Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 41 (March 1994): 9-14.

The Fifties Without Soul

Thomas Sieger Derr

This is not a book review, it's a complaint.

I have been reading-and, I confess, enormously enjoying-David Halberstam's The Fifties (Villard), yet another of his blockbuster best-sellers. It's great nostalgia, wonderfully evocative, and above all, about my generation. Like my students today, but from the other side of the great divide, I am tired of hearing about the sixties and the baby boomers, who seem to think they invented everything that matters in contemporary America, which, moreover, as they smugly and triumphantly remind us, they are now running.

Well, grump. Having suffered long enough with their contemptuous dismissal of the fifties as the time of the "silent generation," the conformist, smug, insular Eisenhower years before Camelot and Woodstock rescued the country for more exciting adventures, I cheer a book that details many of the truly revolutionary creations of this maligned decade. It makes an impressive list: television, The Pill, the civil rights movement (yes, it belongs first to the fifties), the women's movement (at least the fuse was lit in the fifties), rock and roll, the H-bomb, fast food, the leap into space. The fifties had its own nasty, dangerous, and problematic war, too, in Korea. Maybe, I found myself thinking, defensively and no doubt unfairly, all the sixties added was noise.

So I admit to having had a lot of fun with this book.

But, probably out of pure professional deformation, I began noticing something else that I liked a lot less. This was the decade where I came of age, discovered theology, embraced my vocation at the intersection of Church and society. What has Halberstam to say about my fifties? Virtually nothing. Religion is a mysterious void in his book.

At first I noticed that he identifies Jews-who are invariably "brilliant," and hugely successful-without mentioning the religious affiliation of anyone else a reader encounters in the first few chapters. He is also quick to note anti-Semitism, even if only a trace, even if only a suspected trace. Curious, I thought, but let's not jump to conclusions. His references seem to be simply ethnic tags having little to do with Judaism. Read on.

He does finally have to turn on one Jew he identifies, Edward Teller, after duly noticing his Jewishness and his brilliance-but only because a choice must be made between Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He fails to identify Felix Frankfurter (or for that matter Meyer Lansky) as a Jew, but then, he doesn't like Frankfurter especially, and even quotes a sharply atheistic remark of the famous justice. So maybe the author does have something more than ethnic identity in mind when he says "Jewish," though the references finally remain puzzling. In any case, he is surely not trying to tell us anything about the state of Judaism in the fifties.

Nor, beyond his own palpable disgust, about Christianity either. It takes a while before the word "Christian" even appears. It comes at last in the midst of a vicious, savage attack on John Foster Dulles- "bombastic, arrogant, self-important, priggish," the embodiment of "stuffiness, sanctimony, deviousness, and partisanship," "the purest of chauvinists," and so on, page after gratuitous page, worse than the treatment of anyone else in the book. When, alas, Halberstam makes a point of identifying Dulles as "Christian," the word falls alongside the other descriptions of the man and carries a heavy, deliberately negative import.

Nor do matters improve as the book wears on. The Catholic Church is treated to a thoroughly bad press by this journalist. It figures negatively in his treatment of Margaret Sanger, whose hatred of that Church is duly quoted. In sketching the development of The Pill, he notes that "opposition to birth control came primarily from Catholics and fundamentalist Christians." Thus the renowned Catholic doctor John Rock was brought on board the team to neutralize Roman Catholic opposition. Halberstam tells the story, of course, with the Catholic Church as the villain. Later an admiring sketch of C. Wright Mills notes his "lifelong resentment of Christianity" owing to a Catholic upbringing.

Halberstam's view of Protestantism is similarly pinched and myopic. "Fundamentalists" take their predictable cheap knocks, e.g., in his biographical sketch of Marilyn Monroe or of Martin Luther King, Jr. or as noted above in the birth control saga. He does talk about Gospel music, white and black, but manages to tell the story as if that had nothing to do with real religion, and as if the whites who sang it were all racists anyway. The "middle-class white Protestants" who run General Motors are "insular, suspicious of anything different." He indulges endlessly, tiresomely, in the usual ignorant journalistic misuse of "Calvinist" and "puritan" to mean oppressive, restrictive, cold, joyless, guilt-laden, and generally boring.

