Week 1: Narrative and Theory

  • Butler, Jon. “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History.” The Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 1, 2004): 1357–1378.
  • Hollinger, David A. “The ‘Secularization’ Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century.” Church History 70, no. 1 (March 2001): 132–143.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.

This week’s readings provide a two-fold introduction to the course. First, the articles offer a type of “state of the field” regarding religions place in the larger twentieth century narrative. In “Jack-in-the-Box Faith,” Butler addresses the relative lack of religion in the modern U.S. historical narrative by asking, “Was religion important in American public and private life after 1870, and how should historians describe it?” [1360]. He delves into this question by discussing the issue of secularization, religions relationship with politics, and finally its compatibility with modernity. David Hollinger, in “The ‘Secularization’ Question,” provides the reader with two different perspectives on the secularization narrative. The first perspective posits that the U.S. is largely an exception to the secularization of industrialized societies while the second perspective states that the United States’ Christian cultural hegemony is in a state of decline [134-135].  Hollinger outlines numerous “hopes” he has regarding the secularization question that would lead to a fuller and more productive discussion.

Both Butler and Hollinger are concerned with the narrative. Butler sees the lack of religion in the 20th century narrative as providing a type of false narrative. This is illustrated in textbooks with their “inattention to conservative Protestantism and Fundamentalism after the Scopes trial of 1925 makes the emergence of post-1970 conservative Protestant political activism unexpected.” Furthermore, the sporadic appearances of religion disrupt the ability of history to “explore a society’s broadest, most complex, and sometimes contradictory transformations.” [1359] Hollinger would agree and would add that, in part, the religious narrative suffers because “specialists in the study of American Christianity in the twentieth century might shed light, but often do not.” [134] This religion in decline narrative that continues to hold sway in academia, Hollinger argues, damages the religious scholars influence and position. The narrative suffers because the scholars don’t focus on the presence of Christianity and its enduring place in American life. Butler and Hollinger see a narrative religiously in distress. I would concur with this position as a nineteenth-century historian. I, too, have been exposed to and even subscribed to, at times, the decline of religion in the twentieth century. Thus, Butler’s three questions regarding religions role in modern America (1. Did religion make a difference in modern America? 2. How did it make a difference? 3. Why did it make a difference?) weigh heavily on my mind as I move forward in the narrative and this course.

The second half of this two-fold introduction comes from Thomas Tweed’s book on religious theory. Tweed does not seek to support or advocate one of the establishes theories but to posit a theory of his own that addresses movement, relation, and position. Relying on aquatic and spatial metaphors, Tweed defines religions as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.” [54] The remainder of his book is devoted to parsing and explaining each part of that definition using numerous examples across religions.

One of the underlying themes in Tweed’s theory is “sighting and situating.” In his opening chapter, Tweed articulates that “theories of religion are sightings from particular geographical and social sites” and because of this “they are always situated.” [18] These sightings are “situated” specifically because the theorists are not ungrounded or operated in a type of “God view.” Personally, this becomes an important observation and one that I must continually work an as I continue in my studies. Tweed articulates that his position, whether it be his class, race, gender, profession etc., obscures some things and illumines others. My position as a middle class, white man obscures aspects of religions. This concept is particularly poignant for me as a geographer and cartography. One of my professors repeated, often, that maps both reveal and conceal. In the process of transmitting a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional surface, information is both maintained and lost. Tweed is merely restating this observation as it applies to theories of religion. Furthermore, he recognizes the shortcomings of his own theory. As such, theories of religions act as simple invitations to “consider this” rather than definitive explanations.Tweed’s theory is enticing to say the least.

Week 1: Narrative and Theory

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