Eroding Biblical Certainty in Early America

I see that my last post came in…exactly one month ago. To which I can say, it’s been one of those months.

My monthly post for the Religion in American History blog just went live. In it, I give a quick review of Michael J. Lee’s Erosion of Biblical Certainty.

Having seen the manuscript at several points along its life, I’m thrilled to see this book in print. Lee pays close attention to how the Bible was read, understood, and defended in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is an excellent study in the history of biblical criticism and the place of the Bible in American life. Along the way, Lee is offering a gentle rebuke to those biblical defenders who attempted to use the rationalist instruments of their critics to defend the Bible. He is suggesting that a healthier defense of inspiration comes from the assertion of faith within the confessing community.

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In the review, I also relate Lee’s book to Charles Taylor’s massive work A Secular Age. Lee might be read as offering a small piece of the secularization story Taylor tells. And, if we’re mentioning Taylor, let me suggest that people also be on the look-out for James K.A. Smith’s forthcoming book How (Not) to Be Secular.

Jump over and read the review here.

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Religious Authority in America

I just posted my monthly piece to the Religion in American History Blog.

In this one, I spring-board off of discussions of George Marsden’s new book (read my quick review here) to raise the larger point about about the dilemma of religious authority in America.

As I demonstrate in a brief sketch, religious authority has been something Christians in America have been wrestling with for a long time–at least back to Jonathan Edwards, although one could make the argument it goes back to Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams.

From Wikimedia Commons

Tocqueville, From Wikimedia Commons

To my mind, understanding Tocqueville is an important piece of this dilemma. Tocqueville saw with great insight the challenges confronting any authority, including religious authority, in a society whose first passion was democracy.

Take a look at the piece, and let me know what you think.

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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

Just released this week, I wanted to give a quick comment on George Marsden’s new book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

The nutshell version is: Run, don’t walk, to buy this book. Or, if that’s too “last century” for your taste, drop it immediately into your Amazon cart.

Marsden is one of the leading historians of American religion–and, for purposes of disclosure, my graduate advisor. He has previously published award-winning books on Fundamentalism, religion and the university, and most recently, Jonathan Edwards.

In this new book he jumps back to the twentieth century to examine, as the subtitle has it, “The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.”

In Marsden’s account, “liberal” in the 1950s was used as a centrist term, for the rational, open-minded approach to the world favored by the cultural mainstream. This liberal outlook, Marsden contends, continued to embrace the empirical, rationalist values of the American Enlightenment, which dated back to the eighteenth century. Such an approach favored a unified cultural outlook that had little room for diversity. Religiously, it embraced a liberal Protestantism, which remained institutionally close to the levers of cultural influence.

Although culturally confident in the 1950s, this dominant approach was actually on its last legs. It was maintaining its optimism and intellectual categories, while the under-girding belief system was dissipating. It was thus set for a rapid decline with the cultural and intellectual upheavals of the later 1960s. That era would produce approaches that would undermine easy confidence in rationality, the authority of science, individualism, and cultural consensus–all factors of the cultural confidence of the ’50s. As consensus culture shattered, it produced many subgroups, but with no coherent ideal to keep them together. The end result was to set intellectual trends that remain to this day.

Another result was secularism. The shattered coherence sidelined liberal Protestantism, replacing it not with another set of beliefs but with no religious belief. The end result was a dominant form of secularism. As Marsden had, in the Soul of the American University, chronicled this secularization in higher education (from established Protestantism to established non-belief), so now he traces it on a broader cultural level.

In his conclusion, Marsden echoes a strategy that has become a trademark: he steps back from his subject to consider how the historical account can help us (collectively) think about contemporary issues. He argues for the need for a principled pluralism. He criticizes how both evangelicals and secularists seem unable to come to terms with pluralism, to make a place for genuine difference in the pursuit of the common good. Instead, he offers a helpful contrast to the work of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands at the turn of the twentieth century. Kuyper, although deeply Reformed in his thought, made an intentional place for cultural and religious differences. That the Kuyperian option never really appealed to American thinkers is also a legacy of American interpretations of enlightenment.

Throughout, the writing is done gracefully, and complex issues are treated clearly. This is an engaging and accessible book for anyone willing to think through important issues.

