Robert Wuthnow: All Religion Is Local

With the presidential race ramping up, results from polls—who won the latest debate, who will win the next one, who is or isn’t trustworthy or likable—come out almost daily. In Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith (Oxford Univ., Oct.), Robert Wuthnow also takes on polling— the kind that attempts to give the public a handle not on who might be the next president but on what people like to call “American religion”—a term he says is problematic. Religion polls, unlike political polls, are done badly today.

Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University and the author of many sociological investigations into the role of religion in American culture (After the Baby Boomers; Red State Religion), says it wasn’t always this way. “It used to be that academic surveys and commercial polls were similar in many respects,” he says, but adds that the quality of commercial polling has plummeted. “New technologies are a big part of the problem. Polling has become so pervasive that we in the public and in the media feel that a new polling result has to be produced every day.” Add in low response rates because people won’t answer their phones, and things get even worse.

In addition, political polls have something going for them that religion polls do not: periodic checkpoints called elections, which allow us “to see if the pollsters were accurate, and pollsters themselves can introduce weighting factors in the results to compensate for the biases,” Wuthnow says. Not so with religion. “If a poll says the pope is popular or not, or that people believe in God or don’t, there are no checkpoints in the real world to see if that’s accurate,” Wuthnow says. “We also have no reason to think religion changes dramatically from day to day or week to week.” Wuthnow says pollsters should conduct fewer religion surveys and improve the ones they do conduct—but he doesn’t expect the pollsters to listen to him.

Another problem with religion polling, he says, is that it gives people the idea that there is such a thing as “American religion.” “The notion of American religion has really been popularized by polling,” Wuthnow says. “Before polling started, you very rarely find references to American religion. When you go out and let people talk in their own words, they’re much less interested in broad trends that apply to the nation than in what’s happening to their family, congregation, and community. Religion is local, in other words, and it’s very diverse in its local expressions.” National religion polls just don’t get at this, he says.

Wuthnow hopes that Inventing American Religion will provide a necessary corrective. “I’m not suggesting people pay no attention to polls,” he says, “just that they be more cautious about them.”—Donna Freitas

Norman Wirzba: Christian Care for the Earth

The son and grandson of farmers in Alberta, Canada, Norman Wirzba always thought he’d be a farmer, too. But when the time came to choose a career, he decided to go for something easier and earned a doctorate. Still, the love of the land never left him, and it became a part of his work as a scholar.

Wirzba’s new book, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Baker, Sept.) digs into Christian traditions for guidance on how to treat an ecologically fragile world, and it shows how powerful language can be. Rather than talking about nature as simply “resources” to exploit, Wirzba says, “the Christian vocabulary of creation” invites us to think differently about humans’ place in the world. As professor of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke University, Wirzba has found a way to combine the academic and the earthy.

Wirzba earned his doctorate in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago in 1994, and, while teaching philosophy at Georgetown College in Kentucky from 1995 to 2008, he met Wendell Berry, whose The Unsettling of America (1977) articulated Wirzba’s own experience and gave him a new way to think about environmental ethics. Rather than focusing on philosophical theory divorced from practical application, or on preserving the wilderness (“precisely the place where humans don’t belong”), Wirzba found that traditions associated with agriculture, which places people in a deep relationship with the land, are a better way to imagine how humans and the natural world can flourish together.

Over the years, Wirzba’s writing has illuminated the many sides of that relationship. He serves as general editor for Culture of the Land: A Series in the New Agrarianism (Univ. Press of Kentucky), which includes more than 20 titles, among them Wendell Berry: Life and Work, edited by Jason Peters (2010).

In March 2016, HarperOne will publish Wirzba’s Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity, in which he plumbs the possibilities for healing relationships—including those between humans and the Earth—by returning to what Wirzba believes is central to Christianity: love. Wirzba says that recovering the meaning of such love can create correction and balance, a good reason to hope.

“There isn’t an ecosystem on the planet that isn’t in crisis, even on the verge of collapse,” Wirzba says, but he adds that the world is full of mystery and might hold some positive surprises. Meanwhile, “we already know what we need to do, and we have good traditions of learning and practices in place to do things better, such as increasing carbon in the soil.” He claims that a mere 4% increase—by adding green compost and animal manures, for example—could capture enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce it to the levels that existed before the Industrial Revolution.

