Episcopalians’ Influence in American Culture

Speaking simply in terms of social status, Episcopalians have traditionally been at the top of America’s informal religious hierarchy. This was much more the case a few generations ago, perhaps, and even more so in the early part of the 20th Century. (When Golden Age Hollywood wanted to portray the upper class at church, it almost invariably depicted Episcopalians–just think of The Philadelphia Story and The Bishop’s Wife). A forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, by Peter Williams (Miami University), explores the influence of wealthy Episcopalians on urban culture in America. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This cultural history of mainline Protestantism and American cities–most notably, New York City–focuses on wealthy, urban Episcopalians and the influential ways they used their money. Peter W. Williams argues that such Episcopalians, many of them the country’s most successful industrialists and financiers, left a deep and lasting mark on American urban culture. Their sense of public responsibility derived from a sacramental theology that gave credit to the material realm as a vehicle for religious experience and moral formation, and they came to be distinguished by their participation in major aesthetic and social welfare endeavors.

Williams traces how the church helped transmit a European-inflected artistic patronage that was adapted to the American scene by clergy and laity intent upon providing moral and aesthetic leadership for a society in flux. Episcopalian influence is most visible today in the churches, cathedrals, and elite boarding schools that stand in many cities and other locations, but Episcopalians also provided major support to the formation of stellar art collections, the performing arts, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Williams argues that Episcopalians thus helped smooth the way for acceptance of materiality in religious culture in a previously iconoclastic, Puritan-influenced society.

Have Americans Lost Their Sense of Imagination?

The Marxist political theorist Benedict Anderson famously defined nations as “imagined communities” that depend on people’s illusion of membership in a shared national identity. The bonds that form as a result of this imagination can be remarkably strong. And when people lose the sense of common identity–when they no longer see themselves as part of a shared national heritage, even an imagined one–political dissolution can follow very quickly.

A new collection of essays from the University of Nebraska Press, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, edited by Joshua Claybourn, argues that Americans have lost a common store of symbols to unite us. The results seem obvious. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Over the past few decades, the complicated divides of geography, class, religion, and race created deep fractures in the United States, each side fighting to advance its own mythology and political interests. We lack a central story, a common ground we can celebrate and enrich with deeper meaning. Unable to agree on first principles, we cannot agree on what it means to be American. As we dismantle or disregard symbols and themes that previously united us, can we replace them with stories and rites that unite our tribes and maintain meaning in our American identity?

Against this backdrop, Our American Story features leading thinkers from across the political spectrum—Jim Banks, Pulitzer Prize–winner David W. Blight, Spencer P. Boyer, Eleanor Clift, John C. Danforth, Cody Delistraty, Richard A. Epstein, Nikolas Gvosdev, Cherie Harder, Jason Kuznicki, Gerard N. Magliocca, Markos Moulitsas, Ilya Somin, Cass R. Sunstein, Alan Taylor, James V. Wertsch, Gordon S. Wood, and Ali Wyne. Each draws on expertise within their respective fields of history, law, politics, and public policy to contribute a unique perspective about the American story. This collection explores whether a unifying story can be achieved and, if so, what that story could be.

A New History of the Councils

From Harvard, here is a new survey of recent–“recent” being a comparative term–ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, by Georgetown University scholar John O’Malley, whose work we have noted before. The book looks like it would be especially helpful for people who need an introduction to the subject. The publisher’s description follows:

From one of our foremost church historians comes an overarching analysis of the three modern Catholic councils—an assessment of what Catholicism was and has become today.

Catholic councils are meetings of bishops. In this unprecedented comparison of the three most recent meetings, John O’Malley traverses more than 450 years of Catholic history and examines the councils’ most pressing and consistent concerns: questions of purpose, power, and relevance in a changing world. By offering new, sometimes radical, even troubling perspectives on these convocations, When Bishops Meet analyzes the evolution of the church itself.

The Catholic Church today is shaped by the historical arc starting from Trent in the sixteenth century to Vatican II. The roles of popes, the laity, theologians, and others have varied from the bishop-centered Trent, to Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, to a new balance of power in the mid-twentieth century. At Trent, lay people had direct influence on proceedings. By Vatican II, their presence was token. At each gathering, fundamental issues recurred: the relationship between bishops and the papacy, the very purpose of a council, and doctrinal change. Can the teachings of the church, by definition a conservative institution, change over time?

Councils, being ecclesiastical as well as cultural institutions, have always reflected and profoundly influenced their times. Readers familiar with John O’Malley’s earlier work as well as those with no knowledge of councils will find this volume an indispensable guide for essential questions: Who is in charge of the church? What difference did the councils make, and will there be another?

The Book of Common Prayer

People often give the King James Bible as a rare example of a beautiful text put together by government commission. Another example dates from the same period. The Book of Common Prayer traces back to the Tudors and, like the KJV, has entered into the common consciousness of the English-speaking world. The text was approved in 1559 by only three votes in the House of Lords, with no support at all from the Lords Spiritual. I’m not qualified to speak on the theology, but, at least in terms of the beauty and dignity of its language, those bishops definitely had it wrong.

Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written a new history, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Princeton University Press) Jacobs is always worth reading and this new book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:

While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.

The book’s chief maker, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. But as Jacobs recounts, the book has had a variable and dramatic career in the complicated history of English church politics, and has been the focus of celebrations, protests, and even jail terms. As time passed, new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland, then in the new United States, and eventually wherever the British Empire extended its arm. Over time, Cranmer’s book was adapted for different preferences and purposes. Jacobs vividly demonstrates how one book became many–and how it has shaped the devotional lives of men and women across the globe.

Christianity & Political Theory

Earlier this month, InterVarsity Press released a new edition of David Koyzis’s survey of contemporary political theory from a Chrtistian perspective, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. The last edition was published in 2003. A lot sure has happened since then. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What you believe about politics matters. The decades since the Cold War, with new alignments of post–9/11 global politics and the chaos of the late 2010s, are swirling with alternative visions of political life, ranging from ethnic nationalism to individualistic liberalism.

Political ideologies are not merely a matter of governmental efficacy, but are intrinsically and inescapably religious: each carries certain assumptions about the nature of reality, individuals and society, as well as a particular vision for the common good. These fundamental beliefs transcend the political sphere, and the astute Christian observer can discern the ways—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—in which ideologies are rooted in idolatrous worldviews.

In this freshly updated, comprehensive study, political scientist David Koyzis surveys the key political ideologies of our era, including liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. Koyzis gives each philosophy careful analysis and fair critique, unpacking the worldview issues inherent to each and pointing out essential strengths and weaknesses, as well as revealing the “narrative structure” of each—the stories they tell to make sense of public life and the direction of history. Koyzis concludes by proposing alternative models that flow out of Christianity’s historic engagement with the public square, retrieving approaches for both individuals and the global, institutional church that hold promise for the complex political realities of the twenty-first century.

Writing with broad international perspective and keen analytical insight, Koyzis is a sane and sensible guide for Christians working in the public square, culture watchers, political pundits, and all students of modern political thought.

The Family That Prays Together

Several years ago, I watched the HBO version of David McCullough’s book on John Adams, the one with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. It was a good version, but one scene in the last episode annoyed me, because it seemed such an obvious mistake. At the end of his days, Adams advises his grandson always to remain optimistic about life: “Rejoice always!” Adams says. And when his grandson doesn’t recognize the reference, Adams admonishes him. “It’s from St. Paul,” he exclaims!

Except that’s not the full quote. The full quote from St. Paul is, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I’m pretty confident Adams wouldn’t have edited it in the way the writers did, because Adams was a devout man for the whole of his life. Perhaps the writers thought the full quote would have unsettled too many HBO viewers.

A new book from Oxford, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, explores the way Christianity influenced that illustrious New England political dynasty–and, through them, American thought and politics. The author is Sara Georgini, editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Reflecting on his past, President John Adams mused that it was religion that had shaped his family’s fortunes and young America’s future. For the nineteenth century’s first family, the Adamses of Massachusetts, the history of how they lived religion was dynamic and well-documented. Christianity supplied the language that Abigail used to interpret husband John’s political setbacks. Scripture armed their son John Quincy to act as father, statesman, and antislavery advocate. Unitarianism gave Abigail’s Victorian grandson, Charles Francis, the religious confidence to persevere in political battles on the Civil War homefront. By contrast, his son Henry found religion hollow and repellent compared to the purity of modern science. A renewal of faith led Abigail’s great-grandson Brooks, a Gilded Age critic of capitalism, to prophesy two world wars.

Globetrotters who chronicled their religious journeys extensively, the Adamses ultimately developed a cosmopolitan Christianity that blended discovery and criticism, faith and doubt. Drawing from their rich archive, Sara Georgini, series editor for The Papers of John Adams, demonstrates how pivotal Christianity–as the different generations understood it–was in shaping the family’s decisions, great and small. Spanning three centuries of faith from Puritan New England to the Jazz Age, Household Gods tells a new story of American religion, as the Adams family lived it.

Too Much Liberalism or Not Enough?

Our friend and Tradition Project member, Patrick Deneen, argues that America’s cultural crisis, and the West’s more generally, reflects an excess of individualism that is liberalism’s inevitable consequence. A new book from Encounter, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, maintains that our problem is the opposite. America’s cultural decline reflects not an excess but a lack of individualism or, more precisely, an inability to deal with the challenges posed by cultures and peoples who do not endorse can-do individualism the way that America does. (The point about the salience of cultural differences reminds me of Huntington, though Huntington didn’t draw normative lessons, at least not in The Clash of Civilizations). Readers can make up their own minds who has the better argument, though I side with Deneen, myself. The author of the new book is Lawrence Mead (NYU). Here’s the description from the Encounter website.

