Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls – Review

Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing by Doris M. Kieser. Toronto: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015. 221 p. $38.99 (Paperback).

Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing by Doris M. Kieser was published in 2015 as one of nine books currently available in the Studies in Women and Religion series by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. This book takes a revisionist approach to Roman Catholicism, seeking to align Catholic theology with a feminist worldview. Doris Kieser argues that Roman Catholic theology must acknowledge the importance of embodied experience in the human relationship with the divine, which includes a more comprehensive and positive discourse on human sexuality and pleasure. Kieser specifically focuses on how this discourse can impact the lives of adolescent females in a Western context. Through her advocacy for a positive representation of human embodiment, Kieser suggests that female adolescent sexual flourishing is a compatible, even necessary component to Roman Catholic theology, despite being previously excluded or discouraged within the tradition.

The book progresses thematically by chapter, defining and summarizing each component of Kieser’s argument, until the reader has all of the necessary tools to fully engage with the conclusions in the final chapter. The book begins with Kieser introducing herself and her project in an introductory chapter that serves as a detailed index to the rest of the book, containing Kieser’s goals, methodology, key terms and an outline of the material to come. The second chapter provides a helpful, if brief, philosophical and theological background of natural law, beginning with Thomas Aquinas. Kieser then moves into contemporary understandings of natural law, as well as criticisms of these views. In the third chapter Kieser expounds the framework that she will be using throughout the remainder of the book: feminist natural law as delineated by Cristina Traina. Traina’s theory allows for Kieser to remain within the Roman Catholic tradition without creating dissonance between the notions of adolescent female sexual flourishing and a Roman Catholic worldview; because Traina’s feminist natural law advocates for a common human telos of union with the divine, uniting this natural law with that of Thomas and contemporary Catholicism, as Kieser denotes in the previous chapter. The fourth chapter addresses sex, gender, and sexuality within Roman Catholic theology; with a specific focus on the traditional position of the female as complementary to the male. This ideology not only “others” women, but is also fundamentally non-Christian within Kieser’s theological understanding that the female body is made equally in the image of the divine. This chapter begins with an analysis of female embodiment in traditional theological discourse, looking particularly at the theology of the body presented by Pope John Paul II. It shifts into contemporary feminist scholarship that troubles these traditional understandings of female embodiment, centering on Judith Butler and poststructuralist feminist theory to deconstruct the very notions of sex and gender. This chapter locates this book within contemporary feminist dialogue, specifically within poststructuralist debates regarding the universal and/or the particular, and how these discussions can provide more insight into adolescent female sexual flourishing. Kieser presents a valuable, though condensed, version of this extremely relevant debate in contemporary feminist academia, and ultimately seeks a happy medium between the two extremes of the ideologies: a theology that recognizes individual oppressions within a Catholic framework that proposes a universal female embodiment. Chapter 5 explores developmental factors in adolescence from a Western perspective, highlighting gender construction and identity during this transitional and formative time, specifically how girls become women not physically (Chapter 6), but socially, within a heteronormative culture. The sixth chapter focuses on the physical and neural transitions typical of an adolescent experience in a female body, with specific dedication to the physical and social experience of menarche (first menstruation). Chapter 7 discusses the influences that can effect positive sexual flourishing for adolescent females, looking at how the theories Kieser has explored thus far play out in the lives of these individuals. A noteworthy element within this chapter is Kieser’s relatively lengthy discussion of female desire, which is a much needed conversation within this feminist paradigm of adolescent sexuality, and is a quite thought-provoking subsection in this chapter. Finally, the concluding chapter incorporates all of the previously discerned elements of sex, gender, feminist natural law, and female sexual flourishing within a Catholic theological structure. It is in this final chapter that Kieser explicitly shifts the Catholic theological discussion of sexuality from procreation to pleasure, and an engagement with the divine through human bodily pleasures. In so doing, Kieser provides a space for recognition of same-sex relationships, masturbation, the use of contraception, the importance of female orgasm, and other relevant and contentious issues within both feminist and Christian discourses.

Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing engages with relevant feminist debates, and provides interesting nuances to traditional Catholic theology from within the tradition itself. Kieser’s impetus for writing this book is the lack of information on the subject of female sexuality within a Roman Catholic framework, and more specifically adolescent females and sexual flourishing. This book serves to open up a space for this dialogue, and to establish a Catholic theology that positively impacts and reflects the lived experiences of adolescent females in the Western world. In initiating this conversation however, Kieser must cover a vast amount of information, much of which, due to time and space constraints that she acknowledges, barely scratches the surface of many of the themes explored. Even with this absence of in-depth analysis to many of the topics, reading this book from cover to cover can be an intimidating project. The sheer volume of material, drawing on multiple disciplines like psychology, philosophy, gender studies, religious studies and others, can leave the reader feeling slightly overwhelmed. My recommendation is to instead use this text as a reference point for further study within any of the major themes represented. The structure of the book is conducive to this usage, with each chapter containing an introduction and summary, and convenient subheadings throughout. Kieser also frequently provides lists of authors for further reading, as well as helpful footnotes to define key terms, and expand on key ideologies. As such, this book is an excellent referential resource, as Kieser provides the reader with the tools to interact with her ideas on a deeper level through personal research. Overall the book is an enjoyable glimpse into many contemporary and relevant issues within both Christian and feminist dialogue, and is recommended for any reader interested in the fascinating relationship between these worldviews.

Laurel Andrew

McGill University and Concordia University



Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology – Capsule Review

Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology by Jennifer R. Ayres. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013. 233 p. $46.13 (Hardcover).

This morally robust yet concise volume comprises a series of primers on the global and American food systems and explications of the theological and ethical implications of the incommensurateness in the economics and policies of the American food system in a style of Liberation Theology. It is grounded in a clear-eyed yet hopeful down-to-earth ethnography and present-day accounts of church-supported initiatives in sustainable, imaginative urban farming (to fulfill the imperative of ‘food sovereignty’)  and transnational food justice. Ayres chose that her grounded practical theology would centre mainly on the complex and ironic tension between food and economic security, on the one hand, and sustainable agriculture on the other. (Ayres, xii) Introducing this magnum opus are the contingencies of a single tomato as illustrative of the tangled nature of food politics as a whole, and the metaphysical notion of the Lord’s Table is introduced thereafter. Part I begins with an investigative journalistic approach, citing Michael Pollan (in the New York Times Magazine in addition to his books and allied films) to bring home to the reader the popularity of food issues and their economic, moral, and political impacts, and to discuss how this seemingly never-ending Zeitgeist of corporately consolidated industrial agriculture came to be in the United States.

I shall now succinctly encapsulate a key flashpoint in Ayres’ monograph, and tie that back to a certain chapter (Desjardins) in the previously reviewed anthology. Chapter Six (Transformative Travel: Education, Encountering the Other, and Political Advocacy) delves into the transnational impacts of neoliberal, supply-side economic policies of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), specifically on Mexico and its culinary traditions and culture. An answer of solidarity to this problem is the Chicago Religious Leadership Network for Latin America (CRLN)’s consciousness-raising program of Encuentros (pp. 119, 122-129), a most grounded aspect of the directive of transnational food justice. This “Tortillas and Trade” quest is then hermeneutically explained in terms of the dialectics of radical hospitality. This has parallels with the inter-denominational and interfaith food bank endeavours that the Desjardins describe in their “The Role of Food in Canadian Expressions of Christianity” anthology chapter. (Desjardins, 77)  

In the appraisal within and between these academic works, various thematic parallels can be observed by the reader, which encompass arguments of historical meaning relevant to religious studies. Cross-references of various analytical points between authors is very common in the constituent essays of Edible Histories, Cultural Politics, particularly but not exclusively of those within the same thematic section. The creation or re-articulation of ethnic and politically germane identities through recipes and other food-related discourses is an exemplary thematic parallel between Eidinger’s essay and Iacovetta’s texts (in the anthology and in Gatekeepers). Identities of political significance and community-building are also forged in Ayres’ Good Food, throughout the entire ethnographic portion of the narrative (mainly Part II). These books are thus more apt to be viewed in a comparative approach than one might think.

Sean Remz

Concordia University

See also: Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, edited by Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, Marlene Epp.

Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History – Review

Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, edited by Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, Marlene Epp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 472 p. $34.15 CND (Paperback).

This anthology of fascinating research on various themes in Canadian food history has made a noticeable splash in the historiography of the topics under investigation. It features an underlying schema of cultural hybridity (e.g. /i.e. contact zones), parameters of space (e.g. local, national, transnational, imperial, diasporic), and discourses of difference (e.g. racial, gendered) that provide analytical substance for a critical approach to the study of Canadian foodways. The preface and the introduction of this text emphasize the contemporary relevance of these historical studies, stressing that questions of culinary exchanges, cultural politics of food production and consumption, and discourses of nutrition mediated by the state, corporation, and its media have intriguing precedents in the historical narratives included in the volume. Its twenty-three research essays are grouped into eight parts, each representing a constellation of themes or a salient portion of the historiography.

