There is a curious fact about monuments that those of us who study them like to ponder: monuments are often simultaneously hyper visible and invisible (Robert Musil, “On Monuments,” Harper’s (June 1988)). They can tower over public spaces for years without most locals paying them any attention, except perhaps to give directions. History shows that this invisibility is fragile, however. At any moment, a monument can explode into public consciousness, unable to be ignored. In Cut in Stone: Confederate Monuments and Theological Disruption, Ryan Andrew Newson argues that the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, instigated this change for Confederate monuments. Monuments that were once invisible—at least to most white Americans—have become the focus of a heated national debate.
Newson provides a needed intervention into this debate, one that brings monuments even more clearly into view. He demonstrates that these sculptures have powerful theological dimensions that Americans have been overlooking at our peril. Over five chapters, the author brings into relief not only the explicit Christian symbols and language that appear on Confederate monuments and in the ceremonies that accompanied their installation, but also the implicit theology that is coded in their aesthetic form. Newson pairs this analysis with a counter-theology meant to disrupt Confederate monuments and help Americans attain a modicum of racial healing and justice. Practically, he states his counter-theology can support a range of tangible responses to Confederate monuments, including advocacy for their removal or contextualization and participation in rituals of lament and truth-telling. He repeatedly emphasizes, however, that whatever response(s) Christians chose, they must not be content to target monuments alone. They must also aim to extract the poison that exists in the soil underneath Confederate monuments. That poison is white supremacy.
The book is well structured. Chapter 1 begins with a concise overview of the history and types of Confederate monuments. This background material will especially benefit readers new to these discussions. This chapter’s key takeaways are that Confederate monuments are not neutral, harmless (much less sacrosanct) representations of the past and that different types of Confederate monuments warrant different interventions (e.g., funeral monuments should be treated differently than soldiers in front of courthouses). The second, third, and fourth chapters explore, respectively, the three temporalities of monuments, their accompanying theology, and Newson’s counter-theology. He structures these chapters this way to reflect a fundamental truth about all monuments: they urge viewers to remember certain aspects of the past in predetermined ways in order to bring about a particular future. They do this performative work in the present, where, by necessity, they interact with contemporary symbolic universes that influence what they communicate and with contemporary people who determine whether to continue maintaining them (9). In the final chapter, Newson urges readers to “apocalyptically” transform Confederate monuments. Confederate monuments in their current form hide and numb, he argues, but they can be creatively made to unveil and disrupt—to reveal wounds and buried truths and to force a reckoning.
Theologically speaking, the strongest chapter is the third, titled “Future: Whiteness Concretized,” in which Newson argues that the aesthetic form of figural Confederate monuments promotes whiteness as an eschatological horizon. He means two things by this statement. Sculptures depicting Confederate generals and common soldiers alike 1) proclaim that white bodies and ways of being are beautiful and represent God’s ideal for humanity and 2) articulate a vision of the future that is white dominated. People of other races are either absent in this vision of humanity’s best future or are portrayed as having accepted their lower positions in a racial hierarchy. Newson labels both aspects of whiteness as eschatological horizon “idolatrous” but also, using the work of Willie Jennings and J. Kameron Carter, shows how Christian theology enabled their creation (97). Newson then turns to the work of liberation theologians. He argues that Christians should look to Christ, who aligns himself with the oppressed and marginalized, to shape their vision of what is beautiful and to recall that God disrupts rather than reifies human hierarchies. This chapter would have been even stronger if Newson had developed his analysis of gender and statues. He notes that the statues sought to assert “true masculinity,” which was needed after the South’s “emasculating” defeat, but he does not examine how race and gender are connected, nor does he discuss whether a white eschatological horizon is inherently gendered in a way that Christians should contest as well (17, 80). A more thorough analysis of the failed 1923 mammy monument could also have teased out the gendered dimensions of his argument (95).
Throughout, readers can sense Newson’s desire to answer George Yancy’s call for white America to fix the problems that it caused (xiii). While Newson’s clear political commitments are an asset, there were occasions that I felt this passion inadvertently centered whiteness. For example, one of Newson’s refrains is that removing monuments without thoroughly targeting white supremacy is counterproductive because simple removal could lull Americans into thinking we have solved American racism when it has merely gone back underground. Instead, Newson frequently advocates for the leveraging of (most) Confederate monuments, such that they are transformed—however briefly—into objects that force Americans to face their complicity in white supremacy. While the elimination of white supremacy should indeed be our ultimate target and Confederate monuments can be beneficially leveraged, I fear that Newson’s insistence on this point risks privileging “white enlightenment” over Black wellbeing, something he does not want to do (68). Black Americans and other people of color are unlikely to forget about white supremacy in the absence of monuments.
Furthermore, as public hearings like those held by the Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy show, many people of color report paying a present-day cost when they encounter Confederate monuments, contextualized or not, and report facing unique risks when they participate in community dialogues about them. It is puzzling that Newson does not include these testimonies or adequately consider that that public space might not always be the best place for white Americans to confront ourselves.
These criticisms aside, readers of Cut in Stone will undoubtedly find themselves no longer able to ignore Confederate monuments and their deeply theological nature. They may even feel themselves inspired and equipped to take action against them and their harmful ideology.
Ella Myer is a doctoral student at Emory University.
Date Of Review:
November 22, 2022
Ryan Andrew Newson is Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Campbell University.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.