An admiring profile of Alfred Kinsey treats him as a truth-telling liberator and makes the attacks on the Kinsey Reports by Henry P. Van Dusen, the President of Union Theological Seminary, and many other thoughtful religious people seem like ignorant assaults on free speech and pure science. Although he quotes Van Dusen's criticism, Halberstam seems to have little sense of the trouble with the Kinsey Reports or why someone with a functioning moral sense should find fault with them. He even manages to enjoy Hugh Hefner and Playboy while taking a shot at his favorite religious bogeyman. Hefner is "the grandson of Midwestern puritans," the child of an "emotionally arid family . . . devoid of warmth and openness"; and Playboy was his rebellion "against that Calvinist ethic," against a "Christianity [that] seemed to him a cold, emotionally sterile one."

Only when Halberstam gets to Martin Luther King does he treat religion with more than a glancing reference, because here, of course, the subject is inescapable. But his treatment is extremely superficial and uncomprehending-a bare, unexplained notation that King preferred the social gospel to his conservative heritage, another that he was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, but without any explanation of that influence worth mentioning. He speaks of King's gifts, his talents, but says next to nothing about his religious motivation, save for a highly ambiguous "vision" story that is not meant to do King credit. The book's 250-item bibliography includes nothing of King's own writing. The role of the black church itself is described entirely in sociological terms. It might as well have been a string of athletic clubs.

What is truly astonishing, however, is not these sour or ignorant references, but the paucity of religious references of any kind. I missed them long before I realized that there weren't going to be many. Surely, I thought, as I passed the book's halfway point, surely there will be something on the religious revival of the decade. Surely he wouldn't overlook such a massively reported fact. Or would he? My doubts, my fears aroused, I anxiously thumbed ahead, checking out the subjects of the remaining chapters: nothing. But of course I read through to the end anyway; remember, I admitted the book was too much fun to put down. But indeed there is nothing at all, not even in that long bibliography, about one of the major cultural markers of the decade: the extraordinary popularity of religion at all levels. It's not just that there are no positive references to religion. There are no meaningful, significant, or intelligent references at all.

Halberstam has room to discuss Peyton Place but not even to mention Norman Vincent Peale's phenomenally popular The Power of Positive Thinking, nor parallel books by Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, nor the cultural significance of these men. He lavishes attention on Elvis Presley, but Billy Graham and the new evangelicalism are, incredibly, completely invisible. He has room for the ephemera of popular culture, like tail fins on cars or the Marlboro ads, but no place for the church building boom that transformed our landscape. He spends pages recapitulating The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but not one word about the thought of Reinhold or H. Richard Niebuhr or Paul Tillich or other great theologians of the era, in a time when theology held wide general interest. He celebrates the heroic feats of his own craft, journalism (television is the real star of the book), but never once notices the truly astonishing level of specific religious affiliation among the American people of that decade- 96 percent self-identified with a specific religious label in a 1957 poll and church membership soared to an all-time high of 69 percent by 1960. Instead, contrary to all evidence, he seems to think religion's influence was actually declining in these years!

What shall we make of this tin ear, this massive secularist blindness? Is this what cultural history will be when it is told by a celebrated member of the journalistic elite? A society where Marilyn Monroe and television quiz shows reign supreme, but where nary a word is spoken about what, arguably, matters most to most people? Does it matter that a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter is completely indifferent to what moves Americans at their deepest level? If the guardians of the information age ignore religion, will it gradually decline?

Sound the warning if not the full alarm. As everyone knows, history is not just a recital of obvious facts. It does matter who tells our story.

Thomas Sieger Derr, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, teaches in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College.

A New Heaven & A New Earth

Kathy Kersten

"RE-imagining," a conference "by women for women and men," marked the midpoint of the World Council of Churches' "Decade in Solidarity with Women." Held last November 4-7 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the conference drew 2,200 participants from forty-nine states and twenty- seven countries. RE-imagining was sponsored by the Greater Minneapolis, St. Paul Area, and Minnesota Councils of Churches, and underwritten by a $65,000 grant from the Presbyterian Church (USA). Among the mainline organizations that lined up to provide additional funding were the National Ministries of the American Baptist Church, the Division of Congregational Ministries of the ELCA, the Board for Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ, the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church, and several orders of Roman Catholic nuns.

