Wednesday, November 16, 2011

American Religious Histories 2012

Each year around this time, I spend some time thinking over this course, evaluating past semesters, and deciding whether to make any significant changes in structure, content, or format. Although there are certain things I feel I must include in a course like this, there are lots of things I could include or very much want to include but ultimately decide to leave out. Sometimes I feel I would love to teach this as a three-semester-long seminar... Then I would not have to make quite as many messy decisions about what to include and what not to include!

This year, I've decided to make significant changes in the course structure and content.

My most significant decision has been to introduce a new unit on American Islam.

In order to make room for this, I've decided to dramatically shorten my introductory lecture giving an "overview" of American religious history, and instead jump right into the substance of the course on the first day of class with a lecture on the American Religious Establishment.

I've also made some fairly dramatic changes in terms of text book choices:
* Catherine Albanese, America: Religions and Religion. Every year, I wrestle with using this text. I'm not sure I agree with Albanese's philosophy of religion. However, I like the fact that her textbook relies on a thematic approach. Rather than giving us a single narrative of American religious history, each chapter deals with a different religion or religions -- which fits with the way I've chosen to structure my course. This year I considered making the Albanese text optional -- for those students who were less familiar with the religious diversity of the American scene. Ultimately, I decided against that because I still had to be selective with my other text choices, and Albanese is the only text that deals with all the religions I have chosen to cover in the course.

* Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. I really thought about dropping this book this year, because it's too easy. My students have tended to take too much for granted in reading this text, and many have dismissed it too easily because of its obvious limitations -- or I should say, because of the obvious limitations of the historical space in which it was written. Ultimately, I decided to keep it because it speaks so directly to so many important themes in the class, and have opted instead to work harder at pushing my students to engage with Paine a bit more seriously.

* Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. I used this text the first semester I taught this, back in 2008. For a few years, I was using Armand Mauss' Angel and the Beehive to cover Mormonism, mainly because his sociological model for analyzing Mormonism was useful in studying some of the other religions we cover in my class, and because Mauss presents a portrait of Mormonism that tends to break a lot of the stereotypes my students typically come to a study of Mormonism with. I liked that he covered developments in Mormonism since the 1950s. However, I've decided I can present Mauss' sociological model in lecture, and I personally can play the role of stereotype-breaker and up-to-date-bringer. I decided I wanted to go back to using a text that will allow the class to engage more deeply with the substance of Mormon belief -- and the Book of Mormon is a great place to start with that.

* George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. I'm keeping Marsden. I wanted at least one "classic" work in the field of American religious history, and Marsden fits the bill. Marsden changed the way we look at Fundamentalism in some very healthy and helpful ways. He does not dismiss Fundamentalists as irrational, backward-looking naysayers, but rather shows how Fundamentalists were engaging with modern culture in a way that was both rational and defended positive values. His work is still in many ways definitive, and I want everyone who takes my course to come to terms with him and his arguments.

* Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950. NEW! I'm not sure I'll be able to use this text yet, because it's currently out of print. The Seminary Bookstore is looking into getting it from some used book distributors (a good thing for my students, because then it will hopefully be cheaper!) I really, really hope I can use this text, because I love the way it explores the relationship between religion and culture. I love the light it sheds on the triumphs, pitfalls and challenges of Jewish experience in America. Finally, I love its demonstration of how Jewish women, and concerns about the family, played a central role in shaping American Jewish culture and religion. This text, I think, can allow us to explore gender and American religion in greater depth.

* Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. Also NEW! I wanted a text that dealt with Pentecostalism, which is, after all, the fastest growing religious movement in America and in the world. The story of women in the Church of God in Christ -- the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S. -- is particularly interesting, because women did not achieve full ordination equality there as they did in certain other (smaller) Pentecostal organizations, though they did negotiate autonomy (through the creation of the Women's Department) and teaching status that permitted them to play a central, formative role in the denomination's history. In addition to exploring the theology, sociology and politics of women's relationships with the Church, it also explores Pentecostalism's relationship to the broader culture, and shows how women helped to define that relationship. Love this book!

* Clifton Marsh, The Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America. Also NEW! This may be the most challenging text for my students, because Marsh comes from a place of advocacy for militant black nationalism. This text certainly has been challenging for me -- but extremely rewarding as well. It contains a clearly written, engaging narrative of the rise of the Nation of Islam, including its more controversial teachings and doctrines, and its eventual dismantling by W.D. Muhammad in favor of Orthodox Islam in the 1970s and 80s -- only to be reborn again under the tutelage of Louis Farrakhan. Marsh argues that black nationalism will continue to be reborn in every generation, so long as the conditions of racism and inequality that produced it in the first place continue. I want to use this text for the course because it will allow us to explore black religion from a new perspective, and will also give us an angle from which to engage with the much broader history of American Islam (which includes both native-born African Americans and Middle Eastern and African immigrants). (I plan to require my students to read the first two appendices of this text, which reproduce in full Marsh's interviews with W.D. Muhammad and Abdul Alim Muhammad.)

These book choices may not be final... A lot depends on whether I can get Joselit's book on American Jewish cultural history!

In order to make room for the new texts, I've dropped Hatch's book on the Second Great Awakening (The Democratization of American Christianity), Raboteau's Slave Religion, and Orsi's classic work on immigrant Catholicism, The Madonna of 115th Street. All of these are, in their own way, classics of American religious history. They are all books every serious student of American religion ought to read. But, I decided my previous book choices were too focused on Christianity and not inclusive enough of women's voices. (Orsi's book of course was inclusive of women's voices... I regret dropping his book most of all.)

I'm also making significant changes in the order of the lectures as well. I've chosen to cover the religions in a different order partly to give myself a break from old routines, but also because I am going to make a greater effort to explore certain important themes in American religious history. My choice of 6 paired themes (REVELATION / REASON, SURVIVAL / GENDER, and AUTHORITY / FREEDOM) will guide the order of coverage, rather than some attempt to stay true to a chronological narrative of American history... There will probably be significant revision of the content of the lectures too, to overlap less with the Albanese text and to spend more time examining historiographical/theoretical issues.

I'm excited! Can't wait for February!