Mark Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada has been firmly established as the standard text on the Christian experience in North America. Now Noll has thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded his classic text to incorporate new materials and important themes, events, leaders, and changes of the last thirty years. Once again readers will benefit from his insights on the United States and Canada in this superb narrative survey of Christian churches, institutions, and cultural engagements from the colonial period through 2018.
A new book from Oxford looks interesting: Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction, by Edward Siecienski (Stockton University). The book seems to address only Eastern, as opposed to Oriental Orthodoxy, that is, the Chalcedonian churches that derive from the Byzantine experience (Greeks, Russians, and so on), rather than the Non-Chalcedonian churches (Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, and so on). Well, the title does say it’s a “short” introduction. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
To many in the West, Orthodoxy remains shrouded in mystery, an exotic and foreign religion that survived in the East following the Great Schism of 1054 that split the Christian world into two camps–Catholic and Orthodox. However, as the second largest Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity is anything but foreign to the nearly 300 million worshippers who practice it. For them, Orthodoxy is a living, breathing reality; a way of being Christian ultimately rooted in the person of Jesus and the experience of the early Church. Whether they are Greek, Russian, or American, Orthodox Christians are united by a common tradition and faith that binds them together despite differences in culture. True, the road has not always been smooth — Orthodox history is littered with tales of schisms and divisions, of persecutions and martyrdom, from the Sack of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet Union. Still, today Orthodoxy remains a vibrant part of the religious landscape, not only in those lands where it has made its historic home (Greece, Russia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe), but also increasingly in the West. Orthodox Christianity: A Very Short Introduction explores the enduring role of this religion, and the history, beliefs, and practices that have shaped it.
Conventional wisdom portrays Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister who dominated Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, as an arch-reactionary. And that seems basically right. Metternich opposed liberal nationalism and was an architect of the Holy Alliance, which attempted to defeat Revolutionary ideas in Europe through Christian values, including the divine right of kings. A forthcoming biography from Harvard, Metternich: Strategist and Visionary, by Wolfram Siemann (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) argues, though, that in fact Metternich was a progressive visionary. Readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:
A compelling new biography that recasts the most important European statesman of the first half of the nineteenth century, famous for his alleged archconservatism, as a friend of realpolitik and reform, pursuing international peace.
Metternich has a reputation as the epitome of reactionary conservatism. Historians treat him as the archenemy of progress, a ruthless aristocrat who used his power as the dominant European statesman of the first half of the nineteenth century to stifle liberalism, suppress national independence, and oppose the dreams of social change that inspired the revolutionaries of 1848. Wolfram Siemann paints a fundamentally new image of the man who shaped Europe for over four decades. He reveals Metternich as more modern and his career much more forward-looking than we have ever recognized.
Clemens von Metternich emerged from the horrors of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Siemann shows, committed above all to the preservation of peace. That often required him, as the Austrian Empire’s foreign minister and chancellor, to back authority. He was, as Henry Kissinger has observed, the father of realpolitik. But short of compromising on his overarching goal Metternich aimed to accommodate liberalism and nationalism as much as possible. Siemann draws on previously unexamined archives to bring this multilayered and dazzling man to life. We meet him as a tradition-conscious imperial count, an early industrial entrepreneur, an admirer of Britain’s liberal constitution, a failing reformer in a fragile multiethnic state, and a man prone to sometimes scandalous relations with glamorous women. Hailed on its German publication as a masterpiece of historical writing, Metternich will endure as an essential guide to nineteenth-century Europe, indispensable for understanding the forces of revolution, reaction, and moderation that shaped the modern world.
