Why I Missed a Conference Session Devoted to My Book

fea-family

I was supposed to be in San Antonio this Saturday.  I did not make it.

The Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts devoted its annual session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in San Antonio to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  S. Brent Plate of Hamilton College organized the session and recruited David Morgan (Duke), Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Washington University), and Julius Bailey (University of Redlands) to give papers on the subject of the book.  I was scheduled to respond to their presentations.

Needless to say I was flattered and greatly honored to have The Bible Cause featured in this way.  How often does one have an entire conference session devoted to his work?  It would be my first meeting of the AAR and my first visit to San Antonio since the Advanced Placement United States history reading left Trinity College for a convention center in Louisville.  It was looking forward to hearing some jazz on the River Walk and trying to score some Spurs tickets.

I agreed to participate in this session well before my oldest daughter had decided where she would be attending college.  She eventually chose Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan because it is a faith-based school with a stellar academic reputation and a very strong NCAA Division 3 women’s volleyball program.

When I agreed to go to San Antonio on the weekend of November 18, 2016 I had no idea that the AAR conference would conflict with the NCAA Division 3 national championship game in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Nor could I have predicted that Calvin would be playing in that game.

The decision to skip to San Antonio was an easy one, but I sincerely appreciate the graciousness shown to me by Brent, David, Laurie, and Julius.  I was disappointed that I could not attend a session devoted to my book, but I am glad that I was in Oshkosh last weekend to watch my freshman daughter, the starting right-side hitter, contribute to Calvin’s NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP victory!!!

Since I could not be there, Brent read my comments.  Here they are in full:

Good morning.  As you probably know by this point of the session, I am not in San Antonio this weekend for what would have been my first meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  I am writing instead from Oshkosh, Wisconsin where my daughter, a freshman at Calvin College, is competing for an NCAA Division 3 national championship in women’s volleyball.  I am honored that the Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts has chosen to devote a session to The Bible Cause and grateful to Brent Plate for bringing together a group of panelists whose work I have read and greatly respected.  These kinds of events don’t happen very often in a scholar’s life, but neither do opportunities to see one’s daughter compete at such a high level.  I hope you understand my dilemma and my decision not to be with you today.

If I was with you today to talk informally about the book I would probably say a word or two about the challenge of writing this kind of institutional and anniversary history.  The American Bible Society asked me to write a bicentennial history of the organization, but I negotiated the academic freedom to write it in the way I wanted to write it.  I realized that the ABS took a great risk in letting me do this, especially when many of their leaders would have preferred some kind of providential or hagiographical history.  Having said that, my audience for this book was not Bible Cause Coverscholars.  While I hoped the book would be useful to historians, and perhaps make some contribution to our understanding of American religious history and American history more broadly, but I also wanted to produce a volume that be accessible to the educated layperson.  As I wrote I thought about the person who at one time or another has donated money to the Bible Society or has a vested interest in the dissemination of the Bible in the United States and abroad. 

In the end, the book has received some positive and negative reviews.  The negative reviews have chided me for failing to achieve critical distance from my subject matter and for not going far enough in my deconstruction of the stories the Bible Society has told about itself. The American Bible Society has distanced itself from the book because it does not fit well with the “brand” that the current administration is trying to create.  (The administration at the ABS changed considerably during the writing of this book).  At the Bible Society’s 200th anniversary gala last May—a massive event attended by several thousand people at the Philadelphia Art Museum—the book was never mentioned.  When a group of Messiah College humanities majors visited the American Bible Society last week for a career exploration event (my spouse, a career counselor at the college, was in attendance) the book was not displayed anywhere in the Society’s Philadelphia office and the historical presentation the students received from ABS staff did not mention it.

Needless to say, the response to the Bible Cause has been an interesting one.  I doubt I will be writing another history of a still-functioning religious institution anytime soon.

But enough about the book’s reception.  This is a session on the American Bible Society and print culture and I am pleased to respond to the three presenters.

David Morgan’s response to The Bible Cause focuses on the way American evangelicals have interpreted the Bible.  Morgan compares William Miller (a person, I might add, who was not connected in any way to the American Bible Society) and his literal reading of the Bible with ABS founder Elias Boudinot’s efforts to interpret the Bible in a way that incorporated non-Biblical literature and the insights of non-Christian thinkers.  In the process, Morgan seeks to complicate the prevailing scholarly narrative—a narrative often linked to historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Theodore Dwight Bozeman—that all nineteenth-century Amerivcan evangelicals (and by implication 20th and even 21st-century evangelicals) read the Bible in a “common-sense” way.  As Morgan concludes: “All the talk about common sense and plain style notwithstanding, it becomes evidence that the Evangelical construction of the Bible is no simple matter.”