The purpose of RE-imagining was nothing if not ambitious. The conference, its organizers proclaimed, signaled the dawn of a "Second Reformation." "This Second Reformation . . . is much more basic and important to the health of humankind" than the first, declared Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, one of the many feminist theologians who took part. "We're taking things forward in a way Luther and Calvin couldn't imagine." Promotional materials left no doubt about conference goals: "We are serious about reimagining all that has been passed on to us through two thousand years of Christian faith."

In the preface to the conference program, Mary Ann Lundy and Bishop Forrest Stith-Presbyterian and Methodist cochairs of the U.S. Committee for the Ecumenical Decade-justified the need for radical theological surgery. Our churches, they insisted, must free themselves from the grip of sexism, racism, and classism. Speaker after speaker elaborated on this theme: the Church remains "womanless" because current doctrine and practice stifle women's voices. Women require a new theology grounded in their uniquely female, everyday experiences of the divine. Rather than pursuing the Truth, then, RE-imagining's focus was on encouraging each woman to imagine "her own truth." The new reformation's aim, in the words of liturgy director Sue Seid-Martin, is to "creat[e] that wonderful space where we are truly free to be ourselves."

RE-imagining's Second Reformation unfolded in a variety of forums. Two plenary sessions tackled the central topics: "Re-imagining God" and "Re- imagining Community." In addition, participants chose among "multi- format option groups," featuring titles such as "Racism/Sexism/Classism: Linkages?" "Lofa Women from Liberia Doing Moonlight," "Listening with Our Hearts: The Prophetic Voice of Lesbians in the Church," "Women and the Song of the Earth," and "Our Names Are Legion: Clergy Sexual Abuse." Worship services such as Sunday's grand finale-billed as the "Living in the Struggle Ritual" and the "Struggle for Transformation Ritual"-evoked a particularly enthusiastic response.

While Reformation No. 2 seemed short on ideas and debate, it appeared to thrive on exotic self-expression. The Meadowlark Singers, representing various South Dakota Indian tribes, kicked things off; as the conference program explained, "The drum is feminine and the drumbeat is the heartbeat of the earth." Arranged in Native American "talking circles," participants engaged in "scribble writing" with crayons and pastels, blessed "rainsticks," danced "holy manna," and joined in Hawaiian chants and rousing Zulu songs. At the urging of Indian feminist Aruna Gnanadason, they anointed themselves on the forehead with red dots to celebrate "the divine in each other" and to protest the oppression wrought by Christian missionaries.

The multi-format option groups gave participants the opportunity to learn belly dancing, to call out to the divine "from a woman's body," and to listen as "educator and retreat leader" Sr. Roseann Giguere shared her wisdom on "the theology of darkness, the goddess, creation spirituality, midlife transitions and dreamwork." The daily RE-imagining newsletter was larded with solemn announcements-"The women of table 110 have named themselves Women of the Eagle"; "The women of table 60 are Tawonda!"-as well as earnest pleas for social justice. "The shampoos in the rooms at the Hyatt are made with oil of mink," ran one. "Why not leave a note in your room at checkout time, protesting their choice of shampoo?"

By now, these trappings of secular feminist consciousness-raising and New Age therapies are familiar to those who monitor mainline and WCC- related church events. What was not so familiar-even to RE-imagining participants-was the star of the show: the goddess Sophia, designated as "the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of RE-imagining." "Sophia is the suppressed part of the biblical tradition, and clearly the female face of the human psyche," explained Seid-Martin, a former Instructor of Ritual Studies at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Organizers pointed to scriptural passages such as Proverbs 3:16 and 8:30, Luke 11:49, and 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 to justify their worship of Sophia as the eternal feminine. Why "Sophia" and not "Wisdom"? queried the conference newsletter. To "remind us that the Scriptures portray this Wisdom as a someone who walks, talks, plays, cries, eats, creates, and loves." Though participants never seemed clear how-if at all-to associate Sophia with the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they appeared to flock happily to her altar. The whole assembly prayed to her, blessed every speaker in her name ("Bless Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within"), and invoked her repeatedly as Creator and Mother. In the ritual of "Making Holy Time," attendees were urged to "dream wildly" about "who we intend to be . . . through the power and guidance of the spirit of wisdom whom we name Sophia."

