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Book details
  • Genre:RELIGION
  • SubGenre:Religion, Politics & State
  • Language:English
  • Pages:544
  • Paperback ISBN:9781098378059

Paradise Joe’s A Cultural Sociology of a Christian College Community:

An Exploration into the Meaning and Significance of American Evangelicalism

by Michael F. Sparks

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  Donald Trump’s no outlier, but epitomizes the malignant heart and soul of contemporary American evangelicalism, and none of its historic attributes; they are a match made in heaven.

  Both a timid, ignorant liberal media establishment and a cloistered, largely indifferent class of American academic drones—dwelling in what Mary Douglas might call the hallowed groves of Pentecostalism—have completely whiffed on the social, political, cultural, and theological origins of the revolution of disenchantment that carried an evangelical-inspired-and-infested Trump administration to power. Indeed, without evangelicalism: no obstructionist Religious-Right Republican Congress, no Donald Trump, no 600,000 (and rising) total Covid-19 deaths, no January 6th. White supremacists, the Alt-Right, the Proud Boys, and other extremists would still only malinger along the fringes of American society and politics.

  In Paradise Joe’s, a rogue cultural sociologist demonstrates how evangelicalism came to occupy the ideological heart of American society and politics. He transforms what might have been a conventional academic case study into an entertaining, jargon-free tale of one small Christian college community, an account filled with memorable local and national characters, all the while gleaning from it the larger meaning and significance of evangelicalism in American life.

 --Why has evangelicalism made a progressive, European-style social democracy—and universal health-care—a virtual impossibility? 

--Why the corrosive distrust of government and science? 

--Why the malingering legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, of legal and economic inequality? 

--Why the persistent urban/rural antagonisms? 

  In sum, why are we so different from our closest European ancestors and kin?  

  Paradise Joe’s takes these and other daunting questions head on.

  In a second extended bonus appendix for academicians, the author tacks his 95 theses of Paradise Joe’s onto the Wittenberg door of a deeply compromised American sociology of religion.

   Observe here the crazy old aunt of evangelicalism getting dragged down from the attic and cast out into the open, exposed to the light of day for the first time.

  Marshall Sahlins, who until his recent death was widely-regarded as our most distinguished living anthropologist (“one of the benefits of longevity” he once quipped) called Paradise Joe’s “A marvelous history . . . a marvelous ethnography . . . with moments of great hilarity.”


  The author argues that evangelical religion represents the ideological heart of American culture, in that the inherent logic of its religious ideas has underpinned (and/or buttressed) a good many aggressive promotions and defenses of American society, domestic and international, throughout our history. The evangelical worldview and ethos are grounded in two basic idioms: a dualistic vision cleaving the elements of society into neat, separate Christian and secular categories, and the "moral market" imperatives of an implicit individualistic system of ethics, the two merging to form a matrix of symbols and expectations--a cultural logic, if you will--which is then applied in the identification, apprehension, and evaluation of persons, objects, relationships, and societies. The first shares much with "natural" tribal or “pre-literate” religions and was present in the early Christian church and other Western religions; the second emerged from uniquely-American cultural developments. He then ranges beyond evangelicalism itself to claim that both occupy the centerpiece of a peculiarly American personality, that which most clearly distinguishes Americans and their society from our closest European social and cultural ancestors and kin; both reside at the heart of a slew of persistent internal "cultural contradictions."

  These general observations emerged from the study of an actual evangelical academic community, Seattle Pacific University, located way out in the Pacific Northwest of America. The particular form and expression of these idioms in the day-to-day attitudes and behavior of its students and faculty offer valuable, highly-representative insights into the meaning and significance of evangelicalism in American life. Indeed, the subjects of the author's fieldwork prove as exotic at times to the western eye as would the inhabitants of any tropical South Pacific island, and they receive as thoroughly anthropological an examination. All this captured and accounted for by an innovative, ground-breaking hybrid form of social science, a cultural sociology.

  In a long appendix B, the author takes the sociology of religion to task for decades of bankrupt assumptions and research, decrying an apologetics that has corrupted traditional Weberian notions of value-free social science. Chief among these biases is a seemingly universally-embraced guiding dogma which uncritically assumes that Christianity can only perform a positive role in any society; and that the so-called "godless" Scandinavian societies--whose quality-of-life indicators put the war-of-all-against-all American social nightmare to shame—may be overlooked or dismissed as pseudo-socialistic sleights-of-hand. The author demonstrates that it is the decades- and centuries-long cultural vacuum of American society that has produced a plethora of existential social, economic, and cultural insecurities that evangelicalism thrives upon. In this regard, as Luigi Barzini once both lamented and celebrated about his fellow Italians, we Americans are very much "alone in the world."

About the author

Michael F. Sparks was a Searle Fellow at the University of Chicago, from which he received a phd. in sociology. Among his many mentors: Guenther Roth (at the University of Washington) and Edward Shils, Stephen Toulmin, and Marshall Sahlins (largely through multi-disciplinary courses from the Committee on Social Thought) at Chicago. He spent years working at all levels of primary and secondary education, creating and contracting out his own version of Marie Clay's New Zealand Reading Recovery literacy program, co-creating a more diverse New Honor's Program for a Seattle middle school, and teaching college-level courses ("The Trial of Socrates," "Religion, Culture, & Society," and "Lincoln & The Civil War,") for senior citizens at the Lifetime Learning Center, classes attended by several retired local university professors, one of whom commented upon the "unusually high level" of discourse and instruction. The author competes in (and has won) local golf tournaments and performs covers, standards, and originals in a jazz/blues guitar duo.

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