In the face of climate change and with the risk of natural systems collapsing, “hope is something we choose to have,” Wirzba says, and a commitment to love for the world and its people leads the way to that hope. —Kristin Swenson

John J. Collins: Apocalyptic Expectations

John J. Collins says that if the impetus for religion is the belief that something or someone beyond our senses controls human affairs, then apocalypticism—the belief in a dramatic end of the world as we know it, brought about by that otherworldly force—is “religion writ large, in heightened mode and extreme form.” In Apocalypse, Prophecy, and Pseudepigraphy: On Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Eerdmans, Oct.), Collins continues his research on the sources, forms, and interpretation of apocalyptic literature.

That focus has a long history for Collins. As a doctoral candidate at Harvard, he read Paul D. Hanson’s then-new The Dawn of Apocalyptic: The Historical and Sociological Roots of Apocalyptic Eschatology (1975) and was inspired to postpone his investigation of Greek philosophy and study apocalypticism instead. Now professor of Old Testament criticism and interpretation at Yale, Collins has written more than 20 books that reflect his enduring interests in topics such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hellenistic Judaism, and ancient wisdom literature.

At the intersection of these topics is messianic thinking, something Collins believes is often misunderstood by Christians today. “Christ and the Gospels don’t fit the ancient paradigm of a messiah,” Collins says. “A messiah is a hero who would defeat your enemies and violently restore the kingdom. Jesus conspicuously did not do that.” King and Messiah as Son of God (Eerdmans, 2008), which he coauthored with his wife, Adela Yarbro Collins, gives clarity and nuance to popular understandings of ancient messianic thinking. “What you had with Jesus was an expectation that he was such a messiah because he went around saying that the kingdom of God is at hand,” Collins says. That expectation, unfulfilled before Jesus’s death, “gets transferred—it was salvaged by saying that he would come back and do it right the next time.”

Apocalypse, Prophecy, and Pseudepigraphy assembles essays that Collins has written over the past 15 years and reflects the relationships between those scholarly pursuits. (Pseudepigraphy, Collins explains, “is the attribution of a work to someone who did not actually write it—for example, saying that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, when he did not.”)

Collins says there is continuity between prophecy and apocalyptic literature, but there can be differences: “Both feature revelation, but apocalyptic literature will hit you over the head with it. It also puts more emphasis on the supernatural than does prophecy. You see this in the manner of revelation, which involves interpretation by an angel.” Finally, Collins says, “apocalyptic literature always includes hope for salvation beyond this world, judgment of the dead, and eternal life.”—Kristin Swenson

Mona Siddiqui: Welcome to My Muslim Home

Hospitality as a religious practice, and the spiritual dynamic between host and guest, offers rich ground for discussion of religious expression, theological principles, and how to create a better world. Although there’s been some exploration of hospitality in Judaism and Christianity, Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and interreligious studies at the University of Edinburgh, says, “I could find no current book on hospitality in the Islamic tradition in English,” a void she hopes to fill with Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name (Yale Univ., Nov.).

The book is not only about Islamic traditions. In Hospitality and Islam, Siddiqui says she “broadened and deepened” her exploration by drawing on Christian teachings, noting that readers also will find material on “food, migration, heaven, and gender—hopefully something for everyone.” While looking at hospitality through different historical and theological lenses, Siddiqui singles out the thought of al-Ghazali, the prolific Islamic theologian and philosopher of the late-11th- and early-12th centuries. “He has a whole chapter in his major work on how to be a good host, but also the responsibilities of the guest,” Siddiqui says.

Siddiqui, also the author of Christians, Muslims, and Jesus (Yale Univ., 2013), is a popular speaker and a facilitator of interreligious dialogue and understanding. She serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith, which meets annually in the United Arab Emirates. Also a regular contributor to BBC Radio Scotland’s Thought for the Day, Siddiqui chairs the BBC’s Religious Advisory Committee in Scotland and serves as patron of the Feast, a Christian charity in the U.K. that helps young Christians and Muslims work together to promote peace and social change. What does she wish that Christians knew about Islam and Muslims knew about Christianity? “There is no Islam without compassion, and there is no Christianity without love. Both challenge our humanity.”

Siddiqui’s own background spans cultures and languages. Born in Pakistan, she grew up in England and studied Arabic and French before earning a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a doctorate in classic Islamic law. She speaks mostly Urdu at home so that her children will grow up bilingual. “I don’t think you can appreciate a culture unless you know the language,” she says.

