Continuing the conversations that Elesha and Janine started on the biennial conference on Religion and American Culture, here are my reflections on the issue of authenticity, belief, and the place of the scholar in American religions via road tripping and Fall Out Boy, sometimes we get what we pay for:
Are we growing up or just going down?
It's just a matter of time until we're all found out
Take our tears, put them on ice
Cause I swear I'd burn this city down to show you the light-- Fall Out Boy
Perhaps, I need better road trip music, or a better taste in music altogether, but my weekend at the Religion and American Culture biennial conference was defined by my aesthetics and my sensory experiences as much as the conversation and provocation that occurred. To make my way to Indianapolis from Tennessee, I plowed down the interstate surrounded by lovely green, falling rock signs, and the artifacts of Christianity in the South. A billboard proclaiming Harold Camping's May 21st prediction remained as an artifact of the possibility of the Rapture. Crosses reminded drivers to be safe on hazardous roadways as well as worked in giant form to counteract interstate porn shops that pop up all along the South. Other billboards documented Jesus’s stance on abortion, when life begins, and consumerism and commodity writ large.
Before I even started my standard road trip musical rotation, let’s say that I was primed for a conference to discuss the place of religion in American culture and see some of my favorite folks all in the same place. As I still mull over the presentations and conversation, Fall Out Boy became my downfall. My favored band of my grad school days with guy liner, spiky hair, and angst placed to infectious music. (Pete Wentz still makes me want to swoon, only sort of.) This means that my whole conference experience was framed, primed if you will, by songs that I cannot remove from my mental queue. In the song, “Sophomore Slump of Comeback of the Year,” Fall Out Boy vocalist Paul Stump belts out: “The best part of "Believe" is the "Lie"/I hope you sing along and you steal a line/I need to keep you like this in my mind/So give in or just give up…Are we growing up or just going down?” This song echoed in my head from the first session on academic assumptions about the study of religion until the final salvo with the future of American religions. It seemed fitting that I wanted to hum “the best part of ‘Believe’ is the ‘Lie’” as some of the best scholars in our field circled around the questions of our assumptions about religion, religious people, power, consciousness, and narrative because of the continual reflections (hand-wringing?) about the study of religion.
What is at stake in the study of religion-as-belief seemed to be an undercurrent of the proceedings, and how might we breach the difference between the whom and what we study and our positions as scholars. Can we believe/imagine/analyze alongside without the question of authenticity? Robert Orsi, in the first session, argued for approaches that understand how the gods become real and to develop an empiricism that allows for a study of shared religious consciousness. How can we develop a language that encompasses these experiences and make them intelligible to fellow scholars and a larger public?
If the scriptures session showed collective unease, I would note that unease was also apparent earlier in the conference in the questions and discussion that followed the first panel. How do we manage the collective experiences of visions of Joseph Smith, for example? At a pivotal moment in the discussion, Jan Shipps noted that she discussed experience as a “to them,” which Orsi stated might lead to the corollary “because they are crazy.” How do we discuss the real in religion? Why is "they are crazy" such a common refrain when we discuss some types of religious people? How do we manage the lie within believe? How do we research and write religion without reference to our own assumptions about religion?
While Janine noted that some scholars were nervous about staking their personal identity in relationship to their subjects, especially regarding personal religion, I would argue that my experiences vary because no one could possibly fathom that I could believe what my subjects do from Klansmen to Tim LaHaye to folks prepping for the zombie apocalypse. Of course, I couldn’t possibly believe X is the assumption. The unasked question is “could I?” The most important part of Believe is the Lie in this case. Luckily for me, most scholars-in-arms don’t think that I am (actively) furthering the agenda of my subjects. They might scratch their heads and wonder why I am even interested in such religion or by extension such people. Rhy Williams asked, “What about the Nazis?” And as always I find myself wondering, what is at stake in our assumptions about religion? Authenticity? Lie? Helpful? Harmful? Ambivalent? Human? Suprahuman? Supernatural? Natural? What do we bring to our studies? And why are we nervous about this?
In his review of Katie Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon at Immanent Frame, Jason Bivins documents that the book is about Oprah but it also about how we practice religious studies. He writes:
On the one hand, scholars no longer have the comfort of a kind of shallow critique (which Lofton identifies as either reflexive anti-consumerism or blunt constructions of Oprah’s “trap”). Neither, however, can we afford the luxury of scrutinizing these things forever at a distance—always Hegel watching Napoleon’s armies from Jena’s hills. The implications are great here, because of the way the field is haunted by one chief identitarian assumption, rooted equally in the old politics of representation and in methodological caution: authenticity. Lofton is concerned that “in our scholarly ambition to translate our subjects—to, as the phrasing often goes, take our subjects seriously—we have become sycophants to our subjects, reframing every act as an inevitably creative act.” In this she is part of a growing, and welcome tendency in the field.
Are we indeed sycophants to our subjects? Yes. No. Perhaps. Maybe. Is this what becomes of the question of the real? In her Lift High the Cross, Ann Burlein argues masterfully for “seeing with” to construct the religion, no matter how offending, of our subject. Yet the lingering notion from Bivins-via-Lofton is “that no method or tone, however fervently defended, can avoid the fact that we are always, already, from the moment we begin, complicit with our subject.” Perhaps, the unease is about our own complicity. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter. In her comments in the final session, Julie Bryne eloquently noted that no matter how we understand our study, it is ours. She described the “ethnographic uncertainty principle” in which we change what we study inalterably in our study. Our assumptions about religion inform how and what we do. We are complicit, but maybe, we should be less nervous about it. Or in the mortal words of Fall Out Boy: “We're the lifers here till the bitter end/Condemned from the start/Ashamed of the way/The songs and the words own the beating of our hearts.”