Varieties of American Religious Expression

HAROLD BLOOM is hailed as one of America's finest literary critics. A scholar of enormous talent, he is a professor at Yale and New York Universities and author of more than 20 books, including "The Book of J" (1990), a provocative Biblical study written with David Rosenberg.

Bloom's new book, "The American Religion," is his observation of religion in the United States. America, Bloom asserts, is a "dangerously religion-soaked, even religion-mad, society." What is the nature of this pervasive and intoxicating religion? Bloom says that the American religion "masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian."

Born around 1800, the American religion to Bloom (a Gnostic Jew) resembles ancient Gnosticism, particularly what he sees as creedlessness, emphasis on experience, and confidence in the redemptive power of "acquaintance with a God within the self."

For Bloom, the American religion has found enduring expression in the faith of the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Southern Baptists. Of these American originals, Bloom views the Mormons and Southern Baptists as the "two principal paradigms of the American Religion." His survey of the religious landscape in the United States also includes a scrutiny of African-American spirituality and the New Age movement.

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, the American religion is a Biblical faith, he says. Judaism, he writes, is "the religion of the Oral Law, the strong interpretation of the Bible set forth by the great rabbis of the second century of the Common Era." Similarly, Christianity is the religion of the "Church Fathers" and the theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who "joined the rabbinical sages in offering definitive interpretations that displaced Scripture."

The American religion was also shaped by its revered sages and creative thinkers: Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), Ellen Harmon White (Seventh-Day Adventism), Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah's Witnesses), and Edgar Young Mullins (Baptists).

Of these foundational religious figures, Bloom reserves his fondest admiration for Joseph Smith. He evaluates Smith as "an authentic religious genius." His appraisal of Mrs. Eddy - founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist - is far less enthusiastic. While confessing to have read Mrs. Eddy's penetrating book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," Bloom declares her lacking in imagination, a woman who "willed herself into religious history without much intellect or knowledge to aid her." But hi s criticism and misrepresentation of Mrs. Eddy appear almost complimentary compared with his discussion of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

His reference to Christian Scientists, Pentecostals, and other groups as "cults" is unfortunate and detracts from his inventive presentation. The use of this derogatory and ambiguous term is puzzling coming from a writer noted for his precise vocabulary.

It is also not difficult to poke fun at the antics of hypocritical preachers, such as Jimmy Swaggart, or to mock the outrageous remark by the Rev. Bailey Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, that "God does not hear the prayer of the Jew." But are such easy targets worthy of Bloom's attention?

The book closes with a prophecy: By the year 2000, the Mormons and the Southern Baptists will become the dominant expressions of the American religion.

"The American Religion" offers a fascinating and controversial thesis on American spirituality, flawed yet worth pondering.

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