The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT) is like a prism through which ancient Near Eastern traditions were transformed and transmitted to Jewish and Christian cultures. Through the Jewish diaspora and the Christian missions, it became a nomadic text that spread to all continents. It was received and transformed in diverse genres of literature, music, art, theatre, law, and politics. Interest in processes of reception has intensified since World War I, but reception history became a major field within biblical studies only at the turn of the millennium. Analyzing the history of reception of the HB/OT poses a variety of challenges: what hermeneutical expectations, attitudes, interests, and methods were applied to its texts? How were they involved in diverse fields of culture, and how did different modes of reception influence each other? What historical developments occasioned changes in interpretation? In analyzing textual reception, three basic aspects should be considered: the texts with their respective genres and themes, the hermeneutics applied to them, and the social contexts in which the reception takes place. Each of these aspects is characterized by great variation: biblical genres are as diverse as curse and love poetry, law and lament; hermeneutical approaches involve extremely different interests and results in, for example, allegorical, kabballistic and historical critical interpretation; social contexts of reception include family education, monastic lectio divina, public reading and preaching, and academic teaching. Investigating this history of reception means looking at cultural history through the lens of the HB/OT. Rather than defining itself as a field of research separate from interpretation, reception history should be seen as a constituent of the hermeneutical endeavor.
K. Healan Gaston
The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical task of cultivating harmonious relations between these three traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States. However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.
Asian American religions have dramatically increased their presence in the United States. Partly, this is a function of the increasing population of Asian Americans since 1965. Asian American is a name given to the United States residents who trace their ancestry back to the area of Asia from Pakistan in the west to the Pacific islands east of the Asian landmass. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States (about 6 percent of the national population), and Asians are immigrating to the country at rates that far exceed those for any other group. Other names have been taken, given, or forced upon Asian Americans. Such terms as “Chinese or Japanese imperial subjects” heightened a unity of political and religious obedience to a divine emperor. “Oriental” started as a French idealization of the Confucian state before descending to the level of being an epithet for backwardness. Immigrants come with nationalities like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth that often intervene into religious discourses (see an example of this process in the Chinese American experience as described by Fenggang Yang (Chinese Christians in America. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In the 1970s the name Asian American was popularized by West Coast intellectuals in order to gather forces at the barricades of political and racial movements. Some scholars like Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994) claimed “Asian American” as a racialized reality, which was the result of racial conflicts innate to American society. Others saw the identity as an ethnic claim to assimilation into American cultural reality. Asian immigrants and their progeny find ways to balance out the religious, national, ethnic, racial, and other identities from their homeland, new nation, and religion. “Asian American” has also become a common-sense meaning that was institutionalized by the U.S. census. But one should remember that many layers of names sit upon Asian American houses of worship as so many barnacles telling tales of ancestral honors, woes, and self-reflections. Over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith. About a quarter say that they are “religious nones,” that is, either having no particular religious faith or identifying as agnostic or atheist. About half of the “nones” actually have religious beliefs and ethics and practice them as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture, not as something that is “religious.” Two-thirds of religious Asian Americans are Christians. This is not surprising when we take into account the rapid growth of Christianity in the non-European world. Asian Americans are contributing to the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity and signal the increasingly religious direction of the 21st century. Other Asian American religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroasterism, new Japanese religions, and many more. The history of Asian American religions involves a dynamic interplay of the United States and Asia, global politics, democratic revolutions, persecution in Asia, racism in the United States, Supreme Court cases, and religious innovation. The largest Asian American groups, those with 1–4 million people each, trace their ancestry back to Japan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Korea. Seven smaller groups have over 100,000 people each: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais. And there are many more smaller groups. The diverse ethnic and national origins of Asian Americans means that their religions have a kaleidoscope of religious styles and cultures.
One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) always had a complicated relationship with religion, emblematic of the diverse völkisch movement out of which the NSDAP emerged. This relationship became even more complicated during the later years of the Weimar Republic as the party grew larger and attracted millions of new supporters from Protestant as well as Catholic regions. The NSDAP’s attitude toward the Christian churches was nonetheless ambivalent, swinging from co-optation to outright hostility. This ambivalence was founded in part on a pragmatic recognition of Church power and the influence of Christianity across the German population, but it simultaneously reflected an ideological rejection of Judeo-Christian values that a number of Nazi leaders saw as antithetical to National Socialism. Many Nazis therefore sought religious alternatives, from Nordic paganism and a “religion of nature” to a German Christianity led by a blond, blue-eyed Aryan Jesus. This complex mélange of Christian and alternative faiths included an abiding interest in “Indo-Aryan” (Eastern) religion, tied to broader ideological assumptions regarding the origins of the Aryan race in South Asia. Ultimately, there was no such thing as an official “Nazi religion.” To the contrary, the regime explored, embraced, and exploited diverse elements of (Germanic) Christianity, Ario-Germanic paganism, and Indo-Aryan religions endemic to the völkisch movement and broader supernatural imaginary of the Wilhelmine and Weimar period.
Ronald Williams Jr.
On January 17, 1893, Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani, sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was overthrown in a coup de main led by a faction of business leaders comprised largely of descendants of the 1820 American Protestant mission to the “Sandwich Islands.” Rev. Charles Hyde, an officer of the ecclesiastic Papa Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Board) declared, “Hawaii is the first Country in which the American missionaries have labored, whose political relations to the United States have been changed as a result of missionary labors.” The actions of these “Sons of the Mission” were enabled by U.S. naval forces landed from the USS Boston the evening prior. Despite blatant and significant connections between early Christian missionaries to Hawaiʻi and their entrepreneurial progeny, the 1893 usurpation of native rule was not the result of a teleological seventy-year presence in the Hawaiian Kingdom by the American Protestant Church. An 1863 transfer of authority over the Hawaiian mission from the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to the local ʻAhahui ʻEuanelio o Hawaiʻi (AEH) (Hawaiian Evangelical Association) served as a pivotal inflection point that decidedly altered the original mission, driving a political and economic agenda masked only by the professed goals of the ecclesiastic institution. Christianity, conveyed to the Hawaiian Islands initially by representatives of the ABCFM, became a contested tool of religio-political significance amidst competing foreign and native claims on leadership in both church and state. In the immediate aftermath of the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government, this introduced religion became a central tool of the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) struggle for a return of their queen and the continued independence of their nation. Native Christian patriots organized and conducted a broad array of political actions from within the churches of the AEH using claims on Ke Akua (God) and Christianity as a foundation for their vision of continued native rule. These efforts were instrumental in the defeat of two proposed treaties of annexation of their country—1893 and 1897—before the United States, declaring control of the archipelago a strategic necessity in fighting the Spanish/Filipino–American War, took possession of Hawaiʻi in late 1898. Widespread Americanization efforts in the islands during the early 20th century filtered into Hawaiʻi’s Christian churches, transforming many of these previous focal points of relative radicalism into conservative defenders of the American way. A late-20th-century resurgence of cultural and political activism among Kanaka Maoli, fostered by a “Hawaiian Renaissance” begun in the 1970s, has driven a public and academic reexamination of the past and present role of Christianity in this current-day American outpost in the center of the Pacific.
Scholars use the concept of World Christianity both to account for the growth of Christianity beyond Western Christendom and to recognize the changing map of vitality and leadership within Christian churches beyond the European and North American context. Scholars who use this concept have also committed to documenting the history of all of the churches around the world, making special efforts thereby not only to note the contributions of founders and missionary agencies, but also to investigate the important input of local teachers, evangelists, and pastors, so that a more inclusive history may be made available to these faith communities for their own self-understanding and direction. The spread of Christianity beyond the borders of Europe, a subject once envisioned by Kenneth Latourette as the result of the great century of missionary advance, cannot be understood solely as the accomplishment of the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries sent from western Europe and North America. Through all the centuries of Christian expansion and migration, scholars need to document and explain not only the theological foundations of various faith traditions, but also how multiple Christianities have adapted and thrived and become rooted in multiple cultural contexts, and exhibit a special vibrancy today in the postcolonial, post-missionary churches in Africa and Asia. Luther’s influence on the rise of World Christianities is an important element in the vitality of contemporary churches in Africa and Asia, but his theological contribution to Christianity beyond the West awaits a fuller articulation and application to the questions and concerns of these emerging centers of Christianity.
Heath W. Carter
Social Christianity is a heterogeneous tradition that has been cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the New Deal era. It was during those pivotal decades, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. In the late 20th century and early 21st centuries, the tradition’s influence would decline precipitously, in no small part due to the success of a multifaceted backlash against social gospel ideas and movements. The rise of the modern right signaled, for social gospelers of all different kinds, a return to the wilderness.