Finally, I can’t resist one historiographic note. There’s been much recent discussion of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, which highlights the problem of authority among neo-evangelicals who claimed authority from Biblical sources but still needed interpreters or organizational leaders. On the other hand, Marsden suggests that there was simultaneously a crisis of authority among liberals and modernist Protestants. Put together, the two books could highlight a very real theme about issues of authority in democratic America. I definitely think the two could be read profitably alongside each other.

In any case, the homework for each reader of this post should be to buy and then read Marsden’s Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

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Huguenots in the World

Last week my most recent posting went up at the “Religion in American History” site.

I started off the piece with a reference to an internet meme. If I were to draw it up, it would look like this:

The Dos Equis Man reflecting on the AHR

The Dos Equis Man reflecting on the AHR

I wasn’t sure if this would have lowered the tone of the other blog too much, so I’m sharing this image only with you, kind readers.

The context was that I did find an American Historical Review article that I liked (actually, somewhat of a rare occurrence).

In the December 2013 AHR, Owen Stanwood published an interesting piece about the Huguenot diaspora, entitled “Between Eden and Empire: Huguenot Refugees and the Promise of New Worlds.” Huguenots came to British North America and made a tremendous impact, but they also spread throughout the world.

A bonus: see if you can spot any references to Federalist leaders in the piece.

Read all of my comments here.

And, my comments also got noticed on the “Way of Improvement” blog!

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Hello, Digital Symposium!

My, my.

Last week I highlighted an op-ed by a former student, this week I get to introduce an entire website!

A group of current and former Northwestern students have set up “The Digital Symposium.” The editor, Jacob Wolf, describes the endeavor this way:

We are a group of individuals with an interest in the liberal arts who are committed to seeking a depth of understanding in all that we do and think.  We have launched this blog to begin a conversation about ideas, for like Richard Weaver, we emphatically assert that “ideas have consequences.”  This blog is a means for us to sharpen our thinking through the art of writing, to engage in conversation/dialectic to “rightfully divide the truth,” and to spark anew (or rekindle) in our readers a passion for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

And, as if that’s not enough, let me also quote Wolf’s conclusion:

As we christen The Digital Symposium (and lives devoted to intellectual excellence and virtue), may it be said of us as was once recounted of Basil the Great, that the galleons of our lives be “laden with all the learning attainable by the nature of man.”

Not only does Wolf has a nice introductory piece, there is also an essay on The Great Gatsby and the American Dream presently up. I have no doubt more meaty stuff is still to follow.

It’s great to see students carry on an interest in the liberal arts and join the conversation. Again, historical training offers tremendous ways for thinking about the big questions–the questions that urgently need to be addressed in the present world.

So again, check out The Digital Symposium!

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Realistic Patriotism, Public Service, and a Former Student

I recently learned that a former student of mine at the University of Northwestern recently published an op-ed in his hometown newspaper.

Aaron Reep is currently undergoing Marine Officer Training, but he managed to publish the piece in his Springfield, Ohio paper. The piece is based on a talk he gave before he left for training.

I think the piece is worth reading for several reasons.

First, it gets points for mentioning one of his former professors.

More significantly, I appreciate the piece for the realistic patriotism it expresses. It recognizes problems (currently as well as in the past) with the country. It doesn’t simply regurgitate slogans or rely on mythology masquerading as history. Instead, it possesses an eyes-wide-open approach to conditions. The author’s response, though, is to contribute his bit of public service for national defense as a way of improving the nation and conserving its strengths for the future. I suspect this more realistic outlook will better be able to withstand future challenges.

I would suggest this is a model of public-spirited, reflective citizenship that history–and dare I say history at the University of Northwestern?–can help nurture.

Read the whole thing here.

Thanks, Aaron!

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Religion, National Identity, and Voluntary Societies in the Mid-Atlantic

Looking at my last post, I see the blog has been pretty quiet since early last month. That’s something to change in the New Year–although I hesitate to call it a “resolution.”

I can start off the year with some content, though.  I have a new post up at Religion in American History. This time, I’m writing a review of a book from 2007, called Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic. I just recently came across the book, and I enjoyed it.

Anyway, click on over to read the review!

Many Identities, One Nation

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