Thursday, September 20, 2012

Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters" (1988)


I started listening to Parting the Waters while driving to Baltimore to meet Chap, Chris Borwhat and Katie Plantz for the Tottenham/Liverpool game.

Somewhere along Interstate 95, between DC and Baltimore, I realized that the audiobook version is abridged, so I checked out a hard copy from Gordon Avenue.

This is a spectacular book. Branch tells the story of the civil rights movement through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.'s biography, but he also intersperses a healthy dose of theology and philosophy.
 
The result is that the book alternates between political, social, and intellectual history. This structure is engaging.
 
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At age 19, King enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. His time there significantly influenced the way he thought about God, government, race, and justice.
 
While at Crozer, King was extremely social (spending a lot of time at the pool hall, and also a fair amount pursuing girls), but the socializing included lots of deep talks and intellectual exploration. 
 
Branch's descriptions of Crozer made me nostalgic for rambling talks with Ryan, Brigg, Jeff and others at college and law school.
 
Here's an excerpt:
Among the theologians King studied during his first year at Crozer was Walter Rauschenbusch, a German Lutheran-turned-Baptist whose Christianity and the Social Crisis is generally regarded as the beginning of the Social Gospel movement in American churches (the book was among the few that King would ever cite specifically as an influence on his religious beliefs).  
Rauschenbusch rejected the usual emphasis on matters of piety, metaphysics and the supernatural, interpreting Christianity instead as a spirit of brotherhood made manifest in social ethics. He saw the Christian ministry as an extension of the Old Testament prophets, who denounced pride, selfishness, and oppression as transgressions against the divine historical plan ...  
Critics denounced him as a utopian or a Communist, but to generations of followers, Rauschenbusch rescued religion from sterile otherworldliness by defining social justice as the closest possible human approximation of God's love ...  
Professor M. Scott Enslin made no secret of his disdain for Rauschenbusch and the entire Social Gospel movement. To Enslin, as to Albert Schweitzer, the Sermon on the Mount teachings that Rauschenbusch considered the essence of religion were intended only as an 'interim ethic' pending the imminent establishment of a heavenly order that Jesus expected but that never came ... The concerns of the Social Gospel were essentially political squabbles far beneath religion's proper focus on the nature of human reality. Enslin's criticisms were brilliant and acidic, his behavior eccentric ... students puzzled as to why such a man always attended at least three Baptist church services a week.
I love the way that Branch sets up Rauschenbusch as a major influence on King's thinking about religion and society, but then he immediately challenges the framework with Enslin's criticism. These passages put me, as the reader, in King's shoes -- not just reading the biography, but challenged to think about the issues that occupied him.

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