The Virgin Mary in 19th Century American Culture

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In contemporary American culture the Virgin Mary is associated with Catholic devotion and worship. Because of this, it should come as a surprise to many readers that the mother of Jesus was a general cultural icon in the latter half of nineteenth century Christian America. Temple professor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez details this history in her new book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Temple / Amazon). Images and references to Mary proliferated in popular magazines and on the walls of modest and fashionable homes, appealing to both Protestant and Catholic audiences. The Civil War, industrial revolution, and westward expansion transformed the United States. The rise of major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis drew in rural migrants and immigrants, unsettling religious, gender, and social norms. In these early years of mass society when the old agrarian ways were slipping away, the focus on the Virgin Mary offered a safe and familiar way of talking about and negotiating new female roles in this changing social landscape. Professor Alvarez traces the career of Mary from the declaration of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 through its fiftieth anniversary in 1904.

I spoke with Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez about her new book on November 7, 2016.

 

Vikings Visit Minnesota in 1362

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Well, not really, but that’s a story that had significant purchase in early 20th century Minnesota. In 1898 a Swedish immigrant discovered a buried stone with runic letters and the date 1362. The archaic Scandinavian script described a fishing party that returned to its camp to find “10 men red with blood and dead.”

8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men with blood and dead. AVM, save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year: 1362. [Translation by Erik Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved]

The news of the apparent visitation of fourteenth century Scandinavians to the great state of Minnesota was enthusiastically received by their latter day heirs. With so many immigrants entering the United States, it was reassuring to learn that these norsemen had staked a claim to the United States more than 100 years before Columbus. Better yet, they had baptized the soil with their own blood, consecrating it as holy ground.

As the authenticity of the “Kensington Rune Stone” came under question, supporters dismissed much of the evidence produced by pointy-headed academics in their ivory towers. Though the scientific consensus has clearly declared the stone a fake, books are still written “proving” its authenticity. In Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, historian and religion scholar David Krueger investigates the century-long story arc of this cultural artifact. He explores the passion for the Rune Stone among Scandinavian and, later, Catholics, who were intent on establishing their rightful place in the American community.

Beyond the history of the Rune Stone itself, Krueger’s work provides valuable insights on the history of immigrant communities and the ways they seek to blend their ancestral histories into a new and imagined cultural landscape. Readers will find the themes of Myths of the Rune Stone illuminating in this time of increased tension and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration.

I spoke with David Krueger on November 9, 2016, the morning after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

(For suggestions for how to use the book in a class setting, visit the book website at https://mythsoftherunestone.com/2015/12/15/using-myths-of-the-rune-stone-in-the-classroom/.)

—Fred Rowland

Who is Fethullah Gülen?

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On the evening July 15, 2016 elements of the Turkish military executed a failed coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the capital Ankara and Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, bridges were blocked, and helicopters and F-16s flew overhead. Battles between the coup plotters and government loyalists left over 250 dead. President Erdogan, on vacation in the coastal city of Marmaris, flew into Istanbul and urged followers to take to the streets to resist the coup.

Within a day of the coup attempt, President Erdogan and his government were back in control of Turkey and he began a widespread purge of the military, media, courts, and educational institutions. Before the details were even known, it became clear that Erdogan saw this as an opportunity to eliminate his enemies and consolidate power. On August 2, the Financial Times reported that “almost 70,000 people have been arrested, suspended or fired.” (Turkey’s purge reaches beyond the coup plotters) The New York Times Online made comparisons to “Joseph McCarthy‘s anti-Communist witch hunt in 1950s America, the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and ’70s.” (Turks see purge as witch hunt of ‘medieval’ darkness’, 9/16/16) Though there was little support among Turkish citizens for the coup, the scope of the purge threatens basic democratic governance in Turkey.

