Last week I wrote about my experience at the American Society of Church History conference, noting the discipline's inattention to, and even disdain of, coherent narrative. The approach many historians favor instead accounts for a much wider variety of people and practices, but it gives readers (or listeners) little guidance on what to make of the information set before them. I also noted that new, multidirectional research can bear fruit when tended by careful hands. As a case in point, let's look at two new books on the local religious scene: America's Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century, by Peter W. Williams (University of Illinois Press), and The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity, by Mark A. Noll (Eerdmans).
The titles of these books reveal a lot about their authors' approaches. "America's Religions" privileges no any particular religion, and the subtitle suggests multiple origins and multiple trajectories over a very long period of time. "The Old Religion" does privilege Christianity, and the juxtaposition of "old" and "new" hints at an overriding interest in continuity as well as discontinuity.
Flipping to the back of these books also highlights contrasts. Biographical copy indicates that Williams is a professor of comparative religion and American studies, while Noll is a professor of Christian thought, based in a history department. Both are members of the ASCH and, in fact, made presentations in the same room at different hours during the conference. Yet they do not ply the same trade. The contrasting approaches of religion scholars and historians contribute to the disjunction that permeates the study of church history.
In America's Religions, Williams endeavors ...1