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Essential weekend reading: LDS in the USA

January 27th, 2012 by admin

With Mitt Romney doing well in the Republican race, many have begun asking, "Is America ready for a Mormon President?" The fact that this question is being asked is one of the many reasons Lee Trepanier and Lynita Newswander wrote their new book LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture (February 1).

In anticipation of the book's release next week, here is a short excerpt from the introduction, titled "For Another Thousand Years."

The role of Mormonism in America has been simultaneously both exaggerated and undervalued. On the one hand, Mormons are seen with suspicion as part of a secret organization that seeks domination over the United States; on the other hand, they are marginalized and often excluded from national conversations about religion, culture, and politics in America. The fact is that neither account is accurate: Mormons have played a substantial role in the shaping of the social, cultural, political, and religious makeup of the United States, a role that is neither conspiratorial nor marginal and that has not been properly acknowledged in the academy or by the general public. This book is intended to remedy this deficiency. In it, we will explore the contributions Mormonism has made to American civilization and to the values that civilization claims to espouse.

When we speak of American civilization, we are attesting to those qualities that make the United States unique as a social, cultural, religious, and political entity. For example, the sociologist Claude Fischer argues that community (family, church, job, and nation), abundance (material wealth, improved health, social opportunities, political freedoms, and self-mastery), and volunteerism (civic engagement) are at the core of the American character. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. contends that the right to revolution, federalism, the consent of the governed, equality of women, the melting pot, freedom of worship, public education, voluntary giving, technology, and evolutionary progress are the characteristics of American civilization; while Harvard President Charles Eliot points to peacekeeping, religious tolerance, universal suffrage, the practice of political freedom, the welcoming of newcomers, and the diffusion of material abundance as the cornerstones of the American experience.1

The role of Mormonism in American civilization has been shaped by, as well as exposed the limits of, some of the values that Americans continue to espouse: religious tolerance, social pluralism, federalism, separation of church and state, the definition and importance of marriage, and Christianity. Mormons have been instrumental in representing and challenging these values in the realms of popular culture, the family, politics, and religion in the United States. As we will see, Mormons have not been completely accepted in mainstream American society. To a certain extent, the pattern of suspicion, accommodation, and eventual acceptance they have experienced is familiar to immigrant groups arriving in the United States, but what makes the Mormon experience unique is that they began within the United States and became outsiders within their own country. That is, the Mormons were forced to flee the United States—to become emigrants—before they became accommodated and accepted.


1 Charles William Eliot, "Five American Contributions to Civilization," in The Oxford Book of American Essays, ed. Brander Matthews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914), 208–307; Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., "Our Ten Contributions to Civilization," Atlantic, March 1959, 65–69; Claude Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Other works to consult about American civilization are Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); David Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, 4th ed., 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001–5).

For a PDF version of the full introduction, click here to download.

If you would like to request a copy of LDS in the USA for review or inquire about an interview with the authors, please contact Billy Collins at Billy_Collins@baylor.edu.

Edgar Allan Poe and a more modern mystery

January 24th, 2012 by admin

Edgar Allan Poe smiles - Library JournalNow that the 202nd birthday of Edgar Allan Poe has come and gone, it may be time for a short reflection on what was being talked about this past January 19th.

For one, the word, "Nevermore," was used a lot. See, for example, these articles from the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and NPR. Even the Huffington Post's piece on the defunct devotee utilized the pun, if only in the article’s tag line. Our favorite, courtesy of Library Journal, is a doctored image of the writer, which includes a radically unorthodox smile.

Yet regardless of the focus one fan's failure to show up to the literary giant's grave with his or her usual offering, there is a tone in the media's coverage of Poe that rings true for all faithful readers: Poe’s legacy reigns "evermore."

There are many reasons that Edgar Allan Poe and his corpus will live on, and in his new book Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe (to be published in March), Poe's own ancestor Harry Lee Poe contends that one of these such reasons deals with the writer’s fascination with the universe’s greater mysteries.

"Many people know of Edgar Allan Poe, but almost everything that people know of him is wrong," Harry Lee Poe writes in Evermore. In celebration of the book’s pending publication, here is a short excerpt from Evermore.

Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe

Chapter 1: The Problem of Edgar Allan Poe

In the popular imagination, Edgar Allan Poe had a tragic life. Many people think of Poe as a figure who brooded over the tragedy of his life, and certainly he had his episodes of despair. The human condition, however, brings tragedy to each of us in our own time and in our own way. This common lot of humanity raises the problem of suffering. People in every culture and every age have pon­dered why we experience suffering and what, if anything, might be the meaning of life.

As we consider Poe's life, we see many moments of suffering or pain associated most often with the loss of a beloved person. The losses came with death, as with his mother, brother, foster mother, patroness, and wife. They also came through betrayal, as with his foster father and the fiancée of his youth (through her father's betrayal). In the midst of pain and loss, however, Poe knew vast periods of Love and Beauty. While many great thinkers through the ages have pondered the problem of suffering, very few have examined it alongside the positive problems of Love and Beauty. Even less do we find people who recognize the interrelatedness of these issues alongside the problem of Justice.

In order to ask why people suffer, we must first posit a universe of fairness and order in which things may be judged to be just or unjust. The problem of suffering questions the Justice of the universe, yet one cannot question the Justice of the universe unless the universe first presents to us the notion of Justice. It is a problem. Throughout his writing, whether in comic tales, stories of detection, horror, or science fiction, Poe continually pondered the negative problem of suffering alongside the positive problems of Love, Beauty, and Justice.1 He also explored these ideas in his poetry and in his hundreds of essays and reviews.

One of the cardinal features of Poe's theory of writing, both for fiction and poetry, involved his conviction that the artist should strive to create a "unity of effect" in which all the elements of poetry or all the elements of plot combine seamlessly as a consistent whole to accomplish the purposed effect upon the audience. In Eureka, that mysterious prose poem/essay on the material and spiritual universe published in 1848, Poe concluded that suffering, Beauty, Love, and Justice come together in a meaningful and rational way in the unity of effect intended by the "author" of the universe. A fierce opponent of Descartes' culturally successful project to separate mind and body, matter and spirit, Poe argued in Eureka for the continuity of art and science and for the continuity of matter and spirit across the frontier of death. He recognized the imagination as the human faculty that forms the bridge across this seeming divide.

These suggestions, however, represent an alternative reading of Poe that cuts across the grain of several traditional readings of Poe. Benjamin Fisher has said that there are at least forty-nine ways to look at a work by Poe, and this reading of Poe's total work differs from the approach that a literary scholar would take.2 It differs in method and style, for it does not approach Poe with questions of literary criticism but with questions of theology and philosophy.

We will most likely never have a common, much less a consensus, reading of Poe. Part of this situation has come about because of the way Poe invited his audience to participate in his tales and poems. He succeeded remarkably well at creating his "unity of effect" with his readers. The horror tales create an effect of horror.

His comic tales create an effect of comedy. "The Raven" creates an effect of somber melancholy. Because of the involvement of the reader in the stories, the reader also participates in their interpretation. This dynamic results in the discovery of layers of meaning that Poe most likely never intended but that his writing evokes in the reader. One reason Poe's writings work this way is because of what Poe leaves unstated. (This artistic skill represents a norm of polite Southern conversation in which the most outrageous scandals may be discussed in the presence of children without them ever knowing.) He leaves many things to the imagination. Different imaginations see different horrors. At critical moments, when one would normally expect a detailed description of Beauty or of horror, Poe evokes, instead of describes, through the means of the mood he has created. He leaves it to the reader to form images, connections, and implications from their own imaginations.

In Eureka Poe resolved for himself what kind of universe exists. In contradiction with all the philosophy and science of his age and for the next century, Poe saw an expanding universe in which time and space form a single reality. He saw a universe in which the laws of nature did not exist until the Big Bang. He saw all of this and much more because of science. He also saw a God for whom "the universe is the perfect plot" -- a plot in which pain, Love, Beauty, and Justice fit together and finally make sense.

Re-imagining Edgar Allan Poe

In order to explore this reading of Poe's works, it will be helpful to re-imagine Poe. In the summer of 1849 Edgar Allan Poe returned home to Richmond, where he had spent almost twenty years of his young life. During that year, he had renewed a relationship with the Southern Literary Messenger, the magazine in Richmond where Poe had held his first job as an editor. Flush with fame from writing "The Rave" and restored to financial prosperity through his lectures that earned him three months' wages in a single evening, Poe returned to his hometown with honor and praise. At the height of his poetic powers, he wrote "Eldorado," "Annabel Lee," and "The Bells" in the year of his return.

