Tag Archives: Non fiction

Email sent to my followers

The following is the text of an email sent today to a couple thousand friends and followers.


It’s time to catch my breath. Since the release of Queer Clergy in February, I’ve been on the road … Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and California. I have been the guest of book clubs, adult forums, LGBT reconciling groups, the Pacific School of Religion, and I’ve been a guest preacher (always a treat for an old lawyer). I’ve made the rounds of Lutheran, Methodist, and UCC church conventions and a book fair.

To be sure, there have been disappointments, starting with the three month delay in the book release that caused the book to miss Christmas sales. I had to cancel a speaking engagement in Chicago because of Minnesota weather. As my plane approached San Francisco, we turned back to LA because of malfunctioning de-icing equipment on the wings! Thanks to my Bay Area host, Pam Byers, who did yeoman’s duty by whisking me from the airport to a scheduled speaking engagement when the replacement plane finally landed.

Through it all, we’ve managed to sell a few books, and Pilgrim Press tells me that the book is in its second printing (probably due to a small first print run). But, the biggest treat is the chance to visit old friends and make new ones. The conversations are always the best.

Thank you for supporting my ministry of writing and speaking. Thanks for purchasing one of my books–or maybe two or three! Please share your feedback–directly by email to me or by posting a review on Amazon.

Remember, I love to talk! Please consider an invitation to speak to your group–book club, adult forum, or even to your whole congregation during worship. Contact me by phone or email, and we’ll arrange something that will work for you.

Ann B. Day and the first 20 years of the UCC ONA

Somerset, Massachusetts, is a working class community south of Boston. A 1970s neighborhood women’s softball team with “E R A” emblazoned across their T-shirts would prove to be far more powerful than mere athletic exploits on the field would indicate. They were not sponsored by a laundry detergent as many assumed; instead, they were feminists and supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment. The team included several women who would become major players in the LGBT movement for full inclusion: Carter Heyward, irregularly ordained as an Episcopal priest (one of the Philadelphia Eleven) and later a leading lesbian theologian; Mary Glasspool, the first lesbian to be consecrated as an Episcopal Bishop in 2010; and UCC pastor rosi olmstead (she prefers no capitals) and her partner Marnie Warner, the team manager, would pioneer the UCC Open and Affirming movement (ONA).

After the Presbyterians in 1978, the Methodists in 1982, and the Lutherans in 1983, the UCC would join the welcoming church movement in 1985. In this case, it was not the UCC that took the lead … or was it? The movement in the sister denominations was always an outsider program promoted by the various homophile organizations in critical tension with denominational policies. For the UCC, ONA would not be an extrinsic program of the Coalition–it would be an intrinsic policy of the UCC itself–though once established, it would be administered by the Coalition beginning in 1987. Marnie Warner and Pastor Ann B. Day were the delegates who shepherded a Massachusetts open and affirming resolution through the snares of General Synod in 1985. Later, the UCC LGBT advocacy group, the Coalition, provided the structure and the funding for implementation of the ONA program, and Pastor Day and her partner, Donna Enberg, became the face of the program, as well as its hands and feet.

Raised as a Southern Presbyterian and with Methodist and Lutheran family members from the Shenandoah Valley, Ann B. Day was ordained following graduation from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1978. For the next three years, she served as associate pastor at First Congregational Church UCC of Holden, a small city located in the center of Massachusetts between Boston and the Springfield/Hartford area. In 1980, her partner, Donna Enberg, entered her life, and they would later be married after Massachusetts law changed decades later.

In 1987 when the Coalition assumed responsibility for funding and administering the ONA project, Day and Enberg took over and would serve as staff and inspiration for the next twenty years; they would be much more than merely the “keepers of the list.” Under their leadership, the movement established a structure, a network of ONA churches, and a method of joining. Along the way, Day and Enberg developed resource materials, including sample resolutions, films, study packets, books, and articles.

