In February, Pantheon published “Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion,” by Susan Jacoby. The publisher’s description follows:
In this original and riveting exploration, Susan Jacoby argues that conversion—especially in the free American “religious marketplace”—is too often viewed only within the conventional and simplistic narrative of personal reinvention and divine grace. Instead, the author places conversions within a secular social context that has, at various times, included the force of a unified church and state, desire for upward economic mobility, and interreligious marriage—the latter as critical in the early Christian era as in the United States today, where half of Americans have switched faiths at least once in their adult lives. The sometimes tragic, sometimes inspiring story is shaped by the competing absolute truth claims of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam and their impact on Jews—the only monotheistic believers with an older historical stake. Moving through time, continents, and cultures—dealing with the often-ignored forced conversion of American slaves to Christianity as well as with the better-known story of the Spanish Inquisition and the persecution of both atheists and Christians in modern Islamic theocracies—the story also includes conversions to authoritarian secular ideologies, notably Stalinist Communism, that resemble traditional, unquestioning faith. Finally, the author examines true religious choice—a product of the Enlightenment pioneered by the U.S. Constitution. This history is punctuated by portraits of individual converts, including the Catholic Church father Augustine of Hippo; the German Jewish convert to Catholicism Edith Stein, murdered at Auschwitz and canonized by the church; boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who scandalized white Americans in the 1960s by becoming a Muslim, and even politicians such as George W. Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair. In a forthright conclusion to this enthralling history, Strange Gods takes on the question of why the freedom to choose a religion—or to reject religion altogether—is a fundamental human rights issue that remains a breeding ground for violence in areas of the world that never experienced an Enlightenment.
Posted in Christina Vlahos, Scholarship Roundup
Tagged Books, Christianity, Church and State, Conversion, History of Conversion, History of Religion, Human Rights, Islam, Religion and Society, Religion in America, Secularism
In February, the University of Pennsylvania Press will release “Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics” by Noel Lenski. The publisher’s description follows:
Over the course of the fourth century, Christianity rose from a religion actively persecuted by the authority of the Roman empire to become the religion of state—a feat largely credited to Constantine the Great. Constantine succeeded in propelling this minority religion to imperial status using the traditional tools of governance, yet his proclamation of his new religious orientation was by no means unambiguous. His coins and inscriptions, public monuments, and pronouncements sent unmistakable signals to his non-Christian subjects that he was willing not only to accept their beliefs about the nature of the divine but also to incorporate traditional forms of religious expression into his own self-presentation. In Constantine and the Cities, Noel Lenski attempts to reconcile these apparent contradictions by examining the dialogic nature of Constantine’s power and how his rule was built in the space between his ambitions for the empire and his subjects’ efforts to further their own understandings of religious truth.
Focusing on cities and the texts and images produced by their citizens for and about the emperor, Constantine and the Cities uncovers the interplay of signals between ruler and subject, mapping out the terrain within which Constantine nudged his subjects in the direction of conversion. Reading inscriptions, coins, legal texts, letters, orations, and histories, Lenski demonstrates how Constantine and his subjects used the instruments of government in a struggle for authority over the religion of the empire.
This month, the University of Texas Press releases “Crescent Over Another Horizon: Islam in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Latino USA,” edited by Maria del Mar Logroño Narbona (Florida International University), Paulo G. Pinto (Universidade Federal Fluminense), and John Tofik Karam (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The publisher’s description follows:
Muslims have been shaping the Americas for more than five hundred years, yet this interplay is frequently overlooked or misconstrued. Brimming with revelations that synthesize area and ethnic studies, Crescent over Another Horizon presents a portrait of Islam’s unity as it evolved through plural formulations of identity, power, and belonging. Offering a Latino American perspective on a wider Islamic world, the editors overturn the conventional perception of Muslim communities in the New World, arguing that their characterization as “minorities” obscures the interplay of ethnicity and religion that continues to foster transnational ties.
Bringing together studies of Iberian colonists, enslaved Africans, indentured South Asians, migrant Arabs, and Latino and Latin American converts, the volume captures the power-laden processes at work in religious conversion or resistance. Throughout each analysis—spanning times of inquisition, conquest, repressive nationalism, and anti-terror security protocols—the authors offer innovative frameworks to probe the ways in which racialized Islam has facilitated the building of new national identities while fostering a double-edged marginalization. The subjects of the essays transition from imperialism (with studies of morisco converts to Christianity, West African slave uprisings, and Muslim and Hindu South Asian indentured laborers in Dutch Suriname) to the contemporary Muslim presence in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Trinidad, completed by a timely examination of the United States, including Muslim communities in “Hispanicized” South Florida and the agency of Latina conversion. The result is a fresh perspective that opens new horizons for a vibrant range of fields.
In August, the Cornell University Press released “Christian Imperialism:
In 1812, eight American missionaries, under the direction of the recently formed American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, sailed from the United States to South Asia. The plans that motivated their voyage were no less grand than taking part in the Protestant conversion of the entire world. Over the next several decades, these men and women were joined by hundreds more American missionaries at stations all over the globe. Emily Conroy-Krutz shows the surprising extent of the early missionary impulse and demonstrates that American evangelical Protestants of the early nineteenth century were motivated by Christian imperialism—an understanding of international relations that asserted the duty of supposedly Christian nations, such as the United States and Britain, to use their colonial and commercial power to spread Christianity.
In describing how American missionaries interacted with a range of foreign locations (including India, Liberia, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, North America, and Singapore) and imperial contexts, Christian Imperialism provides a new perspective on how Americans thought of their country’s role in the world. While in the early republican period many were engaged in territorial expansion in the west, missionary supporters looked east and across the seas toward Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Conroy-Krutz’s history of the mission movement reveals that strong Anglo-American and global connections persisted through the early republic. Considering Britain and its empire to be models for their work, the missionaries of the American Board attempted to convert the globe into the image of Anglo-American civilization.
