This year’s American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature annual conference will be notable for religion scholars’ continuing focus on social and political issues. The 2016 election of Donald Trump, made possible in part by overwhelming backing from white Christian evangelicals (80% of their votes were for him), has galvanized progressive Christians and people of other faiths to speak out. Religion scholars are using their expertise to comment on public conversations in the era of Trump. “Some days it feels as though every book that comes across my desk is a book about Donald Trump, or is pitched as one, or sounds like one even though it’s not pitched as one,” says Theo Calderara, editor-in-chief for history and religion at Oxford University Press.
In the discipline of religious studies, talked-about contemporary issues are reflected in the books and authors being featured at the book exhibit and in panels and presentations at the conference.
Evangelicals’ lopsided support for a twice-divorced man who is an unlikely Christian role model has already sparked hand-wringing and books from those who study American Christianity, and more are in the pipeline. In The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors (Oxford Univ., June 2020), John W. Compton, who teaches political science at Chapman University, “takes a century-long look at how conservative Protestants were motivated to get involved in politics by a concern for poor and the powerless (‘the least of these’), in many cases, in a very different place,” says Calderara at OUP.
Many conservative evangelicals see America as a Christian nation, a view that has been exploited by the president. That belief comes under the scholarly microscope in Saving History: The Politics of Christian Heritage Tourism in Washington, D.C. by Lauren R. Kerby (Univ. of North Carolina, out now). Kerby, the education specialist for the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, rides the bus for tours of Washington, D.C, that are designed to inculcate a conservative Christian understanding of America’s founders. Kerby studied under Stephen Prothero (Religious Literacy), who is frequently quoted in the media about public understandings of religion, and in this book she compares sightseeing in the nation’s capital to a religious pilgrimage. This book inaugurates a series, Where Religion Lives, from UNC. Executive editor Elaine Maisner says, “This series is devoted to showcasing the best ethnographic approaches to understanding religion in the field, in fresh, insightful religious-studies style.”
Not politically focused but keenly aware of the same cultural forces that shape conversations among conservative evangelical Christians is The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities by Kate Bowler (Princeton Univ., out now). Bowler, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, accidentally became a celebrity when her memoir about living with stage IV cancer, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Random House), rocketed to bestseller status in 2018. In her new book, Bowler writes about the contradictions of being famous and female in the evangelical subculture, shedding light on the values and beliefs of conservative Christian voters.
Bowler was a rising academic star when her medical diagnosis ambushed her academic career trajectory and led to her public musings in New York Times op-eds that became the basis of her 2018 bestseller. That attention opened doors to other famous evangelical women to speak out, Princeton executive editor Fred Appel says. “There’s no doubt that her own robust public profile influenced the writing of this book.”
Evangelical history is examined in Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis by Thomas S. Kidd (Yale Univ., out now; profiled on p. 20), who teaches history at Baylor University. “This grew very clearly out of the 2016 election and how many evangelicals had voted for Trump,” Yale executive editor Jennifer Banks says. “The book is his wrestling with that fact” and has attracted strong prepublication interest.
Other new titles critically examine evangelical theology and what it does and doesn’t prescribe for culture: Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice by Mae Elise Cannon and Andrea Smith (IVP Academic, Sept. 2020) seeks to build a theological foundation for social and political activism that incorporates liberation theology. The authors are social justice activists. Oriented toward historical tradition is Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Crossway, out now) by Baptist pastor Gavin Ortlund.
On Faith and Politics
Books that look more generally at the intersection of religion and politics vary in approach, using historical or current data or both. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford Univ., Feb. 2020) by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, who are sociologists at Clemson University and University of Oklahoma respectively, “looks at a force that is driving our contemporary politics,” OUP’s Calderara says. The book uses data collected over several decades, as Christian nationalism, though it is now making news, has long roots in American fringe politics.
In American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country (HarperOne, Apr. 2020) by Jack Jenkins, the journalist-author argues in this debut work for the significance of the religiously affiliated political left, profiling such current leaders in those ranks as Rev. William Barber II and Sister Simone Campbell. Jenkins is national religion reporter for Religion News Service, a news agency that specializes in the coverage of religion and spirituality.
Religious Identity in U.S. Politics by Matthew R. Miles (Lynne Rienner, June 2020) uses national survey data to explore the function of religion as a social identity. Miles is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Activist Theology by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza (Fortress, out now) draws on continental philosophy, queer theology, and critical class theory in urging religion scholars to take social and political action on behalf of marginalized communities. Henderson-Espinoza is the founder of the Activist Theology Project in Nashville.
In Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (Univ. of North Carolina, Mar. 2020), Nicole Myers Turner focuses on the post–Civil War era in Virginia to challenge received wisdom about the role of the black church in political organizing. Turner uses not only archival material but geographic information systems (GIS) mapping, a digital methodology for analyzing geographic and spatial data. In addition to print, Turner’s book will be published as an enhanced open-access e-book on a companion website hosted by the data-collection platform Fulcrum. UNC’s Maisner is excited about the innovative methodology. “Using a slew of intricate GIS mapping, this book embodies the digital humanities in a way that is talked about but perhaps not often seen,” she says.
Scholars continue to focus their critical lenses on the religion of Islam, looking at it theologically, in the context of world cultures, in the context of both American and world politics, and in dialogue with other religious traditions. Some publishers, such as Georgetown University Press and the University of North Carolina Press, specialists in the field of Islam, are bringing out the latest titles in an ongoing series. Oxford University has both dizzying breadth in its frontlist and an ever-growing deep backlist on all aspects of Islamic cultures. Publishing on the vast subject is growing more specialized, “which is good for the field,” says Calderara at OUP.
UNC Press has been developing its Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks series for 15 years. “We try to bring Islamic studies into the contemporary world,” says Maisner, who is the series editor. The series spans all regions and periods of Islamic civilizations while eschewing overspecialization. “We’re interested in how things are connected,” Maisner says. As an example, she points to Modernism on the Nile: Art in Egypt Between the Islamic and the Contemporary by Alex Dika Seggerman (out now). The author, who teaches Islamic art history at Rutgers University, argues for a deeper understanding of the Egyptian modernist art movement as influenced by Islam in both faith and experience; the book’s scope ranges from Los Angeles to Delhi, making global and interdisciplinary connections.
Making connections between Islam and politics is a veritable cottage industry, with scholars of religion and political science teasing out the reality beyond the hype and headlines of an age beset by polarization and fear-mongering. The experiences of American Muslims offer much territory to research and analyze, publishers say. “Work on the experiences of Muslims in America continues to see a lot of interest,” says Jennifer Hammer, senior editor at NYU Press and editor of Muslim American Politics and the Future of U.S. Democracy (New York Univ., out now) by Indiana University religious studies professor Edward E. Curtis IV, who is a specialist on Islam. His book will be discussed at a panel titled “Race, Gender, and Religion in Muslim America” on November 24 at the AAR/SBL conference.
Tackling the subject of public discourse about Islam is Truth over Fear: Combatting the Lies About Islam (Westminster John Knox, out now) by Charles Kimball, who is chair of the religious studies department at the University of Oklahoma and frequently quoted in the media on the destructive uses of religion. “Some prominent scholars of Islam are increasingly aware of the urgent need to provide accessible resources that can directly counter the real-world consequences of Islamophobia,” says the book’s editor, Robert Ratcliff, executive editor at the Presbyterian denominational house. Ratcliff adds that response to the title has been enthusiastic; it is intended not only for use in the academy, but also for study by congregations.
How Christianity and Islam Shape the World by Felix Körner (Paulist, May 2020) looks at seven models of how Christianity and Islam have influenced society. The author directs the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures and teaches missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Noteworthy for scholars of Islam’s sacred text is The Qur’an with Christian Commentary: A Guide to Understanding the Scripture of Islam by Gordon Nickel (Zondervan Academic, Apr. 2020). The author is director of the Centre for Islamic Studies at South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore, India. A shorter introduction to the Koran that doesn’t take a Christian perspective is The Qur’an: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford Univ., Mar. 2020) by Jane McAuliffe, who was also the general editor of the six-volume Encyclopedia of the Qur’an. Also coming next year is Allah: God of the Qur’an (Yale Univ., Mar. 2020) by Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Expanding the lens to embrace other world religions is New Paths for Interreligious Theology: Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s Fractal Interpretation of Religious Diversity (Orbis, out now), edited by Alan Race and Paul Knitter, which grew out of a panel discussion at AAR/SBL two years ago. The book convenes a scholarly conversation about a novel theory of fractals—patterns found in science and nature—that is used to understand religious diversity. The volume’s contributors are drawn from a variety of faith traditions.
The Greening of Theology
Eco-piety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue by Sarah McFarland Taylor (New York Univ., out now), who teaches religious studies at Northwestern University, examines the intersections of environmental sensibilities, contemporary expressions of piety, and American popular culture. NYU editor Hammer calls it “a reality check against pervasive messages in the media that small acts of voluntary personal piety, such as recycling or carrying a reusable tote, can save the environment.” Taylor specializes in media, American culture, and the environment; she is on several conference panels on topics related to the book.