AnnBDayMostly, Day and Enberg encouraged intentionality and articulated the rationale for joining the movement. To the oft-heard refrain, “our congregation already welcomes everybody,” Pastor Day responded that the actual experience of gays and lesbians had often been rejection, even when a congregation claimed “all are welcome,” and thus an intentional statement of affirmation was necessary to counter low expectations.

The ONA program has continued its vital ministry to the present, and currently numbers over 1,100 UCC congregations containing 275,000 members.

Lois Powell: UCC lesbian activist

“What a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” the pastor exclaimed. We are “a people of risky adventure.” These are the words of the pastor of a Boston congregation in a 1975 article in the UCC’s national magazine. The Rev. Oliver G. Powell lifted up images of sauerbraten and potatoes, long draughts of dark beer, romantic poetry and Bach chorales. He talked of New England boiled dinners and baked beans, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and skylight filtering through clear, freshly-washed, church-window panes.

Later, Rev. Powell and wife Eleonore would be “people of risky adventure” who would “exemplify courageous leadership in Open and Affirming Ministry” as supporters of their daughter Lois (Loey) Powell, a lesbian ordained in 1978. Parents and daughter would each serve as highly visible leaders along the UCC journey toward full inclusion.

Loey Powell graduated from Pacific School of Religion in 1977, the same “rash and courageous” institution that had witnessed Bill Johnson’s dining-hall speech seven years earlier. Echoing her father’s “heady, exasperating, and hopeful” sentiment, Powell remembers her seminary days as filled with the exhilaration of movement politics. She had come out early in her seminary life, and fondly remembers the bay area UCC gay caucus that gathered for monthly potlucks and nationally at UCC General Synods: “incredibly spirit-filled worship, doing the justice-making work of advocacy, being there for those who were wondering about their sexuality.” Like the sun piercing the fog over San Francisco Bay, feminism, liberation theology, and gay rights burned through the timbered halls of the seminary. And it wasn’t just the seminary. The Northern California Conference of the UCC was in the vanguard of hope, alive with possibilities.

Powell was ordained with two other lesbian classmates, but they were not officially out to the candidacy committee although they were out to friends and the seminary community. Thus, the status of first open lesbian to be ordained in the UCC falls to Rev. Ann Holmes in 1982. Nevertheless, as the daughter of an esteemed elder, Loey Powell immediately became the “poster lesbian” of the UCC.  By the end of the decade, she served as co-coordinator with Rev. Bill Johnson as the UCC Coalition grew in size and status.

Lois PowellHowever, it took a number of years before a traditional congregation took a chance on calling her to pastoral ministry. Then a breakthrough in 1989. For the first time in any ecumenical denomination, an openly gay clergyperson was called as sole pastor to a traditional ministry through the normal call process. Pastor Powell would remain at United Church of Tallahassee for seven fruitful years of ministry before accepting a position in the UCC home office in Cleveland, where she has continued to serve, most recently on the Justice and Witness Ministry Team as Executive for Administration.


This is the tenth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in my soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy. Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

Steve Webster and the first gathering of gay Methodists

I first met Methodist Steve Webster at the 2010 Wisconsin Annual Conference gathering in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It was sheer serendipity. I was there hawking my novel about Paul the apostle, and the exhibit hall organizer happened to place me next to Kairos CoMotion, a Wisconsin-based Methodist LGBT group. Webster and his husband, Jim Dietrich, set up  the booth and returned regularly between plenary sessions; we had plenty of time to become acquainted.

Two years later, I was researching the formation of the first Methodist LGBT activist group for Queer Clergy. In Chicago, I met with Morris Floyd, who had been present at the 1978 gathering of gay and lesbian Methodists, and with Mark Bowman, whose involvement began in 1980, but I knew that the first gathering of LGBT Methodists occurred at a church near Northwestern University in 1975. Who had been there? Who knew about the initial formation of the gay Methodist caucus?

Steve Webster’s name came up. The same Steve Webster I knew from Wisconsin?

I arranged to have brunch with Steve and Jim near their home in Madison, Wisconsin. Yes, it turns out, Steve had been there. In fact, he had organized that first gathering of gay Methodists!

In 1974, a New York Times headline stated, “Methodists Reject Homosexual’s Ordination Bid.” Steve Webster was that rejected Methodist, and the roadblock in his journey to ordained ministry diverted him into the ministry of an activist.

“I got a hold of one of those old mimeograph stencils and rolled it into my Smith-Corona typewriter and carefully typed up a flyer about the meeting.”

Using return addresses from the letters of support he received after the NY Times article, he mailed the flyer as an invitation to an organizational meeting. That 1975 meeting of around twenty gay Methodists at Wheadon UMC in Evanston, Illinois, marked  the birth of “The United Methodist Gay Caucus,” soon to be renamed “Affirmation,” and “The Reconciling Congregation Project” would be a later outgrowth in the 1980s.

Steven WebsterHundreds of UMC congregations across the country and many regional annual conferences are now members of the Reconciling Ministries Network, the offspring organization of that initial gathering in Chicago. Though there have been significant local and regional advances, national LGBT policy remains oppressive due to the overriding conservatism of international delegates to UMC General Conference. At the last General Conference in Tampa in 2012, 38% of the delegates were international, and they formed a solid bloc to prevent change in the oppressive denominational policies.

Over the decades, Webster’s beard, pony tail, and rainbow bandana have become well-known at regional and national Methodist conferences; he has participated in “direct action” protests organized by Soulforce; and he has penned letters to UMC leaders.

I saw Steve and Jim at the 2012 General Conference.  Jim said to me, “We’ve been together for over twenty years, and I have only seen Steve cry once. This week, when it became clear that our church was going backwards, not forward, I saw him cry again.” Jim’s own eyes misted. “At a worship service of our gay community, Steve said, ‘I won’t see it happen in my lifetime,’ and then he bawled like I’ve never seen.”

This post is part of the series Cast of characters, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. Here’s the full list of these posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)

2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)

2004 Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud (Methodist clergy put on trial for being lesbians)

2007 Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler (defrocked Lutheran clergy who were the first to be reinstated)

2011 Scott Anderson (first gay Presbyterian to be ordained following policy change)

2011 Amy DeLong (out, partnered Methodist minister on trial)

2012 R. Guy Erwin (gay professor elected as ELCA bishop)

Manuscript sent to publisher

Printing pressWhew!

There’s a reason I haven’t been blogging. I’ve been busy.  660 double-spaced pages.  173,871 words.  829 endnotes.  But, now the manuscript for Gays in the Pulpit is complete, and I have sent it off to Pilgrim Press, the publisher.  To be sure, there will undoubtedly be further revisions based upon editorial feedback, but I have reached a significant milestone in the process.  I think that the timeline of Pilgrim Press is for a release in the summer/fall of 2013.

In the early-spring of 2011, I thought about using some of the hundreds of Spirit of a Liberal blog posts as the core of a book, but that idea soon morphed into a much broader project.  Rather than just writing about the ELCA decisions of 2009, I would go back to the beginning of LGBT activism within the Lutheran predecessor bodies.  That idea, too, soon mushroomed into a pan-denominational historical retrospective of each of the five principal mainline denominations (United Church of Christ, Episcopal, ELCA, Presbyterian, and Methodist) .  Later, while lunching with early Methodist activist Mark Bowman, he rightly suggested that I was taking on a “huge universe.”

I sent queries to the major denominational publishing houses.  Pilgrim Press of the United Church of Christ expressed interest but said it would be after the first of the year (2012) before they would seriously look at the project.  I started writing anyway, but didn’t get very far before a residential move from Northfield, Minnesota to Arlington Heights, Illinois interrupted the process.  Settled into the Chicago suburbs by October 1, I had forty or fifty pages written by Thanksgiving, and by February Pilgrim Press had accepted the project.

Contacts with leadership of the various gay-advocacy organizations in each denomination resulted in “leads,” and one led to another.  I have benefited from face-to-face interviews with iconic figures in each denomination.  Private collections of early documents have been graciously shared.  Many early pioneers have offered assistance via phone calls and emails.  Still others have fact-checked my writing.

One of my early concerns was that I was an interloper, a straight man writing a gay history, but the support I have received has calmed my apprehensions.  A common refrain has been that these are stories that need to be told.

I have been thinking a lot these days of our lesbian, gay, and bisexual sisters and brothers and supporters who have gone before us to bring us to this time and place. I wish that I knew more of their names. I wish I knew more of their stories.

I have been moved to tears by the poignancy of the stories, and my ongoing worry is that my retelling does them justice.  Conflict and celebration.  Hope in the face of despair.  Struggle for human dignity.  Stay tuned.

The UCC and Pilgrim Press

In 1620, a group of dissidents departed England aboard the Mayflower for the wilderness that would become Massachusetts and religious liberty.  Their pastor encouraged them to keep their hearts and their minds open to new ways in the new world because God “hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of his holy Word.”Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall

The Pilgrims had been printers and publishers who incurred the wrath of King James the 1st before they left England.  Twenty years after they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a printing press arrived from England, and the first American religious publication was the “Bay Psalms Book” in 1640.

Of course, the religious progeny of the Pilgrims would become a central feature of American educational and religious life.  Three of their earliest colleges became Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, my alma mater.  When I attended college, the UCC church in the center of Hanover, New Hampshire was known as the “White Church”—not for racial reasons but because it was painted all white.

The UCC and her predecessor church bodies going back to the Pilgrims boast many “firsts”, including a stand against slavery 150 years before the civil war, support for the Boston Tea Party, the first African-American ordained minister, the first female pastor, and the first gay man to be ordained in 1972.

And, the progeny of those original publishers would continue to offer cutting-edge religious publications  through the centuries.  Three centuries after becoming the first religious press in the colonies, The Pilgrim Press would publish the first book of a young, black minister of the south, Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Pilgrim Press, like all religious publishing houses and the publishing industry generally, has cut back in recent years.  Currently, they are only accepting 15-20 manuscripts annually for publishing.

And, I am pleased to announce that my book has been selected by Pilgrim Press for publication next year.  Gays in the Pulpit will be a look back at the historical journey of the mainline churches toward full inclusion of the LGBT community.  The manuscript is about 70% complete.

I’m back!!

Well, at least for the moment.

I have been pouring hours and hours into my book project, Gays in the Pulpit.  My working draft is now over 170 pages, which is probably half.  And the stories!  And the people!

Chicago is home to Reconciling Ministries Network—the Methodist LGBTQ advocacy group–and I have visited with Troy Plummer (their director), Pastor Bonnie Beckonchrist (their board chair), Pastor Morris Floyd (activist in the 80’s and 90’s), and Mark Bowman (original founder).  Bowman is also the director of LGBTran Archives, which contains biographies and more about leading LGBTQ icons.  Turns out I already knew Steve Webster of Madison, Wisconsin who organized the first Methodist gay caucus back in 1975.

Thanks to these excellent resources, my draft includes chapters covering the Methodist history up to around 2000.  The Methodists are the remaining holdout among the five principal mainline Protestant denominations.  The others (ELCA, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and United Church of Christ) all ordain gay clergy, but the upcoming UMC quadrennial General Conference may change that.  It’s close, with US delegates firmly on board, but because the UMC also has delegations from Africa, the Philippines, and elsewhere who tend to be very conservative vis a vis LGBTQ issues, the US delegates may need around 65% positive to offset the likely 90% negative from outside the US.  The Conference is scheduled the end of April in Tampa, and I’m thinking I may attend and do some live-blogging as I did during the historic ELCA Assembly in 2009.

