Ahead of the 2022 Annual Meetings hosted by the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature from November 19 to 22 in Denver, Colo., university and academic presses say that academic religion publishing is a vital, even thriving, industry. At their core, publishers of scholarly books strive to sharpen readers’ understanding of God, themselves, and each other, and in an age of division compounded by disinformation, the often yearslong and careful work associated with academia is more important now than ever.
“In our cultural moment when expertise is met with suspicion, even derision, our experts have important lessons to teach us,” says Ryan Hemmer, editor-in-chief at Fortress Press. “Academic publishing has long been an essential means of disseminating, advancing, debating, and integrating those lessons.”
Some biblical and religious scholars are exposing biases and rewriting history in a more accurate light, while others are addressing white supremacy through decolonized approaches to theology. Revealing the roles prejudice and racism have played in shaping history is an essential practice, and it’s a primary focus for many academic religion publishers, according to Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press USA.
“The recovery of past experience that has been overlooked, or willfully blotted out, or distorted, represents an important contribution of scholarship and of university presses to our understanding of the past,” Pfund says. And he sees no end in sight for books that look back at the past, noting, “Continuous reevaluation is essential, since as a species we are prone to forget easily and need to be reminded again and again.”
Jon Boyd, associate publisher and academic editorial director at IVP, believes it’s an exciting time for academic books. “We’ve just logged a record-shattering season financially, led by a number of exceptional projects that really took off with readers,” he notes, citing The 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Reading While Black. “We would have been proud of such books regardless, but of course it’s extra nice when they sell well, too.”
“We think the academic category is robust,” says Simon & Schuster editor Megan Hogan, and the press is focusing on “authors who have authority in their field or mastery of their subject.”
When biblical and religious scholars convene at this year’s Annual Meetings, they will find books featuring new interpretations of scripture, reimagined religious practices from many points of view, and much more.
Biblical and religious scholars are known to scour history for answers to modern-day questions, and this year is no exception. Adam D. Mendelsohn, associate professor of history and director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, sheds light on Jewish soldiers serving in the Civil War by drawing on the Shapell Roster (a vast new database of soldiers’ names), letters, diaries, and newspapers in Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army, due in November from NYU. Mendelsohn’s aim “is to truly rewrite what we think we know about Jewish soldiers during the war,” says Jennifer Hammer, a senior editor at the publisher. The book also demonstrates how the war “fundamentally remade American Jewish life,” shaping popular attitudes toward Jews and generating new forms of Jewish identity, Hammer says. A second volume on Jewish soldiers in the Confederate army is currently underway.
Also from NYU, Rastafari: The Evolution of a People and Their Identity by Charles Price (Nov.) addresses severe biases against Rastafarians in media and culture, and how, in spite of frequent misappropriation, oppression, and belittlement, “Rastafarians have emerged prouder and more united, steadfast in their conviction that they were a chosen people,” according to the publisher. Price, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Temple University, is also the author of Becoming Rasta: The Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica.
Michael Ayers Trotti, a history professor at Ithaca College, traces the privatization of executions back to public killings of Black Southerners by white communities in The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South (Univ. of North Carolina, Dec.). The book argues that Black people were able to find strength and a sense of spirituality at the gallows, rather than experiencing the punishment and intimidation intended by white law enforcement. It was then that legal capital punishment began taking place behind closed doors and witnessed only by white people, as dictated by white-dominated governments. “This study focuses on the shift from public executions to ones behind barriers, situating that change within our understanding of lynching and competing visions of justice and religion,” according to the publisher.
Acclaimed sociologist and prolific author Robert Wuthnow draws extensively on historical and ethnographic studies in Religion’s Power: What Makes It Work, due from Oxford University Press in November, to demonstrate how religion shapes a person’s identities and politics. “In the current national moment, the question that animates Wuthnow’s book—namely, ‘What makes religion so powerful?’—is in urgent need of an answer, which is what his new book provides,” OUP’s Pfund says.
Out now from Rowman & Littlefield, The Nazi Religion and the Rise of the French Christian Resistance, by Yale professor Kathleen Burton, brings attention to the strong yet largely unknown religious component of Nazism, termed Positive Christianity. In an effort to clarify and debunk the religion, and highlight how Catholics, Protestants, and theologians fought the Nazis during World War II, Burton details where and when Positive Christianity arose, and how it was received and critiqued.
