Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Burden of Black Religion with Curtis J. Evans, Part 1

The next summer interview with Baldblogger comes to us from Chicago. The University of Chicago Divinity School's Curtis J. Evans will share his thoughts about scholarship, teaching, and his first book, The Burden of Black Religion. Please join us for this important conversation.

Evans has made some cyber rounds lately, engaging Georgia State historian David Sehat in a dialogue and discussion about Booker T. Washington and American religion in the Journal of Southern Religion. Read the concluding remarks here. Also, Paul Harvey recently posted a review of Evans's book at Religion and American History, and the University of Chicago Magazine published an on-line piece about Evans's new book in its May-June 2009 issue.

This is the first of several posts of my interview with Evans.


Baldblogger (BB): If you don’t mind, briefly trace your academic journey through your undergrad years and grad school. Any formative teachers? Why were they so influential?

Curtis Evans (CE): As an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I was forced to declare my major by the end of my sophomore year. I had taken a variety of courses, but I was still not sure about deciding on a particular major, though I knew that I had immensely enjoyed all of the courses that I had taken in the field of history. After I declared my major in history, which was partly just to satisfy the university requirement, I began taking almost a rough parity of courses in American and European history. The lectures, discussions and paper assignments in classes by Bailey Stone (a specialist on modern European history and the French Revolution), Richard Jackson (medieval history), and Hannah Decker (modern German history) all had a profound impact on my thinking about political, religious and social developments in the West. Decker’s readings on and discussions about the Holocaust indelibly affected my mental world and raised questions about how to explain and understand violence and oppression at particular historical moments. Probably no course had such a long-term effect on me more than Cheryll Cody’s “The Old South,” which was both a history of the Old South and a detailed analysis of historiography on antebellum Southern history. This was a small open honor’s class that had a heavy reading load, but I enjoyed few courses that were so demanding. Cody was passionate about the subject and brought us into a very different world through the readings and class discussions. Here was a person very fluent in popular culture and yet who was also immersed in the 18th and 19th century South. There was something about this white woman that was new and different. She walked around with her Coke in hand making odd remarks about Eddie Murphy’s jokes from time to time and yet she had full command of her subject. Coming as I did from a small town of about a thousand people (and we were living in the countryside among a few families amidst fields of cotton and soybeans!) and having had such a limited experience of the world before moving to Houston (which was overwhelmingly large for a country boy), Cody struck me as a person who did not fit the field of history as I had imagined it. Her very presence presented me with a different model of who is qualified to study and teach history, to the extent that I was self-conscious about my own aspirations to teach and study history one day. After all, I grew up on a small farm in Louisiana with a father who received a third grade education and a mother who had only completed the tenth grade. I was a first generation college student and had no model in my family or upbringing about the kind of work I was doing at the university. Though Cody served as a source of intellectual stimulation and personal inspiration (particularly through her feedback and encouraging comments on my papers), it was not until Hannah Decker and Gerald Goodwin (a historian of American religion) asked me to come to their office and gave me detailed advice and encouragement about going to graduate school that I began seriously thinking about becoming a historian.

BB: What inspired your interest in American history, and why race and religion?

