American Christianity and the Modern: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Space: Editors' Introduction

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American Christianity and the Modern: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Space: Editors' Introduction


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The four essays collected here originally were presented together in a session at the American Society of Church History annual Winter Meeting in New Orleans in January 2013. All address difficulties in defining "modernism" and all manipulate the category of "the modern" in reporting on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American religious history. Kathryn Lofton, first of all, observes that analytical binaries embedded in academic investigations of the modern shape interpretation by occluding the complexity of the processes of differentiation that occur continuously in culture. She cautions scholars of religion, especially, to be on their toes. She notes how researchers, exploiting a complicated critical literature about sacred and profane, can trade easily on the shortcuts it provides, in the process overlooking messy social and cultural interstices teeming with ambiguity. Lofton's gaze upon the religious predicaments of fundamentalists and modernists is an altered one, where the intellectual pieties of Emile Durkheim and Jonathan Z. Smith are undercut by her visualizing the bones of a shared historical project. Both fundamentalists and modernists, she argues, imbibed the spirit of systematization, deployed method, and claimed coherency.

Elizabeth A. Clark braids the question of "what is modernism?" with the less-asked "when is modernism?" in scrutinizing the writings of the Catholic Modernist and Harvard professor George LaPiana. Clark explains that church historian LaPiana favored historical method over a theological approach to understanding the past, that he articulated to his students a dynamic theory of history, embraced Biblical criticism, and promoted a historiographic focus on the social character of early Christianity. Such standpoints were part of a broader modernism, but, as Clark shows, LaPiana's thinking was complicated and cannot easily be fitted to the modernist type. In rejecting the modernist gravitation to "religious experience," the legitimacy of grand narratives, and Harnack's notion of an "essence" of Christianity, LaPiana was postmodern. Accordingly he impresses all at once as an innovator of an early postmodern stripe, a backward-looking salvager of tradition, and an intellectual paddling in the recognizable currents of Catholic Modernism. As such, the "when" of his Modernism is complex.

In her discussion of aestheticism in William James, Amanda Porterfield focuses on James's evocation of the feeling subject as both the locus of integrative mental activity and as an impediment to the resolution of experiences of contradiction and difference. …

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