In October, the University of Chicago Press will release “Parables of Coercion: Conversion and Knowledge at the End of Islamic Spain,” by Seth Kimmel (Columbia University). The publisher’s description follows:
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, competing scholarly communities sought to define a Spain that was, at least officially, entirely Christian, even if many suspected that newer converts from Islam and Judaism were Christian in name only. Unlike previous books on conversion in early modern Spain, however, Parables of Coercion focuses not on the experience of the converts themselves, but rather on how questions surrounding conversion drove religious reform and scholarly innovation.
In its careful examination of how Spanish authors transformed the history of scholarship through debate about forced religious conversion, Parables of Coercion makes us rethink what we mean by tolerance and intolerance, and shows that debates about forced conversion and assimilation were also disputes over the methods and practices that demarcated one scholarly discipline from another.
In August, the Indiana University Press will release “Shi’i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal,” by Mara A. Leichtman (Michigan State University). The publisher’s description follows:
Mara A. Leichtman offers an in-depth study of Shi‘i Islam in two very different communities in Senegal: the well-established Lebanese diaspora and Senegalese “converts” from Sunni to Shi‘i Islam of recent decades. Sharing a minority religious status in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, each group is cosmopolitan in its own way. Leichtman provides new insights into the everyday lives of Shi‘i Muslims in Africa and the dynamics of local and global Islam. She explores the influence of Hizbullah and Islamic reformist movements, and offers a corrective to prevailing views of Sunni-Shi‘i hostility, demonstrating that religious coexistence is possible in a context such as Senegal.
This month, Brill releases “Changes in Ethical Worldviews of Spanish Missionaries in Mexico” by Ran Tene (Hebrew University). The publisher’s description follows:
“Conversion” is a basic religious concept, which has manifold implications for our everyday lives. Ran Tene’s Changes in Ethical Worldviews of Spanish Missionaries in Mexico utilizes a cross-disciplinary methodology in which the fields of Philosophy, History, and Literary Studies are drawn upon to analyze conversion. He focuses on two moments in Spanish writing about Mexican missions, the early to mid-sixteenth century writings of the Spanish missionaries to Mexico and the early seventeenth century manuscripts of the author/copyist Fray Juan de Torquemada. The analysis exposes changes in worldviews – including the concepts of identity, ownership, and cruelty – through missionary eyes. It suggests two theoretical models – the vision model and the model of touch – to describe these changes, which are manifested in the missionary project and in the texts that it (re)produced.
In April, Routledge will release “Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity” by Ankur Barua (University of Cambridge, UK). The publisher’s description follows:
Hindu and Christian debates over the meanings, motivations, and modalities of ‘conversion’ provide the central connecting theme running through this book. It focuses on the reasons offered by both sides to defend or oppose the possibility of these cross-border movements, and shows how these reasons form part of a wider constellation of ideas, concepts, and practices of the Christian and the Hindu worlds.
The book draws upon several historical case-studies of Christian missionaries and of Hindus who encountered these missionaries. By analyzing some of the complex negotiations, intersections, and conflicts between Hindus and Christians over the question of ‘conversion’, it demonstrates that these encounters revolve around three main contested themes. Firstly, who can properly ‘speak for the convert’? Secondly, how is ‘tolerating’ the religious other connected to an appraisal of the other’s viewpoints which may be held to be incorrect, inadequate, or incomplete? Finally, what is, in fact, the ‘true Religion’? The book demonstrates that it is necessary to wrestle with these questions for an adequate understanding of the Hindu and Christian debates over ‘conversion.’
Questioning what ‘conversion’ precisely is, and why it has been such a volatile issue on India’s political-legal landscape, the book will be a useful contribution to studies of Hinduism, Christianity and Asian Religion and Philosophy.
Today, Routledge releases Constructing Indian Christianities: Conversion, Culture, and Caste, edited by Chad M. Bauman (Butler University) and Richard Fox Young (Princeton Theological Seminary). The publisher’s description follows:
This volume offers insights into the current ‘public-square’ debates on Indian Christianity. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork as well as rigorous analyses, it discusses the myriad histories of Christianity in India, its everyday practice and contestations and the process of its indigenisation. It addresses complex and pertinent themes such as Dalit Indian Christianity, diasporic nationalism and conversion. The work will interest scholars and researchers of religious studies, Dalit and subaltern studies, modern Indian history, and politics.
In June, Oxford University Press will publish Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850-1950, by Jamie Gilham. The publisher’s description follows.
Loyal Enemies uncovers the history of the earliest British converts to Islam who lived their lives freely as Muslims on British soil, from the 1850s to the 1950s. Drawing on original archival research, it reveals that people from across the range of social classes defied convention by choosing Islam in this period. Through a series of case studies of influential converts and pioneering Muslim communities, Loyal Enemies considers how the culture of Empire and imperialism influenced and affected their conversions and subsequent lives, before examining how they adapted and sustained their faith. Jamie Gilham shows that, although the overall number of converts was small, conversion to Islam aroused hostile reactions locally and nationally. He therefore also probes the roots of antipathy towards Islam and Muslims, identifies their manifestations and explores what conversion entailed socially and culturally. He also considers whether there was any substance to persistent allegations that converts had “divided” loyalties between the British Crown and a Muslim ruler, country or community. Loyal Enemies is a book about the past, but its core themes–about faith and belief, identity, Empire, loyalties and discrimination– are still salient today.