Church History

Article excerpt

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Book Reviews and Notes

In recent years, thanks to growing appreciation for the global reach of Christianity and the tradition's stunning growth in the southern and eastern hemispheres, historians have begun to use the plural--Christianities--rather than the singular. The plural highlights the intricate ways a religion rooted in the ancient Near East has interacted with belief systems, practices, and ethnic heritages in multiple cultures in such ways that for all practical purposes several new religions emerged. All have ties to Christianity, but may have taken on such distinctive casts as to be distinct religions in their own right, not just variants of a single faith tradition.

The twenty-two essays and introduction comprising this volume represent an effort to extend that understanding to the United States, with editors and authors insisting that Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Latter-day Saints, to cite the most frequent examples used, represent different American Christianities. Some suggest that even the multitudinous denominations within the Protestant family constitute not kindred offshoots, but separate religions. Other writers insist that different ways of relating to the larger culture create new Christianities, while some imply that internal ethnic diversity makes, for example, Swedish Lutherans adherents of a different religion than Finnish Lutherans. In sum, the authors and editors are adamant that variety results in different religions rather than multiple expressions of a single religion.

The volume lures readers into fresh ways of thinking about the impact Christianity in its many forms has had on American culture. Despite the recent influx of immigrants who have fashioned a new pluralism, the stamp of Christian influence on American life remains. The first six essays focus on the extent of Christian diversity, while the next five highlight dimensions of practice. The six that follow show how Christianity/Christianities have affected every aspect of American culture from economics to literature, from science to the media. The concluding five essays examine issues of national identity and the role of Christianity/Christianites in the public square.

Few, however, tackle the vexing matter of when diversity in style, different approaches to issues such as homosexuality, or the role of women, or variant postures in the complex history of church-state relations, mean that entirely new religions have formed. In a masterful opening essay, Catherine Albanese builds on the image of a tree with many branches, an image that celebrates diversity while affirming relationships, just as branches are linked to the trunk of the tree. Albanese is one of the few to acknowledge the Eastern Orthodox traditions; if Protestant bodies and Roman Catholicism constitute separate religions, surely the Orthodox represent another.

Michael McNally's essay on Native American religious sensibilities wrestles more profoundly with the problem posed by the anthology's title. He demonstrates that the ways Native Americans appropriated aspects of various forms of Christianity from missionaries representing numerous Protestant groups, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox yielded not a hybrid mishmash, a casual blending of "this and that," but something sui generis . In other words, new religions, new Christianities, and new Native American religious expressions, resulted. …

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