“Moving beyond the (now somewhat tired) debates about secularization as paradigm, theory, or master narrative, Periodizing Secularization focuses upon the empirical evidence for secularization, viewed in its descriptive sense as the waning social influence of religion, in Britain. Particular emphasis is attached to the two key performance indicators of religious allegiance and churchgoing, each subsuming several sub-indicators, between 1880 and 1945, including the first substantive account of secularization during the fin de siecle. A wide range of primary sources is deployed, many of them relatively or entirely unknown, and with due regard to their methodological and interpretative challenges. On the back of them, a cross-cutting statistical measure of ‘active church adherence’ is devised, which clearly shows how secularization has been a reality and a gradual, not revolutionary, process. The most likely causes of secularization were an incremental demise of a Sabbatarian culture (coupled with the associated emergence of new leisure opportunities and transport links) and of religious socialization (in the church, at home, and in the school). The analysis is also extended backwards, to include a summary of developments during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and laterally, to incorporate a preliminary evaluation of a six-dimensional model of ‘diffusive religion’, demonstrating that these alternative performance indicators have hitherto failed to prove that secularization has not occurred. The book is designed as a prequel to the author’s previous volumes on the chronology of British secularization – Britain’s Last Religious Revival? (2015) and Secularization in the Long 1960s (2017). Together, they offer a holistic picture of religious transformation in Britain during the key secularizing century of 1880-1980.”
“This volume brings together a unique collection of legal, religious, ethical, and political perspectives to bear on debates concerning biotechnology patents, or ‘patents on life’. The ever-increasing importance of biotechnologies has generated continual questions about how intellectual property law should treat such technologies, especially those raising ethical or social-justice concerns. Even after many years and court decisions, important contested issues remain concerning ownership of and rewards from biotechnology – from human genetic material to genetically engineered plants – and regarding the scope of moral or social-justice limitations on patents or licensing practices. This book explores a range of related issues, including questions concerning morality and patentability, biotechnology and human dignity, and what constitute fair rewards from genetic resources. It features high-level international, interfaith, and cross-disciplinary contributions from experts in law, religion, and ethics, including academics and practitioners, placing religious and secular perspectives into dialogue to examine the full implications of patenting life.”
Mark has written a few times on this site about contemporary controversies concerning yoga, at one time a distinctively religious practice but today a nearly universal feature of the lucrative secular campaign in quest of “wellness.” Here’s a new book that chronicles yoga’s path: The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West (Oxford University Press), by Alistair Shearer.
“How did an ancient Indian spiritual discipline turn into a $20+ billion-a-year mainstay of the global wellness industry? What happened along yoga’s winding path from the caves and forests of the sages to the gyms, hospitals and village halls of the modern West?
This comprehensive history sets yoga in its global cultural context for the first time. It leads us on a fascinating journey across the world, from arcane religious rituals and medieval body-magic, through muscular Christianity and the British Raj, to the Indian nationalist movement and the arrival of yoga in the twentieth-century West. We discover how the practice reached its present-day ubiquity and how it became embedded in powerful social currents shaping the world’s future, such as feminism, digital media, celebrity culture, the stress pandemic and the quest for an authentic identity in the face of unprecedented change.
Shearer’s revealing history boasts a colorful cast of characters past and present, who tell an engaging tale of scholars and scandal, science and spirit, wisdom and waywardness. This is the untold story of yoga, warts and all.”
Just a little fragment for your Tuesday morning from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” that sprang to mind when I came across this wonderfully interesting new book: Russian Conservatism (Cornell University Press), by Paul Robinson. (And what an evocative cover!)
“Paul Robinson’s Russian Conservatism examines the history of Russian conservative thought from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. As he shows, conservatism has made an underappreciated contribution to Russian national identity, to the ideology of Russian statehood, and to Russia’s social-economic development. Robinson charts the contributions made by philosophers, politicians, and others during the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. Looking at cultural, political, and social-economic conservatism in Russia, he discusses ideas and issues of more than historical interest. Indeed, what Russian Conservatism demonstrates is that such ideas are helpful in interpreting Russia’s present as well as its past and will be influential in shaping Russia’s future, for better or for worse, in the years to come.
For the past two centuries Russian conservatives have sought to adapt to the pressures of modernization and westernization and, more recently, globalization, while preserving national identity and political and social stability. Through Robinson’s research we can now understand how Russian conservatives have continually proposed forms of cultural, political, and economic development seen as building on existing traditions, identity, forms of government, and economic and social life, rather than being imposed on the basis of abstract theory and foreign models.”
Here’s an interesting book on the history of atheism and agnosticism whose basic claim appears to be that the ascendancy of unbelief reflects the growth of powerful emotional desires rather than persuasion by argument. The book is Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (Harvard University Press), by Alex Ryrie.
“Why have societies that were once overwhelmingly Christian become so secular? We think we know the answer, but in this lively and startlingly original reconsideration, Alec Ryrie argues that people embraced unbelief much as they have always chosen their worldviews: through their hearts more than their minds.
