Telling old stories

In class yesterday we covered the background necessary to give us a common vocabulary to talk about Christianity in American history.   The fun part of that lecture for me is the opportunity to share stories that helped me fall in love with history as a child.  Henry VIII’s marital woes.  Luther’s enjoyment of his wife’s beer.  I still love those stories–out-sized and yet flawed personalities that shape the world we live in today.

But I’m also intensely aware that teaching the history of religion in North America–teaching any history of early North America–is a slow braiding together of multiple stories.  The incredible liveliness of the era comes from the intersection of European, Indian, and African lives, and also from the intertwining of North American history into the history of Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  Early Americanists have been grappling with (and fighting about) how to conceptualize the boundaries our field for a long time, as Josh Piker has so skillfully outlined.  The period is at once origin story for the United States, and a period that stands on its own as having unique dynamics quite unrelated to the nation of future centuries.  We’re no where near concluding those discussions.

I cannot possibly count the number of conversations I’ve had over the last twenty years about how important it is to create a meaningfully integrated, globalized, synthesis of early American history for our students, and also how nearly impossible it is.  This is even more true when one considers the difficulties with the analytic concept of “religion.”  Yet when it comes to writing a syllabus, and grappling with the information the students will need to succeed over the course of the semester (what is the relationship between the following terms: religion, Christian, Catholic, catholic, protestant, puritan, Anglican, Methodist, and evangelical?), I end up back where I started.  De-centering Christianity from this narrative, and yet trying to preserve the Western-centric concept of religion, merely reifies Christianity through a glass darkly.  So, for now, with discomfort, I’m going to have to stick with Luther’s beer.  Better to outline the hegemonic beast and tackle it head on than to pretend it isn’t there.


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