The book reviews included in the print copy of our 25th edition “Then and Now” have been uploaded and are now available online through this website. To find them, simply head to our book reviews section.
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
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.
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 (http://nyupress.org/teachguide/martin_preach_guide.pdf) 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.
Ifi Amadiume. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Publications, 1987. 223 p. $48 USD (hardcover).
Ifi Amadiume’s Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society is a publication which has begun to receive the renewed notice and attention of gender studies departments in North American Universities. Exploring the transposition of Western mores onto West African society, Amadiume outlines a new gender reality brought on by the imposition of European Christian values on a traditionally matrilineal society. Despite a history of wielding economic and social power, West African women have found themselves at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their male counterparts since the early 1900s, a disadvantage since attributed to a variety of alternating factors.
The book is based on fieldwork conducted by Amadiune in Nnobi—the Igbo area where the author hails from—in the 1970s. As such Amadiune was not considered a stranger or outside researcher, allowing her to conduct a revealing amount of work. Her fieldwork consisted of interviews with women, out of which she constructs a systematic description of the history and social problems of the area. The study is divided into three parts—pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial—after which she concludes by putting forth 22 questions for further research on African women, and 8 recommendations to aid in rectifying the marginalization of women’s political power. Through these, Amadiume calls to attention the importance of religion in relation to women’s agency. In particular, she suggests the initiation of debates on religion to reveal to women the positive and powerful roles in which women have played in various religions in order to arm them against those who would use religion against them.
To support her thesis, Amadiume seeks to reevaluate the importance of matriarchy. She shows that gender ideologies behind sexual division of labour in Igbo society stem from their myths of origin. Yet, the goddess Idemili, the central religious deity, encouraged industriousness: the title of Ekwe was bestowed ritually upon women who created wealth through the control of others. One way was through igba ohu, woman-to-woman marriage. The ‘female husband,’ she who was in control, often had wives who bore children in her name. Powerful and assertive women were also able to dominate their husbands and not be stigmatized for it, since gender was understood as separate from biological sex. While patriarchal beliefs and a male ancestor cult existed, the goddess cult legitimized women becoming husbands in relation to their male partners— and consequently male themselves. It was not matriarchy that allowed for female power, contrary to popular beliefs about non-Western, non-patriarchal societies. Rather, it was a dual-gender system that celebrates typical ideals of femininity and motherhood, but in which gender realities are not necessarily fixed.
Whereas indigenous concepts were flexible in terms of gender and power, the new Western concepts were not. As Amadiume states, “a woman [is] always female regardless of her social achievements or status” (119). Further, unlike Idemili, God is meant to be a “he”. Consequently, all activities associated with the goddess were banned in the colonial period and women took on more passive social roles upheld by the Bible. The biblical story of creation, for example, was cited as proof of the necessity for the new and preferred power dynamic. Churchwomen could not see themselves as possible clergy members, and exclusion from politics and from the economy became acceptable in terms of Church law. Christianity not only condemned the goddess, but also banned the associated Ekwe title, effectively shattering symbols of female self-esteem and economic incentive.
Today, the Ekwe title continues to be felt as contrary to the teachings of the Church. Indigenous gender institutions were condemned as pagan and anti-Christian and have been abandoned or reinterpreted to the detriment of women. Interpreted according to canon law and Christian morality—which sets out acceptable forms of marriage and equates marriage with sexuality—the institution of woman-to-woman marriage, a practice that had allowed women to accumulate wealth, was forbidden. “Female husbands” and women’s inheritance laws inevitably were outlawed as well. Subordination is, as Amadiume shows, not the result of imposed domestic and maternal roles, which were valued in the pre-colonial period. Instead, it is the result of gender inflexibility and the eradication of the magico-religious means by which women gained and maintained a title allowing them control. This study, then, most definitely calls for further analysis of culture and belief systems worldwide that have legitimized women’s power.
Amadiume notes similar gender flexibility patterns in other West African societies, particularly the existence of invisible husbands in comparison to their wives, but the implications of her conclusions extend far beyond Nnobi’s goddess religion. Islam, for instance, spread through modern West Africa faster under colonial rule in six decades than it had during the thousand years preceding European occupation and domination—for this to be the case, there is surely a relationship developing between gender, religion, and contemporary society that needs to be explored. For instance, Rabiatu Ammah recently argued that an emerging acceptance that the Qur’an does not explicitly restrict women from positions of authority. This has been the case across Muslim West Africa after independence and throughout the religious revival. Dakar in particular has seen the emergence of female marabouts (people well-versed in esoteric Islamic knowledge and practice) who are navigating this male-dominated domain. Of course, as women, they face problems in legitimatizing their work. Amber Gemmeke asserts that they are solving these by presenting themselves as possessing traits normally ascribed to male practitioners. Furthermore, elsewhere in West Africa, Gemmeke asserts that the increasing access that women have had to Islamic education since 1970 has led to an ever-growing number of female preachers and female religious scholars.
