Canon Fodder

11 Oct

How long does it take for a canon to emerge? Over at Christian Century they are already compiling lists of the essential works of theology from the last quarter century. The debates about these items are ongoing and surely won’t be settled anytime soon. It has me wondering, however, about the way that the canon will be built for the things I’m working on.

Let’s say I’m most concerned with the way that religious groups have responded to changes in their environments and society (e.g., urbanization, suburbanization, and so on). When we look at the the 1960s we have two or three fairly obvious selections that come from professionals that have feet in both academic and religious worlds. Peter L. Berger‘s The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961), Gibson Winter’s The Suburban Captivity of the Churches (1962), and Harvey CoxSecular City (1965). There are surely others we could add if we configured things differently, but these might serve as the beginning of a canon that confronts the “secular” problem that emerged after the end of the 1950s. [For a configuration that includes a “long” decade of the 1960s to bring in Will Herberg, please see James Hudnut-Beumler’s Looking for God in the Suburbs.]

If we wanted to extend this canon forward into the 1970s-1990s, what would it look like? How would the last three decades of the 20th century present themselves as a canon?

The surety with which I can cite Cox as the most important author in the earlier canon seems to evaporate when we move closer to the present. On the one hand, I get the sense that perhaps I am impatient about the pace at which the canon is developing. On the other hand, I worry that one of the by-products of our recent religious past is the multiplication of competing voices. What if the canonical texts haven’t emerged because there are too many different ways to segment the audience, thus rendering the very idea of a canon nonsensical. After all, a canon is a shared body of literature, and if everyone isn’t reading or studying or talking about the same texts, there’s can’t be much of a shared body, can there?

As I attempt to find the canons specific to the certain groups I am studying, I seem to be finding canons built not of texts but of authors. This is an interesting development–although not entirely surprising–and it appears to make the question of what’s canonical less into the shared experience of reading and more about the shared concern with the authority of the speakers. Perhaps when the noise from the assemblies reached a critical volume it was necessary to turn the volume down substantially on superfluous channels. Related posts to come. Stay tuned!

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