Drawing on hundreds of years of Buddhist history, assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College Brooke Schedneck examines contemporary Theravada Buddhism in Living Theravada: Demystifying the People, Places, and Practices of a Buddhist Tradition, due from Shambhala in April 2023. Shambhala editor Breanna Locke says the book is a guide to Buddhism that goes beyond texts and monastic ideals, focusing instead on Theravada’s traditions and practices. “The Buddhism of Southeast Asia is widely misunderstood,” Locke says. “Visitors and even some locals in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia don’t always have a sense of the full richness, depth, and diversity of the traditions that make up what’s called Theravada. This book is a remedy to that.”
Postcolonial Christian views
As the world continues to confront systems of oppression, a number of new and forthcoming books are shedding colonial thinking and approaches when it comes to studying theology and religious practices.
“While decolonization has long been important in some corners of the academy, the inequities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd made decolonization into a project that had importance across numerous academic disciplines,” says Justin Hoffman, executive editor at Church Publishing Incorporated. “The reassessment of cultural practices and institutions is likely to continue for some time within scholarly publishing.”
CPI is publishing The Anglican Tradition from a Postcolonial Perspective (Oct. 2023) by Kwok Pui-lan, the dean’s professor of systematic theology at Emory University and a past president of the American Academy of Religion. Drawing on her work in postcolonial theology, Kwok collects voices of theologians and church leaders from the global South on issues such as sexuality and gender, women’s leadership, and economic justice in an effort to challenge Eurocentrism and racism in the Anglican Church. “Pui-lan argues that Anglicanism and English colonialism went hand in hand, with Anglican missionaries and theologians offering support to colonial economic and political structures,” Hoffman says. He adds that, with more than half of Anglicans around the world residing in Africa and speaking languages other than English, “this is an opportune time to reckon with the colonial history of Anglicanism and consider what a postcolonial church looks like.”
In Baker Academic’s Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine (out now), Randy S. Woodley draws on various aspects of indigenous culture, such as narrative, dialogue, and personal experience, as well as North American histories, to expose problem areas in a Western worldview. Woodley, who is a professor of faith and culture and the director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary in Portland, Ore., “challenges the ways that theology is typically done in Western settings,” says Bryan Dyer, acquisitions editor at Baker Academic. “Hopefully, readers will come to appreciate that theology can be discussed in a variety of ways and that there are some valid critiques of the typical, Western way of doing theology.”
A Revolutionary Faith: Liberation Theology Between Public Religion and Public Reason by Raúl E. Zegarra (Stanford Univ., Mar. 2023) is a guide for Christians on “how to remain committed to faith while respecting and defending the core values of democracy,” according to the publisher. Zegarra, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, combines philosophy, theology, and sociology to make a case that commitment to religion is inextricable from a commitment to progressive social change.
Centering Hope as a Sustainable Decolonial Practice: Esperanza en Práctica by Yara González-Justiniano (Rowman & Littlefield, out now) aims to introduce readers to a constructive and practical theology centered on hope and activism. González-Justiniano, an assistant professor of religion, culture, and psychology at Vanderbilt University, incorporates ethnographic research and studies of diverse congregations in Puerto Rico to demonstrate how hope can help people overcome forces such as colonialism and oppression, and lead to a more just and humane future.
Books for a brighter tomorrow
Other upcoming academic religion titles also eye the future in hopes of more harmony and justice. The Power of Reconciliation by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (Bloomsbury Continuum, out now) features advice on how to find common ground with adversaries while urging churches to “practice what they preach” and support movements such as Black Lives Matter. PW’s review compared the book to Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness and called it both a “solid guide” and a “helpful program.”
From S&S, Bart Ehrman’s latest, Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End (Mar. 2023) acknowledges hardships that come from living with uncertainty. “Since the start of the pandemic, so many of us have been half-joking that we live in apocalyptic times, with plague, drought, superpowers at war, famine, a burning planet,” Hogan says. “It’s really hard to live with uncertainty, and so perhaps it’s no surprise that for 3,000 years Jewish and Christian thinkers have been trying to figure out precisely when the end will come. Many of their ideas have burrowed so deep into our culture that they impact how people who might not even consider themselves religious not only see our world, but act in it—for better or worse.”
And offering a biblical vision for a new generation of peacemakers, community builders, and activists, Plough’s The Inconvenient Gospel: A Southern Prophet Tackles War, Wealth, Race, and Religion (out now) by Clarence Jordan, edited by Frederick L. Downing, features a selection of Jordan’s talks and writings on nonviolence, economic justice, racial reconciliation, sustainable agriculture, and more. Jordan was a farmer, a biblical scholar, and a driving force behind the founding of Habitat for Humanity. Sam Hine, an editor at Plough, says, “Here is a distinctly American voice saying Christian fellowship means more than one hour a week—it means living together and sharing resources to build interracial, intergenerational communities that work to revive blighted neighborhoods and depleted farmland.”