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God Gave Rock and Roll to You

14 May
Services at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946.

Services at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946.

The television preacher Jimmy Swaggart became a Christian megastar in the 1980s broadcasting from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His popular crusades and regular services appeared on television sets across the United States and around the world. At its peak, his ministry was taking in over one million dollars a week. He had honed a brash, bold, loud style of preaching that made him a revered figure, both in the context of the Assemblies of God – a group of affiliated churches that formed the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination – and in the broader world of evangelicalism. Critics reviled his holier-than-thou pulpit posturing and his bellicosity. Some stations even took him off the air for his religious and cultural bigotry.

Like many other Pentecostal preachers – who were moving into politics at a rapid rate – Swaggart believed that the Holy Ghost emboldened him to witness the arrow-straight truths of the Bible. With his southern drawl, he thundered against Hollywood celebrities, evolutionary scientists, communists, homosexuals, Catholics, feminists, secular liberals and other ‘enemies’ of the faith. Americans had lost interest in the Bible, he warned with deadly seriousness. A reporter at the New York Times took note. The Reagan-era televangelist was ‘tapping some powerful resentments here; he is speaking to the disenfranchised’. The country rightly deserved God’s judgment, Swaggart assured his audience with fury.

In the summer of 1985, Swaggart was on the road, conducting one of his mass revival crusades in New Haven, Connecticut. Before the cameras and the glare of stage lights he paced back and forth, waving his arms like he was fending off a swarm of bees. He raised his Bible high above his head. He shouted at his audience about the moral degeneracy that dragged reprobates through the gates of hell. At one performance, he took aim at ‘the devil’s music’: rock and roll.

How had Christians made peace with this vile, hideous music, he asked with urgency in his voice, drawing out words like ‘pul-pit’ and ‘bye-bull’. The issue was a personal one for him, he confided, pausing for emphasis and lowering his voice before lunging at the crowd, finger pointed upward to drive home his jeremiad.

‘My family started rock and roll!’ he exclaimed in front of the silent assembly of thousands. ‘I don’t say that with any glee! I don’t say it with any pomp or pride! I say it with shame and sadness, because I’ve seen the death and the destruction. I’ve seen the unmitigated misery and the pain. I’ve seen it!’ His voice cracking with emotion, he railed: ‘I speak of experience. My family – Jerry Lee Lewis, with Elvis Presley, with Chuck Berry … started rock and roll!’ His claim served an obvious rhetorical point, but there was also much truth to it.

So begins Randall Stephens’ concise summary of the argument of his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018). You may read his entire History Today piece here.

Covid-19 takes its toll among the Navajo

13 May

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

TUBA CITY, Arizona (AP) — The virus arrived on the reservation in early March, when late winter winds were still blowing off the mesas and temperatures at dawn were often barely above freezing.

It was carried in from Tucson, doctors say, by a man who had been to a basketball tournament and then made the long drive back to a small town in the Navajo highlands. There, believers were preparing to gather in a small, metal-walled church with a battered white bell and crucifixes on the window.

On a dirt road at the edge of the town, a hand-painted sign with red letters points the way: “Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene.”

From that church, COVID-19 took hold on the Navajo Nation, hopscotching across families and clans and churches and towns, and leaving the reservation with some of the highest infection rates in the U.S.

So begins this AP story on…

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Simone Weil and the gift of inarticulacy: How not to live in lockdown

11 May

We are living through a time of rupture. Our lives, suddenly turned outside in, are lived at the pace of interruption. These interruptions have their banal form: living with others from whom there is little space or peace, alone and unable to see others who form the pattern of our normal daily living; and they have their profound forms: deaths that happen suddenly and without the hoped-for comforts of all we have come to associate with good dying and grieving.

So begins British Catholic social thinker Anna Rowlands’ op-ed on the helpfulness of Jewish-turned-Christian philosopher Simone Weil on dealing with “what is” now: the Covid-19 crisis. You may read the entire piece at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Religion & Ethics site here.

Who Defines Evangelicalism? An Interview with Mark Noll

29 Apr

President Donald Trump holds an Evangelicals for Trump rally at a Miami megachurch in January of 2020. (Adam DelGiudice/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty)

Now more than three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, amid the coronavirus pandemic and his run for reelection, the debate over his white evangelical base continues to rage. Columns and editorials have been written, pundits have clashed, friendships and family ties have been strained. Through it all, some basic questions have underwritten the exchange—What is an evangelical? To whom does the label apply? What policies and politicians should an evangelical support? Of all the recent books tackling these questions on American evangelicalism—and there are many—one stands out as complete and comprehensive.

Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden—all esteemed scholars of American religious history—have assembled an impressive line-up of contributors in their edited volume, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Bebbington, now retired from Scotland’s University of Sterling, is perhaps best known for outlining four main characteristics of evangelicalism. Marsden and Noll, who held the same chair in succession at Notre Dame, have also long explored the salient traits of evangelicals, including their role in higher education. In Noll’s 1994 book about the tension between his twin loves of intellectualism and evangelicalism, he famously wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

In this latest volume, Noll has helped bring together many minds to ponder different facets of the questions facing evangelicalism. Among them are names that have appeared in the pages of Religion & Politics and around the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, including Darren DochukMolly WorthenKristin Kobes Du MezJemar TisbyTimothy Keller, and Thomas S. KiddEric C. Miller spoke recently with Noll about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So begins a fascinating interview by Eric C. Miller of historian and evangelical Mark Noll about a new book on evangelicalism. You may read the entire Religion and Politics piece here.

The Evangelical and the Journalist: Billy Sunday & A.B. MacDonald

22 Apr

Crowds jam New York’s Penn Station to see Billy Sunday arrive. Bain News Service, between 1910 -1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A. B. MacDonald was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in the early decades of the 20th century who had a front-row seat to the sermons of Billy Sunday, one of the most electrifying preachers of the day.

MacDonald, based in Kansas City, was an evangelical Christian himself. He spent much of 1917 to 1919 traveling across the country and proselytizing with Sunday, a man MacDonald repeatedly described as a “genius” and “the greatest man I have ever known.”

So begins Ryan Reft’s description of a new manuscript collection at the Library of Congress. You may read the entire post here.

Seven spiritual beliefs of young adults

6 Apr

For more than a decade scholars have been investigating the spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults in the US in a sustained research project called the National Study of Youth and Religion. In the latest installment in this project, we interviewed a range of emerging adults about their lives, their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and even their failures. The young adults responded in articulate and insightful ways about these aspects of their lives.

But their articulateness did not extend to talking about religion or spirituality. This inarticulacy has been noted over the life of the research project, starting when the subjects were teens. In the intervening years, their ability to articulate religious teachings and exactly what they believe doesn’t seem to have improved in any significant way.

So begins an excerpt from a new sociological study of the religious beliefs of emerging adults. You may read the entire Christian Century piece by Denton and Flory here.

Ancient Monks Got That Quarantine Feeling, Too

2 Apr
A personification of Acedia from between 1550 and 1625

A personification of acedia from between 1550 and 1625
 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the noon hour. All of a sudden, you have a need to escape or, conversely, to surrender to torpor, into the throes of an afternoon nap, even if you’re not really tired. Perhaps you also have an urge to daydream about a romantic and exciting place beyond confined walls.

A tale in the age of coronavirus isolation? Not exactly: the ancients wrote extensively on this feeling centuries ago. These descriptions go back to desert monks of the fourth century, who were warned about the dangers of what was called acedia.

So begins Peter Feuerherd’s concise reminder of that which Christian monks called acedia. (Kathleen Norris has more recently written about it in her Acedia & Me.) You may read the entire JSTOR Daily piece here.

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