Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture
By Daniel Sacks
St. Martin's Press, 262 pp.

Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment
By Leigh Eric Schmidt
Harvard University Press, 318 pp.

"Whitebread Protestants" and "Hearing Things" both have good stories to tell about two of our most important senses. Daniel Sacks leads his readers through a century of Protestant Communion services, church suppers, soup kitchens, and discussions of world hunger to examine the meanings of food for American Protestants. Leigh Schmidt traces the role that hearing has played in religious experience--both physical and spiritual hearing, but especially the experience of divine or angelic voices, heavenly music, people speaking in tongues, voices of the dead. "Whitebread Protestants" makes clear that religion and food are inseparably intertwined, producing along the way some of our most recognizable commercial brands. A controversy over using alcohol in Communion brought Welch's grape juice to the marketplace in 1875. The Graham cracker and the corn flake are both the brain child of concerned Christians who wanted to help control human passion through these sedating dietary tools. Unfortunately, Sacks rarely goes further than telling amusing stories about faith and food. He reports an Internet joke about three children assigned to bring an object to school to illustrate their religion. The Catholic brings a crucifix; the Jew brings a Star of David; and the Protestant brings a casserole. While the story is funny, Sacks doesn't tell us what goes into the casserole or what makes it a particularly Protestant food. What does its blandness, its warm comfort, its domesticity, its economy say about Protestants?So while we feel bad that, as a minister, Sacks ends up drinking a lot of really bad coffee every week after services, we're left to wonder why the coffee is bad. Sacks is more interested in history than analysis, compellingly describing the changing menus of one Chicago church: In 1913, the church held a banquet with four courses, including trout and beef tenderloin and concluding with cigars; in 1967, it celebrated International Night with lasagna and Swedish meatballs; by the '80s, its members were serving each other tofu, banana bread, and fruit. But what changes in church life determined these menus? Though Sacks concludes that "We can learn a lot from a meal," he doesn't tell us just what we can learn.

Fortunately, Leigh Schmidt probes the relations of religion and hearing more deeply than Sacks explores taste. Schmidt begins with the common observation that, since the development of printing and perspective in the Renaissance, the visual has triumphed over the aural. Biblical figures like Abraham, Samuel, and Paul heeded disembodied voices, but since the Enlightenment, as Schmidt notes, "hearing things" has become "a quintessential earmark of modern insanity."

Schmidt shows not only that many Christians, including early Methodists, Pentecostals, spiritualists, and followers of New Age movements, have persisted in "hearing things," but also that the very skeptics who denied the reality of aural experience tended to substitute for angelic voices their own discourse, whether in psychiatry or religious studies. "With the cultural historian replacing the showman," Schmidt writes, the model temples constructed by magicians to show how oracles could be faked "can be made to speak again."

Technology builds the most prominent of these newfangled temples. Thomas Watson, the assistant of Alexander Graham Bell, was an ardent spiritualist, and early advertisements for the telephone showed massive, translucent spirits linking hands across the sea. "The power of modern acoustic technologies...was yet imagined in light of the dark, despotic history of oracular religion."

Thus ventriloquism, which began as witchcraft, became stagecraft, then became
technology, always retaining an aura of magic. Schmidt traces the mystical, feminine, and unreliable nature of oracles from the pre-Enlightenment fascination with the Sibyls or the oracle at Delphi to the software company Oracle, "a giant of the computer industry" that Schmidt calls "one fine piece of modern magic." "Hearing Things" offers many real insights. Schmidt shows the affinity of Pentecostalism not only with Holiness churches and other Methodist offshoots in the late 19th century but also with the Swedenborgians who heard angelic voices and influenced English and American Protestants before the Civil War. He offers new ways to hear the technical facsimiles of the human voice and representations of mystical life in popular culture. He urges readers to suspect both the Enlightenment critics of hearing and postmodern critics of Enlightenment. This seems fair enough.

Both books have the weaknesses that arise from their strengths: Schmidt's sophisticated analysis sometimes leads to convoluted, self-conscious writing, while Sacks' clear narrative leaves questions unexplored. Despite these flaws, both books are essential reading for scholars and others who think about how spirit and flesh affect each other.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad