Barbara Dianne Savage
Diversity Reigns in the Black Church
In the clash between Sen. Barack Obama and his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barbara Dianne Savage sees the conflict between the African-American political experience and the so-called “black church” writ large.
“One of the problems is that both Obama and Wright spoke as if there was such a thing as the black church,” University of Pennsylvania historian Savage says. But the black church, she notes, is farmore diverse than either man represents.
“There are many black churches that do not fit that representation,” Savage continues. “It was an oversimplification of what the black church is, and it led to a debate about African-American religion and politics that really missed the mark.”
The complicated weave of religious, political, social and intellectual thought contained within what is called “the black church” is the subject of Savage's new book, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Harvard Belknap, Nov.). In it, she argues that while the African-American political and religious realms often share many ideals and goals, both are more diverse than always allows for a happy partnership.
“When we talk about the black church, we imagine something monolithic and controllable,” she says. “We don't really appreciate how decentralized African-American institutions really are, so it leads to oversimplification and confusion and really just mitigates against a fuller and better understanding of African-American religious institutions and culture and life.”
It is a problem Savage traces to the 19th century, when African-American religious communities debated how far they should speak out against slavery. And it was present again in the 20th century, when the same question arose over civil rights. Now, she writes in the book, it is present in the dustup over Obama's relationship with Wright.
Savage also argues that the roles of women in the black church and politics are usually overlooked and oversimplified. She calls for a reexamination of the work of women like Mary McLeod Bethune, an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt; Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist; and Nannie Helen Burroughs, a teacher.
“One of the very important things we learn by looking at the role of women is the way in which gender relationships within African-American churches really challenge the whole notion of racial leadership inside the churches and outside,” she says.
“What I try to do in this book is help us understand that many of the black women have very strong theological and intellectual arguments of their own,” she says. “When one learns more about Nannie Burroughs, who works all of her life in black Baptist institutions, then I think we get a glimpse of the very complicated relationship between black men and women and the churches themselves.”
And the complicated relationships continue as African-Americans ask what role their religious institutions should play in politics.
“I argue in the book that it is one of the central paradoxes of African-American life,” Savage says. “The entanglement of African-American life and politics is not going away. It just gets more interesting and more complex.”
Violent Pacifist, Gentle Warrior
Stanley Hauerwas laughs when asked how many books he's written. “I don't have any idea,” he says.
This is not surprising: the Duke Divinity School professor of theological ethics has been writing for nearly 40 years. The Library of Congress lists him as the main author of 36 books, with 12 more that he's coauthored or edited. He wrote most of them on a vintage Smith-Corona electric typewriter—“I'm a technological Luddite,” he admits.
He has a clear idea, however, of what all those books are about. “There is a central theme that informs everything I do, and that is the attempt to help Christians recover confidence in speaking our language without apology. All my work is aimed at helping us feel—with gratitude—the excellent, surprising fact that God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.”
Named “America's Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001, Hauerwas writes for the general public, not just the academy, on the implications of Christian faith for real life. Recurring themes include community, virtue, hospitality and, especially, peacemaking. “I declare as often as I can in public that I'm a pacifist. That's because I'm such a violent person. You never know the violences that constitute your life until someone helps you discover them. You can't do it on your own.”
For his newest book, Living Gently in a Violent World (IVP, Nov.; PW starred review, Oct. 13), he teamed up with Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, a network of homes where people with and without mental disabilities live together as family. “Tenderness and gentleness characterize the life and work of Jean Vanier,” Hauerwas writes. But is Hauerwas himself gentle?
“Most people think I'm fairly confrontational,” he says. This is classic understatement: try finding a description of Hauerwas that doesn't mention his colorful vocabulary, his feisty personality, his lifelong war against warmongers. “But my father—who was a bricklayer, and I was raised a bricklayer—was a very gentle man, and on the whole, I would like to think I'm very much like my father.”
Gentleness pervades life at L'Arche, where the pace slows to accommodate the weakest members. Vanier's community-based approach appears simple, but “it has levels that, if we let it work on us, would transform our lives in ways we hardly want to imagine.” Still, Hauerwas cautions, “It's very important never to romanticize L'Arche. This is hard work. It's never without struggle.”
When asked if he has a favorite among all his books, he names The Peaceable Kingdom (Univ. of Notre Dame, 1991), an introduction to Christian ethics that stresses community and nonviolence. For Hauerwas, peace “looks like Jean Vanier having his arm around an elderly woman at Mass, a woman who has been cared for—for years—by people simply being present to her. That's peace.”
Will the world ever know the kind of community and peace Hauerwas has spent his life writing about? “God is great,” he says. —LaVonne Neff
Augustine's Defense of Judaism
You might say Paula Fredriksen and Augustine are old friends. The Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University has worked on a variety of Augustine projects for the past 20 years, so her new book, Augustine and the Jews (Doubleday, Dec. 2), seems a natural outflow of that “acquaintance.”