A more classical take on the role of virtue in eco-theology is explored in Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic by Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker Academic, Jan. 2020). Robert Hosack, executive editor at Baker Publishing Group, says the intersection of classical ethics, ecology, and how Christians view citizenship holds “lots of promise” for scholars and publishers. Bouma-Prediger’s 2010 book, For the Beauty of the Earth (Baker Academic), has gone into a second edition.
Pope Francis’s concern for the earth has shaped the thinking of Catholic scholars and publishers. “We are beginning to see scholars trying to do theology in the mode of Pope Francis,” says Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books. He cites as an example An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology (Orbis, Dec.) by Daniel P. Castillo, an assistant professor of theology at Loyola University Maryland. Castillo’s book “greens” liberation theology, bringing the pope’s concern for the earth into conversation with a theology that prioritizes and cares for marginalized communities. Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the key developers of liberation theology, contributes a foreword.
God and Science
The relationship between religion and science continues to invite innovative thinking as both fields explore new frontiers and more nuanced ways to talk about their compatibilities and differences. A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath (Tyndale, out now) examines the famous physicist’s statements about life’s questions and meaning. McGrath, who teaches science and religion at Oxford University, is a Christian theologian and apologist who reckons seriously with Einstein’s philosophical speculations.
Catholic publisher Orbis has been adding books to its list that reflect dialogue about scientific evolution and its relationship with faith. Faith and Evolution: A Grace-Filled Naturalism by Roger Haight (out now) gives evolution a theological context that tries to make better sense of the perceived conflict between religion and science.
The development of artificial intelligence has implications for faith and ethics that are examined in 2084: Artificial Intelligence, the Future of Humanity, and the God Question (HarperOne, June 2020) by John Lennox, a scientist and philosopher who offers a Christian perspective on the subject.
Reflecting on Sexuality
Writing about human sexuality today can be challenging, as even language has to play catch-up to describe emerging understandings of sexual identity. Transgenderism is one area within the broader field of human sexuality that has invited current and contested theological reflection. Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views (Baker Academic, out now), edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, who are both professors at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., provides a spectrum of evangelical Christian views from four writers on the subject. Each author writes a chapter and the other three respond; the result is a dialogue among people with differing viewpoints that models respectful discussion of a controversial subject, says Baker editor Hosack.
Taking a feminist approach is Sexism and Sin-Talk: Feminist Conversations on the Human Condition by Rachel Sophia Baard (Westminster John Knox, out now). Baard, who teaches at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., offers a feminist critique of the traditional Christian understanding of sin. Her editor, Robert Ratcliff, says Baard is someone to watch; she goes well beyond texts in her research and thinking. “We’re finding that younger scholars are drawing on an increasingly diverse set of sources for theological reflection, especially as it relates to the social and political consequences of theology,” Ratcliff says.
Reaching for Reconciliation
Among the titles that focus on the struggle for racial justice by progressive people of faith is Conflagration: How the Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice by John A. Buehrens (Beacon, Jan. 2020). The author, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, studies key figures in 19th-century American transcendentalism whose social activism laid the groundwork for democratic and progressive religion in America.
A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation by Greg Garrett (Oxford Univ., June 2020) looks critically at the ways in which white Hollywood filmmakers have created on-screen fantasies of black American life and made American cinema complicit in structural racism. Garrett, who teaches English at Baylor University, writes frequently on culture.
Finally, while timely social, political, and cultural issues may be the subject of many a book, panel, and presentation at AAR/SBL, some timeless and familiar topics within religious studies will also attract interest and stoke debate. Adding to the literature of Christian spirituality—which often draws on traditional sources to inform current spiritual practice—is On the Road with St. Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith (Brazos, out now). Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin University and is editor-in-chief of the journal Image. His work wanders easily from the personal to the cultural, says Hosack at Baker, and presales have been strong.
Another philosopher by training, David Bentley Hart, who is no stranger to controversy, pokes the theological hornet’s nest of universalism—the Christian belief that all people will be saved—with his newest book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale Univ., out now). Hart’s previous book for the press was his own translation of the New Testament, and this new book grew out of his labor to translate the original Greek text of the Gospels. He will read from his new work on Friday at the conference.
Yale executive editor Jennifer Banks reports great interest in the title; the first print run was increased. “It seems like it would be an appealing argument with people,” she says, noting that some Christians apparently need others to go to hell. “It gets people quite angry.”
Marcia Z. Nelson, former religion reviews editor at PW, is now a contributing editor.