“Comprehending Christian Zionism” (Gunner & Smith eds.)

In October, Augsburg Fortress released “Comprehending Christian Zionism: augsburgPerspectives in Comparison,” edited by Göran Gunner (Uppsala University) and Robert O. Smith (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The publisher’s description follows:

The issue of Christian Zionism is one that is fiercely debated within theology, the church, politics, and society. Comprehending Christian Zionism brings together an international consortium of scholars and researchers to reflect on the network of issues and topics surrounding this critical subject. The volume provides a lens on the history of Zionism within Christian theology and offers a constructive, multidimensional path for assessment and introspection around the meaning of Zionism to Christian faith and practice.

Carmen & Rao, “Christians in South Indian Villages, 1959-2009″

This month, Eerdmans releases “Christians in South Indian Villages, 1959-2009:Carman_Christians in South Indian Villages.indd Decline and Revival in Telangana,” by John Carman and Chilkuri Vasantha Rao. The publisher’s description follows:

A discerning study of a slice of modern Indian Christianity and Christian-Hindu encounter.

This book revisits South Indian Christian communities that were studied in 1959 and written about in Village Christians and Hindu Culture (1968). In 1959 the future of these village congregations was uncertain. Would they grow through conversions or slowly dissolve into the larger Hindu society around them?

John Carman and Chilkuri Vasantha Rao’s carefully gathered research fifty years later reveals both the decline of many older congregations and the surprising emergence of new Pentecostal and Baptist churches that emphasize the healing power of Christ. Significantly, the new congregations largely cut across caste lines, including both high castes and outcastes (Dalits).

Carman and Vasantha Rao pay particular attention to the social, political, and religious environment of these Indian village Christians, including their adaptation of indigenous Hindu practices into their Christian faith and observances.

Pantagruel Comes for the Establishment Clause

That is the title of an essay I have up at the Library of Law and Liberty. Here’s the beginning:

In the second book of the sixteenth century novel by Rabelais, the voracious young giant Pantagruel, “large as life and much nosier,” is sent to Paris for his education. There he displays prodigious academic aptitude, mastering every conceivable subject with the greatest ease and besting the most able rhetoricians and philosophers in debate. So great is his reputation that he is summoned to adjudicate a law suit—a “controversy so involved and jurisprudentially abstruse that the highest court in the land found it about as clear as Old High German.” When the lawyers and jurists propose to give Pantagruel the relevant texts, writs, historical records, learned treatises, and legal authorities, he orders all of this “scribble-scrabble foolscrap” immediately burned. These materials, he scoffs, are “pure subversions of equity,” for “the law grew up out of the field of natural and moral philosophy.” After a perfunctory hearing and by the light of “philosophical and evangelical justice,” Pantagruel rules with swift panache, and his judgment is hailed as wiser than Solomon’s.

Pantagruel is coming for the Establishment Clause. He comes today bearing the standard of equality, and the manifestations of equality that he would have courts superimpose on the Constitution. In several disputes ostensibly involving the constitutional prohibition on “laws respecting an establishment of religion,” courts are interpreting this provision of the First Amendment to require adherence to a kind of pure principle of equality, or its close cousin, neutrality. And just as Pantagruelic justice beguiled Rabelais’ fictional Parisian intelligentsia, so, too, is the egalitarian justice of today’s courts extolled by the legal professoriate. Yet though certain forms of unequal treatment by the state on the basis of religion surely do create questions of constitutional dimension, we now face something like the obverse situation: courts so rigorously adhere to notions of egalitarian justice that the Establishment Clause is bloated to the point of collapsing of its own weight.

Wolfe, “At Home in Exile”

In October, Random House released “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good 9780807033135for the Jews,” by political scientist Alan Wolfe (Boston College). The publisher’s description follows:

An eloquent, controversial argument that says, for the first time in their long history, Jews are free to live in a Jewish state—or lead secure and productive lives outside it

Since the beginnings of Zionism in the twentieth century, many Jewish thinkers have considered it close to heresy to validate life in the Diaspora. Jews in Europe and America faced “a life of pointless struggle and futile suffering, of ambivalence, confusion, and eternal impotence,” as one early Zionist philosopher wrote, echoing a widespread and vehement disdain for Jews living outside Israel. This thinking, in a more understated but still pernicious form, continues to the present: the Holocaust tried to kill all of us, many Jews believe, and only statehood offers safety.

But what if the Diaspora is a blessing in disguise? In At Home in Exile, renowned scholar and public intellectual Alan Wolfe, writing for the first time about his Jewish heritage, makes an impassioned, eloquent, and controversial argument that Jews should take pride in their Diasporic tradition. It is true that Jews have experienced more than their fair share of discrimination and destruction in exile, and there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism persists throughout the world and often rears its ugly head. Yet for the first time in history, Wolfe shows, it is possible for Jews to lead vibrant, successful, and, above all else, secure lives in states in which they are a minority.

