Sunday, August 23, 2015

Towards a new religious past

Though I'd argue that the dominant culture of the United States still derives from Protestant Christianity, an honest look around reveals that a bewildering variety of religious structures, practices, and experiences finding adherents. A May 2015 survey from the Pew Research Council of our "religious landscape" summarized these changes with the sub-head Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.

We're coming a new context; when hasn't that been true of this youthful nation? And any emerging identity requires a new history. Over the last fifty years, women's histories, African-American histories, native histories and gay histories have intruded into our stories and reshaped our understanding of the past. Peter Manseau in One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History is offering us the raw material for a new religious history just as unsettling of old verities.

The book is episodic, eighteen loosely connected chapters about various religious eruptions in what for Europeans was a "New World."

Some are delightful such as the saga of Mustafa Zemmouri. Born a Muslim in North African Morocco where some religious interaction was traditional, he was enslaved by Christian Portuguese and Spanish adventurers and carried as a servant along on the doomed trek of the Spanish Narváez Expedition across what became Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, through modern Texas, and the desert Southwest, finally meeting up with other Spaniards in California. Only four of the original members survived; Zemmouri had become the indispensable intermediary with native peoples along the way acting as translator (language skills were good for slave survival?) and religious healer. Sent back north to guide some Franciscans, he seems to have taken off to join the Zunis. The Spanish telling of what followed has the natives killing him. But Manseau reports other possible endings:

Another story recounts an event that was ambiguously remembered as either his expulsion or his forced return to the spirit world. It was said that the wise men of the village in which he sought refuge took him to the edge of their pueblo at night and then "gave him a powerful kick, which sped him through the air to the south whence he came." Still another story suggests that among the Zuni he found neither death nor exile but apotheosis. His image has been linked to one of the many divine spirits of the kachina religion of the Pueblo people, of which the Zuni were a part. In legends from native mythology enacted in elaborate dance ceremonies, the figure possibly inspired by Zemmouri, a kachina called Chakwaina, is depicted with black skin and carrying a sacred rattle -- an indication , perhaps, that his career as a god lasted longer than the time he spent as a slave.

Other chapters I'd characterize as entertaining include a depiction of 19th century women's rights activists participating in an infatuation with what they understood of Hinduism and an exploration how psychedelic enthusiasms intertwined with the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s.

Of course much of the history of religion on this continent is not at all benign. Manseau characterizes the expansion of the Franciscan missions into California, the Christianizing of the "heathen," as "an American jihad" and he means to evoke something more like ISIS than interior struggle for right relationship to God. He recounts the early colonies' "Jew bills" restricting full rights to Christians, riots against Sikh laborers in Washington State, and the mixed story of Chinese exclusion and assimilation through which these workers preserved loyalty to ancestors and ancient places.

A book as ambitious as this one can be impressive; Manseau has obviously been researching for years and this does impress. But such a book leaves the reader wanting a narrative with less loose ends. That's normal when a new identity is coming into being. America the multi-religious is both old and effectually very new. We need a new past; this is a solid, necessary contribution to finding one.


Rain Trueax said...

If you consider the Native American past of this land, we've had multiple gods here all along. Maybe they never left ;)

janinsanfran said...

Hi Rain: Manseau highlights native belief currents. He offers a hypothesis that Joseph Smith's Mormon revelation in upstate New York derived in some way from an Iroquois religious movement that in turn got some of is form from Quakers ... It's a good book.

Rain Trueax said...

Yep, the part he didn't copy from the Old Testament. We studied Mormonism when we were first married. At that point, it was a question of whether to go Catholic or Mormon for our family. The more my husband and I got into the instruction regarding Mormonism and read their books, the more we found it ridiculous. We then went Catholic lol Don't ask me if that made sense. After about thirteen or fourteen years, we moved out here and went Evangelical. Another fourteen or so years before we went back to what might've been more natural for both of us-- no religion but a sense of spiritual mystery which some might call heathenism ;)

Hattie said...

We want neat and tidy stories, not ones with loose ends. (;
I will at least look at a sample of the book.

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