Fredriksen says that Augustine might seem unremarkable by the standards of modern Christianity's commitment to prevent anti-Semitism, but by the standards of the time period in which he lived, he was revolutionary. “Ancient Christians,” she says, “often developed their sense of identity by asserting what they were not. Jews frequently served as their foil.” She notes that while Augustine could avail himself of this rhetoric, at one point he faced a heretical opponent whose anti-Judaism drew on themes traditional to Catholic theology. As a result, Augustine struck out in an entirely new direction, and came up with something completely unprecedented: a Christian defense of Jews and Judaism, Fredriksen explains.
Backlit by the anti-Jewish rhetoric of his own period—the late fourth to early fifth century—Augustine's thoughts on Christianity's intrinsic connectedness to Judaism stand out as daring, creative and utterly new, she asserts. For Fredriksen, to examine his writings from the 390s and 400s with these concerns in mind is “to seethe birth of a new idea—that's thrilling.”
Although as a chaired professor, the old “publish or perish” imperative isn't intense, Fredriksen loves to write. “Writing forces me to think in a linear way; it forces me to organize my thoughts. Writing is one of the ways I think.”
Successful sales of her books “mean my scholarship has had an effect on the field of Christian origins. It makes me very happy when one of my books, such as From Jesus to Christ [Yale Univ. Press, 1988, second edition 2000] is still in use in the classrooms.” (It won the 1988 Yale Press Governors' Award for Best Book).
However, Augustine, she confesses, does not have quite the same name recognition as Jesus. A benefit of this is that the field of Augustinian studies has more room than does Christian origins, because fewer scholars work in it, she says. The last time the subject of Augustine and the Jews received a major study was over half a century ago, she says, and since then, “there has been a revolution in the study of ancient Christianity, which is taught not as in theology schools, which have doctrinal commitments to particular points of theology and doctrine, but within the liberal arts, in a way that is comparative and critical.”
Fredriksen's writing time feels less fugitive now that the youngest of her three daughters is in college and, consequently, the mom activities like carpooling are a thing of the past. Each summer, she takes time off from teaching to work on her books. “Many people think of summer as vacation time. In the summer, I work constantly, slaving over a hot monitor.” One unexpected benefit: “It's done wonders for my skin—I don't have to worry about UV rays, because I spend the whole season indoors.” —Cindy Crosby
Changing Publishers Midstream
If you had asked Baylor University history professor and director of graduate studies Barry Hankins as a child what he'd be when he grew up, he would have said a professional basketball star. Just shy of six feet tall as a college student, “Most of my undergraduate professors who knew me as a student-athlete would have said being a university professor was no more realistic than the NBA,” says Hankins.
Hankins's scholarship soon surpassed his basketball. But his fifth book, FrancisSchaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmans, Nov. 15), has had its own midcourse diversion on its journey to publication. Hankins originally was asked to write the book for another publisher, who “was touchy about how I interpreted Schaeffer,” Hankins says. He negotiated his way out of that contract and landed at Eerdmans.
Perhaps it's not surprising that Schaeffer turned out to be such a controversial topic. Schaeffer, says Hankins, was in some ways a complex and contradictory figure, both “one of the leaders in the development of Christian scholarship” and “the guru of the Christian Right.” People in both groups, the author says, point to Schaeffer as an influence. “Most scholars who were influenced by Schaeffer when they were college students now believe he was profoundly mistaken in his assessment of the intellectual history of the West,” Hankins says. “Yet these same scholars, including me, see much of what Schaeffer did as quite helpful in the development of Christian worldviews.”
At Baylor, where Hankins has taught for a dozen years, the old adage “publish or perish” has gained new life in the last decade, he says, noting that since 1996, the faculty teaching load has been reduced, while scholarly requirements for tenure have increased. “The culture has changed dramatically—and I think—for the better,” he says. Hankins gets his writing done by working at home two days a week and taking a semester off to write every third year or so. The results are four previous books, including American Evangelicals (Rowman and Littlefield, Apr. 28) and The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists (Greenwood, 2004).
Writing is crucial for scholars, he says. “I believe that universities need to be teaching centers as well as institutions engaged in the creation of new knowledge and scholarly interpretation, and that can only happen when scholars teach and write and try to do them both well,” Hankins says.
Hankins says that now is a good time for a book on Schaeffer, as he believes the resurgence of evangelicalism is one of the leading cultural stories of the past quarter-century. Next to Billy Graham, Hankins says, Schaeffer is the most influential evangelical of the second half of the 20th Century. “In short, to understand Schaeffer is to take a long step toward understanding American evangelicalism.”
It's not all work for Hankins, however. For fun, he plays guitar and fronts a classic rock band called After Midnight with two other professors and a library technician. The group does weddings and restaurant gigs. “It's great fun, kind of our alter-ego flight from reality.” —Cindy Crosby