A particularly meaningful chapter to scholars of religion is “The Role of Food in Canadian Expressions of Christianity” (Chapter 3, Part One), by Ellen and Michel Desjardins. This piece begins with a comparison between Canadian Roman Catholic and Canadian Protestant dietary practices (with reference to Ukrainian immigrant customs as well), moving toward an analysis of the dietary implications of key 1960s events and phenomena:  the Vatican II Conference and the Quiet Revolution, as well as the diversity of immigration inaugurated by the Immigration Act of 1967 (characterized by the Points System) and the policy of multiculturalism officially beginning in 1971. The interdenominational encouragements of Vatican II led to ecumenical cooperation in hunger relief initiatives, which compensated for doctrinal dilutions according to Church leaders. The Quiet Revolution wrested control of health and education from the Church to the Quebec government, thus increasing the need for trans-valuating the former’s symbolism and engaging in interdenominational collaboration. The Desjardins take note of the corollaries of inclusion of the Points System, both in terms of religious diversity and its impact on young Christians who embrace creative hybridity, such as Catholics who conflate Lent with Ramadan (turning the former into a fast from sunrise to sunset for 40 days), and working together with a Hindu Temple, Sikh Gurudwara, and Muslim Shi’a community for the House of Friendship food bank in the Waterloo Region. (Desjardins, 77) Moreover, the demographic breadth of Canadian Christianity has increased with the 1967-1971 federal legislation, especially Catholics from the Philippines and Latin America. (75) The last analytical argument brought forth in this essay is the shifting of food from a ‘religious’ category to an ‘ethnic’ one, being concurrent with an increased “celebration of difference.” (78)

Another very significant essay to scholars of religion is “Gefilte Fish and Roast Duck with Orange Slices: A Treasure for My Daughter and the Creation of a Jewish Cultural Orthodoxy in Postwar Montreal,” (Chapter 11, Part Four) authored by Andrea Eidinger. The crucial theme of cultural hybridity is central in this insightful piece, albeit as an implicit cultural orthodoxy, reflecting early Cold War-era discourses of family and freedom (Eidinger, 198), in addition to those of Anglo-conformity. Complementary to the chapters by Sonia Cancian, Julie Mehta, Marlene Epp, and Franca Iacovetta, Eidinger’s historical and cultural analysis engages with the importance of food in the reshaping of ethno-religious identity. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the intergenerational dynamic between the protagonist of the cookbook A Treasure for My Daughter and her doting mother, characterized by faithful respect and the education in traditions to push back against over-assimilation (192-193). This is a corollary to the “greater importance attributed to women’s domestic rituals,” (202) due to the economic changes in gender roles in Jewish immigrant communities, and the re-negotiation of authenticity. Throughout the text, Eidinger asserts that the Eastern European roots of the cuisine of the cookbook are elided over (but implicitly there, as per the recipes), reflecting the complications in the cultural orthodoxy (200). This is due to the trend of partial assimilation into the discourse of Canadian-ness and middle-class values of the 1950s. Moreover, the broad discourse of the morals of Western civilization and Jewish contributions to it is key throughout the narrative components of A Treasure for My Daughter. This culinary opus proclaims the Jewish people as the originators of key Christian and North American traditions, most notably the Sabbath (called that and not Shabbat for assimilatory reasons) and Thanksgiving (as symbolically related to the Jewish harvest festival of Succoth). (196)

“Food Acts and Cultural Politics: Women and the Gendered Dialectics of Culinary Pluralism at the International Institute of Toronto, 1950s-1960s” (Chapter 20, Part 7) is an important component of the anthology, exploring the relationship between professionals who espoused pluralism and cultural exchange with post-war European immigrants through their foodways. Iacovetta uses a ‘dialectical’ approach to avoid over-politicizing or feigning hyperbole in the text, an approach open to complexities of the women’s activities and their good intentions. Using this perspective helps the reader more clearly perceive a central argument that these endeavours of mutual acculturation helped shift the prevailing discourses somewhat away from socio-politically hegemonic Anglo-conformity to one tolerant of cultural diversity, while still maintaining class and ethnic-racial hierarchies in the paternalistic sense. (Iacovetta, 360) This is a similar line of argument to Chapter 6 “Culinary Containment? Cooking for the Family, Democracy, and Nation” of her magnum opus Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada, in which the encouragement of ‘ethnic’ immigrant communities to celebrate their cultural distinctiveness while adapting to middle-class norms clashed with the intrusive Cold War state discourse of conformity and suspicion of difference. (Idem.)