Morgan is no doubt correct, but I wonder if Boudinot’s approach to biblical interpretation is an aberration, at least for the nineteenth century.  Granted, I am sure that there were evangelical Bible scholars who saw the necessity of interpreting the scriptures in conversation with non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, but I have my doubts about whether this is how most of the laypeople who supported the American Bible Society, and the colporteurs, peddlers, and agents who did its work across the United States, thought about biblical interpretation.  These folks were probably much more attracted to William Miller’s concordance and common sense readings of the text than Boudinot’s nearly unreadable tomes.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s remarks bring the Mormons into the story of the “Bible Cause.”  Of course she is correct when she says that the American Bible Society believed that Mormons “would never read the Bible correctly.”  The irony that Maffly-Kipp calls attention to in her comments is worth repeating.  The American Bible Society was in the business of distributing the Bible “without note or comment” and letting churches, denominations, and the Holy Spirit help the recipient make sense of it and apply it to their spiritual lives. But this broad-based mission was narrowly confined to a particular kind of church and denomination, and the Holy Spirit was clearly a Protestant.

I did have a small section on the Mormons in the original draft of The Bible Cause, but I had to cut it out for lack of space.  Here is a small taste of that section:

In the 1870, Rev. Nelson Reasoner, the ABS agent for eastern California and Nevada, canvassed Utah territory to see if the roughly 120,000 followers of the late Joseph Smith living in the territory would welcome the Bible.  (The ABS was not willing to enter Utah if the Mormons were not interested in the Protestant scriptures).  Reasoner met with Brigham Young who told him that most of the people of Utah owned Bibles, but he gave the ABS agent permission to travel throughout the territory.  When Reasoner found enough people “destitute” of the Bible, the ABS started its work in Utah.  Reasoner found that Mormons were eager to obtain copies of the Bible in order to have “a more complete record of God’s revelation” to humankind.  Reasoner’s successor, Rev. H.D. Fisher, was invited to present the Bible Cause in the “Mormon meeting-houses” and Sabbath schools and was received cordially by the Mormon leadership.  In fact, the Mormons worked closely with a comparatively small number of “Gentiles”—mostly Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians—on the establishment of county and branch auxiliaries.  One Mormon auxiliary Bible society hired three colporteurs to distribute Bibles.

Fisher did have his struggles in Utah.  Because Mormons donated heavily to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, they did not give money to the ABS to degree that Fisher had hoped that they would.  Of course the ABS and its agents in Utah were no fans of Mormon theology and church teaching.  Fisher noted that “Bible circulation and reading is the only antidote to the abounding evils of rapidly constituted communities, far removed from centres [sic] of Christian activities and influences.”  In a veiled attack on the Book of Mormon, Fisher expressed his interest in bringing the Protestant scriptures to a region of the country “where other books have been for a half a century substituted as of equal or superior authority to the Bible.”  By 1885, after roughly fifteen years of work among Mormons, Fisher concluded that the ABS investment in Utah was too expensive and was yielding too few Protestant converts.  Mormons continued to cling to what Fisher believed were extra-biblical revelations and few of the inhabitants were willing to purchase ABS Bibles, forcing Fisher to give them way—“an expensive proposition.”

Julius Bailey’s paper is extremely helpful in putting a sharper point on my treatment of the American Bible Society and slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War.  It does not surprise me that African American newspapers and black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass were strong critics of the Bible Society’s decision to leave the distribution of Bibles in the South to the pro-slavery leaders of local auxiliary societies.  For example, in 1849, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery society invited a fugitive slave from Kentucky named Henry Bibb to address its annual meeting in New York.  Bibb’s speech was critical of the Bible Society because it “Had not done all that it might have done” to bring Bibles to the slave population.  Instead, he told his audiences of white abolitionists, the Bible Society had given slaves “the go-by.”  Bibb made it clear that the leaders of several ABS auxiliaries in Kentucky were slaveholders.  In fact, a man who had once sold him to another slaveholder in New Orleans was the secretary of one of these auxiliaries.

Bailey’s research reminds me that there is more research to be done about the American Bible Society’s position on the distribution of the Bibles to slaves in antebellum America.  Frankly, I wish my research had taken me further down this road.  A careful reading of African American newspapers would have made my discussion of this topic much stronger.

In the end, there is still much to say about the American Bible Society’s influence on American history and its intersection with a variety of sub-themes in American history including women’s history, labor history, lived religion, Native-American history, African-American history, and especially the missionary movement in virtually every part of the world.  Fortunately, the American Bible Society has a rich archive (if it ever finds its way out of storage in the wake of the Society’s recent move to Philadelphia) that will enable future scholars to take the story of the Bible and religious print culture in some promising directions.

