Catherine L. AlbanesePurely American MetaphysicsLosing both parents within two years is enough to knock the wind out of anyone's sails, especially in a close-knit, loving family. After Catherine Albanese's mother died in 2001, the professor and author had little energy to tackle any major projects beyond her already demanding responsibilities as chair of the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But when her father died in 2003, Albanese made a surprising discovery—coming as it did just before the start of a yearlong writing sabbatical, his death gave her the motivation she needed to write A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion(Yale Univ., Jan.)
"Instead of taking the wind out of me, it opened all the gates for me," Albanese says. "I was on a roll, and the words just kept coming, because I knew I was doing what he wanted me to do." She even had tangible proof of her father's pride in her work; when Albanese won the much-coveted Guggenheim fellowship that helped finance her sabbatical, her father had clipped the newspaper article announcing her award and kept it with his walker so he could show it to everyone within range.
Though Albanese completed most of the writing during her 2003—2004 sabbatical, work on the book dates back to her graduate school days at the University of Chicago, where she became intrigued with the writings of spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis. Later, at Wright State University in Ohio, the cultural metaphysics of the Davy Crockett Almanacs and the spirituality of transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau attracted her attention. But her career made its most definitive turn toward metaphysics in 1980 with the publication of her America: Religions and Religion, which gave more ink to metaphysics than any previous textbook had, Albanese says.
"I became increasingly interested in seeing all of American religious history in terms of the combinativeness that metaphysicians display," she added. "Combinativeness" is the author's chosen word for the ability of metaphysics to incorporate different beliefs and practices—and in America, to spill over into evangelicalism and mainstream and liturgical Christianity. She defines metaphysics as a religion that "privileges the mind and all its capacity for intuition and imagination as a source of enlightenment that echoes the larger reality in which we participate and that can change our lives in positive ways."
Many evangelical Christians, who would be considered among the most likely to resist metaphysical belief and practices, have unknowingly incorporated elements of metaphysics into their lives, Albanese says, citing as one example the number of books in evangelical bookstores on such topics as positive thinking and the role of the mind in enabling believers to create the life they want.
"If you really look at yourself, you'll probably find that you already have a series of metaphysical beliefs," she says. "When you have different cultures and people living side by side, you can't help beginning to look at what other people do and say. After a while you get together and interact, and you begin to echo each other." And that phenomenon, she believes, has in many ways made metaphysics as influential and important to American life as traditional forms of Christianity have proven to be.
Religion as the Fourth "R"
Stephen Prothero thinks that Americans are suffering from amnesia—religious amnesia. His forthcoming book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Harper San Francisco, Mar.) aims to rekindle the smoldering remains of religious knowledge in the United States.
"I really find it just shocking how little people know about religion," says the chair of Boston University's religion department, whose earlier American Jesus (FSG) was one of PW's top religion picks for 2003. But Prothero notes that it wasn't always this way: until the 19th century, the Bible was the core curriculum in American schools, and students were well versed in its characters and teachings. Now, most Americans profess belief in God, but few can name their religions' fundamental tenets or recount stories from their sacred texts.
Lest fundamentalists latch on to Prothero as an articulate advocate of the superiority of days gone by, there's a catch: he blames Christians themselves for the absence of any teaching aboutreligion in the public schools. "The rhetoric of the culture wars fought here would have us believe that secular humanists are overrunning the country, and that the Supreme Court took God out of the schools, and therefore out of the brains of American kids, in the 1960s. But that's just false," he insists. "It was religious people, and particularly evangelicals, who got religion out of the schools in the 19th century." This was because bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics left many Protestants believing that the only way to preserve national peace was a quiet withdrawal from education.
Prothero believes the time has come for religion to once again take its place in the nation's public schools. Controversially, his book prescribes two mandatory semesters of religion. One semester would be a course about Bible, which he says is essential to understanding American history, Western literature, and current conflicts in the Middle East. The other would be an introduction to world religions. It is no longer a luxury, Prothero warns, for Americans to persist in ignorance about, say, the tenets of Islam.