Iacovetta’s Gatekeepers constitutes a solid vantage point to situate Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History in historiographical context. Foremost to consider is that there are multiple intersecting points between the two works, particularly with regards to Cold War-era themes generally, and various discourses of mid-20th century consumers and housewives in particular, addressed by both Chapter 6 of Gatekeepers  (140-141) and Julie Guard’s “The Politics of Milk: Canadian Housewives Organize in the 1930s.” (Chapter 15, Part Six) With regards to a critical appraisal of Edible Histories, Cultural Politics itself, I should note that the presentation of each of the anthology chapters was thoughtful, some of which included photos that helped to clarify certain discourses of corporate and national-imperial advertising. Moreover, I agree with the relevant goals and the topical presuppositions that were expounded in the preface and the introduction of the volume, which I feel to be corroborated in each chapter comprising the book. The point the editors make in the introduction regarding the search for historical precedents for contemporary phenomena and the ongoing attempt to historicize emergent food trends I find especially meaningful (6). The reader may also notice discourses of religion and culture insightfully expressed within the worldviews of various actors and protagonists within the constituent narratives. This is exemplified by Caroline Durand’s “Rational Meals for the Traditional Family: Nutrition in Quebec School Manuals, 1900-1960” (Chapter 6, Part Two) and in the Part Three (Foodways and Memories in Ethnic and Racial Communities) essays generally, particularly Chapter 8, “Feeding the Dead: The Ukrainian Food Colossi of the Canadian Prairies,” by S. Holyck Hunchuck.

Sean Remz

Concordia Univeristy

See also: Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology by Jennifer R. Ayres

Further Reading: Iacovetta, Franca. Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada. Toronto: Between the Lines Publishing, 2006, 2009. ISBN: 1-897071-11-6.


Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms – Review

Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms. Kathleen T Talvacchia, Michael F. Pettinger, and Mark Larrimore Eds. New York: New York University Press, 2014. viii + 223 p. $26 USD (paperback); $79 USD (cloth).

Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms is a collection of essays that responds to the challenges and experiences of queer people of faith. Moving away from apologetic attempts to reconcile queerness and Christianity, the main premise of the book is that “queer people are not outsiders to the church. Christianity has not only always had queer members, has not only had the potential to be queered, but has from the start been a site of radical queerness” (2). Acknowledging the fact that Christianity has also been fertile ground for the production and enforcement of normativity, the essays included in this collection continue to argue, as did Elizabeth Stuart, that Christianity is nevertheless a queer thing.

Responding to ongoing scholarship on the subject of queer religiosity, these fifteen essays, divided in four different groups, tackle issues related to the “living worlds of queer Christianities” (1). Particularly, the past few years have witnessed an increasing level of interest in the study of religion and sexuality, in both academic and theological discourses. A good number of religion and theology departments now offer a concentration—or at least some courses—dealing with the study of sexualities in religion, with an important component of this scholarship focused on same-sex desire.

Whereas gay and lesbian studies remain important and relevant in theological and religious studies, the contemporary moment, with its developments in understandings of gender, sexuality, race, and class, demands that the field of religion and sexuality broadens its scope to encompass the lived experiences of all who are marginalized by hetero-patriarchy. The experiences of these marginalized people of faith do not always fit strict categories such as homophobia, sexism, classism, or racism. Instead, they find themselves at the intersection of many of these dis-criminations. In light of this, current scholarship seeks to apply feminist, queer, anti-oppressive, subversive theories and methodologies, destabilizing the epistemological foundations of what religion is and how its study has been undertaken.

The first part explores issues of celibacy in both historical and contemporary settings. This is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book, as celibacy is generally seen as oppressive and anti-queer by mainstream gay politics. This suspicion is not unfounded because, as argued in part one, celibacy is the only form of sexuality that is permitted to queer folk in many churches. Celibacy has indeed been understood as an ultra-conservative lifestyle—one proper of prudes, those gays who do not dare come out, and, as stated above, many queer people of faith who wish to remain Christian without necessarily pre-tending to be heterosexual. This section, which contains essays on early Christian celibacy, the ex-gay movement, queer/celibate politics, and a queer nun’s story, problematizes the idea that celibacy is a denial, voluntary or imposed, of one’s queerness. Instead, it argues that celibacy is queer, and that understanding queerness and Christian celibacy as binary opposites does not do justice to the complex relationships between these two terms. By queering celibacy, one of the most orthodox components of Christianity, the essays in this section argue that Christianity is indeed a queer thing. Moreover, by discussing celibacy in queer terms, the contributors to this book push the boundaries of what it means to be queer and what it means to be Christian, thus paving the way for new understandings of Christian life and sexuality.