Drawing on centuries of Jewish thinking and writing, from Maimonides to Philip Roth, David Ben Gurion to Hannah Arendt, Wolfe makes a compelling case that life in the Diaspora can be good for the Jews no matter where they live, Israel very much included—as well as for the non-Jews with whom they live, Israel once again included. Not only can the Diaspora offer Jews the opportunity to reach a deep appreciation of pluralism and a commitment to fighting prejudice, but in an era of rising inequalities and global instability, the whole world can benefit from Jews’ passion for justice and human dignity.

Wolfe moves beyond the usual polemical arguments and celebrates a universalistic Judaism that is desperately needed if Israel is to survive. Turning our attention away from the Jewish state, where half of world Jewry lives, toward the pluralistic and vibrant places the other half have made their home, At Home in Exile is an inspiring call for a Judaism that isn’t defensive and insecure but is instead open and inquiring.

Guerres de Noël

US-LIFESTYLE-HOLIDAY-DECORATIONS

I used to think that the annual Christmas Wars were strictly an American thing, like corn dogs and and attorneys’ contingency fees. Only in America, I thought, do people seriously argue about whether to allow Christmas trees in public parks or to permit public school choirs to sing “Silent Night” at holiday concerts. The issues become more and more bizarre. This year, a Maryland school district decided to remove even a reference to “Christmas” in the school calendar–as though the reference amounted to religious oppression and removal would make people forget what holiday comes round every 25th of December.

Our Supreme Court, whose Establishment Clause jurisprudence focuses on factors like the presence of plastic reindeer and talking wishing wells, bears much blame for this state of affairs. But judges in other countries seem eager to replicate our model. Last week, a French administrative court ruled that the town of La Roche-sur-Yon–located, appropriately, in the historically royalist, counter-revolutionary region of the Vendee–must remove a Christmas crèche from its city hall. The court held that the crèche violates the 1905 French Law on the Separation of Church and State, which, according to the court, forbids religious displays like crèches on public property. According to news reports (in French), the court concluded the display was incompatible with the principle of state religious neutrality, or laïcité.

I don’t know enough about French administrative law to evaluate the decision. What I find fascinating, as an outsider, is how closely the French debate tracks the American. The lawsuit seeking removal of the crèche was brought by a secularist group called the “Fédération de la Libre Pensée,” which, I gather, is analogous to American groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists. The group argues that the crèche “fails to respect the conscience of the citizen” by “imposing” on him a religious display whenever he enters city hall. In response, the town’s supporters evoke cultural traditions more than Christianity. Religious neutrality, they say, does not require abandoning longstanding French customs. What’s next, they ask? Church bells and Christmas lights? They’ve started a popular hashtag campaign, #TouchePasAMaCreche.

Each side has to live with its ironies. Notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to laïcité, French law allows a great deal of entanglement between church and state–more, in some respects, than we would tolerate in the US. (Guess who owns Notre Dame and all other church buildings that existed as of 1905? Hint: it’s not the Church). On the other hand, the defense of tradition in this case rings somewhat hollow. La Roche-sur-Yon only began displaying the crèche 22 years ago.

The city has vowed to appeal the decision. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, here’s a thought. If France has adopted the Christmas Wars, can Black Friday be far behind?

Photo: Le Figaro

Armstrong, “Fields of Blood”

From Knopf, a new book by religious historian Karen Armstrong, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the bloodHistory of Violence.” The publisher’s description follows:

From the renowned and best-selling author of A History of God, a sweeping exploration of religion and the history of human violence.

For the first time, religious self-identification is on the decline in American. Some analysts have cited as cause a post-9/11perception: that faith in general is a source of aggression, intolerance, and divisiveness—something bad for society. But how accurate is that view? With deep learning and sympathetic understanding, Karen Armstrong sets out to discover the truth about religion and violence in each of the world’s great traditions, taking us on an astonishing journey from prehistoric times to the present.

While many historians have looked at violence in connection with particular religious manifestations (jihad in Islam or Christianity’s Crusades), Armstrong looks at each faith—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism—in its totality over time. As she describes, each arose in an agrarian society with plenty powerful landowners brutalizing peasants while also warring among themselves over land, then the only real source of wealth. In this world, religion was not the discrete and personal matter it would become for us but rather something that permeated all aspects of society. And so it was that agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.

In each tradition, however, a counterbalance to the warrior code also developed. Around sages, prophets, and mystics there grew up communities protesting the injustice and bloodshed endemic to agrarian society, the violence to which religion had become heir. And so by the time the great confessional faiths came of age, all understood themselves as ultimately devoted to peace, equality, and reconciliation, whatever the acts of violence perpetrated in their name.

Industrialization and modernity have ushered in an epoch of spectacular and unexampled violence, although, as Armstrong explains, relatively little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different creeds in our time.