"I think I'm going to get into trouble with the prescriptions of what to do about it," Prothero says. "There's a lot of apprehension about talking about religion in the public schools. Some teachers deflect all religious questions and say they're not even authorized to talk about it. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly and emphatically stated that its rulings about devotional reading or prayers in the public schools have zero to do with the academic study of religion in the public schools. If we don't act, we're going to raise a generation of kids who can't follow the arguments on the war on terrorism, or can't follow the inaugural addresses of our presidents."
Roger Freet, Prothero's editor at HSF, says that such controversies have already generated significant in-house buzz for the title, which will have an initial print run of 50,000 copies. "This book is for educators, politicians, and the everyday person at a cocktail party where somebody starts talking about religion. Part of what we've been seeing lately is that the success of books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins show that some very smart people can have some ignorant ideas about religion."
Harper plans to support the book with a full national broadcast and media campaign, as well as targeted events in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.
Paul M. Barrett
Illuminating Islam in America
In 2002, veteran Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Paul Barrett began researching a series of four in-depth newspaper profiles of Muslims in America. He had a personal reason for this newfound interest in Islam: the WSJ's offices had been so badly damaged in the 9/11 attacks that the newspaper had to temporarily move its headquarters, which had been across the street from the World Trade Center. When the dust settled—literally—and the WSJ returned to its regular center of operations, Barrett was determined to learn more about Islam in America. "Who are American Muslims?" he wanted to know. "What are their backgrounds and attitudes on subjects like assimilation? What is the balance between religious or ethnic identity on the one hand and American society on the other?"
Barrett's original profiles for the WSJ have grown into the book American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion (FSG, Jan.), which received a starred PW review. Enhanced by additional reporting and a yearlong sabbatical in 2004 and 2005, Barrett's book is one of the first to examine some of the specific tensions surrounding Islam in America, including issues of racial diversity, the importation of Wahhabism, the growth of a fledgling Muslim feminism and political divisions over American foreign policy. "There has been a lot of discussion about the 'clash of civilizations,' but what I became interested in was the clash within this country, which is a distinctive subject. It's different from what Muslims are thinking and doing in the Middle East, and what they're doing in Europe. American Islam has not until now received the kind of scrutiny that this book gives it."
While much coverage of Islam has been lamentably superficial and one-sided, Barrett's approach aims for nuance and complexity. "The ultimate goal of the book is to make these characters seem real and three-dimensional, as opposed to making these people merely talking points or op-ed pieces," he says. And while some Muslims were critical of his original WSJ pieces, saying that Barrett focused too heavily on conflicts and differences of opinion, many more, he says, "applauded the effort. They could see I was not trying to present them as having a monolithic view of the world. Many Muslims in America are quietly concerned about the themes I discuss in the book."
Barrett was delighted to work with FSG, and particularly with editor Paul Elie, who has expanded the press's attention to religion. "He's a brilliant guy in general, but he also knows a lot about religion," says Barrett. "And so he was in a position to ask excellent questions about Islam in this country, questions that prompted me to rethink aspects of pretty much every chapter."
FSG hopes the book will spark "a national conversation" about Islam, says Laurel Cook, assistant director of publicity. To that end, Barrett's seven-city tour won't be just a traditional book-signing circuit, but a series of public conversations about Islam featuring some of the people Barrett profiles in the book. "The events that we've put together reflect the diversity of Muslims in America," says Cook, noting that Barrett will be speaking at New York's 92nd Street Y and the Commonwealth Club in the Bay area, among other venues. The book will also be excerpted in a January issue of Business Week, where Barrett is now an editor.
When an editor at Doubleday suggested to Craig Harline that he consider writing a book on Sunday as a cultural and religious phenomenon, the history professor at Brigham Young University realized he had been reflecting on that very topic for most of his life. "I knew immediately that here was something that grabbed me emotionally as well as intellectually, and the emotional part is often what sustains you through a long project," Harline tells PW. After three years of research and writing—"lightning fast" for an academic historian, Harline says—Sunday: A History in Seven Parts will release in March 2007.
That research took Harline—whose highly acclaimed 2003 Doubleday book, Miracles at the Jesus Oak, comes out in paperback in January—to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and England, where he witnessed the considerable distinction between continental and British attitudes toward Sunday. "There was something about the English Sunday, transferred in large part to parts of America, that made it stand out from just about every other version," says Harline, who as a child experienced Sunday as a "sterile day" of church attendance and persistent questions about whether it was appropriate to participate in sports, play with friends, go out to eat and so forth. "When I saw different kinds of Sundays, especially in Belgium and France, then my curiosity was really piqued; to these people, Sunday was the best day of the week," Harline says.
