In the Image of God, by David Brion Davis

David Brion Davis is known for his scholarly The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 and The Problem of Slavery and Western Culture, both prizewinning texts. His latest effort, however, is a collection of book reviews and review essays. Anyone looking for an organized thematic exposition on the relationship between religion, moral values and our heritage of slavery--which the provocative title certainly suggests, and which Davis may well be capable of producing--will not find it here.

Davis's method is to offer careful analyses of the various works he examines--biographies of Reinhold Niebuhr and the historiography of Eugene Genovese, for example--and then use them at various points as springboards for moralizing and more general observations. He always leaves it to the reader, however, to fully connect the dots. The problem with this approach, particularly in such a vast and sensitive field, is that Davis's move from a particular text to general assessment seems more like a reactive counterpunch than a judgment about the issues that is guided by a coherent interpretive perspective. The method fails to do justice to a subject as important as the moral, religious and cultural implications of African-American slavery and American race relations.

A passage that illustrates how touchy this business can be appears in Davis's review of David J. Garrow's Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Davis writes: