Tag Archives: Christianity

The NYT on the End of Mideast Christianity

Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 Photo from Christianity Today

Eliza Griswold’s major piece on Mideast Christians in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend is getting lots of well-deserved attention. The Times, more than almost any other media publication, can place items on the national agenda, and both it and Griswold deserve credit for covering the crisis facing Christianity in Syria and Iraq. Griswold makes a couple of mistakes in the article–she incorrectly describes the beliefs of Oriental Orthodox Christians and ascribes the Armenian Genocide to “nationalism, not religion,” when in fact the genocide resulted from both–but, on the whole, it’s a very impressive piece, and well worth reading.

As an American, I was particularly struck by Griswold’s description of how the United States has abandoned Mideast Christians. Really, we are doing next to nothing to help these poor people. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “How has the US abandoned them? And why do we have to do anything? We’re not responsible for righting every wrong that occurs in the world, and anyway we were in Iraq, trying to help, for years. It didn’t work. Let Iraqis and other local populations settle this for themselves. It’s not worth more American lives.”

I understand the appeal of this objection, but it depends on not a little willful amnesia. Of course, the parties who bear principal responsibility for the persecution of Christians are local Islamists like ISIS. But the US itself bears indirect responsibility. The US invasion in 2003 led to this situation, by creating anarchy and unleashing long-repressed sectarian resentments. And by abruptly leaving Iraq, we have allowed the crisis to intensify. A Catholic bishop Griswold quotes says it well. “Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity. What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’ Having helped to create this crisis, the US has a moral obligation to do something to help. We can’t simply abandon these people–and Griswold makes clear that both the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve blame in this–as though we had nothing to do with exposing them to danger in the first place.

As of now, Griswold reports, the US has done very little. (This morning’s announcement of a potential US-Turkish alliance to fight ISIS in northern Syria seems driven largely by Turkey’s desire to preempt Kurdish gains; I doubt most of the region’s Christians hope for much out of it). The US is doing nothing to speed up immigration applications from Mideast Christians, notwithstanding the obvious persecution they are suffering. Even humanitarian assistance has been lacking.

Griswold correctly diagnoses the problem. Mideast Christians have few allies in American politics. Conservatives don’t feel much affinity for Mideast Christians, who often favor Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and liberals have a hard time seeing any Christians as sympathetic victims. As someone once observed, Mideast Christians have the misfortune to be too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.

I hope Griswold’s timely piece can do something to help change America’s response. You can read her whole essay here.

Ramírez, “Migrating Faith”

In October, the University of North Carolina Press releases: “Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century,” by Daniel Ramírez (University of Michigan). The publisher’s description follows:

Daniel Ramírez’s history of twentieth-century Pentecostalism in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands begins in Los Angeles in 1906 with the eruption of the Azusa Street Revival. The Pentecostal phenomenon–characterized by ecstatic spiritual practices that included speaking in tongues, perceptions of miracles, interracial mingling, and new popular musical worship traditions from both sides of the border–was criticized by Christian theologians, secular media, and even governmental authorities for behaviors considered to be unorthodox and outrageous. Today, many scholars view the revival as having catalyzed the spread of Pentecostalism and consider the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as one of the most important fountainheads of a religious movement that has thrived not only in North America but worldwide.

Ramírez argues that, because of the distance separating the transnational migratory circuits from domineering arbiters of religious and aesthetic orthodoxy in both the United States and Mexico, the region was fertile ground for the religious innovation by which working-class Pentecostals expanded and changed traditional options for practicing the faith. Giving special attention to individuals’ and families’ firsthand accounts and tracing how a vibrant religious music culture tied transnational communities together, Ramírez illuminates the interplay of migration, mobility, and musicality in Pentecostalism’s global boom.

Terpstra, “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World”

In August, the Cambridge University Press releases “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation,” by Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows: 

The religious refugee first emerged as a mass phenomenon in the late fifteenth century. Over the following two and a half centuries, millions  of Jews, Muslims, and Christians were forced from their homes and into temporary or permanent exile. Their migrations across Europe and around the globe shaped the early modern world and profoundly affected literature, art, and culture. Economic and political factors drove many expulsions, but religion was the factor most commonly used to justify them. This was also the period of religious revival known as the Reformation. This book explores how reformers’ ambitions to purify individuals and society fueled movements to purge ideas, objects, and people considered religiously alien or spiritually contagious. * Aims to explain religious ideas and movements of the Reformation in non-technical and comparative language. * Moves Jews and Muslims to the centre of the traditional Reformation narrative, and considers how the exile experience shaped early modern culture, art, politics, and cities. * Traces the historical patterns that still account for the growing numbers of modern religious refugees.

