As part of The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s commitment to covering major academic conferences, we offer Adam Parsons‘s second dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. Read Adam’s first dispatch from the AAR here.
Adam is a doctoral candidate in American history at Syracuse University working on a dissertation on modern American evangelicalism with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. He is an editor at the Red Egg Review: An Orthodox Christian Quarterly of Society, Politics, and Culture –JF
It is COLD in Baltimore! I had planned to attend a session today on publishing strategies for graduate students, but when I found out it was in another building, I decided to go to my backup panel. (This is exactly why I always choose a backup panel at large conferences). The choice, as it turns out, was serendipitous, as I ended up seeing my favorite paper of the conference so far. Dennis Dickerson, of Vanderbilt, gave a fantastic and provocative paper in the Wesleyan Studies Group in which he argued that the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church was not primarily about race or the issue of slavery. Rather, he argues, the founders of the AME thought that white Methodists’ piety was declining – a sentiment with which Francis Asbury agreed (he suggested, in fact, that the Methodists, on coming to America, should have gone first to African-Americans, not to whites). White Methodists’ lack of opposition to slavery was not the cause of the division, but the most visible symptom of the cause. Going further, Dickerson argued that the historically Black Wesleyan churches have maintained a more thoroughly Wesleyan piety and practice than the United Methodists, and that piety was fundamental to African-American social action.
I couldn’t decide which late-afternoon panel to attend, so I went to half of both I was interested in. The first, on apocalypse and authority in Pentecostalism, attempted to bring Pentecostal history to bear on Weberian conceptions of authority. I was most interested in Jeremy Sabella’s paper on charismatic evangelicalism in Guatemala, in which he tried to contextualize and explain the bizarre-seeming phenomenon of Efraín Ríos Montt, charismatic pastor and, briefly and famously, President of Guatemala. While Montt has since been implicated in genocidal attacks during the country’s guerilla war, during his presidency, he was remarkably popular in segments of the West. Ronald Reagan lauded him, and Luis Palau held a massive rally with Montt in Guatemala which was claimed to be the second-largest gathering of evangelicals ever held. Evangelicalism in Guatemala grew explosively throughout the 1980s – even after Montt’s removal in a coup – but tapered off in the 1990s. Sabella sought to explain this by situation its growth in Montt’s particular style of evangelicalism, which was shaped by the Jesus Movement missionaries who had converted him. Steeped in apocalyptic sensibility and promise, Sabella argued, this faith was appealing to a Guatemala shattered by a massive earthquake and civil unrest, and looking to rebuild. Promising a new Guatemala, it offered a safe haven in the present and a hope for a profoundly different future. However, with the end of the Cold War, the broader geopolitical context for this instability vanished, and the existential need for stability ceased to be such a major factor.
I left this panel early, so that I could hurry to the other end of the convention center and catch part of Wendell Berry’s session. He received the Martin Marty Award for Public Understanding of Religion, and, as part of the award, gave an extended interview with Duke’s Norman Wirzba. The audience was the youngest I’ve yet seen at the conference, including a few young children! Mr. Berry read several poems, and discussed his work with the Land Institute. At the end of the panel, he received a standing ovation, at which point he chided the audience and urged them to be more critical.
In other news, Random House is selling paperbacks here for $3, so I picked up copies of two books on my to-read list: Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith and T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, which should give me something to do on the ride to Ohio for Thanksgiving. Other than those, though, I’ve resisted the urge to purchase books – which is good, because the list I’ve kept of books I want is about to run onto its second page!
Tomorrow’s sections look good, so I should get some rest. (I’m dreading going outside again, but we do what we must).