This semester, I’m teaching my “Religion in the United States” class. In a couple of months, I’ll introduce four branches of Christianity that emerged in the United States in the 19th or very early 20th century: The Latter-day Saints (1830); the Adventists with the Millerite Movement (1840s); the Jehovah Witnesses’ (1870s); and the Pentecostals (1900s). I tend to emphasize the pre- and post-Civil War ethos as a rationale for these movements but that seems incomplete. This past week, the question has lodged in my head and keeps coming back to me: What was it about the United States in the 19th century that made it the place that birthed these expressions of Christianity?
(Side note: I’m aware that the origins of Pentecostalism can’t be limited to Los Angeles alone but I think it’s fair to say that what because global Pentecostalism was greatly influenced by American culture and events.)
For those who are looking for another podcast, “Biblical Time Machine” features Prof. Helen Bond (Edinburgh University) & journalist David Roos. So far, they’ve discussed the “historical” Jesus; authorship of the New Testament; and Jesus’ female disciples.
Bruce Chilton, The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)
If you’ve ever read Tom Hollands’ histories/historical fiction (e.g. Rubicon; Persian Fire), or Anthony Everitt’s (e.g. Cicero; Augustus), you’ll have a sense of what to expect from Bruce Chilton’s new book The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. You trust their scholarship, and you know they take their methodologies seriously, but when you read their books they’re more like a novel. I may be forgetting but I can’t remember when Holland or Everitt stop to try and prove their interpretations (it’s been a while since I’ve read those books though, so maybe I’m mistaken). Instead, the reader can search endnotes if they’d like to know how a decision was made to tell the story the way it was told.
So, with this stated upfront, The Herods is a wonderful book. It’s extremely readable. It introduces you to major figures at a pace where you can remember who’s who, which can be notoriously difficult with the family tree of Herod the Great. If you can read this book without obsessing too much over whether he trusts his primary ancient source, Josephus, too much, then it’s worth your time. But be aware that Chilton will get creative in his interpretation, like when he presents Jesus’ “temple-cleansing” as less an individual act (which is how I’ve always read the Gospels) and more a mob act of which Jesus was part, which included several hundred followers, and involved Barabbas:
“Jesus’ incursion into the temple was bold, prophetic, and necessarily violent because the outer court of the temple was vast, amounting to some twenty acres, and clearing it of merchants devoted to trade, their animals, and their associated equipment required several hundred sympathetic, able-bodied, and motivated followers. One of them, Barabbas, even killed someone during the melee (according to Mark 15:7).”
I’m not saying that this is an impossible interpretation of the gospels, but it would be a contested one, for sure. And that’s the nature of this type of history. A decision is made to tell the story “as it happened,” even when we’re not sure about this or that, because the genre, and the necessity of readability, demands this sort of oversimplified presentation.
I recommend the book for anyone interested in Second Temple Judaism, Jesus of Nazareth, incipient Christianity, and related subjects.
Darren Dochuk, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic Books, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)
Darren Dochuk‘s Anointed with Oil mixes together numerous strands of American history: the separation of “liberal” and “conservative” Christians; the rise of the gas and oil industry; the emergence of powerful, capitalism-advocating families like the Rockefellers; the motivation for American foreign interests, especially in the Middle East; and much more. If you are interested in American history broadly and/or American religious history, specifically, you’ll want to read this book. It’s so extensive, that it’s difficult to review in a succinct blog. What I’ll say is this: the oil industry has had more to do with the modern shape of the United States, and the United States’ within world affairs, than you could’ve imagined, and American Christians—liberal and conservative—were highly influential.
Dochuk’s work intersects everything from the origins of many of the energy giants you know—BP, Chevron, Exxon, Texaco, Shell—to how the pursuit of “black gold” was shaped by “wildcat” theology, premillennial dispensationalism, modern ecumenism and interfaith efforts, and more. In fact, one thing many American Christians shared for a few generations was the belief that oil was a gift of God, though there were detractors who observed of and warned of environmental devastation from the beginning.