Sergeev, “Theory of Religious Cycles: Tradition, Modernity, and the Bahá’í Faith”

In September, Brill will release “Theory of Religious Cycles: Tradition, Modernity, and the Bahá’í Faith” by Mikhail Sergeev (The University of the Arts, Philadelphia). The publisher’s description follows:

In Theory of Religious Cycles: Tradition, Modernity and the Bahá’í Faith Mikhail Sergeev offers a new interpretation of the Soviet period of Russian history as a phase within the religious evolution of humankind by developing a theory of religious cycles, which he applies to modernity and to all the major world faiths of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.

Sergeev argues that in the course of its evolution religion passes through six common phases—formative, orthodox, classical, reformist, critical, and post-critical. Modernity, which was started by the European Enlightenment, represents the critical phase of Christianity, a systemic crisis that could be overcome with the appearance of new religious movements such as the Bahá’í Faith, which offers a spiritual extension of the modern worldview.

Marbury, “Pillars of Cloud and Fire”

In August, the New York University Press will release “Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation,” by Herbert Robinson Marbury (Vanderbilt University).

At the birth of the United States, African Americans were excluded from the newly-formed Republic and its churches, which saw them as
savage rather than citizen and as heathen rather than Christian. Denied civil access to the basic rights granted to others, African Americans have developed their own sacred traditions and their own civil discourses. As part of this effort, African American intellectuals offered interpretations of the Bible which were radically different and often fundamentally oppositional to those of many of their white counterparts. By imagining a freedom unconstrained, their work charted a broader and, perhaps, a more genuinely American identity. In Pillars of Cloud and Fire, Herbert Robinson Marbury offers a comprehensive survey of African American biblical interpretation.

Each chapter in this compelling volume moves chronologically, from the antebellum period and the Civil War through to the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, the black power movement, and the Obama era, to offer a historical context for the interpretative activity of that time and to analyze its effect in transforming black social reality. For African American thinkers such as Absalom Jones, David Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances E. W. Harper, Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the exodus story became the language-world through which freedom both in its sacred resonance and its civil formation found expression. This tradition, Marbury argues, has much to teach us in a world where fundamentalisms have become synonymous with “authentic” religious expression and American identity. For African American biblical interpreters, to be American and to be Christian was always to be open and oriented toward freedom. 

Smith, “Secular Faith”

In September, the University of Chicago Press will release “Secular Faith: How Culture has Trumped Religion in American Politics,” by Mark A. Smith (University of Washington). The publisher’s description follows: 

When Pope Francis recently answered “Who am I to judge?” when
asked about homosexuality, he ushered in a new era for the Catholic church. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for a pope to
express tolerance for homosexuality. Yet shifts of this kind are actually
common in the history of Christian groups. Within the United States, Christian leaders have regularly revised their teachings to match the beliefs and opinions gaining support among their members and larger society.

Mark A. Smith provocatively argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is. In fact, in the long run, religion is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them. Smith makes his case by charting five contentious issues in America’s history: slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and women’s rights. For each, he shows how the political views of even the most conservative Christians evolved in the same direction as the rest of society—perhaps not as swiftly, but always on the same arc. During periods of cultural transition, Christian leaders do resist prevailing values and behaviors, but those same leaders inevitably acquiesce—often by reinterpreting the Bible—if their positions become no longer tenable. Secular ideas and influences thereby shape the ways Christians read and interpret their scriptures.

So powerful are the cultural and societal norms surrounding us that Christians in America today hold more in common morally and politically with their atheist neighbors than with the Christians of earlier centuries. In fact, the strongest predictors of people’s moral beliefs are not their religious commitments or lack thereof but rather when and where they were born. A thoroughly researched and ultimately hopeful book on the prospects for political harmony, Secular Faith demonstrates how, over the long run, boundaries of secular and religious cultures converge.

White, “Reforming Sodom”

In August, the University of North Carolina Press will release “Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights,” by Heather R. White (University of Puget Sound). The publisher’s description follows:

With a focus on mainline Protestants and gay rights activists in the twentieth century, Heather R. White challenges the usual picture of perennial adversaries with a new narrative about America’s religious and sexual past. White argues that today’s antigay Christian traditions originated in the 1920s when a group of liberal Protestants began to incorporate psychiatry and psychotherapy into Christian teaching. A new therapeutic orthodoxy, influenced by modern medicine, celebrated heterosexuality as God-given and advocated a compassionate “cure” for homosexuality.

