Feeling Christian in America

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John Corrigan
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , May
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Definitional debates in the study of religion have revealed how religion has been historically harnessed to Christianity. Yet what we find when we find Christian forms remains a contested concern. In Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America, John Corrigan approaches these debates obliquely, exploring how Christians have defined themselves, marked boundaries, and provided rationales for social solidarity. To understand the Christian contours of religion, Corrigan suggests scholars must reckon with Christianity’s evocative emptiness.

Notably, in Corrigan’s interpretation, emptiness is a pretty full analytic. It conveys approaches to language and culture, subjectivity and space, temporality and social demarcation. Yet we learn from the beginning that, for Corrigan, before it is anything else, emptiness is first and foremost a feeling—a complex, embodied emotion that is empirically observable and dialectically related to a feeling of fullness. Favoring expansive archival muster over persistent interpretive explanation of his titular analytic, Corrigan’s identification of emptiness as characteristic of Christianity’s archival trace provokes significant questions about the affective dynamics of social differentiation and religious definition.

Emptiness follows a diverse, if not entirely unfamiliar, set of Americans—from Puritan divines, Roman Catholic converts and mystics, Quaker abolitionists, and itinerant Methodists to Pentecostal revivalists, civil rights activists, televangelists, and many more—as they responded to the question: what is Christianity? As much as historical description itself enacts explanation, this question is also the author’s orienting interrogative. By this account, among the most important ways American Christians have answered definitional queries about Christianity is by saying what Christianity is not.

Feelings of emptiness occasion a tendency for negative definition. Or is the relation the reverse? Corrigan is not quite clear on this point, but suffice it to say that feelings of emptiness among American Christians promoted and affirmed a penchant for something like definitional not-ness, a practice Corrigan reports has “ancient roots” in apophatic theology, classical Augustinian tradition, and neoplatonic engagements with primitive Christianity. But the author adroitly sidesteps these purported antecedents in Christian theology, as well as possible Buddhist comparisons, instead aiming to particularize his analysis and differentiate his method from potentially universalizing purposes. In so doing, the via negativa described in this book may also be understood as an assertion of the author’s own historical hermeneutic rendered in negative definition. What Corrigan is doing is not-theology. What he sees in his sources is not-sunyata. By this analysis, Emptiness also underwrites what it is to feel historical in the study of American religion.

The matter of emptiness, Corrigan says, should be empirically investigated as an emotion, one that is often “ornamented with religious ideas” (19). Rightly positioning his study as a corrective to those that consider Christianity to be solely defined by core principles or essentializing beliefs, Corrigan nevertheless leaves too much unexplained. His reference to the decorative quality of religious ideation prompts questions about materiality in Corrigan’s theory of affect, and it leaves readers wondering how ideas are, or become, ornamental. Poised to rethink dichotomous rendings of materiality and meaning, base and superstructure, the embodied, emplaced, and linguistic, Emptiness instead pauses at the ideationally adorned. Would a more extensive theoretical adjudication of emptiness as negative affect too quickly return us to the theological and comparative approaches from which the historian differentiates his study? Corrigan’s “ornamental” aside occasions a reconsideration of these relations along with a fuller interrogation of when and why historical approaches to religion are apprehended and articulated via negativa, and whether they must be.

If readers must look elsewhere for a more robust reflection on how affect and idea relate (ornamentally or otherwise) to the categories of religion and history, we would likewise benefit from additional explanation of why, exactly, emptiness. Corrigan’s short answer is that, unlike other feelings (e.g., wonder, awe, jealousy, love, shame), emptiness is an emotion that makes available new findings in studies of American Christianity. While this is sometimes true—for example, in one place Corrigan outlines a brief but fascinating religious history of blood transfusions—the book’s signal contribution is its dialectical assemblage of an otherwise disparate collection of historical material. Emptiness is an affecting repository chiefly for its expert exposition of a profoundly ambivalent archival arsenal. Thanks to Corrigan’s retelling, what emerges is a multifaceted account of definitional contests and competitive differentiation among Christians in America.

Emptiness’s distinctive dialectic is most clearly revealed in Corrigan’s depictions of shifting concerns for emptiness and fullness in Christian debates about bodies, space, and time. We learn about notions of historical time as empty, in contrast to “the fullness of time” in eternity. We are introduced to subjects who somatically organized emptiness in devotional practices, including fasting, bleeding, weeping, sweating, and silence. We reconsider how work and sex were understood as acts of purification and fulfillment, and how black and feminized bodies were simultaneously constructed as sites of possessive surplus and perverse lack. Corrigan further shows how emptiness was mapped onto geographies and into architectural detail. Christians envisioned North America as a wilderness frontier and a vast desert, and they responded variously to its burgeoning cityscapes. Catholics filled Baroque Revival churches with sacred artifacts, while Protestants crowded into cavernous megachurches, relocated to suburban enclaves, and founded fundamentalist revivals in liminal sites and polemical preaching.

Emptiness as emotional dialectic most directly extends into an argument about Christian differentiation in Corrigan’s study of space. He describes how Christian groups marked boundaries in opposition to others, particularly as the frontier “closed” in American imaginations. Proximate relations rather than doctrinal articulation patterned Christian conceptions of self-against-others. This analysis of social differentiation continues in the closing chapter, where the competitive environment of the antebellum religious marketplace receives increased attention. This controversial setting frames Corrigan’s identification of what is uniquely American about his story: “Disestablishment was the tipping point that prompted Christian groups to strategize differentiation from other groups as a matter of aggressive boundary defense…a practice of collective self-understanding that rested on marking out competitors as inferior or outrightly corrupt” (4). Amid changing legal structures and economies, Corrigan relates worries about the unreliability of language as a mediator of reality, and discomfort about how to positively define one’s commitments. Christians competed with out-groups and built solidarity through negative definition—through the via negativa cultivated in feelings of emptiness. Christian valorizations of emptiness informed weak collective self-understandings, and affirmed defensive scripts that guarded against the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. In the process, Corrigan confirms that emptiness was never innocent: “It not only can foment responses to perceived opponents and conspiracies…reinforcing group solidarity; it also raises the likelihood of demonizing those opponents” (176). Whether this argument persuades will likely depend on how convinced one is not only by Corrigan’s adept archival curation, but also his emphasis on post-establishment religious competition.

If the relations of affect and idea, the historical and religious, remain too minimally argued, Corrigan effectively elucidates how the stakes of “feeling Christian in America” have never been hollow. Full of evocative examples and provocative implications, this book prompts important questions about emptiness as interpretive rubric and negative affect, and it encourages continued interrogation of Christian definition and economic competition in social differentiation and religious history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kati Curts is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Sewanee University of the South in Tennessee.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Corrigan is the Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor of Religion and professor of history at Florida State University.



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