Outstanding Academic Titles 2020: Reads Regarding Religion

This week's sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books about Religion.

This week’s sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books about Religion.

1. Religion, law, USA
ed. by Joshua Dubler and Isaac Weiner New York University, 2019

Since the late 1940s key court cases from Everson v. U.S.,to the school prayer cases of the 1960s, to the Smith “peyote” decision of 1990, to recent cases involving religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court has been busy deciding cases involving religion, law, and society. The result: a mess. The “manyness” (as contributor Jason Bivins refers to it) of religion in the US ill fits courtroom cases, where definitions are constructed in ways that reflect Protestant understandings of what constitutes “religion.” Inspired by scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s conception of “the impossibility of religious freedom” (as articulated in a volume by the same title, CH, Jan’06, 43-3072), the present book explores a wide variety of cases involving religion and law. The irony is that religious studies scholars (and the contributors to this volume are among those at the top of this scholarly field) have explored questions such as how boundaries are drawn between what is religion and what is not, but the courts have turned time and again to particular definitions that scholars have long since historicized and, in so doing, rejected.
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2. Faith and foreign affairs in the American century
Edwards, Mark Thomas. Lexington Books, 2019

Scholarly interest in the intersection between religion and foreign affairs has grown considerably in recent years, so that analysis of foreign policy decision-making can no longer ignore the influence of faith. Doing so runs the risk of reducing diplomacy to the narrow confines of political and economic filters, ignoring the cultural, social, and religious dimensions that shape worldviews. Edwards (Spring Arbor Univ.) here argues that American diplomacy has been equally secular and religious, a phenomenon he calls “Protestant secularism” (first coined by theologist Paul Tillich), through which religious initiatives are often secularized and secular initiatives are often Christianized. Interestingly, Edwards claims that democracy became less participatory after WW II, opening the door to elitist agendas to create a wider Judeo-Christian consensus, which was in reality a civil religion at best. He further contends that understanding this interrelationship is important, as it allows historians to better understand the complicated web of religion and secularism without seeing the two as polarizing opposites. View on Amazon

3. Imagining Judeo-Christian America: religion, secularism, and the redefinition of democracy
Gaston, K. Healan. Chicago, 2019

In this richly textured and nuanced study of American discourse, Gaston (Harvard Divinity School) offers a fresh analysis of the possibilities and perils of the claim that the US has been and remains a Judeo-Christian nation. Telling the story in great detail—for example, she looks at presidential piety and the piety of presidents’ speechwriters—the author examines the way religionists and politicians have construed the relationship between democracy and religion. Digging beneath the surface of ecumenical debates, Gaston demonstrates that “Judeo-Christian” has always meant different things to different constituencies. Even in a time of post–WW II optimism, religious and political leaders formulated contentious meanings of the idea in response to naturalism, materialism, and communism. The analysis unfolds in three parts: “The Genesis of America’s Judeo-Christian Discourse,” which addresses the 19th century; “Secularism and the Redefinition of Democracy,” i.e., mid-20th-century battles with totalitarianism; and “From Tri-faith to Multireligious America,” i.e., the Civil Rights Movement to the Trump era. Such layering proves highly informative, casting light on how American politics has always been forged by a dynamic tension between the secular and the religious.
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4. Literary theory and the New Testament
Dinkler, Michal Beth. Yale, 2019

Supported by helpful guiding metaphors (bays and lakes, mountainsides, constellations) and replete with references to theorists (e.g., Meyer Abrams, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ferdinand de Saussure, Walter Benjamin, Vladimir Propp) and biblical scholars those theorists influenced, this volume shows how formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism—in their various manifestations—continue to impact New Testament interpretation. Dinkler (Yale Divinity School) is spot on in demolishing the common misperception that literary interpretation is anti- or ahistorical and antitheological. Her detailed examples—she reads the character of Jesus in the hemorrhaging woman/Jairus/Jairus’s daughter Synoptic accounts via new formalism and New Historicism, and she studies the Corinthian correspondence in light of affect theory and ecocriticism—serve her argument well. Readers wishing for more information on how the various theories (e.g., postcolonialism, Marxism and neo-Marxism, three waves of feminism, narratology, psychoanalysis, womanism, queer theory) play out in scholarship will find the bibliography helpful.
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5Is Europe Christian?
Roy, Olivier. tr. by Cynthia Schoch Oxford, 2020

Roy (European Univ. Institute, Italy) provides an indirect answer to the direct question of his title. Europe certainly was Christian, but much European (and American) Christianity has been “eviscerated” (Roy’s terminology) by secularism—decline in Christian belief, practice, values, and sentiment—and thus sapped of its spiritual strength and energy. Secularism now marks the day. Roy begins his analysis with the wars of religion in the 17th century and the Westphalian state, which eliminated the church’s claim to political power. Secularism emerged, with the autonomy of the political sphere in place and the decline in religious observance under way. The secularists opposed any and all religion/s; the Catholic Church initially opposed modernism only to become progressive; the Protestant liberals self-secularized; the fundamentalists and charismatics grew indifferent to European Christian identity; and the identitarians were satisfied with a form of cultural Christianity. Yet identity, value, and authority remain open issues among Europeans, stimulated anew by the fundamental values of the 1960s, individualism, freedom, and desire.
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