Standing guard throughout were fifty monitors who admonished and exhorted attendees whose participation seemed less than heartfelt. Hanging back in Sophia-worship would not be tolerated, the conference newsletter advised: "[P]articipation is intended for ALL in the gathering-rituals are not spectator events. . . . We thank you all for your full, active, conscious participation. May Sophia continue to bless your pilgrimage."

"Naming" Sophia was the central focus of "RE-imagining God," the first plenary session of the conference. To the sound of the "water drum," participants gathered in their "talking circles" to ask, "Who is your God? What does your God sound like, taste like, look like? Name God-tell each other at the table! Reimagine your God in name and image!"

Yet despite all the hubbub, Sophia's identity should have proved a mystery to no one. Participants had only to look in the mirror to find her. The conference program put it succinctly: Sophia is "the place in you where the entire universe resides." As deity of the Second Reformation, Sophia seemed the answer to the prayers of a multicultural, therapeutic world. She does not judge, nor does she recognize any sin but the corporate transgressions of racism, sexism, and classism. Sophia has only one commandment, as participants learned-"Freely bless your own experience."

While the four days of RE-imagining left no doubt that Sophia resides in one's own navel, it became increasingly clear that she is most fully manifest in bodily functions and sexual encounters. At Sunday's communal "blessing of milk and honey," for example, two thousand women clinked glasses over rice milk ("found at most health food stores, and safe for people with allergies to milk products"), while repeating the following prayer:

Our maker Sophia, we are women in your image. . . . With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life. . . . Sophia, creator God, let your milk and honey flow. . . . With nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child; with our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations. . . . We celebrate the sweat that pours from us during our labors. We celebrate the fingertips vibrating upon the skin of a lover. We celebrate the tongue which licks a wound or wets our lips. We celebrate our bodiliness, our physicality, the sensations of pleasure, our oneness with earth and water.
Not surprisingly, Sophia seemed to reserve a special blessing for lesbian love. The prayer above was read by individual women, except for the "vibrating fingertips" line, which was read by two women together. In delivering the final proclamation, the Rev. Christine Marie Smith of the United Church of Christ envisioned God's Kingdom as a place where "women will be able to embrace each other and love each other feeling beautiful and unafraid." Melanie Morrison of Christian Lesbians Out Together (CLOUT) received a standing ovation as she celebrated the "miracle of being lesbian, Christian, and out!" and invited lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual women to join hands and circle the stage.

One looks forward to hearing mainline RE-imagining organizers like Lundy and Stith explain to Christians who pray the Creed every Sunday why their hard-earned dollars financed a conference at which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit didn't even put in an appearance. How will they defend Christine Marie Smith's indictment of Jesus as guilty of "violence against women," or Chung Hyun Kyung's assertion that God speaks equally "through Buddha, through shamans" and through Christ? How will they justify Delores Williams' offhand dismissal of Christ's atonement: "I don't think we need a theory of atonement at all. I don't think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff. . . . We just need to listen to the god within."

At first blush, it appears paradoxical that people who contemptuously reject Christianity's most fundamental tenets should persist in calling themselves Christians, and locating powwows like RE-imagining within Christian history. In fact, their behavior is easy to understand. Those who claim to be "reimagining Christianity" get headlines about a new Reformation. They get endowed chairs in seminaries, money, power, legitimacy, and a captive audience that must be the envy of the self- declared followers of Wicca. "Sophia" serves these "reformers" as an invaluable tabula rasa. Their adherents' ignorance of Sophia-far from being an obstacle-is essential to their project of fashioning a new religion while retaining tenuous links to Christian Scripture and tradition.

What is truly puzzling-even to those familiar with the mainline denominations' recent self-destructive tendencies-is why the churches would lend their funds and prestige to antics of this sort. The United Methodists' Division of Women, for example, designated RE-imagining as its staff's quadrennial spiritual renewal event, and picked up the expenses of the fifty-two directors and staff members who attended.

Far from representing the wave of the future, RE-imagining was a vestige of a movement that seems almost to have run its tired course. Significantly, speakers' and attendees' average age appeared about fifty. One wonders whether these women ever seriously considered what it would be like to attain their elusive promised land-a world without rules, limits, or Truth, "that wonderful space where we are truly free to be ourselves." Humankind's natural proclivity to greed, lust, injustice, and cruelty suggests that such a space would closely resemble the Christian conception of Hell.

