Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Gimme That New-Time Religion! A Review of God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States by Karen Stollznow

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Gimme That New-Time Religion! A Review of God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States by Karen Stollznow

Article excerpt

Pitchtone Publishing, Durham, NC. 2013

256 pp. $14.95 paperback.

ISBN-13: 978-1939578006


Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion--several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

--Mark Twain

When I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, we were given a slim little paperback book about the various religious cults and what they believed. We had all heard about the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, and Christian Science, but as naive high school kids, we knew nothing about them. It was truly an eye-opener to read all about their strange beliefs, as the book preached why they were wrong and why the Presbyterians were right. At no point did the book turn the mirror on itself, and examine the weird ideas espoused by the Presbyterians and other mainstream Christians.

Then, when I began to study comparative religions in college, I encountered a totally different perspective: the detailed (and often dry) scholarly dissection of world religions. These books were often massive, and included huge detailed sections on their mythologies and core beliefs which soon became overwhelming. It was eye-opening to see what other religions reveal about the religion you grew up with, but it was also a lot of hard work.

Between these two approaches is Karen Stollznow's slim but lively little paperback, God Bless America. It strikes the perfect tone between these extremes. It takes an outsider's view of American religions, as do most religious scholars, without hundreds of pages of tedious details to read through. Yet it also critiques these religions, and comments on the more absurd parts of their theology and belief systems, something that my Sunday School book also did--but without the commitment to Presbyterianism. It is written in a wry, lively style, often poking gentle fun at the sublime silliness of some beliefs (and the fact that their practitioners see no irony or absurdity in their beliefs). The tone is humorous but very tongue in cheek, letting the irony and bizarre aspects of the belief system speak for themselves.

Each short chapter begins with a little "hook" about some strange aspect of the belief system. Stollznow then gives a very brief but well-organized introduction to the history and essential worldview of each belief system. She closely examines how the religious ideas were first established and how they have changed, focusing on those aspects that are of greatest interest to American society. In the final part of most chapters, she practices a bit of "embedded journalism," attending services or meetings of each group (if they let her), giving her vivid impressions of the believers' behavior, surroundings, and approach to outsiders.

And the range of religious ideas is impressive! First, she covers the bizarre and illegal practices of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, the extreme Mormons who openly practice polygamy, but use it as an excuse for the disgusting old men who run their cult to acquire lots of underage brides. …

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