by Paul Harvey
John Wilson continues Round IV of our discussion of Aaron Ketchell's Holy Hills of the Ozarks here; this continues from the previous post on the subject (or just scroll down a bit).
Aside from the particulars of the debate, I'll post here a brief excerpt which addresses a broader issue of scholarship in the field, one certainly worthy of further discussion and response:
Ketchell's book is representative of a broad trend in the study of American religion, and in particular the study of conservative Protestant believers—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals. A growing number of scholars have produced what might be called ethnographic studies of such believers, seeking to understand how they construct their shared social world. Susan Friend Harding's The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics and Mitchell Stevens' Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (which considers both religious and nonreligious homeschooling advocates) are two examples among many, and within this broad trend there are many subdivisions (emphasis on "material culture," for instance). But what links most of these books is an effort to understand.
Understand what? Well, in part the trend reflects the collapse of secularization theory (which still has its defenders, yes) and the simplistic understanding of "modernity" that went with it. So many of these studies seek to understand how various religious groups that were supposed to wither away are in fact negotiating the challenges of modernity. And for many—though by no means all—of the scholars working in this vein, the ideal is a kind of sympathetic detachment from the object of research, a studied "neutrality." But this ideal is in tension with another influential trend in the study of religion and in the academy today more broadly, encouraging "committed" scholarship.