Cover image for Knocking on heaven's door : American religion in the age of counterculture
Knocking on heaven's door : American religion in the age of counterculture
Oppenheimer, Mark, 1974-
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Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
ix, 284 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Unitarians and gay rights -- Roman Catholics and the folk mass -- Jews and communal worship -- Episcopalians and feminism -- Southern Baptists and Vietnam War protest.
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BL2525 .O66 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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What happened to American religion during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s? The era has long been associated with the ascendancy of Eastern religions and fringe cults. But in this provocative book, Mark Oppenheimer demonstrates that contrary to conventional wisdom, most Americans did not turn on, tune in and drop out of mainstream religious groups during the Age of Aquarius. Instead, many Americans brought the counterculture with them to their churches and temples, changing the face of American religion. hippie Jews and folk-singing Catholics, Oppenheimer demonstrates that this was an era of extraordinary religious vitality. Drawing on a rich range of archival material as well as interviews with many of the protagonists, Knocking on Heaven's Door offers a wry and iconoclastic reappraisal of the ways in which the upheavals of the 1960s changed America's relationship with God.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Much hyped by the media, the cults and communes of the 1960s--with their exotic farragoes of sex, drugs, and Zen mysticism--never merited the attention they received. So argues cultural historian Oppenheimer, who finds the real story of '60s religion not among the relatively few devotees of psychedelic gurus but rather among the millions belonging to previously staid religious denominations. These denominations, Oppenheimer shows, responded to the turmoil of the era with startling and permanent changes in their forms of worship and in the character of their clergy. Thus, Episcopalians acceded to feminist demands by ordaining women; Unitarians permitted gay activists to receive church funding; Catholics abandoned Latin and discovered the guitar; Jews left the synagogue to pray in their living rooms--or in the woods. While he sees a loosening of discipline throughout American religion during the '60s, Oppenheimer perceptively distinguishes between, for instance, the aesthetic acceptance of countercultural reform in Catholic liturgy, on the one hand, which left traditional metaphysical and moral doctrines intact, and the thoroughgoing counterculturalism in Unitarianism, on the other hand, which opened the sanctuary to self-identified pagans and amoralists. As the country's metamorphosed religious communities continue to weigh in on diverse social issues, readers will turn to this book for context and understanding. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Many historians have focused ad nauseam on the most extreme religious movements of the 1960s, dissecting these small groups but ignoring larger trends. Oppenheimer, a staff writer for the Christian Century, asks a more provocative question of the 20th century's most radical decade: how did the 1960s influence ordinary people in mainstream religious traditions? As he shows in this competent, accessible study, people in "mainline" religions were deeply and irrevocably changed by the revolutions of the 1960s. (Oppenheimer uses the moniker "the 1960s" to denote a period that includes much of the 1970s, and he is sensitive to the transformations within this brief but tumultuous historical era: 1969, he reminds us at one point, was very different than 1974.) A rather bland opening chapter traces the bloodless revolution that led to the Unitarians' creating an Office of Gay Concerns in the early 1970s, while a second, more compelling, chapter discusses the stunning changes in Roman Catholic worship that resulted from the concurrent forces of Vatican II reforms and the rise of American folk music. Oppenheimer then traces the growth of Jewish havurot-small, communal gatherings of mostly young and urban Jews-and makes a compelling case that these Jews were deeply influenced by observing the Black Panthers, whose example prompted them to self-identify as a proud ethnic minority group. The author next examines the Episcopalians' battles over women's ordination in the 1970s and the responses of progressive Southern Baptists to the Vietnam War. American religion, Oppenheimer persuasively shows, is surprisingly flexible, incorporating dissent and welcoming new ideas. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

More books are being written about experimental religion in America, especially its forms in the 1960s and 1970s, and here are two more. Both Lattin, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, and freelance journalist Oppenheimer claim that radical religious groups in the 1960s influenced old-line churches to change in subsequent years. Certainly, the experimentation with drugs, sex, Eastern religions, political activism, and communal lifestyles provide sensational material for newspaper reporters, but are these experiments symptoms of a religious malaise, or were they change agents for bringing about the acceptance of civil rights, women clergy, gay activists, and pluralism? Oppenheimer struggles to make sense of countercultural religion in his introduction and then offers five chapters of denominational church history as an attempt to show that social movements transformed, in some ways, traditional religion. He describes how some churches fought or gave in to a variety of social concerns such as gay rights, women ministers, folk mass, communal worship, and protests against the war. Lattin writes from a participant's point of view about dozens of countercultural groups and gives the false impression that experimentation with religion was widespread within the churches. In reality, old-line churches were not deeply affected by these groups. But Lattin writes well and covers a wide range of topics, including the Moonies, Hare Krishnas, the Farm EST, Tai Chi, yoga, alternative methods of healing, and Esalen Institute in California. These books do not define the 1960s, but they will be of interest to those who participated in such movements and to the children of such groupies. Recommended for larger libraries.-James A. Overbeck, Atlanta-Fulton P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Oppenheimer (an independent scholar) argues that the various aspects of the "counterculture" of the 1960s had a significant impact on American religious institutions, although not necessarily in the form one might expect. His five examples are Unitarians and gay rights; Roman Catholics and the folk mass; Jews and communal worship; Episcopalians and feminism; and Southern Baptists and the Vietnam War protest. Oppenheimer goes on to argue that the meaningful changes brought about by the counterculture were, in fact, cultural, as opposed to political: where Catholic liturgy, for example, was changed permanently, the structures of authority within that communion were not. He further suggests that the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were particularly influential on white denominations, whereas the Vietnam War protests were not central to institutional identity formation. Unfortunately, the work is marred by a number of inaccuracies and infelicities as well as overgeneralizations that indicate a lack of deep familiarity with the traditions considered. However, the argument here is provocative and worth reading even if one finally disagrees with much of what is said. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels. P. W. Williams Miami University