God Is Red: A Native View of Religion | Critical Review by Tod D. Swanson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.
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Critical Review by Tod D. Swanson

SOURCE: A review of God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, in Journal of Religion, Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 161-62.

In following review, Swanson lauds how Deloria has updated his God Is Red for the 1990s.

The second edition of God Is Red is a badly needed updating of a groundbreaking book. Before it was first published in 1973, scholars tended to portray Native traditions either as though they were frozen in a timeless past or as though they were precarious survivals of premodern times. By contrast, Vine Deloria presented the Native religions as a viable alternative for modern Indian people. Just as Jewish theologians had started with the holocaust, Deloria started with the religion of contemporary Indian people as they had emerged from the nineteenth-century massacres, from the twentieth-century policies of termination, and finally from the Indian renaissance of the early 1970s.

The book was also groundbreaking in the way it treated Christianity as a contrasting field. Deloria is well aware of the diversity between the Native traditions, but when they are contrasted with Christianity, strong family resemblances between them emerge. While Christianity is a religion of universal history (which for Deloria translates into manifest destiny), the Native religions begin and end with specific places. "Tribal religions," he writes "are actually complexes of attitudes, beliefs, and practices fine-tuned to harmonize with the lands on which the people live." Differences between tribal traditions are largely attributable to differences in the lands which the ceremonies engage. Secular scholars had often portrayed the Indian religions as though Christian contact had not happened. Christian scholars portrayed them either as inferior to, as preparation for, or as compatible with Christianity. Deloria's approach is fundamentally different. Chapter by chapter he contrasted the most basic Native assumptions about the world to those of Christianity from the perspective of their encounter. Deloria's comparisons are not, of course, neutral (the book is an apologia for Native religion), but they are thought-provoking.

Twenty years later God is Red has not been surpassed in any of these regards. But because Deloria took his starting point from the contemporary reservation life of the early 1970s, the book had become outdated. The second edition is a thorough rewriting of the book from the perspective of the 1990s. Important political and religious developments that have affected the reservations during the twenty-year interval are taken into account. In its rewritten form God Is Red can be used as a textbook without continual reference to the twenty-year gap. Because many American college students are of Christian background, Deloria's stark contrasts make good classroom discussion material either for broader courses on comparative religion or for more specific courses on Native American religions.

Perhaps the most controversial section in the first edition was Deloria's use of Immanuel Velikovsky's theories on the extraterrestrial origins of Native religion. For many readers this one section tended to throw the credibility of the whole book into question. Undoubtedly, many of Deloria's fans hoped that he would drop this section from the new edition, but he did not. I think the reasons go deeper than simple loyalty to an old mentor; perhaps it is that Deloria is a believer who takes Native origin myths seriously: messengers from the spirit world did indeed bring tobacco, the pipe, the ceremonies, and so on. This naturally raises the question of where the spirit messengers come from. As an answer to this question, extraterrestrial theories are appealing. Deloria is of course aware of the Eliadian and other nonliteralist approaches to the study of myth, but from a native perspective all of these can appear to be secularized Christian approaches. Hence, Deloria sticks with his extraterrestrial theories. For those who do not wish to read or assign them, the sections on extraterrestrial origins are confined to discrete chapters, and the rest of the book reads well without them.

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This section contains 645 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Tod D. Swanson