During the previous year, Poe had published Eureka, his self-avowed magnum opus and the single work upon which he based all of his hopes for intellectual recognition and reputation. He returned to Richmond with renewed confidence in his dream of establishing a national magazine of his own, for as the nation began to recover from the crippling series of recessions that had so stricken his own financial position, Poe began to acquire the necessary backing for his journal. Finally, Poe returned to Richmond to renew the affection that had once defined his relationship with Elmira Royster Shelton, a recently widowed lady of Richmond who had been Poe's childhood sweetheart. By the end of the summer, they were engaged to be married.

As the idyllic year faded into fall, Poe left Richmond for New York, where he went to bring his aunt Maria Clemm, the mother of his dead wife Virginia, back to Richmond for the wedding. Unfortunately, Poe died on the way to New York while passing through Baltimore.


1 For an alternative, and certainly more conventional reading of Poe, Kenneth Silverman has summarized the critical identification of Poe’s core preoccupations in his tales as "their study of incest, doubling, and other aspects of human psychology; their satire of Romantic and Gothic convention; their formalist manner and self-reflexive interest in the process of reading and writing; their fascination with illusion and deception; and not least in their creation of horror and disgust." See Kenneth Silverman, introduction to New Essays on Poe's Major Tales (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 15. Surely Poe utilizes all that Silverman mentions, but they are the means by which he pursues his questions. Such a wide spectrum of diverse matters seems to cut against the idea of a "preoccupation" which, by its very nature, suggests a more narrow focus.

2 Barbara Cantalupo, "Interview with Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV," The Edgar Allan Poe Review 8, no. 1 (2007): 60.

If you would like to request a copy of Evermore for review or schedule an interview with the author, please contact Billy Collins at Billy_Collins@baylor.edu or 254-405-3837.

New books this month: Nihilism, ethics, foreign affairs, and Christian Heritage

January 6th, 2012 by admin

In one of our happiest Januarys yet, four brand new books are hitting the stores this month. And, for those professors out there, all of them are prime reading for your future classes.

And, here they are.

Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture

Thomas S. Hibbs

Probing deep into the canon of all things screen, Thomas Hibbs uncovers the disturbing truths about the contemporary media landscape. Beneath the shallow facade of evil lies the Nietzschean framework of nihilism—a nothingness that undermines notions of right and wrong while destroying any sense of meaning or purpose. Yet what makes this nihilism even more profound is Nietzsche’s warning that liberal democracies are especially susceptible to such nothingness. In his examples, Hibbs shows how the popular story lines and characters of our time often rule out any possibility of making a "right" decision. Ultimately, Shows about Nothing toes the line between something and nothing to suggest how popular culture can move beyond nihilism.

"Hibbs knows Hollywood—from its self-indulgent nihilism to its capacity of art that nourishes the soul. Shows about Nothing offers both a perceptive analysis of the artistic merits of a wide range of film and TV shows and a diagnosis of their cultural significance."
—William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist and, most recently, Dimiter

An Introduction to Christian Ethics: History, Movements, People

Harry J. Huebner

In this pedagogically astute introduction, Harry Huebner approaches Christian ethics as theology embodied in the lives of real people. And he maintains that matters of justice, poverty, power, and violence too often go without the appropriate Christian response—of the "Word becoming Flesh." In this comprehensive volume, Huebner skillfully addresses the ethical challenges raised by social philosophers as well as Latin American, African American, Aboriginal, feminist, and peace theologians. An Introduction to Christian Ethics spans the centuries—from Athens to contemporary America and beyond—and collects some of the most influential voices in Christian ethics on both classical theories and contemporary moral issues. Huebner's careful presentation allows each of these voices—and their distinctive cultural settings—to ring through history and across social boundaries. Huebner provides teachers and students with a solid foundation upon which to build a faithful approach to ethical thought and practice.