CE: Taking courses in history at the University of Houston is what initially inspired my interest in history in general. I took courses in various areas: for example, I continued learning more about the Reformation when I took an independent study course on the Radical Reformation at Gordon Conwell. Decker and Goodwin helped me imagine a specific career as an American historian, but that immediate goal was postponed because I went off to seminary because of a number of personal issues that I will simply list here: a church split, stumbling toward and grasping for a broader theology in my personal life, and trying to find out precisely where I wanted to end up professionally. At seminary, I was unsure about what I wanted to do, though I think my wife felt I was training to be a pastor. Eventually, after acceptance and enrollment in Harvard’s doctoral program, I resumed my study of American history, though during my first year I was still not quite settled on precisely what my focus would be. I initially wanted to keep working on a topic that I had written on for my master’s thesis: how white neo-evangelicals, a group of second generation “reforming fundamentalists,” engaged race and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. [BB: see Evans's recent article on this topic in Harvard Theological Review.] After further study and conversations with my advisors, it was not clear to me that I had much more to say about this topic or if it warranted a dissertation-like study. I was particularly intrigued by a course taught by David D. Hall on the emergence of liberal Protestantism in the 19th century, especially as it related to New England prison reform, anti-slavery and women’s rights. The religious foundations of many of these reforms caught my attention. I went to David’s office to talk about a point that intrigued me in Daniel Walker Howe’s The Unitarian Conscience. I remember discussing with David Howe’s argument that the rise of organized philanthropy among New Englanders was related to the decline of the sacramental functions of the church. This led to a number of other discussions and I was trying to link this specific insight in Howe’s book to other topics in which I had an interest. Somehow that conversation led (apparently circuitously) to a suggestion by David that I look at sociological studies of black religion in the 1930s and 1940s, a period that was a heyday for the sociological study of black culture. David mentioned a few issues that were raised by these studies, but I was not all that interested in this specific literature. When I began looking at these texts, I was fascinated by what I saw as underlying worries among social scientists studying black culture that there were those who continued exaggerating the religiosity of blacks and that the notion of innate religiosity for blacks seemed to be an implicit assumption among some scholars and within realms of popular culture. Social scientists were distressed by these persisting ideas and it appeared to me that they were eager to discredit them. I wanted to know why. What began as an initial and hesitant probing of this literature led me to dig deeper into the specific sources that they cited to try to get a handle on the popular or cultural images of black religion that troubled them. What resulted was continued reading, trying to trace back in time how African American religion was understood and conceptualized. Eventually, it was not clear to me where to stop. How does one locate an origin of a particular discourse? David and I talked a bit about this problem of finding origins. Howe and George Frederickson in different ways wrote about romantic racialists and liberal New England Protestants who emphasized a religion of feeling and emotion and I found that many of these people had much to say about slave religion and seemed to particularly map feelings, affection, and a “religion of the heart” on slave Christianity. When I began talking to my advisors, I sensed I had a massive project on my hand, but our talks convinced me (though some of them were a bit worried about the size of the project) that I would have to engage in an analysis of the evolution of historical ideas, theories and cultural images of black religion if I were to make sense of the long-term historical trajectory of the kinds of issues that black sociologists and other social scientists were addressing in the 1930s and 1940s. In this way, my area of special interest became this complex intertwining of race and religion in American history. I am quite struck now by how much I took up issues that seemed to be addressed foremost in different ways in scholarly works of the late 1960s and into the 1970s: Winthrop Jordan, Fredrickson, Eugene Genovese, Lawrence Levine, and Albert Raboteau.

BB: What is a “typical” day for you as a professor, scholar, and writer? Similarly, I wonder if you can comment on moving from a state university (Florida State) to a divinity school (Chicago)—why the change and in what ways, if any, does the change modify how you teach?

CE: I am not sure any of us has typical days. During a regular quarter, teaching and leading seminars and class discussions occupy a great deal of my time. I spend much of the week meeting with students and reading and reflecting on lecture material because I give two lectures one day of the week and on another day we discuss the reading and topic of the week. At Chicago, we have the quarter system and teach two courses per quarter (that is, a total of four courses per academic year—my sympathies to all of you who have a much heavier teaching load. I am acutely aware that I am quite fortunate!). I am teaching some courses for the first time and these require lots of reading, attention to recent debates and new areas of research, and thinking about how to frame themes and central topics. But there are always “side” projects for me: trying to write an article here or there to address a longstanding concern or to engage in a more self-conscious analysis of what it is that we do as scholars (such as my recent debate with David Sehat in the Journal of Southern Religion), and attending regional conferences to see what leading and senior scholars are saying about our field and where we should be going from here.
One notable difference between FSU and UofC is that the latter has a lot of master of divinity students who are going into ministry and social work. They often have a different set of issues and concerns than doctoral students in history and religious studies. This is challenging for those of us trained as historians and who feel the effects of the older paradigm of objectivity and dispassionate inquiry (which I think was still an ideal based on some of the courses I took in history at the University of Houston). Although I did graduate work at a seminary, I am still wrestling with how to appreciate more explicitly theological questions students often ask or seem to have in their heads and how to address some students’ more urgent desire to acquire practical skills and tools from history to enrich their ministry or social work. I do not have any easy answers to these concerns and I find myself talking with senior colleagues and friends for advice about how to bridge the gap (if indeed it can be bridged) between a traditional approach to history, where we at the very least try to suspend questions about current applicability and contemporary relevance as we engage in our research and writing, and more practical questions about social and personal utility and relevance that seem to characterize ministry studies and social work.

I am not sure that my actual teaching has differed all that much, though, as noted above, the ministry student cohort does make me more aware of different reasons why people study history and religions and this very process is forcing me to sense the need for wider reading in what it is that defines our study of history and how it should or does differ from other fields such as constructive theology. Perhaps too this is another variation of the debate in the field of religious studies framed as a division between those who take a theological approach to the study of religious phenomena and those who engage religion from a social scientific perspective.

BB: You have an undergraduate degree in history, and you were trained in theological disciplines as well as religious studies. This gives your work a decidedly interdisciplinary character with considerable depth. How do these three fields overlap, interrelate, and/or otherwise manifest themselves in your work? What does the future hold in terms of interdisciplinary work on American religious history?

CE: I suppose my graduate study in a seminary context makes me more attentive to the salience of theological language and religious beliefs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s reading and citation of Scripture to reflect on blacks’ role in America and history, for example, cannot be understood without due attention to Protestant interpretations of Scripture in the 19th century and speculations about prophecy. Understanding Stowe’s theological worldview is absolutely crucial, but it is just as important to understand how Stowe is drawing upon contemporary racial theories to formulate her conceptions of blacks. Making sense of a complex figure like Stowe requires close scrutiny of theological language, historical analyses of developing racial theories and ethnology, and tracing the nature of incipient debates about challenges to received understandings of the Bible. This latter point is especially important when attending to Stowe’s contrast of Uncle Tom’s simple faith with Cicero as a representative of literate whites who are struggling with the truth and veracity of the Bible as a result of emerging questions in historical criticism and textual analysis, to which Stowe would have been acutely attuned in part because her husband, Calvin, taught Sacred Literature at Andover Seminary. A broad angle and some knowledge of different areas are required to get a firmer grasp on some of the figures in my book.

Perhaps also my recognition of white Northern Protestants’ constant critiques of black religious practice as deficient in adherence to the Ten Commandments is due to my familiarity with the significance of these normative theological commitments even for many Protestants who had moved beyond traditional or orthodox Christianity. My attention to theology also made me more attuned to a shift from a specifically theological and normative Christian critique of black Christianity to the language of psychopathology in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which, while still normative and grounded in moral concerns, lacked the theological and moral specificity of Northern Protestant critiques propounded in the 1860s and 1870s. I think that my work in religious studies and history and my training at a seminary heightened my recognition of the intersection of changes in language (when theology figures less significantly) with the rise of the disciplines as generative of new questions and issues, and of different conceptions of religious practice as they emerged and impinged on interpretations of black religion. Perhaps my training made me more open to exploring not just change over time and how ideas and debates evolved in different historical and local contexts, but also to cast a broader net in placing professional sociologists and anthropologists alongside clergymen, activist critics of churches, and cultural productions such as plays and novels on African American religion (though I am not sure if this is because of formal study, temperament and inclination or the nature of the subject matter). In other words, the study and analysis of African American religion were never solely or primarily confined to any one discipline or field of study, but black religion was debated and discussed in a host of changing historical contexts, especially during moments of cultural stress and transition, and within a number of venues and settings (universities, churches, novels, plays, etc.). One then is required to be interdisciplinary by the very nature of the subject matter and also because black religion as an object of analysis was addressed by blacks and whites. This was so in part because it was broader than just religion (though religion figured centrally, in my view, in these discussions) and these issues were crucially about the place of blacks in America. One finds oneself grasping for a broader set of tools, different angles and a variety of approaches to come to terms with this kind of study.

I do not think that I am in a position to make confident predictions about the future of interdisciplinarity in the field of American religion. This topic was a major part of a recent discussion at a conference on Religion and American Culture. My good friend Lin Fisher has blogged about this conference on Paul Harvey’s Religion in American History site. There was not much consensus, as I recall. David Hall and others suggested that European historians (particularly British historians) have practiced a form of social and interdisciplinary history that has no comparable American parallel. The few examples given of interdisciplinary work were not only those written by European historians, but also about topics that were in another era in Europe (for example, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars was cited by Dennis Dickerson). In general, I sensed that people were quite content with disciplinary boundaries, though open to doing discrete interdisciplinary projects.

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