I am also up to around the year 2000 in my ELCA chapters.  Chicago is home to both the ELCA archives and the Lutherans Concerned (LCNA) archives.  I recently returned to Minnesota and had a delightful lunch with Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart of the famous extra ordinem ordinations in San Francisco in 1990, and I have been in email correspondence with Pastor Jim Siefkes (who organized the first Lutheran gay caucus back in 1974), Jeannine Janson (who compiled a booklet containing early LCNA history), Amalia Vagts (the director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries), and others.

Louie Crew, the founder of the Episcopal group Integrity, has been very helpful during phone conversations and email correspondence.  His stories also go back to the mid 1970’s.  I have  exchanged emails with Ellen Marie Barrett, the first Episcopal lesbian priest way back in 1977, who provided a poignant look back at the pain of rejection but also the triumph—“I am a priest forever!”  My Episcopal chapters go  to around 1990.

The Presbyterians and the UCC still require a lot of work—those chapters only cover the very early 1970’s.  I have been in touch with More Light Presbyterians and the UCC Coalition, but I now need to follow up on the leads they have provided.  Retired dean of the United Theological Seminary Clyde Steckel has been helpful with early information about the UCC.  Trips to Cleveland and Drew University in New Jersey are likely in the offing, which is where many key persons and records are located.

In addition to these contacts, I have also kept the nearby Arlington Heights Library busy with dozens of inter-library loan requests.  Many official records of national church conventions are available online as well.

Submissive wife?

At the Republican debate last night, Michelle Bachman was asked whether she was a submissive wife.  Perhaps the question itself was sexist, but prior Bachmann statements suggested that she accepted certain Biblical writings about women rather literally, and the question was asked against that background:

It is a philosophy that Michele Bachmann echoed to congregants of the Living Word Christian Center in 2006, when she stated that she pursued her degree in tax law only because her husband had told her to. “The Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands,” she said.  [referring to Titus 2:5]

Last night, Bachman responded to the question by suggesting she “respected” her husband.   Equating “to submit” with “to respect” is more than a tiny stretch, but I’m sure her minions were satisfied with her Biblical exegesis.  Read more …

Book Review: The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon

I first read Gagnon’s treatise shortly after its 2001 release, and I read it again a few weeks ago in preparation for leading a workshop at the recent Lutherans Concerned Convention.  He is an accomplished exegete, and his historical-critical Biblical research is solid; however, his conclusions are suspect.  Even as he surrenders the gay-bashing “clobber passages” to contemporary scholarship, he employs a “yes, but” reasoning that reclaims them again.  And, as the darling theologian of the sola scriptura, word alone, “the Bible trumps science, reason, and experience” crowd, there is great irony in that his own thesis is based on his view of natural law and questionable science.

Read more …

Book Review: Another Incarnation

In a lengthy book review in the Sunday New York Times, Pankaj Mishra offers an indepth discussion of western cultural and religious bias against the “polytheistic muddle” of Indian religions. His review is reprinted here.

Visiting India in 1921, E. M. Forster witnessed the eight-day celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. This first encounter with devotional ecstasy left the Bloomsbury aesthete baffled. “There is no dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling from Hindu India, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively rational world of Islam. Describing the muezzin’s call at the Taj Mahal, he wrote, “I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard; it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons.”

Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s polytheistic muddle to superb effect in his novel “A Passage to India,” was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices. The British Army captain who discovered the erotic temples of Khajuraho in the early 19th century was outraged by how “extremely indecent and offensive” depictions of fornicating couples profaned a “place of worship.” Lord Macaulay thundered against the worship, still widespread in India today, of the Shiva lingam. Even Karl Marx inveighed against how man, “the sovereign of nature,” had degraded himself in India by worshipping Hanuman, the monkey god.

Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call “Hinduism,” complete with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirely of Sanskrit philosophical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. In fact, most Indians in the 18th century knew no Sanskrit, the language exclusive to Brahmins. For centuries, they remained unaware of the hymns of the four Vedas or the idealist monism of the Upanishads that the German Romantics, American Transcendentalists and other early Indophiles solemnly supposed to be the very essence of Indian civilization. (Smoking chillums and chanting “Om,” the Beats were closer to the mark.)

