Cartoon by Man Martin (rpt. Winnipeg Free Press, March 16, 2019)

Short takes on a general theme that didn’t start to jell until I’d been thinking about it for the better part of a month. It’s still not completely jelled — can we think of it as a Jell-O fruit salad? — but I think it may be what I’ve been looking for to reinvigorate my research project on Swedish immigrant churches of the 1850s in light of today’s political climate.

It started to emerge with a cartoon I remembered while I was working on a lesson plan that touched on Lutheran theology. It took a new path a few days later when I read an emailed reflection by a Catholic author who suggested “no one’s idea of God is exactly the same as another person’s” and that means “we have permission to imagine a God who is as expansive as possible within the infinite scope of our imaginations.” And it came into focus when I Googled her and found an article on the rising generation of 30- and 40-something “Nones,” spelled n-o-n-e-s, who “engage in a kind of spiritual mix and match, blending many traditions and adhering strictly to none” (hence the name).

Along the way, her discussion reminded me of related themes in my research on pluralism in 19th-century America — Roger Williams’ garden, to mix metaphors and adopt his metaphor for religion as a garden protected from the wilderness of the state by a wall of separation. A scattering of breadcrumbs, to mix a third metaphor into the Jell-O salad, but breadcrumbs that may lead somewhere.

I’m not going to claim my spate of web-surfing this month was some kind of pilgrimage or spiritual quest, but it did bring a moment or two of clarity. The writer is Kaya Oakes, author of a book titled The Nones Are Alright who teaches creative nonfiction at UC-Berkeley; I’ve blogged about her work, (HERE and HERE), and her online instructional material is giving me a new way of looking at my own writing. Jump-starting it, in fact! At the same time, what she says about cultural pluralism — mix-and-match spirituality — appeals to the spiritual mutt in me. Again, it brings clarity.

Especially when I compare it to the tribalism and denominational turf wars of much traditional religion — both now, and in the past (I’ve blogged about this, too, HERE, HERE and HERE — more breadcrumbs), especially in light of scholarly speculation about the threat of civil war in America (see HERE and HERE), I think the nones, to slightly misquote the title of Oakes’ book, are right. In an article for the Jesuit magazine America that led to her writing the book, she says:

In my social circle, you can find lapsed Jews, lapsed mainline Protestants, former Evangelicals, ex-Muslims, children raised Quaker and even a former Buddhist monk. As a Bay Area native, I may perhaps be running in a group of creative types who are more likely to eschew anything smacking of institutionalized thinking, but even my students at the University of California, Berkeley—many of whom come from more conservative pockets of the state, the country or deeply religious foreign countries—also reflect the Pew statistics. Often called “nones,” they are overwhelmingly disinterested in traditional notions of what it means to have faith. Instead of cleaving to one particular way of believing, many younger people engage in a kind of spiritual mix and match, blending many traditions and adhering strictly to none.

So here, in a nutshell (or nut graf), is the general theme: The 2020s in America are looking more and more like the runup to the first Civil War in the 1850s, and our traditional religious institutions aren’t well equipped to handle it. But there is room, in a society that still claims to be pluralistic, for mainline or progressive Christians to make common cause with Jews (and, increasingly, Muslims), as well as other faith traditions around shared core values like love of God, love of neighbor, compassion and service.

Theologians, a cartoon and ‘holy envy’

Take 1, (Aug. 5-14). When I got ticked off by what I considered a snarky remark about Southern bible-belt evangelism, I started a blog post that never went anywhere. My lede went like this:

Theologians, not without reason, have a bad press. And I say that as a devoted, if somewhat eclectic, armchair theologian.

So I’ve always loved this cartoon by Man Martin, an Atlanta-area English teacher who draws a daily strip called Man Overboard, which he publishes on Facebook and his blog at https://manmartin.blogspot.com/. The guy with the red book in the background I don’t recognize, but I’m pretty sure I can make out Luther, Calvin and St. Augustine. Whatever else you can say about their differing views on justification, predestination and/or substitutionary atonement, they do make things complicated.

But one theologian I’ll give a pass to is Krister Stendahl, dean of Harvard Divinity School in the 1970s and bishop of Sweden’s diocese of Stockholm. (For one thing, he was a Swede, which tends to make him OK in my book.) Most importantly, he came up with what he called “three rules for religious understanding,” or interfaith dialog.

Stendahl’s rules boil down to this: Speak about the religion of others as you would have them speak about yours. Where have I heard that before? Don’t get your information from another religion’s enemies; don’t compare your best to its worst; and, leave room for “holy envy,” in other words look for good things in it that might enrich your own faith.

Krister Stendahl’s rules came to mind when I was getting ready for “Sundays@6,” an online adult faith formation group session I co-facilitate with my wife at our parish church. We’re reading Kelly Fryer’s Reclaiming the ”L” Word: Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core, an Augsburg Fortress title about “recognizing and living out the core teachings of the Lutheran faith.” It’s an engaging, positive review of Lutheran theology and core values. But one passage rubbed me the wrong way, and I think it got in the way of what Fryer was trying to say.

Every week I send out a blast email with the Zoom link and a handout with scripture passages and discussion questions. I’ll just quote from last week’s (with light editing). I said:

Chapter 5 is titled “Love Changes People,” and Fryer begins by comparing it to a hellfire-and-damnation billboard she once saw on I-85 in North Carolina. “God bless them, I think they mean well,” she says. “But somebody ought to tell these folks that it is God’s love that makes the difference for people. […] Not whacking people upside the head with a Bible.” Her point’s a good one, but Pete’s reaction probably isn’t what she intended. To Southerners (or Southern expats like Pete), this kind of stuff sounds like a typical %@&^yankee taking cheap shots at a culture she doesn’t know and can’t understand. How can we evangelize without whacking others upside the head?

As we continue to explore what we have to offer as Lutherans in a pluralistic society, we might consider Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

Stendahl was at different times dean of Harvard Divinity School and bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden. Are he and Kelly Fryer trying to say the same thing?

To give credit where it’s almost certainly due, Fryer pitches her book for “God’s people through Jesus … who also happen to be Lutheran.” But I think sometimes she lets her sense of our uniqueness get in her way. Krister Stendahl’s concept of “holy envy” and interfaith dialog (see HERE and HERE, as well as below, for some of my notes) might point another way.

A breadcrumb in Roger Williams’ garden

Take 2 (Aug. 20-25). Reading Kaya Oakes’ book about the n-o-n-e-s and mix-and-match spirituality (which so resembles my own) in turn got me to thinking about my historical research, much of which in the last 10 years or so has centered on the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod, and how the Swedes carved out a niche for a modified Scandinavian-style folk church in white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America — i.e. Roger Williams’ garden. Augustana flourished from the 1850s well into the 20th century, when in the 1960s it entered a series of mergers that in 1978 would create the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. My musings in the past week are as follows:

In 2016, I had an article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society titled “’How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901–1925.” More recently I’ve presented papers with clickbait titles like “A Religious Community’s Response to Wartime Nativism: Swedish-American Lutherans in Rock Island at the Onset of World War I” and “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860.”

Here’s another breadcrumb in the trail. Chris McGreal of the Guardian had a speculative article over the weekend under the somewhat less-than-reassuring headline “US political violence is surging, but talk of a civil war is exaggerated – isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no (I think).

McGreal says if civil war comes to the United States, it will be more like the Troubles in the north of Ireland than an out-and-out military conflict. “The parallel with Northern Ireland may jar,” he adds, “but recent polling suggests it is not unwarranted.” I guess we can take comfort in that. But civil unrest, at the very least, looks all but inevitable at the moment.

Also jarring is the increasingly militant — and political — tone of white Christian nationalism. Especially as some white evangelicals identify with the far right of the Republican Party, I’m reminded of the sectarianism I’ve studied in the 1850s. I’ve blogged about this, too, especially HERE and HERE. And toward the end of August, an especially significant breadcrumb appeared in the forest. Well, in Roger Williams’ garden.

In an Aug. 24 column on ex-President Trump’s demagoguery, Thomas Edsall of the New York Times quoted at length from an email he received from political scientist Herbert Kitschelt of Duke University. Kitschelt wrote:

There are two unique American afflictions on which Trump could thrive and that are not shared by any other advanced Western O.E.C.D. country: the legacy of slavery and racism, and the presence of fundamentalist Evangelicalism, magnifying racial and class divisions. There is no social organization in America that is as segregated as churches.