"By placing the great figures of Christian tradition historically and biographically, Huebner illumines both their unique particularity and the ways in which they are models for today. Readers will be rewarded with new insights into 'thinkers' who come alive as 'believers' and 'practitioners.'"
—Lisa Sowle Cahill, Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College

"Huebner's introduction presents an accurate, reliable, and comprehensive historical argument. Truly impressive in scope, it offers a recovery of Jesus in Christian ethics that is ecclesiologically engaged. I can only celebrate this huge accomplishment!"
—Glen Stassen, Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary

Religion and Foreign Affairs: Essential Readings

Dennis R. Hoover & Douglas M. Johnston

Dennis Hoover and Douglas Johnston here present the writings of leading scholars, revealing distinctive approaches to religion and global politics. Religion and Foreign Affairs offers readers a broad selection of essays, ranging across cultures and worldviews. From the ethics of force and peacemaking to globalization and American foreign policy, this compendium provides a solid introduction to the field of religion and foreign affairs that will stimulate discussion and encourage intelligent practice.

"An impressive, timely compilation of some of the best writings on religion and foreign affairs. Hoover and Johnston provide a critical overview and a helpful division of the articles into key issues areas, including secularization, democracy, conflict, development, human rights, globalization and peacemaking. Students and teachers of religion and global politics will find the volume immensely valuable as a unified source for grappling with the complexities of this topic."
—Monica Duffy Toft, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Director, Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology 

C. Douglas Weaver, Rady Roldán-Figueroa & Brandon Frick

Exploring Christian Heritage provides students and teachers with a rich and substantial introduction to the texts that have shaped the Christian faith. Including significant works penned by Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, among others, this collection also highlights essential movements—from the second to the twentieth centuries—often glossed over in primary sources readers. From Pentecostalism and the Baptists to feminism and religious liberty movements, Exploring Christian Heritage succinctly integrates the most influential voices throughout Christian history and theology into one invaluable and accessible resource.

"Exploring Christian Heritage meets a vital need for those who teach and study church history and theology. I highly recommend this book."
—W. Glenn Jonas, Charles B. Howard Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion, Campbell University

"The long and varied history of the church presents a dilemma for professors and students alike; the former wish to display the riches of the Christian tradition while the latter want to get to the point. Exploring Christian Heritage ably accomplishes both tasks by presenting the key ideas in primary documents from a broad representation of leading thinkers. Outside of the classroom, this book provides pastors with a wealth of sermon illustrations and laypersons with a greater sense of belonging to the larger family of God."
—Anthony Chute, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Church History, California Baptist University, Riverside, California

Ben Witherington III reviews God of the Living in multi-part Patheos blog

January 5th, 2012 by admin

Feldmeier_3d_email.jpgAs another way to begin 2012 for all the Biblical theology scholars out there, Ben Witherington III has embarked on a multi-part blog review of God of the Living: A Biblical Theology by Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann, which was released in November and received a stellar panel review during the 2011 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Francisco.

The first two reviews are now available on Witherington's blog, The Bible and Culture, on Patheos.

Here is a short excerpt from the first blog, posted January 2:

Let's start the New Year off with a bang -- an extended review and critique of one of the most important books written on Biblical Theology in many years. Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckerman have produced a $60, 620 pages salvo of monumental proportions which has already been favorably reviewed at the SBL by several major scholars. At the end of this series of posts, I will post several of their briefer reviews, so you can hear other voices chiming in other than mine. Needless to say, they think this is a major work. I do too. What makes it a almost unique work is that it is done by one OT and one NT scholar who are more than competent in the field of Biblical Studies, and indeed who are Christian believers trying to make sense of the Biblical text when it comes to theology. Hooray! I applaud their efforts.

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.

Three Baylor University Press books receive Outstanding Academic Title honors

January 3rd, 2012 by admin

On New Year's Day, three of our 2011 books were awarded the honor of Outstanding Academic Title by Choice Magazine. The books are

Aunting: Cultural Practices that Sustaing Family and Community Life by Laura Ellingson and Patricia Sotirin

Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought by Scott Yenor

The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals by Laura Hobgood-Oster

These were chosen from among more than 7,000 individual titles and are part of a superior list of books reviewed by in Choice this past year. For more information on each book, click the individual covers below.

For more information on the Outstanding Academic Titles award and to view a full list of the books chosen, visit the Choice website by click here.

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