15.01.12, Sterk and Caputo, eds., Faithful Narratives

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Brian D. FitzGerald

The Medieval Review 15.01.12

Sterk, Andrea, and Nina Caputo. Faithful Narratives: Historians, Religion, and the Challenge of Objectivity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 278. ISBN: 9780801451829 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Brian D. FitzGerald
The College of St. Mary Magdalen

Convinced that religion is still at the center of much historical experience and insistent that public discourse about religion could greatly benefit from a firmer grasp of historical understanding, the editors of Faithful Narratives, Andrea Sterk and Nina Caputo, have produced an impressive volume on the relationship of religion, history, and scholarship. While most observers of contemporary events would not doubt that religion remains important, Sterk and Caputo are right to point out in their introduction that scholars are still struggling with the right balance in treating it: neither triumphalist nor reductionist, simultaneously sensitive to religious experience and responsive to various methodological challenges. It is to the editors' credit that Faithful Narratives takes religious thought and experience seriously: by assembling a rich array of historians as contributors, the book offers both fine scholarship and important models for thinking, writing, and teaching about "faith as a historical force" (4). The chronological scope of the volume is wide-ranging, from the late Roman Empire to contemporary America, with a focus on what the editors call "issues generated in a specifically 'Western' Christian context" (which includes Judaism). The African Christian experience is also treated here in relation to missionary and translation work.

This book is the outcome of a project with multiple layers--a three-semester series from 2008-2009 at the University of Florida during which the contributing authors delivered public lectures and led seminars for graduate students and faculty, as well as a panel at the 2011 American Historical Association meeting. In order that the book might also be of use to undergraduates and the "general community" (vii), the editors chose twelve scholars whose work has "exemplified compelling strategies for negotiating the difficulties inherent" in the study and teaching of religion in history (3). In this they were very successful, for many of the contributors to this volume are not only leading lights in their own fields but have also been able to speak to wider audiences: for instance, Peter Brown, Anthony Grafton, and Mark Noll. The essays are almost uniform in their clarity and accessibility, as the authors effectively convey the larger implications of their particular subjects. If the third element of the subtitle, "objectivity," (meaning here "scholarly integrity," 2) is not always an explicit element of discussion in the collected essays, it is certainly implicitly on display in the historians themselves.

The editors also conceive of this book as a contribution to debates about secularism and modernity. While the chapters about earlier time periods help readers reflect on the relationship between the secular and sacred, it is really only the latter third of the volume (appropriately dealing with modernity), that explicitly addresses--and challenges--the "master narrative of secularization," in which "modern" is equated with "secular" (6). If challenges to this narrative are not exactly new, they are certainly still needed, for, as the editors show, the narrative is not going away easily.

The book is organized into three parts of four essays each, all in chronological sequence. The first section is entitled "Late Antique and Medieval Religious Debates and their Modern Implications." The second is "Early Modern Perspectives on Spirituality, Culture, and Religious Boundaries." The volume concludes with "From the Premodern to the Modern World: Sacred Texts, Individual Agency, and Religious Identity," which focuses on subjects from the eighteenth century to the present day. Within each historical section, therefore, there are somewhat different emphases.

The opening essay, Susanna Elm's "Pagan Challenge, Christian Response: Emperor Julian and Gregory of Nazianzus as Paradigms of Interreligious Discourse," examines the impact of Julian's writings on the development of Gregory's theology. By taking Julian seriously as a religious thinker, and by attending closely to Gregory's orations as responses to Julian, Elm works to overcome the "binary narratives" that often ignore the close, "religious" interactions of Christian theologians and pagans in the late Roman Empire (18). Peter Brown's "Between Syria and Egypt: Alms, Work, and the 'Holy Poor'" emerged from the research for his recent work on poverty in Late Antiquity, yet this essay has its own emphases as it asks, "[W]ho, actually, were 'the poor'?" in the third and fourth centuries (32). To answer this question, Brown traces the contrasts between, on the one hand, a Syrian monastic tradition that saw monks as entitled to monetary support to free them from shameful labor, and on the other, the Egyptian monastic tradition represented by St. Anthony, the tradition which ultimately triumphed and which insisted that monks ought to work and provide alms to the truly needy. John Van Engen's essay, "Medieval Monks on Labor and Leisure," continues along similar lines, focusing on twelfth-century monastic attitudes towards work and leisure. Paying close attention to terminology, Van Engen argues for the recognition of religion's role in shaping concepts often deemed 'secular.' He shows the precise process whereby monks revalued work by identifying tasks such as prayer and reading as equivalent to manual labor, but only by seeing these tasks as spiritual guards against "idle leisure" (61). The final contribution to part one is David Nirenberg's "Sibling Rivalries, Scriptural Communities: What Medieval History Can and Cannot Teach Us about Relations between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." By his own admission, this essay is "as much sermon as science" (79), addressing what Nirenberg sees as the doleful effects of contemporary misunderstandings of scriptural traditions and of what precisely the past can teach us. At the same time, Nirenberg provides close textual exegesis of key scriptural passages, in particular from the Quran, passages that themselves encourage multiple interpretations; he does so to offer a persuasive model for how "Scripture itself does not force us to choose between historicism and faith" (75).

