CHURCH HISTORY






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Publication: Church History
Author: Brown, Candy Gunther
Date published: March 1, 2013

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Book Reviews and Notes

Contributing to the burgeoning literature on spiritual healing, Pamela Klassen's Spirits of Protestantism carves out a distinctive niche by focusing on groups not usually associated with healing--liberal Protestants who belong to the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. This well-researched study draws on historical analysis of printed and archival sources and four years of ethnographic research in two Toronto congregations.

The book is organized chronologically into five body chapters, each of which makes a specific argument about liberal Protestants and healing. Chapter 1 shows that liberal Protestants "contributed to setting the terms of the anthropology of religion" (xxi). The burden of chapter 2 is to demonstrate that liberals also played a role in the "process of medicalization" by using texts as "talismanic tools of healing and as documents for scientific proof" (xxii). Chapter 3 considers various forms of "mediated supernaturalism," such as "radio mind" and psychic healing (xxii). Chapter 4 looks at Protestant appropriations of psychological and charismatic understandings of the self. The final chapter draws on ethnographic research to describe explorations of non-Christian healing practices such as yoga, Reiki, and Therapeutic Touch.

Klassen charts a historical transition in liberal Protestant self-understanding. Over the course of the twentieth century, "supernatural liberalism enabled an imaginative shift whereby liberal Protestants went from considering themselves Christians who combined biomedicine and evangelism to effect 'conversions to modernity' to understanding themselves as complicit in a Christian, scientific, and oftentimes racist imperialism that was (in the end) pathology dressed as progress" (xiii). In the process, Protestants exerted a formative influence in many arenas of public life, including shaping the anthropology of religion.

This is a sympathetic account that seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of liberal Protestants. Klassen charges both the "anthropologists of religion and the Christian detractors of liberal Protestantism" with "neglecting to look at liberalism archivally or ethnographically," with showing a "lack of imagination" in analyzing liberals, and with having "mocked" their "seemingly indiscriminate borrowing" and "spiritual deadness" (217, xvii, 18, 57). The text laments that its subjects have "long been characterized as having succumbed to therapeutic culture" and as "pawns to overweening forces of secularization"--and wonders if "forgotten" traditions of liberal healing are "maybe even repressed?" (xvi, xvii, xxiii). The book defensively--and somewhat repetitively--insists that "liberal Protestantism is a highly influential form of Christianity" that has failed to receive the attention it is due (xix). Although not as flashy as the Christian Scientists and Pentecostals who have captured popular and scholarly attention, liberal Protestants "cultivated their own version" of a "robust supernaturalism" (8, 218). Indeed, "hardly the atomistic individual attributed to liberalism writ large, the self of Protestant liberalism was supposed to be both self-critical and socially aware" (38). Klassen admits that "in the course of this research, I have often felt won over" by the people studied despite "my skeptical disposition as a scholar without liberal Protestant roots" (29). The text both disparages those who have criticized liberal Protestants and applauds liberal Protestants for their own self-criticism.

While chastising other scholars for dismissing liberal Protestants in favor of Christian Scientists and Pentecostals, this book is dismissive of the latter groups, using them as foils rather than performing deeply comparative work. For example, the text contrasts the "text-based cosmology" of liberals with an alleged Pentecostal "distance" from written texts (60). It might have been useful to compare early twentieth-century liberals with contemporaneous Pentecostals such as John G. Lake--who similarly used printed texts in "healing" and sought "scientific proof" (terms that receive some consideration, but could be further unpacked). Likewise, the section on missions to India might have benefited from comparison to Pentecostal missionary Minnie Abrams. The text devotes a great deal of space to the concept of "radio mind," or telepathy (referenced no less than twenty-two times in the index), developed by the Anglican Archbishop Frederick Herbert Du Vernet, who worked in a remote region of British Columbia and whose innovative metaphysical practices admittedly expressed a "quirky individuality" and "did not become a runaway success" (111-112). Klassen hints--without presenting evidence--that Du Vernet's idiosyncratic notion "may well have resonated" with better-known individuals such as the novelist Upton Sinclair who wrote a book titled Mental Radio (1930)--while acknowledging that Sinclair was "fascinated by Aimee Semple McPherson's blend of radio and healing" (111-112). There are four passing references to the Canadian American Pentecostal McPherson, but no substantive discussion of how her theology of radio and spirit compared with Du Vernet's, even though McPherson was more influential than Du Vernet overall and a pioneer in appropriating radio for Christian healing.

The final, ethnographic chapter similarly invites more comparative work. Ethnographic research in Toronto might have included the "Toronto Blessing" charismatic renewal centered at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, which attracted as many as three million visitors (including liberal Protestants) since the 1990s. The book asks: "How did Protestants of liberal dispositions shift from decrying Christian charlatans and non-Christian superstitions while actively advancing biomedicine to find themselves experimenting with yoga asanas and channeling healing energy via the laying on of hands?" (7). Liberal Protestants are scarcely unique in having recently made forays into practices such as yoga, Reiki, and Therapeutic Touch, motivated by dissatisfaction with Christian and medical practice. Indeed, it is even more surprising that biblically literalist evangelicals, pentecostals, and Roman Catholics have engaged in similar experimentalism. Explaining this larger cultural transition might involve consideration of such factors as changing conceptions of pain and the role of Vatican II in cultivating a more receptive stance toward non-Christian religions.

On a stylistic note, the denseness of the text is accentuated by numerous in-text references to other scholars' theories. A constellation of jargony phrases--such as pathologies of modernity, supernatural liberalism, radio mind, and semiotic ideologies--appears repeatedly. Non-specialists might have difficulty parsing the significance of the book's argument. Nevertheless, the book should be of great interest to scholars of Canadian and American religions studying liberal Protestantism and spiritual healing.

Author affiliation:

Indiana University

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