Tag Archives: Religion and Culture

Kidd & Hankins, “Baptists in America”

This May, Oxford University Press will release “Baptists in America” by Thomas S. Kidd (Baylor University) and Barry Hankins (Baylor University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Baptists in AmericaThe Puritans called Baptists “the troublers of churches in all places” and hounded them out of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Four hundred years later, Baptists are the second-largest religious group in America, and their influence matches their numbers. They have built strong institutions, from megachurches to publishing houses to charities to mission organizations, and have firmly established themselves in the mainstream of American culture. Yet the historical legacy of outsider status lingers, and the inherently fractured nature of their faith makes Baptists ever wary of threats from within as well as without.

In Baptists in America, Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins explore the long-running tensions between church, state, and culture that Baptists have shaped and navigated. Despite the moment of unity that their early persecution provided, their history has been marked by internal battles and schisms that were microcosms of national events, from the conflict over slavery that divided North from South to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 80s. Baptists have made an indelible impact on American religious and cultural history, from their early insistence that America should have no established church to their place in the modern-day culture wars, where they frequently advocate greater religious involvement in politics. Yet the more mainstream they have become, the more they have been pressured to conform to the mainstream, a paradox that defines–and is essential to understanding–the Baptist experience in America.

Kidd and Hankins, both practicing Baptists, weave the threads of Baptist history alongside those of American history. Baptists in America is a remarkable story of how one religious denomination was transformed from persecuted minority into a leading actor on the national stage, with profound implications for American society and culture.

Alavi, “Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire”

This month, Harvard University Press releases “Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire” by Seema Alavi (University of Delhi). The publisher’s description follows:

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire recovers the stories of five Indian Muslim scholars who, in the aftermath of the uprising of 1857, were hunted by British authorities, fled their homes in India for such destinations as Cairo, Mecca, and Istanbul, and became active participants in a flourishing pan-Islamic intellectual network at the cusp of the British and Ottoman empires. Seema Alavi traces this network, born in the age of empire, which became the basis of a global Muslim sensibility—a form of political and cultural affiliation that competes with ideas of nationhood today as it did in the previous century.

By demonstrating that these Muslim networks depended on European empires and that their sensibility was shaped by the West in many subtle ways, Alavi challenges the idea that all pan-Islamic configurations are anti-Western or pro-Caliphate. Indeed, Western imperial hegemony empowered the very inter-Asian Muslim connections that went on to outlive European empires. Diverging from the medieval idea of the umma, this new cosmopolitan community stressed consensus in matters of belief, ritual, and devotion and found inspiration in the liberal reforms then gaining traction in the Ottoman world. Alavi breaks new ground in the writing of nineteenth-century history by engaging equally with the South Asian and Ottoman worlds, and by telling a non-Eurocentric story of global modernity without overlooking the importance of the British Empire.

“Secularism, Catholicism, and the Future of Public Life” (Adler, ed.)

This June, Oxford University Press will release “Secularism, Catholicism, and the Future of Public Life: A Dialogue with Ambassador Douglas W. Kmiec” edited by Gary J. Adler, Jr. (University of Southern California).  The publisher’s description follows:

Secularism, Catholicism and the Future of Public LIfeHow can religion contribute to democracy in a secular age? And what can the millennia-old Catholic tradition say to church-state controversies in the United States and around the world? Secularism, Catholicism, and the Future of Public Life, organized through the work of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (www.ifacs.com), responds to these questions by presenting a dialogue between Douglas W. Kmiec, a leading scholar of American constitutional law and Catholic legal thought, and an international cast of experts from a range of fields, including legal theory, international relations, journalism, religion, and social science.

“Crossings and Crosses” (Strandbrink et al., eds.)

This April, De Gruyter Press will release “Crossings and Crosses: Borders, Educations and Religions in Northern Europe” edited by Peter Strandbrink, Jenny Berglund, and Thomas Lundén, (Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden). The publisher’s description follows:

Crossings and CrossesDealing with different regions and cases, the contributions in this volume address and critically explore the theme of borders, educations, and religions in northern Europe. As shown in different ways, and contrary to popular ideas, there seems to be little reason to believe that religious and civic identity formation through public education is becoming less parochial and more culturally open. Even where state borders are porous, where commerce, culture, and trade as well as associative, personal, and social life display stronger liminal traits, normative education remains surprisingly national. This situation is remarkable and goes against the grain of current notions of both accelerating globalisation and a European regional renaissance. The book also takes issue with the foundational tenet that liberal democracies are by definition uninvolved in matters concerning faith and belief. Instead, an implied conclusion is that secular liberal democracy is less than secular and liberal – at least in education, which is a major arena for political-cultural-ethical socialisation, as it aims to confer worldviews and frameworks of identity on young people who will eventually become full citizens and bearers/sharers of prevailing normative communities.

Penn, “When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam”

In March, the University of California Press released “When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam” by Michael Philip Penn (Mount Holyoke College). The publisher’s description follows:

The first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present, Syriac Christians wrote the first and most extensive accounts of Islam, describing a complicated set of religious and cultural exchanges not reducible to the solely antagonistic.

Through its critical introductions and new translations of this invaluable historical material, When Christians First Met Muslims allows scholars, students, and the general public to explore the earliest interactions between what eventually became the world’s two largest religions, shedding new light on Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations.

“Buddhism beyond Borders” (Mitchell & Quli, eds.)

This June, SUNY Press will release “Buddhism beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States” by Scott A. Mitchell (Institute of Buddhist Studies) and Natalie E. F. Quli (Institute of Buddhist Studies).  The publisher’s description follows:

Buddhism Beyond BordersBuddhism beyond Borders provides a fresh consideration of Buddhism in the American context. It includes both theoretical discussions and case studies to highlight the tension between studies that locate Buddhist communities in regionally specific areas and those that highlight the translocal nature of an increasingly interconnected world. Whereas previous examinations of Buddhism in North America have assumed a more or less essentialized and homogeneous “American” culture, the essays in this volume offer a corrective, situating American Buddhist groups within the framework of globalized cultural flows, while exploring the effects of local forces. Contributors examine regionalism within American Buddhisms, Buddhist identity and ethnicity as academic typologies, Buddhist modernities, the secularization and hybridization of Buddhism, Buddhist fiction, and Buddhist controversies involving the Internet, among other issues.

Tessler, “Islam and Politics in the Middle East”

This June, Indiana University Press will release “Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens” by Mark Tessler (University of Michigan).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islam and Politics in the Middle EastSome of the most pressing questions in the Middle East and North Africa today revolve around the proper place of Islamic institutions and authorities in governance and political affairs. Drawing on data from 42 surveys carried out in fifteen countries between 1988 and 2011, representing the opinions of more than 60,000 men and women, this study investigates the reasons that some individuals support a central role for Islam in government while others favor a separation of religion and politics. Utilizing his newly constructed Carnegie Middle East Governance and Islam Dataset, which has been placed in the public domain for use by other researchers, Mark Tessler formulates and tests hypotheses about the views held by ordinary citizens, offering insights into the individual and country-level factors that shape attitudes toward political Islam.

Classic Revisited: Dalrymple, “From the Holy Mountain”

from-the-holy-mountain-001In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.

Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”

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In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of skeptical Western rationality.”

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In Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey), one of the first towns outside Palestine to accept Christianity, Dalrymple notes the absence of churches and the dwindling, almost nonexistent Christian communities that once flourished there. There has been no Christian community in the area since 1915, when the governor began deporting Armenians – that is, rounding them up and murdering them “in the discreet emptiness of the desert.” In Diyarbakir (also in Turkey), once one of the largest Armenian communities in Anatolia, only one church remains. Dalrymple emphasizes the degree to which the Armenians have been erased from the history and even physical landscape of the region.

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The Suriani, too, were driven out. Once surviving in the barren hills of Tur Abdin (in southeast Turkey), where hundreds of Syrian Orthodox monasteries maintained the ancient Antiochene liturgies in the original Aramaic, a community of only nine hundred still lived there when Dalrymple visited in the 1990’s. Speaking with Christians who have remained, Dalrymple highlights the striking lack of Western support for these communities: “The Christians of the West have never done anything for us. . . the Turks help other Muslims if they are in trouble in Azerbaijan or in Bosnia, but the Christians of Europe have never shown any feelings for their brothers in the Tur Abdin.” As we well know, support is still lacking.

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Upon entering Syria, Dalrymple attempted to interview a group of Nestorian Christians in a refugee camp. He was told that it was impossible for outsiders to get in, and that even trying would attract the attention of Assad’s secret police. The Syrian local who gave this information also suggested, dryly, that Dalrymple simply interview the Nestorians of England when he returned home, in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late twentieth century,” wrote Dalrymple, “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” This story reminded me of my own plan to travel to Assad’s war-torn Syria to hear a liturgy sung in Aramaic. A professor suggested, instead, that I simply drive 20 minutes to St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey to achieve the same goal–which I did.

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Before the civil war intensified, it was widely held that Christians were better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Lebanon). Syria was considered a sanctuary for Christians, due in part to the way Assad built his regime: “Assad kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s many religious minorities – Shias, Druze, Yezidis, Christians, and Alawites – through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.” Considering the current situation in Syria, one wonders if there are any safe havens left.

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Dalrymple takes the reader on a memorable historical journey through cities and regions now more readily associated with strife and militant Islamism than with Christianity. Through his stories and observations, Dalrymple also gently suggests that a way forward through present conflict may lie in acknowledging the similarities between the cultures and communities of the region. He writes, “In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be ‘clashing civilizations,’ supposedly ‘irreconcilable and necessarily hostile,’ it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.” One should read From the Holy Mountain to learn about or remember the history of Christianity – it is, as one reviewer put it, an evensong for a dying civilization. But one should also read this book to put into perspective contemporary cultural and religious conflicts in the Middle East and the role Christian communities have played, and could still.

Photos by Jessica Wright: 1. The Altar of the Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 2. Icons, Istanbul; 3. Chapel of St. Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 4. Armenian Shrine, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 5. The Aedicule, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 6. The Stone of the Anointing, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

“Women and Religious Traditions” (Anderson & Young, eds.)

Last month, Oxford University Press released “Women and Religious Traditions” edited by Leona M. Anderson (University of Regina) and Pamela Dickey Young (Queen’s University). The publisher’s description follows:

Women and Religious Traditions uses a critical feminist lens to explore the roles and interactions of women with major world faith traditions. Within each particular tradition, the text examines the history and status of women, family structures, sexuality, and social change, as well as texts, rituals, and interpretations by and for women.

Thirteen experts contribute nine chapters and five case studies, including a new case study on women in Chinese traditions. This third edition builds on the strengths of the first two, with the addition of lived religion content in each chapter, an expanded introduction to the study of women and religion, new research on Buddhist nuns, and up-to-date material on women’s current political position in Islamic countries.

Claassen, “Godless Democrats and Pious Republicans”

This June, Cambridge University Press will release “Godless Democrats and Pious Republicans: Party Activists, Party Capture, and the ‘God Gap’” by Ryan L. Klaassen (Kent State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Godless DemocratsDo Evangelical activists control the Republican Party? Do secular activists control the Democratic Party? In Godless Democrats and Pious Republicans?, Ryan Claassen carefully assesses the way campaign activists represent religious and non-religious groups in American political parties dating back to the 1960s. By providing a new theoretical framework for investigating the connections between macro social and political trends, the results challenge a conventional wisdom in which recently mobilized religious and Secular extremists captured the parties and created a God gap. The new approach reveals that very basic social and demographic trends matter far more than previously recognized and that mobilization matters far less. The God gap in voting is real, but it was not created by Christian Right mobilization efforts and a Secular backlash. Where others see culture wars and captured parties, Claassen finds many religious divisions in American politics are artifacts of basic social changes. This very basic insight leads to many profoundly different conclusions about the motivations of religious and non-religious activists and voters.