BY ED BLUM
Why do I teach American religious history? It begins with what I cannot or will not do. John Cusack put it best in the 1980s cinematic marvel Say Anything: “I don't wanna sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't wanna sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career, I don't wanna do that.” Cusack’s character chose instead to spend time with a beautiful woman and to practice kickboxing. Both of those are marvelous, but American religious history is pretty fantastic too.
I was drawn to teaching American religious history because I am fascinated by the fact that even today – amid modernity and postmodernity, amid industrialization and de-industrialization, amid colonialism and postcolonialism – the sacred continues to invade the perceptions, choices, and worldviews of so many humans. It is there in rituals – from baptisms and funerals to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Religion is there when people make choices to vote, choices to date, choices for a career, choices to spend their time. And religion is even there in places we often miss – like pop music from the 1980s or novels about the Great Depression. I am drawn to American religious history because it touches every element of our world, our society, our economics, our politics, our sense of selves and community. Of all the disciplines, moreover, it is one (and not the only one) where the individuals under study looked for something more than this world. They looked for realities beyond what we can see or touch or taste; they looked for more than oppression or enslavement; they looked for more than power or might. Sure, many of them ended up, in their search for the more, oppressing others, disempowering others, attacking others. But that is what tragedy is all about – good intentions gone wrong; beautiful concepts dirtied and sullen in their application.
So, if I refuse to buy anything bought or processed or process anything bought or sold, then it’s American religious history teaching for me.