Philip Jenkins recently attended a meeting of the Urban History Association and found something notable by its absence:
For good or ill, religion has always played a central cultural and political role in urban life, whether in North America or further afield. Think just of the US – how does religion fit into the urban picture? Or put another way, how can we conceivably write the story without religion? Historically, religious institutions have always shaped immigrant life, from German churches in the eighteenth century colonies through the synagogues or Catholic parishes of the 1920s, to the teeming storefront churches that are such an obvious part of the urban landscape today. Native or immigrant, countless urban children passed through faith-oriented schools, and citizens of all ages passed through religious-founded homes and hospitals.
So against this background, what we might expect in terms of a reasonable coverage of religious matters? In fact, of 350 papers presented at this past UHA, I counted just nine or ten devoted to religious matters, in the US or overseas. Perhaps I missed a couple of others where religious themes were not reflected in the titles or abstracts, but at most, we are talking about three percent of all presentations.
Out of 112 panels, religion was notionally mentioned in three sessions, but in two of those, only in combination with other massive themes – “Religion, Class and the Environment in the American Metropolis” and “Eighteenth Century New York: Race, Religion and Ideas in the Marketplace.” In each instance, only one of three papers concerned religion. Of those 112 panels, only one was specifically and exclusively devoted to religious matters, namely a session with three papers on “Congregations as Community Activists in American Cities After 1965.”
In this light, it’s good to pause to be thankful for scholars like my friend Mark Gornik, Director of City Seminary New York, who has recently documented a vast, complex, and almost utterly unknown world of African Christianity in New York City.
Over the past twenty-five years I have watched my own field, English literary studies, alternately lose interest in religion and regain it, at least in certain forms; but the overall trend has clearly been towards indifference and, more troubling, ignorance. We don’t have to believe what people in the past believed; we don’t have to share their ideas about what’s important; but if we’re going to be scholars we at least need to know something about their beliefs and priorities.
Consider a passage from this essay on religion and the book that appeared in the New York Times a few months ago:
The relationship between human reader and “animated” book has been forged over centuries. The Bible, perhaps the first book to be characterized in these terms, was thought to be the material embodiment of Jesus Christ, “a living and breathing likeness of Him” in the words of Erasmus. Since Christ was understood to be the carnal manifestation of the Scriptures — the Word made flesh, according to the literary scholar James Kearney — the Bible was reflexively endowed with human properties.
The author of this essay, Gillian Silverman, teaches 19th-century American literature, but appears not to know something very important that every writer she studies would have known from early childhood: that the idea of Christ being the “Word made flesh” didn’t come from “the literary scholar James Kearney” but rather from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Nor does Silverman understand that calling Christ “the Word made flesh” doesn’t mean that he “embodies” the Bible, but that he is, as John states quite clearly, the eternal Word, the Logos. (By the way, it appears that no one on the New York Times editorial staff caught the reference either.)
There are few pages of Scripture more famous and influential than that first chapter of John. A scholar of pre-twentieth-century literature, American or European, who is unfamiliar with it is operating at a severe disadvantage. If we want to understand — truly to understand — writers and thinkers from the past, we’re going to have to go to some considerable trouble to know as much as possible of what they knew, even if it’s boring or unpalatable to us. That goes for historians and literary critics alike.