Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A New Light [God In America]

A New Light is episode 4 from the six-part God In America series which originally aired on PBS in October 2010.  These are notes I made while watching this episode.

With the nation so focused on the war over slavery, many didn’t realize the waves of Jewish and Catholic immigrants that were starting to change the American religious landscape.

Between 1820-1860, more than 5 million immigrants arrived on the eastern shores of the USA.

The big fear among the Jewish community is that the religious freedom in the US would cause Jews to “go soft”; forgetting their God and their faith.

1846 – Isaac Mayer Wise (German Jewish Rabbi) arrived in Albany, NY.  His congregation was one of 40 synagogues in the entire country.  They were a strict, traditional Jewish community.  Wise felt that if American Jews kept the core laws (honoring God, loving humankind, keeping the Sabbath) that other laws were negotiable.  “Wise saw reform as a way to preserve Judaism.”

Wise formed a coed choir, taught in English and German, and modified ancient rituals to make them more accessible for Americans.  Some felt that he had watered-down Judaism.  He was fired the day before Rosh Hashanah – but he showed up to preach/teach anyway.  The president of the congregation punched him and a fight broke out. 

Fundamental question -- “Who’s in charge of the congregation: the congregants or the Rabbi?”

He left the congregation and started his own “house church”.  Wise traveled the East Coast, preaching, teaching, and raising money.  He took his message of radical reform with him.  Wise felt that the only way for Judaism to survive was to unite under reformed practices.  He formed new congregations and a Hebrew school.

Jewish immigrants kept arriving, most of them more conservative / traditional in their doctrine and practices.  These groups grew stronger and tried to “take back” European Judaism.  They believed the laws in the Torah were absolute and unchanging – with no room for interpretation or negotiation.  Despite their protestations, by 1880, 90% of America’s synagogues had adopted “Reform Judaism”. 

1883 – Wise presided over the first graduating class of his rabbinic school, his proudest accomplishment.  Afterwards, he hosted a dinner with 200 of the most distinguished Jewish leaders from across the country.  The menu violated several Biblical laws, including clams (shellfish), shrimp salad (shellfish), beef in a cream sauce (milk & meat products together), lobster bisque, etc.  Many of those in attendance saw this as a slap in the face of traditional Jewish beliefs.  Wise refused to apologize.  His attempt at unifying American Judaism had failed.

Money Quote:  “There’s something about the American context that seems to encourage particular expressions of the faith rather than any one unified expression of the faith.”  ~ Rev. Randall Balmer

Every religious group had to struggle with similar issues – do we accept/embrace modernity or cling to the old expressions and traditions.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

Charles Augustus Briggs (American Presbyterian minister) traveled to Berlin to engage the scientific debate, most specifically, Charles Darwin’s recent publication Theory of Evolution.  The emergence of rational thought challenged the church’s literalist perspectives.

It became permissible to question Biblical inconsistencies…
·       How could Moses have written the first five books of the Bible if it describes things that took place after his death?
·       Why are there two creation stories in Genesis?
·       If David wrote the Psalms, how could he have used words that didn’t exist while he was alive?

Briggs tried to look beyond literal inconsistencies and find larger themes in Scripture.
·       If Jonah wasn’t swallowed by a whale, what did God mean to teach through this story?

Briggs soon believed that the Bible and scientific reason could “illumine each other.”  In fact, he asserted, science can actually bring a Christian closer to the Truth/truth.  “The Bible is lit up with a new light”  ~ Briggs

January 1891 – Briggs decided to share his “new ideas” with people at Union Theological Seminary.  Among these ideas was that the Bible, like all things, had evolved and changed over time, and that the Bible had to be scrutinized and analyzed.  Only his students liked it – everyone else sat in silence.  The Presbyterian Church charged him with heresy.  They held many public trials spanning two years.  Briggs was suspended indefinitely.

This started a national debate among American Protestants: Is the Bible “divinely inspired yet imperfect” or “God’s literal, perfect Word”?  In other words, can “reason” be applied to a view of Scripture?

William Jennings Bryan (congressman from Nebraska) led the charge to preserve the traditional view of Scripture, and wanted to see the Bible return to the center of American society.

(In the meantime, religiously diverse immigrants continued to pour into the United States – over 10 million between 1880-1900.  By the turn of the century, 1 in 8 Americans lived in poverty.)

1896 – Bryan became the Democratic Party’s candidate for President.  He was the champion of the poor, oppressed, small-town, farmer, etc.  He lost the election, but continued to travel the country speaking (preaching?) to massive crowds.  Bryan was a throwback Evangelical Protestant, beloved by people who lamented the sad state of American life.

*                  *                  *                  *                 
1914 – World War I.  Many believed the forces of Modernity were to blame for the catastrophic loss of life brought on by human ingenuity. 

Traditional Protestants saw WWI as a warning from God that Christians had strayed from God’s perfect plan (a literal reading of the Bible).  A new group was formed – Fundamentalists.  William Jennings Bryan became the spokesperson for the Fundamentalists. 

The greatest challenge to the cause of Fundamentalists was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  They launched a national campaign to remove the teaching of Evolution in all American schools. 

July 1925 –  "The Trial of the Century” came to the small town of Dayton, TN.  Local biology teacher, John Scopes, defied the state law banning Evolution teaching in his classroom.  Chicago lawyer, Clarence Darrow, defended Scopes; Bryan was the lead attorney for the prosecution. 

“Science is something liberal Christians can embrace, because it shows how brilliant God was and how amazing the world God made is.  They’re not threatened by Darwin.”

The trial became known as “The Monkey Trial”.  It was broadcast nationally on WGN radio. 

“Who has authority?  Is it God / the Bible?  Or is it reason / science?”

Darrow wanted to put many liberal Christians on the stand to articulate that the application of reason / science was compatible with a faithful interpretation of Scripture.  The judge didn’t allow these experts to take the stand.  So he puts Bryan on the stand as the Biblical expert.

Darrow was able to get Bryan to admit that he didn’t think “a day” in Genesis necessarily meant a “24 hour day.”  He also indicated that creation “may have been going on for millions of years.”  The judge adjourned immediately.  The next day, the judge erased Bryan’s testimony from the record.  Scopes was found guilty. 

But in the court of public opinion, Darrow and the age of reason were the winners.

The next week, Bryan died in his sleep.  The Fundamentalists lost their national spokesman.

The divide was no longer between Jews / Catholics / Protestants…but between Fundamentalists (conservatives) and Modernists (liberals).


  1. I am loving following your latest blog series, Erik! I wouldn't have the time (when I am awake enough to remember anything) to watch the series in its entirety, but your recaps are fascinating. Were it that all Americans were aware of these things ... each "us" was once a "them" and each sought at one time to be exclusive while existing solely because of the ideal of religious freedom. Irony doesn't seem a strong enough word.

  2. It's fascinating how many themes seem to be cyclical. This is such a great series. I'm hoping to use it with folks at WHLC in the weeks/months ahead.

  3. Great post, Erik. Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core points out that this divide still exists. He says . . .

    “On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together.”

    This is the new challenge for those of us in youth ministry - to help our youth (and their parents) navigate today's diversity in a way that is pluralistic yet committed. It seems like a new problem, but as you point out - it isn't.


Thank you for taking the time to be a part of "koinonia"