Sunday, November 3, 2013

J.J. Carney

J.J. Carney is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. His research and teaching interests engage the theological and historical dimensions of the Catholic experience in modern Africa. He has published articles in African Ecclesial Review, Modern Theology, Journal of Religion in Africa, and Studies in World Christianity. His new book is Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era.

Last month I asked Carney about what he was reading. His reply:
Although my specialization lies in modern African Christianity, I like to read broadly within the fields of history, philosophy and theology. Recently I've been tackling Charles Taylor's massive 800-page tome A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap, 2007). The book grew out of the prestigious "Gifford Lectures" that Taylor delivered at the University of Edinburgh. What intrigues me about Taylor's argument is that he shifts the conversation away from the culture war argument over whether or not Western secularism is a good thing. Rather, he examines how we ended up in a world in which a broadly secular outlook is the social and cultural norm. The historical, religious and philosophical breadth of Taylor's work is truly magisterial; one can see why he won the Templeton Prize for this work. I recommend it most highly, but don't be in a hurry…this is a work to ponder and chew over.

Keeping up the secularism and religion theme, I've also been reading William T. Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Cavanaugh's book should be required reading for students of religion and politics and/or political theology. Through careful theoretical work in the field of religious studies and detailed historical work on the 17th-century "Wars of Religion," Cavanaugh utterly deconstructs one of the founding myths of our Western "secular age" - namely that the modern nation-state rescues us from irrational religious violence. I appreciate how Cavanaugh doesn't "excuse" religious actors from involvement in violence. Rather, he challenges other scholars to be more honest about the difficulties of defining "religion" and "religious violence," and he conclusively shows how the so-called "Wars of Religion" were in fact the birthpangs of the emergence of the modern nation-state. I found Cavanaugh's work to be resonant with my own studies on the manipulation of ethnic identities by political actors in colonial and post-colonial Rwanda…

Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) has also been a frequent read in recent months. I picked this up because I have a longstanding fascination with American history, and I also like to learn from excellent historical writers. Howe's Pulitzer winner has not disappointed. It combines erudition with lucidity and accessibility, a rare threefold combination. Like Taylor's work, What Hath God Wrought is a massive, 800-page tome. But it reads quickly, and Howe really helps me to see how many of the issues we struggle with in contemporary America – especially the relationship between individual freedom and government expansion – date from the Jacksonian period. Speaking of Jackson, the second founder of the Democratic Party does not come off well in this text. I was particularly struck by the extent to which white supremacy underlay the Jacksonian Democratic Party, especially in regards to slave policy and Native American deportation. If I were considering seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, I would have trouble reading this text and then speaking at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa (ironically this was perhaps Barack Obama's most important speech of his early presidential campaign). Howe's work on religion in early 19th-century America is also fascinating. I especially appreciate the complexity of his argument, highlighting for example the prominence of Evangelical Christians in the anti-slavery movement and the Cherokee land defense movement. Howe is a wonderful historical writer; an often overshadowed period of American history comes alive thanks to his pen.

I would also recommend Thomas M. Kelly's When the Gospel Grows Feet: An Ecclesiology in Context (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013). Kelly's work is the first serious study of the Jesuit priest who had perhaps the greatest influence on a far better-known Salvadoran leader, Archbishop Oscar Romero. The strength of the book lays in its detailed analysis of Rutilio's on-the-ground ministry - and how his actual grassroots encounters with Salvadoran peasants fundamentally reshaped his vision of church and evangelization. The end-of–chapter questions lend themselves to a study group format.

Finally, I've been reading through an oldy-but-goody in African studies, Jean-Francois Bayart's The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. 2nd Edition. (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2009). Bayart's work is cited more than its read, but its encyclopedic analysis of postcolonial African politics is worthy of a detailed look. The 2009 edition's revised preface is a remarkable work of its own. I especially appreciate Bayart's reflections on extraversion or African elites' struggles over international relationships…this is a theme that has emerged often in my own studies of modern African Christianity.
Read more about J.J. Carney's Rwanda Before the Genocide at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue