God in America: A New Light

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 4, “A New Light.”

Summary: This episode narrates conflicts between tradition and modernity in Judaism and Protestantism. Act I: Isaac Mayer Wise popularizes Reform Judaism, which appeals to Jews who want an Americanized and modernized form of Jewish identity. Although he hopes to unify American Jews under the banner of Reform, opposition to his reforms precipitates a split in American Judaism. Act II: Charles Augustus Briggs encounters Darwin and historical criticism of the Bible; goes public in calling American Christians to–as with Wise–unify under the banner of modernism; is tried for heresy. The modernist-fundamentalist controversy expands through American Protestantism. Act III: William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow square off in the Scopes trial. Whereas in the 19th century the great religious divide in America was over slavery, from henceforth Americans will be divided between conservatives and liberals.

Likes: I could definitely use this entire episode in my own introductory survey to American religious history; the (admittedly simplified) narrative it tells is basically the narrative I’ve been using. There’s fun, student-friendly drama here: the treyfa banquet, the Scopes trial. With the Scopes trial, we have the advantage of period footage, which shows how nakedly partisan and patronizing the national media’s descriptions of fundamentalism were. (The film doesn’t point critically to that, but it gives me material to.)

I especially like the transnational dimension to this story: In both Wise’s and Briggs’s narratives, the connection to modernizing movements in Germany is highlighted. (Briggs’s story, in fact, begins by locating him visually in Berlin.)

The Scopes segment made a point of framing the issue not as religion vs. science (the latter understood as “secular”) but as conservative Christians vs. liberal Christians. Before getting to Scopes, the documentary introduces us to Bryan as an important politician, a defender of the working classes; that’s good because it prevents him from being reduced to what he became in media coverage of Scopes.

Nice touches of social history, i.e., figures for immigration. (We got the same in episode 2, on Catholic immigration during the antebellum era.)

Dislikes: While I’m willing to use this episode in class (unlike most of episode 3), there are some things that make me grit my teeth a little. It irked me that during the treyfa banquet sequence–which is presented in the documentary as a Jewish equivalent to the Briggs heresy trial or the Scopes trial, i.e., a showdown moment between modernizers and traditionalists–the score was cutesy, whereas when Protestants are grappling over how to make sense of the Bible in relation to the new science, the score is serious and intense. So… when Christians are grappling with modernity, we’re supposed to share their sense of crisis; but when Jews grapple with modernity, that’s funny, cause, you know, it’s about whether or not to eat shrimp, which isn’t really a serious question.

The talking heads’ examples of the problems in the Bible that drove modernists to their conclusions are so simplistic that I have to think an evangelical student watching that part of the documentary would think, “But that’s so easy to answer. What’s the problem?”

Along a similar line, the dramatized confrontation between Bryan and Darrow during the Scopes trial wasn’t quite fair to Bryan, I felt; the filmmakers wanted to make clear why he lost in “public opinion” (meaning: the Northern media), so he had to be played as more inept than he might have been. On the other hand, Bryan does get the last word in a nice little speech that drives home what he saw as the stakes for American society. It’s a poignant moment, but not as compelling as it might have been because it’s understated: I sense the filmmakers don’t want us sympathizing too much with him.

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