Research

HISTORICAL RESEARCH

BOOK PROJECT: "The Soul in Paraphrase": Prayer and the Secular Mind in Early Modern Europe

Everybody talked to God in early modern Europe. But even though prayer was the central ritual of early modern Christianity, historians have barely studied the ways prayer evolved over three centuries of religious conflict. This book will be the first to look at the evolution of prayer across this entire period. It will argue that prayer became a source of acute conflict in early modern Europe as men and women struggled to know how to pray in light of shifting ideas about God’s providence, the intercession of saints, and the possibility of miracles. Drawing on sources ranging from humanist treatises on education to utopian novels,it will show that late-medieval Europe’s devotional consensus shattered in the sixteenth century under the hammering of humanist and Protestant polemicists. These reformers, however, failed to create a unified devotional culture. Over the next two centuries, Calvinists, French Jansenists, English Puritans, and Enlightenment rationalists labored with limited success to place the practice of prayer on a stable intellectual foundation. Many Europeans continued to pray as their ancestors had, but increasing numbers began to use prayer as a means of disciplining themselves rather than altering their material or spiritual circumstances.

LINK: "'To whom say you your Pater noster?': Prayer on the Eve of the Scottish Reformation."

Reformation & Renaissance Review, 20.1 (Feb/March 2018).

ABSTRACT: In 1551, the Dominican Richard Marshall sparked a fierce controversy in St Andrews, Scotland by arguing in a sermon that the Lord’s Prayer—the ‘Our Father’—should be prayed to God only and not to the saints. According to John Foxe, the dispute led to much cursing, a regional synod, and one Franciscan fleeing the city in disgrace. The St Andrews affair was one of many controversies about prayer in sixteenth-century Europe. Why was prayer such a contentious topic? Scottish prayer controversies reveal a fundamental struggle between traditional and reformist views about the value of ritual in relating to God. Protestants like George Wishart, moderate humanists like Marshall and Archbishop John Hamilton, and more radical ‘devotional humanists’ like the poet Sir David Lindsay promulgated new understandings of prayer that undermined the structures of traditional devotion by pitting the verbal aspect of prayer against the ritual.

LINK: "The New Calvinism"

FORTHCOMING, The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism.

ABSTRACT: This article looks at the origins and distinguishing features of the stream of American evangelicalism that has come to be known as New Calvinism. New Calvinism emerged at the end of the twentieth century among evangelical Christians frustrated by the perceived pragmatism and doctrinal shallowness of evangelical churches. It is classically evangelical in its theology and preaching, eager to build coalitions across denominational lines (in particular, among Baptists and Presbyterians), founded on a selective appropriation of Reformed doctrine (especially the Reformed doctrines of God and soteriology) and committed to a complementarian view of gender roles. However, the New Calvinism’s most distinctive features are its energetic expansion into new geographical and denominational spaces and its cultivation of a unique form of revivalism and affective spirituality drawn from the writings of Puritans like John Owen and Jonathan Edwards.

ART HISTORY

LINK: "Masked Memory: D'mba and Four Contemporary African American Artists"

SOLICITED FOR AN IN-PROGRESS EDITED VOLUME ON THE D'MBA MASK

ABSTRACT: The Baga of coastal Guinea are celebrated for their striking sculpture; the D’mba mask is quite literally the crowning achievement of their art. Four feet tall and worn over the head of a male dancer, D’mba is an image of a beautiful woman who serves as a symbol of fertility, purity, and goodness. She is traditionally danced at important events like weddings and funerals. Although not a divine being, D’mba is believed to wield real power to influence events for good. In addition to being cherished by the Baga, she has become one of the national symbols of Guinea and a pan-African symbol of pride and unity.

D’mba is well-known to collectors and scholars in the West—examples can be found in many leading collections of African art—and she has also exercised a powerful influence on the imaginations of modern artists. Picasso owned a D’mba mask and probable influences of D’mba can be detected in his paintings. Matisse was similarly engrossed by the mask. More recently, D’mba has become an inspiration for a number of contemporary African-American artists.

This article is based on interviews with four such artists who use the image of D’mba in their work: Fred Wilson, the award-winning New York-based conceptual artist; Radcliffe Bailey, an Atlanta-based artist working in mixed media and installations; Robert Pruitt, a Houston-based artist influenced by popular culture and comic book art; and Paula Wilson, a New Mexico-based printmaker and painter. Each of these artists discovered D’mba serendipitously—for instance, Radcliffe Bailey found a picture of D’mba in a stack of old photographs given to him by a relative—but all have felt compelled to incorporate images of D’mba into their work.

Like the modernists of the early twentieth century, these artists appreciate D’mba for the ways she departs from Western aesthetic standards. However, their interest in D’mba is not primarily aesthetic. This article traces the way these contemporary artists use D’mba as a means of untangling problems of identity and memory. Fred Wilson’s “Seat of Power” is a trenchant critique of ethnographical museums and a call to remember the sordid past of the European conquest of Africa. Radcliffe Bailey uses D’mba in several works in order to draw out the genetic memories that allow him to solve the riddle of his own identity. For Robert Pruitt, D’mba is a tangible reminder of the civilized culture that binds African Americans to Africa. The D’mba prints of Paula Wilson are agents of reconciliation—they reconcile the conflicting models of womanhood within her and the estranged social classes of American cities.

These artists give D’mba different meanings, but they use D’mba for similar purposes. For all of them, this object is a way of remembering lost truths that have the potential to shape African American identity today.