White traces the unanticipated consequences as the therapeutic model, gaining popularity after World War II, spurred mainline church leaders to take a critical stance toward rampant antihomosexual discrimination. By the 1960s, a vanguard of clergy began to advocate for homosexual rights. White highlights the continued importance of this religious support to the consolidating gay and lesbian movement. However, the ultimate irony of the therapeutic orthodoxy’s legacy was its adoption, beginning in the 1970s, by the Christian Right, which embraced it as an age-old tradition to which Americans should return. On a broader level, White challenges the assumed secularization narrative in LGBT progress by recovering the forgotten history of liberal Protestants’ role on both sides of the debates over orthodoxy and sexual identity.

Jütte, “The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400–1800″

In May, Yale University Press released “The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400–1800” by Daniel Jütte (Harvard University). The publisher’s description follows:

The fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries were truly an Age of Secrecy in Europe, when arcane knowledge was widely believed to be positive knowledge that extended into all areas of daily life, from the economic, scientific, and political spheres to the general activities of ordinary people.

So asserts Daniel Jütte in this engrossing, vivid, and award-winning work. He maintains that the widespread acceptance and even reverence for this “economy of secrets” in premodern Europe created a highly complex and sometimes perilous space for mutual contact between Jews and Christians. Surveying the interactions between the two religious groups in a wide array of secret sciences and practices—including alchemy, cryptography, medical arcana, technological and military secrets, and intelligence—the author relates true stories of colorful “professors of secrets” and clandestine encounters. In the process Jütte examines how our current notion of secrecy is radically different in this era of WikiLeaks, Snowden, et al., as opposed to centuries earlier when the truest, most important knowledge was generally considered to be secret by definition.

Saint-Laurent, “Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches”

This month, University of California Press releases “Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches” by Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent (Marquette University). The publisher’s description follows:

Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches analyzes the hagiographic traditions of seven missionary saints in the Syriac heritage during late antiquity: Thomas, Addai, Mari, John of Ephesus, Simeon of Beth Arsham, Jacob Baradaeus, and Ahudemmeh. Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent studies a body of legends about the missionaries’ voyages in the Syrian Orient to illustrate their shared symbols and motifs. Revealing how these texts encapsulated the concerns of the communities that produced them, she draws attention to the role of hagiography as a malleable genre that was well-suited for the idealized presentation of the beginnings of Christian communities. Hagiographers, through their reworking of missionary themes, asserted autonomy, orthodoxy, and apostolicity for their individual civic and monastic communities, positioning themselves in relationship to the rulers of their empires and to competing forms of Christianity. Saint-Laurent argues that missionary hagiography is an important and neglected source for understanding the development of the East and West Syriac ecclesiastical bodies: the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East. Given that many of these Syriac-speaking churches remain today in the Middle East and India, with diaspora communities in Europe and North America, this work opens the door for further study of the role of saints and stories as symbolic links between ancient and modern traditions.

Urban-Mead, “The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe”

In July, Ohio University Press will release “The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe” by Wendy Urban-Mead (Bard College). The publisher’s description follows:

The Gender of Piety is an intimate history of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, or BICC, as related through six individual life histories that extend from the early colonial years through the first decade after independence. Taken together, these six lives show how men and women of the BICC experienced and sequenced their piety in different ways. Women usually remained tied to the church throughout their lives, while men often had a more strained relationship with it. Church doctrine was not always flexible enough to accommodate expected masculine gender roles, particularly male membership in political and economic institutions or participation in important male communal practices.

The study is based on more than fifteen years of extensive oral history research supported by archival work in Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The oral accounts make it clear, official versions to the contrary, that the church was led by spiritually powerful women and that maleness and mission-church notions of piety were often incompatible.

The life-history approach illustrates how the tension of gender roles both within and without the church manifested itself in sometimes unexpected ways: for example, how a single family could produce both a legendary woman pastor credited with mediating multiple miracles and a man — her son —  who joined the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union nationalist political party and fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war in the 1970s. Investigating the lives of men and women in equal measure, The Gender of Piety uses a gendered interpretive lens to analyze the complex relationship between the church and broader social change in this region of southern Africa.