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A Survey of U.S. Christian Thinkers: A Work for All [Book Review]

February 2, 2018

Schell-Ott-Christian-ThoughtReview of Hannah Schell and Daniel Ott, Christian Thought in America: A Brief History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. 340 pages.

Works that specifically survey the total history of Christian thought in the United States, from John Winthrop to late twentieth-century womanist theology, are rare. Historians such as Mark Noll and Kathleen Sprows Cummings offer excellent books that satisfy in terms of covering large swaths of the history of U.S. Christianity. And some authors have written on the entirety of Christian thought. But few have provided accessible but serious introductions to the breadth of American history in this arena.

Into this historiographic breach enters a new, ambitious book by Hannah Schell and Daniel Ott, Christian Thought in America: A Brief History. They take the reader on an A-Z, 500-year journey that starts with Winthrop, Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams and moves up to the twenty-first century, summarizing the thought of figures such as Stanley Hauerwas, Cornel West, Kathryn Tanner, and Miroslav Volf. All of one’s favorites, as well as lesser known theologians and philosophers of religion, are covered in between.

Despite being a survey text, Schell and Ott offer a clear and strong thesis. The authors argue that Christian thought is best characterized as a “soulful struggle” involving contention and tension (p. 2). They do not argue for cyclicality, but it is clear that that a liberal-orthodox dialectical tension runs through the book. That may seem cliché, but the authors’ focus on thinkers gives it a new perspective. It is clear that synthesis has been elusive in relation to the passions and sensibilities of Christian thinkers and their adherents. One reason for that elusiveness is the American context, which Schell-Ott argue lends “a cultural sensibility attuned to ideals and opened to possibilities” (p. 6). That weltanshauung means that diversity, pluralism, and questions of identity are baked in the American cake.

I was particularly impressed with the authors’ treatment of religious thought leading up to the American Revolution and the Civil War. One is left with a strong sense of both events as religious conflicts. Other noteworthy chapters and passages cover the Mormons, the South’s post-Civil War “religion of the Lost Cause,” Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Pentecostalism, Holiness Movements, Progressivism, Fundamentalism, Modernism, the Chicago School, Catholicism, the Niebuhrs (particularly the underrated and less remembered Richard), Process Theology, Black Liberation Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theologies, and Gay/Queer Theology.

In the process of recounting these movements, the authors meditate in a special way on William James’ contributions to the study of, and respect for, religious sensibilities (pp. 187-194). This Catholic reader was also impressed with the Schell and Ott’s treatment of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and how the contributions of both intermingled from the 1940s to the 1960s. Finally, I was personally unfamiliar, and therefore thankful for, the book’s recounting of the contributions of gay and lesbian religious thinkers, including Derrick Sherwin, John Boswell, Robert W. Wood, H. Kimball Jones, John J. McNeill, Gary David Comstock, Carter Heyward, and Robert Shore-Goss.

As you can see, one will strain to think of who is left out of Schell and Ott’s account. Even so, their ambition for coverage never descends into dryness or dullness. Schell and Ott wisely keep the text focused on people—and on what makes their thinkers lively and important. The book moves along.

As for weaknesses, there is one that is, I believe, unrelated to the authors’ hard work: the book’s index is riddled with frustrating page-reference errors. Given the textual value of Schell and Ott’s book, I have no doubt that, in a second edition, Fortress Press will correct that problem.

My only critique of content derives from a personal interest. Catholics will likely want more about the far-reaching effects of Vatican II on Catholic thought, and much more on abortion as a religious issue. On the latter, given how conservative ecumenism has been enabled by abortion activism, as well as cross-denominational concerns like education and school prayer, it seems appropriate to give more attention to threads of ideas, and ideology, that bind Catholic and Protestant activists on these issues. The person of Richard John Neuhaus stands out in this area. Exploration of the knotty forces of thought have enabled phenomena like “Evangelical Catholicism” would help readers understand key social and political phenomena of the late twentieth century.

Apart from those critiques, this ambitious tome succeeds in its mission. Hannah Schell and Daniel Ott’ Christian Thought in America: A Brief History provides one-stop shopping for readers who enjoy intellectual and religious history. It will be immensely valuable to historians, religious studies instructors, and philosophers of religion in higher education. Apart from the educational context, I also believe that church reading groups and individuals will benefit immensely from sustained reflection on the history of thought presented by Schell and Ott.


[Disclaimer: The author of this review worked with Dan and Hannah at Monmouth College (IL) from 2010-12. At the time I was a visiting faculty member, which meant I crossed paths with them regularly. I like and respect both. They were two of a cohort of my favorite people at Monmouth. That said, they did not solicit this review, and I purchased the book independently. – TL ]

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One Comment
  1. Harry Angell permalink

    Well done, Tim. Thanks.


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