The second part of the book deals with matrimonies, and contains four chapters that deal with issues of marriage ranging from medieval brides to queer family life. An interesting article by William E. Smith III titled “Two Medieval Brides of Christ: Complicating Monogamous Marriage” explores the complicated relationship that two medieval women had with their respective husbands and with Christ, arguing that these relationships exemplify polyandrous arrangements. The second and fourth articles deal with queer marriages, one of them focusing on New York’s first same-sex marriage and providing a valuable history of gay rights in America. The other one explores queer family life, and provides fascinating ways of understanding same-sex marriage that move away from assimilationist critiques. This article was fascinating, as it moved away from the question of whether same-sex marriage is subversive or normalizing, arguing that it should be seen as sacred work, which ought to be understood as a quest for legitimization rather than the desire to be normal. An article by Teresa Delgado titled “Beyond Procreativity: Heterosexuals Queering Marriage,” is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking contributions to this volume. Although the ideas raised by Delgado are quite interesting and valid, I am still wondering whether I believe that heterosexual Catholics “have an ethical responsibility to act on behalf of those who have been relegated to the margins of the church, namely, queer Catholics” (93). As a Catholic-raised queer person of faith, do I truly believe that heterosexuals ought to defend me, like a big brother would from the bullies in the schoolyard? I am not quite sure. Doesn’t emphasizing the role of the privileged in queer liberation take away from the struggle, self-determination, and efforts of the marginalized themselves? This is something that I see in everyday life, where “allies” of LGBTs are constantly applauded and celebrated for their willingness to help queer folk, but we barely talk about the real issues faced by queer communities. For example, I always find news articles about so-and-so heterosexual pop star who claims to support gays, but queer youth homelessness and the efforts made by local queer groups are rarely talked about. I write this not to diminish the role that heterosexually-identified folk play in the queering of Christianity, but it is clear to me that when I read or do queer Christianity and theology, I like to keep my attention on queers themselves. Delgado’s anti-oppressive analysis was definitely intriguing and provocative, and certainly provokes thought on the role of heterosexuals in the queering of religion.

The third section had fun with its subject. Titled “Promiscuities,” this section moved from Augustine to ethics of relationships and friendships to BDSM – it was a wild ride. The articles included here are a great intellectual exercise as they introduce a variety of extremely interesting ideas, all of them related, in one way or another, to sexual ethics. “Love Your Friends: Learning from the Ethics of Relationships” by Mary E. Hunt is a brilliant contribution to this volume. It centers its argument on the idea that marriage does not make people friends, but that friendship could (but does not have to) evolve into marriage. In other words, as I have told some of my colleagues, it is not because gays can now get married that we ought to get married. Hunt explores relation-ships through the lens of friendship, which makes this a great piece to examine the importance and flourishing of friendship, which tends to be obscured by a society obsessed with the marriage industrial complex. She argues that in friendship we find a variety of ways of relating to one another that are not available in marriage-centered relationships.

The fourth and final part “Forward!” brings together the themes discussed throughout the book and points the reader towards new directions in the study of religion and sexuality. The book seems to refuse a conclusion. If that is the case, it makes a lot of sense. The myriad of ideas, methodologies, and approaches discussed across the chapters in the book cannot be synthesized in one conclusion.  The contributions to this volume show is that Christianities may be queer in many different ways, and as readers we must be open to the possibility contradictions, headaches, agreements, and more contradictions. Because of its boundary-pushing approach, its diversity in terms of subjects and authors, and its accessibility, Queer Christianities is a solid introduction to the world of queer issues in Christianity. Readers are bound to find some of the articles interesting and engaging, some others less interesting or outrageous, whereas others could prove to be quite the intellectual challenge. This book, or selections from could serve to introduce new students to the field, or to push the boundaries of more advanced students. Queer Christianities navigates the grey zone between the socio-scientific study of religion and theology, a gap that many students take too seriously. For example, many courses offered by departments of religion tend to shy away from theological reflection, and some theological studies courses do not bridge the gap between the humanities and the social sciences by putting both methodologies into conversation. This division is further exemplified by an all-too-common joke among many of my religions studies classmates, which consists of being offended by someone confusing “Religious Studies” with “Theological Studies.” How dare they assume that our socio-scientific field has anything to do with theology or faith-based religious studies? Perhaps this division is not as clear-cut as one has been taught. This collection of essays draws from theology—particularly the queer theology of Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology—while simultaneously engaging with the social sciences, notably history, politics, and some cultural studies. What Queer Christianities shows with its skillful interplay of religious studies and theological reflection is that both fields could benefit from some interdisciplinary dialogue. By combining politics, history, ethics, and queer family life, Queer Christianities raises the idea that perhaps students of religion and theology have a great deal to learn from each other.

Daniel Santiago Saenz

Concordia University

Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality Review

Jonathan Strauss. Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality. New York: Fordham University Press. 2013. xiv + 218 p. $99 CAD (hardcover); $26.50 CAD (paperback).

Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, the third installment of The Theban Plays, is rich with metaphors and thematic motifs all which contribute to its enduring significance and relevance to such prevalent issues as state control, civil disobedience, familial love and the definition of a citizen. The protagonist, Antigone, secretly buries her brother Polyneices’ despite the decree issued by the king of Thebes that he is to remain unburied, left for the carrion birds due to his rebelling against the state, condemning the dead to the harshest punishment possible. The tragedy lies in the moral dilemma of Antigone: would she, as a proper Theban woman, obey her king, or would she fulfill the duty demanded by the gods and of her filial love, ensuring Polyneices’ eternal rest, despite the fact that her actions will lead to her own death?

Jonathan Strauss’ Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality de-parts from the more common philosophical debates which surround Antigone, including the role of women within society as embodied by the protagonist, problems of individual rights versus state law, and the dissension between moral/divine law and human law. Instead, the author argues that the tragedy reflects the rise of the individual’s identity as defined through death, especially considering the emergence of the city-state. Sophocles was attempting to rationalize and digest the sudden change in social climes by focusing on the treatment of the dead, the identity of the city and by including the role of the individual within this tension. The pathos, Strauss claims, is in the addressing of the anxiety of the individual within the city, resulting in tragic suffering. Antigone asks how an individual can maintain their identity when the meaning of life is established in the identity of the city.

In seven chapters, Strauss delivers a succinct analysis of how Antigone embodies the tension of an individual’s desire with that of the identity of the city by relying not only on the Sophoclean tragedy but also on contemporaneous literature such as Plato and Aeschylus. Chapter One explores the origins of justice and the emergence of the polis. Chapter Two looks at the citizen as a defining feature of Athens and also charts the shift of the sanguine relationships to that of the chosen peerage as a characterizing aspect of identity. The following chapter, aptly called “Loss Embodied” looks at the treatment of the dead and the anxieties of the living projected onto the dead. Chapter Four discusses who was excluded from the city, namely the criminals and the shunned and how they are necessary in the identification of the city, with the subsequent chapter attempting to recreate the life found in Antigone with the help of texts that discuss the same issues, most notably that of familial love. “Mourning, Longing and Loving” explores the need of a mythic origin of the city and its consequent creation, and the dead body which frames that desire. The monograph concludes with a defense of the continued relevance of Classical Greek tragedies and for Antigone in particular.

Strauss wrestles with a difficult topic and yet presents his argument clearly and concisely mannered. There is an exceptional historical background which the reader will find useful in understanding the importance of family, citizenry, and the polis within 5th Century Athens. Strauss’ presentation of Hegel’s complex arguments of life, subjectivity, and the conscious over the unconscious; Lacan’s understanding of Antigone’s personified pain not as a result of her gender but rather her “relations to the symbolic order” (p. 132) and Irigaray’s feminist reading for the validity of the feminine, was comprehensible to those not-familiar with the subject.

Strauss’ careful explanation of Lacan, for example, enables the reader to fully situate the tragedy of Antigone not as an identified person who is defined through certain death, but rather as a definition of a person through life who attempts to create identity and fails. Through the use of classicist scholars—primarily Jean-Pierre Vernant, Nicole Loraux and George Steiner, supported by Plato and Aeschylus—for the social, political and the historical context of the tragedy, along with Hegel’s treatment of Antigone, Strauss is able to highlight the junction of individual identity, death and the city.

If there is a fault it is perhaps that it is too concise. While Strauss does justice to the topic at hand, the density of the subject matter demanded more elaboration and certainly more historical contextualization outside of Plato and Sophocles literary contemporaries. For example, aside from an occasional discourse, particularly the evolution of death rituals in Ancient Attica as demonstrated in his introduction, there was little historical or archaeological background. It is not a coincidence that Sophocles wrote Antigone during a pivotal moment in Classical Greek history, and that of the state, because the change in the Attican burial practices reflect social change. By further developing the context through the incorporation of hard historical facts, Strauss would have been in a better place to situate his thesis within a larger social context.

