The Author’s Corner with Josh McMullen

Josh McMullen is Assistant Professor and Department Chair of Government, History and Criminal Justice at Regent University. This interview is based on his new book, Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, February 2015).

JF: What led you to write Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture?

JM: I have long been interested in popular religious movements. When at seminary, I became interested in Pentecostalism and the divine healing movement. I was particularly curious as to where Pentecostalism fit into the modernist-fundamentalist dichotomy. At the University of Missouri, I was introduced to scholarship on consumer and therapeutic culture. Combining these two subjects—popular religion and consumer/therapeutic culture—sounded like a great way to explore my historical interests. The driving question became how the United States could be so consumer-driven and yet highly religious.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Under the Big Top?
JM: In contrast to some stereotyped images of revivalists as Victorian hold-outs, I argue big tent evangelists participated in the shift away from Victorianism and helped in the construction of a new consumer culture in the United States. I contend revivalists and their audiences unlinked Christianity from Victorianism and joined it with the new, emerging consumer culture.
JF: Why do we need to read Under the Big Top?
JM: The pervasive understanding of Protestantism at the turn of the twentieth century is the fundamentalist-modernist dichotomy. While I think this can be a helpful lens, it can also cloud as much as clarify. I hope this work opens up new ways to look at Protestantism in this period. I also believe that scholarship on therapeutic and consumer culture has not fully appreciated the role that religion has played in the construction of consumer culture in the United States. I hope this book stimulates dialogue about the role of religion in American therapeutic culture.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: I started graduate school in theology. I quickly realized I was most interested in historical theology. That soon led to an interest in the context for ideas. This finally led me to history. I was torn between studying the patristic period or American history. A couple of classes in American religious history, particularly Pentecostalism, tipped the balance.
JF: What is your next project?
JM: Under the Big Top deals with popular religious figures who embraced consumer culture, albeit tentatively. I am still curious about the construction of a therapeutic culture in the United States, as well religion’s role in this. For my next project, however, I want to explore a figure who rejected therapeutic culture or resisted it.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Josh!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner