Surrounded by many of his friends from his days at Yale and even a few family members, Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03 said he was happy to return to his old residential college to give a Master’s Tea — even though he joked that he identified more with undergraduates who did not attend. But he had kind words for Master’s Teas and Yale as a whole.
“Master’s Teas are the residential college system at its best,” he said. “And the residential college system is Yale at its best.”
Oppenheimer discussed his first book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” which deals with modern-American religious history, at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea Tuesday. Approximately 40 people were in attendance.
JE Master Gary Haller introduced Oppenheimer, reflecting on Oppenheimer’s long association with Yale in general and with JE in particular.
Oppenheimer, a self-dubbed “history major by default,” spoke of the integral role his Yale experiences played in shaping both his current interest in American religious history and his new book.
“Yale fostered my curiosity, both in terms of classes and people,” Oppenheimer said. “When I came to Yale as a freshman, I had never been religious, but I met many people who were.”
A key turning point in Oppenheimer’s Yale career, taking Religious Studies professor Harry Stout’s class “Religion in American Society, 1550-1870,” led him to write a paper on homosexuals in the Unitarian church. The paper became the foundation for a major part of his book.
Along with homosexual Unitarian ministers, the book examines female Episcopalian ministers, communal worship among Jews, Vietnam War protests among Southern Baptists and Roman Catholic folk music, which he referred to as “guitar mass.”
Oppenheimer said his overall aim in the book was to examine “the effects of counterculture on mainstream society.” Most of the changes that took place in each of the areas he studied were “aesthetic trends towards ‘looseness.'” The aesthetic change, he said, was relevant even though it represented a stylistic shift rather than a substantive one.
When one student asked him about the changes fostered by the religious right — which Oppenheimer’s book does not deal with — and said the religiosity of such conservative thinkers “seems denigrated” in modern discourse, Oppenheimer said he “couldn’t agree more.” Oppenheimer said he thinks both sides of the political spectrum have made substantial contributions to modern conceptualizations of religion. He added that some reviewers think he is “too denigrating of liberal religion.”
Haller handed Oppenheimer a copy of the Bob Dylan song to which the title of the book refers and asked Oppenheimer to read the song aloud at the beginning of the talk.
One student who attended the talk called Oppenheimer “a true religious stud.”
Oppenheimer is currently working on a book on the growth of the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah in modern American Judaism. He is a former staff columnist for the Yale Daily News.