Jonathan Strauss’ use of classicist scholars, classical and especially 20th century philosophers creates a presentation that may appeal more to readers already well-versed in contemporary debates of identity as opposed to those who approach the book with more of a historical back-ground.  And yet, his incorporation of current interpretations of the tragedy is hardly anachronistic. Instead, Strauss, in using various approaches, takes great pains in drawing the focus to the continued relevance of the tragedy today, and Antigone is still debated within the various disciplines of philosophy, psychology, literary and gender studies. It is not just a piece of historical literature but has contemporary value by asking the existential question of meaning of identity and then struggles to answer it.

Ildikó Glaser-Hille

Concordia University

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion – Review

Lerone A. Martin. Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2014. xvii + 263 p. $24 USD (paperback).

Lerone A. Martin’s Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion refashions the study of twentieth-century black Protestantism according to the commodification of religious practices for mass consumption. Martin provides a portrait of “phonograph religion”, the preservation of an “old-time style” preaching by black (mostly male) preachers who articulated on wax records an evangelical morality for modern urban living (3). The career of the African American minister and successful phonograph preacher James M. Gates often anchors Martin’s work. However, Martin produces an engaging microhistory by using Gates’s religious production to illuminate the consuming habits and economic access of African American Protestants in the interwar period.

Martin describes phonograph religion in six chapters: a discussion of the phonograph’s rise in modern domestic culture; black mainline Protestant reactions to urban leisure culture and blues music; the recorded sermons of Calvin Dixon (popularly known as “Black Billy Sunday”) and William Arthur White; the “folk” sermonic forms that male and female wax preachers (and their staged audiences) performed for the buying black populace, across denominational lines, to enjoy in their own homes and small worship communities; the use of commercial success by black ministers in the “New Negro” era to chart a path to social prominence, where the conspicuous consumption of luxury vehicles and homes in elite neighborhoods signaled racial respectability; and the evaluation wax preachers and consuming black audiences in light of the emerging “chain store” economy that threatened employment opportunities and the financial stability of local communities.

It is through the phonograph, a medium and messenger more economically accessible than radio for many black consumers, that Martin’s central claim for rethinking African American Protestantism in the interwar period is made apparent as a challenge to centering the scholarly discussion on the religious work of the “black literati”. As Martin claims in his introduction, the “renaissance” of African American Protestantism in the emerging urban America was the work of “the folk” and their consumption of wax sermons, not the lettered black religious elite (which Martin refers to as the “Black Protestant Establishment”). Martin cautions, “chronicling the rise of professionally trained ministers and scholars, black institutional churches and schools, and the artistic musings of the black literati on ‘the folk’ does not tell the whole story,” because these unlettered African Americans were “busy crafting their own ideas and practices of religious revitalization.” (4)

With this claim of an African American folk production of religious revitalization, Martin’s scholarship sets up (and thereby demystifies) the rise of wealthy radio, televangelist and megachurch ministries by describing the emergence of black “celebrity preachers” of the interwar period who became popular “race leaders” in contrast to educated black clergymen (171-172). Previously, the post-civil rights emergence of black televangelists and mega ministries appeared to be a theological, social, and economic aberration from the black Protestant projects of “racial uplift” in the early century and the progressive social and political activism in the mid-century. Martin’s scholarly intervention with phonograph religion establishes another historical moment wherein prominent preachers with commercial ministries indulged the popular notions and consuming habits of celebrity and were received as “race leaders” by many African American Christians. Martin’s work demonstrates the concrete success (and relative financial wealth) of black ministers whose popular sermons a buying black public readily consumed in phonograph form. And these sermons replicated the enthusiastic religious practices and chanted sermons for many rural black migrants to enjoy in their new homes or small congregations in urban America.

As a concept, “phonograph religion” captures the intersection of charismatic preaching and musical styles by “low church” black Protestants and Holiness-Pentecostals at the nexus of consumerism in the interwar years before the rise of Gospel music produced a similar denominational fusion of charismatic tastes. To account for the rise of popular and wealthy mega-ministers at the end of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first, the preexisting scholarly trajectory started with the birth of black Holiness/Pentecostal denominations in the early twentieth century, chronicled the spread of independent storefront ministries in urban black America, and arrived at the growth of nondenominational and “neo-Pentecostal” black congregations that appeared in suburban black America in the century’s latter half. Martin’s intervention adjusts this scholarly trajectory from a focus on religious institutions to a focus on the history of black religious consumerism. He thereby eliminates the need to prefix “neo” to any characterization of this black Protestant phenomenon. Instead, Martin offers historical continuity by tracing black popular appreciation of wealthy ministers and their “sacred wares” (2-3) from record to radio to television to streaming media and beyond.