At a moment of rising geopolitical chaos, the imperative of mutual understanding between nations and faith communities has never been more urgent, the dangers of action based on misunderstanding never greater. Informed by Armstrong’s sweeping erudition and personal commitment to the promotion of compassion, Fields of Bloodmakes vividly clear that religion is not the problem.

Gordis, “Menachem Begin”

Earlier this year, Schocken Books released “Menachem Begin: The Battle for bweginIsrael’s Soul,” by Daniel Gordis (Shalem College – Jerusalem). The publisher’s description follows:

Reviled as a fascist by his great rival Ben-Gurion, venerated by Israel’s underclass, the first Israeli to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one, Menachem Begin was both complex and controversial. Born in Poland in 1913, Begin was a youthful admirer of the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky and soon became a leader within Jabotinsky’s Betar movement. A powerful orator and mesmerizing public figure, Begin was imprisoned by the Soviets in 1940, joined the Free Polish Army in 1942, and arrived in Palestine as a Polish soldier shortly thereafter. Joining the underground paramilitary Irgun in 1943, he achieved instant notoriety for the organization’s bombings of British military installations and other violent acts.

Intentionally left out of the new Israeli government, Begin’s right-leaning Herut political party became a fixture of the opposition to the Labor-dominated governments of Ben-Gurion and his successors, until the surprising parliamentary victory of his political coalition in 1977 made him prime minister. Welcoming Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel and cosigning a peace treaty with him on the White House lawn in 1979, Begin accomplished what his predecessors could not. His outreach to Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese “boat people” was universally admired, and his decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 is now regarded as an act of courageous foresight. But the disastrous invasion of Lebanon to end the PLO’s shelling of Israel’s northern cities, combined with his declining health and the death of his wife, led Begin to resign in 1983. He spent the next nine years in virtual seclusion, until his death in 1992. Begin was buried not alongside Israel’s prime ministers, but alongside the Irgun comrades who died in the struggle to create the Jewish national home to which he had devoted his life. Daniel Gordis’s perceptive biography gives us new insight into a remarkable political figure whose influence continues to be felt both within Israel and throughout the world.

Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

In October, Basic Books released “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into 9780465030569the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East,” by Gerard Russell (Foreign Policy Centre – London). The publisher’s description follows:

In this spellbinding journey across the past and present of the Middle East, a former diplomat takes us into the fascinating religious communities that have survived for centuries under Muslim rule.

Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.

In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. Historically a tolerant faith, Islam has, since the early 20th century, witnessed the rise of militant, extremist sects. This development, along with the rippling effects of Western invasion, now pose existential threats to these minority faiths. And as more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of greater freedoms and job prospects, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.

Drawing on his extensive travels and archival research, Russell provides an essential record of the past, present, and perilous future of these remarkable religions.

Kalkandjieva, “The Russian Orthodox Church: From Decline to Resurrection”

Last month, Routledge released “The Russian Orthodox Church, 1917-1948: 9781138788480From Decline to Resurrection,” by Daniela Kalkandjieva (University of Sofia, Bulgaria). The publisher’s description follows:

This book tells the remarkable story of the decline and revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the first half of the twentieth century and the astonishing U-turn in the attitude of the Soviet Union’s leaders towards the church. In the years after 1917 the Bolsheviks’ anti-religious policies, the loss of the former western territories of the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union’s isolation from the rest of the world and the consequent separation of Russian emigrés from the church were disastrous for the church, which declined very significantly in the 1920s and 1930s. However, when Poland was partitioned in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed the Patriarch of Moscow, Sergei, jurisdiction over orthodox congregations in the conquered territories and went on, later, to encourage the church to promote patriotic activities as part of the resistance to the Nazi invasion. He agreed a Concordat with the church in 1943, and continued to encourage the church, especially its claims to jurisdiction over émigré Russian orthodox churches, in the immediate postwar period. Based on extensive original research, the book puts forward a great deal of new information and overturns established thinking on many key points.

Greengrass, “Christendom Destroyed”

Last month, Penguin released Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, by 9780670024568Mhistorian Mark Greengrass (University of Sheffield (Emeritus)). The publisher’s description follows:

From peasants to princes, no one was untouched by the spiritual and intellectual upheaval of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther’s challenge to church authority forced Christians to examine their beliefs in ways that shook the foundations of their religion. The subsequent divisions, fed by dynastic rivalries and military changes, fundamentally altered the relations between ruler and ruled. Geographical and scientific discoveries challenged the unity of Christendom as a belief community. Europe, with all its divisions, emerged instead as a geographical projection. Chronicling these dramatic changes, Thomas More, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Cervantes created works that continue to resonate with us.

Spanning the years 1517 to 1648, Christendom Destroyed is Mark Greengrass’s magnum opus: a rich tapestry that fosters a deeper understanding of Europe’s identity today.