John Wilsey Reflects on Day 1 of the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

John Wilsey of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offers another dispatch from the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.  Check out his first report here.

It was a busy day—after lunch on Saturday, I went back to the book display to walk the second level, and still didn’t see everything. Although, I was excited to see Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s new book on Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen, Salvation With a Smile, published by NYU Press. If you haven’t seen Sinitiere’s book yet, it is a must read. I was privileged to read the manuscript, and the book offers groundbreaking insight, not only into Osteen’s ministry, but also into the character of American Free Church evangelicalism in the 21st century as a whole.
On Saturday afternoon, I attended the Religion and US Empire Seminar. The topic was “Conceptualizing American Empire: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches.” All five of the presentations were fascinating, but the question and answer session toward the end was one of the most productive, helpful, and engaging Q & A sessions I have ever witnessed. Often at the end of a long session with four or more papers read, participants are tired—and when a session ends right before supper, people are not only tired, but also hungry.
But not this time. I can’t even remember all the questions that were asked, but they were all penetrating. One person asked about how Americans view categories such as “empire,” “imperial,” and “colonial” in comparison with how the British, or even the Russians might view those categories. She followed this question up with one on how religion influences empire, and also how empire influences religion. Someone else brought up the differences between frontier and border when it comes to demarking empires, which resulted in an interesting conversation about empires being defined in terms of space or power. Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University addressed this issue in his presentation, and he stressed that empires are defined not in terms of geography, but in terms of power. It occurred to me that in the early American republic, both forms of empire evolved: in the Old Northwest, the Northwest Ordinance set the pattern for settlement and governance, and this pattern was geographically based. But in the South, the plantation system spread west, laying the foundations for American economic power and expanding the institution of slavery. Space and power seem both to provide a basis for the concept of empire in America, and adding the development of American civil religion to this concept makes the subject so much more interesting to consider.
I’m looking forward to what tomorrow holds. AAR/SBL is pretty overwhelming, and not a little intimidating. I’m relatively new to the society, so I don’t know very many people. And I’m an introvert, so the thought of walking up to someone and introducing myself in an effort to strike up a conversation is about as appealing as putting my hand into a cage full of tarantulas.
So, I enjoy being alone in a crowd. I like to take it all in, roam the book displays, sit on a sofa with a cup of coffee and people-watch. (There aren’t very many places to sit. There are over 10,000 people here, and painfully few chairs in the common areas of the Hyatt Regency). I like to see what books people are buying, and what books people look at but then put back on the shelf. It was the first full day of the conference today, so it is also fun for me to watch old friends seeing each other for the first time in a long time. You can always tell who these are, because they are the ones that greet one another the most loudly, and usually with lots of hugging and hearty hand shaking.
I teach at a conservative Baptist seminary, so my own contact with people who think differently about faith than I do is quite limited on a day-to-day basis. I’m fairly confident that not as many people who attend AAR get that excited about the debates going on in my circles—supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism, covenant theology vs. dispensationalism, Radical vs. Magisterial Reformation, General vs. Particular Baptism, inerrancy vs. authority, etc., etc. There are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Pagans here. There are feminists, LBGTIQs, and secularists. There is a Pentecostal/Charismatic Movements Group meeting at the same time as the Qu’ran Group, the Religions, Social Conflict, and Peace Group, and the Schleiermacher Group meets. There are dozens of other groups as well. It is a seriously diverse crowd, and it is definitely an education for me to listen in on the conversations as they take place in both formal and informal settings. Of course, I don’t share many of the faith commitments that other communities represented here hold, but it is a lot of fun to be exposed to new, and sometimes challenging, ideas.

I ended the day watching the Baylor vs. Oklahoma State game.  Which reminds me—my friend Arthur Remillard is presiding over the Religion, Sport, and Play Group this Monday morning. Stay tuned.