. The connections between feminism, abolitionism, and various kinds of free thinking get excellent coverage, and Jacoby does a great job of exploring how difficult it has been at various periods to speak about religion in anything other than a worshipful way. Material I've seen more heavily covered elsewhere, notably the Founding Fathers and Thomas Paine, is done well.

The last chapter, "Reason Embattled," left me mostly annoyed. She does an excellent job of telling the story from the secularist position, but I kept wishing for more attention to the questions that drive the current tension. Why has the conflict between secular and religious viewpoints become so much sharper in the last thirty years? Are there plausible strategies for reducing the conflict? I didn't find much more than "we're right and they're wrong" at the closing. This was maybe a start:

To make an effective case to their fellow Americans, secular humanists must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religiously correct.

I think she's right about the need for passion and emotion, but "reclaiming" isn't going to be an easy process for liberals, much less secular humanists, especially as she notes later in the same paragraph:

Secularists frequently present themselves, and are perceived by others, as a cool lot, applying intellectual theories to social questions but ignoring the emotions that move religious believers.

There may be room for reason with emotion, and her thinkers throughout the book demonstrate it quite well, but I hear a lot of rhetoric these days from people who just plain don't value emotion (including faith) when it comes to making political decisions. People who consider themselves pure rationalists aren't much fun to deal with, I'm afraid.

Posted by simonstl at 09:56 PM

December 09, 2004

The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

Editor: Thomas Jefferson | Written 1820 | Amazon

Thomas Jefferson was amazing in lots of ways, but I still find it surprising that he ordered a group of bibles, cut them up, and rearranged and reduced the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) into what he figured was what Christ had really done. He didn't think the text as handed down was particularly accurate, and he removed miracles and other things he didn't find plausible.

What's left is still stunning. It occasionally repeats as different books tell stories mostly but not quite the same, but I don't think the story loses much of its power. Christ's message comes through clearly overall, though the story is very different thanks to Jefferson's powerful doubts.

In the Preface, Forrest Church writes of how the book brought him into religion, letting him get past the skepticism of his youth. The Introduction looks at the story of the book's creation more closely, while an Afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan provides more context for the project, looking at other efforts to rearrange the Gospels and the problems involved.

It's hard to believe that conservatives have published a version of this book with a preface that tries to describe Jefferson as an explicitly Christian Founding Father. I'll have to track it down and read it, but I can't see spending money on it.

Posted by simonstl at 11:28 PM

November 21, 2004

The Battle for God

Author: Karen Armstrong | First published 2001 | Amazon

This has been a pretty amazing read. I liked it better than Armstrong's similar A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which also looks at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in a single volume, all intertwined. This book has the advantage of a shorter timeframe: 1492 to the present, though most of it takes place after 1700 when the challenges of modernity begin to affect a lot of people.

Reading about all three faiths at once reminded me that superficially at least I knew more about Islamic fundamentalism than Christian fundamentalism or Jewish fundamentalism. Armstrong does a great job of showing how participants in these three faiths responded to a changing world, while recognizing that the changes varied drastically from place to place. She also does an excellent job of showing how fundamentalist ideologies evolve over time and respond to different circumstances.

Armstrong succeeds in keeping her subjects sympathetic, though it's pretty clear that she doesn't particularly like many of them. It's fascinating to read about why the Iranians were so enthusiastic about Ayatollah Khomeini and how he tapped into centuries-old Shiite beliefs, giving them his own twist. Similarly, this is the first clear explanation of the ideology of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank I've found. American Protestants are a strange case in the book, as they've had less direct pressure on them than either the Muslims (colonialism and westernization from the top down) or the Jews (anti-Semitism, enemies surrounding Israel), but I think Armstrong still makes her case.

I worry that these three groups, which originated from disputes within their own religions, may be coming to a point of larger conflict. Armstrong discusses the early 1980's plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the mosque on top of the old Temple site in Jerusalem. If such a thing ever happened today, it would stir incredible outrage among Muslim fundamentalists, wild joy among those American fundamentalists who'd think the Rapture was coming, and messianic expectations among fundamentalist religious Zionists.

Armstrong's additional post-9/11 preface, with its concerns for fundamentalisms reaching new extremes, is definitely worth contemplating.

Posted by simonstl at 10:06 PM

November 13, 2004

Will Catholics be "Left Behind"?

Author: Carl E. Olson | First published 2003 | Amazon

I first heard about this book on Slacktivist, who's been doing a slow critique of the Left Behind books. When I saw it in a bookstore, I grabbed it, and it was well worth buying.

I was moderately concerned that the book would be so focused on Catholic doctrine, only some of which I share, that I wouldn't finish it. As it turns out, Olson does an excellent job of weaving Catholic ideas with other Christian ideas and critiques pre-millenial dispensationalism from a wide variety of perspectives. Every time I thought he was heading into a theological thicket I found myself pleased a few pages later as he found a new angle of discussion.

While the book focuses on rapture theology and the "end is near" churches that thrive on it, it does an excellent job of explaining how this focus takes fundamentalism far from being the literal reading of the Bible that it claims to be, and examines a number of issues that have always left me wondering how this set of beliefs could be called "Christian." Setting aside the Sermon on the Mount because it isn't meant for Christians today alway struck me as completely strange, but Olson explains how its supposed application only to the Kingdom arose. Olson cites both Cyrus Scofield, whose Scofield Reference Bible is a key dispensationalist text, and critics of dispensationalism, to show the impact of this conclusion.

My favorite part of the book comes near the conclusion, when he notes how the escape of believers is supposed to exempt them from the perils of the tribulation, and how sadly this contrasts to the history of suffering and martyrdom in the early church, a display of bravery that some of its successors would apparently rather avoid. As Olson puts it, "appealing to fear is appealing to base human nature, but it does not encourage Christians who are suffering and facing death today." (336)

Olson's also written a lot more on the subject.

Posted by simonstl at 04:53 PM