Rather than write more about the book, let me recommend episode 56 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast where Dochuk was interviewed John Fea. This was the interview that inspired me to buy and read the book. It’s one I highly recommend.
Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (Penguin Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)
A title like Forget the Alamo is bound to rile up a bunch of Texans but the book isn’t about forgetting the Alamo. It’s about rightly remembering what happened at the Alamo on March 6th, 1836, and how those events have been diversely remembered by different people. In other words, it’s a call to the normal work of historians. Historians are asked to reconstruct past events (which are gone now) in narrative form so that we can better understand how the past relates to the present. This process is always complicated; always messy…when done correctly.
A good history shouldn’t be a hagiography; a hagiography is a hagiography. But hagiographies can be extremely useful for culture building; for shared myth making. (Note: historians don’t use the word “myth” like “myth busters” but instead to speak of stories that provide some sense of “truth” in a given culture…sometimes based on actual, historical events, but not necessarily depending on the sort of accuracy demanded by modern historiography.) In Texas, students are often taught a hagiographical view of the Alamo. The “heroes” of the Alamo are sanitized. People like David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Travis are sanitized as freedom fighters protecting individual liberty and democratic principles. But reality is never this black-and-white. They wanted wealth; they wanted to protect the system of slavery that helped them accumulate that wealth. Those desires factored into their battle with Santa Anna as much their love of individual freedom did, if not more so. Therefore, the lives and careers of the fighters at the Alamo are more complicated than the mythologies and hagiographies suggests. This shouldn’t be controversial. This is what historians do. Historians re-present the past, stains and all.
A great example of this is the difference between the old 1960s movie, The Alamo, featuring John Wayne as Crockett, which has been very popular, and the 2004 box office flip, The Alamo, which doesn’t have the John Wayne heroics but instead presents Crockett (played excellently by Billie Bob Thornton!), Bowie, Travis, and adjacent figures like Sam Houston (played by Dennis Quaid), in their complexity. Last week, I watched the latter, and it’s actually a really good film but it’s not a hagiography. Bowie has problems with alcoholism and is a slave owner. Travis abandons his wife and children. Crockett is a washed up politician who falls way short of the contemporary (by this I mean his era) mythological figure “Davy Crockett,” who was nothing like the real man. For those who appreciate what good historiography offers us—that being a honest attempt to reconstruct the past, wrinkles and all—the 2004 film is far superior to the Marvel comics superhero version from 1960.
But that’s the problem isn’t it: we want our superheroes. We want our narratives and mythologies black-and-white. Unfortunately for many, this isn’t how things have worked, work, or will work. Humans will always be complicated. Your heroes will have faults. And Forget the Alamo reminds readers, especially Texans, that the people who fought at the Alamo were not gods—they were men.
Another thing this book does—and this is “problematic” because it challenges something near and dear to many Texans; something the Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford call “the Heroic Anglo Narrative”—is that it shows that the stories of the Alamo aren’t just about Texians/Americans; the stories aren’t just about American v. Mexico, Anglos v. Hispanics. Why? Because Tejanos were present. Their were non-Anglos who fought the Mexican army too, people like Juan Seguin (who has streets and a nearby city named after him but who is often ignored in favor of names like Crockett, Bowie, Travis, Houston, and Stephen F. Austin). This is important because one of the side effects of a sanitized re-construction of the events that took place at the Alamo is that Anglo children in Texas are often made to feel like they’re the descendants of the liberty-loving heroes while children of Hispanic heritage come away feeling like they were the “losers” and the villains. Chapter 21, “This Politically Incorrect Nonsense,” deals with this and shares anecdotes from Texans who faced backlash after their seventh-grade Texas history class or after a field trip to the Alamo. Removing the complexity from the events at the Alamo in an effort to create a “patriotic history” (as people like the current Governor of Texas would call it) does no such thing. What it does do is say that the events of the Alamo that features Native Americans, Tejanos, Blacks, etc. are secondary to the events that features whites. Healthy historiography can’t fall into the trap of ethnocentric hagiography; healthy historiography must try to tell the truth about the past based on the data available to us. This is what the authors of Forget the Alamo are trying to remind readers.
As a born-and-raised Californian, I find this controversy eye-opening. I’m not a Texan but I live in Texas and already, just yesterday, I saw the battle over how Texas self-remembers acted out as an event at a museum in Austin featuring the authors was canceled because of pressure from Texans who don’t like the premise of this book. (A premise, I surmise, that’s not actually based on reading the book, as online reactions to this book make very clear, but on fear of “cancel culture” or some other, similar worry.) I am proud to have been born-and-raised in California while simultaneously being horrified by what happen to Native Americans; by what happened to Californios(like Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo whose story parallels Seguin’s) after the arrival of the “Forty-niners”; by how Asian immigrants were treated for generations; etc. But I feel like becoming a better California meant recognizing and accepting the past (and ongoing work; an ongoing conversation) not censoring it, which is what some Texans appear determined to do when faced with the complexity of the history of this state. When people are hellbent on sanitizing the past—and canceling alternative/revisionary tellings in fear of being canceled (pre-emptive canceling?)—there must be a present, contemporary reason for doing so. Their must be something happening now that demands the mythologies, the hagiographies, take precedent over the complex and diverse histories, histories that demand a greater openness to pluralism, shared celebration and grief, and the hard work of asking what it means to walk forward, together into the future.
For this reason, while I’m not saying all historians will agree with everything presented in Forget the Alamo, and while I realize the provocative title may put many people on the defense before they give the book a chance, I will say that it’s an excellent book. The authors are honest. In my view, they don’t actually outright bury Crockett and company as some online commenters fear, but presents them honestly, in their context, as real humans and not as gods—real humans who are part of the story of Texas but who aren’t the only ones who are part of this story, a story that contains many voices who have been silenced for generations—voices of Tejanos, Mexicans, and enslaved African Americans who wanted the same freedom and the same autonomy that people like Crockett, Bowie, Travis, Houston, and Austin believed was due to them. It’s a book that interfaces the history of Texas with the greater narrative of an evolving Mexico—a Mexico that itself was very complicated, shifting between centralist and federalist factions; a Mexico where at the time Santa Anna was in control but by no means the universal embodiment of all that was Mexico. There’s nothing to fear in a well-written, well-researched history like Forget the Alamo; nothing to fear but fear itself.
I’m continuing to brainstorm for my proposed class “Religion in San Antonio”. In fact, I’m in conversation with representatives of a local university and a non-profit to see if some sort of joint venture is possible. As say more as/if that materializes. For now, I’ve been thinking about the Texas Constitution (1876) while reading Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Brian Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford. I decided to browse through it to see what religious language can be found therein. For what it’s worth, as I show my “Religion in the United States” students, the United States Constitution lacks religious language beyond the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”), Article IV, Clause 3 (“…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”), and Article I, Section 7 (“except Sunday”). The Texas Constitution doesn’t. For example:
Preamble: “Humbly invoking the blessing of Almighty God…”
Article I, Section 4: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
Article I, Section 5: “No person shall be disqualified to give evidence in any of the courts of this State on account of his religious opinions, or for the want of any religious belief, but all oaths or affirmations shall be administered in the mode most binding upon the conscience, and shall be taken subject to the pains and penalties of perjury.”
Article I, Section 6: “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences. No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship. But it shall be the duty of the Legislature to pass such laws as may be necessary to protect equally every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of worship.”
Article I, Section 7: “No money shall be appropriated or drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes.”
Article IV, Section 14: “If any bill shall not be returned by the governor with his objections within ten days (Sundays excepted)…”; “If any such bill, containing several items of appropriation, not having been presented to the governor ten days (Sundays excepted)…”
Article VII, Section 4: “And no law shall ever be enacted appropriating any part of the permanent or available school fund to any other purpose whatever; nor shall the same or any part thereof ever be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school“
I browsed through pretty quickly, so I may have missed something, but this short list is clearly more than what we find in the United States Constitution. There’s definitely an attempt to align with the ideas of establishment and free exercise found in the First Amendment. Theism, and even more specifically Monotheism, is assumed for the most part, and even required for holding public office (which, apparently, is seen as something other than a “religious test”).