Authors including James K.A. Smith, Tisa Wegner, and Curtis Freeman talk about their new books.
James K.A. Smith
When James K.A. Smith started his Cultural Liturgies project a decade ago, he knew even then that the resulting trilogy would end with a book on political theology. “What I couldn’t have imagined at that time was a year like 2016, or that we would have a presidency and political climate like the current one,” says Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Biker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview.
With Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, Nov.), the final book in the trilogy, Smith examines the religious aspects of politics and the political aspects of the church, noting how citizenship as a Christian—in what Augustine called “the city of God,” which can be found wherever Christianity is practiced—means investing in the pursuit of justice and concern for the common good. Awaiting the King offers an alternative, a new path away from the dominant models of Christian political engagement or withdrawal, Smith says.
Smith adds his goal was reaching multiple audiences with the trilogy—especially those in leadership roles, such as pastors and priests, teachers, and chaplains. “I’ve intentionally incorporated vignettes and illustrations and parables that draw on film, novels, and television to help readers picture the argument,” Smith says. “But I’m also hoping to reach colleagues in the academy, which is why there’s kind of a second book to be found in the footnotes.”
Smith adds, “I’m grateful for both sorts of readers, and I think the theological academy needs to do more to reach into this space, with work that bridges gaps between the academy and the church. Maybe if we did more of this there would be fewer 2016s to worry about.”
Smith hopes the book will prompt a deeper appreciation for the complexities of faith, politics, and community life, as well as a desire for more tolerance and nuance in discussions of these topics. “If readers come away somewhat frustrated by how messy things are, how difficult it is to be both faithful and influential, how complicated the intersection of faith and politics is—well, then my work here is done,” he says.
Awaiting the King is intended to give Christian readers a vision for a way to be a citizen that is fostered in the church for the good of the world, Smith says, adding, “I hope it paints a picture of why a healthy church is actually a gift to society rather than a threat.”
Freedom of religion, enshrined in the Constitution, is a national ideal. Yet from colonial times to President Donald Trump’s devotion to saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays,” the notion has always been malleable, according to Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American studies at Yale and of American religious history in the Divinity School.
Wenger’s focus on the history and power of religious freedom grew from her early study of Native Americans of the Southwest. She says of her first book, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom, “I took an unconventional pathway, looking at what counts as ‘religion.’ ” Her finding: “Pueblo Indian ceremonies and traditions were not considered by anyone to be their ‘religion’ until they began to apply [the term] to themselves in self-defense.”
Now Wenger takes her argument to a larger stage with Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Univ. of North Carolina, out now). “I wanted to write a totally different kind of religious-freedom history than had been written before, because I was starting out from a different set of questions,” Wenger says. “Who is invoking the concept? How does it work for them in reshaping their own communal identities? How does that, in turn, affect Americans’ ideas about what religion even is?”
Wenger argues that “both religion and religious freedom are modern inventions, with complex histories and constantly shifting consequences, and like other human constructs, they are inevitably implicated in relations of power.” Her central premise, she writes, is that “white American Christians used religious-freedom talk as a way to mark their own superiority and the civilizational inadequacies of those they governed.” In response, groups like Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and others who confront “U.S. imperialism”—whether military or cultural—have been “forced to look more like Christianity, and Protestant Christianity in particular,” Wenger writes. These groups revise, reshape, and even contort their own practices “to claim the protections of the First Amendment and escape the stigma of minority status in the United States.”
Today, as white evangelicals lose cultural and numerical clout in U.S. culture, Wenger says, the religious right has “seized the religious-freedom category” to assert authority while presenting itself as the beleaguered group. Her book’s conclusion has come to life, Wenger says. “Religious freedom today is being used exactly in the ways it was in the imperialist past—protecting the white Christian conservative powers that be and not at all concerned with the freedoms of minority populations.”
—Cathy Lynn Grossman
On an impromptu visit to a London cemetery in 2005, Curtis W. Freeman was drawn to the headstones of three men amid the graves of 123,000 dissenters—all Christians who had been deemed unfit for a burial within walls sanctified by the Church of England. The three men were John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress vivified evangelical and spiritual dissent; Daniel Defoe, whose castaway Robinson Crusoe built a life by rescuing wreckage from his ship, showing a man retrieving the faith from his church and adapting it to survive on “the desert island of modernity,” Freeman tells PW; and William Blake, whose apocalyptic visions in Jerusalem narrate “a cosmic struggle between good and evil,” Freeman says.
The work of these three men provides the framework for Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity (Baylor Univ., out now) because, Freeman writes, they “shattered the boundaries that limit religious experience. And because their works would be read worldwide, they also disseminated the message of ‘dissenting tradition.’ ”
Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies at Duke Divinity School and director of the Baptist House of Studies, draws connecting lines from the men across the ocean to America, where the visions of Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, and a stew of other sects could not be “domesticated”—that is, used by any “state-established and geographically delineated church,” he writes. Freeman shows how this undomesticated dissent led to the First Amendment and enshrined the value that “everyone was entitled to an opinion about religion and to follow the dictates of conscience.” This religious liberty, which was a subversive social vision, is “a vital practice for the good of Christianity today and, indeed, for the flourishing of free societies,” Freeman writes. “Dissent is more than just ‘whining.’ It is “a profound ‘Yes’ to Jesus Christ as Lord, to God alone as sovereign over conscience… and to the community where Christ reigns and is discerned together.” Asked about current noteworthy dissenters, Freeman gives a few examples: Pope Francis’s call for a church that it is about mercy “as Jesus is about mercy”; the martyred Martin Luther King Jr., who,“just as Blake envisioned Beulah land, dreamed of an America that could become such a beloved community”; and Kevin Cosby, a West Louisville pastor working to revitalize the black community as an act of faith, an echo of Defoe’s vision. “We are in a new place, and we have to see what is usable,” Freeman says. —Cathy Lynn Grossman