Looking back to the crisis of the Reformation and beyond, Unbelievers shows how, long before philosophers started to make the case for atheism, powerful cultural currents were challenging traditional faith. These tugged in different ways not only on celebrated thinkers such as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, and Pascal, but on men and women at every level of society whose voices we hear through their diaries, letters, and court records.
Ryrie traces the roots of atheism born of anger, a sentiment familiar to anyone who has ever cursed a corrupt priest, and of doubt born of anxiety, as Christians discovered their faith was flimsier than they had believed. As the Reformation eroded time-honored certainties, Protestant radicals defended their faith by redefining it in terms of ethics. In the process they set in motion secularizing forces that soon became transformational. Unbelievers tells a powerful emotional history of doubt with potent lessons for our own angry and anxious age.
We close out the week with a new history of the religious left, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, by historian Vaneesa Cook. Cook says it’s wrong to see the American left as hostile to religion. It’s just that the left has had its own religious tradition, which she calls “spiritual socialism.” The tradition is continued today, she says, by figures such as Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, William Barber, and Cornel West. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
Refuting the common perception that the American left has a religion problem, Vaneesa Cook highlights an important but overlooked intellectual and political tradition that she calls “spiritual socialism.” Spiritual socialists emphasized the social side of socialism and believed the most basic expression of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one’s community—created a firm footing for society. Their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more palatable to Americans, who associated socialism with Soviet atheism and autocracy. In this way, spiritual socialism continually put pressure on liberals, conservatives, and Marxists to address the essential connection between morality and social justice. Cook tells her story through an eclectic group of activists whose lives and works span the twentieth century. Sherwood Eddy, A. J. Muste, Myles Horton, Dorothy Day, Henry Wallace, Pauli Murray, Staughton Lynd, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote publicly about the connection between religious values and socialism. Equality, cooperation, and peace, they argued, would not develop overnight, and a more humane society would never emerge through top-down legislation. Instead, they believed that the process of their vision of the world had to happen in homes, villages, and cities, from the bottom up. By insisting that people start treating each other better in everyday life, spiritual socialists transformed radical activism from projects of political policy-making to grass-roots organizing. For Cook, contemporary public figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, Reverend William Barber, and Cornel West are part of a long-standing tradition that exemplifies how non-Communist socialism has gained traction in American politics.
One typically thinks of secularism as a Western phenomenon. A new collection of essays from Princeton argues that that perception is wrong: “a worldview based on rationalism and individual autonomy” is not simply a creation of Reformed Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Secularism appears in other religious cultures as well. Moreover, the discontents with secularism today, worldwide, reflect the failure of secularism to respond to people’s spiritual needs. The book is Formations of Belief: Historical Approaches to Religion and the Secular, edited by Princeton historians Philip Nord, Katja Guenther, and Max Weiss. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
For decades, scholars and public intellectuals have been predicting the demise of religion in the face of secularization. Yet religion is undergoing an unprecedented resurgence in modern life—and secularization no longer appears so inevitable. Formations of Belief brings together many of today’s leading historians to shed critical light on secularism’s origins, its present crisis, and whether it is as antithetical to religion as it is so often made out to be.
Formations of Belief offers a more nuanced understanding of the origins of secularist thought, demonstrating how Reformed Christianity and the Enlightenment were not the sole vessels of a worldview based on rationalism and individual autonomy. Taking readers from late antiquity to the contemporary era, the contributors show how secularism itself can be a form of belief and yet how its crisis today has been brought on by its apparent incapacity to satisfy people’s spiritual needs. They explore the rise of the humanistic study of religion in Europe, Jewish messianism, atheism and last rites in the Soviet Union, the cult of the saints in colonial Mexico, religious minorities and Islamic identity in Pakistan, the neuroscience of religion, and more.
Based on the Shelby Cullom Davis Center Seminars at Princeton University, this incisive book features illuminating essays by Peter Brown, Yaacob Dweck, Peter E. Gordon, Anthony Grafton, Brad S. Gregory, Stefania Pastore, Caterina Pizzigoni, Victoria Smolkin, Max Weiss, and Muhammad Qasim Zaman.