How America Prays

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February 1, 2004
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by Sue Fishkoff

The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, Alan Wolfe (New York: Free Press, 2003) $26, 309 pp.
All That’s Holy: A Young Guy, An Old Car and the Search for God in America,
Tom Levinson (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) $23.95, 309 pp.

BOTH TOM LEVINSON’S All That’s Holy and Alan Wolfe’s The Transformation of American Religion present compelling, if not new, evidence that religion in early-21st-century America bears little resemblance to the 1950s Rockwellian ideal. And both authors focus on how ordinary Americans practice their religion, rather than on what is written in holy books or proclaimed by religious leaders. Levinson and Wolfe each show how contemporary practitioners have shaped religion to suit their emotional and cultural needs, rather than re-shaping themselves to satisfy doctrine.

But from that point on, the two books diverge widely, in style, tone, and focus. Alan Wolfe is a long-time religious educator and writer, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, contributing editor of The New Republic, and author of two New York Times notable books of the year on modern American religion and morality. The Transformation of American Religion is a formidable tome, the fruit of considerable academic and personal research, a sociological study of how American churches, mosques, and synagogues have abandoned doctrinal clarity and moral authority in the face of worshippers’ demands for emotional satisfaction and cultural relevance. It is a scholarly work, densely written, and somewhat pedantic.

Tom Levinson is a twentysomething graduate of Harvard Divinity School who embarked on a cross-country road trip to talk to Americans about their religious practices and beliefs. Sleeping in cheap motels and on friends’ couches, he sought out worshippers of many faiths, tape-recording their conversations. In Levinson’s pages we meet the homeless woman who follows the I Ching and whose newly Jewish, ultra-Orthodox daughter lives in Borough Park; the ex-Mormon who runs a post-modern “church” out of a Seattle coffeehouse; the 16-year-old black kid in San Antonio who wears cornrows and gangsta jeans, but who goes to Catholic Mass every Sunday with his grandmother because it makes him “feel good”; the 102-year-old woman who founded a Pentacostal church in San Francisco. We meet Sikhs in Iowa, Navajos in Arizona, Wiccans and Branch Davidians in Texas. His is a traveler’s tale, written in a breezy, narrative style, filled with youthful longings and self-criticism.

Wolfe’s interest lies mainly in exploring how Protestant America has changed since the 1950s, although he does look at Catholicism, Judaism, and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Islam. Rather than treat each religion separately, his approach is thematic, with chapters on sin, doctrine, witness, fellowship, morality, and so on. He is best when discussing contemporary trends in Christian life: the success of mega-churches, the proliferation of small-group worship circles, the relationship between evangelicals, Pentacostals, and fundamentalists. I learned a great deal about doctrinal differences, even those Wolfe says are no longer emphasized, and enjoyed his analysis of the “born again” movement as appealing to something fundamental in American culture: “Because of its immigrant history, the United States is…a nation of switchers….And when they change their faith it follows that evangelical Protestantism is, of all the religions in the United States, the one to which they are predominantly attracted, for the experience of immigration is, like the experience of religious conversion, a process of being born again.”

He seems on less solid ground when exploring Judaism, especially his treatment of Orthodox Judaism. A major annoyance in this book is Wolfe’s elitist bias. Describing himself as “not a man of faith,” he nevertheless sets himself up as the arbiter of what correct faith should be: intellectually rigorous and culturally lofty. He is disappointed at what he calls the “dumbing down” of religion in this country — he harps on the lack of church-goers who know their faith’s key doctrines, and relishes pointing out, for example, the embarrassing number of Americans in one much-hyped poll who identified Joan of Arc as Noah’s wife. Elsewhere he blasts the evangelical movement for its use of popular music during services, not because he feels music has no place in worship but because they ought to be listening to Bach, Handel, and Verdi. Faith isn’t about feeling good, he hammers home; it’s about searching for truth. Decrying one Christian pastor who preaches “love, love, love, love, love, truth,” Wolfe writes,

“I think he may have his priorities wrong; love is something you get from your family, not your church.”

Levinson, by contrast, treats his subjects with respect, even wonder. He presents them all, even those who might be considered the most marginal, on the same plane, as part of the multi-colored fabric of American religious and cultural reality. But he does not sugarcoat their portraits, either; these are real people, presenting their religious choices in their own words. Perhaps it is the groundedness he finds in his journey that leads Levinson, at book’s end, to find his place in his birth-faith of Judaism, an identity he had shunned for most of his young life. But what gives Levinson’s book its appeal — its immediacy, its compelling narrative — is also what makes it less universal than Wolfe’s. The Transformation of Religion in America is dense and often difficult to read because the subject it tackles is huge: the state of Judeo-Christian religious practice today. Levinson, as a latter-day Jack Kerouac, is looking for himself more than for the definitive picture of American religious life. This is his search, not society’s.

Both books demonstrate how Americans constantly recreate religion in their own image, involved in a give and take as they seek to accommodate their practices and beliefs to the exigencies of contemporary sensibilities. That is, Wolfe maintains, part of our country’s pioneer and immigrant heritage. And in the end, he admits, “is it really so awful?”

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Sue Fishkoff is Associate Editor of Coast Weekly newspaper in Monterey, California, and the author of The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (2003). She is a former staff writer for The Jerusalem Post.

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