Report: Society of Biblical Literature Bans InterVarsity Press From Selling Books at Annual Meeting

ivp

Here is Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

This is extraordinary. The Society of Biblical Literature describes itself like this:

Mission, Visions, and Values
The following Mission Statement and Strategic Vision Statements were adopted by the SBL Council May 16, 2004, and revised October 23, 2011.

Mission Statement:
Foster Biblical Scholarship

Strategic Vision Statement:
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.* As an international organization, the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development through the following:

  • Advancing academic study of biblical texts and their contexts as well as of the traditions and contexts of biblical interpretation
  • Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
  • Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public
  • Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives
  • Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange
  • Publishing biblical scholarship
  • Promoting cooperation across global boundaries

Here are what the SBL says are its “core values,” in a statement revised in 2011:

Accountability

Openness to Change

Collaboration

Professionalism

Collegiality

Respect for Diversity

Critical Inquiry

Scholarly Integrity

Inclusivity

Tolerance

You might wonder why an academic organization devoted to Biblical scholarship holds as its core values “respect for diversity,” “openness to change,” “inclusivity,” and “tolerance”? Isn’t this just one of those typically euphemistic liberal ways of saying, “No Biblical scholars who don’t accept progressive views on LGBT issues allowed”?

Why yes, apparently, it is. SBL has reportedly banned InterVarsity Press from having a booth at the 2017 SBL convention in Boston because of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to hold firmly to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, and to ask employees who dissent to resign.

Read the entire piece and the links for the full context.

Here is another piece on the topic from World magazine.  If someone is aware of any other posts or articles please let me know.

I am holding judgment on this story until I get some more information.  Certainly the Society of Biblical Literature is not suggesting that men and women and organizations (IVCF) who believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman should be banned from their annual meeting.  There must be more to the story.

InterVarsity Press publishes some great books.  Some excellent historians and theologians have published with the press, including Mark Noll, Tracy McKenzie, Harry Stout, David Bebbington, Thomas Oden, Douglas Sweeney, Justo Gonzalez, Crystal Downing, Alister McGrath, Gerald McDermott, Roger Olson, G.R. Evans, Brian Stanley, Richard Mouw, and Kevin Vanhoozer.  I don’t know what most of these authors think about gay marriage, but it would be a shame if their scholarship is banned from the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings.

I am also an InterVarsity Press author.  I wrote the foreword to John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

I mentioned the American Academy of Religion above.  They have not made any announcement yet on the fate of IVP.   I have never been to a meeting of the AAR, but in November there will be an entire session at this conference devoted to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyTo be honest, I am not sure what to think about attending a conference that plans to have an entire session on one of my books, but will not allow another book with my name on the title to be displayed in the book exhibit.

Let me be clear:  For me this whole thing is not a matter of the correct definition of marriage.  It is a matter of principled pluralism or what George Marsden describes as a “more inclusive pluralism.”

I need to think this through a bit more and, as I mentioned above, gather more information.

American Academy of Religion Elects a Theologian as Its New Vice-President

I have never been to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I don’t usually run with the religious studies crowd, but as a historian of American religion and a person of faith I am often interested in what goes on at this massive annual meeting.   I am also interested in the AAR because many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are members. 

This year, probably because I am on sabbatical and have time, I followed the #aarsbl15 twitter feed. I learned a lot in the process. (Thanks for all the religious tweeters out there!).  I also published reports from the floor of the conference.  (Thanks so far to John WilseyMary Beth Connolly, Andrew Henry, and David Krueger). 

Until I read Matthew Hunter‘s informative blog post I had no idea that the AAR elected David Gushee, an evangelical theologian, to the position of vice-president.  Matt’s post also helped me to realize why the election of a theologian to a position of leadership in the AAR might be considered controversial.

Here is a taste of Matt’s post:

Gushee’s election was controversial because some people in the AAR think the organization should represent scholars who study religion using disciplines like history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. Theologians are “doing” religion, and therefore they don’t really belong in the leadership. This election was especially controversial because the VP will become the President and this year both nominees were theologians. So, for some people in AAR, this is like having a research-subject (psychiatric patient) as the head of a psychiatric research association. It’s okay for religious people to be scholars as long as their scholarship is not itself a form of religious practice. This is where the State of the Union and the State of the AAR converge. Even though a LOT of Christian seminarians, theologians, biblical scholars and other religious people are members of AAR and many AAR sub-groups are “religious” in nature, AAR has reflected a post-Christendom context (the last 3 Presidents were not theologians of any religious tradition). But does it now? Is this a “victory” in some sort of culture-war?
 