The embrace of twentieth-century popular culture within the study of African American religion, driven by rigorous archival research, is essential work that Martin’s book affords, connecting cultural production to the lives of the black populaces migrating to urban landscapes (and modifying urban soundscapes). This permits a discussion of industries catering to the perceived tastes of commercial audiences, revealing the racialized thought processes that business executives employed in selecting which African American ministers and sermonic styles to record and produce—and when to limit their criticism of marketplace practices, such as in the decision not to promote Gates’s criticism of chain stores owned by distant Wall Street speculators who removed competition, financial resources, and employment opportunities from local communities. But Martin also provides essential descriptions to depict a more salient image of African American Christianity as mass product and practice: the manufacturing of wax sermon records for mass production; record company advertising, marketing, and distribution strategies to sell wax records to black religious audiences; religious debates over leisure culture and the use of blues and jazz instrumentation in worship music; and even the salaries of prominent black clergy and religious academics.

If there are useful criticisms of Martin’s “phonograph religion,” they may involve the generalized category of the “Black Protestant Establishment” the author offers in contrast to the work of  rural black migrants like Gates and the working class consumers of his sermons. Martin makes clear the historical worth of these subjects and their critical importance to the study of African American religion; however, for Martin to engage with the religious literature and newspapers of the established mainline black denominations as they debated their social ministries and political voices during the interwar era would have greatly bolstered this category (because his study of the secular black press and record industry literature is fascinating). The “racial uplift” articulations of these groups were so pronounced at times because many editorial outlets, like the African Methodist Episcopal Zion’s Star of Zion, were heavily invested in addressing the era’s lynching crisis and pursued interracial Protestant alliances in the effort to enforce the passage of state and federal anti-lynching laws. Their elitist “uplift” practices, in light of this project to pursue both interracial Protestant fellowship and legislative change, may be read as the effort to appear religiously similar in worship style and “intellectual” preaching as white American Protestants in order to combat racist arguments that black religiosity was essentially anti-modern and that the recognition and regard for African American humanity was never secure. To call these black Protestants the “establishment”, although useful for illuminating the lives of the rural migrants who opposed their elitist cultural projects, may obfuscate their fundamental exclusion, as religious and racial minorities, from the white Protestant establishment in Jim Crow America.

Additionally, designating the discussion of contemporary celebrity preachers as the lineage of “black (mostly male) evangelicals” (173) leaves little room to consider theological differences in popular black sermonic content over time. This trajectory must account for the rise of “New Thought” teachings in popular ministries that preach “transactional” relationships between Christian believers and God, sermonic variations on the “chanted” style alongside the embrace of the less charismatic “intellectual” preaching mode, and a shift away from broadcasting sermon messages that focus on evangelical cautions against sin and damnation. Martin claims convincingly that contemporary popular religious consumption among African American Christians has a heritage in the interwar era; however, phonograph religion does not account entirely for the religious appreciation of financial wealth and celebrity status among black religious consumers beyond black evangelicalism, the shift away from recording and broadcasting sermons in the “old-time” fashion, or the muting of messages advocating individual repentance and salvation.

A thoroughly enjoyable text, Preaching on Wax is excellent for introducing undergraduates to the study of twentieth century African American religious history. The conversion of wages, prices, contracts, record royalties, and even ministers’ salaries to 2012 American dollar values (xvii) elucidates for contemporary readers the scope of popularity for recorded black culture as well as the relative financial means of leading black figures and consuming black audiences. The NYU Press teaching guide ( complements the text’s accessibility to an undergraduate humanities course, providing discussion questions as well as links to performances, sermon recordings, and relevant literature. Martin makes apparent his scholarship’s connections to established works on the Great Migration, independent Holiness-Pentecostal ministries, and popular religious media in the twentieth century by scholars like Wallace Best, Anthea Butler, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Milton Sernett, Jonathan Walton, and Judith Weisenfeld. Additionally, Martin contributes to the history of African American preaching as collected in volumes like Bettye Collier-Thomas’ Daughters of Thunder, and Martha Simmons and Frank A. Thomas’ Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons 1750 to the Present.  Martin’s third and fourth chapters also contribute to the analysis of preaching alongside Albert Raboteau’s “The Chanted Sermon” in A Fire in the Bones, and Martha Simmons’ “Whooping: The Musicality of African American Preaching Past and Present” in Preaching With Sacred Fire. Lastly, instructors may also benefit from pairing Martin’s work with Barbara D. Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion in order to juxtapose two richly researched discussions of political activism and cultural production among Protestants in twentieth century African American religious history.


Vaughn Booker

Princeton University