The relationship between Western religion and female agency is also relevant outside of Nnobi. According to Amadiume, in Muslim communities in the Northern states women have formed formal organizations. Unlike the women of Nnobi, they have accused Christian societies of not representing Muslim women’s views or the teachings of Islam. Amadiume does not name it, but the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations is one such organization, allowing women from all denominations and walks of life to feel a sense of belonging and solidarity. This is notable because women’s organizations and NGOs have also been relied on politically: Nadine Sieveking uses the example the Senegalese Family Code (drafted 1972), the contested nature of which has forced the government to rely on organized women to promote it at a grassroots level. However, instead of the secular approach that the state had expected, argumentation has been taken over by points referring to Islam. It would appear that discussing the code in terms of Islam legitimizes it in the eyes of many, and that associations of women are carrying out this important work.
It is key to note the particular timing of Islam’s revival in relation to the damage left behind by colonial values, as well as the particular uses that this religion is being put to. Of course, there is a long way to go—data has been shown to inversely correlate Islam with success in regards to millennium development goals in comparison to other religions (See Njoh, Ambe J. and Akiwumi, Fenda A. “The Impact of Religion on Women Empowerment as a Millennium Development Goal in Africa.” Social Indicators Research No. 107 (2012): 1-18.). Nevertheless, the rise of Islam, a non-Christian religion, has in many cases improved women’s situations post-independence.
It is increasingly true that women are negotiating their own space and are using religion instrumentally—and flexibly. In light of this, Amadiume seeks to correct the distorted image of third-world and African women as vulnerable, and says: “Any work by [and about] Third World women must therefore [be] political, challenging the new and growing patriarchal systems imposed on our societies through colonialism and Western religious and educational influences. We cannot afford to be indifferent researchers” (9).
Joanna R. Schacter
Ashton, Dianne. Hanukkah in America: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2013. viii + 353 p. $29.95 USD (cloth)
In Hanukkah in America: a History, Dianne Ashton—professor of Religious Studies at Rowan University and editor of the journal American Jewish History—tells the story of how a minor Jewish holiday became a celebration able to hold its own amidst the pomp of the American Christmas season. More than hold its own, Hanukkah became an important opportunity to create and affirm a uniquely Jewish cultural space within (largely) Protestant America, while simultaneously proclaiming Jewish fidelity to the broadly shared cultural values of liberty and democracy. In this work of cultural history, Ashton addresses lay reader and specialist alike. The text is a showcase of popular scholarly themes, from the creation and negotiation of religious identities and boundaries to the construction and expression of gender norms, the place of food and popular material culture in religious ceremony, and the role of women in ritual and society. Yet her style remains engaging and accessible, eschewing the esoteric language of the rarified forms of academic analysis.
The central question Ashton sets out to answer is, “How have the experiences of other Jews in America changed the way we celebrate the holiday?” (p.2-3). Her distilled response suggests that a lack of US government intervention in religion has secured a 200 years long period in which American Jews have felt responsible for supporting, as well as at liberty to change, their modes of religious practice. With the arrival of new Jewish communities came the establishment of new congregations, leading to the institutionalization of novel religious styles. The responsibility of clergy to inspire and motivate continued and renewed engagement in Jewish life made many of them available to their congregants’ preferences. Finally, through the encounter with broader society, American culture and values began to register in the form and expression of Hanukkah celebrations (p3).
A set of ‘foundational conditions’ are identified as underpinning the peculiarity of Hanukkah as locus of innovation and ‘activism’. Tracing its origin to the Maccabean Revolt of 160’s BCE, Hanukkah’s central narrative focuses on the struggle between the forces of ‘traditionalism’ and those of ‘syncretism’. Engaging this narrative gave American Jews a vehicle for exploring the cultural-religious tensions at play in their own lives. Miraculous elements of the story—Talmudic rather than biblical in source—allowed for meditation on the perennial question of God’s role in history. The simplicity of Hanukkah’s central rite lends itself to embellishment, and its domestic setting provides a space for innovation free of rabbinic supervision. The coincidence of Hanukkah with the celebration of Christmas heightened the pressures around the negotiation of minority status, yet also encourages participation in some sort of seasonal celebration. Hanukkah gave American Jews a unique opportunity to accept the broader cultural invitation to festivity in a way that made visible and appealing their own distinct religious identity.
Ashton beings by offering a brief primer on the history of Hanukkah, nicely bookend by scenes of vying Jews; 2nd century BCE Judeans on one end, late 18th century Americans on the other. For the Americans, the question once again was one of leadership, this time amidst growing denominationalism and its accompanying competition over denominational governance. The unifying motif of these disparate parties emerged as their claim to the mantle of the Maccabees. From these early American stirrings, Ashton traces the story of Hanukkah in America through hymn books, orchestras and music bills, and on into greeting cards, children’s gifts, and eventually into the monumental and highly visible menorah lightings of Chabad Hasidism. As the story unfolds, Ashton convinces the reader of the salience of Hanukkah as an index of American Jewish life.
One drawback of this work is that it treats as much as it does. Ashton appears to have material enough for a whole series, one well worth reading. Covering 200 years in the development of a 2000 year old rite, the work is bound at times to frustrate the more specialist reader. It’s especially odd, then, that Ashton can seem so repetitive. Each chapter is capped-off by a substantial summary, perhaps intended for the benefit of the non-academic reader, though a such reader would have managed well without it. Lastly, the research is supported by extensive endnotes, yet fails to provide a bibliography. In sum, Ashton’s Hanukkah in America: a History is a compelling work, one that persuasively situates this minor holiday at the crux of American Jewish cultural history.