As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a “Protestant bias in favor of scripture.” In “privileging” Sanskrit over local languages, she writes, they created what has proved to be an enduring impression of a “unified Hinduism.” And they found keen collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars and translators. This British-Brahmin version of Hinduism — one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries — has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a muscular international power, stand in a direct line of 19th-century Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-caste and middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of “Hinduism.”

Still, the nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India that escaped the attention of British scholars flourish even today. Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, rites and legends that vary across India still form the worldview of a majority of Indians. Goddesses, as Doniger writes, “continue to evolve.” Bollywood produced the most popular one of my North Indian childhood: Santoshi Mata, who seemed to fulfill the materialistic wishes of newly urbanized Hindus. Far from being a slave to mindless superstition, popular religious legend conveys a darkly ambiguous view of human action. Revered as heroes in one region, the characters of the great epics “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” can be regarded as villains in another. Demons and gods are dialectically interrelated in a complex cosmic order that would make little sense to the theologians of the so-called war on terror.

Doniger sets herself the ambitious task of writing “a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit.” As she puts it, “It’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the Gita.” It’s also not about perfidious Muslims who destroyed innumerable Hindu temples and forcibly converted millions of Indians to Islam. Doniger, who cannot but be aware of the political historiography of Hindu nationalists, the most powerful interpreters of Indian religions in both India and abroad today, also wishes to provide an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they tell.”

She writes at length about the devotional “bhakti” tradition, an ecstatic and radically egalitarian form of Hindu religiosity which, though possessing royal and literary lineage, was “also a folk and oral phenomenon,” accommodating women, low-caste men and illiterates. She explores, contra Marx, the role of monkeys as the “human unconscious” in the “Ramayana,” the bible of muscular Hinduism, while casting a sympathetic eye on its chief ogre, Ravana. And she examines the mythology and ritual of Tantra, the most misunderstood of Indian traditions.

She doesn’t neglect high-table Hinduism. Her chapter on violence in the “Mahabharata” is particularly insightful, highlighting the tragic aspects of the great epic, and unraveling, in the process, the hoary cliché of Hindus as doctrinally pacifist. Both “dharma” and “karma” get their due. Those who tilt at organized religions today on behalf of a residual Enlightenment rationalism may be startled to learn that atheism and agnosticism have long traditions in Indian religions and philosophies.

Though the potted biographies of Mughal emperors seem superfluous in a long book, Doniger’s chapter on the centuries of Muslim rule over India helps dilute the lurid mythology of Hindu nationalists. Motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism, the Mughals destroyed temples; they also built and patronized them. Not only is there “no evidence of massive coercive conversion” to Islam, but also so much of what we know as popular Hinduism — the currently popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna, the network of pilgrimages, ashrams and sects — acquired its distinctive form during Mughal rule.

Doniger’s winsomely eclectic range of reference — she enlists Philip Roth’s novel “I Married a Communist” for a description of the Hindu renunciant’s psychology — begins to seem too determinedly eccentric when she discusses Rudyard Kipling, a figure with no discernible influence on Indian religions, with greater interpretative vigor than she does Mohandas K. Gandhi, the most creative of modern devout Hindus. More puzzlingly, Doniger has little to say about the forms Indian cultures have assumed in Bali, Mauritius, Trinidad and Fiji, even as she describes at length the Internet-enabled liturgies of Hindus in America.

Yet it is impossible not to admire a book that strides so intrepidly into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-­Arab relations. During a lecture in London in 2003, Doniger escaped being hit by an egg thrown by a Hindu nationalist apparently angry at the “sexual thrust” of her interpretation of the “sacred” “Ramayana.” This book will no doubt further expose her to the fury of the modern-day Indian heirs of the British imperialists who invented “Hinduism.” Happily, it will also serve as a salutary antidote to the fanatics who perceive — correctly — the fluid existential identities and commodious metaphysic of practiced Indian religions as a threat to their project of a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.