Part two begins with "The People and the Book: Print and the Transformation of Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe," by David B. Ruderman. Focusing on the "larger patterns of cultural formation" in Jewish communities throughout early modern Europe rather than specific subcultures (83), Ruderman argues that a major factor in the creation of transregional Jewish culture was the role of the printing press. He examines how the publication, for instance, of Joseph Caro's standardized legal code blurred the boundaries between Sephardic and Ashkenazic commentary traditions. At the same time, the appropriation by Christian Hebraists of printed texts such as the kabbalah furthered the removal of interpretive authority from local Jewish communities, even while creating opportunities for wider knowledge of Jewish culture. Dovetailing well with Ruderman's conclusions is Anthony Grafton's essay, "The Jewish Book in Christian Europe: Material Texts and Religious Encounters." Highlighting the efforts in particular of three Christian Hebraists--Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon, and Johann Buxtorf--Grafton clearly articulates the beginnings of the field of comparative religion by describing the "range of ways in which early modern Europeans responded to contact with the Jewish books that suddenly filled their libraries, and sometimes challenged their parochialism" (114). The next chapter brings a change of continents: Spanish missionaries in Peru are the subjects of Kenneth Mills' "Mission and Narrative in the Early Modern Spanish World: Diego de Ocaña's Desert in Passing." Mills offers a model for confronting the challenge of reading early-modern religious texts: "near-immersion," that is, trying to understand how and why spiritual writings "not only persuaded but moved" their readers (115). Mills highlights Ocaña's early seventeenth-century missionary narrative, taking seriously Ocaña's "self-conception" and his attempts to draw his readers into a powerful "interior journey" (131). The final essay in this section, Carlos Eire's "Incombustible Weber: How the Protestant Reformation Really Disenchanted the World," takes aim at Weber's theory of disenchantment. Eire wants to look at disenchantment "in non-Weberian terms," that is, to shift the scholarly focus of the Protestant Reformation's "disenchantment" away from a magic/religion dichotomy and instead towards a description of the Reformation as "a fundamental shift in the way in which reality is conceived, ...a 'desacralization'" (135). Eire's method is to grant beliefs "a causative role" in history (133), and he does so by ambitiously reformulating the effects of the Reformation into three categories that highlight desacralization: 1) a split between matter and spirit, 2) the redrawing of boundaries between natural and supernatural, and 3) the breaking of connections between the living and the dead.

The first essay of the final section is Phyllis Mack's "Religion and Gender in Enlightenment England: The Problem of Agency." Mack introduces a new theme--gender--in her examination of two female religious leaders, the Quaker Abiah Darby and the Methodist Mary Fletcher. Mack probes the relationship between modernity and religion: as she traces Darby's and Fletcher's prominent roles in turning the energies of their communities away from ecstatic prophecy and towards charitable work, she shows that these women's religious experiences were "part of the process of modernization itself" (153). Following this piece is Susannah Heschel's "Constructions of Jewish Identity through Reflections on Islam," which explores how nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews formed their own religious identity by studying Islam and even imitating Muslims. Through the work of Jewish scholars such as Abraham Geiger, Islam was viewed favorably as the "religious fruit" of Judaism (171), a notion that offered Judaism renewed significance. The role of intercultural relations is the subject of the next essay as well, "Bible, Translation, and Culture: From the KJV to the Christian Resurgence in Africa" by Lamin Sanneh. After an account of the principles of translation in the King James Bible, Sanneh jumps quickly to nineteenth-century Africa, but it is there that he is able to focus on the intriguing translation work of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African bishop of Nigeria, who rendered the Bible into Yoruba beginning in 1850. Sanneh argues for the significant historical role of vernacular translations, which proved crucial to "recasting Christianity in the idiom and psyche" of African culture (195). The great success of Christianity in Africa, Sanneh concludes, is yet another argument that undermines scholarly assertions of the dominance of secularism. Rounding off the whole volume is Mark A. Noll's contribution, "Reflections on the Bible and American Political Life." More overview than investigation, Noll's piece draws on some of the themes traced in the book by touching on key aspects of the complicated presence of the Bible in modern (i.e., nineteenth- and twentieth-century) American politics. Highlighting both Abraham Lincoln's theological use of Scripture in his Second Inaugural Address and Solomon Schechter's claims for the Bible's centrality in America, Noll concludes by arguing that the Bible can best be used in particular political situations only by keeping in mind that its more universal dimensions transcend those particularities.

The quality of the book's chapters is matched by the editors' attention to the volume's presentation and critical apparatus. The footnotes are informative yet not overwhelming, a choice consistent with Sterk and Caputo's desire to have these essays speak not only to specialists but to a wider community. There are very few typographical errors and even fewer places where repetitious passages are in need of pruning. In sum, Faithful Narratives offers discussions of religion in history that will not only deepen scholars' understanding but will also act as models for how to navigate the terrain of religious experience with intellectual integrity.

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Author Biography

Brian D. FitzGerald

The College of St. Mary Magdalen