Studies in Race, Religion, and the American South

In the new issue of Cresset (a publication from Valparaiso University), the scholar Harold Bush has a really nice overview of recent work by myself and my co-author Edward J. Blum:

Harold Bush, “Studies in Race, Religion, and the American South,” Cresset LXXVI (no. 4): 51-53. 

Bush first discusses (and rightly praises) Blum’s first book Reforging the White Republic and his 2nd work W. E. B. DuBois: American Prophet, and then has a few paragraphs on my work Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South. Bush then spends the 2nd half of the essay on our co-authored book The Color of Christ. Bush provides gracious and sympathetic readings of all these works, in his summary of recent studies of race, religion, and the American South. Here’a a brief excerpt:

Now joining forces as two of the best mid-career historians of American religious culture and history, Paul Harvey and Edward Blum’s latest achievement is The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. There is some overlap between The Color of Christ and Harvey’s book Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster, particularly Harvey’s final chapter about the black Jesus during the Civil Rights era. As such, Harvey’s volume begins the discussion of the changing “face” of Jesus in American cultural history. Harvey’s book ends with a discussion of Martin Luther King’s eulogy for the four girls killed in Birmingham and the face of Jesus blown out of the stained glass window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September, 1963. This is precisely the anecdote with which Harvey and Blum begin their newest volume. Thus we immediately see a connection between the works.

coverMore expansively, The Color of Christ tells the story of the changing imagery of Christ from the seventeenth century to South Park. That is asking a lot, and perhaps that is why these two scholars chose to bring each other in as co-authors. Together they do a magnificent job, and cover a lot of ground. In particular, this book is provocative in challenging us to rethink the interconnections between race and religion as documented in artistic renderings of Jesus. The authors claim, “To focus on the holy face of Jesus in America is to reckon with the making and power of race” (14). The authors’ project is thus firmly in the tradition of cultural studies: “By honing in on Christ’s body and how Americans encountered it through artwork, dreams, visions, descriptions, and assumptions, this book reveals a great deal about the people of the United States: their passions, creativity’s, dilemmas, and problem” (14).

The premise of the study is that the progression of images of Jesus had profound social and cultural results, particularly with regard to matters of race:

 

Religious ideas and images challenged racism, whether in the form of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe imagining a whipped slave as she took communion and then writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin or of artists painting new black, red, or brown portraits of Jesus to inspire pride in peoples rendered nonwhite. At times wicked, at other times wondrous, the combination of race and religion continues to impact Americans (16).

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