Burdens of Freedom presents a new and radical interpretation of America and its challenges. The United States is an individualist society where most people seek to realize personal goals and values out in the world. This unusual, inner-driven culture was the chief reason why first Europe, then Britain, and finally America came to lead the world. But today, our deepest problems derive from groups and nations that reflect the more passive, deferential temperament of the non-West. The long-term poor and many immigrants have difficulties assimilating in America mainly because they are less inner-driven than the norm. Abroad, the United States faces challenges from Asia, which is collective-minded, and also from many poorly-governed countries in the developing world. The chief threat to American leadership is no longer foreign rivals like China but the decay of individualism within our own society.

The great divide is between the individualist West, for which life is a project, and the rest of the world, in which most people seek to survive rather than achieve. This difference, although clear in research on world cultures, has been ignored in virtually all previous scholarship on American power and public policy, both at home and abroad. Burdens of Freedom is the first work to recognize that difference. It casts new light on America’s greatest struggles. It re-evaluates the entire Western tradition, which took individualism for granted. How to respond to cultural difference is the greatest test of our times.

The Destruction of the Temple (Part II)

Following up on yesterday’s post about the impact the destruction of the Second Temple had on the politics of Christians in the Roman Empire, here is another on the impact the event had on Jews, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. The author is Jodi Magness (UNC-Chapel Hill) and the publisher is Princeton University Press. The publisher’s description follows:

A new account of the famous site and story of the last stand of a group of Jewish rebels who held out against the Roman Empire

Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. And yet, because the mass suicide was recorded by only one ancient author—the Jewish historian Josephus—some scholars question if the event ever took place.

Jodi Magness, an archaeologist who has excavated at Masada, explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story. Incorporating the latest findings, she integrates literary and historical sources to show what life was like for Jews under Roman rule during an era that witnessed the reign of Herod and Jesus’s ministry and death.

Featuring numerous illustrations, this is an engaging exploration of an ancient story that continues to grip the imagination today.

The Destruction of the Temple

Quite apart from theological meanings, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD had major political implications for Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire. For Jews, it signaled the beginning of the Diaspora and the end of statehood for the next 2000 years. For Christians, the destruction of the temple, and the Jewish rebellion more generally, created an opportunity to draw a distinction between themselves and Jews and declare their political loyalty to the emperor, themes that appear repeatedly in the New Testament.

A new book from Yale, The Temple in Early Christianity: Experiencing the Sacred, explores the meaning for early Christians of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The author is Eyal Regev (Bar-Ilan). Here’s the description from the Yale website:

A comprehensive treatment of the early Christian approaches to the Temple and its role in shaping Jewish and Christian identity.

The first scholarly work to trace the Temple throughout the entire New Testament, this study examines Jewish and Christian attitudes toward the Temple in the first century and provides both Jews and Christians with a better understanding of their respective faiths and how they grow out of this ancient institution. The centrality of the Temple in New Testament writing reveals the authors’ negotiations with the institutional and symbolic center of Judaism as they worked to form their own religion.

Popular Sovereignty in Islam

We start the week with an interesting-looking book from Harvard on how Islamist movements have adopted popular sovereignty–an idea unknown in classical Islam–as a main element of their political programs. In classical Islam, Islamic law was the domain of scholars, who had authority to guide the ruler, or caliph, in governing the umma. But many contemporary Islamist movements distrust, or at least diminish, the role of scholars. Instead, these movements argue that the Muslim people have the authority to instantiate God’s law and govern society in a godly way. This is a real transformation in Islamic thought, with major implications. The book is The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought, by political scientist Andrew March (University of Massachusetts-Amherst). The publisher’s description follows:

A political theorist teases out the century-old ideological transformation at the heart of contemporary discourse in Muslim nations undergoing political change.

The Arab Spring precipitated a crisis in political Islam. In Egypt Islamists have been crushed. In Turkey they have descended into authoritarianism. In Tunisia they govern but without the label of “political Islam.” Andrew March explores how, before this crisis, Islamists developed a unique theory of popular sovereignty, one that promised to determine the future of democracy in the Middle East.

This began with the claim of divine sovereignty, the demand to restore the sharīʿa in modern societies. But prominent theorists of political Islam also advanced another principle, the Quranic notion that God’s authority on earth rests not with sultans or with scholars’ interpretation of written law but with the entirety of the Muslim people, the umma. Drawing on this argument, utopian theorists such as Abū’l-Aʿlā Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb released into the intellectual bloodstream the doctrine of the caliphate of man: while God is sovereign, He has appointed the multitude of believers as His vicegerent. The Caliphate of Man argues that the doctrine of the universal human caliphate underpins a specific democratic theory, a kind of Islamic republic of virtue in which the people have authority over the government and religious leaders. But is this an ideal regime destined to survive only as theory?

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