I don’t know how Gushee feels about the resistance to his election or if he feels any resentment coming at him. He seems like a very gentle person who would not hold any grudges, but after all he was elected, and maybe that indicates that AAR isn’t as post-Christendom as some people think. I anticipate a movement of non-religious scholars to “take back the AAR” in future elections. For conservative Christians in the AAR, Gushee’s stance on LGBT folks in the church (still a clear minority opinion in Christian institutions) is still indicative of post-Christendom society or even secular ideals of individualism creeping in to the church. I don’t know if Gushee feels any resentment coming at him from that corner of the AAR either.


Read the entire post here.

Correspondents Wanted: American Academy of Religion Conference in Atlanta

Anyone interested in a writing a post or two (or three or four or five…) this weekend from the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta?

I know it is a little late since the conference begins tomorrow, but I would love to get some reports about what is going on so that we can keep readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home informed.  I can’t pay correspondents, but I can give them a byline here at the blog.

What am I hoping for out of these posts/reports? Frankly, anything. Let the spirit move you. I would love to get general observations, reports on sessions you attend, job market updates, or any other kind of stuff you might have the time or inclination to write about. Anything on American religion would fit with what we do here.

Feel free to be as creative and journalistic as you want. If at all possible I would like to get some stuff as the conference is going on, but general summaries would also work. Feel free to write as few or as many as you would like. I will try to get stuff posted here in real time (or thereabouts) during the conference.

If your interested, shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu and we can get the ball rolling.  I the meantime, check out our posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association to get an idea of what some of our correspondents at that conference wrote about.

Dispatches from the American Academy of Religion 2013–Part 3

As part of The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s commitment to covering major academic conferences, we offer Adam Parsons‘s third and final dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. I hope you have enjoyed these reports as much as I have.

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

The final day and a half of AAR are always sleepy ones. After a Saturday and Sunday full of panels, plenary addresses, evening receptions, and catching up with old friends and colleagues, just about everyone is worn out. I was no exception, and only managed to make it to three panels (and only half of one of those).

The first was a panel of the Eastern Orthodox Group, organized by and featuring some promising young scholars, including an old friend, Timothy Carroll, whom I hadn’t seen in years. This panel, which focused on material religion and the formation of identity, marked a broadening of the Orthodox group’s scope. It was also easily my favorite of the weekend.

Elena Kravchenko from UT Austin discussed the blogs of female converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, arguing that they tend to become attached to particular icons, even to the point of keeping them after all identifiable images have worn off; in part, she claimed, this was because they acted as a kind of store for personal history. In a similar vein, Carroll, of University College London, argued that Orthodox travelers navigate their experience of simultaneous displacement (from home) and belonging (in the church wherever they are travelling) by constructing a geographic identity based on the location of historical saints. Aaron Sokoll, of UC Santa Barbara, examined the liturgical difficulties which attended the mass reception of two thousand members of a Campus Crusade for Christ offshoot into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. (This group, the Evangelical Orthodox Church, was heavily influenced by the time some of its leaders spent in the Christian World Liberation Front in Berkeley, California, a connection which I examine in my own dissertation). Finally, Sarah Riccardi of Missouri State (who also organized the panel) analyzed the ways in which Orthodox laity have adapted to the widespread availability of digital imagery and Internet shopping in assembling religious images for their homes.

Next, I stopped by the North American Religions section, to catch the first part of what turned out to be an exploratory panel on religion and U.S. Empire. Five panelists outlined their projects, which they’ll work on over the next five years, meeting occasionally to discuss with each other and with the larger group. Creighton’s Tracy Leavelle is working on missionary science in Hawai’i and its relationship to the American presence there. Illinois’s Jonathan Ebel is writing what he calls a “religious history of napalm” in which he draws parallels between changing levels of comfort with its use and shifting Protestant conceptions of divine judgment. Charles Strauss of Mount St. Mary’s is working on Catholic missions to Guatemala, and analyzing their shifting relationship with the U.S. – first aiding in development, then protesting American-backed political developments. Indiana’s Sarah Dees is working with ethnographic literature on Native Americans in the late 19th century, and Yale’s Tisa Wenger is working on the interaction between U.S. imperialism and religious freedom – especially how empire has shaped what counts as religion. It will be interesting to see where this group goes over the next few years.