(The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OCED for short, is an international forum representing 38 developed nations.) Kitschelt added this, which I believe has a direct bearing on my research project:

[…] a critical element of Trumpist support is trying to establish in all of the United States a geographical generalization of what prevailed in the American South until the 1960s Civil Rights movement: a white Evangelical oligarchy with repression — jailtime, physical violence and death — inflicted on those who will not succumb to this oligarchy. It’s a form of clero-fascism. A declining minority — defined in economic and religious terms — is fighting tooth and nail to assert its supremacy. [Link in Edsall’s column.]

What makes Kitschelt’s quote significant, at least for my purposes, is that today’s evangelical and mainline Protestant churches both grow out of the evangelism of the Second Great Awakening and the mid-19th century. Also, his emphasis on the American “legacy of slavery and racism” calls to mind the postcolonial critique of Faulkner’s theme of the ancestral crimes of slavery and stealing land from the American Indians.

While church and state were separate in the 1850s, it was a time of WASP hegemony and sectarian rivalries. For example, Pastor Lars Paul Esbjörn, one of the first Swedish Lutheran pastors in the Midwest who returned to Sweden in 1863 after 15 years in the US, reported to a Church of Sweden diocesan meeting back in Uppsala that when he established his church in Andover, Illinois, a nearby Methodist preacher had claimed:

[…] that the Lutheran church is dead; that it is the Babylonian harlot [and] … the Swedish preacher [Esbjörn] has come to burden these free citizens with the shackles and fetters of the State Church; that there are no Lutheran congregations in America: that the Methodists are the genuinely true Lutherans but with another name.

Esbjörn, it should be noted, wasn’t exactly a model of Christian forbearance himself. He complained of the “external noise and bluster” of Methodist and Baptist frontier evangelists, and he once had to issue a public apology and retraction when he libeled a competing Episcopal priest in Chicago. We worry about the tone of civil discourse today, and rightly so, but the 1850s during the runup to the first Civil War were hardly a model.

And some straws in the wind today are encouraging.

Today, ELCA is in common communion with the descendants of Esbjörn’s anagonists in the Methodist and Episcopal churches, and has joined the Episcopal Church and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in opposing white Christian nationalism in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection (I blogged about this, too, HERE). So I don’t think we’re in for a repeat of the 1850s on that score.

Some of these issues I address in my historical writing by focusing on creolization, a process of cultural blending I’ve explored in the blog, HERE, HERE and HERE for example, as well as my historical research. And I’m studying the Caribbean/French postcolonial author Édouard Glissant, with an eye to his views on cultural hybridity and his “attempt to trace parallels between the history and culture of the Creole Caribbean and those of Latin America and the plantation culture of the American South, most obviously in his study of William Faulkner” (to quote Wikipedia). But that’s another story for another day.

Links and Citations

Alcoholics Anonymous Australia, “Glossary of Terms Used in AA,” 2017, Alcoholics Anonymous https://aa.org.au/new-to-aa/frequently-asked-questions/glossary-of-terms/.

Thomas Edsall, “When It Comes to Eating Away at Democracy, Trump Is a Winner,” New York Times, Aug. 24, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/24/opinion/us-democracy-trump.html.

L.P. Esbjörn, “Report on the Development and Current State of the Swedish Lutheran Congregations in North America, Presented at the Clergy Meeting of the Upsala [sic] Archepiscopal See, 14 June 1865,” trans. John Norton, in Augustana Historical Society Newsletter (Spring 2009), 3.

Kelly Fryer, Reclaiming the ”L” Word: Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003. 12.

Chris McGreal, “US political violence is surging, but talk of a civil war is exaggerated – isn’t it?” Guardian, Aug. 20, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/aug/20/us-political-violence-civil-war.

McGreal, “US political violence is surging, but talk of a civil war is exaggerated – isn’t it?” Guardian, Aug. 20, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/aug/20/us-political-violence-civil-war.

Kaya Oakes, “The ‘Nones’ Are Alright: What we can learn from a generation of seekers,” America, March 18, 2014 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2014/03/18/nones-are-alright-what-we-can-learn-generation-seekers.

Wikipedia articles on breadcrumb trail, Christian nationalism, creolization, Édouard Glissant, Golden Rule, nut graph, OCED, Second Great Awakening and Krister Stendahl.

[Revised and — finally — uplinked, Aug. 25, 2022]

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