NOT GETTING ‘GETTING RELIGION’
Nancy Dallavalle’s review of Getting Religion: Faith Culture and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (“Our Man at Newsweek,” February 10) reveals many things about myself and my book unknown to me before.
For starters, she writes that as an undergraduate at Notre Dame I “soaked up the excitement and teachings of the Second Vatican Council.” And all these years I’ve assumed I graduated from Notre Dame in 1957—one pope and five years before the council opened. As I write in the book, “bad theology” was the only kind available to undergraduates of my era, and when Newsweek hired me off the street in 1964, “with two young children and a third on the way, I hadn’t given the goings on in Rome that much thought.”
Again, I was surprised to learn that I’m dismissive of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when in fact my book defends him against misreadings of his Letters and Papers from Prison by ’60s “secular” theologians. Elsewhere, Dallavalle attributes to me statements and attitudes that are solely her own. I do not mention, much less “concede,” that on the religious right “the hypocrisies are too numerous to mention.” Nor do I detect, much less mention, any “alliances between Catholic bishops and the Republican Party”—although in the fifties there were several of them with Democrats in places like Boston and Chicago.
To be fair, Dallavalle is not an historian of any kind and, to judge by her website résumé, most of the events in Getting Religion occurred before she left high school and many of them happened before she was born. From her review the reader would never know that Getting Religion is a social history of the second half of the twentieth century that puts religion at the center of the narrative and manages to make connections among, for example, the collapse of the white nuclear-family structure, the emergence of more than three hundred religious cults, and the one million mostly middle- and upper-class adolescents, who, on average, ran away from home in the 1980s.
My problem with this review is a problem that has no name. Reading it, one might imagine that an opinion blog, not a history book, were under review. Smack in the center we find a pastiche of passive-aggressive bleats about Mary Magdalene, women in jeans, “the androcentric Christian tradition,” and more.
What these refer to, without naming, is my chapter on women and religion that explains why the feminist project in Biblical criticism associated with Rosemary Radford Reuther and a few other scholars failed; how Protestant hymnal-doctors, both male and female, disfigured Protestant hymns by neutering all male references to God (God the Parent rather than God the Father) and all words (such as Lord) connoting hierarchy; and how the ethos of Protestant seminary training was transformed for male students once women were in the majority.
Commonweal would have better served its readers had it identified Professor Dallavalle as a teacher of feminist theology. From her review, the reader would never guess that Getting Religion has been praised by leading historians of American religion, notably Martin Marty and Mark Noll, and even by feminist scholars like Susannah Heschel. Surely the editors of Commonweal could have found a reviewer of similar stature for this book.
Kenneth L. Woodward
NANCY DALLAVALLE REPLIES:
During the editing process, in an effort to clarify some ambiguous phrasing on my part, Kenneth Woodward’s years at Notre Dame were gotten wrong. I should have caught the error, and I apologize for not doing so. (On the bright side, Woodward’s letter assumes that I am decades younger than I had thought, so I’m going with his judgment on this account as well.)
Woodward is angry that he is being reviewed by a non-peer, a fact I readily concede. He is angry about feminism, blaming its adherents for the decline of the nuclear family and the rise of women students at Protestant seminaries. He is angry about historical-critical scholarship in the hands of women, and the efforts—often clunky—of liturgists who attempt to include women in the texts that shape the faith we share.
He says this problem has no name. I disagree.
Nevertheless I welcome this book, as it addresses a concern that deeply troubles us both. Woodward’s social history documents how “we” used to “get” religion, and how the conditions for that possibility have eroded. He is quite right to parallel changing family structures with the decline in religious affiliation as well as—alarmingly, I believe—a decline in institutional affiliations of all kinds. He is quite right to lament the rise of abortion and the inability of our current liberal society to hold out a vision for human flourishing, although he seems blind to the ways in which economic policies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries play into these, and in fact require what their proponents loudly denounce: a gig economy, a gig family, and a gig spirituality.
We are living with this now. Young adults are indeed estranged from institutions of all kinds, they don’t “get” religion because they may not “get” anything at all, surrounded as they are by institutions that have crumbled in the onslaught of “alternative facts.” Patient work in our communities, the forging of intergenerational ties, the retrieval of narrative as a welcoming and redemptive form—these horizontal efforts seem the most fruitful directions at this point. These may not make young adults “get” the religion they’ve bypassed, but they may, one can hope, give all of us a starting point for renewed structures that would nurture the social commitments Woodward and I both value.
I wish to commend Tom Quigley both for his recent article (“Faithless Fidel,” February 24) and for his deep knowledge of Latin America. I am grateful for his work.
I certainly agree that much of the published material about Fidel Castro has been incorrect.
Based upon my studies, the course I co-taught at the University of Notre Dame last autumn titled “The Church and the Dynasty,” and various trips to the island, I would recommend that journalists interested in the Cuban Catholic Church look into some of the following areas:
1. The Fifth General Council of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean (which met in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007) studied the situation of the Catholic Church in Cuba, along with other key missions of the Church across the continent. The Cuban bishops’ final document is extremely informative.
2. The book, Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology (Ocean Press, 2006) proves that Fidel Castro was reflecting about these matters in depth, and that he was much better informed than is widely assumed.
3. The house churches of Cuba, both Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant, are thriving, particularly in rural areas. Interference by the Cuban government has been minimal.
There are other examples of promising developments between the Cuban government and the church that cannot be ignored. The Cuban Catholic Church is definitely worthy of our respect and of journalistic attention!
Rev. Robert S. Pelton, CSC
Notre Dame, Ind.