As a get-to-know-you exercise in class today, I asked students to say whether they’d seen The Force Awakens over the holiday. Seemed like an innocuous question. In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the movie and I loved it, mostly because it had a strong female lead and it was, for an action movie, quite funny. Students responded with a widely diverse set of takes on the movie, however. As always, that was a lovely reminder that students come at the world from very different perspectives, from each other and from me. But as our conversation progressed I also started thinking about how unique the cultural moment of the Force Awakens has been. It’s rare to have a single event that nearly everyone has an opinion on, or at least has heard of. This led to a further point, that I think might be quite useful for understanding the place of Protestant Christianity in early America. Bear with me.
The fact that nearly everyone has some opinion on Star Wars today, even if that is sheepish disinterest or simple disgust at its ubiquity, serves to remind us that most of the time we don’t share a single media world. This is not unlike the fact that we don’t in any way share a world of religion any longer either. There’s ample evidence that many Americans are drifting away from “religion,” to become “nones,” and that the politicization of the subject may have caused some of that shift, and, finally, that the increasing diversity of religions in the United States has made it very difficult to define what religion even is.
But moments like the phenomenon of the Force Awakens remind us that we do share some things as a culture. Protestant Christianity did that for colonists in British North America (not, of course, for enslaved Africans or Native Americans). The vast majority of Euro-American colonists would have had some familiarity with the basic outlines of Christianity. But we also have to remember that some were devoted, some were disgusted, some were highly knowledgable, and some were merely aware enough to nod through dinner with relatives. Christianity provided a sort of common language, but not a unity of perspective. Here’s where the diversity of my students’ opinions about the movie is such a good reminder. It shouldn’t be that much of a leap to remember that people in the past were just like people today in their fundamental diversity. Some liked to believe, some didn’t. Some were witty, some were literal-minded. Some liked being part of a group, some didn’t. Knowledge about Christianity should not imply a singular attitude.