Kenneth Woodward’s Requiem for a Lost America

January 30, 2017

Responding to Kenneth L. Woodward’s Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (New York: Convergent, 2016)

woodwardFew people have had the opportunity that has come to Kenneth L. Woodward who devoted most of his career to writing about American religion. His base was one of the most favored journalistic posts of the half century during which he worked: religion editor for Newsweek. This position provided financial support and entrée so that he could go places, watch from the inside, and talk extensively with people who were central to what was going on.

He wrote extensively and frequently in disciplined and lively, readable language. In later years, institutional archives have made this backlog of material available for him to draw upon when needed. Among the strengths of Woodward’s reporting is that he writes as a Christian believer and as a self-aware old man, conditions he affirms in the final paragraph of the book.

“One of the blessings of old age is the clarity with which diminishing energy of mind and body allows us to see what has been our human lot all along—namely, contingency, transience, and finitude. We cannot control what may happen to us. Nothing lasts forever. We must die. These hold true for believer and nonbeliever alike. They are the existential facts of life that all religions in different ways address. In reply, Christians like myself are called to abide in Faith, Hope, and Love. What matters is that God’s grace is everywhere” (413).

Everyone interested in the life of our nation during this half century can benefit from this book of “lived history” that Woodward has written. It is clear, articulate, vivid, and filled with insight concerning the central topic, which is the interaction of religion, culture, and politics during this period.

As soon as I started reading the book, I liked it. Perhaps the most important reason is that we are close to the same age (I was born in 1931, Woodward in 1935). We grew up in an era when the United States was characterized by what he calls embedded religion, marked by a fusion of faith, culture, and politics. He grew up in a Catholic culture in Cleveland, Ohio, whereas I grew up in a low-church Protestant culture in Portland, Oregon. Although the details of church life and education differed dramatically, there was an undergirding system of values, especially as focused on family structure, transmitted by church and school, that was much the same.

The first half of the book held my attention as Woodward describes the traditional patterns and then reports on the rapid changes that occurred, especially during the fifties and sixties. He describes the entrepreneurial religion of people like Billy Graham, basing his accounts on frequent interaction with leaders of these religious responses to changes in American life.

He gives careful attention to major changes in his own church, pushed in part by the Vatican Council, and describes the dismantling of the embeddedness that had been so important in his growing up years. Changes in Catholic liturgy and debates over birth control are carefully chronicled, and Woodward’s ambivalence about what was happening is clear. He quotes from his feature essay in a 1971 issue of Newsweek to describe why he and other Catholics of the time could remain steady in their faith.

“When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and church laws fade in importance” (92).

At this point in his book, Woodward turns in a new direction. He describes the civil rights movement, as led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in which religious faith and zeal led to public engagement and the vigorous efforts to realize religious aspirations in public life by transforming a racist society. He emphasizes the restructuring of American religion, as described by writers like Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wuthnow.

Woodward quotes from James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America in order to state the central feature of the change that was occurring. “The great polarity in American religion, he argued, was between ‘orthodox’ believers who appealed to an external, definable, and transcendent authority and ‘progressives’ who tended to resymbolize the contents of historic faith according to the presuppositions of contemporary life” (179). Read more: woodward


What Aztec civilization can teach modern Americans about religion and culture

June 25, 2012

Daily Life of the Aztecs is one volume in a series of books that describe classic civilizations of Rome, ancient India, the Etruscans, Greece in the time of Pericles, and Palestine at the time of Christ. Although the Aztecs reached their zenith in the early 1500s of the Common Era, long after the others had disappeared, their culture had a strong degree of symmetry with the ancient Eurasian civilizations.

I have often wondered about the Aztecs because they were dominant in the regions of North and Central America that were overcome by Spanish conquistadores and missionaries. My continuing activities in the Sonoran Southwest, with its admixture of European and Native American cultures, increase my desire to know something about the Aztecs, “those fierce, honourable, death-obsessed, profoundly religious people whom Cortés and his minions encountered five hundred years ago.

It surprises me to learn that there is a large body of source material from which to draw in order to write an entire book on the Aztec civilization. Author Jacques Soustelle describes the “many sets of records that can be compared and combined.” Despite the systematic destruction of Mexico City by the Spaniards, a growing body of architectural artifacts have been discovered and studied.

“A wealth of written documentation” has survived. Much was written by the Mexicans themselves. Soustelle refers to “an immense quantity of books…written according to a pictographic system that was at once figurative and phonetic, and treating of history, history combined with mythology, geographical description, ritual and divination.” He claims that this literature includes “piles of official paper” dealing with all kinds of disputes that would arise in a city which he estimates had a population of 1,000,000 people.

After the Spaniards arrived, Indians adopted European letters for their accounts, sometimes using their own language and sometimes using Spanish. Despite efforts by the conquerors to destroy this literature, much remains.

