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).

This Week’s "Anxious Bench Post" at Patheos: More on the History of Black Evangelicalism in America

A couple of weeks ago I asked; “Where Are the Studies of Twentieth-Century Black Evangelicalism?”  I was working on an article on evangelical political engagement and wanted to say something about the role of Black evangelicals, but I was unable to find any good stuff on the subject.

Thanks to the readers of The Anxious Bench and my own blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I was able to find just what I needed.  Miles Mullin suggested the work of A.G. Miller, a religious studies professor at Oberlin.  As far as I can tell, he knows more about this subject than anyone else.  I tracked down a few of Miller’s pieces, including:

“The Rise of African-American Evangelicalism in American Culture,” in Perspectives on American Religion and Culture, ed. Peter Williams (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999)

Read the rest here.

Mark Noll on T.J. Lurhmann, "When God Talks Back"

T.J. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God has been getting a lot of attention lately.  In case you have not heard, Luhrmann spent two years with a Vineyard congregation in Chicago and another two years with a Vineyard congregation in Palo Alto.  She made no bones about the fact that she was an anthropologist who was there to study the congregation and it appears that she was accepted and welcomed in the process.

The editors of The New Republic have chosen Notre Dame’s Mark Noll to review the book.  Here is a taste:

WHEN GOD TALKS BACK is so accomplished on so many levels that cavils seem a little ungrateful. But a few issues should be raised…

The responses to Luhrmann’s substantive explanation of what happens when God talks back will likely be mixed. From skeptics, Luhrmann’s research takes at least some of the steam out of Hume’s famous case against the reality of miracles. Hume argued that testimony concerning a miracle could never be persuasive in light of how impossible it was to accept violations of the natural order of causes and effects that defines ordinary human existence. But Luhrmann’s evidence shows that many people regularly have experiences that, if not exactly miraculous, still fall outside of what others would regard as strictly natural occurrences. Her research, in other words, has undercut Humean claims about what ordinary people experience ordinarily.

Other skeptics might accuse Luhrmann of giving more credibility to her informants than they deserve, owing to the warm personal relationships that she developed with them. Luhrmann could respond that, as recorded in the book, she herself has had at least one first-hand experience of “sensory override” (though not of a Christian sort). Moreover, her clinical trials offered many instances of entirely normal people, with whom she did not enjoy a personal relationship, who claimed “sensory overrides” of a Christian character. But the most serious skeptical rejoinder might come from evolutionary biology. If the human need for personal relationships—along with the whole range of religious phenomena—can be described as adaptive behaviors that increase the relative chance of survival for those who possess them, then the reason that so many people report tangible experiences of God concerns survival of the fittest and not the actual existence of a real God.