Nate at T&S discussed Harold Bloom's The American Religion (Simon & Schuster, 1992) in an interesting post on Mormon nationalism. I just happen to have Bloom's book on my shelf at the moment and want to do something with it before it starts generating fines at the ridiculous rate of 25 cents per day (which vastly overstates the daily harm I might inflict on the local reading community by keeping the book long enough to get around to re-reading it). Any religious critic who says nice things about the Mormons deserves careful reading. Especially Bloom, who always has interesting things to say.
Bloom is a literary critic who is here trying his hand at what he terms "religious criticism." At least this means he is a careful reader, and one who comes to the subject without the usual academic Christian prejudices as baggage. He's a rare find--someone who will (1) actually read Mormon texts carefully, and (2) give them fair consideration rather than knee-jerk Christianized dismissal. How refreshing.
Bloom sees Kirkegaard and Nietzsche as European precursors and Emerson and James as American forerunners to his religious criticism project, which he describes as "a mode of description, analysis, and judgment that seeks to bring us closer to the workings of the religious imagination" (p. 21). He says he seeks the spiritual dimension of religion, in parallel with the aesthetic dimension of literature. But neither Nietzsche nor James said much about spirituality, Emerson was a rather cool personality, and even Kirkegaard, while sometimes emotional or even tortured, was not quite what I would call spiritual. I've read the book; I don't think Bloom is really after the spiritual dimension as much as he is trying to understand what makes American religion distinct. I think any Mormon missionary who served overseas grasps that notion intuitively--Christianity is different in Europe, South America, or Asia. Bloom simply argues that American Christianity is more American than it is Christian. To him, I think, the American is the better part of the mix.
What really generated attention for the book was Bloom's charge that America has actually become a post-Christian nation, a label he freely applied to mainstream American denominations who value nothing so much as the Christian label they are so keen on denying to sects that don't satisfy their checklist. He traces the birth of the American Religion to Cane Ridge, an early revival site in Kentucky where African-American spiritual rhythms mingled with Baptist preaching (p. 238). Bloom compares that week-long revival of 25,000 rural Americans to Woodstock (p. 59). From Cane Ridge emerged Barton Stone, a preacher who after Cane Ridge sought the Primitive Church. The Restorationist movement spawned, among other denominations, the Disciples of Christ, the denomination of Alexander Campbell and, for awhile, Sidney Rigdon. So revivalists, fundamentalists, and now Evangelicals became, in a general sense, the unwitting "carriers" of this post-Christian gospel. Now that's funny.
The other sound-bite you hear from the book is his evaluation of Joseph Smith: "Whatever his lapses, Joseph Smith was an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history" (p. 82). Bloom considers the 1842 Wentworth Letter (ending with the Articles of Faith) to be one of Joseph's most characteristic texts, and examines it carefully (p. 82-84). Bloom, himself a Jew of sorts, seems suitably flattered by Joseph's preference for ancient Israelite themes over Pauline Christian doctrines (p. 83-86). He doesn't think much of modern corporate Mormonism, but just gushes about Joseph Smith, an odd thing for a Mormon to read from a non-Mormon of any stripe. I'll close with a representative ode to Joseph:
Latter-day Saints, however much their Church may have had to stray from his paths, have been almost alone in apprehending the greatness of Joseph Smith. An entire century after the Mormon repudiation of plural marriage, their prophet remains without honor among most of his countrymen. But insofar as there is an American Religion that is almost universal among us, then Smith may be considered to be in many respects its unacknowledged forerunner (p. 111).