Furthermore, the Spaniards wrote about the Aztecs. Some of the authors show little objectivity or understanding of what they described. Other European writers, however, learned the native tongue and wrote carefully and in trustworthy fashion.

Soustelle (1912–1990) was both a scholar and a politician. When he wrote this book, which was first published in France in 1955, he was director of “the most famous ethnographical museum in the world, the Musée de l’Homme” in Paris.

As I read this imaginatively and gracefully written book, I am learning much about the complex, sophisticated culture that flourished in Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion.

I am also recognizing how much the writing and reading of books is influenced by the frame of reference that authors and readers bring to their work. Soustelle, a European scholar steeped in Catholic culture and the feudal systems of Europe frequently uses analogies from that world to describe Aztec civilization and life. With my American background and interest in the non-urban Native Americans of cooler climates, I find myself continually amazed at the patterns Soustelle presents.

More important to me, and likely to prompt further postings in this series, are several themes in Aztec culture that are directly relevant to Americans today who are concerned about the character of our own culture: the perils of combining political authority and religion, the destructive results when war and religion join forces, the strength and weakness of societies in which religion is the compound that holds things together, and the fascination and evil possibilities that come when the shedding of blood is the ritual that keeps nature and society in motion.

Note: Although Soustelle’s book was written more than half a century ago, its continuing usefulness was confirmed when the English translation by Patrick O’Brian (1961) was republished in 1991 by Phoenix Press (London). Its value is also supported in Tlacatecco, a blog dealing with Mesoamerican culture, history and religion. More recent books about Aztec culture, history, and religion are available for readers interested in delving more deeply into this subject. My thanks to Annie Bloom’s Bookstore in Portland’s Multnomah Village where I came across Soustelle’s book.


Should progressive churches accommodate? Or should they challenge the culture?

April 18, 2011

The central thesis of adaptive change is that in order to thrive in a new environment churches and other institutions need to change their patterns. Accommodation to the culture therefore seems to be the key to vitality and growth. Three books that I have reviewed in recent columns support this thesis: Leadership Without Easy Answers; God Is Back; Finding a Spiritual Home.

A contrarian’s point of view, however, is presented by Paul, the church’s first theologian. Not accommodation but radical challenge was his prescriptive counsel to the churches, or so John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed assert in their book In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.

“The Roman Empire,” they claim, “was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.”  Paul, however, a Jewish visionary inspired by Jesus, “opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.

Crossan and Reed believe that Paul’s challenge is as great today as it was then. “Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.”

At the heart of Roman civilization was an “imperial theology” which was persuasively expressed wherever Roman military power held sway by two elements.

The imperial cult (or patterns of public religious activity) “which housed deified emperors in temples from Thessalonica to Ephesus,” and which was able to include the gods of conquered peoples in the galaxy of Roman deities.

The cult of luxury, “which brought urban amenities in the form of aqueducts, baths, and entertainments to cities from Asia to Syria.”

Central to Paul’s alternative vision of life in the world was his presentation of Christ as the alternative to Caesar. Since the Caesars were elevated to divine status, as gods in this world and the next, Paul also emphasized strands of the Christian tradition that interpreted Jesus as Son of God, as the embodiment in human form of the very God whom Jews had proclaimed from ancient times.

Among the major characteristics of Roman civilization were a significantly unequal distribution of the basic commodities of life and a distribution of power and privilege that was radically hierarchical. Paul’s vision of the world God intended, a world that Paul believed was already present, included an equally radical redistribution of resources and power. At every point, he could point to Jesus as exemplar of this alternative view of life in the world.

Both of these elements of Paul’s social vision were to be expressed uncompromisingly in the life of the church.

For Crossan and Reed, the most illuminating and decisive biblical text is Galatians 3:27-28, in which Paul asserts that because they had been “clothed with Christ” there could no longer be divisions of race, gender, or social status “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul recognized that Christians lived in Caesar’s world and reluctantly acknowledged that they might need to accommodate themselves to patterns of behavior in that world. With great force, however, he insisted that these accommodations should never be tolerated in the church itself.

The imperial cult in contemporary American life is not as explicitly religious as it was in Paul’s Roman world. The statue of our sixteenth president in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, for example, inspires deep feelings of respect rather than the reverence that was expected when gazing upon statues of the divinized emperors in temples all around the Roman world. Yet to read some of the literature about Lincoln long ago, and perhaps even more about Ronald Reagan of recent date, one could believe that the line between honor and reverence is easily (and often) crossed.

Furthermore, there is a tendency in many churches today to link material gain—the amenities of life made possible by the American version of capitalism—with the gospel. In some strange way, following Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, becomes the way to enjoy a prosperous and comfortable life.

Even as they work at adaptive change, therefore, church leaders need to be thoughtful in their efforts to transform the culture of Christian worship.

Perhaps the central question is this: what accommodations are legitimate as we deal with the need to live effectively in our world? Stated in contrasting fashion: What should we seek to change? And what must ever be the same?