Responsibility for the coup quickly settled on the Gülen Movement, whose members were arrested, jailed, and in some cases possibly tortured. The followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Sufi cleric living in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, constitute a decentralized movement that is international in scope, with schools in over 100 countries. The Gülen Movement in Turkey, its country of origin, was – until recently – represented in the highest reaches of the military, judiciary, media, and economy. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have targeted Gulenists for several years now and these purges continue his effort to eliminate their influence across Turkish society. Gülen has been accused of masterminding the coup and an arrest warrant was issued against him in an Istanbul court in August. The Turkish government is seeking Gülen’s extradition from the United States to stand trial in Turkey.

As accusations against Gülen began piling up in the Turkish and international media in the aftermath of the coup, I thought of Professor Jon Pahl of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I knew he was working on a biography of Fethullah Gülen and I was interested in hearing what he had to say about Gülen, the Gülen Movement, and recent events in Turkey. Professor Pahl posted a blog at the University of California Press titled Don’t Make A Mystic into a Martyr: Fethullah Gülen as Peacebuilder on July 24, 2016.

I spoke to Joh Pahl on October 6, 2016.

 

Metropolitan Jews

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In Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (University of Chicago Press, 2015), History Professor Lila Berman analyzes the Jewish sense of place in Detroit during the twentieth century, first in neighborhoods such as Hastings Street, Dexter-Davison, and Bagley and then in the wider metropolitan area. In the first half century, Jews settled near the Detroit River and then gradually moved north and west. While there was little Jewish presence in the booming auto industry, Jews opened small business establishments, became involved in real estate, and pursued educational opportunities as the community developed vibrant religious and civic institutions.

At mid-century, Detroit began experiencing many of the convulsions that would shake other eastern and midwestern cities. The auto industry, which had built Detroit, began shifting its operations outside the city. White flight accompanied de-industrialization as federally subsidized mortgage loans financed new suburban housing developments from which African Americans were excluded. Detroit began losing popuation while the percentage of African Americans increased and the tax base shrank. For those Jews who remained, there were intense struggles over race, politics, employment, and housing.

Many Jews joined other white ethnics leaving Detroit. As the Jewish community became more established outside the city limits, what were the considerations with regards to synagogues, religious and civic organizations, and homes and businesses left behind? And how did the Jewish community respond to the struggles over politics, employment, and housing? Lila Berman tells the story of the Jewish community and its sense of place as it grew from small city neighborhoods to the wider Detroit metropolitan area.

I spoke to Lila Berman on March 28, 2016.

—Fred Rowland

Saving Faith At the Dawn of the 20th Century

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Living in the early 21st century, it might seem a little hard to believe that a century ago liberal Protestantism was the dominant voice of religion in the United States. Of course in a land so vast there were a lot of voices and opinions concerning religion. But in the urban power centers liberal Protestantism had the ears of politicians and business elites.

At this same time there were centrifugal forces weakening liberal Protestantism’s institutional grasp. As people poured into growing industrial cities from the countryside and overseas, they were greeted by secular clubs, cultural events, and entertainments that loosened the grip of the church. With so many inhabitants of different races, ethnicities, religions, beliefs, and practices, doubts about specific doctrines and creeds grew. The growing authority of science offered alternative explanations for a whole range of natural and metaphysical phenomena.

In Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2015), historian David Mislin explores how liberal Protestantism responded to the pressures of skepticism, doubt, and pluralism. In reaching out to Catholics and Jews of like mind, liberal Protestant leaders were haltingly moving toward what would in the post-World War II world become Judeo-Christian America.

I spoke with David Mislin on January 20, 2016 about his new book.

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—Fred Rowland

What is fundamentalism?

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…..the New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd edition) gives the following definition of fundamentalism…..

fundamentalism /ˌfəndəˈmen(t)lˌizəm/

▶ noun

a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.

  • strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline: free-market fundamentalism.

 

…..and the Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (2003) gives this definition…..

Fundamentalism. 

In general, a description of those who return to what they believe to be the fundamental truths and practices of a religion. It can thus be applied to this attitude in all religions (e.g. the resurgence of conservative Islam is sometimes called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’). But this use is often resented by such people, because of its more usual identification with those, in Christianity, who defend the Bible against charges that it contains any kind of error. More specifically, it denotes the view of Protestant Christians opposed to the historical and theological implications of critical study of the Bible.

To avoid overtones of closed-mindedness, Christians in the Fundamentalist tradition often prefer to be called Conservative Evangelicals.

The word (Arab. equivalents are salafiyya and uṣūliyya) is used of Muslims, when it refers to those who assert the literal truth of the Qurʾān and the validity of its legal and ritual commandments for modern people.

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I’m guessing that my two guests, Temple University professors David Watt (History) and Khalid Blankinship (Religion) would have some problems with each of these definitions. I invited them to my office to speak about Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History (University of South Carolina Press, 2014, Print / Online) on March 6, 2015. This anthology, edited by David Watt and Simon A. Wood, presents multiple scholarly perspectives on the history, concept, and use of the term “fundamentalism” in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. David Watt is a specialist on Protestant Christianity and Khalid Blankinship on Islam.

For anyone who pays attention to the news, it’s difficult to make it through the day without hearing the word fundamentalism thrown around in many different ways and in many different contexts. Among scholars, some believe that this term captures a set of features and characteristics that generally hold across religious boundaries, while others assert that its use obscures diversity and collapses differences. While Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History contains perspectives from each side of this debate, my two guests belong to the latter group. Both have contributed chapters to the present volume.

This interview will provide listeners with a deeper appreciation of the diversity of beliefs and practices that lies behind the term fundamentalism. An understanding of its origin, transformation, and use will prompt consumers of the news to listen more closely, read more carefully, and ask better questions.

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—Fred Rowland

Religion, Food, & Eating

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Marie Dallam is an assistant professor of religious studies in the honors college at the University of Oklahoma. Benjamin Zeller is an assistant professor of religion at Lake Forest College in Illinois. They are the editors, along with Reid L. Neilson and Nora L. Rubel, of the recently released Religion, Food, & Eating in North America. We connected via Skype on February 26, 2015 to discuss this anthology on religious foodways, or the ways people connect food and religion in their daily lives. Though we often tend to think of religion as a part of our identity that can be put on or sloughed off like a change of clothes, in practice religious identities permeate and cross over other areas of our daily routine, including the ways we sustain mind and body through food and eating. Many of us are familiar with the food “rules” of religion, like eating kosher in Judaism and halal in Islam. A focus on these theological food principles can serve to mask the complex and changing nature of food habits among believers.

This book started its life as a seminar at an American Academy of Religion annual conference in which participants were invited to come and discuss their ideas about food. The response was impressive and the result of this first-of-its-kind meeting is Religion, Food, & Eating in North America, which includes chapters on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, African diasporic religions, and Native American religions. In the course of studying these traditions, we learn something about dietary abstinence, nineteenth century vegitarianism, raw foods, a salmon ritual, Father and Mother Divine, and locavorism.

Marie Dallam earned her PhD in Religion from Temple University in 2006. Benjamin Zeller was an instructor in Temple’s Department of Religion between 2005 and 2007.

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—Fred Rowland

Media, Pennsylvania: March 8, 1971

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In 2013 whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents and confirmed a vast National Security Agency spying program. Though there had been significant revelations before Snowden’s leaks, this new information made it impossible for the US government to deny the international scope of its intrusions into the privacy of individuals, organizations, and governments.

43 years earlier a group of eight middle class antiwar activists performed a similar public service, releasing internal FBI documents that revealed a pattern of abuse by J. Edgar Hoover and federal agents. The full story is told in a new book (Betty Medsger’s The Burglary) and a documentary film (1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton), both released in 2014. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as they called themselves, burglarized the Media, Pennsylvania office of the FBI in the hopes of finding evidence of illegal FBI surveillance and disruption of the antiwar movement.