On the last morning of the conference, I got stuck in rush-hour traffic, and unfortunately missed a paper on Clarence Larkin’s charts of biblical history and the end times, given by A.T. Coates of Duke. I made it to that panel in time to hear papers by UNC’s Cynthia Hogan on the paintings of North Carolina preacher Rev. McKendree Robbins Long, which she argued were shaped by what Jason Bivins has called an “erotics of fear.” (You can see one of the Reverend’s paintings here). Finally, Cambridge’s Monique Ingalls analyzed evangelical worship videos posted on YouTube, showing differences between how laity and worship professionals conceive of the proper visual environment for worship. (Laity prefer nature scenes and, to a lesser extent, photos and silhouetted of worshippers; professionals prefer abstraction).

Afterward, I made my final trip to the book display, and finally snagged a copy of Larry Eskridge’s long-awaited book on the Jesus Movement, God’s Forever Family, as well as Oliver Herbel’s just-published Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church, which has a lengthy section dealing with the Evangelical Orthodox Church (and in which I received my very first endnote!)

AAR was fantastic, but I’m glad to be finished with it (and with the long, snowy drive to Ohio, where I’m spending Thanksgiving, yesterday). It’s time for some rest and some turkey.

Dispatches from the American Academy of Religion 2013–Part 2

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).

Dispatches from the American Academy of Religion–2013

As part of The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s commitment to covering major academic conferences, we offer Adam Parsons‘s dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. 

I was hoping to visiting the AAR yesterday, but had to cancel my trip.  In my planning for the day’s visit I was blown away with the sheer size of this conference.  For example, the annual meeting of the American Historical Association usually has three or four “conference hotels.”  The AAR program lists TWENTY-SEVEN.  It all seems so overwhelming.  I am glad we have Adam Parsons to help us sort it all out.

 Adam is a doctoral candidate in American history at Syracuse University working on a dissertation on modern American evangelicalism with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.  I hope you enjoy his first “dispatch.” –JF

I arrived at the AAR this afternoon, not quite in time to make it to the second panel of the day. The AAR – the American Academy of Religion – is holding its annual conference in Baltimore this year. It’s my first time here – as well as my first time in Maryland during daylight hours – but I didn’t take time out to explore the city. Instead, I used my unexpected block of free time to survey the book exhibit. It is massive. Huge. Phenomenal (and occasionally a little bit weird). I won’t buy anything today, as my graduate student’s budget requires me to wait and try to pounce on final-day markdowns – but I developed a list of books I’m interested in picking up. My work focuses on American Evangelicalism in the late twentieth century, so I’ve got my eye on Sarah Ruble’s Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II and Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family, which was a fantastic dissertation on the Jesus Movement, and which I’m sure will be even better in its final form. This hardly, of course, makes a dent in my list of books. Decisions.
This afternoon, I made it to a meeting of the Christian Spirituality Group. It focused on the use of ethnography is studying Christian spirituality, and several of the papers dealt with contemporary Protestantism. (Yes, I said several. If you haven’t been to the AAR, it’s composed of marathon 2 1/2 hour long panels. I much prefer the 1 1/2 or 2 hour long panels I’ve found at most other conferences). Indiana University’s Candy Gunther Brown explored how Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians explain their attraction to alternative medicine, which they often find to have experiential similarities to faith healing, and how they navigate the relationship between alternative medicine and non-Christian religious practices. The University of Toronto’s Pamela Klassen analyzed liberal Protestants’ approaches to spiritual healing, and suggested, among other things, that the kinds of bodies which these practices can heal are conceived of as political, as well as corporeal. The paper I found most interesting, though, was given by Susan Ridgely of the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. In it, she teased out distinctions between first- and second-generation evangelicals, and argued that many of the features other scholars ascribe to younger evangelicals are, in fact, associated with generational status rather than age. These second-generation evangelicals, she argues, have been raised to be a people apart from the secular world, and have been raised to be comfortable with evangelical spiritual practice. Because of this, their driving concerns are very different from their first-generation

evangelical parents’: taking their set-apartness for granted, they are less interested in whether it is possible to live as a Christian in a secular world than in how to connect with – to love – their neighbors in the world in which they find themselves. As a result, Ridgely proposes that instead of “young evangelicals” or “new evangelicals” these second-generation evangelicals should be referred to as “connected Christians.”

Even with my abbreviated day, I’ve only touched on a portion of what I saw, and there’s an evening of receptions ahead, so I’m going to have to cut off here until tomorrow. I’ll leave you with a picture of one of my book exhibit finds:

Baltimore Bound for the AAR

I have never been to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion, but that will change on Saturday. I am going to make the 90 minute drive to Baltimore to do some promotional work with Baker Academic for Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I will only be at the conference for one day (and into the evening), but I thought I would ask some of you AAR veterans if there is anything I must do or see while I am there.  All suggestions are welcome.