From November 4 to 7, 1993, the Minneapolis Convention Center was home to a spiritual Disneyland. In this fantasy world, well-heeled women with strings of graduate degrees pretended together that they inhabit a dark and oppressive world, a world where "hope burns through the terror." How odd to pin one's hopes for salvation in such dire circumstances on a goddess whose chosen milieu seems to be women's bodily fluids. One wonders how soon Sophia's eager devotees will discover that she can never sustain those who "walk through the valley of the shadow of death," as we all must.

Kathy Kersten, a new contributor to First Things, is an attorney and a full-time mother. She is a board member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

On The Other Hand

Rites of Spring

Peter L. Berger

Office of Wellness California
State University at Poco To: The Poco Community
From: Chelsea Rabinowitz-Hakamoto Wellness Coordinator Re: Dating

As spring approaches and with it, in all likelihood, an increase in dating activity, the Office of Wellness has been asked by the President to coordinate all University services pertaining to such activity. Faculty, staff, and students are invited to pick up their Dating Information Kits at the reception desk of the Wellness Center. This memo is intended to clarify a few matters about which questions have been raised.

All persons in the community should by now be aware of the permissible parameters of dating relationships. Any dating that transgresses these parameters constitutes sexual harassment, since discrepancies in power between dating partners have been deemed prima facie evidence of harassment in both Federal and California court cases. There are three dating pools within the community-faculty, staff, and students. Cross- pool dating, while not necessarily impermissible, is advised against, because in many cases the precise balance of power between partners may be difficult to establish. (For example, is an associate professor or an associate provost in the greater power role, a senior undergraduate or a maintenance supervisor?)

Faculty may only date within ranks, and not across the tenure/nontenure line. Staff should consult the Office of Personnel for their own and their potential dating partner's job rankings. There are in all eighty- three rankings; dating partners are advised to stay within a ten-point range. Undergraduates, having no discernible power, may freely date regardless of their year in college, but dating between undergraduates and graduate students, many of whom are teaching assistants empowered to give grades, is advised against.

Your Dating Information Kit contains all the necessary Pre-Date Consent Forms. The blue forms are for heterosexual partners, the pink for gay men, the purple for lesbians. Cross-orientation partners are, of course, free to utilize two or all three colors. Each of the forms lists sexual activities in an ascending intensity scale. Partners are advised to check all the activities consented to before initiation of the date, bring the form or forms to the Office of Wellness reception desk, and sign the form/forms in the presence of a Wellness officer, who will enter the time of signing and retain the form/forms.

The Dating Information Kit further contains the safe-sex condom collection and spermicidal jelly recommended by the University Health Service, plastic envelopes to allow easy inspection of the most recent test results for HIV and drug-free urine as required by University regulations, as well as the (voluntary) nonsmoking pledge. Dating partners have the right to inspect these documents at any stage of the dating process.

Any dating partner who believes that she/he/hem* has become a victim of sexual harassment, date rape, or attempted date rape is advised to report immediately to the Campus Police and/or the Rape Crisis Center. The Office of Legal Counsel has a full-time attorney assigned to all cases of actual or potential litigation pertaining to sexual victimization; the services of this attorney are also available to all members of the community.

The Office of the Provost has issued the following clarification regarding dating policy: Students are, of course, asked at the beginning of each academic year to pledge nondiscriminatory behavior toward all members of the University community regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, looks, condition of physical or mental handicap, and veteran status. The Provost has ruled that portions of this pledge do not apply to dating activity. Specifically, dating partners may discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, and condition of physical or mental handicap. The Provost emphasizes, however, that dating partners continue to be bound by the pledge regarding race, ethnicity, looks, and veteran status. This clarification, although criticized by the African American Student Association, has been warmly welcomed by the Support Group of Aesthetically Challenged Persons. In reply to an inquiry by the latter organization, the Provost said that hems ruling definitely includes obesity under the category of looks against which dating partners may not discriminate.

In conclusion, let me quote the venerable and much-beloved student anthem: "Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus": "Let us be joyful, while yet we are young" (or, if chronologically challenged, young in spirit). The Office of Wellness wishes all members of the community a joyful, safe, and politically sensitive spring!

Peter L. Berger, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.