J. Edgar Hoover’s citadel was seemingly impregnable, built by decades of careful public relations and a comprehensive intelligence network. Though there was near certainty among antiwar activists and other protest groups of FBI malfeasance, there was no tangible evidence. After surveilling the Philadelphia FBI office and determining that it was too closely guarded, the Commission to Investigate the FBI looked to the FBI’s suburban offices for an opportunity.

After months of casing the Media, Pennsylvania office, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI made its move on the night of the first historic Joe Frazier – Muhammad Ali fight, March 8, 1971. By sunrise the next day, the Citizens’ Commission had eight large suitcases of documents – the full contents of the Media FBI filing cabinets – secured in an isolated farmhouse, waiting to be organized and analyzed. Hundreds of FBI agents were assigned to investigate the Media break-in, but no one was ever charged with the crime. The disclosures that resulted from the Media burglary provided concrete evidence of illegal FBI activities.

John and Bonnie Raines were members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. John Raines, now professor emeritus, has been at Temple University since he arrived from the Union Theological Seminary in 1966. John Raines spoke to me about his experiences with the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI on October 2, 2014.

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—Fred Rowland

Life and teachings of Jamgön Mipam

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Jamgön Mipam (1846 – 1912) is a representative of the Nyingma school, or “old school,” of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma trace their roots to the earliest entry of Buddhism into Tibet in the eighth century of the Common Era by Indian Buddhists, including luminaries Santaraksita and Padmasambhava. The “new” schools – Jonang, Geluk, Sakya, and Kagyu – that developed from the eleventh century viewed the Nyingma with suspicion, charging that Nyimgma scriptures were not based on Indian originals.

Mipam’s great strength was his ability to synthesize currents from the different new schools into the Nyingma tradition. As a monastic who spent considerable time in meditation and a scholar versed in the Middle Way, logic, poetics, medicine, astrology, and tantra, Mipam was well-placed to bridge the gap between the scriptural and meditative approaches to enlightenment. His writings cover a vast range of topics and genres, all the more surprising considering that he spent so much time in meditative retreat.

Religion professor Douglas Duckworth is a specialist on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. His 2011 book Jamgon Mipam: His Life and Teachings fills a need for an introduction on this important scholar, polymath, and mystic. Organized into three parts, it reviews Mipam’s life and the Buddhist traditions and teachers from which he drew, explores Mipam’s doctrines and philosophy, and then provides selected translations of Mipam’s works.

I spoke to Professor Douglas Duckworth on September 22, 2014 about his book Jamgön Mipam: His Life and Teachings, published in 2011 with Shambhala Publications.

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—Fred Rowland

What is spirituality?

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Do a search for spirituality in Google’s NGRAM Viewer, an online tool that graphs the incidence of words from the Google Book corpus, and you will find that in and around 1980 this word spiked. The rise is more or less consistent with the increasing appearance of the word spirituality in book and journal titles (pre-1980 books / post-1980 books; pre-1980 journals / post-1980 journals) in Temple University’s collection. The pattern appears in both popular and scholarly publications. About this time the category of “spiritual but not religious” became familiar to pollsters of religious attitudes and trends. What explains this sudden emergence of spirituality? Did anything really emerge, or was this just a definitional shift? Was spirituality colonizing new territory? Or is spirituality a “glow” word that makes everyone feel good but signifies, well, very little?

In her new book, The Ecology of Spirituality: Meanings, Virtues, and Practices in a Post-Religious Age, Lucy Bregman investigates this phenomenon. She looks at the broad changes in religion and intellectual culture that preceeded the blossoming (or metastasizing) of spirituality, and then describes spirituality’s career over the past three decades. I interviewed Lucy Bregman on July 3, 2014.

[This is the second interview I have done with Lucy Bregman. Listen to our discussion on her previous book: Preaching Death.]

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—Fred Rowland