The book's "seven parts" cover various historical eras and cultural trends, culminating with Sundays in contemporary America in a chapter aptly titled "Sunday All Mixed Up." While Harline perceived the strict, puritanical Sunday of his 1950s childhood to be a day of anxiety rather than a day of rest, he has also discovered that the relaxation of laws and legalistic attitudes has not necessarily reduced the culture's anxiety over Sunday.
"I think the rest/anxiety paradox results partly from the high expectations people have of the day and partly from a gnawing anxiety over what should be done on the day," Harline says. The "high expectations," which he says are more typical of European societies that have a recreational tradition on Sunday, resulted in large part from there being so much people wanted to cram into the day when it was the only one for recreation. In stricter societies with a more religiously observant Sunday, anxiety could result from the guilt of engaging in an activity not directly related to church. "Sunday can also be stressful for those who prefer to work or who need a routine," Harline says. "Sunday can have its own routines, but where Sunday lacks a routine, people who rely on their weekday routine can become anxious as well."
These days, events like Super Bowl Sunday still give the author pause; he reflects on that and the other radical changes he has seen since blue laws, which restricted commercial activity on Sunday, gave way to a seven-days-a-week consumer-driven society, and, for some who previously had strictly observed the Sabbath, the unspoken freedom to participate in all manner of recreational activities.
Still, the freedom to choose the way you wish to observe Sunday has its limitations. "It takes a whole culture to shape Sunday. You can't just observe it the way you want when everyone else is doing something different, so where you live definitely can influence your Sunday," Harline says.
If you're a cautious scholar addressing a mixed academic and general audience, how do you write about a religious issue as explosive as any in history? In a word: cautiously.
Jeremy Cohen, who holds the Spiegel Family Foundation Chair for European Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, has for some 20 years been researching and teaching about the "myth" of Jewish responsibility for the execution of Jesus and its cultural reception by religious believers. But in the introduction to his new book, Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen(Oxford, Dec.), he wastes no time in pointing out that he is not offering a "whodunit."
Retelling the almost two millennia-long history of how Christians and Jews have represented Jesus's death to themselves and each other, his book does not present a resolution of the question of whether Jews really were involved in bringing about the Crucifixion: "Given the limited evidence at our disposal today, we simply cannot know definitively 'who killed Jesus,' " says Cohen.
Speaking to PW from Israel, Cohen emphasized "the power of stories to shape behavior and to direct history." Important stories, like the Crucifixion, in certain ways transcend factual questions about whether the narrative actually happened as recorded.
"One thing I work hard to show my students is that the valuable part of a story for the historian is not so much what it teaches about the characters in the story as much as what it says about the people who told the story," Cohen continues. To tell a story is an act of interpretation, which means there is no such thing as uninterpreted history: "That doesn't mean stories are true or false in a factual sense. But it means their truth is something that is not scientifically verifiable."
For some general readers interested in getting to the bottom of the painful question posed by Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ—did some Jews conspire with the Romans to kill Jesus?—Cohen's postmodern approach may prove frustrating. Still, it is a lay audience, not merely a scholarly one, that Cohen hopes to attract.
His four previous books were all on topics of considerably more specialized academic interest, dealing mainly with Jewish medieval history. Christ Killers is Cohen's first agented book. He was just drafting his proposal, three years ago, when controversy broke out in earnest about The Passion.
The timing was not bad at all. With Gibson and his purported anti-Semitism still in the news now, following this summer's drunk-driving episode—in which the filmmaker ranted about the nefarious Jews to a (Jewish) Malibu police officer—Cohen's topic will remain hot at least till December, when his book appears.
Will Gibson fans applaud? Probably not. Cohen makes clear that in one respect The Passion is more inflammatory than the Gospels themselves. The latter at least give some background about the tensions between Jesus and his Jewish countrymen so that their anger at him makes some sense.
Not so Gibson's movie, which foreshortens the tale, making Jewish hostility to Jesus incomprehensible, irrational and thus wicked. "It stacks the deck," Cohen explains, "depicting the Jews' action as more gratuitous and therefore perhaps more horrific."