Much of Siddiqui’s public speaking “is done outside the academy, and it’s always humbling when the public come to listen to you,” she says. Her work takes her all over the world, though Siddiqui tries to limit travel for her family’s sake. “But I will still go and speak in places where I think my views might make a difference,” she says. —Kristin Swenson

Susan Niditch: Undercover Religion

There’s the prayer for the Eid al-Fitr feast, the liturgy for Christian Sunday morning services, strict kosher food laws... but then there’s the day-to-day being and doing by the faithful that might bear little or no evident relationship to institutional religion. It has always been like this, the archeological record suggests—human beings adhering to a formal religion while carrying on their own personal religious and spiritual practices. In The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (Yale Univ., Sept.), Susan Niditch reveals the evidence for increased individual expression during those early periods, which were times of dramatic change.

Niditch is chair and professor of religion at Amherst College and the author of many other books—including Folklore and the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 1993) and Ancient Israelite Religion (Oxford Univ., 1997)—that reveal less-obvious, but no less powerful, ways in which people live their religions. Niditch has recently focused on personal religious expression in ancient Judaism during the watershed period following the conquest of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylonian forces, a study that resulted in The Responsive Self.

At that time, Niditch says, there was increased attention to private vows—“if you (God) do X, I will respond with Y”—as well as upticks in autobiographies, such as Nehemiah’s memoirs, and in the literature of lament, such as the Book of Job. The subject of suffering, especially how a good person could experience terrible pain, challenged the simplistic suffering-as-punishment model that had held sway in earlier times. Niditch says characters in stories from that period, such as Ruth and Jonah, were more fully drawn than earlier “types” had been, and also were portrayed in realistic relationships like that between Ruth and Naomi.

Having a religious life apart from the formal system wasn’t new, Niditch says. Excavations of private homes in ancient Israel from earlier periods reveal the use of tiny figurines or small shrines for private worship. At the same time, there was a formal system of sacrifice and prayer centralized in the ancient temple of Jerusalem. When the temple was destroyed and the nation’s autonomy lost, these personal religious practices and beliefs became even more vital, Niditch says.

In her teaching and her efforts to respond to students’ modern questions and concerns, Niditch says she tries to explore ancient themes that have an immediate relevance. For example, “questions about God being so violent” are common, she says.

Asked if The Responsive Self reflects any change in her thinking about warfare in the ancient Near East—a subject she examined in earlier works, including War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (Oxford Univ., 1993)—Niditch says, “I’ve become more interested in exit from war than in entrance into war,” in how people emerge from the trauma into a changed life after it. Other favorite themes include the roles and experiences of women in war and views of the body in ancient Judaism. “After all, what could be more personal than the body?” she asks. —Kristin Swenson

Robert C. Gregg: Religious Rivalries

“To hear a story is to interpret a story,” says Robert C. Gregg. “This is just as true of the Constitution or the Bible as it is of any other text.” Who interprets, how, and why, questions that have long piqued Gregg’s curiosity, are dealt with in his new book, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Oxford Univ., Sept.). The book took more than a decade to write (earning the moniker “that damn book” from Gregg’s wife), and although he has taught and published on historical belief systems for more than 30 years, and is the author or coauthor of six books, Gregg’s excitement and energy are as fresh as if he’d just begun.

Gregg was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1964, and his career has honored both the pastoral and academic; he taught religious studies at Stanford and also was dean for religious life and dean of Memorial Chapel there. With a doctorate in religious thought, particularly in early Christianity, Gregg’s area of specialty lengthened to include later centuries. As his research took him into the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, he added Islam to his studies. The result has been an enduring interest in the ways in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have recast their sacred texts, in part as a way to counter the claims of the others. At Stanford, where he is professor emeritus, Gregg developed an undergraduate course on the topic “Peoples of the Book,” which led to his writing Shared Stories, Rival Tellings.

Today, many consider the Abrahamic faiths to have been fixed in their distinctions, but that wasn’t always so. In the years during which these stories originated, leaders in each tradition were in close contact with one another, Gregg says, and they were in a kind of religious arms race, a competition to claim truths about the stories that served each religion’s best interests. Much of what drove the distinctions between them was the intent to contradict another tradition’s interpretation.

Gregg points to the ways that stories about Mary, the mother of Jesus, are told and retold by rabbis and Muslim scholars working against a burgeoning Mary cult in Christianity. “In dueling interpretations of Mary, we have fascinating expansions of the Mary story and evidence of real historical jousting,” Gregg says. Art was another richly expressive vehicle for interpreting these foundational stories, and Gregg explores this, too, something he says he wants to continue given the rich possibilities for rival tellings.

Gregg hopes that Shared Stories, Rival Tellings will help people not only better understand these world religions, but also the sources of conflict between them—“what kinds of things get bickered over.” He puts his own work to the same test: reading his new book for the first time, Gregg found himself asking, who is this author and what is he trying to do? —Kristin Swenson