Book Notes: The Search for God at Harvard
On Saturday morning I finished a my second book of the year. It was titled The Search for God at Harvard (1991) by Ari L. Goldman, and I'm posting as a way to keep myself accountable for having more diversity in my reading this year.) Ari Goldman is an Orthodox Jew (and at the time a writer for the New York Times) who studied at Harvard Divinity School in in hopes of gaining a better understanding of all religions. ("If you know only one religion you don't know any" was kind of a mantra at the “Div School.”)
My hope was to see evangelical belief (and other forms of belief) through the eyes of a faith that's completely foreign to me, but I was disappointed. The book set out to cover religions common in the USA (quite a lot about Unitarianism, liberal Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism), some that are not so common (including some African religions), and some that are fairly common but seem to have little public influence (Christian Science, Hinduism and Buddhism). The treatment of Islam was very brief and wholly inadequate; however that shouldn't be surprising given that The Search for God at Harvard was published a decade before 9/11.
Three quick points. FIRST, the students at the Div School all seemed to be looking for a faith that would serve them, that is, give them meaning and/or some sort of peace or comfort. Religions were utilitarian things – the important thing seemed to be what the various religions did for their adherents to integrate them into society. Little emphasis was placed on finding meaning in bringing glory to God and serving others, and in the case of Christian viewpoints, to do this out of love for Jesus. (I don’t think the author met anyone at the Div School who regarded Jesus as divine, so love for Jesus was far less important than the will to follow his example.)
SECOND, I was very disappointed that evangelicalism was virtually ignored – more attention was given to Christian Science than classic evangelicalism. Few evangelicals were even mentioned, and no mention was made of vibrant evangelical faith in Africa, South America, or any other places. Possibly the only evangelicals named in the entire book were Jimmy Swaggart, Tammy Bakker and Jerry Falwell, Sr. (Swaggart and Bakker were mentioned in connection with scandals and Falwell in connection with the dissolution of “the Moral Majority.”) Although at one point the author mentioned that fundamental churches were thriving while liberal Protestant denominations were in decline, he ended up using these three as evidence that evangelicals in America were pretty much finished. (Same for Roman Catholicism, but for a different reason – the struggles over the authority of Rome.) He said, “The stage is set for a resurgence of a more powerful Protestant church in the United States. Divinity Schools like Harvard stand ready to lead and to benefit.” Obviously, that didn’t happen. Liberal Protestant churches are still in decline two and a half decades later. (I don’t know – perhaps the Div School today has more of a place for evangelicals than it did in the 1990s.)
THIRD, the author is now a professor of journalism at Columbia University, teaching journalism students how to cover religion. I know that evangelicalism is confusing and represents a lot of diversity within its ranks, so I’m not suggesting it’s as easy to grasp as something like Christian Science or the three main branches of Judaism, but after reading this book (and seeing the poor coverage of religion in the American media during the recent Presidential election), I no longer wonder why the news media is still at a loss on how to cover an evangelical viewpoint. Apparently, in 1990, Harvard Divinity School was not a place where much insight into evangelical Christianity, probably the most vibrant form of Christianity then (and now), could be found.